“Dearly beloved ...,” Father Joseph O’Flaherty began, speaking into the microphone pinned to his collar, his voice booming through the speakers on either side of the altar and bouncing off the thick stone walls and vaulted ceiling of the cathedral. He stood behind a large ivory table, which was bare save a closed bible with red ribbon bookmark dangling from its pages.
Ralph and Brenda stood on the altar at St. Mary’s, facing the priest, their backs to three hundred and fifty RSVP’d guests sitting on evenly spaced pews in the nave. Some guests stared at the backs of the bride and groom while most gazed at one of two large screens on either side of the altar where the video feeds from two cameras were projected; the screen on the left displayed a closeup of the couple’s faces and the one on the right a wider angle of Father O’Flaherty behind his table with the couple facing him. The cameras brought the audience close enough to the altar to see the sweat beginning to bead on Ralph’s forehead and the excessive blinking of his eyes, the wrinkles behind his knees from the thirty minute limo ride, the lint on his right shoulder, the tendrils of hair framing Brenda’s face and cherry-coloured lips, the hint of her shoulder blades and spine protruding beneath the skin—the results of eating only 7 and a half bites of every second meal for the last three months. The deep ruts in Father O’Flaherty’s face were cavernous on the screen; up close, he looked like a villain in a spy movie or the captain of a starship carrying a desperate and rebellious crew.
“Now,” Father O’Flaherty said, “Ralph, Brenda, please face each other and hold hands.” He cleared his throat. “Do you ...” Father O’Flaherty began, his voice slightly more stern.
This is it, Brenda thought, her watering eyes causing tears to pool, gathering dangerously close to the crow-black eyeliner. Brenda wouldn’t let herself blink, wouldn’t let black tears stain her cheeks. Not today.
Don’t cry, she told herself, staring into the dry eyes of the man she was going to spend the rest of her life with.
As she gazed at Ralph, she explored his face, his 5 o’clock shadow getting thicker by the second even though he’d shaved only hours before, his razor-burned neck a patchy red that resembled pubescent acne, his brushy eyebrows with a few impossibly long hairs curling toward his eyes and demanding a good plucking, his bulbous nose that was just like his father’s only slightly smaller because, thankfully, it had never—unlike his father’s nose—been broken despite the countless pucks and sticks and gloves and helmets that had rushed toward it.
Brenda never wanted to marry into a hockey family but now she was only a few words away from exactly that. She felt hockey turned both spectators and players into Neanderthals, that the players and owners were overpaid and the fans were escapist suckers. Thinking about the awful hockey jersey that was, no doubt, in a gift-wrapped box on the back seat of the Smiths’ Buick, Brenda shuddered and swallowed back bile that rose from her empty stomach.
“I do,” she said, smiling and squeezing Ralph's clammy hands with her own equally damp palms.
Smith. Smith. I’m going to be a Smith, Brenda thought, her throat burning. Brenda Smith. Mrs. Smith. A hockey-jersey-wearing Smith.
The idea of having to pretend to be excited about a jersey and, even worse, potentially having to try it on—in front of everyone—by pulling it down overtop of her vintage Helen Rose gown made her heartburn even worse. She looked like Grace Kelly, and princesses don’t wear jerseys. She’d have to smile for pictures with it on, her dress poking out beneath the excessively-coloured potato sack jersey like an after thought, a grotesque clashing that should’ve been punishable with jail time or dress confiscation. Her heart suddenly felt like meat on a spit roasting over the bonfire growing in her stomach.
They sat in the front row—the in-laws, the Smiths. Brenda could see their blurry silhouettes in her periphery. Beside them, and only slightly less blurry, her parents; mum’s face soaked with happiness while one hand strangled a tissue and the other disappeared into dad’s large, oil-stained mitts—strong, rough mechanic’s hand and a nurse’s tender moisturized hand squeezed together.
