Matchmaking for Beginners by Maddie Dawson
I shouldn’t have come, and that’s the truth of it. It’s not even five o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m already fantasizing about a swift, painless coma. Something dramatic, involving a nice collapse to the floor, with my eyes rolling back in their sockets and my limbs shaking.
It’s my niece’s annual post-Christmas tea, you see, when people who are barely crawling out from underneath weeks of holiday shopping, parties, and hangovers find themselves required by Wendy Spinnaker to don their red sweaters and pleated slacks one more time and go stand for hours in her living room so they can admire her expensive Christmas decorations and her refurbished mansion and drink a ridiculous red cocktail that a high school student in a waitress uniform delivers on a tray.
As near as I can tell, the purpose of this gathering is simply so my niece can remind the good people of Fairlane, Virginia, that she is a Very Important Person, and wealthy besides—a force to be reckoned with. A giver to charity. A chairwoman of most things. I can’t keep track of it all, to tell you the truth.
I’m tempted to stand up and ask for a show of hands. How many of y’all have souls that have withered in just the last few hours? How many would like to join me in a conga line right out the front door? I know I’d have some takers. My niece would also have me murdered in my bed.
I live far away, and I’m old as dirt, so I wouldn’t have even come to this thing—most years I have enough sense to avoid it—but Houndy said I had to. He said I’d regret not seeing the family for the last time if I didn’t. Houndy worries about things like deathbed regrets. I think he imagines the end of life like the finish of a satisfying novel: something that should be wrapped up with a nice bow, all the sins forgiven. Like that would ever happen.
“I’ll go,” I said to him finally, “but I am not telling them I’m sick.”
“They’ll know when they look at you,” he said. And then of course they didn’t.
Worse, this year would be the time when my grandnephew, Noah, has just gotten himself engaged, and so the party has stretched on into infinity because we’re all waiting for him and his fiancée to arrive from California so she can be shown the high society she is marrying into.
“She’s just some flibbertigibbet he met at a conference, and somehow she figured out how to snag him,” Wendy told me over the phone. “Probably doesn’t have a functioning brain cell in her head. A nursery school aide, if you can stand it. Family isn’t anybody to speak of—the father’s in insurance, and the mother doesn’t do anything for anybody, as near as I can tell. They’re from Flah-rida. That’s how she says it. Flah-rida.”
I was still processing the word flibbertigibbet and wondering what that might mean in Wendy’s universe. No doubt I’d be described as something equally dismissive. I’m still considered the family misfit, you see, the one who has to be carefully watched. Blix the Outrage. They hate that I took my inheritance and moved to Brooklyn—which anyone knows is unacceptable, populated, as it is, by Northerners.
I look around this room in the house that was once our family homestead, passed down through the generations from favorite daughter to favorite daughter (missing me, of course), and it takes everything I can muster to block all the negative energy that slithers along the baseboards. The ten-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree with its glass Christopher Radko ornaments and the twinkling fairy lights is trying to insist that everything here is just dandy, thank you very much, but I know better.
This is a family that is rotten at its core, no matter what the decor tells you.
I see things as they are, right through the fakery and pretense. I can still remember when this place really was authentically grand, before Wendy Spinnaker decided to throw thousands of dollars into some kind of fake restoration of its façade.
But that sums up this family’s philosophy of life perfectly: plaster over the real stuff, and slap a veneer on the top. Nobody will know.
But I know.
A slightly drunk old gentleman with bad breath comes over and starts telling me about bank mergers he’s merged and some acquisitions he’s acquired, and also that he thinks my niece is the only person who can make Welsh rarebit taste like a potload of old socks. I’m about to agree with him when I realize with a start that he didn’t really say that last bit. It’s too loud and hot in this room, so I vaporize him with my mind, and sure enough, he toddles off.
I have my talents.
Then, miracle of miracles, just as we’re all about to succumb to despair and heavy drinking, the front door opens with a whoosh, and the party suddenly takes on energy, like somebody plugged it back in and we’re allowed to come back to life.
The young couple is here!
Wendy hurries over to the entryway and claps her hands and says, “Everyone! Everyone! Of course y’all all know my darling, brilliant Noah—and now this is his lovely fiancée, Marnie MacGraw, soon to be our exquisite daughter-in-law! Welcome to you, dahlin’!”
