It had been the most hectic and satisfying two months of Ben Blakeman’s life. He had handled a 65 to 75 percent share of his and Judith’s wedding preparations, diffused acute flares of family drama on both sides, continued to put in his regular hours at the gallery and magazine, been Judith’s de facto therapist through increasingly insane Prop 66A fracases, and somehow always found his fourth or fifth wind when it came time to sit down and work on the “Gil Garcia: G x G” party.
The Monday after Ben and Marin’s first visit to Garcia’s studio, Ben had finally brought Phillip into the loop. Garcia had a number of very good antiretroviral drug paintings in the same vein as the one depicted on his postcard, and his candle pieces could be integrated into a large altar-like sculpture that could form the centerpiece of a small solo show. Phillip had seen the work the following Saturday afternoon and had advised Ben to introduce Garcia to the art world through an invite-only viewing at Mud23 on the Day of the Dead, November 2 (which of course also just happened to be Judith’s day of reckoning, election day). Phillip had included the Garcia viewing as an item on the following Mud23 staff meeting agenda and had asked everyone to give Ben whatever help he needed. It was understood that the event was Ben’s baby.
In late August, Garcia had said that he was unhappy with his garage studio and asked if he could work on the altar at Mud23 in the evenings after he got off work. Phillip said that it was fine as long as Ben was in the office with Garcia while he worked. Luckily, Ben had already been staying late on his Mud23 days and coming up after six on most of his MBAD days as well.
Ben himself cleared out the workroom for Garcia. Phillip was squeezing the Garcia viewing party in between two solo shows, so at least there wouldn’t be a ton of group show artists coming in and out, and the two solo show artists bookending Garcia were both low-maintenance.
Garcia fiddled around with some wood and papier mâché constructions, but eventually settled on wax. Phillip got Garcia access to the boiler in the basement that another gallery’s artist had left during a show and never retrieved. Garcia made wax hands and feet, wax chains, wax sushi, wax crosses, and a wax Jesus. In September, Garcia finally started working on something that looked like an altar.
Meanwhile, Ben planned the Día de los Muertos party of the century. His first big task had been the invitation list. The big local Chicano collectors were a given, but there were only three. He added his fifteen favorite collectors from Mud23’s short list. These fifteen were mainly California philanthropists and established museum curators and directors—people who had means but also a lot of knowledge about contemporary art.
As trained, Ben prepared thin dossiers for each of these people: a brief bio, with photograph, net worth, and known preferences (abstract painting, pop art, etc.); most recent known purchases; previous purchases with Mud23, if any; and any prior known purchases with similarities to Garcia’s work. Ben created one page with a large color image on top and his notes at the bottom for each purchase that he researched.
Alone in the office late one night, Ben did an internet search of the CEO of the internet search company whose search engine he was using, the phrase “contemporary art,” and the word “collection.” A Forbes magazine profile came up as the top hit. Ben clicked on it, skimmed it, and was immediately struck by these sentences: “His extensive art collection consists mainly of work by modern art masters such as Picasso and Kandinsky, however the tech pioneer is interested in finding the artist equivalent of his search engine. He told Forbes: ‘I’m looking for that visionary contemporary artist whose subject and object is nothing less than the world, just like our focus has been, from the beginning, the world and all its information.’” Ben printed this out, highlighted these lines, and put the printout in a dossier folder and added it to his stack.
This act unleashed some aspirational fame beast within Ben. Soon he was looking up musicians, filmmakers, starchitects, and even a few B-list celebrities. Within three nights, Ben had his thirty-five-person invitation list. He handed the dossiers to Phillip to review, and Phillip looked through them carefully, without saying a word about all the new blood. Phillip handed the stack of folders back to Ben.
“Good work,” he said. “So this is going to be like the Hildegard event, right? Or the Westberg party? It’s a closed event—not a typical opening. You’ll need alcohol and maybe food—something simple that people can carry with them. We sometimes have music, sometimes live music. However, everything should serve to add to, not detract from, the work. Ask Angela—she did a good closed event last year for Arnold Lacey.”
