“I’m so bloated,” I moan. “Look at how my stomach is poking out!” I frown at my reflection in the mirror as my mom zips me into my dress and pats my non-existent hips. Meanwhile, the chocolate diamond-studded gold mermaid dress she wears perfectly hugs her, making her look twenty years younger that her actual age, and making me wonder who was really getting married.
“Well, honey, if you had just let Marinette adjust it for you–”
“So I can look like I’m dressed in a tent on my one-year anniversary?”
“Oh, honey, wedding dresses get smaller as the years go on, not bigger.”
Easy for her to say, she shrinks with age too. If I had been in my right mind at the fitting—not hungover, thinking about the morning with Mitchell, and the night before—I probably would have said no to the idea of her buying a new dress. Not to say that the first dress wasn’t hideous, that ruffled tail attached to her behind made no sense whatsoever, but it was appropriate for a mother-of-the-bride. Now I feel like I’m being one-upped by my own mother. Even her boobs look bigger than mine!
Still barefoot, while I am in my three-inches to keep from tripping over the front of my dress as I walk about the choir room that we’ve temporarily converted into a changing room, she curls her fingers around the back of my neck and pulls me down level with her eyes. With her other hand, she twirls one of my ringlet curls—courtesy of Renee’s longtime stylist, who also did my make up earlier that afternoon—around her index finger, tucks it behind my ear, then lightly pulls part of it out to loop down the side of my cheek and shape my face.
“Maybe you should have checked your menstrual calendar before setting this date, hmm?” she says smirking.
“I thought I did!”
We both laugh, because we know how ridiculous we sound, how much I’m overreacting. Mitchell has loved me drunk. He’s loved me sober. Even through our moments of shame and unworthiness, we have stuck it through for each other. And while last night didn’t end they way I wanted it to—only a kiss on the hand and a see you at the altar—I know Mitchell would do anything for me.
He’s the very embodiment of Christ’s love. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church an gave himself up for her,” Scripture says. And I have no doubt that Mitchell would lay down his life for me, that he would sacrifice anything to make sure that I am the best reflection of his love and God’s. And after tonight, when we are united in holy matrimony, nothing will ever separate us. As with the love of Christ, I’m convinced neither death nor life, angels nor demons, present nor future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth.
And certainly not a dumb period.
“This is just great! Of all the days to be late!” Renee stomps down the raised platform of the choir stand, blows past us, and flops with a huff on the stool pulled from underneath the piano that has been pushed against the wall, along with all the other instruments and furniture to make room for the dresses, shoes, curling irons, make-up kits, and everything else spread out all over the room. For it to be just the three of us, we’ve created quite a sty. And here I thought the choir room would be too big.
Renee plants both elbows on the black and white keys of the piano with a harsh, crashing chord never to be played again, and groans even louder.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, though I’m nervous to hear her answer. If it’s anything but, “Mitchell is waiting patiently for you at the altar,” I’d rather tune her out. I have enough on my mind already.
“My husband,” she starts, and I breathe sigh of relief. Bryan doing something crazy to give Renee a panic attack? That’s nothing new. But then she continues. “And your groom. They’re missing.”
“What!” Now it’s my turn to freak, but my too-tight dress stiffens my movements. I feel like I’m going to pop. I reach behind me, clawing for my zipper. My arms are suddenly too short, like a T-Rex. “Help me,” I say to my mom. I need to breathe, I need to scream, I need to change my freaking tampon!
My mom puts my spirited hands at my side and tells me to inhale. She gulps in the air with me, then lets it out. We do it again. And when my heartbeat is back to normal, I ask Renee, “Where are they?”
“I’m sure they’re on their way,” Ma says. “Probably just stuck in traffic.”
“The wedding is in twenty minutes!”
Renee stands and starts to pace. She comes back to the piano and drums her fingers on the polished wood of the lid, which is almost level with her shoulders. “Apparently, Mitchell had to make stop first. It couldn’t wait.”
“What is so important?”
She shrugs. “I don’t know, but if this is some kind of bachelor party crap Bryan is trying to pull, I’m going to kill him.”
“Not if I kill him first,” I say, especially since Mitchell and I had an agreement— no bachelor or bachelorette parties.
“Ok, ok. Let’s try to real in our emotions. No death threats on your wedding day,” Ma pleads. She guides me to a chair not covered in clothes, garment bags, or foundation bottles, and again urges me to breathe, as if we’re practicing for labor pains. This wedding will be a pain if Mitchell and Bryan don’t show up soon.
Meanwhile, Renee is still pacing about the room. She looks up, spins around, as if noticing something else amiss. “Has anyone talked to Rita!”
