Chapter 16—Jessica: They do

Chapter 16
April 18, 2020, 3:20 p.m.
Jessica: THEY DO

My hands tremble and shine with a slick sheen of sweat. I tighten my hold on the notebook where I’ve written the service for this afternoon. 

I’m excited to officiate at my first wedding—and this wedding especially. As I wait with the pensive groom, birdsong fills the air. The brook behind us gurgles and coos as the cold water (yes, I checked) bounces on its rocky way.

I want everything to be perfect. 

I felt this way once before but I was standing at the other end of a long aisle. That was a perfect day, the beginning of my forever. No, our forever. Colin’s and mine. But I was wrong. I stepped down that aisle full of love, of faith, of hope and never stumbled. Never doubted. 

Matt, resplendent in a close-fitting blue suit, crisp white shirt and wine-colored tie, calmly waits, his hands folded together, his gaze fixed on the place where his bride will appear. Will he ever doubt the way Colin did? Lose hope in their forever? Stop loving Hanna? 

As she strides toward us, a camera instead of flowers in her hands, the smile she wears at her most happiest, stretches across her face. I blink back the sting of tears. 

“Here she comes,” I whisper to him as I swallow the lump that forms in my throat. 

This couple is not Colin and me. They are older. They know what they want. I will believe in them and support them every day of my life. 

The heels of my favorite black stilettos sink deep into the damp ground. I kick them off and let my feet soak up the cool dampness of the soft grass. 

Nothing is spoiling this moment. In spite of everything leading up to this moment, it is perfect.

The couple has chosen as their wedding chapel a clearing beside a noisy brook. Hemlocks and oaks bow toward us, forming an arch over the place where Hanna will make her appearance. 

After a gloomy, drizzly morning, golden sunbeams now pierce through silvery masses of clouds Lori calls “Jesus clouds.” They spotlight the bride’s path.

Matt, in his excitement, tries not to fidget. His chin bears a tiny reminder of the morning shave that removed his stay-at-home beard. His smile is brighter than anything the sun can dish out.

A hundred and fifty people would have been here to witness this union if not for the virus. Dinner with crab cakes and prime rib, a platter of desserts and an open bar would have followed. There would have been toasts from the fathers, the best man and me, a first dance to a song Matt and Hanna heard Leslie Odom Jr. sing at a concert last summer.

Instead, it’s only the three of us and the innkeeper who’s buzzing around the bride, taking photos of her as she approaches the man she will marry.

Hanna stops to attach her phone to one of two tripods capturing the whole ceremony for the wedding party scattered across four states. It will record the ceremony while another streams the event, for a Zoom meeting. 

“Are you there, Mr. Santiago? We’re ready to get started.” Matt holds out his cell phone so Hanna’s grandfather can hear the wedding. 

“I’m here, Matt. Are you ready?” 

Matt smiles so broadly his eyes crinkle up. “I sure am.”

He takes his bride’s hand and kisses it. “I told your grandfather I’m ready. Are you?”

Hanna has been ready for this moment for a long time. Still, she laughs. “I don’t know. Maybe?”

Their love in each other, their hope in a future together touches me so deeply. My eyes sting with tears as I open my notebook to the words I found for their wedding ceremony.

“Dearly beloved…”

The ceremony lasts only a few minutes but neither the bride nor the groom can get through it without choking up. The bride stumbles on Matt’s name when she promises to love, honor and cherish him.  

The groom can’t manage to say the words, “With this ring” as he pulls Dan’s grandmother’s ring from his jacket pocket and slips it on Hanna’s finger. 

For a split second, I remember Dan handing me those rings the previous night.

While Lori was running after Rex, he took them from his jeans pocket. 

“These were my grandmother and grandfather’s. Mom-mom never took her ring off after her wedding day. My mother gave it to me so some day I could give it to my bride. My grandfather didn’t wear a wedding ring but this was a signet ring Mom-mom gave him on their tenth wedding anniversary. The initials are nearly worn off.”

