The private drama of Arlo's wedding is dwarfed by its magical setting: this desert canyon framed by mountains of pink sandstone, carved by the elements into humps and pinnacles that look like they might have come from a fairytale or a fever dream.
Sitting in the second row of folding chairs, holding J.Paul’s hand, Alexis admires her old friend’s new bride: moving down the aisle without pretense or vanity, energetic and matter-of-fact; hair the color of maple syrup, gleaming in the sun. Arlo drifts behind her as if happily lost, offering a snapshot of their difference which, Alexis thinks, might well foreshadow an aspect of their future: his tendency to succumb to fits of dreaminess which Kitt will tolerate from her practical stance, anchored by the physical logic of their daily lives.
There’s a general shifting, an exhalation; what everyone has come to see is now accomplished: “Arlo” and “Kitt” are now “Arlo-and-Kitt,” a deliberate yet unpredictable transformation externalized by the drawing of two silken cords binding mesh bags cradled in the newlyweds’ hands, freeing two clouds of butterflies along with the ahh of the spectators, who soon quiet to match the silence of the fragile creatures rising to their freedom in the brilliant sun. They dapple the air with dancing spots of winking brilliance like slow-motion fireworks, then dissipate; floating off like gilded flakes of ash, coming to rest among the sycamores with the slow open and shut of so many languid eyes.
The back of Alexis’ neck registers the prickling sensation of a new attention: Elvis, her old love, hanging back behind the rest of the guests, leaning against the gnarled trunk of a majestic cottonwood.
There’s a rustle among the guests, the odd intimacy of strangers wiping away kindred tears, restoring their customary social composure. Everyone seems to understand that they are free, now, like the butterflies, to move about—the ceremony’s unspoken code as familiar to the country club relatives with their white stockings and flashing jewelry as the young counter-culture mothers whose organic-cotton-diapered babies will not taste sugar until society exercises its prerogative to wrest them from their exclusive influence.
-Isn’t it funny,- Alexis says to J. Paul, carried by the flow of the collective body moving to congratulate the happy couple, -how everyone knows what to do? And how happy they are, to do it?-
-Everybody loves rituals,- J. Paul replies.
-Well, not everybody...-
-Yeah well, you’re kind of a freak!-
Now that they’ve made it to the front of the line, the sight of Arlo as a married man makes Alexis want to laugh and cry and hug and kiss him. -Look at you!- she says, pinching his cheeks, -look at you, acting so grown up!-
While J. Paul turns to Kitt, who is new to their old friendship, and needs to be welcomed. He gives her his full attention, blue eyes taking in her slim figure and gleaming hair, gracefully balancing flirtation with respect.
Of course Arlo has seated Alexis next to Elvis; the three of them have known each other since high school. Alexis notices with satisfaction that Elvis’ hair, gleaming in the sun, is almost as long as it was when they were lovers. She hasn’t forgotten its particular perfume: toasty, almost burnt. Also the fine thread of it, soft as tassels. She interprets the crush of his chest against hers as a sign: that he has not turned his back on his feelings for her. Something she’s always waiting to find out, when she sees him again.
Happily, J. Paul and Elvis interact with what seems like genuine interest, launching an animated conversation punctuated by a certain comradely patting of shoulders. Alexis has long admired J. Paul’s easy affection—the affirmation he offers to both men and women; his refusal to compete. How decent of him, how solid and strong, to accept Elvis in such good faith, just as he accepted Kitt—inducting them, making them feel welcome.
The man seated on her other side introduces himself. Another old friend of Arlo’s, one she’s never met. -Arlo’s mom,- he says, peering intently at her through his glasses, -told me all about you two. I can’t believe how long you’ve been together.-
Normally, there is nothing she’d rather talk about. But Elvis’ presence changes everything. So does the nature of the occasion, since marriage is not the same, in her mind, as either love or commitment—a point of view which makes her feel, under the circumstances, like something of a curmudgeon.
The newlyweds dance alone on the flagstone terrace. Alexis wonders if they can hear the music over the roar of the river. Gradually, a straggle of guests joins in: an older couple delicately picking out the box-step, two young women dangling a laughing toddler between them.
-Maybe,- Alexis muses aloud, -events like this conceal more than meets the eye.- She pauses. -I mean, weddings offer rather a strange vision of the world.-
-How we want it to be,- J. Paul asks, -as opposed to how it is?-
-I don’t know,- Elvis says. -It looks pretty nice to me.-
How should Alexis interpret the sadness in his voice? Could he be thinking of her? Does she want that? Or might he want all this, more than any person in particular–and feel the need to turn his back on her to get it?
She tries to imagine Elvis as a husband: his jagged and uneven textures battered by the social pressure of convention to something smooth and acceptable, a river rock.
The song ends, and the dancing baby drops on his behind. Alexis’s new acquaintance says, -why don’t you have any kids? You’re the ones who should.-
Alexis snaps, -when someone tells me what they think I should do, I can’t help wondering if it’s what they want for themselves.- Almost immediately, she regrets her harsh reaction. How could this man know the mix of emotions she’s trying to balance?