Ben did not need to ask Angela, whose midlist artists sold to law firms and the unemployed wives of state university deans. He’d already decided that there would be no music, and he was close to convincing a Patrón publicist to give them twenty bottles of Patrón’s new barrel-aged tequila for free. The invitation design would be simple: black and white, with three skulls in the corner; a few clean lines of text indicating the essential information; and a two-line bio for Garcia: “The artist is the son of a former muralista who is now living homeless in the East Bay. Diagnosed with HIV in 1997, he explores life, death, inheritance, and pharmaceuticals in an exclusive Día de los Muertos viewing at Mud23.”
Some of Ben’s gallery coworkers were surprised that he had taken on so much of the wedding planning, but Judith was just as busy—the polling numbers on Prop 66A were in a dead heat with election day five weeks away—and her work was much more important.
Judith and Ben now spoke in a shorthand that was vaudevillian in both its pacing and deployment of tongue twisters. A sample of a typical recent conversation:
Judith: Did you finish the song list?
Ben: Gabe isn’t on board yet.
Ben: That’s what I said. I’m on it, don’t worry.
Judith: Okay, music is you. Hit me if you need me.
Ben: How was Strat-Sesh?
Judith: Low on strat, high on sesh. There’s something we’re missing.
Ben: 66A is trending pro. Red or blue—nobody likes drug reps.
Judith: Back to wedding: minor table dilemma. There’s more MV than anticipated.
Ben: But those people never leave New England.
Judith: That’s what you said when we put them all on the guest list.
Ben: How many MVs RSVP-yeses (with guests)?
Ben: Sheesh. Did anyone RSVP “no” to this wedding?
Judith: My uncle John.
Ben: Isn’t he dead?
Judith: Yes. We need more deaths.
Their apartment, predictably, was a mess. Probably the only organized space in the entire place was a closet in their bedroom which held Judith’s strapless white gown and Ben’s tuxedo in zipped-up garment bags, a bottle of scotch and two plastic cups, a bag of organic dried apricots, a package of salmon jerky, two packed duffel bags, and a bright blue Tiffany’s bag.
Ben awoke the morning of the wedding to a gentle poking on his shoulder. Judith was propped up next to him, her hair in disarray. The clock beside her said “5:30 AM.”
“Hello, groom,” she said.
“Hello, bride,” he said. He kissed her on the lips and brushed a stray eyelash from her right cheek. He felt safe, wanted, ready.
“Let’s have sex now before our 163 guests descend upon us,” she said.
“Okay,” he said.
It happened for both of them quickly—the clock said thirteen minutes.
Judith smiled wickedly. “We’re two minutes ahead of schedule,” she said.
Ben knew that she wasn’t joking, that at some point before this morning Judith had scheduled, if only in her head, five-thirty to five-forty-five of the morning of their wedding day for sex, and he found this incredibly endearing. He stood up, stretched, and raised his hand to her in a high-five.
“We’re going to be the best marriage ever,” he said.
“Well, duh,” Judith said. She slapped his palm like a frat boy, pinched his bare butt cheek, and went into the bathroom to brush her teeth.
The wedding ceremony was scheduled for three in the afternoon at the Mandala Women’s Refugee Center rooftop garden, to be followed by cocktails, a reception dinner, and dancing at Anastasia Richards’ brother Gabriel’s restaurant/lounge in nearby SOMA, QWERTY.
The Mandala Center was a four-floor building that took up the entirety of one of the large triangle-shaped blocks formed by the imperfect intersection of the city’s two main grids. Its rooftop had been turned by the Center’s clients and volunteer staff into one of San Francisco’s prettiest urban gardens over the past several years. Pots of yellow blazing star lined one end of the roof. Morning glory climbed lattice archways over square Japanese-style planters of orange California poppies. Walnut and avocado trees shed their leaves around sage and gooseberry plants planted into long soil-filled grooves in the roof floor.
