Instead of a wedding cake, we had pizza.
Three pies, one with meatballs, garlic and sausage; one with bitter, wrinkled vegetables and one that was just plain cheese. Buffalo wings and mozzarella sticks on the side. The bride, Naomi, changed out of her white dress immediately after the ceremony, predicting the marinara sauce that would spill down the front of her shirt before the evening was through. She and the groom, Paul, fed each other rolled-up slices of the meat pie and he licked the red streak of sauce off her breast, to vocal approval from the party.
Everyone brought something. We were all hurting for money, but nobody came empty-handed. We had bottles of Stoli and beer coolers full of ice and bags of chips and dirty ashtrays and litter boxes. Litre bottles of Coke and root beer and orange soda making the rounds so frequently that nobody bothered to screw the caps back on afterwards, bubbles of carbonation escaping off into the night. There was cat hair everywhere. Three cats lived in the apartment: a lean Himalayan, a White Persian and a black-and-white Ragamuffin.
Nobody’s parents were present. The single photograph on the cork bulletin board in the living room was stuck full of darts. I did not recognize the balding well-dressed man and blonde younger woman in the photo, but from stories Naomi had told me I realized soon enough they must have been Paul’s father and stepmother.
I noticed little fruit magnets on the refrigerator door, although there was no actual fruit in the apartment or even a bowl where fruit might go. Also on the fridge was a large circular magnet with a picture of a beer mug next to the words: You can be BOTH a thinker AND a drinker. It held a handwritten note on a scrap of off-white paper, addressed to “N”: a reminder to call the immigration office. A rubber goldfish was floating in the kitchen sink, belly up in the slimy water.
The bride and groom both made speeches. Naomi’s was short. She got very weepy as she called us all her New York family, told us that she loved us and thanked us for being there when nobody else was, kissing her husband at the end for emphasis.
Paul’s was longer. In it, he conjured up the enormous wedding he wished he could have given her, promised he’d make it up to her a thousandfold and assured her that the best was yet to come. He concluded by raising a half-eaten slice and a red plastic cup and declaring it the best meal he’d ever had in his life. We all raised our glasses to that.
There was also a memorial toast to Elmer, the only college friend to be absent that night. I had never met Elmer, but Paul spoke warmly of him. The great thing about Elmer, he said, was that Elmer never tried to hold back or pretend; you knew right away what you were getting with Elmer. He recounted the time Elmer had to be dragged off the street because he was trying to snort the white lines on the asphalt, to plenty of laughter and fond reminiscing.
“What happened to Elmer?” I asked.
The only person who knew that story was Sean, the best man. It happened on an overnight nature hike. “We were walking through the woods at night when all of a sudden we saw a floating blue light and heard the most beautiful piano music.”
“What did you do?”
“I did nothing. Elmer threw a rock at it. A second later, he was gone.”
To keep the stale air moving in the tiny apartment, the fire escape window sat open all night and the fans were all on. No fewer than five guests were camped out on the steps at any given time. The first time I came outside, they were having a spitting competition over the railing. The sun was almost gone. A billboard gazed down on us across the West Side Highway, illuminated by footlights. It used pictures of tropical beaches to sell storage space in Brooklyn and hadn’t been changed in forever.
The gifts, then. Mostly books. Cookbooks, textbooks. Two bridesmaids, Penny and Natasha, surprised everyone with a big pink scrapbook, handcrafted, chronicling the history of Paul and Naomi’s relationship since they’d met in college. We all crammed together on one couch and took a group photo for the final page. I was squeezed in at the very edge, with Penny’s arm was looped around my throat, her hand clutching a bottleneck poised to poke my eye out. I had just enough time to register the heat and gentle peachfuzz of her bare skin, the smell of her hair like clean straw.
Then on with the gifts. A big book about budget gardening in your apartment, which seemed to particularly thrill Naomi. A set of knives, a slow cooker, a fifty dollar gift card, a decently-priced bottle of Kentucky bourbon. A fat bag of pot came from Randall, Paul’s friend and second groomsman; he tried to play it off as a sort of joke before showing everybody how he could roll a blunt with his eyes closed.
Naomi asked to be allowed to go out alone with Paul for their first walk around the block as a married couple. A few people oooh’ed at that.
“So, what exactly happens on a ‘first married walk around the block’?”
“Are you guys planning to run off together?”
“We’re just talking,” she said as they hurried out the door.
Ten minutes later they buzzed the apartment, came back in and asked for shots. There was a pickle jar in the fridge with a single green spear left inside; the brine was poured out to make picklebacks.
