In honor of May’s National Short Story Month, Flavorwire held its second short story contest and, after much deliberation, emerged with a first-place story, along with three honorable mentions. Over the course of the week, Flavorwire will be publishing each of the four winners. For today’s story, we present “Giving Grace Away” by Sarah Seltzer.
I hit on a major truth while taking my tux out of the dry cleaning bag before Abby Levy’s wedding. The kids who push hardest against their parents as teens—the class-failers, the curfew breakers, the experimenters in drugs and sex—they were just fighting fate. They become their parents after an interval of ten years.
Your friends sell out and settle down and sell out and settle down and there are so many goddamn weddings involved. And the brides and grooms-to-be all start out saying they want their weddings to be “unique” but then it’s “my dad wants to invite his partners,” and “her mom wants the cousins,” and “we envisioned a buffet but the folks are set on sit-down, and we gotta make them happy.” And you remember the times they stole their parents’ booze or were grounded for having a B on their report card and shouted, “I hate them, I hate them so much.”
Obviously they don’t choose to dwell on that history. It’s swept under the rug, or in Abby’s case under the custom aisle runners. A satin strap from Abby’s dress would obscure the Kurt Cobain quote some guy on St. Marks Street etched onto her shoulder one stoned afternoon in 12th grade, and the middle digit she raised with frequency in those halcyon days would settled into a supporting role next to the bling-covered fourth finger.
Her husband-to-be worked in mutual funds.
Before the ceremony I milled around, sipping filtered water with lime and remembering feeling Abby up back in high school, when she showed off her tits in a leather bra under a mesh top. In the midst of that blissful recollection I spied our old pal Grace Adler. Grace had skipped two reunions and her parents had moved upstate, so I hadn’t laid eyes on her since right after college, a decade or so.
After graduation, she peaced to Vermont, began organic farming, married, had a kid, and started an hippie website with her husband. They became minor internet personalities due to their farm blog. Besides me, she owned one of the most recognizable names in the class. Though if we’re being honest, she was a distant second.
I decided to say hi first, in case she was intimidated by me.
The three of us had long joked that we were family, since we first met at age two in preschool. And in high school we all rode the train together every morning, and most afternoons. Back then Abby, now readying for wifedom, had been the smart slutty girl we all hooked up with at some party. Grace was her counterpart: the best friend in glasses, the prim one we were all probably saving, waiting for her to lose the dowdiness and morph into girlfriend material. But by 20 she had moved to a campus co-op with her ascetic vegan boyfriend, and then skipped off to Vermont. I got the Vermont thing in a temporary way. Organic food, skiing, maple syrup, swimming holes. But Vermont forever, that baffled me.
I sat myself down next to her and watched her startle at my presence, ticking out and back like the second hand on a broken clock.
“Am I that frightening?” I asked.
Her arms were strong and tan but she had aged in a major way. I’m talking crow’s feet at thirty; not a normal sight for someone in my line of work. I remembered that Abby had mentione Grace’s kid being sick, or somehow “not right” and it keeping Grace from coming back to the city. At the time I may have responded with a zinger like: “Is it the kid, or is she worried about a wolf in the chicken coop?” and Abby may have snorted with laughter and then clasped her hands in put-on piety and said, “Seriously, Jesse. It’s so hard on her.”
“Jesse.” Grace tilted her cheek for me to kiss; her almond-shaped brown eyes, more deep-set and sad than they once were, sparkled at me, as if we were in on some conspiracy. She moved her head to indicate the event space, and rolled her eyes.
“I know,” I said. “I know.” Our smirks were mirrors. Ahead of us sat the chuppah, humming with gold threads, crowning a mahogany room, an antlers-on-the wall kind of deal. The crowd had all showed up in black, except for Grace, who sported a yellow dress with lily-orange splatters all over it.
“I forgot about how formal it gets in New York,” Grace said. “In Vermont we wear color.” Her outfit charmed me in this way that made me think of her milking a cow or tossing hay with a pitchfork.
“Can you believe this shit?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Grace. “And no, you know?” She shook her head. “I remember when Abby got her tongue pierced,” she said. “She hid at my house cowering from her parents. They made her take it out that weekend, so she went through all that pain and swelling for nothing.”
