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Authors: Aidan Donnelley Rowley

Life After Yes

BOOK: Life After Yes
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Life After Yes
Aidan Donnelley Rowley

For Mom and Dad
Here, Gone, Forever

It is never prudent to start a novel with a dream. No, it is clichéd, a telltale sign of amateur craft.

—Everyone

Prudence is an attitude that keeps life safe, but does not often make it happy.

—Samuel Johnson

Nothing happens unless first a dream.

—Carl Sandburg

Contents

Chapter 1

I'm already with another man. He touches me. And I…

Chapter 2

In the locker room, nipples face north and south. Cobalt…

Chapter 3

Manhattan's Upper West Side is the land of chubby babies…

Chapter 4

I met Sage on Halloween. In 1999. It was a…

Chapter 5

Every morning, I let the terrorists win. Secret Service–cushioned…

Chapter 6

Once upon a time I didn't fear Fisher, a mere…

Chapter 7

When I was little, I hated restaurants. It's not a…

Chapter 8

Goddamned groundhog,” I say, looking out Whalen's vast smudge-free conference…

Chapter 9

Can't beat the white stuff,” Kayla says, sniffling.

Chapter 10

We're among the last to leave. Abandoning subtlety, hotel employees…

Chapter 11

I wake up in my own bed. Good sign.

Chapter 12

It's Monday again. I can no longer deny there's a…

Chapter 13

Spring in Manhattan is like breasts in a sports bar;…

Chapter 14

Never set foot in a heart-shaped hot tub,” Phelps said…

Chapter 15

There is something about mothers. Whether your own or someone…

Chapter 16

I've never liked dresses.

Chapter 17

I did shave my legs the morning of January twelfth.

Chapter 18

For two and a half years, I've waited for this…

Chapter 19

That night, I hole up in Henry's bathroom. I scrub…

Chapter 20

And that silent night is followed by a silent morning.

Chapter 21

The standoff continues. Days pass. Weeks. We barely speak. It…

Chapter 22

I open my eyes. Phelps sits next to me on…

Chapter 23

I follow the smell of bacon to our front door.

Chapter 24

The next morning, I find Avery in her living room…

Chapter 25

Fisher's memorial service is held on the morning of…

Chapter 26

Home that night, I uncork a pinot grigio and pour…

Chapter 27

I wake up and find Sage in the kitchen cooking…

Chapter 28

On Halloween morning, Hula's sandpaper tongue grazes my lips and…

Chapter 29

The Thursday afternoon before my wedding, the day on which…

Chapter 30

Toward my future, the cabbie drives fast—honking, swerving, cursing. A…

Chapter 31

I'm losing my freckles,” I announce from the bathroom.

Chapter 32

I shave my legs the morning of my wedding day.

Chapter 33

When I wake up the next morning, it's still dark…

 

January 19, 2002

The Dream

I'm choking. I can't breathe. The air's as thick as cream and smells like peanut oil. Everything is white. I begin to see shapes: the smooth surface under my elbows, the big box in front of me with the soft glow, my own trembling hands. I'm in my office. But there are no windows or doors. Just walls. My eyes burn. My hair hurts as if someone is pulling it strand by strand. The first color I see is a blinking red dot, an angry firefly, but each time I grab for it, it disappears into the whiteness. And then flashing green—three big numbers 6–3–0. It's a digital. It's morning. The room grows brighter, but the lights are still off. I can now see a little better. There is a pile of paper. All white, but as I watch it, black dots appear, one next to the other until they fill the page. Words. Sentences. Then red scribbles. I drink liquid the color of urine and things get clearer. The words on those pages are mine.

A small beep crucifies the deep silence. A cartoon paper clip dances on a screen. “Today is your day,” it says to me. My hands stop shaking. My eyes stop burning. My hair stops hurting. I look down and see
it: a bright light sparkling, shooting rainbows at me. A stone sits there, but I can't see its shape. I stare and stare, trying to see beyond its glittery rays, but then everything goes white again. Even that red dot is gone.

Suddenly, I am standing in a new place, holding that stack of papers and a big black bag. The walls are shiny and chestnut. The ceiling is as high as the sky. A man with a snow white mustache says hi. He knows my name. He takes my bag and I let him. And then he says words that echo: “No cell phones.” He places my bag on a rectangle of black rubber that moves, and in a moment's time, it disappears. I'm in the courthouse. At the metal detector. I walk through. The man with the mustache says, “Nice veil.”

I wait for my bag, but it doesn't come. Three white flowers pop out instead, one after the other, rolling toward me on the black rubber. The man hands them to me.

