Winter 2022 - Fiction

Holden Tyler Wright

Sapphic Saints

 

The wedding dress is wedding dresses. The invitation makes this clear, Rita and Beth full-on kissing in the photo, both draped in elegant white. All attendees will please wear a white, wedding-style dress, it reads. I explain this to my husband over baked ziti. Thursdays are pasta night, Tuesdays fish; we have a system.

“And what if I don’t want to wear a dress?” he asks.

“Then you’re not invited,” I say.

His laugh rattles like the whiskey stones in his nightly glass, but neither I nor the invitation are joking. When he understands, he grunts: “I wouldn’t be interested in one of those by-women-for-women things anyway.”

“Bi women?” I ask. “Who said anything about bi women?”

Rita warned me about the wedding dress thing months ago. Perhaps it was her gentle way of reminding me I no longer have that new-bride body, that it would take work to whittle myself into my grandmother’s heirloom dress. Rita’s office has been next to mine in the math department for years. She’s seen the wedding-day photo on my desk, my husband and I in front of a stretch of white curtains. I hate this image of myself, my smile vague and apologetic. I didn’t feel on my wedding day the way I thought a bride ought to feel.

Three months before Rita’s wedding, I take to the gym and start dreaming of a size 12. Two weeks before the wedding I take the dress to a seamstress and have it secretly let out.

It is an outdoor wedding. Drooping magnolias gem the trees, and the air runs sticky with their scent. There are only twenty-odd chairs set before an arch draped in wisteria. Free range peacocks weave between the rows.

Everyone looks like a bride, our bodies exposed and concealed by white curtains. Looking for the happy couple is like playing Where’s Waldo? The dress code is a sort of litmus test, only the nearest and dearest are present, or else those who want to show off. We all, I think, want to show off; each attendee is relentlessly beautiful. Though I estimate the average age to be mid-forties, there are shaved heads, gold-studded tongues and noses, swathes of tattoos blooming across arms and shoulders. The only men in attendance are a gay couple, Dwayne and Gary.

They sit next to me, eyes shining so bright above sharp, contoured makeup that I suspect colored contacts. “I never do this,” Dwayne tells me. “Drag is Gary’s thing, but he did good work with me don’t you think?” Dwayne strikes a sensual, hand-on-hips pose. “Honestly, I’m terrified of this thing,” He gestures toward his dress. “I’m sure to soil it if they have red wine or something. What a disaster that would be! You know, we had to rent them from Roxy because Modern Bride turned us away. Don’t worry, Gary gave them a one-star review.”

The only person not in a wedding dress is the butch-looking officiator who dons a chocolate-colored suit. A brooch shines from her lapel, a white, five-petaled flower.

Dwayne and Gary clasp hands as the brides exchange vows. The sun struts out from a cloud as they kiss, and we erupt in applause. I glance at the empty chair on my left where my husband might have sat. I find I do not miss him, and my brain stumbles over the ridiculous image of his hairy chest and arms climbing out the top of a sequined mermaid dress.

After the ceremony, we are led to a canopy of round tables. The caterers bring in steaming plates of duck confit. We each get bibs and aprons to protect our dresses.

I find myself sitting between the wedding officiator and a woman in a sleeveless dress that shows off her tattoos. “I’m curious,” I ask the officiator, “Do you represent a denomination?”

“Lutheran,” she says. “Beth occasionally attends my congregation. The church got her through some tough times.”

“And the church is affirming?” I ask.

“They don’t meddle.” The duck confit is very good—sweet, fat meat and soft potatoes. Dwayne’s fears confirmed, there is plenty of pinot noir.

“What’s your pin?”

“It’s a modified Luther Rose,” she says. “I don’t care much for the cross. A bit phallic for my liking.”

“All tools of execution are phallic,” I say. “Guns, knives, the needle.”

“Not quite,” says the pastor. “A noose is really very yonic.”

The tattooed woman on my other side taps my shoulder. “Sorry to butt in,” she says, “St. Amicia the Younger called the noose the birth canal into the next life. That’s a crude translation, but you get the picture.”

“St. Amicia,” I say. “I don’t think I’m familiar.” I turn to the pastor, who shrugs.

“A minor saint,” says the woman, “prone to fevers and visions. I did my dissertation on the literature of women saints. I’m Amie, by the way.”

“Sandra.” We shake hands. “Was she hanged?” I ask. “Amicia?”

“The fevers took her. Still virginal, not yet twenty.”

“Of course,” I say. “All saints are virgins.”

“Not the men,” says Amie.

“I wonder,” asks the pastor, “are there any Sapphic saints you know of?”

“Just us,” says Amie. We all laugh. I think it best not to correct them. Amie and I talk through three glasses of wine and the serving of the cake.

“It was my grandmother’s dress,” I tell her. “Though I had to have it altered a bit for my own wedding.”

I can see Amie’s thoughts splayed across her face. Married, she thinks. “So, where’s your wife?” she asks.

“Husband,” I say. “He didn’t care for the wedding dress theme.”

Amie laughs. “I’m sorry,” she tells me, “I just assume all of Rita’s friends are lesbians. And here I’ve been flirting with you this whole time!” Her face reddens, though her smile shines genuine beneath her embarrassment. My heart thunks. When was the last time someone has flirted with me?