I grimaced. “Ow.”
“What a big adventure for me,” said Grace. “As wild as things got.”
“NOT as wild as things got for Abby,” I said, thinking of the tattoo, and the cocaine, the stint in rehab that her parents insisted on.
“Not by a long shot,” said Grace, raising her water glass to me. “Well, to bygone days. I swear, Jesse, I fumed for weeks about the paper she wasted on the invites.”
“Tree-hugger,” I said.
In high school, the three of ran in the same clique, kids who worked on the poetry magazine and shot amateur films and took honors. classes. We were, in the words of our AP English teacher, the intellectual leadership of the school. Grace exerted her passions for the environment and animal rights. Abby played the angry feminist, running meetings about female genital mutilation and date rape. She applied her dark eyeliner in the hallways and gave you the finger without looking at you if you approached her mid-task. She loathed her parents but loved the English faculty, and always stayed at my place or Grace’s on the weekends, using us as launching pads for sneaking into CBGBs. She gave excellent blowjobs. In that sense, her husband would be lucky, but maybe she had stopped that too, when she started wearing pastels and stopped being a daredevil.
I wanted to be a screenwriter, more than anything. I hadn’t missed the mark by that much.
Abby and I once smoked a bowl out behind Gracie Mansion during the Giuliani era. “Fuck you, Rudy,” we’d shouted, coughing. Grace hadn’t come, too scared of getting in trouble. But later we met her and some friends at Mustang’s, a divey Mexican place. Grace had looked at us with those almond eyes of her and said, “You two, such rebels. I live vicariously through you.” I have this memory of feeling unusually content that night, thanks to burritos, weed, and the knowledge we’d given Grace something to admire. She was so earnest, bopping along to the music with those sage, alive eyes. Abby and I would mention injured animals or environmental disasters just to see how those eyes welled up.
The music queued up and the bridal party proceeded on its march.
“Why are the bridesmaids in white?” asked Grace.
“Pippa Middleton,” I said. “The Royal Wedding?”
“Oh. Of course you would know that,” she whispered, shaking her head.
The maidens in question, some too pudgy for their long dresses, had been sorority sisters of Abby’s from college—well, Abby said it wasn’t technically a sorority, it was a woman’s society. But I called it a sorority to piss her off. Odd to see Grace relegated to the sidelines; even if the tightness had faded, Abby was the type who honored old bonds, old “BFFs.”
Abby inched towards the chuppah in a cloud of tulle and sparkles. This was the girl who once stood up at a high school assembly and declared that marriage could be construed as female slavery. The black students thought the metaphor went too far, but Abby had just held court up there in her chunky platform heels, ranting about the subjugation of her gender.
Now she circled her groom slowly, seven times, to Pachelbel’s. Grace put her hand to her mouth and I caught sight of moisture collecting in the corner of her eye.
“Moved to tears already?” I hissed.
“It’s a travesty,” she said. “Sparkles? I expected tasteful lace.”
I snuck a peek at Grace’s cleavage, at the folds of her dress spilling down from beneath her decent-sized rack. She had held a baby in her stomach. Maybe her dress had a high waist to cover fat deposits and scars that marked her for life. I looked away; sometimes my TV producing brain took over, and got hypercritical.
The wedding ceremony featured a lot of Hebrew, the droning kind. Someone said something about Abby being a woman of valor. Grace closed her eyes and sighed. Where was her husband, her kid, anyway?
The affliction could be asthma, development problems, worse. Sure, Abby would have said “cancer” if it was cancer, but plenty else could screw a child over in this world, and the train of thought got bleak fast. This explained, in part, why I never read Grace’s blog or listened to her NPR interview, the other part being that it was about farming.
She leaned against my shoulder and took me in with the innocence of her doing so, until I realized she was dozing. I nudged her. She turned pink. Sorry she whispered. Past my bedtime.