By the time we gathered around to try and catch the bouquet, we were all very drunk. Naomi threw the bouquet straight up and the blades of the living room fan caught and shredded it, causing small, hard roses to shower us. People were on their knees, scooping them up off the floor. I caught three as they fell and stuffed them into my pocket.
“So, what do you do?” I asked a girl named Martha with red plastic bracelets and hoop earrings tangled in her messy chestnut hair.
“Well, my degree’s in Philematology. I work in retail but I’m a painter in my free time.”
“How is it that you know Paul and Naomi?”
“Paul’s my cousin. I knew he’d moved out to New York but we still hadn’t actually talked much for a few years until he reached out to me asking if I’d paint them for the wedding.”
“Really?” I made a great show of looking around the room. “Where is it?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t have anything ready in time so I brought a bottle of wine instead. How about you? How do you know the couple?”
“Naomi and I are both students at Mount Sinai; we were assigned together as lab partners in our first year and we became friends.” I didn’t mention Constance, or that we used to be a trio.
“Mmm. Cool.” Whiskey was on her breath, hot and foul.
There was one tiny bathroom in the apartment, no mat upon the tiled floor. A big, pink carton of condoms stood in the medicine cabinet like a cereal box for grown-ups, all prizes. This was an adults-only clubhouse. Stacked next to it were Plan B pills and pregnancy tests and spermicidal lube and generic-brand Aspirin and two orange pill containers of Kutorenesehol, an antidepressant I took as well. Its yellow warning labels read: Take one capsule every 24 hours. May impair your ability to operate heavy machinery. If pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your physician. Do not mix with alcohol. There were bloody tissues in the wastebasket.
There were games. Jenga, Scrabble, Pictionary. After a while Naomi made us put the Twister mat away and sit cross-legged on the hardwood floor. She had one of the cats in her lap, tenderly rubbing its face and neck, and she announced we were going to play a game she’d read about in a book, called Visualizations.
“I want everyone to think of something that you really want, more than anything else. Don’t say it out loud, just think it. Now, we’re all going to close our eyes. Nobody’s going to speak for a full minute, and you’re all going to focus on a clear picture of the thing you want. And if you do it right, you’re guaranteed to get it before the year is up.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, so tightly it hurt. We became dutifully, pin-droppingly silent. The temperature seemed to fall, and in the weightless dark I felt the proximity of our collective want, wafting around the room like something so thick and heavy it had actual mass.
“It’s real easy to make your own infused liquors,” Sean was saying afterward. He was very handsome, with slicked-back hair and a stubbled jaw. He was also the only person besides Paul who was wearing a suit for the occasion. “I do it at home with mason jars. You can just throw in chunks of fruit or candy or whatever you have lying around. You can use the cheapest stuff, too. It doesn’t make any difference.”
“So what are we drinking right now?”
“This? Marshmallow-infused vodka.”
Midnight found me wandering around on the sidelines, looking for something to read until my second wind kicked in. The living room shelf had volumes on mindfulness, eliminating stress, getting out of debt for dummies, learning English, getting visas (both marriage and student), medical textbooks, lawbooks, APA and MLA citation handbooks, how-to books for giving the perfect job interview, writing perfect résumés. As I went down the shelf I became aware that the titles were getting longer and the author credentials shorter:
We Never Forget Our First House: How to Care for Your Unborn Child, by Dr. Jen Devane, MD, PhD. The Orestes Complex: Why Freud was Wrong About Mothers, by Dr. Patrick Sawhinney, PhD. Prescripture: The Gospel According to Big Pharma, by Dr. Ugo Stegman. I Was Screaming When I Voted, Forgive Me For the USA: The Death of Prince, The Trump Election and How I Survived The World’s Worst Year Yet, by Carl Zoeg.
What did they read to escape?
I collapsed on the couch for a closer look at the books that had been gifted. Most of them were second-hand, a few brand new. I finally settled on a massive tome of full-color nature photographs: bromeliad leaves glistening under a heavy tropical drizzle, baby turtles pulsing like frightened little wind-up toys in the sand and crisp slabs of sheet ice floating in sky-blue Arctic waters. This was the tropical honeymoon they weren’t getting. Another giant book, called Fuck You, contained photos of the word “Fuck” pasted over various signs. Please do not FUCK the fish, FUCK at your own risk, et cetera. Someone had actually traveled the world putting up stickers with this word. Secretly I thought it was a work of genius.
