This short story was produced by Hamsini Sivakumar at Frankfurt International School’s Writing & Art Symposium, where authors and artists worked with students on a bilingual interschool publishing project.
I didn’t care if the couple were both botanists. Getting married in a greenhouse was not fun for anyone involved.
The heat was intense. A mid-July wedding is always rough, but inside the heat hovered more than the bride’s mother: a thick, pungent block that turned the wedding party sluggish and mean. The poor maid of honor was dealing with some previously unknown allergies, and everyone was wearing as little clothing as possible, which led to some definitively inappropriate wedding attire. Despite all of this, my best people-pleasing smile was on, my pale yellow dress was pressed and modest, and the last remains of my makeup were holding on for dear life.
“No one else wants to officiate this one, and you fit the client’s requests. If it goes well, consider the job yours,” Mason had said last week. I could see why everyone else had passed now, but I was used to getting the worst assignments. Hopefully this might be the last one for a while, though.
I was standing a couple centimeters behind the green arch that the wedding planner had labored to get in here, patiently waiting for the bride and her father to arrive. They weren’t religious, but still keeping some factors traditional, and there was a mini orchestra wearing matching light blue vests prepped to play ‘Here Comes the Bride’ any second now. The guests created a sea of pastel that parted for the aisle, everyone murmuring to themselves in their seats, only getting up to pick up a couple more water bottles from the side table. Everything was cast in a strange, angelic sheen from the greenhouse windows, though, so it looked almost otherworldly. While it would translate beautifully in the photos, it didn’t seem to be helping the guests wake up. A middle-aged lady in a lilac dress stumbled down the aisle with glazed eyes like her seat was a mirage, nearly tripping over three people’s legs. To be fair, she seemed to be kind of attached to the flask she was trying to conceal in her right hand, so it was possible the heat wasn’t the issue in this case.
Each moment was stretching out into an eternity, but finally the bride arrived in a delicately embroidered lace wedding gown, holding onto her dad’s arm. I stifled a laugh as one of her feet peeked out from underneath to reveal flip flops. Good choice, I thought. I had been to more than one wedding that featured an aisle fiasco.
The groom, who was sweating profusely either from nervousness or the fact that his tuxedo was basically a form-fitting oven, took a deep breath as the bride made it to the arch and faced him. This was my favorite part of a wedding: that moment before I started talking when the bride and groom were just looking at each other. I considered these a kind of vows as well: I always tried to gauge whether or not the couple would last based on this look. The groom seemed to be totally invested, but I saw a flicker of hesitation in the bride’s eyes before she smiled. Hm. Hopefully it’s just cold feet. These people look like they have student loans.
It was my moment! I took a deep breath, steadying myself internally. 17 weddings down, and while this was always a little nerve-wracking, today was especially so, because this could get me the full-time position. I steadied myself and stepped forward as a hush fell upon the crowd.
Just as I was opening my mouth, I heard a slam as the door to the greenhouse banged open. Like marionettes, the guests turned around to face the door. The bride, Callie, looked annoyedly at the front until she saw who was standing there. Her mouth dropped open and she quickly shuffled behind the arch, eyes wide.
“It’s fine, it’s probably just a late guest-” I started to say, my arm out to pull her back. I turned to see who the person was, noticing a guy in a dark blue hoodie walking up the aisle, his face partially obscured by my angle. I groaned quietly, hoping it wasn’t an ex-boyfriend of the bride’s. The amount of people that thought they could win back the love of their lives at the last minute was surprisingly large, and it almost always ended in chaos.
“Hey, she’s moved on,” I said, moving protectively in front of the bride. “You’re too late.” The guy stopped in front of steps leading up to the arch and removed his hood, and this time it was my mouth that dropped open.
I met Connor on my first day of community college. I had just picked up my books for the semester from the library, and I was walking to my class starry-eyed, seeing my hometown as if for the first time. It was a true Midwestern fall, with technicolor leaves brightening the gray skies and the smell of incoming rain with a hint of cinnamon wafting through the air. I’d been saving up to go here since I was sixteen, and even though it was putting a large dent in my bank account, I didn’t regret it. There was a little coffee stand on my way, so I ordered a pumpkin spice latte to fully complete my Instagram fall experience. I was so lost in my introspection, though, that I grabbed the latte and just kept walking, my earbuds muffling the shouts of the guy working there. He couldn’t leave the rest of the customers, though, so I probably could’ve gotten away with my theft if I hadn’t walked the same way back a couple hours later.
“You!” Connor yelled from behind the coffee stand. I had taken off my earbuds for the walk home, so I spun around confusedly as I realized he was talking to me. I was smiling widely from that first class, but it faded a bit when I saw the venom on his face.
“Sorry, do you need something?”
“You stole your coffee!” he exclaimed. I had been walking towards the stand, but the accusation made me stop in my tracks.
