Jeffery Ryan Long was born in North Little Rock, Arkansas. He is currently based in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he works at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine.
For more information about the author, please visit www.jefferyryanlong.com.
It was an invitation to a wedding. Thick paper stock, one sheet, colored in ocean blue and the orangish tinge of sunset. I figured that a cousin or out-of-touch friend had surrendered him or herself to whom they thought they could bear for the rest of their lives. Presumably because there was nothing better to do. Marriage was a fate I wished to no one, especially since it diminished the stock of eligible aging women I might have otherwise enticed into my isolated orbit.
“Brian Kam,” it read, “invites you to share in the pleasure of his union. July 24 at the Hyatt Regency, Honolulu.” An email address and a phone number, both of which I’d known as far back as I can remember, had been printed for RSVP purposes.
I’d been Brian’s best friend since our freshman year at Castle High School. I’d last had several pitchers of beer with him at at a bar on Kapahlulu four days ago. As I recall, a rough and unproductive night of few women. The conversation had been built from a reconfiguration of things we always talked about--TV shows, old professional wrestlers, and the Beatles. I was damn certain that he’d never mentioned meeting anyone, much less asking for some unlucky woman’s hand in marriage.
Who would he, could he, marry, anyway? The girl with the tattoo that covered her back? The one about whom he complained of BO? All the women Brian dated he left. He’d faded himself out of this fix and that, little disappearances that always led to uncomfortable reunions at our favorite bars. Brian was a disgrace when it came to matters of the heart. That he might actually find someone before I did galled me.
A joke, I thought. An expensive, unfunny joke. Having wedding invitations made and mailed just to fuck with his friends wasn’t beyond Brian, though. I called him right away.
Voicemail. I tried another number.
“So you got the invitation,” Reynold said.
“Yeah. What kind of bullshit is he trying to pull?”
“No bullshit. I talked to him yesterday.”
“What, he met somebody in a day and now he’s got his wedding planned? Who the hell is he marrying?”
“You didn’t read the invitation?”
“Yeah, I read it. I didn’t see a name I recognized.”
“You didn’t see a name, period. There was no other name.”
“No name? So who’s Brian marrying next month?”
“He’s not marrying anyone, man. No, I’m saying that wrong. He’s marrying himself.”
“No, Cyril, not horseshit. This is gonna happen.”
“I—can that happen? I mean, is it even legal?”
“It better not be fucking legal,” Reynold said. “If it’s not legal for me to get married to who I want to get married to, it better be a fucking crime for Brian Kam to marry himself.”
“This is not a joke?”
“Brian just wants to have a honeymoon. You know he does weird shit sometimes.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Look, it’s just gonna be a paid-for party with booze. I’ve already RSVP’d.”
At the university the next day, I did my usual thing at Kuykendall Hall—a large cup of coffee sipped through the hours, long past the point of palatability; one class of undergraduates whose impassivity to “The Beast in the Jungle” seemed to me hostile; department-related emails; frequent visits to bathroom, and just as many to the Web, wondering who had commented on my blog post about A Voyage to Arcturus (no one, as a matter of fact); another curry lunch in the office, doors closed and windows open, where I watched through the jalousies the tanned, toned youth in the courtyard; and the last class of the day, when the last cold mouthful of coffee inspired me to ask the class nothing, and instead I finally told them what my interpretation of “The Beast in the Jungle” was, and by their grim responses it chilled whatever warmth they expected to leave the room with. Enough coffee and a man can believe he never had a soul.
The whole hall was clearing out, a slow sad coda to another day’s end. As on most Thursdays, I didn’t have the heart to return to the empty floor on which my office was located, so I took the stairs toward Manoa Gardens to meet Brian before his class.
Brian, through web ingenuity and preternatural understanding of how digital information is processed most efficiently by end users, had acquired riches and means far beyond the reach of his peers. For some reason, he’d chosen to continue his friendships, hence me. After his success with an application he’d sold to Apple, he retired to pursue the higher education he’d dismissed as an undergraduate in theatre.