The Blakeman-Lam wedding would be the first non-Mandala event in the garden, but BAARC’s immigrant rights group had done a lot for the Mandala Center (and Judith had logged many volunteer hours there in her free time, as a Mandarin-English translator) and she and Ben had been able to rent the space for next to nothing.
That morning, as Ben and Judith showered, gathered their things, and poured coffee into aluminum thermoses, 104 white folding chairs were set up in short rows along the wide stone walkway that ran along the length of the Mandala Center roof. These would be first-come-first-serve, and the other fifty-six guests would stand in the smaller concrete paths that ran throughout the gardens. BAARC’s CEO, Deepna Rasjani, was officiating the ceremony.
Jorge was Ben’s best man, and Anastasia Richards was Judith’s maid of honor. Ben had mixed feelings about Judith’s best friend. Anastasia was an incredibly bright, successful, loyal (especially to Judith), occasionally very funny woman whose worldview had been somewhat warped by her cushy expat upbringing. She was one of those women who attributed her scarcity of women friends to other women’s jealousy of her.
However, it was a point of pride for Ben that Anastasia still liked him—a lot. The complexity of their relationship was an important signal of something for Ben, something that he did not yet have a name for.
Judith and Ben were to get ready in conference rooms on different floors at the Mandala Center. As soon as they pulled into the Center’s small parking lot, Anastasia ran out and took Judith’s gown and bag from the back seat.
“Say your goodbyes,” Anastasia said, beaming as broadly as if that day was her wedding day, not theirs. “The next time you’ll be seeing each other will be as bride and groom!”
“See ya groom,” Judith said. She kissed him on the cheek and opened the car door. “I’ll tell Jorge you’re here.”
“Oh, he’s studying for a test in the groom’s room,” Anastasia said. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry! Law is all just b.s., and you’re a good bullshitter.’ He’s so competitive, though.”
Judith got out of the car, and she and Anastasia slammed their car doors shut and walked to the Center’s back entrance together chatting rapidly. Ben got out and got his stuff from the back seat, his heart racing a little as he draped the tuxedo garment bag on his arm. This was it. It was starting: the rest of his life.
Jorge was wearing his dress shirt and pants and was deeply absorbed in some one-hundred-year-old caselaw when Ben opened the door to the Mandala Center conference room that they were using as the groom’s room and peeked in.
Jorge smiled, put his hands to his mouth, and trumpeted the opening notes of Here Comes the Bride: doo, doo, da-doo!
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Ben said.
“Are you sure you don’t need me for the wedding march?” Jorge asked. “I also do a pretty bad ass piccolo.” Jorge bunched up his fingers to the right of his mouth, pursed his lips tightly, and wiggled his fingers up and down rapidly.
Ben laughed. “Very kind of you to offer your considerable talents, but I think we’re good on the music front,” he said.
Ben got dressed, and Jorge returned to his studying. Ben was tying his bowtie when Jorge finally looked up again.
“Ben!” Jorge said. “What the eff? You’re going to make me cry, in your little tuxedo. Shit.”
“Jorge.” Ben sat down in the chair next to his friend. “I don’t know why exactly Stanford put us in that tiny Otero double together six years ago...”
“Oh, thanks,” Jorge said.
“But I know that I wouldn’t have gotten to a place where I was ready to do this if it hadn’t been for your friendship,” Ben said. “Do you remember that talk that we had after you came out to your parents?”
Jorge’s mother was a devout Catholic, and his father was a diehard Republican with some social conservative beliefs.
“Yes, of course,” Jorge said. “You said that me figuring out the kind of person that I want to love could not disappoint someone who truly loves me and understands love.”
“And you said, ‘Ben, logic has nothing to do with the desire to be loved unconditionally,’” Ben said. “And we had this amazing debate about the evolution of human feeling and found families versus biological ones. I always think about the things that we said that night when I’m trying to figure out a relationship issue. It was just, and your friendship is, very special to me.”
