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There You Are

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

A stranger barges into a wedding and changes a young woman's life forever.

A stranger walked up the steps of the reception hall and onto the veranda where we were lining up for post-ceremony photographs. He was Viking tall with blue eyes, a cleft in his chin, and a straight nose etched with a profusion of tiny veins that snaked out over his cheeks like sunburn. It was the hard-living, knocked-back-a-few kind of face you find on mountain climbers and aging musicians.

“For the lovely bride,” he said, offering a bouquet of roses to my sister Susan, who stood regal and unyielding as chiseled marble.

Until that moment, the wedding had been like something out of a movie set. The mellow hits of the day—“In My Life,” “The Look of Love”—played softly on flute and harp. The whitewashed Mediterranean-style banquet hall rose like a castle behind us. The garden with ribbon-trimmed chairs, white runner, and flower-covered canopy before us. And beyond that, the Atlantic Ocean, close enough that when everyone was quiet, you could hear the waves breaking.

The sky over Ventnor, New Jersey had been overcast until Susan stepped out onto the white runner with Dad at her side. Then, as if on cue, the sun broke through the clouds, lighting up the crystal beading on her dress. The material shimmered as she walked down the aisle, accompanied by the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon and a shower of oohs and ahs. I would have given anything to be my sister at that moment, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. As the couple stood beneath the flower-covered trellis, and Brad lifted her veil, a little girl in the audience cried out, “Ooh, Prince Charming,” Everyone laughed.

Now the chairs were empty, and the horizon was washed in pink. The photographer had just arranged our family for the last of the outdoor photos, bride and groom in the center, flanked by Mom and Dad on one side and me on the other. It would have been a symmetrical arrangement if my boyfriend had been by my side. Michael was attending a funeral, though he promised to be here in time for the reception. But Michael wasn’t family, and we weren’t even officially a “couple,” so I would have been the asymmetrical bookend regardless. I was wearing a midnight-blue satin dress that clung to my body in a way that made me feel almost beautiful. The satin had a silver sheen when the light hit it, like seafoam. Not a bad looking bookend, I thought, and smiled.

The photographer focused the camera. “Okay. Hold.” The flash and afterimage temporarily blinded me, so I didn’t see the intruder until he was almost upon us.

“Oh,” said Susan, putting her hand to her mouth.

Brad turned to Susan. “Who is he?”

Susan whispered something in his ear, and he muttered, “And you never bothered to tell me?”

“What the hell,” yelled Dad in a voice I’d never heard before. “You didn’t invite him, did you, Sylvia?”

Mom shook her head slowly as the stranger stood before Susan, holding out the flowers.

“For the lovely bride,” he repeated, but she kept her arms at her sides, so he dropped the flowers at her feet.

He smoothed his gray-blond hair, which was pulled back in a ponytail like a girl, but he was anything but girlish. There was something sensual, primal about him.

You.” Dad grabbed the man’s lapel. The stranger towered over him.

“Who is he?” I asked, but nobody answered.

“Get the fuck out of here,” my father yelled.

That ugly word coming from my father’s lips was almost as shocking as the stranger’s invasion.

Dad released the man’s lapels and poked an index finger at his chest, punctuating his words. “You have no right to barge into my daughter’s wedding.”

“She’s my daughter, too.”

There it was. And everyone had known except me. And Brad, who hadn’t officially been part of our family until an hour ago. I balled my hands into fists so tight, my fingernails cut into flesh.

The presence of this man explained everything. Susan was the only blonde in the family and the only one with honest-to-God blue eyes. In fact, she looked so different from Dad and Mom and me that when I was younger, I thought she might have been adopted. But there was something about the shape of her eyes and the way they crinkled at the edges when she smiled like my mom’s and mine, that convinced me she was my biological sister.

“If you don’t get the fuck out of here, I’m calling the cops,” Dad yelled. He continued to poke the intruder.

“Is there a problem?” A waiter big as a bouncer walked over to Dad.

“Yes. A big problem.” Dad said without taking his eyes off the man. Mom didn’t take her eyes off him either.

