The Wedding of Matilda

Leon was absolutely forbidden from entering the kitchen, making his perch on the countertop and the thud of his dangling heels kicking back against the drawers all the more satisfying. The cooks gathered around the center island and a fondant-covered calamity, arguing about roses and tiers, repeating a lot of words Leon was absolutely forbidden from saying but found secret pleasure in hearing. Thud. Thud. A pot nearly bigger than him simmered on the stove to his left, and the steam escaped to wilt the chefs’ tall white hats.

Thud. Thud.

A maid pushed open the kitchen door with her hip. “Anyone for sweet tea?”

The chefs’ sweaty brows were affirmation enough, and she wove her way around the chaos and across the black and white checkered tiles to stop in front of Leon’s throne among the unpeeled onions.

“I’ll be needing that countertop.”

“But I want to stay.”

Leon’s feet thudded his protest.

“Then how about you help me with this tea, sport.”

Leon allowed himself to be lifted by the armpits and lowered to ground. From there he was eye level with the countertop, the onion throne distorted by the glass pitcher the maid set in his recently vacated position. He shifted from foot to foot and watched the vegetables distort in the reflection.

“Can you ask that cook over there for a cup of sugar?” The maid pointed to an asparagus-shaped man washing dishes in the sink.

Leon turned and bounced off the white apron of a potbellied pastry chef. The face he could see rising above the horizon of a rotund stomach was an alarming shade of crimson, the kind that usually preceded a smack in the pants and a week without dessert.

“I run a kitchen, not a zoo!” the round cook bellowed. Thick arms grabbed at his head but Leon ducked and shot out the swinging door, darting up the stairs, through the dining room and the foyer. The big house was quiet, heavy carpet muffling his shiny church shoes as he bounded up more stairs, past framed photographs of people he didn’t know and yellow newspaper articles about Clearstone Lake, the biggest resort in upstate New York according to the editorial staff of the 1932 Warren County Star.

Windows at the south end of the hall on the second floor let in the afternoon glow and the chatter of guests waiting on the lawn. Leon padded over, stretching his arms wide to drag his hands across the smooth cream wallpaper. Standing on his tiptoes, he could bend his waist over the windowsill enough to send an experimental glob of spit into the leafy hydrangeas below.

Working up another ball of phlegm, Leon eyed his options for target practice. Cousin Elliot was on the grass closest to the house, nattering away as his wife straightened the tie on his linen suit, but Leon liked Cousin Elliot, mostly for the saltwater taffy he always carried in his pockets. The little Beckhart twins bounced by before Leon could even aim properly, covered in mud and tailed by a nurse trying to corral the children and make eyes at the usher at the same time. There was a string quartet lounging in their seats behind the last row, the violinist smoking a cigarette in his thin fingers, but Leon doubted his ability to cover the distance.

Granny Willemina was the next within range, and certainly deserving of a wet accessory in her towering grey hair, but next to her were both his mother and Helen. By the look of the eyebrows creeping toward his older sister’s hairline and the set of her jaw, he could tell the de Vries matriarchs were saying something she didn’t want to hear, which was nearly everything they said. Helen was closer to Tilly’s age than Leon’s, and with Tilly set to walk down the aisle any minute, Helen was probably being gifted the mantle of matrimonial expectations.

Leon next surveyed the crowd for Fritz, but couldn’t spot any tell-tale pale hair in the crowd. Fritz would’ve been game for a spitting contest. Leon had taken to following around Clearstone’s young groundskeeper every summer, desperate to escape the grannies who pinched his cheeks and told him how tall he’d grown since last year. Fritz let him tag along, calling him “champ” and letting him get his shirts dirty no matter how often Tilly told them off for shaming the de Vries family name, cheeks blushing almost as red as the scabs on Leon’s knees.

The line was always drawn, however, at dinner. As often as he could, Leon would drag Fritz into the dining room, announcing that he would be sitting in the place of honor to Leon’s right. The dinner crowd would raise their noses, and Mr. de Vries would stand, more barrel than man, to shake Fritz’s hand, and walk him out, inquiring about furniture restoration and fishing tackle and the war. Mrs. de Vries would hiss at Leon to sit down, Helen would cackle and say something sarcastic about either class or wealth, depending on the book she was reading that day, and Tilly would smile into her soup. Leon always begged her to sneak a piece of dessert to Fritz in apology and Tilly would always refuse, and like clockwork, she’d tuck a slice of cake into her napkin before excusing herself from the table.

Now Tilly was nowhere to be found. Leon strained to hear his mother arguing with Helen on the lawn, something boring about money and mortgages, and his attention drifted farther across the grass, over the sky reflected in Clearstone Lake and up to the real thing, even more blue than the water below. The lake wasn’t as big as his mother had promised on the train ride up the first summer they came, but it was still Leon’s favorite place in the world. This late in August and so far north the sun was setting earlier every day, and he knew they would be leaving for home soon. Everyone but Tilly.

