“I don’t think I can do it tonight,” Anne says with a sigh. She kicks off her sandals and flops onto the cool leather couch.
“We have to! It’s our anniversary,” Brad insists, though they both know it’s the wine talking and deep down his heart isn’t in it either.
“It’s painful. You’ve said so yourself,” she reminds him, yawning.
“Just try. C’mon, give it a few minutes. We can always stop.”
“Fine, but if you fall asleep, I’m leaving you here.”
“Deal,” he says, and walks toward the cabinet.
Between the Playstation games and workout DVDs no one has used in a decade, he spots it: their wedding video, shot twenty years ago. He blows dust from its cover, pops the disc in the DVD player, and gathers a bouquet of remotes, hoping one will bring the memory to life.
After much grumbling and button-pushing, the black screen slowly changes and an ice swan sculpture swims into focus.
“Ha!” Brad says triumphantly and falls into the other side of sectional, its leather squeaking and groaning beneath him.
“Kids! C’mon down!” he barks over his shoulder, though nothing short of an airhorn could penetrate the headphones his children are perennially wearing. Engrossed in their gadgets, games, and the all-consuming fever of social media, their father’s voice does not exist unless he is taking their orders for fast food.
Still, Anne and Brad, resting in their usual “L” formation on the couch, wait an optimistic moment, listening for the thud of teenagers on the stairs. Only Molly, their daughter, floats into the room.
“Oh God, this? Again?” She falls to the floor in a dramatic display of mock disgust before sitting up with her back against the couch. Anne runs her fingers through her daughter’s hair. If she weren’t so tired, she’d attempt to French braid it the way Molly loved when she was little.
“It’s what we do. It’s tradition. Besides, don’t you want to see your parents young and in loooove?” Brad hopes to elicit a laugh but all his daughter says is “gross.”
The screen fills with flowers, a centerpiece blooming with pink tea roses. Though she should remember what comes next, Anne catches her breath as the camera pans from the bounty of the buffet table to her parents. Heads bent toward each other, they’re arguing over the proper way to eat shrimp cocktail in public. Her mother looks up first, notices the videographer, and elbows Anne’s father, who plucks a tail from between his teeth and hides it behind his back. Mistaking video for still photography, they quickly compose themselves, arranging their faces in forced smiles, and then go back to fighting over a seafood fork.
In the twelve months since Anne last watched the video, she has buried them both. In this moment, as tears slip down her cheeks, she smiles, in love with their eccentricities.
Molly reaches up to hold her mother’s hand. “Grams and Poppy,” she whispers. “They look so good!”
Brad glances over. “Want me to shut it off?” he asks.
“No, it’s fine,” Anne says. “I’m good. It’s nice to see them like that.”
The screen flashes to her cousin Peg. Swollen, with purple half-moons hanging beneath her eyes, she waves at the camera and mouths “congratulations.”
“Why does she look so awful?” Molly gasps.
“She’d given birth a few weeks before,” Anne says. “I’m sure she regretted accepting our invitation.”
Anne remembers how Peg had asked to be taken somewhere so she could pump her breastmilk in private. Anne had whisked her to the room that was reserved for the newlyweds and their attendants, a pitstop she’d intended to make anyway to touch up her lipstick.
“You look amazing,” Peg had said. “It’s hard not to hate you.”
“You look great too!” Anne had lied. “I can’t believe you’re a mom now. I’m dying to meet baby Emily!”
“Let me give you some advice: Wait as long as you can before having kids. They gutted me, Anne. The doctors — they filleted me like I was a goddamn mackerel. That’s what Paul said. He saw everything. I’ll never be the same again. Never.”
Set against the backdrop of the room’s floral wallpaper, that image, mixed with the champagne Anne had consumed an empty stomach, made her head spin. She side-stepped out of the room with a lame, “I think I hear Brad calling me!” Then made it worse by adding, “Hang in there!”
She’s ashamed now when she recalls her lack of sympathy, especially when she thinks about how much harder Peg’s life has gotten since that day.
The wine at dinner has erased her mom-filter and she says, “Emily —the baby she had — she’s in rehab now. Got addicted to painkillers after a lacrosse injury. So sad. I saw Peg asking for prayers on Facebook.”
“How old is she?”
“Moll, I just told you she was born a few weeks before our wedding and it’s our twentieth anniversary, so how old do you think she is?”
“Mom, stop! You know I don’t do math in the summer.”
The video jumps to the ballroom where Nick, the best man, is holding the microphone in one hand and a champagne flute in the other. Anne looks over at Brad now. As expected, his head his bobbing toward his chest as he fights to stay awake. She nudges him with her foot. He startles and reaches for the remote. Rambling and embarrassing, the toast goes on for an excruciating ten minutes so they always fast forward through it.