And now I am waiting outside a big wooden door. I mumble to myself, reading from my papers. The door opens. The room is full of bodies in white. Heads swivel around on necks and stare at me. I'm wearing a dress. The top is made of fishing net, transparent as glass. The bottom bells like a trumpet. And is covered in pinstripes. My body is bare underneath.

A voice sounds announcing the judge. He walks through a hidden door, a blob of black with a kind face I can't see. His features are blurred. A band of gold sparkles from his hand as he slams down.

Music plays. Dad appears. He wears white too. His old Irish sweater. He links his arm in mine, but
won't look at me. He walks slowly, dragging me forward. There is a jury in the box: I see Mom and Michael. Britney and Nietzsche.

And there is a small woman. Skinny, wearing black, blinding silver buttons. She cradles a sparkling gun in one hand and a steaming pie in the other. A vast smile.

It's your mother.

I keep walking with Dad, eyes fastened to the floor. When I look up, we are finally there. And something is very wrong. There are three faces, not one. Three bodies, not one. Three grooms. Not one. I look at Dad, but his eyes have grown hollow. I try to touch him, but my hands are now linked.

Big white handcuffs.

Now Dad is gone. I study the faces. Everything grows sharper. There are two of them. And then finally you. Your dark blond waves, your glacial blue eyes. You smile at me. You all do. Each of you holds something: a key. In unison, like robots, you all lift them and dangle as if I am to choose.

The blurry face begins to talk. “We are gathered here to witness…” he says, his words sharp and clean. “…the marriage of Prudence to…” and then he lists too many names, ending with yours. He asks me if I take you all to be my lawful wedded husband.

And, like a good girl, I say, “I do.”

Now my handcuffs are gone and so are the keys. White petals rain from the ceiling. A thunder of applause. All three of you walk toward me, arms outstretched. And then there is a piercing sound, a
scream. It comes from the jury box. From a small girl with strawberry blond curls. She drops her white wicker basket, scattering black petals that smell like smoke, blackberry smoke, then burning flesh. The flower girl. A few moments later, I realize who this little girl is.

It's me.

I feel faint and my eyes close. I fall, but I have a trinity of strong men to catch me. And you are only one of them.

The judge slams his mallet over and over. And then everything goes black.

I
'm already with another man. He touches me. And I let him.

He moves behind me. His strong fingertips press into the small of my back. His hold is somehow both delicate and firm. My heart flutters wildly. Only a few minutes have passed, but I'm already glazed with sweat, my own.

“At my wedding, there were too many grooms,” I say. My words come out gentle whispers, fragile notes muffled by the music which is simply too loud.

“Tell me about it,” he says. His voice is ocean deep, his accent an enigma, fading in and out. “But first, do me a favor and spread your legs wide.”

His name is Victor. I follow his command. Eyes are on us. Yes, people are always watching.

“Okay, now turn your feet out and bend.”

Our silences are never awkward. They are filled with er
rant grunts and giggles, and the persistent techno beats, deafening footsteps of the psychedelic creature in our midst.

“That's good.
Very
good. Just like that, Quinn.” I like it when he says my name. It makes it all more personal. “Now repeat for twelve,” he says, looking away. His indifference is delicious.

I like to be told what to do. Like a child. It's easier that way. I do what he says. I always do. I bob up and down. Twelve times. He stays behind me the whole time, hands lingering at my waist, shadowing my imperfect dips and rises. He mirrors most every move, dancing with me to the music that won't surrender.

He's the Brawny man without the mustache. Born in Cuba, he played college soccer, and desperately wants to be a photographer. His muscles are impressive, borderline over-developed. He's not too tall, but tall enough. He just turned thirty, but I know he's more worried about his abs than about finding a wife.

He's my personal trainer.

“Start from the beginning,” he says, looking into my eyes. His are bottomless and black; the opposite of my pale Irish blues.

“Okay,” I say.

Early morning. Monday. I returned from Paris late last night a newly minted fiancée. Sage picked me up early from work on Friday afternoon. He took me to the airport. We didn't have a trip planned. In fact, I was supposed to work all weekend; my very first trial is fast approaching. When he led me to the Air France security line, my suspicions piqued and I stared down at that finger that had been naked for twenty-seven years.

We flew to Paris. I downed champagne the whole flight to calm my fiery nerves. I've always been an anxious flier, fixated on the obvious things: the sleepy pilot, the slick runway, the antiquated engine. Nothing a few mini bottles of vodka couldn't solve. But now, I have something new about which to obsess: A plane, full of fuel and folk, can be a weapon.

For most, this grand gesture, this impromptu whisk-away, would be the portrait of romantic spontaneity, of modern, almost celebrity-caliber courtship. The type of fairy-tale fireworks you spark when you mix vast quantities of love with vast quantities of money.

But for me, this international escapade was an odd choice.

