The gilt mirrors surrounded Cynthia and the eight bridesmaids and one junior bridesmaid, a slight Asian child of around 12 who bounced up and down and smiled to her mother about her dress’s “tail.” The bridesmaids, an offset of the local Junior League, were clothed in lime green chiffon. The maid of honor was skeletal with the studded joints of her spine visible and her collarbone-length light blond hair turned perfectly under like a tight roll of toilet paper or the curled-under edge of a ready-made pie crust. The other seven bridesmaids were less coiffed but aligned enough to mostly remember the parts of their uniforms they were responsible for—short strands of pearls, pearl stud earrings and short silver heels.
The bride, Madison Powell, meanwhile, posed in front of one of several free-standing full length mirrors looking up and down again at a book cover in her hand. “On a scale of one to 10, how much do I look like her?” she asked. The book, “The Bridesmaids,” was the story of Grace Kelly’s wedding and featured a photo on the cover of Kelly with her attendants. Nobody had the heart to tell her that despite nailing the hair color and having about equal height, there wasn’t much in her face reminiscent of the Princess of Monaco. She had a similar complexion and eye color maybe.
“Oh, definitely, I can really see it,” Ashley, a chunky, olive-complexioned bridesmaid said, patting Madison on the shoulder. Ashley considered Madison her style advisor and may have been the only one able to believe Madison bore a small resemblance to Grace Kelly. She taught Madison how to cook and provided the steadying influence Madison’s mother wanted when she pressured her daughter to join the Junior League. Luckily, Ashley wasn’t secure with her figure and didn’t care about fashion, so Madison was able to play the superior role in at least one area of their relationship.
Then there was the bridesmaid, Lara, who had bullied her way into the bridal party throwing a tantrum when a month went by after the announcement of the engagement and no bridesmaid request was made. Cynthia, seated on a folding chair at the edge of the room so as not to disrupt the preparations, overheard Madison complain to Ashley that Lara had been tipsy and kept asking one of the other bridesmaids whether her husband had “jizz” on his tie. “Can you believe that?” Madison said. “She’s just so jealous of married people she’ll do anything to annoy us. If I had known this was the way she would be, I never would have asked her. I just felt sorry for her.”
Every once and a while Madison would pat Cynthia’s arm or shoulder in passing and smile. “It’s so great to have you here!” she would say. “Ashley, have you met my dear friend Cynthia?” She would smile then sympathetically in Cynthia’s direction and then return to her preparations. Her sisters-in-law had just arrived—also bridesmaids—one about 25 with black curlicue hair and at least 50 pounds overweight; the other a petite, golden-skinned college freshman with tidy straight brown hair. The groom’s mother accompanied them, and it seemed the older, more portly of her daughters took after her. “Do you mind, hon?” she said to Cynthia. “Could you spray my skirt with Static-Guard?” Cynthia smiled as graciously as she could muster and made a circle around the mother-of-the-groom spraying gluey-smelling Static-Guard as she went. “Thanks,” mother-of-the-groom laughed self-consciously.
Cynthia was off to the side in the folding chair, up against the wall, her back to one of the mirrors surrounding the room. But she was called on repeatedly. If not to Static Guard mother-of-the groom then to hold the bouquet or to hold a piece of a skirt’s train up while a shoe was put on or a tight corner was negotiated. She had come from New York City to Chicago for the wedding and had been asked at the last minute, the night before, if she would be interested in spending the morning before the wedding with the women of the bride’s side of the wedding party as they got their makeup done. She and Madison had been close friends for 10 years, and with the exception of two of the nine bridesmaids, she had never heard about or seen any of these girls before. If they were such good friends that Madison wanted them to stand by her side at her wedding, wouldn’t Cynthia have heard of them before?
Madison was now walking back and forth in front of one wall’s series of mirrors trying to imagine what the guests at the church would see as she walked down the aisle. “I look like a fashionable bride, right?” she asked Lara who was concerned with the assessment of her own rump. “Definitely! I wouldn’t worry—you look great!” Lara said.