I took them, one tiny and the other heavy. The dainty gold band was inscribed with the barest whisper of engraving. Inside were two sets of initials in an elaborate script. 

“I wonder if she ever saw this.” I smiled as I examined the letters. 

Dan took the ring and peered at the inscription before handing it back. “I don’t know. I never even looked inside.”

“This is a heavy ring.” 

“Too heavy for me. I wore it for a while since I never got my college ring. I kept taking it off and one day I put it in my drawer with Mom-mom’s. I didn’t want to lose it.”

“Are you sure you want to let them go now?” The idea that something so precious could be lost left me breathless. Come to think of it, I have no idea where my own wedding ring is. Did I even keep it? I don’t remember. Nor do I care. Not anymore.

“I’ll get them back in a couple weeks or so, right?”

“Of course. These are only temporary. They’ve made an appointment at their bank to get theirs from the safe deposit box.”

“Okay then. The bride and groom need to exchange rings.”

Hardly anything about Hanna and Matt’s wedding is traditional but because of Dan, they’re still placing rings on each other’s left hands. I smile as they fumble, their hands shaking and sweaty, and think of a guy at work I never intended to like. Dan has become a friend and for a second wonder if there could be anything more.

When I pronounce them husband and wife, Matt and Hanna fling themselves at each other for an embrace.

“Congratulations!” Hanna’s grandfather’s voice rings out as Matt hands me the phone.  

I hold it up to my ear. “This is Jessica, Hanna’s friend. They’re married.” 

“You did a very nice job.”

“Thank you. This is my first wedding.”

He chuckles. “Sounds like you could make a living marrying people.”

If it’s always as joyful as this moment, I think I could change careers. 

April 18, 3:20 p.m.

Dan: TROUBLE

Rex stretches out beside me as I stare at the television. On a typical Saturday afternoon in mid-April, I’d be watching baseball. Or golf. Or something involving running and a ball. Saturday afternoon sports have been part of my routine for so long I don’t know what to watch when there’s no game on TV.

Some lady named Lydia is cooking Italian sausages and all that’s doing is making me hungry. A pretty woman in a bikini is jumping into the aquamarine waters of Tahiti for a little snorkeling. Ilsa’s asking Sam to play a song from Paris in Casablanca. I skip that, too. I never got that movie. 

I turn on ESPN and find an NCAA championship game from 2016.  I remember watching it, Villanova Wildcats and North Carolina Tarheels. 

There’s only a few minutes left: Villanova 70, NC 64. 

Before I put down the remote, the Tarheels get off a three-pointer and Villanova scrambles unsuccessfully to answer the challenge. 

It’s funny to watch because I’ve seen it before. I watched it in real time so I know who wins. But it doesn’t matter. Here I am, sitting on the edge of my couch, absentmindedly patting Rex’s head. I think he loves basketball as much as I do. 

North Carolina gets another bucket and now one point is all that divides the winner and the loser. 

Until they foul. Until the Wildcats player steps to the line and makes two foul shots with only 4.7 seconds left in the game. 

Villanova gets off one last shot. The buzzer starts sounding as the last shot arcs toward the basket. It’s a three pointer and Villanova wins, 77-74. 

“Good game, huh, Rex? Those were two pretty sweet minutes of basketball.” Rex looks at me and nods in agreement.

I turn off the TV and close my eyes. Saturdays aren’t the same in these days of pandemic lockdown and I’m getting pretty bored. 

Rex sighs as he puts his head down and starts snoring. That always makes me laugh. Wish I were so contented. My thoughts are full of a certain new reporter and I can’t get her out of my head.

I’m falling and falling hard. It’s the strangest thing. I’ve avoided commitment since college. I don’t have time for romance, the mind games and the second guessing, the arguments and the rare moments of bliss. 

I ignored my own commitment phobia when I met Sophia. I couldn’t get my heart to agree with my brain. 

