I’m still wiping off my eye makeup when I hear the soft tap coming from my bedroom window. He knows to come once I have turned on the one lamp in my room. He waits behind the large oak tree behind my house, climbs up when he sees the light. He told me once that from a distance my room looks like an open eye next to all the other rooms that are snuffed out in darkness. I take another cotton-ball and finish wiping off the last traces of lipstick. I watch him through the mirror. He quietly lifts open the window, climbs in, comes and stands behind me.
“How was it?” he asks.
“Fine,” I say and turn to him, kiss him.
I have known Samuel as long as I have known my fiancé. Samuel and Berge were roommates in college.
“Were there strippers?” Samuel asks, knowing full well that Berge’s mother would not have allowed such a thing.
“We went to that Middle Eastern restaurant,” I say. “They kind of serve the same stuff we make. His mother came. So did mine.”
“You’re joking!” he says and flops down on my bed. I sshh him; my parents’ bedroom is down the hall.
“You know I’m not,” I say, feeling sour all over again.
I lay down next to him. “Some bachelorette party, huh?” I say.
We lie on our backs not saying anything, watch the ceiling fan whirring, holding us in a trance. He pulls out a joint and tries to light it. The fan won’t let him. I tell him we should smoke by the window anyway.
We stick our heads out the window and smoke. I feel like I’m in high school sneaking a cigarette after my parents have fallen asleep.
“My dad knew I smoked,” he says. “He never said anything, though. So I always smoked in my room and not in front of him.”
We finish the joint and go back on the bed. I rest my head on his shoulder.
“What’re you doing tomorrow?” he asks.
“I have to go for my last dress-fitting,” I say.
We listen to how quiet it is. A warm wind blows into the room. It’s going to be a warm summer. Already the mosquitoes have left two welts on my ankle from the night before when I stayed up too late reading on the porch.
“Please stay,” I tell him and put my arm around his waist.
He sighs. We are avoiding another terrible conversation. The same conversation and it’s terrible every time.
The first year Berge went away to college, he returned for Thanksgiving break and sat at the dinner table talking about Samuel almost the entire time. Thank God they were roommates – who else would have talked Berge out of joining that shitty fraternity or dropping that boring Medieval History class for something cooler like the History of Fascism? It was off-putting, really. I hadn’t been allowed to go away to college after a major stunt I pulled in high school, and I was living through Berge’s college life vicariously. The campus was only an hour and a half away from where we lived – not too far away to maintain our relationship.
Our parents knew each other from years ago when they were all living in Beirut. They lived in a section of the city that was mostly with Armenians, and moved to the States – to Watertown, Massachusetts during the same time. My friends think it’s very romantic that Berge and I grew up together, and are now an item. We grew up in the same vicinity, yes – two blocks away, and the families had barbeques in the summer and invited each other over. But it was during our senior year of high school that Berge one day asked me out on a date.
“Don’t you think it’s odd that we’ve never even considered this, after all these years?” he asked that evening.
We were sitting in his car parked outside of my house. All the lights in my house were out, and for once it unnerved me. Had it been another boy I was out with – an odar, an American boy – my parents would have been sitting on the couch watching the Honeymooners waiting up for me.
“I guess,” I said. He moved his hand up and down my leg awkwardly. The hair on his forearms, his brown eyes and brown hair reminded me of my male cousins, and the thought of kissing him made me pull back just enough that it wouldn’t insult him. We went out on three more dates before I closed my eyes and kissed him. His lips felt too soft and slippery, but I kept kissing him, hoping to be moved – a proselyte waiting for the magic transformation to begin.
“Araxi! Let’s go!” my mother is on the other side of my bedroom door twisting the doorknob.
I can barely open my eyes. Samuel is sleeping next to me. I nudge him quietly and point at the door.
“Hang on, Ma!” I yell.
“You are always locking this door,” she says heatedly, her voice so sharp that it feels like she’s already in my room.
“Can you give me fifteen minutes and I’ll be down?”
“Fine,” she huffs and walks away.
“Good morning Araxi,” Samuel says, trying to imitate my mother’s accent, rolling the ‘r’.
I give him a shove and go to my dresser to find something to wear. He’s still lying on the bed, watching me. I watch him back and quietly get dressed. I love you, I want to say. I go back to the bed and lie on top of him, kiss him. He wraps his arms around my body and rolls us over and he’s on top now. I’m squirming under him, trying not to pull his pants down and bring him closer.