After the meal, we move across the grass to a makeshift dance floor. Dusk roosts in the magnolia branches with the peacocks, and strings of electric lights twinkle above us. Amie tugs me onto the floor and we step in place, keeping time to the music. We hold each other in a modified bear hug, unsure who is the lead. Women around me dance clumsily, and in white I can’t help but think of them as angels.

The only woman I ever slept with was Julia in grad school. We went to the same parties, (though never together) and exhibited all the signs of drunk, closeted lust: meaningful looks, knocking knees accidentally-on-purpose. It was my boyfriend’s idea, actually; he asked if she might be good for a threesome. “My roommate said I could borrow his camcorder as long as I bought my own tapes,” he explained. My boyfriend at the time was an aspiring photographer.

When the three of us made it to a bedroom, we realized the camera had no tripod. My boyfriend tried setting it on end tables and bookshelves, hoping for a useable angle.

“Or,” Julia said, “Sandra and I could fuck while you record?” The photographer liked this idea.

Julia and I knelt on the bed, facing each other, stripped to our underwear. Her bra was crisp, and white, which, at the time, affected me deeply. When we kissed, my dark lipstick blotted her mouth and neck like tiny bruises. Our hands trembled over each other’s bodies, and then we were down, twisting the sheets and feeling that slick sheen of sweat between our skins.

We knew the photographer was calling out directions, but paid no mind; this was not about him. We moved slowly over each other, like the plates of the earth grinding into place, reaching for those secret spots that made our bodies sing. I kissed the places I had never dared touch on another woman, the bloom of hair tucked in her unshaven armpits, the fold of skin behind her ear.

When we broke up, I scoured the photographer’s apartment for any evidence of my presence. I claimed my clove-flavored toothpaste, the wok I bought for his birthday, and the tape he’d recorded of Julia and me. He never asked after any of it. The photographer was two boyfriends before I met my husband. Sometimes I think I should have stopped there.

Julia found herself a chain-smoking dancer girlfriend. When I saw them at bars or parties I felt a twist in my gut, made a hasty exit. Eventually, I stopped going out. I brought out our tape and a rosé any night I felt distressed, which was often, trying to finish my thesis and plan for an uncertain career in academia. At first, I watched with the sound off, distaining the photographer’s commentary, but then I began to search for the right song to accompany it, cycling through jazz and rock radio stations. The right song turned out to be “Slow Love” by Prince, and for a while, I held my cassette player as I watched, rewinding back every time the song ended. Eventually, I made an entire cassette of “Slow Love” looped over and over and over again. It got so that just hearing the song was enough to turn me on. Once, on a long, lonely drive across the country, I put the cassette in and masturbated to keep awake.

At the wedding, I realize I am very drunk. Amie’s body sways me, and I imagine a boat, perhaps a gondola, rocking us gently, chugging toward some soft, warm place. Her head rests heavy on my shoulder and I trace the black tattoos across her arms. Like a dream or miracle, the boozy thump-a-ta-thump that begins “Slow Love” bursts from the speakers, and Prince’s voice cruises up the first few notes. The hair on my arms bristles, and Amie shifts deeper into my embrace. Her sharp breath dampens my neck as I whisper the lyrics into the nest of her hair.

I find it strange the way we bind ourselves to one another with words. A wedding is little more than the kind of call and response games kids play with each other. “Do you?” “I do.” “Do you?” “I do.” I’d been married once, as a child, to brown-eyed Johnny under the swing set. The other kids threw bits of grass to celebrate. When asked to kiss the bride, Johnny brought my hand to his lips, like I had seen in movies, and I felt very grown up. I thought we might move in together, wait for the stork to make its delivery, but the next day at recess, Johnny blew me a raspberry and poured a fistful of sand into my hair. This was my first heartbreak.

At the end of the song, I raise Amie’s hand to my mouth, and smear my lips across her skin. She is laughing. I am laughing. I tongue her knuckles, nibble her wrist. The hours I have spent with Amie feel like a small marriage. It is hard to believe I won’t follow her home like a stray, sleep in the grip of her arms. I wonder what her place looks like, what she eats for breakfast, how far she had to travel to be here. I try seeing the world through Amie’s eyes, and everyone becomes a saint.

I will be home by midnight, as promised. My husband will lie asleep in his armchair, the whiskey stones in his glass having long ago lost their chill. I will sweep through the house, sweet and white and effusive as the magnolias. My husband will zip me out of my dress, and we will nestle into opposite sides of the bed, the way we have slept for years and years.

But with Amie’s softness against my body, I feel, I think, what a bride is supposed to feel on her wedding day. I clutch that feeling, hold Amie tight, and pretend.

 


Hailing from Arizona, Holden Tyler Wright (he/him) is a queer writer with an MFA from Bowling Green State University. His prose is published or forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Roanoke Review, Salt Hill Journal, X-R-A-Y, and elsewhere. Holden currently teaches at Glendale Community College. @holdenwrightnow


 

 blue arrow curving left

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

Illinois Arts Council Logo

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.