'The Love Song of JFK Jr.'

  Photo via Flikr

Photo via Flikr

By Gary M. Almeter

She wore a shimmery yellow sundress, with a thin orange belt and orange shoes, slipped on quickly in the few minutes she gave herself to get dressed. Shirin tended to overestimate the time she had remaining to get ready on these quiet Saturday mornings. So after having a cup of coffee and yogurt and walking the dog, she always ended up rushing through her shower and make-up regimen.

She would typically arrive around seven on those mornings when she was tasked with opening The Singing Mermaids before a busy Saturday. The day had started out like any other on which she had to work. Navid had not been in bed next to her when she woke up. Today he was in Bahrain but it was just as likely that he would be somewhere on the Maryland Country Club’s front nine or at his uncle’s restaurant near the Inner Harbor.

She passed two Starbucks on the ten-minute drive to the Singing Mermaids, but she usually stopped at Dunkin' Donuts, picked up a box of munchkins for the staff , her coffee, and chatted with Sagar, who was always finishing up his overnight shift around 7:00 a.m.

There was a time when she would have detested the artless tasks required in preparing a hair salon for a day of shampooing, beautifying, highlighting, cutting, spraying, and teasing. But in the aftermath of their move from Iran, she grew to enjoy and even find some amusement in such seemingly inconsequential tasks. Savoring the small pleasures of life was a learned behavior, the near-pulmonary rhythms of the salon she created by turning on the lights and the washing tubs and the drying chairs provided tranquility before the tumult of the day began. She flipped the drying chair hoods up so they stood at attention like war horses lined up and rearing, readying themselves for battle. She segregated the curlers by size, replenished the gels and sprays and mousses and pomades, and detangled the cords of her curling irons and blow dryers.

She found the preparation soothing; a nice respite before the onslaught of vanity from her customers, some of Baltimore County’s most refined ladies, began in earnest. Their overly high expectations regarding their metamorphoses could be grating, and Shirin rarely thought of herself as a transformative figure.

Despite the perpetual presence of colleagues and customers, this was a lonely job. People imagine that women who work in shops like this are closer than they really are, imagine them opening up like they can’t do with their husbands, talking about fears and hopes and aspirations and disappointments. But they don’t. Conversations were about George Clooney and sales at Nordstrom and hair trends and Jennifer Aniston and shoes, like a People magazine come to life.

The opening protocols included preparing the salon’s reception area: straightening the magazines, lighting a few of the scented candles, replenishing the mints jar, and turning on the television. That’s when she heard the news.

Shirin sat down on the leather sofa, turned the television to CNN, and watched the hovering helicopters make hypnotic ripples somewhere in the Atlantic. She sipped her coffee as she watched the news in the salon reception area. Her first appointment was not until nine. Then she had a wedding party coming in at ten for a spate of up-dos.

*          *          *

Some miles away, Andrew was waking up. The left side of his face and most of his body were stuck to the vinyl cushions of the sun-porch glider, as though, overnight, the cushions’ bright orange hibiscus flowers had secreted some sort of adhesive. But it was just sweat. And a little bit of drool. As the story of that evening wended its way through the narrative of his personal history, what he did would be described as passing out. He had been drunk the night before, drunker than a man should be on the eve of his wedding. But the decision to sleep on the glider (his grandparents called it a davenport) in the sun porch–that hybrid of a room which was neither a porch nor a full-fledged room, equally tethered to the lawn and the living room–was a conscious and well-reasoned one. His grandparents were staying with them for the wedding and had taken his room. His mother had made up a twin bed in the spare room, but, at the end of the night, he just didn’t feel like going upstairs and seeing his grandparents’ health and beauty aids scattered around his bathroom–the plastic denture cases, the denture adhesive, the creams and the odd medicinal, menthol, ether-ized scents they emitted. His grandparents were lovely. Their presence, however, felt invasive. And their health and beauty aids were a reminder of mortality’s slow and perpetual march, its chronic imminence.

He woke with that jarring sensation of not knowing where he was for a few seconds, like stopping on a Ferris wheel mid-revolution; you look for a horizon line of some sort and noting that, albeit for a second, and you realize your location is a precarious one in light of the whirring sound of the under-greased set of iron gears and the fact that a carnival worker in a Black Sabbath t-shirt and a self-administered Ozzy tattoo on his knuckles is in charge of your fate. The whirring in Andrew’s head was from lots of wine and some vodka gimlets at the rehearsal, which he had drunk as a declaration that he had outgrown beer. These were followed by lots of beer on the back deck of his parents’ house and, after ignoring his brothers’ warnings about Elaina’s disappointment with a hung over groom, a few shots.