She was tall and blonde, smarter than anyone I’d ever met before. I knew almost as soon as Claire asked me to help her get acclimated that she’d soon be teaching me a thing or two about reporting. She was no newbie. She’d worked in two small town dailies before coming here. She had awards from local and national press organizations. 

One thing, though. She had no intention of staying in the journalism game. She wanted to teach. 

I became her first student.

And that didn’t turn out well. 

What makes me think opening myself up to Jessica will work out any better?

Rex sighs and then I sigh. But I’m not content. Or comfortable. Rex’s heavy bulk is weighing down on me and I’ve got to get out. 

Of course, the minute I move, he jumps up, his dog tags tinkling and he flies for the front door. 

“Another walk? Really?”

But why not? I need to think about somebody—something—else.

It’s been one of those ugly days, not as warm as I expect, especially in mid-April. But the trees have their leaves and pots of flowers have appeared on my neighbors’ front steps. It looks a lot different from a month ago. Even the sidewalks have more people on them. 

Rex is funny. He’s used to everybody he passes stopping to pat his head. But not today. Instead, passersby are crossing the street or at least rushing past. I don’t think he likes it a bit. 

He looks at each one with that expectant gleam in his eye. Don’t tell me you don’t see expression in your dog’s face; I know what he’s expecting nearly every time. And now it says, please, stop and pet me, talk to me and tell me how adorable I am.

He’s shameless. 

When the park comes within sight, he tugs on his leash, speeding up to get to the place with his favorite smells. I go along, rushing across the street with no traffic, and hold open the gate of the dog park.

Once freed of his leash, he dashes about. The place is much emptier than it was for our lunchtime walk. Or our morning walk. 

I find a bench and take a seat, amused as always by Rex’s meandering. He seems to be looking for something special. 

I wonder for a minute if it could be Lori. She squeals with such excitement when she sees my dog. His tail, in response, wags enthusiastically. The two have bonded 

I had to laugh yesterday when she reached down to hug him and then turned to her mother and said, “Rex is so much better than a cat.”

I must have looked perplexed. Jessica shook her head at her daughter and then laughed. “She’s been bugging me for a cat for a month. I have no idea where that idea came from. But she’s been relentless.”

“Now she’s going to be bugging you for a dog.”

“I hope not. I want a dog even less.”

My face must have registered that sinking feeling I felt. But she quickly spoke up. “I don’t mean I don’t like dogs. I always wanted one myself. But since it’s just Lori and me and I have a job and she has all her activities…well, it wouldn’t be fair to the dog, now would it?”

I know what she means. Poor Rex is often cooped up for long hours every day. He’s getting slower now but there was a time when I dreaded going home to chewed cushions, wrecked shoes, overturned kitchen trash cans and shredded newspapers. He’d found a way to keep himself occupied during my long work days—and it cost me a fortune.

“She’s not coming today, pal.” I call to Rex and he looks up and rushes over. 

I put my hand to my pocket and he knows what’s coming. 

He pivots to the middle of the dog park and crouches down, waiting for me to throw the ball.

It’s a game both of us enjoy, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a lot more fun when there’s a little girl squealing every time he grabs the ball and every time time he drops the slimy thing at her feet. 

It’s time to admit it. I miss Lori. Even more, I miss Jessica. I’m in trouble.

Next Monday CHAPTER 17— Jessica: Jesus and vodkaCHAPTER 16—Jessica: They do
Coming on Wednesday, the next audio chapter, Chapter 15—Surrounded by romance

Dan and Jessica’s story needs your ideas.

Every Monday I’ll post a new chapter until Dan and Jessica find love, lose it and, we hope, find their happily-ever-after. Do you have an idea, torn from your own pandemic stay-at-home saga, that might help them? (PS–This is torn from real life, for sure. Someday I’ll share the story. It’s wonderful.)

If you have a suggestion for #what happens next, send it along with your name and hometown to whathappensnext.19@gmail.com. (Copy and paste the address, please.) Or comment below.

Together we can write a great story to remember the lockdown of 2020.

Ⓒ2020 MARY K. TILGHMAN

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