“I have to go,” I say.
“Are you coming tonight? Jeff’s band is playing at McSorley’s. Berge knows about it,” he says.
“I’m sure we’ll be there,” I say as I face the mirror using my fingers to comb my hair because I can’t find my brush. “I’ll see you later.”
“Okay,” he says and gets up to throw on his t-shirt. I run over to give him one last kiss, and watch him climb out my window.
My mother is in the car waiting for me outside. I slide into the front seat and the first thing she says is, “Berge’s mother is meeting us there because she had to go with Hasmig and Anoush early for the flower girl dress.” Berge’s sister and niece.
“Okay,” is all I say.
“We have to call the restaurant for the rehearsal dinner and drive over there to give the deposit,” she begins. “The band is all set. Tomorrow night we’re going to wrap all the sugar almonds for the wedding favors. Everyone’s going to come over to help. I think Berge even convinced Samuel to come. Daddy has to try on his tuxedo. So after I drop you off I have to go pick him up during his lunch break and take him there…..”
Over the years Samuel somehow endeared himself to Berge’s family, which is hard to imagine. Both Berge and I were raised to believe that we should seek Armenian friends, maintain our culture and eventually marry an Armenian. Samuel was never put-off by Berge’s mother dismissive nature or his father’s quiet, distant demeanor. Instead of just being a faceless character in one of many of Berge’s monologues, he started coming to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. At the first dinner he gulped back a generous toast of Armenian cognac without flinching and everyone marveled at his constitution. Instantly he was part of us. At the time I didn’t think anything of it.
Samuel and Berge also roomed together their second year of college. There was a party one weekend and after a good deal of begging I convinced my mother to let me go overnight, but only if I promised that Berge and I would not sleep next to each other. I could care less about the sleeping arrangements – I was more excited about the bus ride to the campus and finally feeling free. What I hadn’t expected was a party full of strangers, and me standing next to Berge the entire evening watching him do shots of whiskey while his friends cheered him on. I noticed Samuel throughout the evening – standing with two or three other people talking or in the kitchen mixing drinks. By the end of the evening Berge was passed out on the floor and Samuel and I hoisted him up and carried him to their dorm room.
“He’ll be out until tomorrow afternoon,” Samuel said, nodding over at Berge who was sleeping with his head buried in a mound of pillows.
That evening, we stayed up and talked until the light started creeping through the blinds. Although I didn’t know it at the time, there would be many weekends I would visit their campus, many nights in their dorm room I would stay up late talking with Samuel. And there would come a point when I would call him late at night after my parents were asleep and the conversations would continue. Berge was oblivious to all of it.
I told him I had to leave on the afternoon bus.
“It sounds like they’re pretty strict with you,” he said. “Is it an Armenian thing or a girl thing? Berge’s parents let him run around all he wants.”
“Well, it’s an Araxi thing, actually,” I said.
I told him how the summer before I had climbed into my friend Cecile’s car with her and driven all the way to New Mexico. After two months she had taken a bus back home, but I had decided to stay. After two more months, I realized it would be impossible to find a job and a place to live, so I had turned back and come home.
“My mother was a basket case,” I told him. “My father didn’t know whether to kill me or send me away to a boarding school. And my sister Sophie was only eight at the time, and when I walked through the door she ran to me and couldn’t stop crying.” The months following my reappearance had been extremely difficult. My parents didn’t know how to deal with me, and eventually they both imposed a set of rules that I promised to follow with no exceptions. My mother is still on anti-anxiety pills and although they don’t fight nearly as much as they used to, sometimes it feels like I’m living in a tomb.
I wish I could say that the first time Samuel and I kissed we were both drunk, but it was Berge we had to go rescue. It was very cold that night and we had been waiting in front of Berge’s house for over an hour, our hands shoved in our coat pockets to keep warm.
“Where the hell is this kid?” Samuel kept saying.
I had walked over from my house and Samuel had taken a bus from his. Berge had driven a mile into town to meet up with a friend at a bar and said he would be back to get us.
“I don’t know,” I said. I wished we could go into his house and stay warm, but his parents were out to dinner and wouldn’t be home for the evening.
“Don’t you get sick of this shit?” Samuel finally asked.
“What shit?” I said.
“You know, always waiting for him in some way – either at a party so he can pay some attention to you or in front of his house or in front of your house and he’s always somewhere being a clown and losing track of time.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Do you regret being engaged to him?”