The people behind us ahemed. I gripped my glass and thought bitter things. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to watch Abby Levy smother her principles in white lace. Well, more like, are gathered here today, dear friends and family, to watch a once-unique person enlist in the army of co-op-dwelling, job-having normals. Dearly beloved, CBGBs has become a clothing store, and Mustang’s is a bank, and our all night-diner is a bank, and our bagel store is a bank, and Abby Levy is about to give up her surname to a banker. Another New York landmark, razed and replaced. Let us bow our heads.
When Abby’s husband crushed the glass under his shoe, Grace shouted out “Mazel Tov” like we were eighteen at CBGBs, cheering on a band.
We waited to file out of the room. “So where’s the great Sasha?” I asked. “I heard you guys were on NPR this summer.”
“He’s with the baby,” she said. “We can’t really travel together right now because of a bunch of things.”
“The harvest season or something?”
“Ha. No, other stuff. I’m meeting our agent for breakfast tomorrow, folding it all in. Good of Sasha to let me, really. It’s going to be a hard 48 hours without me,” she said.
“Sorry.” I said, knowing it came out flat. “Cool that you have an agent. What’s his name? I can check on his rep.”
“Her name,” said Grace, handing me a business card from her purse. “La plus ca change, Jesse.”
The month after our respective graduations, as Grace had been getting ready to move to Vermont, I took her to our favorite Vietnamese place in the Village. I remember it clear as a picture. Abby had been headed some DC women’s law thing, and I had my first job at HBO. I felt pretty delighted because, I mean, HBO. Our noodles tasted slimy and salty and Grace sucked them in like a vacuum, and said, “I’m going to miss this.”
“There’s actually a lot of Thai food in Vermont,” I said. “But Grace, are you going to marry this guy?”
“Probably,” she said, blushing.
“You don’t have to marry the first dude you fall in love with,” I said.
“Everyone is different, Jesse,” Grace said. “Case in point: are you dating, and if so, what ballet company does she dance for?”
I’d had over ten girlfriends by then, and at that point, four had been dancers or gymnasts. Soon I’d be moving on to models and actresses, given my career. What’s wrong with having a type? I wanted to know, and turned the topic back to her.
“What about a job in New York, Grace? What about being a writer or a lawyer? Look at Abby, she’s going for broke down in DC. You could do stuff for the environment down there. Or television, like me—the Nature channel or some shit.”
“But I want to be with Sasha,” she’d said.
“His name is Sasha,” I said. “How can you take that seriously?”
“Says a boy named Jesse,” she replied. She picked up the small cup of green tea and blew on it, then tilted the thing and swallowed the hot liquid without flinching, just like she took vodka shots.
“I want a different life,” she said then. “I know what I’m doing, Jesse.”
At the wedding, the stodgy relatives ahead of us finally moved, and we made it into the ante-room for cocktail hour. Grace pulled me by the elbow.
“You’re leading us away from everyone,” I said.
“To where the food comes out,” she said. She started grabbing duck pate and egg rolls from the circulating trays and passing them to me. We noshed. Like she had wires in her, she continually shifted her legs, twisted her hips, swiveled her neck to point things out.
“Those shoes,” she indicated a woman in spike heels with rhinestones. “How does someone walk?” I shrugged. I had seen, and dated, my fair share of women in stilettos.
A waitress passed by with champagne flutes and Grace grabbed two, handed one to me and downed hers, quick and long. She shook her head like a puppy in the water and said, “ahh.”
“Grace,” I said. “Mommy. Chill.”
She grimaced. “When in Rome,” she said, “self-medicate.”
I was amused, but I itched, eventually, to schmooze, do what cocktail hour is for. Abby had so many friends, even if she’d gone over to the lame side. And I’m always looking for new contacts.
“I want my table assignment; come with?” I wheedled.
“Nah, ” she said. “Bring mine?”
“I might say hi to some people…”
“Do it,” she said. “Mingle, big shot.”
So I made my loop, exchanging phrases like, “Abby looked lovely,” “let me know what you’re up to,” “I have a few projects in the works,” “yeah, the Emmys were exciting” and “drinks soon?” with a parade of people. I came back to Grace, though. With another almost-finished drink in her hand, she was yukking it up with Jake Brower, our yearbook editor and a pal of mine from high school. He leaned towards her, one arm along the wall. In general I found him to be a douche. At the very least he wasn’t family like Grace and Abby had been.