The little quartet in the corner of the living room strikes up “Here Comes the Bride,” and everyone flocks around, shaking hands with the couple, blocking my view. I can hear Noah, heir to the family’s bluster and bravado, booming as he talks about the flight and the traffic, while his fiancée is being manhandled and hugged as though she’s a commodity who now belongs to everybody. If I crane my neck over to the right, I can see that she’s truly lovely—tall and thin, red-cheeked and golden, and wearing a blue beret tipped askew with a jauntiness you don’t normally see at Wendy’s parties.
And then I notice something else about her, too, something about the way she peeks out from under her long blonde bangs. And—pow!—from across the room, her eyes meet mine and I swear something passes in a flash from her to me.
I had been about to get up from my place on the love seat, but now I fall back into it, close my eyes, and squeeze my fingers.
I know her. Oh my God, I actually feel like I know her.
It takes me a minute to regroup. Maybe I’m mistaken after all. How could it be? But no. It’s true. Marnie MacGraw is just like the old glorious me, standing there, facing this onslaught of Southern gentility, and I see her both young and old, and feel my own old heart pounding like it used to.
Come over here, sweetheart, I beam toward her.
So this—this—is why I’m here. It wasn’t to give some closure to years of family strife. It wasn’t to drink these absurd cocktails or even to revisit my roots.
I was meant to meet Marnie MacGraw.
I put my hand against my abdomen, against the ball of tumor that’s been growing there since last winter, the hard, solid mass that I already know is going to kill me outright before summer comes.
Come over here, Marnie MacGraw. I have so much I need to tell you.
Not yet. Not yet. She does not come.
Ah yes. Of course. There are duties to be performed when you’re being shown off to polite Southern society, when you’re the heir apparent’s intended. And under the strain of it all, Marnie MacGraw has turned fluttery, nervous—and then she makes a dreadful faux pas, one that’s so delightfully horrendous it alone would have stood her in good stead with me for a lifetime, even if I didn’t already know her. She declines to take a portion of Wendy’s Welsh rarebit. At first she simply shakes her head politely when it is thrust in her direction. She tries to claim she isn’t hungry, but that’s clearly untrue, as Wendy points out with her laser-like eyes flashing, because Marnie’s been traveling with Noah for hours, and Wendy happens to know that they missed both breakfast and lunch and have tried to survive on airline peanuts.
“Why, honey, you must eat!” Wendy exclaims. “You don’t have a single extra calorie on those bones, bless your heart!”
I close my eyes. She’s been here only a few minutes and has already earned herself a deadly “bless your heart.” Marnie, wobbly now, reaches out and takes a scone and a single red grape, but this is not the right thing either.
“No, no, my dear, have some rarebit,” urges Wendy. I know the edge in the voice. Somehow Noah has failed to explain to his true love that family law here requires that guests take some of the rarebit, and then they must practically fall to the ground writhing in their rapture over its wonderfulness, always so much more wonderful than last year.
And then Marnie says the thing that seals her fate. She stammers out the words, “I-I am so sorry, but I’m really not comfortable with eating rabbits.”
I put my hand over my mouth so people can’t see how hard I am smiling.
Aha! My niece’s eyes flash and she laughs her brittle, scary laugh and says in a loud voice that makes everyone stop and look: “My dear, wherever did you get the notion that rarebit has anything to do with rabbits? For heaven’s sake! Is it because they both start with R? Please don’t tell me that’s what you think!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—oh, I’m so sorry—”
But that is that. What’s done is done. The dish is withdrawn, and Wendy sweeps away, shaking her head. People turn back to their conversations. Wendy the Wronged. Kids today. No manners at all.
And where is Noah, Marnie’s savior and protector, during this little scene? I crane my neck to see. Ah yes, he’s gone off with Simon Whipple, his best friend, of course. I see him laughing at something Whipple is saying, in the adjacent poolroom, two colts stamping their hooves in delight over some incomprehensible, meaningless joke.
So I get to my feet and go fetch her. Marnie has two bright spots of color on her cheeks, and without the beret now, her blonde hair is loose and possibly the slightest bit tangled, and might have already been deemed beyond redemption by Wendy. Beach hair. Not society hair. Definitely not hair that the movers and shakers of Fairlane, Virginia, should have to see at their annual post-Christmas tea.
