by Benjamin Carr
During the chairwoman’s long introduction of the first speaker, who was apparently a recovering alcoholic who got clean and helped people now or something, Lizzie kept herself distracted by scribbling on the ivory place card that had guaranteed her seat at our table. Alongside the raised letters of her imprinted name, LIZZIE KANE, she had written several variations in blue ink.
“LIZZIE KANE ARMSTRONG. LIZZIE KANE-ARMSTRONG. MRS. LIZZIE ARMSTRONG. MRS. KANE-ARMSTRONG. MRS. ELIZABETH KANE ARMSTRONG. MRS. ARMSTRONG. LIZZIE ARMSTRONG. ELIZABETH CATHRYN KANE ARMSTRONG.” And, of course, “MRS. THOMAS ARMSTRONG.”
It was a small card, but it was also a boring-as-hell speech, probably the first of many, so Lizzie amused herself by filling it up. Every now and then (when she thought one of us was looking at her), she’d glance over to the pear-shaped diamond on her left hand, pretending to appreciate its sparkle when really she was just trying to provoke and enjoy our envy. It was Lizzie’s moment, and I don’t begrudge her relishing it. At least, I don’t begrudge her much. But it was annoying that she wouldn’t just start the story.
I didn’t want to be the one to ask her. Mostly because I thought I knew, more or less, how Lizzie would tell the story of her proposal. But also, I just wasn’t in the mood. It was an alumnae charity brunch for our sorority, but someone made the idiotic call that it would be in bad taste to serve mimosas and Bloody Marys while fundraising for a halfway house.
Eventually, Becca, who is still single, caught Lizzie’s eye during one of her ring-pondering fits and urged her, “So tell us how it happened.”
At this, Lizzie expressed surprise that the three of us would be so interested in all the details, but she was just playing a part and giving me a headache. She knew it was her turn. She’d been through this same ritual—in a different seat at different events—when Tara announced she was engaged to Marc or when Henry proposed to me.
Hell, Lizzie even complained to me after Tara showed off her ring, saying that the bride-to-be had milked the moment.
“God, Helen, I’m never getting married,” Lizzie had proclaimed to me then, which was over two years ago. “Or, if I do, I’m never telling any of you ladies about it.”
I can only guess what charming comments Lizzie must’ve said about me after Henry popped the question in front of everyone during the senior-year formal, which took me completely by surprise. And, thankfully, it also rendered it unnecessary for me to construct a romantic version of “how it all happened” to tell my girlfriends.
(My engagement ring is still prettier and bigger than the one Lizzie keeps staring at. Good job, Henry.)
“Of course we want the details, Lizzie,” I said to her in what would barely qualify as a whisper. “That’s why I came to this event. It was $100 a plate for stale croissants. I’m wearing white shoes and pearls on a Saturday morning, and I’m sober. But you got engaged to Tom. So go ahead and spill.”
At this, single Becca chuckled, and some old lady from the next table over shushed me so that she could hear the guest speaker talk about the Twelve Steps.
But Lizzie’s emerald eyes glared at me. The future Mrs. Armstrong understood that I’d issued her a challenge. It was suddenly Rush Week all over again, and she was my pledge.
So she took a breath, grabbed her glass of water and drank from it. Then, she looked from me to Becca to Tara, and she began her story.
“Well, I mean, it’s simple, really. We’d just gotten out of bed, and it was a beautiful morning.”
At that, her eyes darted to the centerpiece, her forehead wrinkled with what looked to me like worry.
“I told Tom that I wanted every morning to be like that, to be someplace where I knew we were safe,” she said while her focus remained on the petals of a fake daisy bouquet.
“He said, ‘I promise to keep you safe if you’ll do the same for me.’ And then Tom reached under his pillow and pulled out the ring box. I guess it must’ve been there the whole night. But it was a lovely moment.”
I heard single Becca sigh. I saw Tara smile. The magic of romance had worked on them. But I couldn’t really feel it. I thought it was bullshit. Elsewhere in this hotel ballroom, our absentee waitress was chatting up one of the only men in the room, some guy forced to escort his mother to this shindig. At another table with the same centerpiece at just that moment, another group of old sorority sisters was probably enjoying the opportunity to reconnect. Up on the stage, that recovering alcoholic lady was talking about Jesus and getting genuinely emotional. She was wearing too much pink and too much eye makeup. She was maybe two minutes away from theatrically sobbing, which I didn’t want any part of, so I turned my attention back to Lizzie, whose story wasn’t at all what I expected.
I mean, Lizzie’s not histrionic, like that alcoholic-in-recovery was about to become, but she’s also never told a story that simple and boring before.