When Dad and the waiter walked off to the side to talk, Mom came to life, straightening her back and lifting her chest. I could see the outline of her breasts against the emerald silk of her dress. Did she have any idea what she was showing? This woman who wore white gloves like it was still the fifties, who told me nice girls didn’t do it before marriage, who stressed the importance of wearing a panty girdle (which I was dutifully wearing under the sexy satin). Though it was 1967, I was essentially a child of the fifties, raised on movies where even married couples slept in separate beds, and we learned about sex from selected pages of Peyton Place. My mother preached the gospel of the fifties and did a damn good job making me a believer. My two best friends told me they had gone no further than third base, but it was entirely possible they’d been lying. The world was awash in hypocrisy, and for all I knew I was the only eighteen-year-old virgin in the state of New Jersey.

“You haven’t changed, Chaz.” Mom’s voice was sultry.

“You think? I’m a little worn around the edges.” He ran a knuckle along his jawline.

“I didn’t mean that. I meant the way you come and go as you please.” She lifted her chin, exposing her long, flawless neck as if to show him she hadn’t changed at all.

Riveted by the drama unfolding between my mother and that man, I didn’t notice Dad had returned. He grabbed the back of Chaz’s arm and turned him around. “You still here?”

Chaz raised his arms in surrender. “Okay. Okay. I’m going.” He bent slowly, deliberately, and picked up the flowers. Then he turned and walked down the steps of the veranda at such a leisurely pace I thought he was toying with us. But he stumbled a few times as he made his way across the grass, and I suspected he was too drunk or too high to move faster.

I leaned against a pillar on the far side of the veranda to steady myself and watched the man who was no longer a stranger fade into the darkness. I closed my eyes for what must have been a long time, because when I opened them the veranda was empty. They hadn’t even noticed my absence. Why weren’t they here explaining, apologizing for keeping me in the dark? Why wasn’t Mom telling me she was sorry for loving me less than the one with the cornsilk-blond hair, blue eyes, and long legs? Loved me less because I was short and dark, like my father, and they had not yet invented a chemical that could straighten my curly brown hair. Loved me less because I wasn’t that man’s daughter. I never stood a chance.

When Susan and I were growing up, we took dance lessons at Miss Marilyn’s Modern Movement and Ballet School. When I was nine and Susan was twelve, Miss Marilyn said I was too young to go on pointe like the ballet dancers, so I would stay in the modern movement group, which I feared would be my fate forever, since I knew I’d never have the body of a ballet dancer. For our year-end recital I was dressed in bright orange crepe paper to dance the role of a carrot in the Vegetable Fantasy. Susan, on the other hand, had been chosen as the principal dancer in the Swan Princess Ballet. Mom was backstage helping us get ready. She watched as Susan warmed up with rocking steps, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, her tutu rising and falling like a flying saucer. Mom hovered over her, gathering her hair into a tight dancer’s bun, leaning in close to apply lipstick, on her face an expression of wonder as if to say, “look what I created.” Then she turned to me and brushed the hair off my face, as she always did, without really seeing me. Without hearing me sob, “I don’t want to be a vegetable.”

A door to the banquet hall opened, releasing the sounds of music and laughter into the night. How can they walk around in there with their fancy drinks and party faces, pretending nothing has happened. Get your asses out here!

Braced against the pillar, I faced the garden where the ceremony had taken place, now dark as death, and yelled into the void, “Why the hell did you all leave me?”


I froze as a figure moved across the grass and into the light of a lamppost. It was that man. Chaz.

“Looks like we’re both alone,” he said. “There’s a place over there where we can sit.” He pointed to the side of the building. “Wanna join me?”

“Why would I want to join you?”

He shrugged.

Then again, why shouldn’t I join him? If they didn’t care about me, why should I care about them?

“Okay.” I walked down the steps.

“This way.” He walked along the front of the banquet hall, looking back to make sure I was following him. “I discovered this spot earlier.”

I followed him around the building to a side porch. “Good place to watch the wedding without being seen,” he said casually, as if talking to a fellow intruder. His voice was raspy, like someone who had smoked or, perhaps, lived too much.

He sat down on an Adirondack chair facing a small glass table and gestured for me to take the seat across from him. I sat, and he dropped the rejected rose bouquet on the table.

“Sooo.” He leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms. Up close he smelled of sandalwood and pot. He was probably as old as my father, but there was a magnetism about him that made him seem younger. A glass shattered somewhere outside, and a woman giggled and said she’d better go inside and tell someone to clean it up. A door slammed, shutting her in and me out.

“You must be Becky,” he said. “Why don’t they call you Rebecca? It’s so much prettier than Becky.”

