At the Alter

After months of planning, of fittings and tastings and color coordinating, the day was finally here. Everything was beautiful, the flowers and the bridesmaids and the forest surrounding the field where the wedding would happen. The ceremony was set to begin at sunset, and they’d light the candles the lined the aisle. It was going to be beautiful, maybe even perfect, or it would have been, if it had been anyone’s wedding but my own.

I watched my reflection with a detached indifference as the hair stylist wove flowers into my hair. I could hardly recognize the woman in the mirror before me; she looked too beautiful to be real, like she’d been pulled from the pages of a magazine, inhumanly flawless. She lacked the scar on my chin that I’d gotten while playing field hockey. I’d hated that scar when I’d gotten it, but I’d had it so long that my face looked wrong without it. I couldn’t see my freckles either, or the birthmark that was supposed to be on my collarbone.

My reflection looked beautiful, but she didn’t look like me. This whole day was like that though, beautiful, picturesque, practically perfect in every way, but it wasn’t me.

“Oh, Claire, you look so beautiful!” My mother looked like she was on the verge of tears, her eyes big and watery and filled with pride. “Everything’s just so perfect. I’m so happy to see it all come together.”

This wedding was her dream, from the flowers to the dress to the picture perfect sunset ceremony.

“Ethan won’t know what hit him when he sees you coming down the aisle,” she said. My nod was all the acknowledgment she needed before she was turning to the stylist, talking about maybe adding some glitter to my hair.

Ethan, like every other part of this wedding, had been my mother’s pick. He was a doctor, the son of a friend of hers. He was smart, handsome, and kind. Certainly not the worst man my mother had ever thrown at me. She was always coming up with bachelors to set me up with, and usually, I could get them to break things off after a month or two, or do it myself if they were particularly bad. Ethan had been determined though and had decided that the distance on my part was due to shyness instead of disinterest. I was still trying to figure out a way to get rid of him when, on our six month anniversary, he’d proposed. It had been big and public, with a whole crowd of onlookers that included my family, and I’d panicked.

I’d tried to delay things for as long as possible, planning a wedding took time, after all, but I’d underestimated just how much of my wedding my mother had already had planned, and now it was eight months later and anything I could have come up with was too little too late.

My mother’s phone rang, and after a rapid-fire conversation, she announced that one of Ethan’s aunts had brought an unexpected plus one and she needed to sort out the seating arrangements. The stylist fixed a few more things and added the final touches to my hair, and then she was gone and I was blissfully alone.

I watched my reflection, trying to find traces of myself in her face. Had my nose always been that thin? My cheekbones that sharp? My eyes so sad? I hadn’t realized it, but I was right on the edge of tears. My mother would be upset if my mascara started to run, so I tried to focus on things that made me happy. Puppies and kittens, warm brownies, summer nights spent on the roof with—

No. No, I couldn’t think about her, because then I really would start crying. Happy as she usually made me, thinking of her now just reminded me that I was going to lose her. She was leaving in three days to go all the way across the country, and I probably wouldn’t ever see her again. There was a knock at the door, and I turned away from it to give myself an extra second to compose myself. There was no use crying over any of it now. “Come in.”

“Well don’t you look pretty.” A new reflection appeared in the mirror, but this one I recognized instantly.

“Emily.” I turned towards her, forgetting that she’d spot my near crying in an instant. She was beautiful. Her dark hair was down, framing her face, and the blue of her dress did wonders for her eyes. Even if I’d somehow managed to regain my composure, I would have lost it again anyway at the sight of her. The wave of sadness that hit me in that moment left me unable to stand, and I couldn’t stop the tears from falling.

“Woah, hey, Claire, what’s wrong?” She moved towards me, grabbing a tissue to wipe my tears away.

“I’m sorry,” I said, fighting to keep my voice from getting caught in my throat. “Just some pre-wedding nerves, I guess.”

Emily pinned me with a look of annoyance. “No, it’s not. I’m your best friend; I know when you’re lying to me.”

“I… I just.” I broke off, taking a breath in an attempt to steady my voice. “Do you know how you’ve always said I let my mother control too much of my life?”

“Yeah, and I stand by it,” Emily said, then looked at my bouquet with distaste. “Honestly, did she let you have a say about anything in this wedding?”

The tears started up again, and Emily seemed to realize she’d accidentally stumbled onto the root of the problem. “Hey, hey, hey, Claire,  just breathe, okay? I’m here for you. Just tell me what part of this is bugging you, and I’ll fix it, okay?”

“I don’t think it’s that simple, Em,” I said, giving her a half smile.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” Emily said. “Now tell me what needs to change.”

“I don’t want to marry Ethan,” I said, for the first time since he’d proposed. It felt nice to admit it.

“So don’t marry him,” Emily said, rolling her eyes as I gaped at her. “We can leave right now.”

“What? No, Em, I can’t just leave.” I thought she would have understood that, but apparently not. “My mother would be furious.”

“So what? It’s your life, not hers,” Emily said, “and keeping her happy isn’t worth consigning yourself to misery.”

“I…” She had a point, but the idea still terrified me. I’d spent my whole life doing what my mother wanted, to change that up now…I wasn’t even sure I knew how. “What would I do then? Where would I go? I can’t keep staying with her.”

“Come to Washington with me,” Emily said, shrugging as though she hadn’t just suggested I move across the country in less than a week.

“Emily, I’m being serious!”

“So am I,” she said, standing up. “I leave in three days, and I’ve already got the apartment. Come with me.”

Emily held out her hand to me, and after a brief moment of hesitation, I took it, and she pulled me to my feet. “Okay.”

Emily smiled at me and gave my hand a squeeze. “Claire?”


“Can I try something?” Our faces were only inches apart, and getting closer.

“Yes,” I said, barely daring to whisper.

“Tell me if you want to stop,” she said, then our lips met, and I closed my eyes as the world lit up in a way I’d never felt before. For the first time since the proposal, I felt like maybe things weren’t so bad after all. When Emily pulled back I couldn’t help but smile at her, and when I opened my eyes again she was smiling right back.

“You sure about this?” she asked, looking just a bit unsure.

“I’m sure,” I said. “As long as we’ve got each other, we can handle anything.”

Emily smiled again, and she led me by the hand as we left everything else behind.