Death & Weddings & Podcasts
A short story by Cara Rothenberg
I can’t listen to true crime podcasts now that you’re gone.
It’s not because they’re too disturbing. In fact, the exploitative nature of forcing a murder victim’s loved ones to relive tragedy over and over never sparked a crisis of conscience for me (which I realize is a very good look but I blame social media or my childhood or my “morbid curiosity” or whatever else makes me sound like less of an insensitive jerk). I can’t listen to true crime podcasts anymore because listening makes me want to call you immediately after to discuss whether or not the husband did it (of fucking course he did).
We’d always argue about that. You gave the clearly murderous husband the benefit of the doubt because, in your words, “I can’t resist an underdog story.” I’d mutter, “Jesus Christ.” You’d laugh. You’d say we should start our own podcast where we rank serial killers on their attractiveness. I’d tell you it was pointless because Ted Bundy would win every time. You’d laugh again. I never got the chance to tell you this, but making you laugh was my favorite thing to do. I felt so accomplished, like I completed a spin class or cooked a chicken that didn’t give anyone food poisoning.
I attend our friend Baylor’s wedding one month and three days after you leave us. I’m overcome with disappointment that you won’t be able to get on the mic at the reception and say, “Baylor? I hardly know her!” You made that joke every time we hung out with Baylor. She hated it. But now it’s her favorite story to tell. She doesn’t tell people that you first started making that joke when you accidentally walked in on her and our friend Cameron having sex in the bathroom of a TGI Fridays. Baylor conveniently leaves that little detail out, mostly because she doesn’t want people to know she ever ate at a chain restaurant. I kind of loathe how people get to edit stories when someone dies. It’s like watching the clean version of Superbad on TBS.
Baylor looks beautiful in a flower crown you’d hate. Her new husband, Dave, looks nice too. You called him “Gross Dave” because you once saw him wash down a slice of cheesecake with a can of warm tomato juice. “Do you know how messed up you have to be to ingest that food and drink combo with that kind of confidence?” I shrugged at the time. But honestly, you weren’t wrong.
Baylor’s mom, Gail, approaches me during cocktail hour when I’m elbow deep in the mashed potato bar. She puts her hand on my shoulder and says, “Oh, honey. I think of you every day.” I thank her. I hope she starts talking about the passed apps, but instead she tells me that when Baylor’s brother Troy was in a biking accident, you came over and mowed their lawn every week for three months because you knew that was something Troy normally did. Nobody asked you to do it. You schlepped your dad’s push lawn mower over to their house and did it yourself. I say something mildly incoherent like, “What, oh, cool, nice,” because I’m in shock that I haven’t heard this story. You never missed an opportunity to make yourself look good. I feel betrayed. How dare you be a better person than I ever thought you were and not tell me.
Gail is the first of many wedding guests to dole out a sympathetic head tilt and an, “I’m always here if you need anything.” I keep tally at first, but after three gin and sodas, I quickly lose count. I try to get a buzz going before the speeches because I know they’re going to rip my guts out. Not because they make me emotional, but because I know how much they moved you.
“I can’t handle father-of-the-bride speeches. That shit tears me up,” you once slurred to me at your parents’ 30th anniversary party after you drank your body weight in dirty martinis. Baylor’s dad walks up to the mic and I swear I can feel you in the room. The hole in my chest widens and I feel like your absence will chew me up and spit me out until I’m just flesh and bones and boiling hot rage. My hands start to shake. I am certain I won’t make it through this.
I feel someone stroke my arm. It’s our friend Tina. “You’re okay, babe,” she whispers, and normally I find her intrusive, but in this moment I love her for being so perceptive. She subtly rubs my back and I calm down. But my peace of mind is short lived because I know that there won’t always be life rafts like Tina to rescue me. I’ll have to attend meetings and parties and holiday gatherings and more weddings where I’m supposed to act like I’m not wishing someone else died instead of you.
I give Baylor’s dad’s speech a 6.5. He went on a little long about Baylor’s time at Georgetown and it reminds me of how you used to act like you’d never heard of the school when Baylor would talk about it (which was always). “Georgetown? Where’s that? Cleveland? Is that a trade school?” you’d say. Elitist but polite, Baylor would smile through gritted teeth and you gleefully soaked up every ounce of her suppressed fury.