Ralph had baby hands, plump and stubby with long pallid nails at the ends of fingers that were all roughly the same length. She didn’t like his fingers inside her. The jagged scrape of them always made her arch her back and jerk away. Brenda had considered getting him a manicure as a wedding present but then realized that she’d never have to make love to his fingers again.
“I do,” Ralph said, his voice cracking slightly, causing an incendiary snicker to ripple through the crowd, igniting bursts of laughter that Father O’Flaherty’s reproachful frown quickly doused.
Brenda smirked and glanced at the guests. Ralph’s face had turned dog-penis red by the time Brenda’s gaze returned to him. She thought of Percy, the Bernese Mountain Dog owned by breeders across the street from her parents. The first time she’d seen the red menace was while scratching Percy’s belly as he lay sprawled on the grass. She had even touched it accidentally. Grazed it with the back of her hand. It was sticky and hot and something in Percy’s eyes changed as he lay splayed in front of her, his chest heaving and his tongue hanging out the side of his panting mouth. After washing her hands three times, Brenda searched the internet for pictures of penises, human penises. She needed to know if they looked as hot and lustful as the ones that come out all blood-red and beady. She found more than she was expecting online that day, but felt relieved that men weren’t dogs behind their flies.
I hope his penis doesn’t scratch like his fingers, she thought, knowing it was ridiculous to worry about such a thing; his penis didn’t have a nail, didn’t have anything sharp or jagged that could hurt her. It did have that shrivelled foreskin though, like an old woman's elbow skin wrapped around the tip of a finger. Brenda didn’t mind touching it with her hand but would never put it in her mouth. She wondered if it would hurt and thanked God that she didn’t have an eye down there.
“Ralph Smith,” Father O’Flaherty said. “You may now kiss your bride.”
Ralph leaned in and pressed his dry lips against Brenda’s. She squeezed her eyes shut and felt his parched lips and mouth stick to her lipsticked lips. The kiss was nothing like their passionate make-out sessions that usually ended with hand sex. It was like the first kiss three years before, behind the black velvet stage curtain in grade twelve drama class. They had stepped back there to get away from the noise of the other groups. It was darker. Their faces were close. And Ralph just did it. Fast, close-mouthed, and dry.
Applause erupted in the cathedral. Ralph pulled away as fast as he did the first time behind the curtain, and it was as if the kiss counter had been reset—one.
“By the power vested in me by Almighty God, I now pronounce you man and wife.”
The clapping grew louder. Ralph and Brenda looked back and saw that everyone was standing.
Father O’Flaherty took the bible from the long table in front of him, bent down, and lifted a small white pillow onto the table. Placing the pillow on the table he said, “We may now conclude the ceremony and complete the marriage.” He then walked around the table and pulled a stepping stool out from beneath it. “Brenda,” he said, holding his hand out to her.
Brenda turned to Father O’Flaherty. This was it. The moment. She rubbed her sweaty hands on her dress, stepping past her husband to take Father O’Flaherty’s hand. The priest helped her step up to the table and lay back, her head resting on the pillow.
“Now, Ralph,” he said, gesturing for him to come forward.
Ralph stepped up to the table and, while standing beside it, slowly moved his hand under Brenda’s dress. Reaching up, he struggled for a moment before pulling down quickly. Thrusting his arm into the air, he held Brenda’s white thong in his hand. The congregation cheered as Ralph twirled it around over his head before flinging it into the crowd like an elastic band.
Brenda watched as her little cousin, Katie, stood on a pew and snatched the thong out of the air, jumping up and down, screaming.
Then Ralph mounted the table and lifted Brenda’s dress slightly. On top of her, he held himself up with one hand and unzipped with the other. The arm that held him trembled. Brenda wanted to help steady him but she lay still, turning her gaze away from the congregation and toward the sculpture of Jesus, crucified and bloodied with an expression of dejected agony. She then felt the weight of Ralph press down on her as he lowered himself and thrust his entire body up. Brenda continued to gaze at Jesus as the throb and heat of her husband slid up her inner thigh and poked around, blindly. Ralph tilted his hips and thrusted again, poking too far down.
