Could this be a sign...?

Philadelphia, August 1970

On the sweltering afternoon of my wedding, I took one last look in the bedroom mirror, happy to see no sweat rings showing. My fake eyelashes felt loose, so I pressed hard on my eyelids and scolded myself for not reading the directions. “Here goes nothing!” I said out loud to make myself smile.

At twenty-five I looked like a skinny teenager with my long sun-streaked hair, dangling earrings and freckles. I wore no veil, no flowing gown, just a white dress with lace on the front and wide gaucho pants that had shocked my mother. The sleeves hid a new bruise on my arm, but that wasn’t on my mind as I stood at the door.

I grabbed my bouquet—gardenias, not roses—and walked down the hall as if I were gliding down the aisle of a church filled with a hundred people, not just the ten who were waiting in the living room below. At the top of the stairs, I heard a rustling noise, probably Jack’s youngest brother, and a loud “Shhhh!” I paused, took in a deep breath and started down. But then it happened.

The heel of my satin pump clipped the carpeted edge and snapped off. My flowers flew up as I grabbed the banister and tumbled onto a step. No one could see me behind the wall, but they knew. I heard my mother gasp.

 “I’m okay,” I shouted and hobbled back up the stairs. In my childhood room with a toy chest still holding stuffed animals, I stormed around in circles before throwing myself onto the bed. I clutched my pillow and hugged it like a life preserver.

The house was silent. No footsteps on the stairs. No voice calling, “How are you doing up there?” I could visualize our two families below, Jack’s and mine. My mother—eyeing the group and worrying about the reactions of the family she’d met just minutes before and the minister who’d be waiting with his prayer book in hand. My father—hunched in his wingback chair, looking at his lap to avoid eye contact with Jack’s parents as if they were uninvited foreigners not just my in-laws-to-be, on the couch with their four kids around them. Next to the minister would be Jack—pale and shaky with a hangover from barhopping with my brother-in-law.

I was sure that every face downstairs must be registering confusion—What’s she doing up there? Still, no one came. My family didn’t have that instinct.

They’re all waiting, I told myself. You’ve got to go down. Yet I didn’t get up; I couldn’t. My embarrassment was evaporating, making room for a chilling fear that trickled into my gut and worked its way up to my head. Maybe that was the sign, telling me I shouldn’t marry Jack. I covered my eyes as though I could shut out the picture of his fist coming towards me.

I didn’t want a choice between going ahead with it and telling people what he had done. That choice was terrifying. My heart raced. Do something, do something, each beat said, do something.

Everyone’s expecting me down now, I whispered. I should go. So I took off my shoes and flung the broken one into the trash. I grabbed my flowers and pinched off a broken stem. Taking a noisy breath, I stood up tall and walked barefoot past the mirror without a glance. I relaxed as I descended; the decision was made. I would do what everyone expected me to. The other option was unthinkable.

I passed the broken heel on a step and strode to my spot on Jack’s left. It was there that I promised “before Man and God” I would stay with him forever.

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