Madison didn’t bother to return the compliment to Lara who kept looking at herself in profile and twisting around to try to see what she looked like from the rear. Instead, Madison began to make lunch plans. “Hey everyone, I’m going to order pizza for lunch, but not that thick Chicago-style pizza—I’m going to get skinny pizza—the kind with the super-thin crust,” she said. After all, she didn’t want to give the impression to her Junior League friends of a person who took didn’t take the dangers of deep-dish pizza seriously.
“Hey, Cynthia, come sit with us,” Madison gestured offering Cynthia a seat with the bridesmaids in the middle of the room. “I was just telling Ashley that you also spent some time down South.” Ashley was from Birmingham, Ala., and Cynthia guessed that Madison thought geography was the only thing Cynthia could possibly have in common with Ashley.
“Yeah, I went to the University of Georgia, and really liked it. It was a culture shock, but really interesting to live in another part of the country.
“I’ll bet,” said Ashley. “But I wouldn’t know—I’ve lived in Birmingham my whole life—though I did help start a new chapter of my sorority at Ole Miss and so spent a few months in Oxford, Miss. I took a trip to Europe with my family last year.” Cynthia laughed socially and smiled. “Wow, that sounds great going to Europe with your family.”
The slow-going conversation was interrupted by a long-sleeved, bright coral thin figure. With a wan, drawn face and short feathery blond hair, Madison’s mother had arrived. A bottle of chilled Chardonnay was waiting for her in a nearby refrigerator because that was one of Abigail Powell’s expectations—that whenever possible chilled wine be waiting upon her arrival. She had a facelift and microdermabrasion 10 years earlier to un-crease and smooth out her face, but the 10 pounds she lost on an already slender frame left her face gaunt and hollow. “Cynthia, nice to see you,” Abigail said. “It’s been a while. How are you doing? How are your parents?”
Cynthia smiled, suspecting she wasn’t a favorite of Abigail’s. “Nice to see you, too. We’re all doing good. Just enjoying life in the Village,” she said.
“Oh, are you still ‘single in the city?’” said Abigail.
“Yeah, still living the life of the single girl,” said Cynthia. Abigail shot looks to Madison every minute or so with raised eyebrows.
Cynthia excused herself back to the mirrored room’s periphery. “Sorry, but I have to make a phone call,” she said backing away. She looked directly at Abigail and smiled again while pulling back. Abigail and Madison continued to exchange looks with Abigail shaking her head and patting Madison’s hand. Cynthia looked away toward the periphery of mirrors and saw herself at the corner and the bridesmaid-strangers toward the center framed by yet another circle of mirrors—free-standing head-to-toe mirrors. Madison’s rotund, frazzled-gray-haired future mother-in-law and the younger, prettier of her daughters were getting primped by the make-up artist. The make-up artist was taken by the daughter’s smooth golden skin. “Not a blemish. Gorgeous,” the woman said. One of Madison’s aunts laughed knowingly and patted the mother-in-law-to-be’s shoulder: “You birthed that skin!”
Cynthia laughed to herself thinking how interesting an anthropologist would find the bridesmaids preparation room with an aunt congratulating the mother-of-the-groom for “birthing” the skin of her daughter. The daughter just smiled smugly and nearly winked at herself in the mirror. More bridesmaids had filtered into the room in the meantime—one a woman with the kind of vaguely brownish purple hair that can occur when a home hair dying job goes bad. This woman Cynthia remembered as Julie, an old roommate of Madison’s who she thought had done enough to wipe her name off the bridesmaids roster. She had borrowed Madison’s computer to send e-mails to her friends making fun of Madison. Cynthia, who happened to be living for free in another apartment pet sitting for a friend, had given her room next door to Madison so she could escape from living with Julie. Cynthia became anxious and began slowing making a circle around the room passing varying images of herself as the mirrors all seemed to have a slightly different shapes and were under slightly different lighting. There she was bright and skinny and here she was wide-set with shadows under her eyes and there she was washed out by a stray white light. The girls she passed checked out their rear views, how they looked in profile, how their calves looked peeping out from under their lime green chiffon and even how they looked side-by-side to gauge how they would look in group pictures and maybe secretly to see how they each looked compared to one another.
