Quentin was seven when family friends staged a wedding for their oldest daughter. The bride’s little sister was an adorable redhead, the perfect ring bearer, but the family had a shortage of boys. Quentin was drafted to carry the warrior’s blade. The job was an honor and a grave responsibility. The family was Old Church, meaning ceremonies heaped upon ceremonies, but the boy was thrilled to wield the sword that would defend home and nation, and he tolerated the mock-uniform with its 16th Century flourishes and the boots that should have been a half-size smaller. With heels slipping and arms heavy, he accompanied the redhead past hundreds of well-wishers, and after surrendering the sword to the liquor-infused groom, he was free to stand to one side, serving as another decoration.
Fifteen years later, bride and sword bearer crossed paths.
“Except this isn’t by accident,” the bride confessed. “I heard you were in town, so I looked up your address. We don’t live that far apart. Think of the coincidence."
She was drinking baneh wine. The ex-sword bearer was watching his ice melting into his mineral water. Dinner was done, dessert on its way. There wasn’t going to be any movie, and thank goodness no dancing either.
“You weren’t just driving past my house,” Quentin ventured.
“No, that wasn’t a coincidence.”
“You were hunting me.”
She seemed offended. But every reflex was squelched, and she even smiled, saying, “You’ve grown up nicely.”
Not by some measures. Quentin’s hair was shaggy, the beard too. His best clothes were in the wash, but at least he was clean and relaxed.
She said his name, as if practicing the pronunciation.
He smiled at her.
Looking off into a theatrical distance, she said, “You remember my husband.”
The groom was a puffy veteran inside a much-let-out uniform. He was drunk at the ceremony, so drunk that when he swung the ceremonial sword, he struck his bride. He never realized that the blunted blade gave her pregnant belly a glancing kiss. Then after a reception full of drink and sweat, he collapsed. Other men had to carry the limp husband into the car, one of the bride’s friends declaring, “That’s a good man. He lets himself get moved around like luggage.”
Quentin remembered all that.
His companion saw something in his face. “I do love my husband,” she insisted.
“But I don’t want him,” she added. “Not physically.”
“That happens,” he said.
Dessert arrived, cold and sweet. He picked up his spoon and set it down again.
“Eat,” she said.
The bride was as old now as her husband had been then. Fifteen years and several unmentioned children later, she looked worn down, pretty still but puffy, pleasant when she wanted to be but always leaking disappointment and simple meanness.
“Aren’t you going to eat, Quentin?”
Inside his head, he was dropping ice cream onto a stretched, scarred landscape, and the imagined woman ordered him to lick her tummy clean.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
The moment demanded genius and a small, useful cruelty.
“How’s your little sister?” he asked.
Quentin lifted the spoon. “Is she still a redhead? Because I really like redheads.”