Jorge quickly wiped away a single tear from the corner of his eye and sucked wet snot back into his nose. “Oh, you’re good.” He almost looked scared of Ben.
It was a sunny, cool sixty-eight degrees as a solo violinist bowed out a blissful, summery arrangement of With a Little Help From My Friends, and Judith’s spry seventy-something father walked his only child through the garden of guests and California native greenery on the roof of the Mandala Women’s Refugee Center towards Ben.
Ben had on first consideration thought that the traditional white dress would be too cliché for Judith, but he should have known better. No dress, not even a white wedding gown, could overwhelm this woman. Judith was exactly, intensely, who she was at all times. What you saw was what you got, and Ben smiled to be reminded of this quality of hers again as she walked to him.
“Good job,” he whispered as he took her hand.
“Thanks,” she said, and laughed.
Deepna was a wonderful officiator and gave the proceedings a subtle personal touch here and there. Judith and Ben had written simple vows and read them to each other. Both of their mothers cried. They exchanged rings, and that was that. Within minutes—Ben had waited for buses longer—it was over, and he was walking Judith back down the aisle to applause and camera flashes from his guests.
Even though Ben had gone through the guest list so many times with Judith; had had dinner with Jorge, Anastasia, and his and Judith’s families the night before; and had rushed through the crowd of guests briefly while looking for Deepna before the ceremony; he was still surprised to see such a dense collection of familiar faces, all looking at him and Judith, squinting through the viewfinders of single lens-reflex cameras at them, and smiling. People from all stages of his life: his parents’ friends from Martha’s Vineyard, his high school gang, the college crew (Max! Marin! Nazneen was smiling wryly), his and Judith’s San Francisco friends, his Mud23 and MBAD coworkers (Honor Lewis, wearing an unflattering floral sundress, was resting her head on Billy Earhardt’s shoulder—they had become a couple in February—as Billy took a picture of the newlyweds). Ben held on tighter to Judith’s arm and smiled and waved back.
The reception was a zoo when Judith and Ben arrived for the last ten minutes of cocktail hour.
Although Gabe Richards was a rising star in the San Francisco Bay Area food world, to Judith he would always be the black sheep of the Richards family. It wasn’t just that Gabe had been a poor student and had never finished college. His parents, according to Judith, would have happily and actively encouraged a son that was a budding artist, musician, poet, or chef with C’s in algebra. But there had also been hard drugs and an expensive stint in rehab. Gabe had had an intense, codependent three-year relationship with a suicidal girl in high school—which had ended when the girl’s father had forbidden her from seeing him—and now sourced his steady stream of casual girlfriends primarily from his own pool of employees. This, in fact, was the most unforgivable of Gabe’s offenses to his father, who himself was widely credited with establishing the Pac Development Bank’s sophisticated sexual harassment reporting procedures all the way back in the eighties. Finally, and perhaps most infamously, was the persistent rumor that one of the financial backers of Gabe’s first restaurant in New York had had “Italian mob connections.”
Still, there was no denying Gabe Richards’ talent as a restaurateur. His newest establishment, QWERTY, was a work of art. To enter its spacious interior was to walk inside a beautiful antique typewriter. McCool No. 2 and Remington Standard 2 keys and type baskets had been blown up to scale and carefully reproduced, dried black ink stains and all. These elements jutted out from the pewter-plated walls, black ceiling, and black granite floors in an attentive and busy fashion that at certain angles recalled the dark interior of a gothic cathedral. Best of all, there were twenty-six bottles of house wine that rested, cork-side-in, in a wine rack built into the wall whose vertical cross-section was shaped like a keyboard. The bottoms of the wine bottles were locked into specially designed cups that each had a different letter of the alphabet printed on it, and they were arranged in the wine rack according to their position on a QWERTY keyboard layout. One ordered one’s wine by letter, of course, e.g. “I’ll have a glass of G, please.” That night, in honor of Judith and Ben, half of the bottles were J’s (a nice shiraz) and the other half were B’s (a dry chardonnay).