But either he doesn’t register her blow, or he’s not easily wounded. -Guilty as charged!- he says. -I’d love to have a family. Unfortunately I’m still not, you know, in a position to have one.- To J. Paul he says, -feel free,- gesturing at the dance floor. -You don’t need to babysit me.-
J. Paul glances at Alexis to see what she wants to do. She can’t help feeling a bit like a specimen on display in this environment where coupling is the topic of the day. Rituals, she thinks, are the voices of the past saying, we were right. Saying, do as we did.
Still, she does love to dance. Taking hold of J. Paul’s warm hand, she leads him to the floor, settling her body into the cocoon of stability that seems to surround him.
-So beautiful. Don’t you think?- she says, watching a butterfly clinging to a twig.
She gestures towards the creature, which hesitates, opening and closing its wings, as if wondering in which direction to continue its surprising life.
-It’s a miracle. That something so fragile can survive such a harsh environment.-
-Appearances can be deceiving. Apparently, releasing them isn’t such a good idea.-
-They tip the natural balance.-
-How sad,- she says. -If ironic.-
They both giggle, and she’s aware of Elvis’ eyes on them. She knows what they must look like: their minds and bodies effortlessly in synch. But, after all, hasn’t this day been trying for J. Paul as well?
She nuzzles her face into his neck. -Hey. Are you OK?-
She can feel his muscles tighten, ever so slightly. That he did not expect her to ask makes her feel terrible; for taking his ever-reliable inner strength for granted.
-Just tell me you love me,- J. Paul says.
-Oh, J. P., I really, really—-
But he puts his finger to her lips, stopping her. -Some other way.-
Cake-cutting is the last organized event of the day. Only then is the unity of the occasion shattered; the guests re-sorting themselves according to age, geography, cultural identification. Arlo waves to J. Paul, beckoning him to join a loose cluster of friends kicking a hacky-sack. The one with the bag seems at once relaxed and intent: positioning his instep to keep the tiny bean-bag in the air, passing it to the next player without letting it drop. J. Paul has never tried it, but of course he’s game; kissing her lightly and trotting off, with a satirical, almost conspiratorial smile for Elvis. Leaving the two of them alone together. So?
-Let’s take a walk,- he says, and that familiar need to separate himself reminds her of their past and of the deep discomfort she knows he lives with, the one she’s always wanted to soothe.
She’s hardly surprised when he chooses the steepest path to the river. It’s difficult to navigate in her wedding clothes; the boulders at the bottom impossible to manage without taking off her sandals. In bare feet she’s able to balance, but the smooth rocks freeze her soles. She can’t tell if Elvis doesn’t notice, or just won’t acknowledge, her difficulties. The coldness of his neglect reminds her of past offenses to her vulnerability, provoking her to lash out in rebellion—even as she wants to seamlessly fulfill his (always unspoken) expectations.
Caught between irreconcilable impulses, she stops to examine an egg-shaped rock the color of slate: grey-blue with spider veins of white. She wonders if he’ll turn back and join her, repent his insensitivity, acknowledge the modest beauty of this small common object he would never have slowed to notice on his own.
He does, and watches her examine the rock; a gesture which immediately takes on a counterfeit air, as if she is imitating her own movements.
She notices more rocks balanced impossibly on end, as if glued to the larger rocks that form their bases, as the one in her hand must have been before she picked it up. Balanced on their curved ends like faces or like figures, like markers on an invisible path. The work of more than one person, no doubt; the work of many, perhaps, in some sort of dialogue, some reinforcement of mutual agreement.
Alexis has the impossible feeling she has been here before. She examines the rugged, weather-tossed landscape: punctuated by this anonymous gesture like a code, some sort of language of belonging, some tacit understanding it is assumed others who follow will share.
Finally, she and Elvis sit down side by side: the product of unvoiced compromise, his favorite kind. They face the rushing water, leaning against each other like the boulders piled at random all around them, like a giant tree she notices on the other side of the river, stopped in its fall by a close and sturdy neighbor.
Alexis takes up a wedge-shaped rock, made of the same glittering rust-colored sandstone as the fantastical formations towering overhead. She kneels on a smooth, pale boulder: as white and round as a buttock or a breast, wondering what to write. Scratches out:
Looking at Elvis, not expecting an answer but wanting to know if he is with her—if they are, in their odd way, together.
But it’s J. Paul’s eye she catches, arriving at her side. Coming to rest beside her, looking at the tireless current—rushing on and on without repeating the trajectory by which it overwhelms and avoids, batters and smooths the stones which are its opportunities and obstacles.
His attention is captured by the rock cairns all around them. He selects a new stone from the riverbed; a fist-sized sphere with the color and shine of Kitt’s hair. Carefully, he positions and repositions it on the top stone of the tallest cairn, rising not entirely steadily to hip height. Finally, he succeeds in supporting it; cupping it with determined care, like the weak blaze of a match sputtering in the wind. Letting it stand on its own—balanced.