Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Proxy Marriage" by Maile Meloy

William was tall and thin and shy and awkward in school. His best social tool was that he played the piano, and so was recruited for school musicals, which placed him at rehearsals and cast parties with kids he would otherwise scarcely have known. He thought he would be either a pianist or a physicist, although he didn’t know anyone in Montana who did those things professionally. His piano teacher was a banker’s widow who gave lessons in her lace-curtained house, and his physics teacher was primarily the wrestling coach. But William could imagine another kind of life.

Through the musicals, he became friends with Bridey Taylor. Bridey had golden curls, like a Botticelli angel, and a face that didn’t go with them: a long, straight nose, dark eyes. She had a clear, bright mezzo-soprano voice and she wanted to be an actress. Her mother had left when Bridey was nine, and she had grown up with her father, a lawyer, who adored her. Bridey was confident, even a little vain, and she was good at school, except for math, which didn’t interest her. William helped her through trigonometry, teaching her the concepts at lunch before tests so she could forget them immediately afterward.

William had no girlfriends in high school, and his mother once sat him down at the table in her spotless kitchen and asked if he was gay. She said it would be fine with her. She loved him unconditionally, and they would figure out a way to tell his father. But William wasn’t gay. He was just absurdly, painfully in love with Bridey Taylor, who leaned on the piano and sang while he played, and he had no way of telling her. He was too shy to pursue other girls, even when the payoff seemed either likely or worth the agony. But he didn’t tell his mother that. It was too humiliating. He just stammered an unconvincing denial.

Other boys asked Bridey out, and William suffered through it. She viewed them with amusement, but she accepted most invitations. Encouraged, in their junior year William decided to ask her to the winter formal. He was getting ready, vibrating with anticipation, when Bridey told him that a tennis-playing senior named Monty had invited her.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. I guess.”

William excused himself from homeroom and went to the disinfectant-smelling tiled bathroom. He waited until he was sure that no one else was there, then threw up in a green graffiti-marked stall. He hadn’t thrown up since he was six, when he had the flu, and it was harrowing. His body seemed to have been taken over by some alien force.
But Monty made a mistake. He sat Bridey down in his parents’ living room, two days after the dance, and told her that he’d wanted three things out of high school: to be captain of the tennis team, to get into Berkeley, and to have a serious girlfriend. The first two had already happened, and Bridey would be perfect for the third. She reported the conversation to William, laughing. “He was so earnest,” she said. “About his goals.”
    William made a mental note never to be earnest with Bridey.

    In September of their senior year, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked and the towers fell. William’s parents were out of town, and he overslept, waking when Bridey called him.

    “Wake up!” she said. “Terrorists are attacking America.”

    “Where?” he asked, groggy with sleep.

    Everywhere,” she said.

    At school, teachers brought out television sets on A.V. carts, and they all watched the news, silent and dazed. In November, troops were sent to Afghanistan. In December, Bridey’s father came to her and William with a request. He’d been asked to arrange a proxy wedding for a Marine corporal in Kandahar and his fiancée, who was in North Carolina and pregnant. They wanted to give the child his father’s name and a death benefit if something went wrong. Most states didn’t allow proxy marriages, and Montana was the only one that allowed double-proxy weddings, in which neither party had to be present. The practice seemed to have been allowed before statehood, and had been used for soldiers during the Second World War, but no one knew exactly why it had arisen: possibly because it was difficult to travel long distances to a courthouse to marry an out-of-state sweetheart. Mr. Taylor asked Bridey and William to be the proxies. He’d asked his secretary and his paralegal first, but they’d had no interest.

    William’s mother thought that it was a good idea, and a way to do something for the country when everyone felt helpless: a small offering. William thought that she hadn’t believed his claims of heterosexuality before, and was happy with the idea of his marrying a girl. He wondered if Bridey’s father thought he was gay, too—or just dickless and unthreatening.

    But William took the thing seriously; he couldn’t help it. Even a fake marriage to Bridey Taylor filled his heart with unaccountable joy, and he went home after school and put on his dark-gray recital suit and a tie. He and Bridey were getting fifty dollars each, and he thought he should dress for the job.

    At the county courthouse, he found Bridey with her sneakered feet up on a heavy wooden table. Her hair was pulled back in a stubby, curly ponytail, and she wore the jeans and sweatshirt she’d put on for school. She glanced from William’s face to his suit.
    “You look nice,” she said. There was annoyance in her voice.
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