He had no idea where he was until he saw the familiar drape of the beige canvas sheet covering the 1964 Jaguar MKII behind his neighbor Quinn’s garage. The cover, while it protected the pristine turquoise paint, also rendered the car less like the sleek driving machine it was (or was meant to be) and more like a cord of firewood or old propane tank or some other discarded backyard accouterments. Mr. Quinn was outside watering the row of hydrangeas that ran from his driveway, past his 64 Jag and along his garage. As a result, he was only about seven or eight feet from Andrew, who could hear him whistling Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak.” He wondered if this was Quinn’s retribution for having been kept awake the night before, retribution of the passive aggressive sort favored by people from good stock–too well bred for confrontation but self-important enough to make their displeasure known. They had been loud the night before, doing funnels off the porch, the volume of the music increasing in direct proportion to their increasing drunkenness, with his buddies dropping more than a few F-bombs. Quinn could clearly see him this morning. Andrew wondered if Emily Post could have predicted such a scenario, a man waking up hung over and remorseful in a fishbowl on his wedding day stuck to tropical vinyl foliage, and what she might have suggested would be the appropriate salutation to a neighbor watering his hydrangeas.

Like a Ferris wheel making its slow descent to drop him off, the previous night and the day’s forthcoming events came into view. A wedding. His wedding. No less jolting than an abrupt Ferris wheel stop.

Andrew was a lucky man; if one were able and inclined to assess the ratio of his angels to his demons. Such an assessment would yield a clear surplus of angels, of gifts, of assets, of things which can only be given and not learned. Despite his good fortune, he had an overarching vision of himself as something different, something more significant, more the result of impatience than ability, adeptness, or ambition.

Everything about the room he was in confirmed his good fortune: the smell (a familiar potpourri of chlorine, grass, booze, and leather), the Persian rug on the fieldstone floor, the photo of his grandfather shaking hands with Orioles manager Earl Weaver hanging over his head, the wicker chair with a cushion made of the same hibiscus vinyl to which he was currently stuck, and the built-in book cases against the wall with the set of obsolete encyclopedias. A breeze came in through the open window and it became apparent that this morning was one of the most temperate and gentle days the mid-Atlantic region had ever conferred.

Not one to enjoy breezes or be affected by blue skies, he, realizing he was waking up later than he had wanted to, stood up and walked into the kitchen. His dad and his grandparents were seated around the breakfast table watching the helicopter make ripples in the waters off

Martha’s Vineyard. His mother was cutting peaches at the kitchen counter.

“No way,” said Andrew as he came to understand what was happening. “No fucking way.”

He and his fiancée, Elaina, had been everywhere together for the last ten years. They went to classes together in high school. He went to her house for holidays. She went to his. They went to the prom together. They went to the mall, football games, basketball games, lacrosse games, the movies, the 4th of July fireworks together. They went to Princeton together. They got jobs in Baltimore together. They went to happy hour, went to the new Camden Yards, went to parties at apartments of kids who had taken jobs at Johns Hopkins, Legg Mason, and T. Rowe Price. He asked her dad for permission to marry her while the two played tennis. Andrew had won. He orchestrated a proposal at an Orioles game and had invited scores of family and friends. They were slated to honeymoon in Hawaii. Surely the first of several such beaches they would visit together in their married life.

“That poor woman,” Andrew’s mother said when a file photo of Caroline and her three children appeared on the news.

“Poor me.” Andrew said. “This is all I am going to hear about for the rest of my fucking life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Andrew’s father asked in the chiding voice he used when Andrew was being melodramatic.

It had nothing to do with Andrew’s use of “fuck.” While not encouraged, its use was tolerated.

“I guarantee you right now Elaina is talking about how this has ruined her wedding day,” replied Andrew. “In her condition there is no way she will be able to cope with this.”

“What condition is that, sir?” His father asked condescendingly.

“Just perpetually on the cusp of a nervous breakdown with all this wedding bullshit.” Andrew replied.

“I think you might be exaggerating just a little bit,” his mother said, defensively.

He regretted having to badmouth Elaina on their wedding day. He was sorry to have cursed in front of his grandmother. He didn’t want to be labeled a jerk. He knew that he would be there for her no matter what. But why did she have to be so goddamned self-centered all the time.

The only good thing about this epiphany–that he’d be dealing with a sullen bride for the next few days–is that it seemed to diminish the intensity of his hangover. Both, however, diminished the day.

*          *          *

Shirin had just finished giving a fairly standard perm when Elaina and her bridal party walked into the Singing Mermaids, looking more melancholy than a bridal party should.

Elaina had been a plain girl, nearly ugly but not quite, but had emerged from puberty looking like a kind of imperfect movie star. Her mother once told her that she looked like Michelle Pfeiffer had Pfeiffer been a few sizes bigger with a more oblong head, closer-set eyes, and redder, less perfect skin.