“No I didn’t!”
“You walked up here, got your latte, and then just kept walking without even taking out your wallet! I yelled at you for like five minutes!”
Oops. I didn’t remember paying for the latte or getting my wallet out. My face burned hot with shame as I got it out now.
“Sorry. I didn’t even notice,” I murmured, gesturing for him to keep the change from my five dollar bill.
“Mhmm,” he replied annoyedly. I could tell he didn’t believe me, but I didn’t see a point in arguing with him.
“Sorry again,” I said, turning to leave. I didn’t have time to try and convince this guy I was just scatterbrained. I had only made it two steps away when he stopped me again.
“Hey, coffee thief,” the guy called. “Can I get your name for the next time you steal from me? I wanna be sure I know who I’m yelling at.”
I had to blink several times to convince myself that I wasn’t hallucinating. The bride appeared slowly from behind me, looking a little less shell-shocked than before. I couldn’t say the same.
In my mind, I asked Connor what he was doing here and what he wanted. In reality, the only thing that came out was a feeble “what” that was three octaves higher than my normal voice. I straightened up, trying to appear unaffected but failing miserably.
“Oh, Laila, you’re officiating,” was the first thing Connor said to me, which was so completely unexpected that I didn’t understand it for a solid two minutes. I shook myself out of the shock trance to pay attention.
“What are you doing here?” Luckily, I’d stopped sounding like Mickey Mouse.
“Wedding crasher,” he said casually, turning his attention to the groom, who’d gone from near-heat-exhaustion to looking like a ghost.
“Sorry, buddy, but she’s just not that into you. She’s been seeing someone else for a couple months now.”
The groom, Graham, sputtered for a few seconds before turning to his now ex-fiancee.
“Callie? What is this?” he asked, his voice dangerously fragile.
Callie had the decency to look embarrassed, but she still just gave a little shrug. “I tried to do it a different way, but it was so hard! I just…” she trailed off, probably realizing that there’s pretty much nothing that justified hiring someone to crash your wedding and dump your fiance.
“You manipulative bi-!” someone screamed, and we all turned to see the groom’s mother marching up to the arch. She grabbed Graham by the arm, shooting Callie a mother-in-law look so threatening I was surprised Callie didn’t take everything back right then and there.
“And he didn’t even want to sign a prenup!” his mother huffed, storming out of the greenhouse. Graham gave Callie one last betrayed look before following her. The guests stayed in their seats. The events that had just happened seemed to revive their energy, and most people were whispering to each other and watching us with piqued interest.
I looked at Connor, who was acting as though breaking up couples were a regular Tuesday for him.
“People pay you to crash their weddings?” I exclaimed, not even bothering to hide my disgust. I wasn’t a hopeless romantic or anything, but this seemed unnecessarily cruel. I backed up behind the green arch a little bit, almost tripping on the white carpet spread out on the floor.
“Believe it or not, there’s kind of a big market for this,” he responded lazily.
“That restores my faith in the world.”
He pointed to me. “It should. At least I’m proving there are people way worse at relationships than you are.” He left the arch to go get a water bottle at the side table, walking slowly like he knew everyone in the room’s eyes were on him.
I swallowed, trying to ignore the pointedness of his last statement. The ending of our relationship was rocky at best, and entirely my fault.
Connor had been invited to his boss’s annual dinner for all of the new employees. It’d been a very formal affair, and he’d been nervous about it the entire week before. I was trying to be supportive, but I was having a different problem: I couldn’t seem to find a good time to break up with him.
I’m not sure why, exactly. It was less about him being a bad guy and more about me feeling trapped in the relationship, especially as I was graduating college. I was terrible at it, though; I had set times to break up with him and then bailed at the last minute more than once. I was resigned to the do the same thing that night as well until the job offer happened.
We were sitting next to each other at a long oak table in Connor’s boss’s dining room. There was a huge chandelier sending sparks of light into every corner and every seat was filled by anxious, well-dressed people like us.
“So, Connor,” his boss began. Connor shot straight up as if someone had electrocuted him and turned to the head of the table.
“You work in the marketing department, right?” He leaned forward with interest. Connor’s boss couldn’t have been older than thirty, and he seemed surprisingly informal despite the setting of the dinner.
Connor nodded vigorously.
“There’s actually a position in that department that’s opening up in our new Seattle division. I’ve talked to your supervisor and think you should apply for the job.” I looked up excitedly from the tablecloth I’d been fiddling with and smiled. Maybe this good news would take the sting out of me dumping him later.
“Wow, thank you so much. What’s the position?” I tuned out of the conversation as it dissolved into technical terms, practicing the breakup conversation in my head.
We made it to dessert before it all descended into chaos. Connor was practically vibrating with excitement at the prospect of this new job.
“Hey,” he whispered. “Let’s talk about this new job.”