The next part is worse. Brad’s college roommate Phil, swaying like he’s on a bow of a ship, takes the mic but is so drunk all he can muster is a sloppy “I love you guys.” He drank himself to death last year in a tiny apartment after a painful divorce.
“How could we not have stopped him?” Anne whispers.
“I don’t think anyone could’ve,” Brad says, fast forwarding again until he and Anne are cutting the cake.
“That cake was supposed to have cannoli filling,” Anne says. “We were three days into our honeymoon when I realized they’d served us—”
“Lemon custard, we know. You tell that story every year,” Molly says. “Tommy and I picked up cannolis. It was supposed to be a surprise. Want one?”
“Not yet, hon. I’m still stuffed. But thank you.”
The traditional gift for a twentieth anniversary is china. Anne looked it up. Not needing any additional housewares, she and Brad went to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet and Anne is so full from fried dumplings, pork with lichee, and lo mein noodles that she had to unbutton her pants on the drive home.
The camera spins to the dance floor. The band is doing a decent rendition of a Frank Sinatra song as a handsome man with chiseled features and deep-set eyes twirls the woman who will become his wife and then his ex-wife.
“When you were little that man robbed a bank,” Anne tells her daughter.
“What? Why?” Molly asks.
“It was crazy. He was such a great guy, but people said he had a gambling problem. I don’t know, I guess he couldn’t borrow any more money from his family or friends.”
“What happened to him?”
“He ran off with less than two thousand dollars. He wasn’t even wearing a mask, so the police caught him the next day. He was on a fishing boat off the coast of one of the Carolinas.” Anne hiccups. “And then he went to jail.”
“That’s messed up.”
“I know. I still feel badly. I think Dad wrote to him once. We should’ve visited, but what do you say?” Anne stares at the screen. “This is more like a Quentin Tarantino movie than a wedding video.”
Because her husband is asleep and her daughter has no idea what she means, Anne is basically talking to herself when her father-in-law dances into view. He’s doing the YMCA to the Electric Slide despite the fact that she told the band to play neither. Last month, they moved him into the memory unit of the assisted care facility that is gulping down the money he saved so carefully for decades.
“I’m getting a cannoli. Want one now?” Molly asks.
Anne shakes her head “no.” The video is coming to an end. They never usually get this far, past the part where Anne tosses the bouquet and Brad’s friends attempt to breakdance.
She looks over at her husband, ready to ask if he’s heard anything from the guy who’s windmilling and accidentally mooning their relatives but Brad is snoring. Anne is about to reach for the remote to turn off the video when suddenly he’s there, that familiar face, standing just beyond the dance floor.
“Who’s that guy?” Molly asks, licking her fingers.
“Who?” Anne knows who she means but wants to hear her daughter describe him.
“There! That guy! Ginger, scruffy beard, in the blue suit holding a beer. He looks kinda like Prince Harry, but sad. Who is he?”
Anne is relieved Molly hasn’t turned around to look at her because she can’t stop smiling.
“James. He was my neighbor when I lived in that condo before Dad and I got married.”
They’d met the day she moved in. He always called her Annie because he’d heard her dad say it and thought everyone called her that.
“Annie! Get the door for this guy! He can’t hold a couch and turn a doorknob. He’s a moving man not an octopus,” her father had barked.
She’d accepted her dad’s offer to help because Brad was in Vegas attending yet another bachelor party. But his micromanaging made her wish she’d handled the move by herself.
James, who lived next door, was on his way out but stopped when he saw that Anne’s hands were full.
“I got this.” He smiled, tucked the newspaper he was carrying under his arm, and opened the door. “I actually am part octopus.”
He extended his hand to Anne. “James, by the way. Nice to meet you, Annie.” He looked down at the milk crate she’d set on the top step, her worn copy of High Fidelity poking out. “Great book,” he said. “Someone needs to turn it into a movie.”
Anne, who’d been dating Brad for a couple of years, experienced that momentary pang of longing for something she couldn’t have.
“You’re paying these fellas by the hour, Annie!” her father called, gesturing toward the movers who were approaching with her mattress. “Meet the neighbors later!”
“Yeah, Annie, meet me later,” James said with a smile and disappeared around the corner.
After that, they’d see each other coming and going. He traveled frequently for work and she’d collect his mail, water his plants. Sometimes she’d sit inside his living room, where a guitar stood in the corner near his mountain bike which leaned against a wall beneath endless shelves of books, CDs, and framed photos of people she’d probably never meet.
It felt so different, so adult compared to Brad’s place, which he shared with roommates who were still in perpetual party mode, like some kind of extended play college remix that showed no sign of ending.