“No need to send out a search party.”
Talk about speaking someone into existence. Rita stands in the doorway leading out into the hall. She wears only a pair of jeans and a fleece jacket, and waves awkwardly as Renee and I rush to her, dragging her inside.
No one has seen her since she left Renee and Bryan’s last night, and Renee unfortunately had to take poor Hank home when it became very obvious that Rita wasn’t coming back. It bothered Mitchell the most, her leaving, because she left believing a lie, that Mitchell and I had been celibate this whole time. It should have bothered me too. It did, eventually, when he dropped me off at my apartment, not wanting to come inside to tempt fate again. And I was left alone to my thoughts, and the conviction brought on by the Holy Spirit of everything I’ve done wrong that I’ve tried to convince myself is right and good, and not for my own selfish pleasures.
But how do I tell her that? So I look down at the box she’s holding, wrapped in red paper and tied with a golden bow. “What’s that?”
“Oh,” she says, as if she’s just noticing it. She hands it to me. “It’s for you. Actually, for Mitchell. Call it a Christmas present, wedding present, whatever. I saw it in the store and thought of him.”
“You thought of him?” Renee says. Repeating it doesn’t make it sound any more believable to either of us.
Then Rita takes the gift back, puts it down and grabs both my and Renee’s hands. “Guys,” she says, her voice low, in an excited whisper, “I got saved.”
We stare for several minutes, trying to comprehend what she’s just said, if we heard it correctly, what exactly it means, did she know what she was saying.
Finally Renee breaks the silence, her facial expression slowly morphing to elation until she’s through the roof. “Oh. My. God– Praise Him!” she shouts to the high heavens and pulls Rita in for a bear hug, nearly strangling her as she hooks her boney arm around Rita’s neck. “I knew that fast would work!”
“Congratulations,” Ma says, resting her hand on Rita’s back, her lips curled into a distant, gratified smile, as if she’s looked into the future and has seen how much Rita’s life will change for the better and is now content. Since college, she’s been like a surrogate for Rita, especially since her real mother lives so far away, and to this day none of us have ever met her. But today, a mother is proud. She’s been praying for Rita, for just as long as I have.
And yet, here I am, my jaw still hanging when I say, “How? When?”
“Here. Last night.” She reaches up to hug me. I’m still in shock. What could have changed in that time after she left the party last night? And is it guilt I feel that her salvation may have something to do with her false memory of my and Mitchell’s first night together? But then, who am I to judge the power of God? Only He knows just what Rita needs to turn her life around, right? If He could use a talking donkey, nothing should come as a surprise.
Still, I’m lost for words. In my heels, I’m nearly half a foot taller than Rita. I kick them off, wrap my arms around her waist and hold her tighter. Renee drapes her arm over both of us. Rita’s joy is contagious. Her wide grin making a mold into my bare shoulders as she clings to me, beings to cry. For the sake of my make-up, I tilt my head back to hold the tears.
If anyone could steal the thunder from my wedding day– But it reminds me what and who is truly important on this Christmas. “I love you,” I say, to Rita, to Renee, to my mom, to God, and I thank each of them, my heart pounding in my chest—but there’s something else I need to do.
“Good, you’re both here.”
The tears in my eyes blur my vision, but I don’t have to see him to recognize his voice.
Either he’s interrupted a private moment, or he’s come just in time. Either way, he’ll take the risk, but Renee looks like she could murder a cat. Eyes bulging, cheeks inflated—if she were a cartoon, steam would be coming out of her ears.
“Mitchell! Don’t you know it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.”
Mitchell rolls his eyes at her. She of all people should know they don’t believe in luck, only the favor of God, and God’s favor comes by being obedient to Him. Nonsensical wedding traditions and superstitions go out the window; there was something more important he needed to do before walking down that aisle.
“Renee, do you mind if I talk to Tash and Rita for a minute? Alone?”
As if wanting to make sure she’s the only Rita in the room, Rita points to herself, “Me? What would you have to talk to me about?”
Mitchell doesn’t answer, keeps his eyes on Renee. “Please?”
Renee throws her hands in the air. “Oh, alright,” she says.
Natasha’s mom follows her out into the hall. She looks dressed for the red carpet instead of her daughter’s wedding. Mitchell mouths, “Sorry,” as she passes. She shakes her head.
“Make it quick. We have a wedding to attend.” She winks, squeezes his arm, then shuts the door behind her.