Jesus help him. He’s better with his fingers, Brenda thought, wanting to reach down and guide him.
Brenda looked up at the vaulted ceiling and sighed, her heart burning and pounding almost through her chest. It’s almost over.
With the arm closest to the altar, Ralph reached down and helped himself consummate the marriage.
It was fire, burning Brenda deep inside, making her think of skinned knees on a gymnasium floor and the smell of seared teeth under a dentist’s drill. The pain stopped her breath and forced her eyes closed and her hands into fists.
“He’s inside,” Father O’Flaherty declared.
The congregation aahed and stared transfixed at the screens.
The communal sound of pleasure caused Brenda to exhale and open her eyes. As Ralph rocked up and down, the pain diminished slightly, letting pleasure wink at her, the rapture coming to take her away. But then Ralph became still, stopped breathing, and dropped the full weight of himself down on top of her. Beneath the suffocating pressure, Brenda felt Ralph throbbing inside her and then quickly shrinking. Fire radiated between her legs. Ralph lifted himself up, and Brenda heard his fly zip. She watched him stand and turned to her; he held out his hand, his cheeks red, his eyes glazed slightly, his sweaty face glistening under the cathedral lights.
Brenda remembered Father O’Flaherty saying, “Remember to offer her your hand afterward,” during rehearsal.
Brenda sat up and placed her hand in Ralph’s. Using the steps, she descended from the table and stood beside her husband.
“It is my pleasure to announce, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
The congregation, still standing, cheered.
“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
Brenda saw little Katie twirling the white thong over her head, saw her parents and in-laws clapping wildly, saw uncle Jeremy whistling through fingers in his mouth. Just then, Brenda felt something warm and thick slide out of her. She almost heard it hit the floor of the altar before looking down, pulling her dress up slightly so she could see it—creamy and glittering in the light. Brenda thought it looked like the gross cough syrup her parents used to give her. She felt more coming so she squatted slightly and, this time, watched the goo splat on the altar floor, growing the tiny pile. She looked at her four inch white stilettos to make sure none had splashed onto them as more dripped out and still more slid down to escape.
Ralph stepped forward. Brenda followed but continued to hold up her dress so it wouldn’t drag through the gunk, the ‘baby batter’ as her mother in-law had once called it. They walked up the aisle through the cheers, back the way they had come; Brenda slightly bowlegged, the slow drip drip drip leaving a trail behind her. She glanced down at the red carpet—it was stained with countless little spots that got farther and farther apart the closer they got to the exit. The carpet was immaculate for the last few steps right in front of the exit, not a stain in sight, just a constant velvety red. Before stepping over the threshold, Brenda paused for a moment on the clean carpet and stomped. She stomped once with each foot to try to get the rest of Ralph out of her, to get his baby batter out of her. After stepping through the doors, Brenda glanced back to see a couple of glistening droplets on the once clean patch of rug.
In the vestibule before moving outside—the cheers of the congregation hushed in the distance—Brenda smirked, turned toward Ralph, and said, “I’d rather die than wear a hockey jersey.”
Ralph looked stunned, his face still flushed and sweaty.
“Yeah, okay,” he said.
Brenda scrutinized her husband’s face. She imagined his penis as equally red and moist, hoped their kids would look more like her, wondered if her egg was getting fertilized at that moment all the while remembering grade nine Sex Ed when Mr. Letterer said, “The female reproductive tract is particularly hostile to sperm.”
Brenda strained to make her body more acidic, to spread the burn from her stomach downward. “Die sperm, die,” she mistakenly said out loud.
“What?” Ralph asked, furrowing his brow.
“Nothing,” Brenda said, letting her dress fall, cutting off the slight breeze that was drying her crotch. “Let’s just go to the limo.”