The Brady Bunch
provided a yammering accompaniment as the four of us filled our plates from platters and bowls and dug into our dinners. My parents’ house was very TV-centric.
I hadn’t lived there in a couple of years, which was truly foolish of me. I could’ve saved a lot of money if I’d kept my ass at home while I went to school. But there were just some things more important than money. Like freedom.
“You’re acting weird,” said my little sister. Pam was fifteen and had a waning crush on Bobby Sherman. Aside from that, she was generally tolerable.
“Yeah? Well, I was born this way. What’s your excuse?” Even when Pam was the perfect little bitch, I couldn’t help ribbing her. It was hard to get mad at a teenage girl. They had enough going on in their lives, even if most of it was hormonal and the rest was overdramatized.
Pam made a face at me.
“Don’t start,” my father mumbled around a wad of pot roast.
“Eat your lima beans,” my mother told him.
When he glanced up from his plate, he had the devil in his eye. That’s what my mother called it. Unchecked, the devilish look led to the shit-eating grin.
I loved Pop like crazy.
“You know Ned and me don’t eat lima beans,” he informed my mother for the thousandth time. “They weren’t meant
to be eaten.”
“Then what are they meant for?” she asked, which was a first. Her usual comeback was to tell us they were good for us.
“Since they have the same texture as flannel pellets,” I said, “maybe pillow filler.”
The instigator’s shoulders bounced with quiet laughter as he chewed.
“You guys are sick,” Pam said. She daintily speared a few lima beans and slipped them into her mouth. It was probably a gesture of female bonding.
“Nervous about standing up for Oliver’s wedding tomorrow?” my mother gently asked me.
Just the mention of it made my stomach twist. “Yeah, I guess I am.” I laid down my fork and took a drink of water. “I’ve never done this sort of thing before.”
My father, of course, wasn’t at a loss for words of wisdom. “Ain’t no big deal. The worst of it’s the church crap. One hour, tops. Then you pose for a few snapshots, take a nap, go to the reception, and eat and drink until you puke.”
Pam’s fork hit her plate with a clink
“Oh, Floyd,” my mother said.
Pop glanced at me, and the shit-eating grin erupted. “Unless you’re planning on getting lucky. Then you try to keep the puking at a minimum.”
, that’s enough.”
The old man didn’t need his wife to tell him. He knew it was more than enough. “So what’re you giving them?” Now he was the picture of dinner-table propriety. I swear, the guy could defuse a conflict better than Dag Hammarskjöld.
“A bun warmer,” said my mother. She’d picked out the gift and wrapped it. Until now, I hadn’t a clue what lurked within the silvery blue box that sat on a closet floor beneath my rented tux.
Pop drew his heavy eyebrows together. “A what?”
“What the hell is that?”
My mother and sister stared at him as if he’d just put the rest of his lima beans up his nose. I burst out laughing. For a few minutes, at least, my ratcheting tension had eased.
The phone rang as Pam said to our father, “Daddy, think about it: bun
“It’ll be perfect for their dinner parties,” my mother said defensively as she got up from the table.
The tension crept back. Oliver and Naomi having dinner parties. Damn, why did I have to fall for a guy who was cut out for a life like that?
For marriage, in particular.
I got up too, because I was suddenly too restive to keep sitting at the table. Just as I lifted my plate, my mother called my name. I put the plate down.
She hurried into the dining room, motioning with her hand. “It’s Oliver,” she kind of said, although she exaggeratedly formed the words more than spoke them. She jabbed a finger toward the living room. “He wants to talk to you.”
“Who else would he want to talk to?”
Oliver knew I was staying at my folks’ house tonight, so my mother could feed me in the morning and spruce me up just right for the wedding. I figured his call had something to do with checking on my readiness: making sure I had my tux and that it fit; making sure I had tomorrow’s timetable down pat.
I went to the living room and picked up the receiver. “Don’t worry. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”
not. Ned, would you mind coming to the hotel a little early?” He sounded edgy.
“Like now. I’m already at the Pfister. I told my folks I wanted to spend the night here, that it would help me relax. They think I just want to party more. That isn’t it.”