I bring her over to where I had camped out, and I pat the love seat next to me, and she sits down, pressing her fingertips into her temples. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “I’m such an idiot, aren’t I?”
“Please,” I say. “No more apologies, my love.”
I can see in her eyes that it’s dawning on her precisely how many things she’s already done wrong. Not counting the rarebit, she’s also wearing the wrong kind of clothing for this little soiree. Black skinny pants! A tunic top! In the sea of the de rigueur red cashmere sweaters and coiffed, sprayed hairdos and Santa Claus earrings, Marnie MacGraw with her lanky, bangs-in-the-eyes, tangled yellow hair dares to wear a gray shirt—without even one sparkly piece of jewelry to acknowledge that Christmas is the holiest of holidays and the post-Christmas tea is the best part of Christmas! And her shoes: turquoise leather cowboy boots! Fantastic, of course. But not high-society boots.
I take her hand in mine to soothe her and also to surreptitiously check her lifeline. When you’re an old woman, you can reach over and touch people since you’re harmless and invisible most of the time.
“Pay no attention to Wendy,” I whisper to her. “She missed the class on manners because she was attending two extra courses on personal intimidation.”
Marnie looks down at her hands. “No, I was the awful one. I should have just taken the rarebit.”
“The fuck you were,” I whisper back, and that makes her laugh. People find it hilarious when an old woman says fuck; it must break every law of nature when we swear. “You were trying to politely decline eating a cute, furry animal and got embarrassed for your trouble.”
She looks at me. “But—but it’s not made of rabbits. I guess.”
“Well, it sounds like it is. Some people still call it Welsh rabbit. And what? You’re supposed to research all the dishes of Northern Europe in preparation for coming to a Christmas tea? Give me a break!”
“I should have known.”
“Look, whose side are you on? Yours or Our Lady of the Hoity-Toity Mansion?”
I pat her hand. “You’re delightful,” I say. “And the truth is that my niece is a bit of a stick. In fact, look around at this whole crowd. Normally I don’t like to bring down the forces of evil on myself by being critical, but just look at all the fake smiles and sour faces around here. I’m going to have to take a bath with a wire brush to get all this negativity off me when I leave. And I suggest you do the same. Bunch of damn hypocrites eating the Welsh rarebit whether they like it or not. And you know what else?”
I lean toward her and stage-whisper, “It could be made of Welsh rabbit turds and they would still eat it. Because Wendy Spinnaker is their overlord and leader.”
She laughs. I love her laugh. We sit in a companionable silence—to anyone else’s eye, we’re nothing more than two strangers who find themselves making polite small talk because they’ll soon be related. But I am bursting with the need to tell her everything. Of course I begin badly because I am so out of practice when it comes to small talk.
“So, tell me about you,” I say in a rush. “Are you doing everything you want as an unmarried person before you hook your life up to this guy’s life?”
She raises her eyebrows slightly. “Well, yes, I have a good job, and I’ve . . . done stuff. Gone places. You know. I’m nearly thirty, so it’s time I got ready to be a real adult. Somebody who is settled down.”
“Settled down. That sounds god-awful, doesn’t it?”
“I think it sounds . . . rather nice. I mean, if you’re in love with the person, then it’s a good thing that you get to stop all the running around and make a home together.” She looks around the room, probably searching for anything else we could talk about, and then her eyes land back on me. “By the way, I love what you’re wearing tonight.”
What I’m wearing is a purple velvet vintage evening gown that I bought at a thrift shop in Brooklyn. It has little glass beads sewn in circles all over it, and it shows actual, certifiable, measurable cleavage. Not that my cleavage is anything great; truthfully, it looks like a sack of peach pits.
“It’s my showstopper dress,” I tell her, and then I lean over and whisper, “I am ridiculously proud of the girls tonight. The fact is, I had to tie them up in this wired-up bra to get them to stand up enough for this, but I figure they could give me a last hurrah. After this—no more bras ever. I promised them.”
“I love the colors. I didn’t know what to wear, so I put on this gray shirt that I thought would go with anything, but it looks so boring compared to everybody else.” She leans over and laughs. “I do not think I’ve ever seen so many red sweaters in one room.”