Andrew loved her nonetheless. Because of her “independent spirit and hearty laugh” he often said. She couldn’t tell when Andrew’s disinterest began. There is so much to say in a courtship, but so much unsaid. Andrew and Elaina were the sort to assume that there would always be other times, other occasions, other years. She thought it something shy of apathy but something more insidious than mere naiveté. And wondered if his nonchalance was merely the byproduct of momentum. Maybe he already knew the answers to questions she wished he would have asked. A slow and inevitable decline that began that unidentifiable first time he felt contained.

This feeling of second-ness continued that morning as the Singing Mermaids buzzed with news of the lost hunk. Elaina greeted Shirin who looked at her sympathetically. She took a seat and sat silent amidst the cacophony as Shirin began to replicate the up-do they had practiced last week. Ladies approached Elaina and commented on how beautiful she and her bridesmaids looked and extended their assurance that “it” was no big deal. Some lady next to Elaina was talking about how she had been to Martha’s Vineyard once; another said that she had shaken Robert Kennedy’s hand when he visited her college in upstate New York in 1968.

Elaina, her own legs stuck to the black vinyl of a swiveling salon chair, knew she was not that type of bride who had fretted and nagged and cajoled and demanded spotlights or obsessed about shoe colors and grosgrain ribbons; she let Andrew pick music and agreed to have photos taken at Camden Yards. But sharing her wedding day with a cataclysmic event seemed too significant. A day of events, one in her life, one in theirs. One she had planned, and one they had not. Though there was a kind of inevitability in both. What had each been travelling to? One to a wedding on Martha’s Vineyard. The other to her own wedding and a life of ease, of sunsets and dooryards and sprinkled streets.

But how easy would life be with Andrew? He was talking about getting his MBA. It was clear they’d never be leaving Baltimore. And at times he treated her with what resembled disdain.

One woman, with a mud mask and cucumbers on her face, lamented the loss of the hunk. The older ladies talked about his father and where they were when they heard he had been shot. Elaina closed her eyes as Shirin released another torrent of hairspray and could picture nothing but boats bobbing up and down, hoping, wandering through the sound in a state of more panic and sorrow than summer typically belied. She could hear sound bites on the television, “son of the assassinated president,” “approximately a dozen aircraft involved in the search,” “passengers in the missing plane” mixed with sound bites from those near her, “a little higher here,” “a little less Kim Basinger and a little more Grace Kelly,” “redder lipstick,” “smokier eye.” Elaina suddenly felt no affinity for any of them. There wasn’t a single person in the entire place with whom she felt a thing in common any more. Toward most she felt nothing but disdain.

On the large television screen fastened to the salon’s wall, there was a photo of the couple, now presumed dead, walking out of the church on their own wedding day, that picture where he is kissing her hand as they emerge from that church on Cumberland Island. Its memory now clouded by calamity. As Elaina’s wedding soon would be.

Elaina recalled the days when her life with Andrew seemed happy, when their world had been small, and building a life together meant navigating social milieus with proficiency and agreeing on what music to listen to in the car. But she also recalled the constant battle in her heart even then. How she felt drawn to this conventional happiness, how she felt that she loved Andrew more than she had ever loved anyone in her entire life, how the life toward which she was headed was possible, that she might actually be able to do it. And yet, she was also perpetually aware of the other, more deeply seated part of her nature that wanted to run away, not out of fear but out of an eagerness for adventure. A part of her believed that it was not possible after all, that it would and could only end in catastrophe.

She had never looked at Andrew the way Carolyn looked at John when they walked out of that church. And to the best of her recollection he had never looked at her like that. His eyes generally told her that she was part of the formula. She thought of that line that said the greatest hazard of all was losing one’s self, how it can occur very quietly in the world as if it were nothing at all. In the midst of this lost plane. How their loss had been noticed. How hers had not. Then she thought of them unbegrudgingly, saw them riding seaward on the waves without regret, thought of the allure of flight, and the spirit that prompted the flight in the first place. She thought of this man who had been scared of nothing–or was more afraid of that which waited for him if he spent his whole life with his feet on the ground.

There was a moment, the sort of moment that creates a juncture between the before and after, but not even really a moment, more of just a flicker of a modicum of recognition, that happened between Shirin and Elaina. Amidst the mirth and chaos and sadness and incredulity that was happening at the Singing Mermaids that morning. While Shirin was teasing and pulling and spraying and twisting, her eye caught Elaina’s in the mirror. Shirin’s face, perhaps involuntarily, provided a look, one that told Elaina that the hole created by isolation gets bigger, meaner, and more inescapable, with each passing day. It creates this hole where most emotions and feelings just keep vanishing soundlessly and irretrievably.

Elaina stood up and hugged Shirin then ran from the Singing Mermaids. One strand of hair had escaped from her up-do and flowed behind her in the breeze her running created. She left the bridesmaids and the ripples and Andrew behind her, along with that which she had been trying not to imagine.

Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle.

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