Judith and Ben’s guests were eating it up, and letting themselves go a little too loose, too early because of it. Jorge must have noticed this too, because, without instruction, he took the microphone at five to seven and asked everyone to find their tables and be seated.
Dinner was served: green mango and arugula salad; entrees of turbot, lamb, or stuffed acorn squash; and sides of grilled asparagus and QWERTY’s famous black-and-white rice. The lemon coconut wedding cake was sliced up unceremoniously and served with vanilla ice cream for dessert.
Ben looked around himself at all of the tables that for weeks had been first initials and last names on a diagram. A freewheeling tensionlessness characterized every table’s proceedings except his own, worrying him. Mud23 people were wiping away tears from laughing at something that Phillip was saying. There were several red faces at the Martha’s Vineyard tables. One of Judith’s cousins had taken off her shoes and put them on her table. Max and Marin—whose drama-less breakup five years ago and ensuing civility had never fooled Ben—were holding onto the backs of each other’s chairs laughing about something. Even Honor Lewis—who had told Ben repeatedly how much she hated all Gabe Richards establishments—had cleaned every teaspoon of edible substance off of her plates and looked visibly stoned.
At seven-fifty-five, waiters circulated the room pouring champagne. At eight, Jorge stood, went to the mic, and rang his fork against his champagne flute. The room quieted, and Jorge smiled.
“There are some songs that make you believe in love,” he said. “We know we shouldn’t trust them. They’re written by drug addicts and crazy people. They even rhyme, for god’s sake.”
People laughed, and Judith and Ben looked at each other and kissed once on the lips.
“But imagine, for a minute, a world without love songs. I don’t think that’s a world that anyone wants to live in. I know I certainly don’t, and The Cure cost me three months of my life that I will never get back.”
Nazneen yelped loudly: she was now the drunkest one at a very drunk table. Jorge was referencing his last relationship, with an extremely attractive champion mind-game player. Jorge blamed the relationship entirely on the song Friday, I’m in Love.
“Judith and Ben are like a really good love song,” Jorge continued. “Something about them seems a little too good to be true—they’re too good-looking, too smart, too much fun, too bold, too generous—they must have been created by a crazy person in a digital studio somewhere. Seeing them, the way they support each other and complete each other every day in little ways and big ways, makes me believe in love. Which scares me and makes me kind of hate them. A lot.” Ben put his arm around Judith, and Jorge turned and looked at them. He said, “Except, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Judith and Ben and their love for each other didn’t exist. And, unlike a good love song, Ben and Judith will pour you a glass of wine and make fun of your ex for you after a bad breakup. So there’s no losing with them, really. To Ben and Judith.”
Everyone raised their flutes and drank, and Ben and Judith got up to hug and thank Jorge.
“I love you guys,” Jorge said.
“You’re the shit, Jorge,” Judith said, smiling and holding Jorge’s hand in hers for one long second.
“You really are,” Ben said.
Then, Anastasia stood and walked to the mic with her champagne flute as Ben, Judith, and Jorge took their seats again. Please just make it boring, Ben thought, please, God, just make her boring.
“Judith and I grew up together,” Anastasia said. “We’re like sisters. At one time, I think that I thought that I was the Lams’ adopted daughter.”
People laughed, and Ben relaxed.
“I’ve met all of her boyfriends, and frankly I’ve never thought that any one of them was good enough for her until Ben showed up. The other guys were all perfectly adequate—perfectly attractive and successful and smart and good at things, but Judith Lam is in a class by herself. In times like these, when the major political agents of this country seem to have forgotten what common sense is, Judith’s there every day quietly putting heart and soul back into public service. And so, the first time I met Ben, let me say: he just shone. He was—is—a star. And I thought, ‘Yes, finally, someone whose light shines as brightly as my Judith.’ To the new two-star constellation of Ben and Judith.” She raised her glass and smiled prettily even as tears started forming in her eyes. “Welcome to the family, Ben.”