“It’s the Christmas uniform here in Fairlane, Virginia. I’m surprised they didn’t issue you one at the town line.”
Just then a high school student bearing a tray of drinks comes by, and Marnie and I both select a red concoction. It’s my fourth, but who’s counting? I clink my glass into hers, and she smiles. I can’t stop looking at her eyes, which seem so much like my own that it’s disconcerting. My hairline is tingling just a little.
“So,” I say, “when you get married, do you think you’ll get to keep on being your wonderful free-spirit self?”
Her eyes widen. “My free-spirit self?” she says and laughs. “No, no, no. You’ve got me all wrong. I’m actually looking forward to settling down. Buying a house, having kids.” She smiles. “I think a person needs to have a life plan.”
I take a moment, sigh a bit, and reach into my neckline to give the girls a gentle readjustment. “Maybe that’s where I went wrong. I don’t think I ever followed a life plan for even one minute. Tell me this: Is it worth giving up your own free spirit for?”
“A life plan is just security. Commitment.”
“Ah,” I say. “That stuff. Now I see why I didn’t go in for it. Anytime anybody mentions security like it’s a good thing, I get the willies. And commitment. Ugh!”
“Huh. Well, did you ever get married?”
“Oh God yes. Twice. Almost three times, actually. First time was to a professor with the illustrious name of Wallace Elderberry, if you please.” I bend over closer to Marnie and put my hand on hers and smile. “He spent his one wild, precious life on Earth researching the life cycle of a certain kind of green-headed insect, and we traveled to Africa and collected specimens of hard-shelled things so bizarre you wouldn’t even want to think about them for longer than twenty seconds. Can you imagine? And when we got home, I realized I’d had enough of bugs to last me my whole life.” I drop my voice to a whisper. “And, if you want to know the truth of it, Wallace Elderberry himself was starting to look like a big cockroach to me. So we got a divorce.”
“Wow. Husband turned into a cockroach. Sounds like Kafka.”
“God, don’t you just love it when people manage to bring up Kafka in a routine post-Christmas conversation?”
“Well, you started it,” she says. “What happened to the second husband? What did he turn into?”
“The second time I got married against my better judgment—which you should never, ever do, by the way, just in case you’re contemplating it—”
“I’m not,” she says.
“Of course you’re not, but it’s an easy mistake a lot of people make. Anyway, that marriage was to Rufus Halloran, a legal aid lawyer, and we set up shop in Brooklyn in a little storefront office in the 1970s. Brooklyn was a mess then. So we did a lot of work for runaways and homeless people. That sort of thing.”
“And what happened? Did he turn into a cockroach, too?”
“No. He didn’t have the imagination to turn into anything, I’m afraid. He turned out to be a horribly boring human who only saw the dark side of everything. I’d look over at him, and it was as though there was a gray haze around him that I couldn’t penetrate. All the well-meaningness in the world, but nothing coming off him. No genuine pleasure. Just walls of boring, long-winded words. So—divorce. Had to happen.”
“Seriously?” She tilts her head, smiling, as she considers this. “You divorced a man because he was boring? I didn’t know that was legal grounds.”
“I had to. It was killing me how boring he was. It was like he had died before his life ended, and he was going to take me down with him.”
“Yeah, but life can’t be fascinating all the time.”
“Oh, honey. Mine is. If it gets boring for longer than two weeks, I make adjustments.” I smile right into her eyes. “And it’s paid off because now I live with Houndy, who is a lobsterman, and the thing about him is that he could talk to me for four days straight without stopping about lobsters and their shells and the different tides and the sky, and nothing he ever said would bore me because the language that Houndy is really speaking in is all about love and life and death and appreciation and gratitude and funny moments.”
Her eyes flicker, and I see in her face that she knows exactly what I mean.
“I feel like that when I’m at work,” she says softly. “I work in a nursery school, so I get to spend my days sitting on the floor with three- and four-year-olds, talking. People think it must be the most boring thing in the world, but oh my God! They tell me about the most astonishing things. They get into philosophical discussions about their boo-boos and about how worms on the sidewalk get their feelings hurt sometimes, and why the yellow crayon is the meanest one but the purple one is nice. Can you believe it? They know the personalities of crayons.”