“Yo, Jesse! I didn’t see you at the ceremony. Hey, can you believe this girl, I mean woman, is here?” he asked me as I handed Grace her place card. “It’s been forever. I heard her and her husband on the radio talking about their farm,” he said. “Tremendous commitment to sustainability.” His fatuous voice dripped like jewels on a woman’s neck.
“Oh, Jesse didn’t listen,” said Grace. “He hasn’t gotten the chance.”
“Hey! How could you say that for sure?” I asked.
She tugged on the collar of my jacket. “Am I wrong? Tell me I’m wrong.”
“Well, umm,” I shuffled it off. They laughed and I didn’t mind. People know what they’re getting with me.
Abby and her new husband burst forth and Abby handed me her veil and bouquet, as if I were the butler, so she could enfold Grace in one of those girl hugs that are 100% performative, papering over whatever kept Grace from being Maid of Honor.
“Oh I’m so happy for you,” Grace cooed. “Welcome to the old married club.” They wrapped around each other like eels.
“Oh girl, thanks for coming. It means the world, you have no idea.”
I recalled Grace’s expression back in high school when it dawned on her at last that Abby and I had been fooling around on the sly. One day when we were all sitting in the library pretending to work and gossiping about saliva chains, she comprehended. A slap in the face did not a sufficient metaphor make—more like: shehad been jilted at the altar and we were running away without her.
“I feel like we cheated on you,” Abby said. The hush in the library created a weird effect.
“Well, yes, it’s kinda like that,” whispered Grace, pretending to flip through her French textbook.
Now in their wedding finery they acted precious. I looked around for somewhere to put the bouquet down. “Do not even think of ditching that bouquet, Jesse,” said Abby, and they had a good titter at my expense.
One of Abby’s bridesmaids, a hot one, all white and slinky, volunteered to take the bouquet off my hands. I followed her to a side table and pretended to give her the thing but then I yanked it back and said, “wait a second, maybe I want to keep it with me, what a splendid floral arrangement,” and she said, “Well, it suits you—matches your eyes.” Which meant, basically, “I’d fuck you.”
She kept going on about how personal the ceremony was and I bullshitted, “striking, intimate, meaningful, but I thought there were six brides for a second—a group wedding!” and she said “oh yes, white gowns la la la,” and started pressing me for information on the new season of TV. Meanwhile I tried to remember what Grace’s husband Sasha looked like. I was pretty sure he had a beard, but maybe I was making an assumption because: Vermont.
We entered the dinner space, a carpeted ballroom with chandeliers the size of cars, and sat down at round tables. The emcee announced, “together for the first time, Mrs. and Mrs. Banker McBankface.” Well that’s what Grace and I heard. She squeezed my arm under the tablecloth while her face shone above it. My heart went one way because of Abby, but another to find Grace so simpatico.
Grace got up soon after and told me to watch her phone—she wanted to dig around her bag for makeup, she said. She left it right on her chair and I would have normally ignored it and used the opportunity to try to seal the deal with Miss ditzy bridesmaid, but curiosity gnawed. I snatched the phone up and thumbed through her pictures.
Here’s the thing: her kid’s face was funny. You wouldn’t tell at first glance, but there was something off, like his eyes were too far apart in his head and in all the pictures he had none of that alert toddler cuteness you see on Facebook pictures. He was just… sick. Maybe I was projecting, but the more I looked at his fat, silent, round baby face the freakier it got. Then, the last picture I saw was of Grace, sitting on the rocks by a river, her hair in a bandanna and wearing only a plain grey sports bra that had sweat stains under the arms. A big scar and some ripples of cellulite marked her lower abdomen and she dreamily looked past the lens.
It had been so long since I was somewhere that quiet. I could hear the water on the rocks and feel the sun just shining down, and something else, some sort of whisper, between Grace and the camera. What was it?
The thought barged in, unbidden: “Weddings are a wall.”
