When I open my eyes to the sound of some old crooner on the radio my breath catches at the sight of these unfamiliar surroundings. And then, as my eyes adjust to the dim light, I realize where I am and why I’m here. I tilt my head to the right and see Autumn lying beside me, hands clasped over her chest, eyes open and staring at the ceiling. She must sense my movement and turns her face to meet mine.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
“How’d you sleep?”
“I didn’t. Not really. I couldn’t.”
“Are you nervous?”
“No.” She smiles and has never looked more beautiful. “I’m unbelievably happy. I’m so happy I didn’t want to sleep because I just want to keep feeling this feeling.” She giggles like a little girl. “I didn’t want to lose it for a moment.”
I laugh and prop myself up on my elbows, shocked, as I so often am, at how easy the motion is. It’s been months now since I’ve been this size, and still it surprises me. Still I wonder at the fact that this time last year there is no way I could have squeezed into a twin bed with her. “You’ll have your whole life to feel this feeling.”
“I know,” she says, her smile deepening. “How did you sleep?”
“Good. And I needed it!” I stretch, and feel the ache in my muscles from all the lifting and moving and organizing of the past several days.
“Have I said it yet?” asks Autumn. “Thank you? For how amazing you’ve been. I know it’s been hectic and—”
“Stop.” I pull the sheets off of me and step out of the bed in Autumn’s childhood room. “You’ve said it but there’s no need for thanks.” Autumn watches me as I grab a hoodie from the desk, and then sits up herself. She’s still smiling and her eyes crinkle and water. “What is it?” I slip back on the bed beside her.
“It’s just … I can’t believe it, you know? It’s Matt. By tonight I’ll be married to Matt. He’ll be mine and I’ll be his. Him and me. Forever.”
“You’re one lucky girl,” I say, pleased that the words come from my heart, with no jealousy or resentment at all. “And he’s a lucky guy. Now should we make sure the other girls are up and start getting ready?”
“Yeah,” says Autumn, wiping the scant moisture from her eyes. “Let’s do this thing.”
The morning breezes by far too fast, full of laughing girls, curling irons, nail polish, and more makeup than I’ve ever seen in one place. Before I know it we’re standing in front of the photographers for pictures with the bridesmaids and Autumn’s family, posing in every combination imaginable. At first I’m nervous and uncomfortable in front of the camera, as I always have been, but after several shots I start to relax and remember there’s no need to hide behind the others in order to trick the picture into making me look smaller. I may still be bigger than them, but not by much. There’s no worrying that I’m about to burst out of my dress or if it makes me look like a beached whale. When Uncle Leo calls me over to get in a family shot I wave his suggestion away, saying it should just be immediate family. “You are immediate family,” he says, and raises his arm for me to slip under it. I do and marvel at how far we’ve come.
After the pictures, we pile into the convoy of waiting cars en route to Autumn’s wedding. I’m squeezed in between Autumn’s friends, Eloise and Allison, in the back seat, only it isn’t actually that much of a squeeze. “Are you ready?” asks Allison.
“Oh, you know,” jokes Autumn.
“How do you feel?” says Eloise. “Does it seem real?”
“I don’t know,” Autumn turns back to look at us from the front seat. “I just can’t wait to see him. I know when I see him, then it’ll be real.”
“You two will be happy,” says Allison. “That’s for sure. And you’ll have a bunch of ridiculously good-looking and fit children.” She laughs. “You’ll like a magazine family!”
“Get me there fast!” says Autumn with a laugh.
Uncle Leo glances over at her. “Not too fast,” he says, and rests his big rough hand on the delicate fabric that covers her knee. “I’m not in that big of a rush.” My own eyes water at the sound of the emotion in his voice and we’re all silent for the next few kilometres. “Well,” says Uncle Leo, breaking the silence, you couldn’t have asked for a better day.”
“The heavens are smiling on you,” says Eloise and I look out the window as if seeing the sky for the first time today. It’s bright blue with sweeping, layered clouds that will make for phenomenal pictures. The wind is just strong enough to sway the tall grass along the road, but has no effect on the trees.