I frowned. “What is
“Ned, just get your ass down here, okay? I need to talk to someone. You’ll have a place to sleep.”
“All right. I’ll get my stuff together and call a cab.” I never could refuse him anything. Except for that time he wanted me to break into the tampon machine in the girls’ lavatory when we were sophomores in high school. It had something to do with a revenge plot against the football team.
“Thanks, man.” He gave me his room number. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t really need you.”
That sealed it. Oliver needed me. Besides, he’d stood by me plenty of times.
After asking my mother to call a cab, I hustled into my old room and began filling my nearly empty overnight bag with more stuff I thought I might need. All I’d brought from my apartment were a change of clothes, a few personal-grooming aids, and a couple of muscle-man magazines in case I needed to whack off so I could get to sleep. My mother soon appeared and started tossing questions at me. She was very sympathetic when I told her Oliver had a bad case of the jitters. Pretty soon, Pop and Pam were crowded into the doorway with her. All three of them offered advice for the groom. My father related some anecdote. I didn’t absorb any of it.
Suitcase in hand and tux draped over my arm in a garment bag, I waited at the front door.
It wasn’t until the taxi was halfway to the Pfister that I realized I’d left the bun warmer behind.
* * * * *
Oliver’s current room was two floors down from where his bachelor shindig had been held, which was also one of the suites where the wedding party would gather in the morning. The out-of-town guests were staying in the hotel’s 1965 tower addition -- a hideously dissonant piece of architecture that reminded me of a stack of butter cookies or coffee filters -- I couldn’t decide which. Oliver made me identify myself before he opened the door, and then he yanked me inside.
“What’s going on?” I asked as he locked the door at my back. I went to the closet and hung up my tux, then set down my bag. “How come you’re not staying upstairs?” By “upstairs,” I meant one of the two suites already reserved by the Duncans.
Oliver stood with his hands on his hips, stared at the floor, and nibbled at the inside of his cheek. He wore a Hang Ten T-shirt and a matching pair of Adidas shorts, and all I wanted to do was tackle him and drop him onto one of the room’s two double beds.
When he looked up, I noticed the shadows beneath his eyes. He was on his way to being a mess, both physically and mentally, but he was beautiful to me.
“I’m all fucked-up, Ned.”
Oliver’s face contorted, and he suddenly bolted into the bathroom. The sounds of retching were unmistakable.
I sprinted to his aid just as the toilet flushed. Kneeling beside him, I laid one hand on his back and curled the other over his forehead.
“Your hand feels good,” he mumbled to the swirling water. “Cool. Soothing.” After a moment, he sat back on his heels and caught his breath.
Christ, he was a wreck. I got up and wet a washcloth at the sink, then poured a glass of water. When I sat beside Oliver again, he took some water into his mouth, swished it around, and spit it into the toilet. Then he took a drink. I tilted his head toward me and gently swabbed the perspiration from his face. The delicate spears of dark lashes on his lowered eyelids made him look young and vulnerable.
Well, hell, he was
young. We both were. Oliver was twenty-one. I was still twenty.
“That’s like the fourth time I’ve thrown up today,” he said.
“Have you been drinking?” He didn’t smell like it.
“No. Maybe I should start.”
“What’s wrong? Tell me.”
He dolefully shook his head. “Tomorrow -- I’m not up to it.”
“You feel that bad?” Late August was a strange time of year to get the flu, but it was possible. Or maybe he had food poisoning.
“I only feel bad when I think about walking into that church. Just sitting here with you, I feel fine.” Oliver briefly put a hand over mine. His felt clammy. “Thank you for coming.”
“I had to show up sooner or later. I’m your best man.”
I laughed nervously. “What, you’re firing me?”
Oliver’s smile was so wan, it made him look even sicker. He rose from the tiles and shambled out of the bathroom. I followed. When he sat on the edge of one bed, I sat on the edge of the other, facing him.
He kept bending and straightening the fingers of his interlinked hands. “I can’t go through with the wedding. I’m not ready for marriage. It’s not what I want. I feel like...like I’ve been given a death sentence. Like I’m scheduled to be executed in the morning.”
