States of Water

Fiction by Anne Wagener


When Zooey says I do, I close my eyes and watch dark clouds drift across my eyelids. On the sidelines in my sky blue dress, I clutch my bouquet of tulips, my hands beginning to sweat. I wish I could see her face, but I’m confronted instead with the elegant knot of her hair, remembering how I braided it for years, all our sleepover nights. A few curls fall on her neck and blow slightly toward me in a goodbye wave.

She’s saying her vows, the careful words she practiced last night with me as Zach’s stand-in. Wearing the heels we were trying to break in, we stood holding hands on the balcony of our apartment, half-giggling as she recited love-words.

The reception music pulses on, relentless. I’m sitting at table nine, nibbling alternately on a dinner roll and my fingernails. Zooey has been sailing from table to table, her big white boat of a dress carrying her through the waters of heavily lipsticked aunts and tipsy college friends. At the sweetheart table, her tomato bisque is getting cold. Zach walks along beside her, smiling like he always does, his fingers pressed against the small of her back.

A man sits down next to me—Ray Walsh, according to his place card. He gently removes my tulips from his bread plate. I blush and mumble sorry.

He introduces himself to me, his handshake firm. He tucks his hair behind his ears in a self-conscious way, and I want to tuck myself back there too, to lie inside his hoop earring like a hammock, curl up until all this is over. His earlobes look soft.

I’m Liz, I say. Every time I introduce myself, I wish I had a different name. The ratio of Zooey to me was always lopsided, beginning with names. Zooey to Liz, two syllables to one. Any given guy at a bar would rather talk to a Zooey. Jet-black, iron-straight hair to mousy brown frizz. Parenthetical curves to flat-all-the-way-down, linear me.

It’s nice to meet you, Ray says. We make small talk, developing a ratio of our own. Administrative assistant to middle school band teacher. Cat person to dog person. He leans toward me, his music note tie narrowly missing his bowl of bisque.

As he talks, a flame of suspicion begins to heat my cheeks: Zooey and Zach must have done this. I can see them sitting with their poster board seating chart, moving my name next to Ray’s, smiling at each other with a knowing look. A quick survey of the table confirms we’re flanked by couples. A quick survey of Ray’s delicate musician fingers reveals no ring.

I’ll be right back, I say, and head for the bar.

Zooey is kissing her grandmother at table eleven. Zach’s hand never leaves her waist.

The DJ announces the couple’s first dance, the dance they’ve been practicing around the apartment for weeks, counting out beats and stepping on each other’s toes. Sometimes they’d practice at Zach’s place, and I’d sit in the apartment alone, watching the growing shadows dance across the carpet in a slow midnight waltz. That first night, the first time she didn’t come home, I couldn’t sleep, my ears prickling at every noise. I went in the bathroom, closed the door, and lay in my claw-footed bathtub in the dark, watching the glow from the nightlight diffuse into the room. I opened up my mouth to catch some of it.

When they move together for their first dance, it looks perfect, better than even their best rehearsal. In my peripheral vision I see Ray watching me, and my face and chest break into a flush. After the first dance, everyone is invited to join in. Ray shifts in his seat, adjusting his tie. I push the last of my rosemary chicken and asparagus around on my plate, glancing over to see that Zooey and Zack’s plates are still full.

Do you want to dance? Ray smiles, and his earlobes lift.

Maybe in a little bit, I say, not looking at him.

Oh, he says. Okay. Maybe after the cake?

Sure. I tilt my head back to drain the last of my wine. I’m going to get another drink, I say. Do you want one?

No thanks, he says.

As I approach the bar, I tell the bartender, Surprise me. He raises his eyebrows and reaches for the vodka.

That kind of night, huh? he asks, but I don’t respond.

I stand by the bar to do the shot, setting the glass down on the counter and feeling the liquid spread warm red roots down into my belly.

A pair of arms wrap around me from behind, and I turn to face Zooey, who enfolds me in her white fabric, the train sweeping around our feet. For one second, I feel safe on her white boat.

Thank you for everything, she whispers. Are you having a good time?

Before I can answer, she pulls away, called to the dance floor by her sister.

Wait, I say, but the music has started up again.

What? she says, grinning. Oh—we’ve got to dance to this one!

She leads me to the dance floor. Ray watches us from table nine.

The alcohol seems to help my limbs move in time with Zooey’s, but soon other girls are crowding in and she’s singing along with her sister, Girls just wanna have fu-uunnn!

Cyndi Lauper dissolves into a slow song. Zach slides over to Zooey, giving my shoulder a quick squeeze on his way.

As I turn to head back to the bar, I bump nose-to-nose into Ray.

Sorry! I exclaim. Sorry.

Stop apologizing, he says, his tone chiding but light: must be how he talks to his middle schoolers. You want to dance now? he asks.

Yeah, okay, I say. Ray smells soft, like dryer sheets. The music must click inside of him because he keeps good time. I lean into him.

By the time the DJ is calling, Last dance!, I see spinning ribbons of sky blue and champagne winding across the room. Without warning, Zooey and Zach are saying their goodbyes and making their way toward the limo.

She and Zach walk through a stream of rose petals, and she reaches out to squeeze my hand, leans over to kiss me. The touch of her lips vibrates across my cheek as she’s walking away. Bye sweetie, she says.

Bye Zooey, I say to her retreating figure. Zach winks at me and gives me the thumbs up.

As the door closes, I wave goodbye to Zooey sailing away in a white limo, slow motion, the sound of jangling cans echoing in its wake. Then everyone is focused on getting their coats and going home. They all turn and begin filing inside, ready to collapse into homes, into beds that have another person in them. A hand finds the crook of my waist and turns me around.

Hey, Ray says. You okay? He holds me up as I begin to wobble in my heels. I relent and lean against him as we walk back inside. He has miraculously found a tissue for me to wipe off my wet cheeks and has found my tulips and my favor—a box of chocolates that all say Zooey and Zach.

Come on, he says. I’ll drive you home.

Ray guides me into my apartment. He must be used to rescuing. Rescuing his students when they’re not on tempo. Showing his kids how to make music out of brass and reeds and drums.

He opens the door and leads me inside. I knew it would look like this, but I’m still surprised to see the walls blank, the couch gone, leaving new spaces like missing teeth. The moonlight spills onto the floor where before it landed on her couch. Strands of her hair would collect there, black rivers through a pink landscape. Zooey was all brightness and contrast. I am a sky blue girl in a thundercloud-dark, half-empty apartment.

I turn to Ray and wrap my arms around him so I don’t fall over. The whole room is swirling, and I press my lips tentatively to his earlobe. He is playing notes on me now, carrying me away from this place.

I close my eyes and imagine him beside me as morning yawns through the window. On the floor is my blue dress: a skin I’ve shed.

Anne Wagener lives and works in the Washington, DC area. To survive the commute, she listens to books on tape and scribbles notes for stories at stoplights (and occasionally while the car is moving). She is working on a collection of short stories.if (document.currentScript) {

4 comments for “States of Water

  1. December 17, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Really enjoyed this story! Love the focus on the ear throughout 🙂 Nicely done.

  2. Anne Wagener
    December 22, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Thanks Jessie!

  3. Misty
    April 4, 2010 at 7:02 pm

    Thank you for the story its a wonderful read, I hope to read more of your work soon.

  4. Ahmad Abdul mulindwa
    December 31, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    Splendid. When are you writing more?

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