“We’re not engaged!” I said. “I’m wearing a promise a ring. It’s called a khosk-gab in Armenian.”
“Well what the hell’s the difference?” he asked. “You’re going to marry him, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “Probably.”
“But why? Do you even love him?”
He had slightly turned away from me and pulled out a cigarette.
“My parents love him and love that I’m marrying him,” I said. I felt ashamed.
“You guys are kids,” he said. “I’m a kid. We’re all kids. Twenty-two! That’s nothing. We’re right out of college.”
“So what?” I said.
I knew everything he said was true. I knew I was another typical Armenian girl getting married to make her parents happy, but I wasn’t so typical either, was I? I would never be able to undo my mother’s anxiety, my father’s reticence towards me even after all this time since I’d run away or Sophie’s quiet resentment that she never spoke of.
I stood there in the cold not looking at him, trying not to cry and suddenly he said, “Let’s go. He’s probably piss-drunk at the bar. If we walk fast we won’t feel the cold as much.”
I followed behind him, not trying to keep up with his long strides. And then suddenly he turned around. “This is stupid,” he said and grabbed me. He kissed me and I kissed him back.
It is the morning of the wedding. Samuel is not next to me because he was out with Berge for his bachelor party. The night before that he was over, but not for long.
“You’re actually going to go through with this?” he asked. He wouldn’t sit down. He stood in front of my dresser with his hands in his pockets, his eyes avoiding mine.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked and sat on the edge of my bed.
“What do you think, Roxy? I’m not saying be with me, but why be with him?” And then after a pause he blurted out, “Yes, I am saying to be with me. I love you. I want you.”
As our limousine pulls up in front of St. Gregory’s Armenian church I see the groomsmen standing outside. Samuel isn’t hard to spot since he’s at least a foot taller than all of them. His light brown hair is swept back neat, but still falling in his eyes, and he’s smoking a cigarette. The bridesmaids get out of the limousine and I slowly get out, my forehead covered in sweat, my wedding dress pinching me at the sides. Samuel sees me, and his eyes flicker for a moment and he walks away, throws his cigarette on the ground, crushes it.
I sit in the waiting parlor. No one notices that I am quiet and fidgeting with my engagement ring. It seems moments later that I hear the soft droning of the organ. My mother ushers me behind the large doors and runs to her seat. My father stands next to me and slowly we are walking, but it feels like a drawn-out, painful march. Even from a distance I can see Berge’s face is worn and pale from lack of sleep and an evening of heavy drinking. I look at Samuel, who is standing next to Berge’s brother Vahan, the best man.
The organ grinds to a stop and for a moment it is quiet. A cell phone rings briefly and is silenced. A baby cries.
The priest begins a prayer in Armenian, and after it is over he says, “Please face each other.”
I turn to Berge, who is smiling hard, his upper lip glistening with perspiration. I look past him and see Samuel. He is standing almost like a statue, and after a moment he looks at me. He presses his lips together and swallows, looks down at the floor. I’m fantasizing about my exit, but don’t know how it could happen.
The priest will begin his sermon about the nature and purpose of marriage, and as he says our names – Berge and Araxi – I will take a deep breath and lift the veil off my face. I will look at Berge.
“I can’t do this,” I’ll say.
As the priest is speaking I’m thinking not of Samuel, but of all the tedious days that lay before me, the Christmases I’ll try to enjoy, the evenings I’ll be bracing myself in bed, waiting for it to be over, the babies I’m supposed to have, the family gatherings that I’m already numb to because I can’t bear watching how satisfied they are, oblivious to my misery.
“I can’t do this,” I blurt out.
Berge is frozen for a moment. “What?”
The priest stops his sermon.
“I can’t do this. I’m sorry.” I want to look at Samuel, but I don’t.
“Araxi!” I hear my mother say, her voice small and clear. She is sitting only a few feet away. I don’t look at her.
Carefully, I take the flowers in my hand and give them to my sister Sophie, who is standing right behind me. “Araxi…” she whispers. I place my hands on the sides of my head and remove the crown and veil. I don’t know why I can’t move faster.
“Are you serious?” Berge barely croaks out the words.
And I don’t look at Samuel. I face the church doors and start walking away from the aisle, the acoustics of my dress swishing behind me. When I push open the doors the smell of frankincense lingers for a moment, and then I feel the full warmth of the sun on my shoulders.