In other words, he was loaded, and had nothing better to do than pile up degrees at the University of Hawaii. His friends and family admired his loyalty to us and to the places where he liked to swim, places he had blown past on his skateboard, places in which he had smoked from a one-hitter, hit on girls, drank. At the same time, we thought it was completely fucking bonkers he hadn’t grown up and out of here. He hadn’t invested. He hadn’t changed his style. He was still drinking five-dollar Bud Light pitchers with me on Fridays, thirty-two ouncers at Manoa Gardens on Thursdays, buying seasons worth of DVDs, living in a pretty cage near Ala Moana. And if it seems strange to you that this man of wealth had not found someone, man or woman, with whom to share his comfort and cleverness and lack of gumption—I have yet to address Joy, the young woman whom Brian loved, and who died.
Manoa Gardens was an ugly cement courtyard with mismatched metal tables, all in various stages of rust, set in the ground. Occasionally doves would land near your feet and pick at grains of rice. The only good thing about the joint was that it was close, and you could drink.
Brian had already swallowed a quarter of his plastic cup’s red ale when I saw him. He nodded at me, and I went into the bar to get a drink.
“You’re breaking your mother’s heart, carrying on like this,” I said, setting an IPA on the table.
“Desecrating the sacred institution of marriage.”
“My mom’s doing hula at the reception,” Brian said.
“This is really happening?”
“Why? What kind of person marries himself? I mean, you end up just spending all this money for a joke.”
“It’ll be a good party, at least.”
“But why even frame a good party as a wedding? You don’t think you can find someone to marry? I mean, you’re a normal, average looking guy.”
“With no obvious deformities. It’s not like you’re a leper or—I mean, is it a penis thing? Some kind of penis thing?”
Brian laughed. “You’re taking this too seriously, man. This isn’t some kind of commitment to be alone the rest of my life. This is supposed to be fun. I know it’s kind of weird, but it’ll be fun. Come on, man. Everyone’s on board.”
I took a large drink, gasped, and set the cup down. “So this whole thing isn’t about Joy, then?”
“Nah, man. It’s got nothing to do with her.”
Total crock of bullshit, I thought.
Brian had known Joy for three years, seven months, and six and three-eighths of a day, according to his estimate. Seven years ago, he’d seen her at an open mic reciting a poem about prison fisting as an expression of love. Brian (in his troubadour phase then) followed a little later, singing a ballad acapella about an open hand reaching out from the sun to lift a boat into the cosmos. I’d been in the audience with a fixed expression of distaste. It wasn’t just that both of them referred to hands as a means of transcendence that I saw it coming.
I am violently jealous when a friend connects with a pretty woman. It’s immature, it’s futile and it’s sad, but when it comes to the shameful delusions to which all of us are susceptible, my own megalomaniacal, misogynistic, possessive delusion is that all girls are meant for me. In the old days I fell in love every minute. But something later told me that I would have to stop myself, that it was beginning to be unseemly, pathetic.
In this case, watching Joy watch Brian from the audience through the amber glaze of an Anchor Steam and the low lights inflated me with a selfless sense that I wanted to have these two love each other. Just by their unmet eyes from across the room I knew that these two beings’ lives would be far sadder had they not the opportunity to commiserate, cohabitate, copulate.
“Splendid!” I cried before Brian had finished his final chorus. I’d heard the song ad nauseum at Brian’s apartment, and it was no great disappointment to the audience that Brian’s performance was abbreviated. The half-hearted applause, barely audible over the chatter, brought Brian’s ballad to a close, and he looked confused as I caught him around the shoulders with a beer for his hand and led him to the table of Joy, who sat with her taciturn friend.
“This world can bear only so many geniuses,” I said to my small crowd. I was, for once, under no self-inflicted pressure, and attacked my role with glee. “Their truth telling is a rough medicine. Ladies, I give you Brian Kam.”
It was a stupid thing to say, but I’d spared Brian from having to come up with something himself. Brian and Joy began talking at once and so naturally I thought I hadn’t really introduced them at all, but that they’d known each other from time before. It was a rushed kind of talk, beyond the comprehension of an observing third party. So I succumbed to a solid ass kicking in pool by the friend.
And it came to pass that Brian had found his Other. This was Socrates, by way of Plato, by way of Hedwig kind of stuff, in which disparate limbs are fused to others to generate a purer, more beautiful being. I no longer knew Brian in the same way I’d known him—he had, with his love, become Brian and Joy, a manifestation of refracted identities. They laughed a lot. They hugged a lot.