Madison and her mother were still seated at the center of the room talking in soft tones when Madison’s eye caught Cynthia’s. “Hey there, you!” she said playfully. “What are you doing walking around in circles?” Abigail frowned raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips. “Just stretching my legs, I guess,” said Cynthia. “Getting a sense of the scene so I’ll always remember it—it must be the writer in me.”
Madison looked sympathetically at Cynthia realizing maybe for the first time that her “dear friend” had spent much of the day as the sole observer rather than as a participant. “I’ve hardly had a chance to talk to you,” said Madison. “Are you having fun?” Cynthia smiled and nodded. “It’s been interesting watching everyone get ready,” she said.
“Well, actually,” said Madison, “I have a job for you—if you don’t mind. I’d like you to hand out the programs.”
“Sure, I would be honored,” she said. Cynthia stared awkwardly at Madison after that waiting for her to pick up the conversation.
“So, how do you like my friends?” Madison asked her.
“They’re nice, but—but, it’s weird, I mean, I’ve never heard you talk about them before,” Cynthia said. Madison smiled at Cynthia and cocked her head like a person talking to a slow child.
“The Junior League. I met them through the Junior League. We get together sometimes, we—”
Abigail cut in then: “They have a lot in common. Madison has a lot in common with those girls.” Cynthia smiled again and nodded.
“It’s funny. People used to say that we sound exactly alike,” Cynthia pointed out to Madison and her mother who looked back at her with blank stone faces. “Anyway, it’s just funny, I’ve never heard you talk about them before.”
Madison began fidgeting in her seat and her face became flushed while she and her mother kept exchanging looks. “Well, you’re one of my closest friends who doesn’t live in Chicago,” she said. “I never wanted to have nine bridesmaids, you know, I—“ Abigail reached out and squeezed her daughter’s wrist. “Remember what Dr. Samuels said,” she whispered. Cynthia ordinarily would have pretended not to have heard, but her feelings were hurt at having been suddenly pushed to the periphery of her once close friend’s social circle. “Madison, who’s Dr. Samuels? Is that your new psychologist?” Madison smiled and didn’t seem too embarrassed.
“How did you know? It’s like I told you, Mom, Cynthia can always—“
“Well, I know you like to see psychologists and I didn’t think anything was physically wrong with you, so I just figured when you were talking about a ‘doctor,’ that’s the only thing it could be,” said Cynthia.
Madison and her mother began exchanging looks again, wiping the smile from Madison’s face. “Well, maybe it might be a good idea for you to tell Cynthia what Dr. Samuels said,” Abigail suggested nodding her head and patting the top of her daughter’s hand.
“You’ve been a great friend,” Madison said, “but Dr. Samuels says that sometimes friends can be ‘unintentionally toxic’ because they don’t share the same life goals as you. So, they accidentally lead you away from the things you want.”
Cynthia could see the logic in theory, but wondered how it applied to her. “I know we’re different, but I feel like I’ve always been supportive of you,” Cynthia said. “I never cared one way or another what you wanted to do.”
“Actually, Dr. Samuels says that’s part of the problem—you’re not working toward the same goals—getting married and having kids—so you don’t keep me on track the way these girls do,” said Madison, waving her hand around the room at the nine bridesmaids straightening their skirts, looking at themselves sideways, from the rear and back again. “They’re good judges,” said Madison.
“And you want them to judge you?” asked Cynthia.
“No, it’s just—it’s hard to explain,” said Madison. “I do and I don’t. I mean I want to end up the way they are, I—it’s like we’re all on a diet together. And you’re not on our diet. So, we keep each other on track.“
“Don’t want to end up like me,” Cynthia said, completing her friend’s thought like she often did.