It was a nonsense bit of melancholy, so I turned back to the screen in front of me. I wished I could know what Grace had on her mind, in that instant, as she reclined there and Sasha snapped a picture. But I really couldn’t put my finger on it. Was she thinking: I’m glad my retarded kid is not here today and I can just swim? I wish I had smoked more weed with Abby and Jesse back in the day, before life slammed me?
The phone buzzed and beeped. “Incoming Call: Sasha,” it said on the screen. I looked left and right but no one even had me in their orbit. So I pressed “reject” and then covered my tracks and deleted the call from her log. Give her a break, Sasha. One fucking night of fun.
Grace came back; her eye makeup streaked onto her cheekbones, just barely. I’m observant. “You okay?” I asked.
“It’s a lot. I don’t know,” said Grace.
“Abby?” I asked.
“Being here. Abby. You. The fucking sparkles, Jesse. I mean on the one hand, ew. But on the other, God I would love to get the Abby princess treatment for one second of my life.”
“You’d be more interested in an organic mulch machine, than a dress, though,” I joked. My choice to reject the call solidified: I had been just. She needed a break.
She shook her head, not noticing the phone had moved from chair to table. “Do you want to dance?”
I felt strangely proud, encircling Grace Adler in my arms on the dance floor. I felt her bosom crush against me, and it turned me on a little. Unusual for me. Mile-long legs and small, round breasts are more my thing. But this was a novel feeling. Grace’s brown skin was beginning to wrinkle at the joint; I got fixated on the way it looked on her elbows when we did the horah and twisted in and out. I had never really considered her body before. But my brain kept boomeranging over to that picture of her on the rocks, vulnerable, her unseen husband watching her. Grace flopped backwards against my arm. “I’m possibly on my way to trashed,” she said.
I winked at the sexy bridesmaid over Grace’s shoulder.
When the cake came out, Grace put her feet up on the couch in the lobby and her head lolled back. Jake and I tried to get her to drink water and eat.
“Shit, I have this important meeting in the morning,” she said. “Sober up, Gracie.”
Her phone buzzed again. This time she answered it herself.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t see you called. There must have been no service in the dining room. He DID? He did. Oh my god, Sash. Oh gosh, I can’t believe I missed it. Oh darling, oh darling, I love you so much. I do, I love you so much. This is…wow. Only a little drunk, honey. It’s a wedding, you know. Yes, tomorrow, I haven’t forgotten. But did he really…?”
We put our hands in our pockets and looked away back towards the dining room, where the DJ was playing “Time of My Life.” Women were probably squealing and pulling each other onto the dance floor.
“You guys. My baby walked,” Grace exclaimed after over five minutes of this kind of thing. “My kid walked! A year and a half late, but I never thought he would. I thought he might need a wheelchair his whole life, Jesse. Oh God, oh God, I’m so grateful. I have to tell Abby…” She tottered back in and over to Abby: more long hugs, and tears.
“I think one of you guys should take Grace to your place,” said Abby to me and Ted. “She was supposed to stay with my aunt but look at the state of her, poor thing.”
“I’ll do it,” said Jake.
“I’ll put her up, Abs,” I said. “But can you get me your girl Jenny’s number in exchange?”
“Damn it, Jesse,” the bride said, hand on hip. “Okay, but don’t hit and quit. And don’t try anything with Grace, either,” she added, nudging me. “Let her sleep on your comfy couch in peace.”
I chucked her under the chin. I knew why she’d chosen me; I had the fancier, apartment, a bachelor pad with floor-to-ceiling windows and yet it was familiar, too with my Bob Marley poster from high school, framed, right on the kitchen wall.
“Well, you are the same shithead you always were, Jesse,” said Jake, walking us out to hail a cab. “Fame and fortune be damned. Drinks soon?” It was passive aggressive, but true, I thought. Abby’s moved on the inside, and Grace has moved on the outside, yet I’m a rock, unaltered by the Golden Globe nomination or the Emmy. True to myself.
And then as we curled ourselves up in the cab and the booze hit me with wave, I felt tigerish. What’s the use of staying true to yourself when everyone around you moves away, to grow rutabagas or be Park Avenue housewives? Abby used to just text me during the day and say “drinks?” or “TV?” until she met the banker. Now it was all so formal. I was alone. I put my head in my hands and leaned my elbows against the cab’s partition.