“This looks really good,” Naomi said, sitting nearby and flipping through the pages of the gardening book. “Oh God. I’m really excited. I’ve been wanting to start a little garden since forever. I’m going to grow herbs, parsley, peppers, green beans, cherry tomatoes…”
I leaned toward her. “Constance texted me to tell you congratulations.”
She looked up sharply. “How does Constance know we got married?”
“I told her.”
“You shouldn’t talk to her.”
I persisted. “I actually wanted to bring her here tonight.”
“Are you serious? I wouldn’t have let her inside!”
“She wants to apologize. I would really love to see you two—”
“No.” She looked murderous for a second. “Never. Absolutely not.”
“Seriously,” said Naomi. “I know I can’t stop you from seeing her but don’t ever talk to her about me. Or Paul.”
“Okay. Sorry. It won’t happen again.”
I remember Sean reading Martha’s palm, saying, “This line tells me you’re a smoker.”
“Bullshit. You just saw me with a cigarette five minutes ago.”
“Yes, but it also says you’re trying to quit.”
I remember telling Randall, “I think you’ve had enough.”
I remember hearing Paul shout from the kitchen: “Oh, come on! We just had the exterminator in here last week!”
I remember we took coffee pills to keep going.
The second time I staggered up the fire escape, it was dark but still warm and I was clutching a winecup. I climbed one flight and came out onto the roof. Two people were in the corner, their faces blending together into a two-necked lump sum, their features hard to distinguish. I could just barely see the white of the man’s cuffs peering out over the edges of his dark suit jacket, his collar skewed across his shoulders. A braceleted arm stroked the back of his head, fingers running tenderly through his scalp. The smack of lips meeting in the dark is unmistakable, once you’ve first heard it. I felt the prick of a thorn against my leg. Heat lightning flashed in the distance. I looked out over the edge, almost losing my glasses, and was sick.
When I came back downstairs, Naomi—who often complained of being cold on summer nights—was back on the sofa, wearing a thick black sweater. On it was a little cartoon bird, carrying books and wearing thick glasses, with a crescent moon above and the words “PARTY OWL”beneath, and I remember thinking: I need that.
I sat down next to her. “How are you? Really?”
“How am I? How do you think? I just got married! I have a husband now! I’m great!”
“Who knows?” She narrowed her eyes at me. “What did you wish for during the visualization exercise?”
“What did you wish for?”
“I can’t tell you or it won’t come true.”
“Then why’d you ask me?”
She considered this. “All right. I wished for a house. A proper bed, with four legs and a frame, that can hold two people. And a job for my husband. Boring, right?”
“Shouldn’t he have wished that for himself?”
“How do you know?”
She shook her head. “I know.”
“What do you think he wished for, then?”
“I can’t tell you that. It’s inappropriate. What did you wish for?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I took the crushed roses from my pocket and tossed them in the trash. “I didn’t get it anyway. Tell me what happened on your first married walk around the block.”
She smiled. “The marriage tunnel. Family tradition. In the center of my mother’s village, there was a big public house where couples had to take their first married walk together, down a long corridor. You could stay as long as you wanted in there, talk about anything. You could even call it off, go back out the way you came in. Nobody would blame you. Nobody outside could hear what was being said. Once you come out the front doors together, though, that’s it, you’re married: the crowd starts cheering, the music starts playing, the festivities begin.”
Her mother’s village had burned down a year ago. “So what did you two talk about?”
Naomi shook her head, reached for her drink. “We’re here, is the important thing.”
I’d like to say I spent the entire night lost in meaningful conversation, but socializing is an esoteric art. There’s no instruction manual. Constance once told me that what made me a great lab partner was not just my being observant but that I was content to observe, reticent to interfere. She had promised to teach me the subtle art of being bolder outside of a work setting.
As the night wore on, we drank everything, turning the pantry inside out. I saw one girl nursing a bottle of bitters. Abandoned beer cans were picked up by other partygoers, contents tipped out even to the last drop.
Some guests tried to raid the fridge, but there was nothing much to raid. We turned up a few boxes of Ramen in the cupboard, but all the hungriest people were too stoned and drunk and helpless even to boil water.
I volunteered to make a beer run. I went out to the 24-Hour Food & Liquor across the street, where I grabbed a six-pack of Monk Hill Barbecue Buddy, a six-pack of Kill-Me Pilsner, cookies and chips and salsa and a Carvel ice cream cake. Green grapes, as an afterthought.
The clerk looked up at me from his magazine. “Says here the Japanese have just developed an AI that can spend hours debating why evil exists in the universe.”