One year, three months, and eight days after they met, Joy went to the doctor to address a recurring migraine. This turned out to be a neoplasm roughly the size and shape of a fully masticated pack of Big League Chew, just under the shell of her skull. No one said die, then--our era of medicine had advanced so that a brain tumor was par for the course in some ways, as easily fixable as scurvy or the scarlet fever. I’ve already mentioned that it did, in fact, get her.
I could go on and on about how they were able to be well together, to say they were happy and were actually happy in that smug, oblivious, pure state without guilt or apprehension or second guessing. To avoid further mawkishness I have one anecdote that comes to mind.
I’d gone over to Brian’s house late one night after the bars, thinking I might be able to procure an eighth of pot. I knocked on his door—this was when Brian still lived in a shitty motel-style apartment on Kapahulu—and when no one answered, I used the copy of the key he made for me to help myself to his stash in the counter above the kitchen sink.
With only the sodium streetlights to guide me through his kitchen, I found the baggie and pinched off a nice chunk. As I felt through his drawers for a zip loc, I heard voices through the partially closed bedroom door. I turned, noticed the light was on. Very quickly, I tried to come up with something I could brandish as a weapon. When you’re drunk, gags like this make more sense.
I crept to the doorway with a cucumber in my fist. Looking through the door’s crack, I saw Brian and Joy in bed—not intimate yet, or not anymore. Joy had her hands on her belly and laughed a few seconds or so, which caused Brian to crack up, interrupting whatever he’d been saying to her. Seconds later, I saw he was reading to her. It was hard to focus on the title of the book, bleary as I was, but the cover was a god awful picture of a Victorian woman or something, and as I listened to Brian speaking in a French accent, I realized he was reading Madame Bovary. Together, they’d turned Madame Bovary into a comedy.
“But why marry yourself?” I said to Brian. “You’ve got money. You may not be a Rock Hudson or Montgomery Clift, but you’re certainly no Charles Laughton.”
“I’m not saying I have to stay married to myself forever, man. It’s just a fun thing to do.”
I looked at him. He was actually going through with it. This wasn’t the Brian who had never grown beyond his friends, or his time at college, or the bars on Thursdays. This wasn’t the Brian who had been floating for god knows how long. This was a Brian wanted to do something, who wanted something. “Well, okay,” I said. “So, am I the best man, or what?”
“That’s a negative,” Brian said. “Kelley’s my best man.”
“Your sister?” I shook my head. “Jesus, you really don’t give a shit about anything.”
The weeks leading up to Brian’s wedding, I was overwhelmed with work for the summer semester. I didn’t see anyone much. I couldn’t believe I’d taken on another class. They were always more work than you thought they would be, and the students were eager to matriculate through their English courses twice as fast as if they’d taken the class during the Fall. Naturally, they were twice as uninterested in the material. I did make a trip out to Sears at Ala Moana for the fitting of a cream-colored tuxedo rental which, though adjustable, was going to look baggy and unfetching on me. I briefly considered going out to search for a date to the wedding, but the circumstances were too strange to try and explain it to anyone I just met.
A week before the wedding, Kelley sent out an email to everyone announcing that she was throwing Brian’s bachelor party at Smith’s Union Bar on Hotel Street. If you imagine that some bars are young and healthy and vibrant, and others are decrepit but still firm of mind and body, and that others are sick with a disease that can never be cured, Smith’s Union was the equivalent of a bar in permanent hospice, a usually catatonic, barely breathing establishment that, if given the right crowd, could sometimes have flashes of clarity. The Hotel Street irregulars who otherwise had no place to go drank Bud Lights on ice there. Elderly folks, lifers in booze, who had lost their ability to speak went there. I’d seen a man with a bandage that covered what once was his nose there. Bald women, and no small population of people without teeth. What Smith’s Union had going for it was two dollar beers--which the bar often comped if you stuck around long enough--one of last remaining non-MP3, oldies based jukeboxes, and karaoke songs a dollar apiece.
Reynold, his boyfriend Daniel, and I were the first ones at the bar, with Kelley driving Brian down after a big-sister financed dinner at Macaroni Grill. I ordered a round of bourbon shots (the beer backs were provided gratis) and loosened up the old pipes with a version of “You Don’t Know Me.” My standards are Ray Charles and Jim Croce ballads.