“Weddings are a wall,” I said again, wondering what Grace would make of it.
And in a sense, I think she understood me.
“Oh, Jesse,” said Grace, in the fetal position by the other window. “Abby is so lucky. She got all her suffering out in her teenage years. No wonder she doesn’t want to touch me with a ten foot pole now. I’m tainted.”
“Don’t be re—ridiculous,” I said. I reached across the cab and took her hand, and her face remained impassive, but she held my hand back. We looked at the neighborhoods melting into each other our from opposite windows. I looked east and she looked west. Our hands were sweaty.
At my place, I settled Grace on the couch under so many chenille blankets she could’ve drowned in softness.
“Thanks, Jesse,” she said. “I mean it. I always told Sasha that there was something so kind about you, you know, underneath the façade?”
“I should hope so,” I said. Her mouth dropped open, and she snored once.
At 8 am I got up to take a piss, and I overheard her on the phone saying, “Sash I really am sorry I missed the call. I love you so much, I love you so much,” and then, “Hi baby! Mommy misses you. Mommy’s coming home. Will you walk for mommy?” I looked in. She had made a big pot of coffee and sat behind the unfolded paper with her eyeglasses on, all alert and mom-like.
“Jesse,” she said. “Question. Last night, did you notice maybe, did my husband call, like that time when I went to the bathroom?”
What a prying prick, that Sasha. “Oh?” I shrugged, hoping my face wasn’t flaming. “Grace, to be honest I didn’t really keep a good eye on your phone; I was hitting on a bridesmaid.”
And she said, “That’s what I thought. I was going over last night bit by bit and I told Sasha, ‘Jesse wouldn’t bother to actually watch my phone, so there must have been no service.’ I didn’t tell him that I danced with you and Jake for part of the time, because… well. He seemed a little disappointed that I didn’t pick up the first time, and also annoyed that I got tipsy. He wanted to loop me in, to share the moment, you know? I feel terrible.”
I wanted to put my hands on each side of this Sasha’s neck and make him beg for mercy. And she had to convince him that I was a nice guy.
“The walking!” I said, instead of anything else. “The kid! So miraculous.”
She smiled with hooded eyes. “Well, when a part of life is shitty, there are weirdly unexpected gifts,” she said. “Just times when things feel less out of control. Like normalcy becomes a major blessing.”
“That makes sense,” I said. And I did know what she meant, in a way. I supposed I’d felt exactly that way the night before, with Grace doing the horah by my side. Blessed by normalcy, for a minute.
“Hey, you sure you need to go back tonight?” I asked, suddenly. “You don’t want to stay one more night, hit a good restaurant, do the city thing properly?”
She looked at me and rolled her eyes just as she had when we first saw each other the night before.
“Oh, this isn’t—it’s not that kind of junket for me. I told you. My fam, Jesse.”
“Of course. Sorry—I just. Don’t you need a break, G?”
She shook her head, almost as though she pitied me, and finished her coffee. I was just trying to do her a favor. She could have been a little more gracious about my offer.
Soon, I stood at the door and wished her well as she waited for the elevator, the elevator which would bear her away from me: to the deserted Sunday street, then up out of the city to the sun-kissed rocks and waterfalls of her chosen home.
She left. I planned to go back to sleep, but I couldn’t after smelling her coffee. So I poured myself a cup, and took it back into my bedroom, my footsteps ringing deep throughout the empty uncarpeted apartment. I thought about queuing up her NPR interview and finally listening, but the sun was too bright to see the screen. So I opened my blinds to see the city, its throngs of pushers and climbers, all the life that Grace had left behind so foolishly.
Sarah Seltzer is the winner of the 2013 Lilith Fiction Prize, and has had fiction published in fwriction: review, Blue Lyra Review, Joyland, WIPs Journal and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Vermont College and is a journalist in NYC, with nonfiction bylines in places like The Forward, The Rumpus, the LA Review of Books, Vulture, The Hairpin, Ms. Magazine and XoJane.