Single Becca bought it, though. She had put her hand on Lizzie’s in appreciation, and Lizzie was beaming from that, embracing the rare chance to appear gracious about something. (Most of the time, I honestly can’t figure out what the deal is with Becca. She probably kept a puppy dog poster on her bedroom wall until her senior year of high school.)
“Seriously, Lizzie, that’s it?” I asked her. “That’s how Tom proposed to you?”
Again, I got the icy emerald glare.
“Helen, what is it with you today?” Lizzie asked me accusingly. “You don’t sound like yourself. Is everything OK?”
“Bad week,” I murmured to Lizzie. “Sorry.”
Behind Lizzie, the alcoholic had started sobbing into the microphone. Her face was flushed, and her makeup was a disaster, like a kindergartener’s watercolor painting hung up before it was dry. Purple and green drops trailed down her cheeks. At one point, the woman had probably put all of her money into booze and couldn’t afford waterproof mascara. Hearing the crying jag in stereo made Lizzie turn her head from me to the stage.
“And, you all … I’m just so grateful for women like you …,” that lady wailed.
Lizzie turned back around to face all of us, mouthing silently, “Oh wow.” And, with that gesture, Tara, Becca and I placed our attention back on the bride-to-be.
Tara returned us to the subject by observing in her sugar-coated drawl, “That sweet proposal doesn’t sound at all like it came from the Tom Armstrong I know. Lizzie, you’re sure this is the same groomsman who did that embarrassing toast at my wedding?”
Lizzie smirked at this, and Single Becca cooed, “Ooh, isn’t that where you guys met?”
“Yep, it’s the same Tom,” Lizzie said.
Tara laughed and said, “Well, maybe your love has transformed him.”
This hit me hard. Tara had assured me in the same way right before my own wedding reception. I went to her after I caught my groom checking out the ivory slip that peeked out from beneath Lizzie’s periwinkle bridesmaid dress during our limo ride. Tara told me then that it was just a glance I misunderstood, that Henry only had eyes for me that day, that I was the only one he wanted to dance with.
“Love can’t change you that much,” I spat this time, returning my thoughts to the table. This caused Tara to turn her head toward me and give me this look of concern.
So I quickly deflected, chuckling, “I mean, if you’re once a guy who makes a toast about Nantucket, you’re always that guy.”
Lizzie smiled at this and then she exhaled.
“OK, fine,” she said. “There is more to the story than that.”
“I knew it,” Tara said.
The waitress finally came by and put water in my glass, which had been only melting ice cubes and lemon wedges for entirely too long. The service at this brunch was terrible. We all took swigs from our glasses as soon as the waitress had made her way around the table with pitchers of water and tea. Meanwhile, the alcoholic weeper had thankfully stepped away from the lectern and grabbed herself a tissue. A parade of rich, old women in white hats were still scheduled to speak about the importance of community service and outreach, though, so now was the time for Lizzie to give us the long overdue dirt.
None of us was prepared, though, for what Lizzie actually said.
“Chicken,” she muttered, shaking her head.
“Pardon me?” Becca asked, glancing over her shoulder confused. “Are they bringing out another course? I thought the meal was over.”
“Becca, please,” Lizzie said. “I’m trying to get this out while I still have my nerve.”
“It was Monday, the night of your anniversary, Tara, which makes it also the anniversary of when Tom and I first met, first danced, first kissed,” Lizzie said. “And I knew that he had something special planned, something bigger than last year, because, instead of sending me two-word text messages all day long and a suggestion that we maybe watch his ‘Rambo’ DVD when we got home, I walked into my office to find a bouquet of white lilies on the receptionist’s desk.”
At this, Tara and I gasped at the same time. Lizzie just nodded at us.
“Yeah, I prefer roses,” Single Becca interrupted, oblivious. “They’re more romantic. I mean, I know they’re traditional, but I’d want roses. A dozen red roses and a card that quotes some sonnet.”
“Nobody cares what you like right now, Becca,” I snapped, then said to Lizzie. “Tell me Tom didn’t do the whole thing for you.”
“He did,” Lizzie said. And I started laughing. And then one of the old ladies at the next table shushed me.
“The whole what?” Becca asked.
“Lizzie’s engagement poem from when she was 14,” Tara explained while laughing.
“Huh?” Becca asked, but she was in the dark about the poem.
“It was lilies in the morning,” Lizzie said with frustration. “And I knew that Tom was going to propose to me exactly the way I’d planned. I didn’t even know he knew the damn poem. I must’ve told him when I was on cold medicine or something.”
“Oh dear,” I said.