Daniel followed with a soulful, applause-capturing rendition of Cecelio and Kapono’s “About You,” and Reynold showed his chops in a spirited performance of “Africa.” More drinks appeared before us on the bar, and then Rick and K and Lon came through the doors, and finally Kelley with Brian en tote. Each song that appeared on the TV screen and the speakers seemed to contain the sum total of the world’s blues and ecstasy, and soon I was off the bar stool and dancing between the tables, drawing old women up from their chairs, hugging strangers. Brian, his fingers clutching a new full glass of something each time I looked at him, shouted “I’m getting married!” every fifteen minutes, to which everyone in the bar toasted and guzzled.
During one old man’s pitch perfect rendering of “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” Brian put his arm around my shoulders, breathing wetly in my face. “What am I doing man,” he said. “I don’t know if I can go through with this.” Indecision, fear, inability to follow through—that was the Brian I knew.
“You can’t get cold feet now,” I yelled. “This means too much to too many people.”
“I just wanted something—I don’t know man. I just wanted something I thought could make me whole.”
“You wanted to be a hole?” Reynold said, laying his hands on each of our shoulders. “Just cool it in the bathroom, there’s sure to be some action sooner or later.” The bathroom was a closet-sized space in which a zinc basin with faucet served as a urinal. Washing one’s hands was catch as catch can.
“I’m getting married!” Brian cried, and several dozen glasses, the equivalent of fifty or so dollars, were dumped down gullets that were already numb and could hardly stand for more.
The wedding ceremony took place on the brief grass plain between Kapiolani Park and Waikiki Beach, with the wedding party—Kelley, Reynold, Ryan, K and I—standing shoulder to shoulder in a diagonal line in the sun. Brian couldn’t have picked a better day for a wedding. Despite its brightness against my cream-colored coat, it was like the sunlight and the wind had fused into some gentler, cooler element that made standing in place a pleasure.
Nearby, Brian’s family and their friends stood in a crowd looking toward the empty spot where Brian was to give his vows to himself. It was a small group of invitees, but I was surprised at how many people did show—these days, I suppose, more people are willing to be cool with what others are wont to do.
The priest—or whoever Brian had hired for the gig—still hadn’t showed when Brian, dressed in a white suit that recalled John Lennon in 1969, walked the patch of grass designated as the aisle. Rather than imbuing the walk with a practiced kind of significance, he moved through the blob of folks he’d invited giving handshakes and kisses before he took his place facing Kelley.
A guy in an Aloha shirt no one recognized wandered over from the direction of the beach and turned to Kelley. “Kam wedding?”
“This is the place,” Kelley said. “Our groom stands before you.”
“Great,” the man said. He held out his too-tanned hand to Brian. “Name’s Earl. Were you thinking a Buddhist kind of thing, Christian? I can also do your general specific, non-spiritual ‘we are linked by the bond of eternal love’ kind of thing.”
“But that’s under the assumption that human beings house immortal souls, which would imply spirituality,” I said, stepping forward a little out of my place in the diagonal.
“Well, maybe,” Earl said. “But when I’ve tried to address decay, disease and death in a set of vows, everyone tends to get bummed out.”
“Just shoot from the hip,” Brian said.
“Shoot from the hip, while speaking from the heart,” Earl replied. “Got it. Now we’re just waiting for the bride?”
“No bride,” Kelley said.
“Ah, the other groom, then.”
“No groom,” Brian said.
“So—who is it exactly that’s getting married?”
“Me,” Brian said.
“Him to him,” I piped in, pointing at Brian twice to avoid confusion.
“This is, well, this is a new kind of thing—”
“You can make it quick.”
“Right.” Earl took a step back, placed his hands together, and gathered his big voice unto him. He had not removed the pair of sunglasses he showed up in. “Ladies and gentlemen, we face in our lives everyday situations that perplex and often pain us. One person behaves in a way we don’t understand, and we react in fear, sometimes disgust, and yes, sometimes pure loathing. But is it our burden to judge that which displeases us? I say to you, one man’s abomination is another man’s grace.”
Kelley had begun laughing in her hand.
“With that I stand here as a witness to the love that—”
“Brian,” Brian said.
“Brian wishes to express to himself in front of the seas, the skies, the trees—”
“The garbage cans, the bacteria, the pollution,” Kelley muttered.
“The sands, the grasses and the people who love him, for whatever reason—and those reasons are, may I add, non-transferable, as one person’s love for someone else may be if I may, absolutely freaking inconceivable to someone else, like someone who doesn’t know him.”