Both Rita and Natasha wait for Mitchell to speak. He’s silent for a moment, noticing the amplified acoustics of the mass choir room, how he can hear the echo of his own breathing, his heart beating through his tux. Even with the three of them standing there, amongst the instruments, the folded metal chairs, the clothes and shoes spread about—too much for four women, and Rita looks like she’s only just arrived—the room feels empty. The silence strips the room bare, just as this secret, he feels, will do to him.
But he who covers his sin will not prosper, so Mitchell closes his eyes and repeats the word God gave him to say the night before. “Rita, I need you to forgive me.”
“For what?” There’s a hint of a laugh in her voice, which surprises him. He looks up, but still ashamed to meet her eyes, lowers his gaze to her feet instead, sees the rectangular gift box on the floor. Rita bends over and scoops it up. “Here,” she says. “For you.”
He shakes his head. “I can’t take this.”
“Please, I insist.” She shoves the gift into his gut, but he blocks it with is hand, pushes it back to her.
“Rita, I’m not the man you think I am.”
“What does that mean?” Her tone changes. She puts a fist on her hip, shifts her weight to one leg, lowers her head waiting for clarity.
Before Mitchell can answer, Natasha steps in. “Rita, we have a confession to make.”
“It’s about last night,” Mitchell interrupts, finding his voice again. “Before you left. When you were saying how you admired me for not taking advantage of Natasha while she was intoxicated.”
Natasha slips her hand into Mitchell’s. With a squint of the eyes and a nod, she tells him all he needs. This is something they have to do together, how they will start their marriage off right. They interlock fingers and he holds tightly to her hand until the whites in his knuckles show, siphoning her strength, her resolve, so grateful that he doesn’t have to admit to his short comings alone. She truly was created to be a helpmeet just for him, his better half, and he thanks God for her.
“The truth is,” Natasha says, “that night didn’t end the way you think it did.”
“Oh my god.”
Mitchell winces, prepares for a barrage of curses, or worse. He waits for the insults. Rita’s never held back on him before, never sugarcoated her disdain toward him. He expects nothing less now. He holds Natasha even tighter. But Rita only laughs, and again he has to open his eyes to be sure he’s not imagining it.
“Oh my god,” she repeats, grinning from ear to ear. “You guys are too cute.”
Mitchell frowns in confusion. He almost wants to ask what’s wrong with her. This friendlier, happier Rita is something he’s never experienced, not even on the first night he met her. He’s not sure if he should welcome it, or be afraid.
“I know you two had sex.”
“You know?” Mitchell and Natasha say in unison.
Rita scoffs. “Is that really a surprise? I know the after sex look better than anybody.” She smiles, opens her arms, and Natasha lets go of his hand, now hugging and laughing with Rita again, as they were when Mitchell first entered the room. But he’s still not convinced that all is forgiven.
“So why did you say those things if you already knew?” he says.
Rita exchanges glances between Mitchell and Natasha. She looks down at her present, holding it with both hands, and stretches out her arms to give it to Mitchell. This time he accepts it.
“It wasn’t about you having sex, or not having sex,” Rita says, “but what happened after.” She doesn’t elaborate. She walks out of the room, saying nothing more, closing the door behind her and leaving Mitchell and Natasha by themselves to linger on her words.
“What happened after?” Mitchell asks, more to himself.
“Oh sweetie.” Natasha holds his face in her hands, pulls him down for a light kiss. “I love that you’re so naïve.”
Then it clicks. What happened after, and what is still happening. That he’s about to marry Natasha, a woman who wasn’t just a college fling, or a one night stand, but who quickly became the love of his life, who will soon be the only woman in his life.
There was only one thing keeping that from happening…
As he did eight months ago when he proposed, he holds the tips of her fingers in his hand, like a manicurist evaluating his work. “Natasha,” he says, “do you believe that prayer is the answer to everything? That a family that prays together stays together?”
Mitchell drops to one knee, then lets the other leg go from under him. She looks radiant from down here. The ceiling lights hit the rhinestones outlining the bodice of her dress in a way that they sparkle like diamonds, the color spectrum reflected in her eyes. Angelic. She is his angel. He lifts the hem of her dress and searches underneath through the ruffles and tulle until he finds her legs, smooth like cool porcelain. He cups his hands behind her knees, beckons her down. “Pray with me,” he whispers.
She balances herself on his shoulders, rises on her toes, and his arms trail further up her legs, curl behind her thighs, pick her up, hold her close to him, pull her down to the floor, as her dress billows around them.
They clasp hands, bow their heads until their foreheads touch, and Mitchell begins, “Our Father in heaven…”
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, on this Christmas day, a day when we celebrate the birth of a King, to witness the union of this man and this woman in holy matrimony before God…”
The final chapters of Countdown to 31 Days of Holiday Hooligans