Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow, 2016). Her work has appeared in The Big Click, The Stoneslide Corrective, The Collapsar, The Strand and PANK. She makes all her own notebooks and live-tweets her record collection every #RecordSaturday.
The room was spinning the night Lennox asked me to marry him. It wasn't much of a proposal; no ring, no question mark, just a declaration, we should get married as we were sprawled out on the floor of his teenage bedroom. We could hear his sister's TV through the left hand wall, just a few feet and a coat of paint, a few cheap timbers and a slab of sheetrock from where we lay sprawled on scratchy green carpeting, an empty bottle of pinot tipped on it's side, the last red sticky remnants in two mismatched tumblers on a desk cluttered with high school awards and old birthday cards.
Married? In the moment, I forgot how to speak. This was not us.
"We can go tonight," he breathed, his lips warm against my neck. "To Vegas. We can leave before dawn; we'll be there in three days."
"This is the only dress I packed," I said. "I can't get married in black."
We hadn't started drinking until after the funeral. While aunts and cousins and friends poured glass after glass of boxed chardonnay, the two of us sat stone-sober on the couch, staring at the blank TV, not touching, barely acknowledging each other. I tried to take his hand, but he shrank away as though I wore razor blades on my fingernails. The collective weeping eventually turned to toasts in Xander's memory, but Lennox offered no stories, no recollections, nothing except the occasional murmured thanks when someone said they were so sorry to hear of his brother's sudden passing.
Xander was on his way back to his office from lunch when he got mowed down in the crosswalk by a drunk girl in an SUV. It was her 21st birthday; she'd been drinking since breakfast. The YOLO ink was fresh on her wrist. You Only Live Once.
We waited until the casserole pans were in the dishwasher and his family was asleep before we got a bottle of ten-dollar pinot out of the pantry and retreated to his bedroom. We were two glasses in when he kissed me, his lips warm and sweet. His tears wet my cheeks as he held my face close to his. "Please," was all he said. "Please."
I don't know what he was asking for, but whatever he wanted, it was his, just so he'd feel something other than sorrow for a solitary minute. His gasping mouth moved down my neck, across the tops of my breasts. "Take off that dress," he demanded. "If I see one more piece of black clothing, I'm going to scream."
I obeyed. I unbuttoned his black shirt and he spread me out on his carpet, pressed tight against his own seams. He slid his hand between my legs, twisting his wrist and parting my thighs.
"We'll need champagne for the wedding," I whispered. "I think your parents have a bottle in the freezer."
He loomed over me, eclipsing the lamplight. "I hate champagne," he murmured against my mouth.
Lennox was gone when I woke up. I had awkward hangover brunch with his family, piles of bagels and fruit trays left over from yesterday's reception, no one saying anything as the TV played a game show nobody watched. His mother handed me a pink towel to shower with. By the time I got in, the water was cold.
When Lennox did come back, he said nothing about last night's proposal and when I asked where he'd been he refused to answer. Secretly I hoped he'd been out buying a ring, but when I checked his GPS, all I got was a residential address on a street I'd never heard of.
For three weeks after the funeral, Lennox slept in my bed, his back to me, arms drawn up tight against his chest. I tried to put my arms around him, but he shrugged me off, even in his sleep. In the morning he'd get up, sometimes before I was awake, and sneak back into his apartment before his roommate could ask where he was.
His pain was real. Not the imaginary ennui every 20-something lugs around like a brass-fitted suitcase. The long, late nights we used to stay up drinking cheap red wine and waxing poetic about life's bullshit bitterness fell short and silent. It was all so fucking pointless to bitch about a tough customer or a lousy tip when his brother was nothing but dust.
With the trial six months out, Lennox took to Facebook-stalking the girl who killed his brother. I'd never known a halfway-decent Danielle and this one was no exception. She'd gotten herself one hell of a lawyer; she linked articles about her arrest with the same tags as photos of the Bloody Marys she drank at brunch. #YOLO. #FreeShots. #Druuunk.
For awhile, I worried he would do something rash, some excuse for vigilante justice. So I went with him when he followed her to the clubs, chewing ice and watching from the corner while everyone else's lives went on. Lennox saw a room full of people who knew no sorrow. I saw a room full of regret for not having anything but a life to live.
When sleep and rage and quiet had stopped working, Lennox turned to sex. These were the stages of his grief: sleep, silence, rage, fuck, move on. One night, he didn't show up at my apartment, then another, then a third. And when I finally crossed town and knocked on his door, a girl answered in a sparkly top so it tight it made her look like she was tied for baking. I lost all my nerve, sputtered his name, took two steps back in case I had to flee. And when he appeared with another dip-dye blonde dangling off his arm, eyes glassy and a drink heavy in his hand, all I could do was stand there like he'd kicked my insides out all over the battered straw doormat the last tenant left behind.
A stronger woman would have deleted his number. A tougher girl might have belted out a few rough-day songs with the windows rolled down and found a better man to take his place. But maybe I wasn't as strong or tough a girl as I'd always pretended to be.