“Wrap it up,” Brian said. “The fee was a lump sum.”
“And by that, what is there left to say? By the power vested in me—actually, I have to real power to bear witness to a man marrying himself—but, for the sake of concluding whatever you see before you, I announce to you the marriage of Brian to Brian. Not another Brian, but the same Brian. You may do as you wish.”
While we all applauded and Brian waved, Kelley took Earl, who had already turned back to the beach whence he came, and explained everything.
The reception--which the now at ease Earl attended, once he’d gotten word of the open bar--took place at the Hyatt, just a few blocks down the street. Our party walked en masse to the hotel, each of us offering in ironic fashion what we thought were the best of our wishes. I hung back with Reynold and Daniel, the three of us taking turns at a glass pipe Reynold drew from the rented pocket of his tuxedo.
At the ballroom, before anyone took their assigned seats, a great queue formed in front of the liquor people, and their fish bowl of tip cash soon overflowed with dollars and fives. Per the reception schedule, drinks would last from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm, which would more than allow for a good slog through a variety of beverages. It was if Brian had planned it out that everyone would forget what we were there for, while we were there. The buffet line, which at first guests approached with trays and plates and lifted tongs and plastic serving spoons became, after two hours of frequent toasts to nothing, a messy trough around which the shirt sleeved and barefoot guests grazed, plucking and shoving into mouths.
Brian’s mother, according to tradition, took the center of the ballroom for her hula sometime after eight. What transpired after a few seconds of attempting the dance was the most offensive, obscene, and possibly hurtful performance I’d ever witnessed. Brian’s mother, forgone by that point, had transmogrified into some kind of knotty demon in a muumuu, expressing in movements and speech a debased, perverted sexuality, gross racism, and death threats to certain parties who had attended the ceremony. And yes, her boobs were exposed, though only one at a time, burlesque-style.
No dance with Brian’s dad followed, nor dance between mother and son, because mom had reached a level of transcendence and was no longer saying, or thinking anything really, other than “well, all right,” a blessing she administered with a slow wave of her hand, slumped in her chair. Kelley followed, giving a best man speech I remember mentioned Brian not once, and was more of an anecdote illustrating how shitty her own wedding had been, how much less fun, much to the chagrin of her husband in the audience (the two kids were at home with the other grandma, who wanted nothing to do with the travesty). It started off funny, descended to humorous, further down to amusing, then somewhat shocking, then enervating, and set all of its observers, most of whom now lacked the will to yell out “shut the fuck up!” just to see what would happen, into a state of irredeemable grimness. In other words, the event, the culmination of what was probably a bad idea in the first place, had at last hit its full potential of awfulness, and the alcohol, which had first electrified the guests, had pulled away the veil of the bride to reveal a great hole, nothing.
With that Brian took to the center of the ballroom and at once, as confused and distressed as they had become over the course of the night, the guests seemed to remember this event was supposed to be a celebration. The music, which had been going most of the evening on the periphery of my awareness, stopped, and the horrible inertness of silence swallowed all of our voices in a smothering lurch forward. Brian, in the lights, looked tired, but he didn’t look dead yet. Seconds later we heard low electric guitar strings plucked over the speakers, followed by a baritone saxophone. Brian began to slow dance, sans partner, first in a stiff but rapidly fluid manner, to “Don’t Look Back.”
I looked around the room. The smiles had begun, and not the happy for you smiles but the nasty smiles that cut up the face when some asshole was making a fool of himself. Each second and Brian’s face became more severe and yet detached, as if each step taught him that he would be, forever, the sole inhabitant of his body. He had married himself—he had come to grips with being himself, and being by himself. The smiles dropped off of faces, and we all looked on, now only interested and sad. Joy was no longer present. This was now only Brian. This was someone who had loved as though it was his only function, and then that love was useless. This was a man who had made it to the other side of grief. And then we all ceased being interested, and were only sad. The greatest shame is in witnessing the misfortune of others.
The song ended. We all knew we needed to go. Brian to his rented hotel room, the rest of us to cabs and scheduled rides. There was nothing to say to one another. We saw something we would never see again, something none of us wanted to see again. Attendant to grace is embarrassment. Walking by the buffet, I broke open a dinner roll and shoved a chunk of beef inside, eating it dripping as I staggered out the lobby of the hotel toward the waves that soothed and mocked and judged all the actions of men. The importance of their message was lost on me.