I smoothed the satin fabric over my knees. “I’m Becky to family and close friends. Everyone else calls me Rebecca… You can call me whatever you like,” I said sharply.

I was angry with him for invading our lives, but I was even angrier with my family, especially my mother, who had written the juiciest chapter of her own story in invisible ink—invisible until this man barged in and splashed lemon juice on the pages.

“And you can call me whatever you’d like, though I prefer Chaz, since that’s my name.” His laugh came from somewhere deep in his chest.

Chaz’s eyes were slightly red, accentuating the startling blue of his irises. “You look a little like your mother.”

“I don’t look at all like my mother.”

“Same shaped eyes. Twinkly. Can’t miss ’em.” He pulled a sheet of rolling paper and a small plastic packet from his jacket pocket. “Smoke?” he asked. He moved the flowers to make space for the paper, which he sprinkled down the center with some of the contents of the packet.

“No, I don’t… I should go in.” Yet the idea of smoking pot on the porch appealed more than the idea of going inside and confronting my parents or pretending to be happy. “Oh, what the hell. Why not?” It was as good a time as any to get high for the first time.

He raised an eyebrow at me before rolling the paper into a tight cylinder. He had the slow, deliberate movements of someone who was already high. The light from the Zippo exaggerated the creases around his eyes and mouth, reminding me how much older he was than me. He took a long noisy drag and exhaled slowly, eyes closed. Then he handed it to me.

“You look like a musician,” I said, as I held the end of the joint with my thumb and forefinger.

“Good eye. That’s what I was when I met your mother. Don’t do much singing anymore with this voice. But I can still play a few mean guitar licks.”

It was hard to imagine that my mother had been… intimate… with someone who looked like him.

“So you gonna smoke it, Becky? Don’t want that good stuff to go to waste.”

I lifted the joint to my lips. A couple years ago I tried to smoke cigarettes with friends but couldn’t get the hang of inhaling. Same thing when someone passed me a joint at a party. But tonight I wasn’t going to give up until I filled my lungs to bursting.

I inhaled, imitating what he had done, coughing a little. This is crazy. I should get out of here. I took another drag. Easier the second time. No one was looking for me or I’d have heard them call my name. And why should I care if they found me out here smoking pot with him. By the time I handed the joint back I was feeling a buzz.

“Why’d you come here, Chaz?” I was now on a first-name basis with my mother’s lover. I stifled a giggle.

“To see the lovely bride.” He smiled as if unaware of the chaos he’d caused. Or all too aware.

“I don’t think the lovely bride was happy to see you.”

His eyebrows rose. “Really.” It was not a question.

We sat in silence, passing the joint back and forth. I remembered the intensity in Mom’s eyes as she gazed at her ex-lover on the veranda. Like completing an electric circuit that had been broken until that moment. Then I remembered something that happened back when I was eight or nine. It was a Friday night, and Dad had driven down to the shore from the city for the weekend. He’d stopped at a farm stand on the road, so we feasted on corn slathered in butter and eaten our ripe Jersey tomatoes like apples, squirting juice like red streamers. That night I couldn’t sleep, so I got out of bed and walked down the hall intending to sneak a few cookies from downstairs. But when I got to the top of the stairs and saw Mom and Dad standing by the front door, I moved off to the side and stared through the risers. They were wearing bathing suits, acting all strange and lovey. I knew it was a private moment and I shouldn't follow them, but I did anyway. I stayed well behind as they walked to the beach, watching from under the boardwalk as they walked to the water’s edge. The lampposts cast just enough light for me to see what was going on. It was high tide and there wasn’t much beach between me and my parents, so I could also hear what they were saying. They stood facing the ocean, holding hands, and then Mom did something shocking. She took off her bathing suit. I knew I should turn and run, but I couldn’t look away.

“Come on, Phil, just this once,” she said, tugging at the waistband of his trunks, but he pulled them up. “Just this one time, can’t you loosen up?” But he kept his fingers locked on that elastic waistband as my mother dived into the water and swam out further than the lifeguards would ever let her. I bet the man sitting across from me would shed his clothes as easy as peeling the wrapper off a candy bar.

How many times had Michael and I been making out and we were both aroused, and I longed to be naked with him and dive over the edge? But I insisted that we stop, because my mother had me believing it would be wrong.