This obviously wasn’t the time to freeze up, so I forced out some words. “Then why did you ask Naomi to marry you? And let the whole thing go this far?”
Oliver dropped his face to his hands. “Jesus, I feel like a schmuck. And an idiot.”
“Oliver? Answer me.”
He finally met my incredulous stare. “It’s expected of me. Just like it was expected of Darryl. So when I started dating Naomi and kept dating her because we got along, she began pushing for it and our families began pushing for it and pretty soon it seemed inevitable, because everybody was counting grandchildren and expecting to gather at our perfect future home for Thanksgiving dinner.”
Oliver’s face suddenly contracted, as if he was on the verge of tears. Then I realized it was helpless, hopeless despair and self-recrimination I was seeing, and for Oliver, such feelings couldn’t be expressed in tears. He was never a crying kind of guy.
“It was like being sucked into that maelstrom in Poe’s story,” he said, his voice rushed, “or the whirlpool of Charybdis. I didn’t know how to say, ‘Wait! Let me go! I don’t even love her. This isn’t what I want.’”
you want?” I asked quietly. My head was spinning like a boat in one of those legendary vortices.
“Remember how we used to talk about hopping a freight train? Just riding off into the unknown, without anybody having a clue where we were?”
Color had risen in Oliver’s face. Scarlet swatches blazed across his high cheekbones. I began to think he was
ill, maybe deliriously so, and I was tempted to check his forehead for fever.
“You want to hop a freight?” I asked, trying to figure out where he was going with this before I overreacted.
When he chuckled, he sounded more like his old self again. “No. I’d probably kill myself. But I do want to get away, disappear for a while. No muss, no fuss, no bother. Once I’m recharged, I can deal with all the fallout when I get back.”
I gaped at him. “You can’t do that! It’s too late to do that!”
“I need to, Ned. Right now, I need that more than I can say. I have a lot of things to figure out. And I won’t be able to think unless I get away from all this madness.”
“But” -- flustered, I fell back onto the mattress, clapped a hand over my forehead, and jackknifed back up -- “what about Naomi? And the fact two families have dumped thousands of dollars into this affair, and people have put themselves out in dozens of different ways? You can’t just walk away from shit like that!”
“So what should
I do?” he yelled. “Huh? What should
I do, smart engineer boy? And how
should I do it? You got a blueprint I can follow?” He bolted from the bed and began pacing around the room.
I scrambled to come up with some logical and considerate course of action, but I couldn’t find one. If Oliver stayed, first he would have to tell his parents and Naomi and Naomi’s parents that he had no intention of becoming a lawfully wedded husband; those confrontations would undoubtedly lead to hours of go-nowhere hysteria. Then, if he was still alive and even marginally had his act together, he’d have to inform the wedding party, then make an announcement in church, then make another announcement at the reception. He’d be grilled like a serial killer, shrieked and bellowed at, threatened and vilified until his bones were picked clean. Maybe Naomi’s brothers would beat the snot out of him, and he’d end up not only with picked bones, but broken ones.
The more I thought about the scenario, the more I saw only two options for Oliver: either go through with the wedding or get out of Dodge.
He flopped onto the bed again, elbows propped on knees, and shoved his hands into his hair. “I’m sorry I hollered at you.”
“That’s okay. You’re not in a very good place right now.”
Smiling sadly, he looked up at me. “You’re the best friend I’ve got. I didn’t know who else to turn to.” He extended an arm toward me, trying to bridge the span between the two beds, and I did the same. Our fingers touched, then briefly curled together. Immediately my eyes stung, and I lowered my gaze to the floor.
“I love you, Ned.”
Everything in me stopped. Time itself stopped. But only for a second or two, only until I realized how he meant it -- that he loved me as a valued friend.
It would have to do.
The word fuck
came out of my mouth on a thin breath as I continued to stare at the floor.
“Did you say something?”
“No.” I cleared my throat and lifted my head. “So what are you going to do?”
come up with any ideas?”
“Probably nothing you haven’t already thought of.”