“No offense, but yeah,” said Madison laughing. Cynthia again smiled and kept her gaze over Madison’s head focusing on the reflections of the bridesmaids getting ready and looking one another over. The inspections seemed endless.
“You know I think you’re great,” said Madison, “it’s just that I think we’re on different paths. I definitely wanted to have you here, though, to be part of the day, you’ve been a really good friend. I mean I wanted to include you—I never wanted nine bridesmaids, I had to include some of them and some of them were family. But I wanted you to share the day—I mean that’s why I invited you to spend time with us while we got ready.” Cynthia stared at her, mouth slightly opened.
“Anyway,” said Madison, “I’m glad you’re here—and—do you still want to hand out the programs? I understand if you don’t, but—“
Cynthia smiled. She felt backed into a corner having made a special trip away from home and having already spent money on airfare and hotel, but most of all, she didn’t want to embarrass herself or create “a situation” by leaving abruptly. “Sure, I’ll still do it,” she said.
“Good, would you mind holding this again?” Madison asked, handing Cynthia her bouquet. “What do you think of it? My mother thought these calla lilies would look good but I actually wanted roses.” Cynthia smiled and nodded her head, her eyes rotating around each of the mirrors. Each reflection was of a lime green-uniformed bridesmaid or junior bridesmaid twisting front to back and conducting a self-inspection. Madison also took another look at herself sucking in her stomach and looking at her profile again.
“I lost about 10 pounds. Can you tell?” she asked an unresponsive Cynthia. “Can you tell?” Cynthia nodded her head and smiled. Madison took an appraisal of the nine bridesmaids reflecting in every direction. “Oh, wait! Not everyone is wearing pearls,” Madison said. “Didn’t you all get my e-mail last month? I told you to keep checking your e-mail. Oh, well,” she laughed with humor. “Oh well, no big deal. See how easy I am?”
Cynthia, as it turned out, was wearing a short strand of pearls. She ran her fingers across it protectively. The battalion of bridesmaids were slowly prying themselves from the mirrored circle, lining up to march outside with Madison for a group picture of the wedding party. Madison’s mother-in-law and the prettier of her soon-to-be sisters-in-law were again the center of attention. “Look at you!” one of her mother-in-law’s sisters said to Madison’s future sister-in-law. “Your skin is just glowing!” The mother-in-law to-be smiled proudly. “I like to say I made her myself,” she laughed. The sister patted her on the shoulder. “Well, you did! You birthed that skin.”
The wedding coordinator handed Cynthia a small box with the wedding programs and she took her place among the bridesmaids trailing Madison out the door of the hotel and into the street, across the way to a park where the whole wedding party would assemble, stretched out in long phalanxes on either side of Madison and her finance. There was construction work on the far end of the street but no dust, luckily, one of the bridesmaids observed. The bridesmaids looked at each other continuing their appraisals and adjustments. “Yeah, just push that strand off there”; “Sure, that looks fine”; “What do you mean? You look great?” Meanwhile, Madison fretted about the anxiety-induced red blotches springing out on her white upper chest. Her doctor-bridesmaid reassured her: “Don’t worry, that’ll clear up before the ceremony.”
Cynthia stared at the clouds and the tops of trees looking for birds or squirrels to concentrate on, and then, happened to glance down—maybe she wanted to check out the bridesmaids shoes to see what their selections said about them the way she checked out people’s feet on elevators and buses. And that’s when she caught sight of it—dozens and dozens of nails spread wide apart enough on the street not to be immediately noticeable. In fact, it seemed she was the only one who had noticed at all. The bridesmaids were still smoothing one another’s hair and dresses and offering reassurances. A few of the nails lodged into the ends of Madison’s dress and into a portion of the short train which her maid-of-honor had let slip from her hands. Cynthia reached out to tap Madison’s shoulder but then retracted her hand. She wrung her hands anxiously as if in a neurotic dilemma and reached out again for the bride’s shoulder. She did it again—reaching out for her friend’s shoulder—and then retracted her hand again, her eyes fixed on the birds at the edge of the park jumping from branch to branch and then settling.