Ben’s parents had been a power couple. Kert Blakeman and Elizabeth Rubicoff had met at Harvard Law School in the seventies. Harvard Law was the penultimate step in separately-hatched but nearly-identical ten-year-plans made after Martin Luther King’s assassination (when Kert and Elizabeth were both eighteen). They were known by their class, and even most teachers, as a single unit of interest: “Kert and Liz.” People wondered what “Kert and Liz” had thought of Friday’s exam, where “Kert and Liz” were planning on working for the summer, when and where “Kert and Liz” wanted to prepare for mock trial.
When they graduated, they set up a small criminal defense practice in D.C. Through the simple act of competent legal representation the Blakemans would protect repentant juveniles from a racist system that (if unchecked) would imprison them despite the marginality of their legal and moral transgressions.
The next four years confirmed everything Kert and Liz had always believed about good and evil (that there’s a little bit of both in all of us), power (that it corrupts), the oppressed (that the most powerless are capable of the greatest dignity), government, politics, and media. Where they were caught off guard was how tired it all made them. By year four, Kert realized that he hadn’t read a novel in over fifteen months. Liz had two drawers full of recipes that she had clipped and never gotten to try. Neither of them could make it to six o’clock without serious multiple intakes of caffeine.
So they gave up law. They moved to Martha’s Vineyard. They ran an inn.
They danced now at their son’s wedding reception: a little swing, a little freestyle. They were as deeply in love as the day they had met.
Meanwhile, Ben and Judith quickly broke down a guest greeting strategy: they would swing left first, towards Judith’s BAARC coworkers and other activist friends standing near the bar; then hang to the left of the dance floor and talk to the table of Judith’s family friends from Cupertino and the two tables of Judith’s relatives from Taiwan; split up on the dance floor and dance with their school and city friends and cousins there; join up again and spend time with the Mud23 and MBAD tables and the table of Judith’s med school friends on the other side; visit with the Martha’s Vineyard table and table of older Blakemans and Rubicoffs near the doors before they left for the night; split up and try to talk to any stragglers that they had missed; and then meet up on the dance floor to get the energy going there again for the last hour of the party.
“People see what they want to see. A simple smear campaign, especially a disingenuous one, can’t define an entire election.”
“It can when it’s a five-point election and a wartime election and a smear campaign architected to turn a war hero candidate’s war record against him.”
“What the hell is a swiftboat, anyway?”
Judith’s coworkers and activist friends were all extremely drunk. The activisterati of San Francisco was wasted. After a few drinks, their coffee shop vocabularies, their Chomskyesque analyses, and their obsession (hate so intense it resembled love at times) with the Trojan horse tactics and neocon agenda of the Bush administration overcame the weariness of overuse and emerged with renewed vigor.
“A swiftboat is an aluminum, fifty-feet-long, shallow-draft fast patrol craft operated by the American Brown Water Navy for counterinsurgency operations during the Vietnam War,” Judith said.
“I knew that she would know the answer to that,” a BAARC strategist said.
“‘Know the weather and know the ground and your victory will be complete,’” Howie, the director of a progressive fundraising outfit, said.
“I hate Sun Tzu,” a woman named Phyl said. “The Art of War is just one long asinine nursery rhyme. I’ll bet it even rhymes in Chinese. Watch, I’ll write a book that unearths the hidden meanings behind ‘The Old Woman in a Shoe,’ and people will eat that up the exact same way.”
“Oh Phyl, you’re so cynical,” Judith said.
“You’re right. I should be more like you,” Phyl said. “You don’t have illusions about people, but you’re never cynical. How do you do it?”
“Sleep,” said Ben. “That’s her secret. Seven hours a night, every night.”
“Only Judith Lam could sleep so well, knowing the things she knows about the medical system in this country,” the BAARC strategist said.
They all laughed.