“Believe me,” he said ardently, “I’ve been racking my brain about this since I woke up today and realized it wasn’t just a hangover that was making me feel like shit warmed over. The whole household was buzzing like a goddamned hive, and I just kept getting sicker and sicker until I literally broke out in a cold sweat. I even said to my mother, ‘I don’t think I can go through with this,’ and all she told me was, ‘Oh honey, you’ll be just fine when Naomi joins you at the altar in her beautiful gown. You’ll suddenly think you’re in heaven.’”
I couldn’t stop snickering. Oliver was a great mimic. “I guess you didn’t feel reassured.”
“That’s an understatement. All I thought was, Wrong-o, Ma. I’m going to feel I’ve been consigned to the ninth circle of hell.”
My laughter dwindled. “I’m really sorry it turned out this way for you.”
Oliver nodded. “I just wish I’d had my premonition of misery before I got engaged. The whole wedding-and-marriage thing didn’t seem quite real to me until I walked in on my brother banging one of those strippers two nights ago.”
I thought my eyes would pop out of my head. “No shit? Darryl ended up balling --”
“Two of them, I think. At least there were two in bed with him. It woke me right the fuck up.”
“But...what did that have to do with you
Oliver fidgeted. “I knew I’d end up like that. Well, not exactly
like that, but, you know, dissatisfied and restless and always on the prowl, looking for action, constantly trying to cover my tracks. I hate deceit, Ned.” He uttered a single, bitter laugh. “Isn’t that
He was really flagellating himself. I hated seeing it. He was a good person, smart and funny and kind. I’d never known Oliver to be insensitive to others, and he wasn’t being that way now. He was just desperately unhappy.
“When do you suppose you will
be ready for marriage?” I asked, thinking of a possible solution to his dilemma. If the wedding was postponed rather than canceled...
“Maybe never.” Oliver sighed and scratched at his head after shit canning that
idea. “But that’s another issue entirely.”
His bugginess had taken on a new dimension, and I didn’t know how to interpret it. “Not all married men are doomed to the kind of life you described.”
would be.” After shooting me a self-conscious glance, Oliver again got up. He walked over to the room’s desk and pulled three pieces of hotel stationery from the drawer. “So I’m going to write three letters: one to Naomi, one to her parents, one to my parents. I’ll leave them inside the groom’s suite, since I don’t have a key to the bride’s suite. First thing tomorrow morning, long before anybody gets here, I’m taking a cab to the Greyhound station, catching a bus to Chicago, walking to Union Station, and getting on the North Coast Limited. I’ve already reserved a Vista-Dome sleeper. The trip to Seattle and back will only buy me maybe five days of peace and quiet, but that’s all I really need.” He turned to face me. I still sat, stunned and immobile, on the edge of the bed. “Do you think that’s cowardly?”
I felt a surge of admiration for him. “Yes. But in a way it’s courageous too. In either case, I understand.”
Oliver seemed to consider this for a moment. “I’ll still have to pay the piper when I get back, which I’m definitely obligated to do, but the worst of the flap will be over by then. Naomi and her family should be back in upstate New York. I’m hoping my parents and I can have a civilized discussion.”
His reasoning made sense. Nothing got resolved in the heat of the moment. “Do you have any idea what you’ll say to them?”
He shrugged. “Maybe that I need to concentrate on getting through my senior year without the distraction of a wife, and that my apartment in Hanover is too small for a couple, and it’ll be easier on Naomi too, because she won’t have to travel so far to her teaching job in Montpelier or Concord or wherever the hell it is.”
“I assume you want me to play dumb.” Not that I would’ve dreamed of betraying his trust. We’d been friends long enough to know when something was said in confidence.
Besides, I felt a thoroughly selfish swell of joy. Now I’d have more time with Oliver before someone claimed him as her own, before he was permanently relocated and reshaped and I had no choice but to relinquish all my dreams.
He hadn’t answered my question, so I asked again, “Is that what you want me to do? Just tell everybody I didn’t have a clue what you were planning?”
Oliver walked over to the bed and sank down beside me. “What I really want,” he said, “is for you to come with me.”