Then I recited from memory her engagement plan, which she’d repeated to me in annoying singsong rhythm several times I got her drunk during her freshman year, “Lilies in the morning, white flowers every hour, the surprise of a blue dress in which I’ll look pretty …”
“A meal on a rooftop overlooking the city,” Tara continued.
“A love song swells around us from Nat King Cole,” Tara and I said together.
“Then he asks me a question about us growing old,” Lizzie finished while rolling her eyes. “God, I was so lame when I was 14.”
“You guys, how do I not know this poem?” Becca asked, frustrated.
“You wouldn’t drink freshman year, Becca,” I reminded her. “It was during your religious phase.”
Tara touched Lizzie’s arm with sympathy and said that it was sort of sweet that Tom went all out like that.
“It shows he listens and pays attention,” Tara said.
Lizzie complained, “Great, one of the few times Tom pays attention, I end up on a tar-soaked hotel rooftop in a royal blue bridesmaid’s reject disaster on the hottest night in July, eating lousy chicken and dancing to my parents’ wedding song …”
“A 14-year-old girl’s magical, romantic dreams come true,” I said curtly, holding my water glass in the air to toast.
Becca was puzzled. “You guys are so bitter today. You got engaged to a guy who was trying to do what you wanted. Why didn’t this make you happy?”
“I’m happy, Becca,” Lizzie said, looking down at her engagement ring. “I said yes to him, after all.”
Becca looked unsatisfied. She stopped making eye contact with us, turned her gaze toward the tablecloth and began fidgeting with the napkin.
“I knew you all were going to mock me mercilessly for this,” Lizzie continued. “And I probably deserve it.”
“So you made up the story about him asking you to marry him in bed the next morning?” Tara asked.
Lizzie took a sip of her water, then smoothly put the glass back on the table, while she said, “Actually, that part’s true.”
“So he didn’t follow the poem by the letter?” I asked. “Tom managed some moments of originality?”
“I don’t think it was planned,” Lizzie said, cringing. “We were on the rooftop, dancing to ‘The Very Thought of You,’ while I’m trying my best to pretend to be happy about all this and surprised and stuff, and Tom suddenly took a step back out of my arms and puked on me.”
“WHAT?” Tara exclaimed, which turned the heads of several alumnae, who were starting to get seriously annoyed at us. Becca’s face was red with embarrassment.
Tara glanced at all of the ladies and smiled in her most delicate way, suggesting that our table would finally behave with a degree of decorum. But we paid for the table, so I don’t know why we couldn’t talk about whatever we wanted. They had their way of doing a charity event, and we had ours.
“Keep going,” I told Lizzie before any of the women at the other tables tried to shame us further with disapproving looks.
“Tom broke out into a cold sweat and kept vomiting,” the future Mrs. Armstrong explained. “It was completely disgusting. Pieces of chewed-up chicken all over the front of his shirt, white stains in his tie. I didn’t think it was possible for the dress he got me to look any uglier, but I was wrong. Flecks of pasta, pieces of corn, other vegetables. I felt like I was wearing a collage.”
Single Becca excused herself to go to the bathroom.
Lizzie paused, ran her fingers through her chocolate-brown bangs.
“So we went to the hospital, where the doctors diagnosed Tom with food poisoning right before I started getting sick myself,” she explained.” And when they had us change into hospital gowns, I guess that’s when Tom snuck the ring under his pillow.”
“You got sick too?” Tara asked.
“Of course,” Lizzie said. “The damn, undercooked chicken did us both in. We were in that hospital room all night, and we woke up in the morning feeling better. So I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. I told him never to propose to me like that ever again, that we were lucky to get out of it alive. And he reminded me that he’d never gotten around to actually asking me. And he offered to propose to me in the hospital because, if anything bad happened again, the doctors could keep us safe. So the rest of it happened like I told you.”
I smiled at Lizzie.
“You win,” I said. “That proposal story tops mine, particularly the way it ends.”
“Helen, this isn’t some game,” Lizzie said. “We’re not in some romance competition.”
“We’re not?” I asked her.
“We’re all doing well in that department, except maybe Becca, but she’s so cheery that it doesn’t seem to matter to her,” Lizzie said kindly.
I didn’t agree with that. Her assessment was inaccurate. This is the game that we’d been playing since we met, which one of us would find love first, which one of us would marry first, which one of us would marry best and all the little envies and contests that come along with that. Certainly I wasn’t the only one playing all this time. I couldn’t be.
I glanced at Lizzie. She glanced back at me. My eyes were tearing up, and I could feel the color coming into my cheeks. The room was spinning around us, but we were completely still.
“Helen, what is it?” Lizzie asked.
“Henry told me that he’s met someone else.”