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The Cliff Face

In less than two hours I will wed Bradley in the rose garden behind the house I grew up in. I linger at the gilded white vanity in my childhood bedroom. The heady, floral scents from father's garden gently drift through the window, the lace curtains billowing like a resplendent bridal veil.

My fingers trace the creased spines of a dozen forgotten diaries. I flip through the last journal to the final entry added almost ten years ago, the morning of my undergraduate commencement ceremony. Green ink is smeared across three pages of looping sentences. I scan the pages, in awe of my youthful swagger, the boundless confidence. I fondly remember that person, but I don't understand why I'd lost the compulsion to chronicle my hopes and dreams. How many journals would I have filled leading up to today?

In the top drawer, nestled near the back, an old cigar box of indeterminate age is right where I'd left it. I lift it from the drawer; its frayed corners and faded label evoke feelings of childhood contentment. The box is stuffed with vintage black and white photographs. There's a treasure trove of mystery here. Much to my parents' puzzlement, I'd started collecting the photos at estate sales and flea markets. I would spend hours pondering the stories of the people captured in a moment of time: the source of a young woman's shy smile, her hands hidden in the folds of a long apron, a middle-aged man's serious, tight lipped countenance as he posed in a top hat and tails near a grand staircase, a small, scruffy terrier watching over a toddler on a wooden cottage's front porch, a calm lake in the background.

Amidst the sounds of footsteps, laughter, and rustling taffeta, I quickly replace the box and shut the drawer of childhood's bygone hours.

The vanity mirror reflects five smiling bridesmaids holding bouquets of pink roses wrapped in wide ribbon. Their strawberry sorbet dresses swish and sway above dyed-to-match satin pumps. The photographer is next, a tall man who seems to absorb all the space in the small bedroom. Someone tucks a loose strand of hair into the smooth twist above my nape. A rope of satiny pearls is draped around my neck. It's almost time.

I close my eyes for a moment. Waves rush in. My knees tremble. Crushed ice tumbles into sterling buckets like hail on a tin roof, silver flatware clatters in rolling carts, the big tent's canopy flaps snap in the breeze. A dog barks. Someone outside yells to hurry up. The string quartet begins tuning. A cat's tail is caught under a rocking chair.

The photographer lifts his camera and the incessant clicking begins. I'm surrounded by a sea of pink, engulfed in a cloud of perfume vapors, hair spray, and the cloying scent of roses. Tiny seed pearls and sequins irritate my sweaty palms. My breath quickens. A sudden chill races up my spine.

One of my bridesmaids laughs; the sound is sharp, as brilliant as the diamond solitaire on my left hand. It brings me back to the here and now. While everyone trails the photographer out of the room, I stand alone at the cliff face.

"Lisa," Sharon says, motioning for me to hurry, eyes narrowed. "You're holding up the production. You are the production. He wants to get some outside shots."

Frowning at the pale pink roses embroidered around the hem of my gown, I pick up the voluminous skirt and run to the walk-in closet. I unzip and unhook the dress of someone else's dreams. Kick off my dancing shoes. There's not much time. Pulling on faded jeans and an old t-shirt, I open the closet door to silent stares. Lazy dust motes swirl in shafts of sunlight. The mellow oak floor is warm against my bare feet.

"What are you doing?" Missy asks, her crimson fingernails stark against her pale throat. They look like bloody spears. Turning to the stairs, she whispers, "Someone go get Brad." Her voice is like a hiss.

I point to each woman in turn.

"Out. Of. My. Way." My voice is laced with steel. Someone grabs my hand. With a quick twist, I am free, adrenaline surging up my legs. I bolt for the stairs, barely avoiding a collision with two ushers persuaded to help the florist drape pink satin bows around the newel posts. Who wanted all this pink?

Past the front door, a line of cars stretches as far as the eye can see. I pause, looking back for bridesmaids in hot pursuit. All is clear, but that won't last long. Beyond the neighbor's pruned hedgerow is a well-trod path used by the neighborhood children, a shortcut to the town park. I head for the path, my toes squishing in the cool green grass. I wish I could spare the time to lie down for a minute, catch my breath, pretend the feathery clouds were animals or pirate ships.