Then one day, Lennox showed up with a ring. "Atlantic City," he said. "It's not Vegas, but it's only a few hours drive."
My chest hurt like someone had replaced my heart with a chunk of ice. This wasn't how I wanted it. This wasn't how I wanted anything. But I couldn't say no, couldn't close the door and turn off my phone, not when he needed that yes. We could annul it later; I could get a white dress for another boy. "What should I wear?" I whispered.
"Wear red," he said. "I want to see you in red. I want to see life, darling, for once in these awful dark days."
I packed my overnight bag. I picked out a tight red dress and black pin-up heels. He seemed almost happy as we drove, but his chatter made me more uneasy than his silence. I raged with love for him. Nothing about this was right; nothing made sense except that he was there beside me.
He'd booked us the honeymoon suite with the heart-shaped bed. We drank the champagne they left in the ice bucket on the dresser. He loosened his tie and kept watching the casino floor while I wondered if I could pull the trigger on this shotgun mess of ours. But when the fifty-dollar officiate asked me if I took him as my husband, I affirmed without hesitation.
And then over dinner, there was Danielle in a black and white striped tube dress, mouth wet and open in that permanent alcoholic laugh. She was there with the two girls from his apartment and a gaggle of other giggling bimbos, and it all just made too much goddamn sense.
"You didn't want to marry me," I spat. My heart would not be the first one found bloody and yanked from my chest on the worn wide patterns of the casino carpets. It might not even be the first one tonight. "You just wanted to stalk her like you've been doing for two months."
I tried to walk away, but Lennox gripped my wrist and pulled me back so hard it hurt. "I need you," he pleaded. "We can sort out everything else later, but right now, I need you. Only you. Like I've always needed you."
"Then you have to tell me what's going on," I said. My fingers went to pins but I didn't free myself. "You disappear for days and show up with a pawn-shop diamond and some vague promise, drive me down here and for what? So you can keep following this girl? So you can finally fuck her like you've fucked all her friends? Is that it, Lennox? Because you don't need me around for that. I won't be humiliated; I won't watch you do this to yourself. Find some other girl to watch you self-destruct. It can't be me. Not anymore."
"There can't be any other girl," he said. "You're the only one I can trust."
"Trust to do what?"
He side-eyed Danielle. "To back up my alibi," he said. "To keep a secret."
That was the plan. I was the pick-up, buy her another drink, separate her from her friends, get her in the car. He'd be at the wheel; we'd drive her out to the sticks and kill her there. He didn't say how, whether he'd bought a gun or filched Xander's old baseball bat from the garage or was planning to squeeze the life out of her with his bare hands. He didn't trust the court system that let her fuck around free until trial. He didn't believe his brother would have justice any other way.
It couldn't have gone easier if it was scripted. A neon margarita, the lurid unspoken promise of a good time, FOMO. Her whole life was fucking acronyms. If she recognized Lennox when we got in the car, she didn't say anything.
She chattered like we were long-lost friends for the first few minutes. I asked to borrow her phone, her lipgloss, her microscopic purse. She gave it willingly; we were BFFs now, after all. But somewhere in her tequila-soaked skull she started to realize that we were getting further and further away from the fun we promised. Then she got quiet.
And when we were fifty miles from any sort of scene, Lennox slammed on the brakes so hard I heard gravel bounce off the door. Danielle was sobbing, blubbering pleas that we might spare her wasteful, ugly life. He vanished out the front door and threw open the back, yanking her out into the road. She fell onto her hands and knees, tears and vomit. He hauled her to standing and shoved her towards the hood of the car.
"Start walking," he said.
"Please," she said. "Please don't do this."
He ignored her and got back in the car. He gunned the engine. Her tears caught the headlights like dangling crystals in a trailer-park window. I gripped the dash, closing my eyes. If I didn't see anything, ignored what was about to happen, maybe I couldn't be used as a witness.
But there was no thud, no splatter of blood on the windshield. I saw her grow small and distant in the side mirror, stand like a doe on shaking legs, stumbling for the bushes. In those heels, it would take her blistered hours to walk back to town. Lennox kept driving like nothing had happened. I rolled down the window and threw her bag out into the marshlands. No one would find it there.
After what seemed like hours, days, weeks of driving, he pulled over and killed the engine, gripped the wheel and hung his head. We sat in a cold silence until he started to sob in violent, choking gasps. There was blood on my mouth from chewing through my lipstick. I kissed him anyway. He needed to taste the terrible ache and anger that consumed the whole of my love for him.
And when he was too weak to hold himself up, he sprawled across the seat and put his head in my lap. I stroked his cheek and stared out the window. "Why?" he finally eked out in a voice like a hairless kitten. "Why did you follow me through all of this?"
There were a thousand answers. Love, duty, honor, fear. But there was only one I could give him, only one that might ring true. "Because," I said, looking down into his damp, tired eyes. "I'm your wife."
Copyright © 2016 Libby Cudmore.