The partying portion of the evening begins and I kick back with my champagne and watch all the old white people dance moving only their shoulders. I scan the dance floor and see Ethan from high school dancing with his wife. When you died, he posted some nauseating tribute on Facebook. “We didn’t always agree, but the love was always there. Rest in paradise, my friend,” he’d written, accompanied by a photo of the two of you from junior prom.
I somehow controlled myself from commenting, “You CANNOT be serious, you unrelenting dick weasel!” Fucking Ethan who, senior year of high school, told anyone who would listen about your mom’s alcoholism after you’d confided in us that she’d gone to rehab. Fucking Ethan, the guy who missed your funeral because it was the day of HIS DOG’S HALF-BIRTHDAY PARTY. He doesn’t get to hashtag your memory. I forbid it. But there he is, doing the lawn mower on the dance floor, wearing a tie with flamingos on it — without a care in the world. I’ve deemed myself the judge of who is mourning your death properly and who isn’t. It’s exhausting but it’s the only job I feel suited for these days.
Halfway through the night, I go outside on the patio to smoke a cigarette. I think of how you’d look at me and say, “Really?” with genuine disappointment because I was always in a perpetual stage of quitting. You’d ask to bum one literally seconds later because if you were here, you’d be drinking whiskey, and whiskey always made you want to smoke. Gross Dave joins me. He urges me to come inside and dance. I tell him I’m good for now and he doesn’t push it any further. But he doesn’t leave either.
“I was always jealous of you guys,” Gross Dave says. I need no further context.
“Really?” I ask him. This is already the longest conversation I’ve ever had with Gross Dave.
“Yeah. Ever since Baylor introduced me to you guys, I don’t know. You had this little bubble no one could ever penetrate,” he says. I can see his new wife through the glass doors, dancing with a cluster of aunts and uncles to a Bruce Springsteen song. I can’t tell if Gross Dave is just being wistful or resentful and I don’t really care to find out, so I say nothing. We stand in silence for a while, looking out at the perfectly manicured gardens.
“Do you think when people die, they can still hear us?” Gross Dave asks. Suddenly it feels like he’s a little boy asking his mom if Santa Claus is real.
“I don’t know. I hope they can,” I say. Gross Dave looks up at the sky and closes his eyes like he’s willing himself to fly.
“Fuck Ethan and his fucking flamingo tie!” he yells with reckless abandon. I genuinely laugh for the first time in a month and three days. I can’t believe Gross Dave is the one to break the spell. I can’t believe we underestimated the depth to which Gross Dave understood us. I laugh so hard that I start bawling and Gross Dave wraps me up in his skinny, hairless arms. Gross Dave lets me sob as “Brown Eyed Girl” plays and the rest of his wedding guests sha la la la to the music inside. I decide in that moment that he’s just “Dave” now.
Don’t worry. I bounce back. I hit the bar for another glass of champagne. I go against all of my instincts and hit the dance floor just in time for Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” which is undoubtedly the weirdest song choice I’ve ever heard at a wedding. It’s not a party song; you don’t (or at least you shouldn’t) pump your fists during the slow guitar intro. And slow-dancing to it feels creepy — like watching one of your parents undress.
I go to the bar for another drink and in front of me is Tina and one of Baylor’s cousins, whose name I forget. Tina doesn’t notice me. I hear her tell the cousin that I’m having a really tough time, that she was forced to comfort me during my “freak out” earlier in the night, that I look like I’ve put on a little weight but that it’s “understandable, you know, given all that’s happened.” The cousin says something about how I’m lucky to have a friend like Tina to comfort me. Tina nods the way people who think they’re heroes do and proceeds to order a glass of red wine.
Tina is no longer my life raft. She never was. She is a quiet and jagged iceberg. I can’t believe I didn’t see the difference. I leave the bar without a drink.
I sit back down at my table and pick at my flavorless piece of wedding cake. A crowd forms around Baylor and Dave on the dance floor as they jump up and down to a song from the mid-90s. They look happy. I give them at least six years.
There’s this teeny, tiny optimist inside me who tells me to join the crowd, to put on a brave face and show everyone that I’m not broken. But I’m too tired to act like I feel like being here on Earth. I promise myself that tomorrow will be different. Maybe I’ll start that podcast we talked about. Or maybe I’ll go just one hour — or first, just one minute — without thinking about all that I’ve lost.
…A podcast it is. I think I’ll call it Serial-ously Sexy. Come on. Don’t act like you’re not laughing, wherever you are.