When James returned from his trips, he’d bring her things — nice bottles of wine and silly souvenir fridge magnets — to thank her for keeping his ficus and fiddle leaf fig alive. When he was home, they’d play Scrabble together at the picnic table in the open courtyard inhaling the scent of fabric softener wafting out of vents from the nearby laundry room. Perhaps it was because he called her Annie, but he seemed familiar, as if he’d always been a part of her life, like home.
Early on, he’d started to ask, “Would you ever want to go—”
“I have a boyfriend,” she’d blurted, hoping to diffuse any potential awkwardness. “We’ve been together a couple of years. I’m not really sure where it’s going, but…yeah,” making things momentarily much more awkward.
One night months later after James had been away for a few weeks, he showed up at her door, sunflowers in hand.
“These are from my plants, with gratitude,” he’d said.
“My favorite!” she’d said, waving him inside with her right hand. The ring, still so new, felt suddenly impossibly heavy on her finger.
He’d followed her into the kitchen and when she reached for the scissors to cut the stems she heard the sharp intake of air that told her he’d seen it.
“So, that’s new,” he’d said, nodding toward her left hand, which she’d gladly have stuck down the garbage disposal if it spared them this conversation.
She couldn’t tell if it was the rosy light of the September sunset coming through the window or if his cheeks were flushed, but she found it impossible to meet his eyes.
“Yup, just got it,” she’d said, hacking away at the stems.
“So, how did he do it?” James had asked. “Got a great, romantic story?”
“Nope, we were watching TV and during a commercial break he just sort of asked.”
James had stood there, blank faced, as if she were joking.
Able to read his mind, she’d continued, “Brad’s a great guy. I mean he’s not always super-creative, but he’s kind, and he’s got a ton of friends. We’ve been together for almost three years.”
James had nodded again, which led her to say the dumbest thing of all which was, “Dogs love him.”
The intimacy, the honesty of it, embarrassed her yet she forced herself to not break eye contact again.
“I do,” she’d said.
“Well, then, all the best,” he said looking down at the stems she swept into the trash.
On a June evening, two weeks before the wedding, Anne answered the door. James stood on the step, silvery sheets of rain billowing behind him.
“Don’t marry him, Annie.” His whisper, so fierce and pleading, made her wonder if she’d heard him correctly.
“Hey, man, get in here!” Brad bellowed from behind her. “We’re making nachos and getting ready to watch the Stanley Cup finals. Want a beer?”
Big, friendly Brad, lovable St. Bernard of a man, insisted James join them, and James, too stunned to refuse, wandered inside dripping.
Before they knew it, Brad was squeezing a lime into the Corona he forced into James’ hand, asking, “So, who are you bringing to the wedding?”
“I’ll be coming alone,” James said.
“No girlfriend? Nobody? Gotta know someone, right?” Brad, a salesman, never stopped pushing.
“There was this one, but she had a boyfriend. I didn’t think it was very serious. But I guess it was. It is. I was playing the long game. I lost.”
“That sucks, man. But listen, Anne’s got lots of friends, cousins. We’ll hook you up!”
When Anne thinks about it now, her face turns fuchsia. Twenty years later, she still wonders if she imagined it all. He’d left for London the following day. As she’d watered his plants, she looked everywhere for a note, a letter, something that confirmed what she thought she’d heard. She spent the next two weeks waiting for a call, even a postcard, that never came.
Could he have expected her to blow up her life for him? Someone she’d never even kissed? And yet there was a feeling, an undeniable one, of recognition, connection. That was the only way she could describe it, an “I see you” sensation that she hadn’t experienced before or again.
If she’d married him, would they be hiking at the Great Wall right now? Admiring giant pandas? Eating Peking duck in Beijing?
The last communication they’d had was the note she’d mailed thanking him for their wedding gift. She has looked him up on Facebook but the person she thinks is James has a lake for a profile pic and she hasn’t sent a friend request. She isn’t afraid something will happen now, she’s scared to look at what might have been.
Still, she likes knowing that he is out there, that if she stops and blocks out all the noise of her present day life she can be transported back to that evening when the sky opened, rain poured down, the air hung thick with the scent of spring, and everything had the potential to work out differently.
She thinks about their wedding guests, all the people in the video whose lives didn’t turn out as they’d planned. It feels wrong to have something perfectly fine and still wonder if you’d missed out on something amazing.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” her mother used to say, and so Anne has grown accustomed to swallowing the desire for more.
As the screen fades to black, Brad awakens at the sound of his own snoring.
“What did I miss?” he asks.
“We actually made it to the end,” Anne says.
“See, I knew we could do it.” Brad smiles. “Who wants a cannoli?”
“I do,” Anne says.
Liz Alterman is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, and more. Her young adult thriller, He’ll Be Waiting, will be published in 2021. Her Twitter is here. Her website is here.