When we pull up the lane to the private beach resort, the parking lot is nearly full but Uncle Leo pulls the car into the spot marked for the bride. We have about ten minutes to wait before the photographer has everything set up for Autumn’s entrance and my hands get clammy at the thought of walking down the aisle in front of all those people. So many of them know what I once was, and around people like that it’s hard not to let their imagined thoughts creep into my brain—hmm, well she looks good now. But I wonder how long it’ll last? She’s going to have to be careful, so easy to blow back up—once you’ve already been there, of course.
I try to shake the thoughts out of my mind. What people think or don’t think doesn’t matter. What matters is Autumn, and the fact that I’m here today to celebrate her. There’s one other thing though, that’s constant in my mind—the one set of eyes I can’t wait to see me come down that aisle. I was surprised when Autumn told me Matt had asked Rajeev to be one of his groomsmen—they’d grown closer than I thought—but I was also thrilled. I knew it would mean we’d be thrown into situations together and I hadn’t been wrong. This past week, especially, I’d seen him almost every day as we set up and organized aspects of the wedding. He’d yet to make any move to indicate he wanted to give us another chance. He was friendly and attentive, but Rajeev was friendly and attentive to everyone.
At last we get the signal and make our way out of the car, around the side of the main building, and behind the makeshift barrier that prevents Matt from seeing his bride before the perfect moment. The music begins and I stand waiting beside Autumn, my one hand clasped in hers, the other holding firmly to my bouquet. When it’s my turn to make my way down the aisle I give her hand one last squeeze then step forward. The first thing my mind registers is how perfect everything is. The breeze has picked up slightly, just enough to make the white paper pompoms attached to chairs along the aisle dance. The arch under which Matt stands is adorned with lilies and chrysanthemums, but their beauty is overshadowed by the anticipation on Matt’s face. He smiles at me, and I return the look before my eyes travel to Rajeev, three spots down from Matt. His eyes are locked on me, and the look on his face is a look I’ve only dreamed of seeing. It sends a tremor down my spine. I’m almost certain this look is for me and only me. I avert my eyes away from the intensity of it, but then return to his gaze and hold it until I have to turn and slip into my spot along the front. Moments after our gaze is broken, I still feel those deep chocolate-brown eyes looking into mine. The guests are asked to rise and I catch a glimpse of my family in the second row—Dad and Billy. Evita, Melinda, and Courtney too. They’re all smiling at me, then turn toward the aisle as the music transitions.
Autumn is incandescent. That’s the best word I can think to describe her. I’ve been looking at the way her hair falls in gentle waves around her face, the flowing and delicate slope of her dress across her shoulders, the gleam of her pearls, for hours now, but it’s as if I’m seeing it all for the first time. I’ve never seen such clear and potent joy in my life. I turn my gaze and Matt is handsome, to be sure, but what really stands out is the way his expression perfectly reflects hers.
When they reach the front, Uncle Leo embraces his daughter, kissing her just above an eyebrow, then passes her into Matt’s waiting hands. The words of the ceremony are the same ones I’ve heard at many ceremonies. I don’t know whether it’s hearing them from this angle, or hearing them without the bitterness I’d carried for so long, but they’ve never sounded more beautiful. I’m so entranced by the ceremony that I miss my cue to hand Matt’s ring to Autumn, which results in some laughter. It’s one of the first times laughter has been directed at me with no scorn attached. I pass the ring over with a smile. The minister’s voice is deep and resonant. Matt’s voice is eager and excited. Autumn’s is a mix of joy and awe. A few more exchanges, a kiss, a raise of clasped hands, and my cousin is a married woman.
The day continues with more pictures, dinner, speeches, then settles into a mix of raucous dancing, drinks, and moments of quiet reflection between friends and loved ones. I’ve spent the last hour waiting for Rajeev to come to me. Every slow song my pulse starts racing in anticipation but something else always seems to captivate his attention—a drink with the other groomsmen, a conversation with Uncle Leo, a dance with Matt’s grandmother. I put him out of my mind as much as I can and try to enjoy the evening, and I do enjoy the evening, but putting him out of my mind is easier said than done.