Howie was checking email on his PDA and suddenly his left arm shot straight up as he peered closer in to look at the device’s tiny screen in his other hand. “Oh, jesus christ. My director of donor relationships wants to know if it’s okay to move Elizabeth Edwards’ fundraising dinner to a smaller room. Since when is it ever okay to move a fundraising dinner to a smaller room? You sell the tables you’re given!” He laughed incredulously.
“Just ignore her,” Judith said. “That’s what I do when people ask silly questions.” She smiled.
“Yeah, well I wouldn’t talk to anybody on my staff for days if I did that,” Howie said. “But yeah, you’re right. Forget Sun Tzu and the old shoe woman, Judith Lam is all you need.” He laughed again. He picked up his sweaty glass of scotch from the bar and downed its liquid contents.
Judith’s political friends were not, on paper, the most inspiring bunch to be around. However, they all knew and loved Judith, and based on that alone, Ben kind of loved them.
People who hadn’t danced in years were dancing. Men for whom moving rhythmically to music had been an act successfully avoided through slow chewing and strategically-timed bathroom breaks at many previous weddings were moving around with gusto on the 250-square-foot space in QWERTY’s lounge that had been cleared for dancing. White-haired family friends who sometimes had trouble remembering what day it was found that they could remember the steps to the foxtrots and jives that they had danced at their own weddings.
After finishing their first table rounds, Ben danced with Judith for a little bit, then they split up as planned and he found his high school friends: Cal, the investment banker; Heather, the fashion designer; Keiko, the journalist; and Wilbur, the med school student. All four lived in New York; all four were still single.
Ben suspected that some amount of luck was involved in the business of coupling, but—he couldn’t help it—he found most single people slightly pathetic since he had gotten engaged, even his friends. They seemed so lost: making pro/con lists, putting up with so much awkwardness and bad behavior, over-analyzing dates with and mixed messages from people who (to Ben) seemed to have no interest in anything serious.
Heather, Cal, Keiko, and Wilbur had gotten close again over the past two years, and they saw each other all the time in New York. They had some inside jokes now that Ben wasn’t a part of, and every other sentence one of them said contained the words “in New York.” Even though he had been through a lot with them, and in some ways they knew him better than anyone else in the world, he was also glad that he’d moved on.
He felt generous tonight, felt that his friends would find what they were looking for eventually. Everyone just moved at their own pace.
Dancing with his old clique, Ben looked back at his bride. Judith’s glossy black hair was still pulled back in a neat chignon. She held the skirt of her dress in both hands, danced to the eighties song that was playing, and laughed. He didn’t know how he’d gotten so lucky, how he’d skipped all of the angst and confusion of his age bracket and gone straight to the good stuff.
Ben had promised himself that he wouldn’t think about Garcia on his wedding day, but he kept editing the “Gil Garcia: G x G” plans in his head. Ben and Judith’s wedding cake baker was famous for her miniature pastel tres leches cakes that came in cardboard jewelry boxes, with edible gold-covered chocolate rings inside. Ben didn’t know why he hadn’t put two and two together before. He was certain that he could get the baker to do a special version of the jewelry box pastel tres leches for the Garcia party.
Judith and Ben finished dancing, joined up again, and made their remaining table rounds, taking pictures with and making small talk with dozens more guests. When they’d finished their last table, the reception’s population had thinned out by about a third, but the energy in the restaurant had increased in both volume and tempo.
Additionally, groups had begun to intermingle: Judith’s friends Howie and Phyl were talking to Max by the bar; Ben’s high school friends Heather and Keiko were dancing with some guys that Ben worked with at MBAD; one of Ben’s cousins was talking to Phillip and Angela from Mud23; Nazneen was flirting with a divorced med school classmate of Judith’s; Anastasia Richards’s date Jeff was talking about god-knows-what with Ben’s high school friend Wilbur; Anastasia herself seemed to be everywhere all at once; two couples from Judith and Ben’s San Francisco friend group and a couple from Judith’s med school group were in deep discussion about something that involved diagrams drawn on cocktail napkins at an empty table in the back...