“Yeah, it’s great!” I responded. “I’m really happy for you.”
“What do you think of Seattle?”
“Well, it’s pretty far from here, but…” I stopped, realizing that I was never going to get a better opportunity to break up with him than now.
“Could you think about maybe moving there?” he asked gently, probably thinking my hesitation was about Seattle and not us.
“I think it’d be great if you moved to Seattle. I just, uh, won’t be moving with you.”
“Connor...I think we should break up. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, and now that you’re going to apply for this job...it’s time.” There. I said it. For a second, I felt the weight of dread lift and was about to laugh with relief when I saw his face.
Connor looked both devastated and furious, and I could practically see his heart break. Now, any normal person would try and comfort him and let him down easy, but I was so filled with adrenaline and relief and fear that I didn’t do that. Instead, I giggled.
It was only for about 10 seconds before I stopped myself, but it was definitely enough to make me to look like a heartless monster.
Connor threw his napkin into the crème brûlée that’d just arrived onto the table and stood up in one fluid movement. Before I could say anything or apologize, he was already walking out the door. The rest of the people gaped in curiosity, unaware of what had just happened.
“Wait, Connor,” I called quietly, but I knew better than to follow. There was nothing I could say to make the breakup better and still stick to it. All the guests looked at me with interested stares, waiting for me to comment. The awkward silence was deafening.
“Um….” I started. “I think I’m gonna need a ride home.”
Callie’s decision about how to leave Graham seemed to be weighing on her: her hands were shaking and she was trying to move farther and farther behind a large array of dangerous-looking plants. Before she was completely obscured, though, Connor walked up to her.
“So I prefer my payment in cash,” he said. Callie’s eyes filled with horror, and in the moment she looked so regretful that I probably should’ve felt bad for her. I wasn’t that great of a person, though.
Shakily, she reached into her dress to pull a wad of cash out of her garter, nearly flashing everyone in the process.
“Thank you for your business,” Connor said mockingly. He was about to leave when I held out my arm to stop him. All of the shock and confusion of the last few minutes had faded into understanding and rage, and my polite filter was officially gone.
“What, you’re just going to walk away?” I challenged, walking up to face him. “What happened to your marketing job?”
“Still do that. This is just a little extra money, a couple times a year,” he responded. Finally, the careless mask was being broken as he glanced around, unable to completely confront my glare.
“Wow,” I said. “You know, I actually felt bad about how we broke up. But this is so completely crappy that now I’m congratulating myself. You just ruined my job, did you know that? This was the wedding that determined my promotion! What the hell is wrong with you? Did you do this on purpose?” I was full-on ranting in front of a hundred gossipy strangers and I didn’t even care.
“Laila?” Connor interrupted. “I hate to break it to you, but I had no idea you were officiating this wedding.”
“I also had no idea it was a really big deal for you. In fact, I’m sorry about that, because I’m not trying to ruin your job or anything. Plus, you can tell your boss it’s not your fault, so you might still be able to get that promotion.”
If there’s a word that encapsulates being humiliated, shamed, and completely regretting everything you’d just said, that was my expression in that moment.
“Huh,” I replied. “Never mind then.” I looked around at the wedding guests. The people who weren’t openly laughing at me were giving me that ooh, you’re stupid look and my face heated up.
“Sorry.” Pride in the trash, I stepped away from him, turning my back to the crowd as I shuffled behind the plants next to Callie, who was watching the whole thing pretty relieved the drama was no longer just about her. I peeked out from behind a large leaf, hoping Connor would leave so I could pretend the whole thing was a heat-addled dream.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t that lucky. “Me too,” Connor said, not moving. “I really wasn’t trying to mess up your job.”
I nodded, taking a deep breath to say what I didn't four months ago. “I shouldn’t have dumped you the way I did either. At least not in front of your boss.”
He laughed. “Are you kidding me? He felt so bad, I got a raise out of it! And yeah, that sucked, but it’s been a while. I’m over it.” The understanding on his face was genuine, and even though I had never truly explained why I did what I did, I could tell he didn’t need to know.
“So you’ve moved on?” I asked lightly, trying to seem polite and not jealous-ex-girlfriend-y. Which I wasn’t. Hopefully.
“Nope, still single. But I’m thinking of trying again soon, you know?” I nodded, strangely happier at that statement. Maybe I was a jealous ex-girlfriend, but at least I didn’t have anyone to be jealous of. I smiled slowly, watching the same action become mirrored on his face. For a second we just stood there. Connor opened his mouth to say something when all of a sudden Callie barged in between the two of us to stare him down.
“Excuse me? I just ruined my marriage for you, and now you’re SINGLE? That guy was loaded!” she screamed in his face.
“Well, I mean, we never were really a thing...” Connor stuttered.
Callie was blocking my view of Connor, so I leaned slightly to the right to catch his eye again.
“Um...care to explain?”