I slid my cash and EBT card across the counter. “No kidding.”
The building had no elevator. When I got back up to the sixth floor, Naomi was on her phone in the stairwell, pacing in circles and shouting in Arabic. I must have given her a look, because she gave an ineffectual shrug and waved me along. Back in the apartment, tins of wet cat food had been found hidden under the sink. Randall was exploring the possibility of using them as dip for the last of the tortilla chips. I dumped the fresh supplies on the table just as he was starting to dig in.
I found Paul sitting in the living room, flipping through Penny and Natasha’s scrapbook. He looked up as I came over. “Have you seen my wife?”
“She’s in the hall, calling her parents.”
“Really? What time is it over there?”
“Don’t know.” I sat down next to him. “You should keep an eye on your frat brothers.”
He waved a hand dismissively. “They’re fine. They can handle their liquor.”
“They’ve been drinking all night. They’re not in college anymore.”
He sighed. “You’re always so clinical.”
I said nothing, but rested my head on his shoulder. I don’t know why I did it, but he didn’t ask me to move, so there I stayed. We flipped together through old photos of the group, taken mostly back in college, long before I had come along. When that became unbearable, I got up and left him to it.
I made one final attempt to chat up another of his close guy friends, a squat beefy guy in a hockey jersey, the third groomsman. I never learned his name but the tattoo on his exposed bicep said Born 2 Irish. I tried to rib him about that (“Were you born with an overabundance of Irishness, or did God put you on this earth specifically so that you could Irish?”). He just blinked at me. Finally I gave up and excused myself to get another beer.
Pretty soon Martha was passing around another joint, wrapped as thick as a mummy’s toe. By the time it came to me there was Cheeto dust on it. I took a hit and barely felt it. For an hour or two after that, I was sitting on the floor leaning against the back of the sofa: my legs stretched out in front of me, knees bent at odd asymmetric angles, eyes fixed on a particular spot on the far wall. Finally I got up―slowly, as if elevated by crane―and went to the little kitchen. There was instant coffee and a sole surviving mug but, I lamented, not even a nip of Bailey’s or Kahlúa left for spiking. There were very few people left in the apartment by then.
Some of the guys, Randall and Born 2 Irish and a couple others, got pretty belligerent in the last hour of darkness. I guess it started with a friendly tussle; they were wrestling and throwing each other around, tipping furniture over, knocking things down. Someone got hit in the face with a chair, and things progressed to a full-blown freakout.
There wasn’t much to break, really. The dishes were pulled one by one from the shelves and dashed against the wall, ashtrays shaken out over the floor before being hurled at the fleeing cats. They pushed the bookshelf over and jumped on it. They carried this destruction out mechanically, silently, as if there were neither malice or thought attached to the process and they were merely doing what was expected of them. The grapes were spilled across the floor, squashed underfoot. Those still awake were too zonked out to intervene.
I took my coffee and followed everyone else up to the roof, fleeing the apartment’s destruction like a rising waterline. It was just before dawn and the sky was a curtain of lilac. It had gotten really cold. For a while we all just huddled around, shaking. Naomi had changed again, into fresh jade scrubs. There was a rheumy glint in her eyes. I thought she looked more beautiful now than she had in her wedding dress.
People began talking carpools, shared taxi routes, coffee shops. We all had to be somewhere within the next couple of hours. Naomi and I were due at the hospital at six.
“Jesus,” Natasha was stomping, blowing on her hands. “Did you see someone pulled out the toilet seat in the bathroom?”
“Hey, you guys didn’t get your first couple’s dance, did you?” Sean brought his phone speakers out. We gathered around as Miles Davis began to play hot, breathy jazz. The bride and groom leaned into each other and began to rock gently.
When I finally left, Paul and Naomi were still up there on the roof, slow dancing in each other’s arms as the last of the guests watched. Naomi’s face was turned up towards the sunrise and she looked as though she couldn’t quite reconcile all of the colors in the sky.
Isaiah Pittman lives in New York City and works for the New York Public Library. He is currently working on a collection of horror stories set in NYC. He holds a BA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and an MLS from Queens College. His fiction has previously been published in Jakob’s Horror Box.
William Fillmore was raised in Fullerton, California. He has had the great fortune to profess his passion for the studio arts for the last nine years as a professor of visual art at colleges and universities, from California, Indiana, North Carolina, and Upstate New York. William’s sculptural works features the pain and beauty found in memories both forgotten and the discarded. Each of William’s pieces stands as a grotesque surrealistic testament to the indelible sting of nostalgia and regret.