And Marin, Becky, Jorge, Max’s sister Jessie, and one of Judith’s cousins came out from the kitchen and gathered behind the bar in a semicircle around Gabe Richards. Gabe appeared to be giving them all some kind of tour. He also appeared to be placing his hand on the square of Marin’s back a lot. All of them laughed at something that Gabe said and came back out from behind the bar, near where Max, Howie, and Phyl were talking.
“Water, babe?” Judith asked Ben.
Ben nodded, and they walked, holding hands, to the bar. Ben noticed Marin go out of her way to physically separate herself from Gabe.
Ben called out to him, “Hey Gabriel, man, where are the glasses?” Ben pointed to the water fountain, mimed drinking, and pointed to Judith.
Gabe came over and got two glasses out of a cabinet. He quickly filled them with ice and opened a bottle of French mineral water and filled each glass with an inch-and-a-half of mineral water. Ben joined him behind the bar.
“Thanks, man,” Ben said. He handed one glass over the counter of the bar to Judith, who was now deep in conversation with Jorge and Jessie.
“Having fun?” Gabe asked Ben.
Ben took a big drink of water, and wanted to swim in it.
“I can’t complain,” Ben said. “We owe you big time.” Gabe had waived QWERTY’s venue fee and given Ben and Judith a 30% discount on the price per person.
“Are you kidding?” Gabe said. “How else was I going to rub the dissolute obscenities of my proletariat successes in my parents’ faces?”
Ben had the urge to, like Marin, physically separate himself from Gabe. Luckily, Howie and Phyl came over at that moment and introduced themselves to Gabe, complimenting him on his place and his food. Ben left them and joined Becky and Max in front of the bar just as Nazneen marched up to them regally as if she’d been summoned.
“Where’d Chookie go?” she asked.
“Bathroom,” Becky and Max said in unison.
“That girl has a bladder the size of a peanut,” said Nazneen. “Remember that time we went to the Foothills and she kept stopping every fifteen minutes to pee in the bushes?”
“We used to plan pee breaks for her into our dates,” Max said. “I think it’s because her dad used to experiment with his Fenniskrante meds on her when she was young. He messed up her kidneys or something.”
“Dr. Choo’s coming in two weeks for a drug launch thingie, so you can ask him about that yourself, if you want,” said Nazneen. “I think they’re trying to nip this whole thing in California in the bud.”
“Yeah, well they’re wasting time in California. Everyone I know is voting ‘pro’ on 66A,” Max said. “The stories Marin used to tell me about what her father does... Even now, they’re so frikking arrogant. Marin said that all the big drug companies are calling the state propositions the ‘D.A.R.E. bills’—doesn’t that make them drug dealers? I don’t get it.”
“‘I don’t get it,’” Nazneen repeated, in a high-pitched and whiny voice that did not sound at all like Max’s.
“Real mature, Naz,” Max said.
She laughed a very mean laugh.
“I think I want to live here,” Becky said.
“You’re moving back?” Ben said. “I thought you got a job in New York.”
“Not San Francisco,” Becky said. “Here: QWERTY.”
Ben laughed. Becky could be sweet and funny like that sometimes. He’d forgotten.
A great song came on then, a song that both Ben’s and Judith’s generations liked to claim as their own. One by one, they were drawn back to the dance floor by the long farrow memories that the song inspired. The entire party gathered on the dance floor, drawn first by the song and then because that’s where the party was. They shook limbs and heads and anything else that could be shaken. They sang along with the chorus with their eyes closed. They danced their silliest moves during the bridge.
It was ridiculous how easy it all was, how little trade-off there was to receive so much. And Ben finally realized that this was it—no shoe was going to drop, nothing bad was going to happen. Everyone had blessed their union, had eaten and drunk with abandon, and now they were going to dance, just like he and his wife had planned for months.