Because of Dad.

It's time to stop catching babies and start catching fish
, Dad, a renowned Manhattan obstetrician and avid angler, said.

Fittingly, we had this, our last conversation, over a glass (who are we kidding, a bottle) of wine. As Dad contemplated his impending exit from the professional world, he preached cryptically about my existence in that very same world. I'd started as an associate at a big law firm, Whalen Stanford, two years before. Dad told me about this young hotshot banker who'd been assigned to his accounts.

He's addicted. And we know a well-chosen addiction here and there can be a great thing
, Dad said, smiling, shaking his glass of wine,
but he's addicted to a black piece of plastic.

A BlackBerry, Dad.

What happened to eye contact and conversation? The screens and buttons have gotten in the way.

I looked at him and nodded. Under the table, my own BlackBerry was cradled in my palm, red light blinking, beckoning me, but I kept my eyes on his.

Just don't become one of them
, Dad said, draining his glass.

One of them?

A Berry Baby
, he said.
Life's too short.

A few days later, on that fateful morning of September eleventh, Dad met with that same young hotshot for a four-star breakfast on the top floor of Tower One for a status check on his portfolio. So Dad presumably spent his final moments slurping caviar and talking taxes when we all know he would've preferred eating Cheerios and talking trout any day.

So, I guess you could say this Berry Baby didn't anticipate being forced to make any grand life decisions so soon after everything happened. And, more than that, when that proposal did come, I expected it to be more of the Cheerio than caviar variety.

But this isn't about Dad. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

Sage insisted the trip was a belated birthday gift, but I knew better. I know when his eyes are honest, when the vibrations of his deep voice change. I know how he scratches his left earlobe when bluffing.

On Saturday night, he proposed. I said yes. Now I have an impressive bauble on that finger, a fixture he insists I never take off. In particular, I'm worried about the gym, about knocking it around.

Diamonds are the hardest substance. A barbell has nothing on that ring
, Sage assured me, pinching the stubborn remnants of baby fat on my right cheek.

So, here I am thirty-six hours later at the gym, wearing a colorless rock bigger than Mom's with my stretch pants and ponytail.

Victor is fixated; he won't stop staring at my ring. “If that
was two months' salary, I want your husband's job,” he says.

“He isn't my husband.”

“Yet.”

“His mother picked the ring,” I said.

“So?” he says. “It's a
diamond.
And it's
big.
You shouldn't care if the devil picked it.”

The proposal. It was wonderful, majestic, classic, the stuff of pigtailed daydreams (I never had). But on Saturday night, after we drifted off, our naked bodies intertwined, glistening with champagne sweat under impossibly soft hotel sheets, I had a dream. The dream.

That's where this other man, my Herculean trainer-cum-therapist, comes in. Certainly, he's no Freud. He has no higher degree. But the man has ears. Right now, that's enough.

I dreamed of predictable things: an office, a computer, that blinking red dot of my BlackBerry, Diet Mountain Dew. All par for the course, really. This was pretty much my reality.

“Everything was white,” I say. “I was trapped in my office. There was no way out.”

“Trapped?” Victor says. “Is that really that strange? You always tell me that your office is like a prison! You sure this was a dream, counselor?”

He's right. I do complain.
A lot.
Truth is, two years into my legal career, I'm not sure whether I hate my job. Secretly, I like to think I thrive on the periodic brutality that's inflicted upon me, that I'm an existential trooper in the storms of professional inhumanity I'm forced to weather. But to be part of the associate club, I've learned to put up a good front, an impeccable façade, spending the bulk of my spare time—
and there isn't much of it—bitching about my job, lamenting my life path, whining about the hours, the loans I don't even have, the cruelty of it all.

“Time is limited. I need you to
listen
. Commentary can wait until Wednesday,” I say.

I train with him three times a week. At ninety dollars a pop, it's not clear whether my six-figure salary affords me this indulgence. But like so many others in Manhattan, I keep it up anyway, driven by a fear of fat, a phobia more paralyzing for some—for me certainly—than debt.

“Yes, counselor,” Victor says, and bows. He loads three slim plates of iron on the shoulder press machine. “I love it when you slip into lawyer mode. It's so hot. You can cross-examine me any day.” Yes, he's flirting. But it's basically harmless banter at most and it makes that hour fly.

“So, I'm sitting there and I couldn't really breathe. It felt as if I was being asphyxiated.”

“How many times have you been asphyxiated, Quinn?”

“Touché, big guy. You know what I mean. It's like saying that something tastes like dirt. Now, zip it.”