“Jenn,” I whip around at the sound of my name to see Billy sidling over to me, his limp barely noticeable now. “What are you doing over here? Get on the dance floor.”
“I’ve been dancing.”
I turn from him and see Autumn, twirling in Daniel’s arm, laughing at something. “I’m just watching,” I say.
“You’ve watched enough.” Billy grabs my hand and pulls me onto the floor for a song that seems a mix between jive and rock. I’m twirled and passed from hand to hand of a number of Matt’s friends, along with the other bridesmaids. Three songs later, laughing and breathless, I tear myself away and step onto the back porch for some air. The breeze has picked up some, and I rub my arms as I breathe in the salty air, watching the moon’s beam ripple across the rolling waves.
“Cold?” Rajeev’s suit-jacket is over my shoulders before I have a chance to respond and I smile up at him.
“A little.” I expect him to say something else but he doesn’t. He just stands beside me, looking out at the water until over a minute must have passed and the silence makes me queasy. “It’s been a beautiful wedding.”
He looks over at me and smiles, standing as close to me as that night we were on the mountain looking up at the same sky.
“It has.” He turns back toward the horizon.
I take a breath, close my eyes, concentrate on making my voice steady, and speak again. “You looked very handsome, standing up there at the front.”
“Thank you.” He hesitates. “You looked beautiful. Like always.”
I laugh uncomfortably, while feeling warmed all over. “Well, now maybe.”
“No,” he says, “always.” He turns back to me. “That’s what makes me nervous about you.”
“That you still think beauty is this surface thing. This fleeting thing. That you haven’t figured out the truth of it yet.”
“The truth of it?”
“I know I have a different way of saying things. And I know I probably offended you before. I just … I don’t want you to only see your beauty because you’ve lost a lot of weight. I can see you like yourself more, that you’re happier with yourself. But be honest with me. Is that why?”
“It’s part of it,” I say, knowing it’s not what he wants to hear. “But it’s more than that, too. This past year taught me a lot. Part of it being that I didn’t have to be so unhappy, so awful … before. Is that what you mean?”
“What if you put the weight back on?”
“I won’t,” I say, probably too quickly.
He smiles. “And I hope you don’t. For health’s sake. But what if you did? Or what if you put twenty back on? Would you still be the person you seem to be now?”
My throat feels thick and full. Why this matters to him, I’m not sure. “I don’t know. I hope not. I was really angry before. Really bitter. And I do still struggle with those thoughts sometimes.” I shrug my shoulders. “A hard habit to break. I thought that was because of my weight, but I know now it was largely just because of me.”
He nods again. “I want you to know and to believe that I thought you were beautiful from that first night I saw you at Daniel’s party.” I stifle a laugh, the notion seems unbelievable. “You don’t believe me,” he says. “It was your eyes. There was a sadness in them that I recognized and that I knew didn’t have to be there—like my Father’s—but there was a strength in them too. When you started talking about your new job, and I could sense your family was shocked and sceptical, you had this rebellion in your voice. This determination to defy expectation. It was a flame,” he laughs, “and like a moth I was drawn to it.”
“Really?” I can’t think of anything better to say.
He laughs again. “Really.”
“You would have liked me, been interested in me, even if I never lost the weight?”
“I was interested in you. Yes.” He shrugs now, with a little grin. “I’m not going to lie. I like this new look. But I liked the old one too. It didn’t take me long to see that you didn’t though—and if a person can’t love herself … Well, let’s just say I’ve learned from experience that there’s no way she can love me.”
I realize I’ve been holding my breath and let it out. He’s looking at me, talking to me, about the potential of love. I lick my lips then purse them. “So—”
“Do you want to go for a walk?” He puts out his hand and I take it. His fingers wrap around mine and hold them firmly. My skin feels alive. When we approach the sand I kick off my heels and he uses his one free hand to pull off his shoes and socks. We sink our feet into the cold damp earth and, in those first few steps, I feel as if I’m walking into my future.