Down a sloping hill, around a bend in the road, I finally reach the park. I am winded from running almost all the way there. The bottom of my feet are stained green, a little muddy. No one is behind me. No one shouts my name.

A large gazebo with a freshly painted sign welcomes visitors to the park. Each summer the town folk are invited to free jazz concerts on Tuesday evenings. The lines are always long for beer and oversized pretzels. It's where I'd met Bradley. Gleaming sunlight had reflected off his trombone, momentarily blinding me. The rest, as they say, is history.

My footsteps startle a flock of seagulls scavenging around the shuttered concession stand near the baseball diamond. At least half the flock ascend as one, an undulating shape that casts a long shadow across the park. I climb the steps to the gazebo and sit down on a wooden bench. My pulse is racing as I wipe a tear from my cheek. I take a deep breath, exhaling to the count of five. They say that helps.

Moments later, slow footsteps crunch across the gravel entrance. The first thesis on my Big Mistake? I turn and watch an older woman, a stranger, shuffling to the gazebo. She is wearing dark brown orthopedic shoes and support hose that ring her ankles like thick folds of skin. A stray strand of silver hair has escaped the lopsided bun on top of her head. She rests near the gazebo's first step, catching her breath.

"Big doings down the road," the woman mutters, looking up at me, then down at my dirty feet. Her voice is scratchy as new sandpaper. She smells of wilted violets and arthritis ointment.

"Just a wedding." I say.

"Never saw so many of them long cars lining the road." The woman scratches her head, another silver strand falling to frame her weathered face. "I forget what they're called, them fancy cars."

I attempt a smile. "Limousines."

She waggles her index finger in the air.

"I sat in one once, when my husband passed." She tilts her chin up, hands on ample hips. "The leather seat was soft as butter, come to think of it." She coos to the seagulls, moving a few steps closer. "That was thirty years ago," she chuckles. "Oh, the years go faster and faster."

The woman reaches into a crumpled brown paper bag and pulls out a heel of brown bread. She tosses it toward a few stray seagulls bold enough to search the ground near the gazebo. A sudden shriek pierces the air. A lone gull swoops from the sky to claim the loot before the rest of the flock is even aware of the prize.

The woman laughs as she watches the bird fly away, the brown bread visible in its beak. "Dump ducks," she says. "That's what my father used to call them." She crushes the brown bag and carefully walks to a garbage tote. "That one wasn't going to miss out. Never fly away when there might be something to be gained."

Faint strains of music reach me. The quartet. The sound is lovely. I picture Brad's incredulous expression, my mother telling everyone not to worry, just a little hiccup, just a speedbump. I can almost feel the emotions that have furrowed brows and inverted smiles. The pink butterflies on a field of white satin must be wrinkled by now. Maybe someone put the dress on a hanger. Maybe the sun has not begun to set after all.

"You left home without your shoes?" the woman asks, looking at my feet again.

I shrug. "I guess they didn't seem important at the time."

The woman shakes her head.

"Lucky if some bee don't get you, or worse," she says, pointing to the gravel path. "Them rocks will cut your feet bad." She turns and starts back the way she came, her steps slow and measured, a waltz for one. "Can't do much dancing on sore feet," she mumbles, but it is hard to hear her exact words. The gull is back, circling the gazebo, calling for another morsel of the good brown bread.

I wait until the woman is out of sight before I leave the safety of the gazebo. I tiptoe to the road, carefully navigating a path across the sharp gravel.

The gull circles the playground one last time, its belly full and its pride intact. From the corner of my eye, I watch the other seagulls still pecking for crumbs. Their eyes weren't on the prize and they missed the feast.


Heidi Popek resides in western New York, in the land of LES (Lake Effect Snow). She recently retired from an administrative position in higher education. Her work appears in Adelaide Literary, The Scarlet Leaf Review, and When not writing, she bakes a mean chocolate chip banana bread.

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