Time slowed. I closed my eyes and let the world float. Then he cleared his throat.

“You got a boyfriend?”


“You going to marry him? He’d be crazy if he didn’t want to marry you. You’re a beautiful woman.”

Beautiful? No one’s ever said that about me. He’s high. What am I doing here with this man, my mother’s lover? Something must have happened to my face, because he said, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” He pulled out a roach clip to handle what was left of the joint and sucked in smoke and air. Then he handed it to me. Such an intimate gesture, handing something your mouth has touched to a stranger. When we’d finished the last of it, he stubbed it out in the ashtray and rolled another. When he offered it to me I said no thanks. I hoped my head would clear if I just sat there a minute or two. I knew I’d have to go in soon, but at that moment I knew I couldn’t possibly stand up. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Chiclets.

“You’ll probably want some gum before you go in.”

I took the pack and shook out a couple of pieces.

“Keep the pack. Doesn’t matter how my breath smells.” His chair creaked when he leaned back.

I popped the Chiclets into my mouth and chewed. An explosion of mint. A mint bomb. I stifled a giggle.

We sat in silence, the ocean shushing softly in the distance.

“Why did you come here?” I asked, vaguely aware that I’d already asked that question.

“Why did I come?” He pursed his lips. “Because life is short. You only have so much time to try to get what you want. I wanted to see her again. That’s why I came.”

Your daughter, or my mother?

“You’ve got your mother’s eyes.” I waited for him to go on, but he closed his eyes and leaned back. I thought he’d gone to sleep, and for a moment there was no music, no crickets, only the sound of his heavy breathing.

I was about to get up when he said, “I didn’t desert you, Sylvia.” His words were thick. “I sent child support until you got married. I didn’t have to do that. I loved you.”

“I’m Becky. You can call me Becky.”

“Mmm. You look so much like her.” His eyes were still closed.

I heard a faraway voice call my name. It could have been Michael. Then silence. I looked up at a swath of clear moonless sky but didn’t see any familiar stars. Michael was studying astronomy. He would know those stars. I could see my life with Michael stretching out into the horizon, calm as still water. He’d teach. I’d practice law. Predictable lives, like my mom and dad.

But maybe it didn’t have to be like that. How would it feel to be caught in the undercurrent and swept away?

“Excuse me,” I said to Chaz. “I have to go.”

He was breathing deeply, joint still burning between his fingers. I carefully extracted the stub, brushing against a calloused thumb, but his breathing didn’t change. I crushed the joint in the ash tray and tossed the butt over the porch railing. It took me a few tries to stand up, but I walked back and forth the length of the porch a few times to steady myself. Then walked back around to the main entrance, sobered a bit by the cool ocean breeze.

Inside, a couple of waiters were clearing the leftovers from the cocktail hour. I knew Michael was somewhere on the premises, because he always made good on his promises, and he promised he’d be here. Perhaps he’d gone into the dining room to look for me. I opened one of the doors to the dining room and sounds of music spilled out. “The Way You Look Tonight.” If it was the father-daughter dance, I wasn’t sorry I missed it.

I decided I’d clean myself up a bit, wash away some of the pot smell if I could, before I met up with Michael. I headed down the hall to the restrooms and spotted him at the end of the hall. Tall. Dark suit. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Bedroom eyes is how a friend once described them, and I had laughed. “There you are.” He smiled and walked toward me.

I slipped my arms under his suit jacket, lifted myself onto my toes, and kissed him for a long time. When I broke away, he looked at me, his expression equal parts puzzlement and pleasure. I kissed him again and felt him respond.

“I don’t want to go into the party,” I said. “Something happened. I’ll tell you later. Right now I want you to come with me.”

I took his hand, and we walked outside, across the garden, out the gate to the boardwalk, and down the steps to the beach. We took off our shoes and walked along the beach to where the boardwalk ended.

“Let’s go swimming,” I said, unzipping my dress, letting it drop to the sand like a satin waterfall. Then I took off my underwear, including the cursed panty girdle, stripping off the layer of hypocrisy that had imprisoned me. Michael’s back was to me, and his clothes lay in a heap next to him. He was beautiful. How had I not known?

He turned. “There you are,” he said, taking in the whole of me before racing into the waves.

Yes, here I am. I followed him into the water.

Published in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of the Smokey Blue Literary and Arts Magazine.

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