An older woman, slow motion on a StairMaster, watches us, a modicum of disapproval in her cloudless brown eyes. She wears an oversized Michigan T-shirt—Dad's alma mater—knotted seventies-style over a lavender leotard hiked up high. White hair crowns her face, bleeding into her honey blond ponytail of stiff curls. The grooves on her face run deep, rivulets of an age she seems desperate to deny.

“In my dream I was alone,” I say. But Victor doesn't listen. His eyes escape to a young girl with cappuccino skin bouncing on a machine in the corner. Crescents of sweat have formed under each honeydew-sized breast. Her long black braid swings like a pendulum behind her.

“I think I'd been sleeping,” I continue anyway. This is as much about my hearing my own words as it is about his hearing them. “I had been up all night drafting a brief for court, but I guess you could say fatigue won the race.”

“I love the athletic references, blondie. I'd like to think that is my influence on you?”

“Think whatever you want as long as you stop ogling Pocahontas Barbie for a minute and listen.”

He hands me a pair of ten-pound dumbbells. “Biceps,” he mutters, stealing another glance at the girl in the corner. I extend my arms in unison and bend them slowly, methodically, feeling the muscles tighten and swell each time.

“It was real.
Too
real. I was working on an assignment for this bastard partner I have told you about, Fisher.” In reality, he isn't a bastard, but a corner-office superstar, a rain-maker with monogrammed rose gold cuff links. Sure, there are those alleged mistresses—there always are—but he's for the most part a decent man, and far less acrid than some of the others.

“Why are you so worried about this dream?”

“Patience is a virtue, Victor.”

“Well then, I guess you could say that I'm having a hard time being virtuous this morning.”

“The cartoon paper clip, you know that icon with the googly eyes—it announced that it was my wedding day,” I say. “It was one of those computer reminder things.”

“Okay, now we're getting somewhere,” he says. I lie down flat on the rubber mat, hold tight to his ankles, and lift my legs one at a time.

“It was my wedding day and I didn't realize it. Then I was in a courthouse in this bizarre fishing net dress and a veil. And I was naked under it all.”

“Veil?”

“Yes, I was wearing a veil. In a courthouse. And my briefcase turned into orchids. And then, all of a sudden, I was practicing an oral argument outside of a courtroom.”

“I like oral,” Victor says, and laughs. Another trainer nearby doing squats laughs with him.

“You're disgusting. Now
listen
. I walked into the courtroom and everyone turned around to look at me. Everyone was wearing white. Everyone but
her
.”

“Her?”

“His mother,” I say. “There she was walking down the center of the courtroom in all black with silver buttons down her back, her hair bopping along. She turned around and smiled. She cradled a gun in one hand and balanced a pie in the other. Her smile was frozen.”

“Ah, the benevolent bailiff,” he says. “Lucky you. Hold up,” he says. I stop doing my crunches. “No—five more of those. You can see through fishing net.”

“Yes, genius.”

“Naked underneath?”

“Uh huh.”

He pauses. “Nice. Were your boobs bigger in the dream?”

I whip Victor with my towel. “Inappropriate, you sicko,” I say, red-faced, a fraction of a smile.

“The judge's face was blurry like on those crime shows.”

Finally, Victor seems captivated. I'd like to think Pocahontas could do a striptease atop her Arc Trainer and he wouldn't notice. He loses track of how many sit-ups I have done for the second time.

“Then the music started. And Dad was there to take my arm,” I say. And without warning, the tears come. Along
with the realization that when this happens for real, when I get married, Dad won't be there.

Victor grabs my shoulders, looks me in the eye. “I'm sorry,” he says. “Are you okay?”

I nod. “I'm fine,” I say, because this is what you're supposed to say, what people expect you to say.

But this pity party is short-lived. He hands me a medium-sized ball, deceptively heavy, made of thick blue rubber. “It's a medicine ball,” he says. “Thought to work wonders back then. Rumor is that Hippocrates used these balls to sweat fever from his patients.”

And I'm thankful for this timely diversion, this history lesson du jour from my trivia buff of a trainer. And I'm pleasantly surprised that he knows marginally sophisticated words like “benevolent” and how to pronounce “Hippocrates.” As if such knowledge is reserved for those of us with an Ivy degree (or two).

“A miracle worker?” I ask, twisting from side to side, holding the ball. “It can get rid of a fever, but can it banish belly fat?”

Victor smiles. “Sure thing.”

So, as quickly as those tears come, I've sent them away. “I'm sorry about before,” I say. “This isn't about Dad.”

In my dream, Dad wouldn't look at me. As if he was already gone from my life. As if I was already gone from his.

“There was a jury in the box. I saw Mom and Michael and
Nietzsche
. And guess who Mr. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was sitting next to? Britney Spears.”

“Hot couple,” Victor says, and I wonder whether he even knows who Nietzsche is.

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