Under a trellis of black-eyed Susans on the edge of the dock, the priest squared off to the relatives filling the lines of wicker folding chairs, swatting a fly off his sleeve with the Bible. Cousin Elliot helped settle Granny Willemina into a chair in the front row. A woman’s bouncing giggle floated up to the window. Leon leaned out a bit further, although the sash dug in uncomfortably, and peered down the flat side of the house to see if he could make out who was on the porch around the corner.

Two bridesmaids in lilac sat perched on the railing, delicately covering their mouths with lace-gloved hands. Leon couldn’t see what they were laughing at until Paul came stomping around the corner. The polo-player was winded, tie dangling loose and boutonniere in hand. Mr. de Vries ambled after him, hand outstretched, and Leon shimmied his torso back through the window at top speed.

“Let me give you a hand, Paul—”

“I’m fine.”

“Really, it’s no trouble—”

“I just need a damn smoke!”

A hydrangea rustled, a match lit. Leon could see it all in his head. His father would be gesturing with an unshakable smile on his face, Paul clenching the red-tipped cigarette in his meaty hand. From behind they looked quite similar: legs thick instead of long, holding up a squat rectangle with solid shoulders. Paul had ridden in the Camacho Cup against Mexico and had his name in the paper, which greatly impressed Leon. Helen had called Paul many names Leon was not allowed to repeat, and that was one of the only subjects on which she and Mrs. de Vries agreed. Tilly never smiled into her soup at that.

“I know you’re feeling some cold feet right now. You know, I nearly threw up when her mother walked down the aisle.”

“You think I haven’t got the guts to go through with it?”

Leon poked his head out the window enough to see his father lay a hand on Paul’s shoulder directly below.

“You know how grateful—how proud we are,” Mr. de Vries said, “to get you into the family, so why don’t we duck in and grab a drink before the riff raff begins?”

“I’ll be inside in a minute.” Paul shook him off and turned, exhaling a cloud of sour smoke.

Mr. de Vries raised his hands in a jovial surrender and made his way down to the lawn. Leon leaned his torso out the window, scrunched one eye shut, coughed, and spit. The loogie plummeted like an anvil.

“Jesus!” Paul’s free hand flew to his head, where his dark hair had become darker and slick. He twisted wildly, looking for the culprit, and Leon couldn’t help but laugh. Paul craned his head back and spotted the source.

“You animal!”

Leon ducked back into the house and flew past the stairs, down the hall leading to the other side of the house. He could hear Paul trying to get past the gaggle of bridesmaids and groomsmen on the porch, and Helen’s biting voice remarking that a bird appeared to have nailed him on the head. Leon laughed again, rebounding off the walls to keep his balance. The framed portraits gave way to still lifes of fruit and landscapes of New York, the cream wallpaper to navy, and he darted past three doors of guest bedrooms before pausing.

Music played softly in the fourth. Leon could see the door cracked open, and tiptoed over to peek inside. This bedroom was one of the colorful ones, each named and decorated appropriately. A plaque on the door read The Indigo Suite, and just by looking inside Leon could see the truth of it. The walls and bedding were the same deep blue as the fabric of his scratchy suit or the lake at night, the music coming from a gramophone on a table by the window, obscured every moment or so by breezes inciting the curtains to rise and fall like great lace lungs. In the center of the room, turning slowly on a navy carpet, was woman, wrapped in a man’s arms, dancing. Leon couldn’t see their faces, not from this angle or with the walls seeming to inhale all the light in the room. He made to push the door open further, but stopped.

It sounded like Tilly’s favorite, that sad ballad she’d play over and over. The couple swayed from foot to foot, the whole room silent save for the song ending on the record. The needle hit its final notes and static filled the space but they kept dancing, quiet swishes of fabric on fabric and heel on rug. Leon understood abruptly that this was not something he should be seeing.

The man held up his arm to let her twirl, and the indigo walls were swallowed in the whirl of her white satin skirt. Tilly’s smile didn’t reach her eyes, and her laugh was wet even as her partner reeled her back in. She rested her head on his shoulder as they rocked, caught like a picture in the window frame, and when she looked to the door she saw Leon’s face lit between the door and doorframe.

“Christ!”

Tilly never swore. The man dropped his arms and whipped around. Fritz.

“Shit—”

“It’s okay.” Tilly said, picking up her trailing skirt and rushing to the door, kneeling down to Leon’s level. “Champ, want to come in and have a little chat? About what you saw?”

Paul’s hulking frame materialized down at the end of the hallway. “Get over here, runt!”

Tilly clapped a hand to her mouth, eyes blooming wide, and yanked Leon inside, slamming the door. Fritz dove into the coat closet as she dashed to turn off the record player, then back to Leon.

“I’m going to need you to be very, very quiet,” she said, pressing her back against the door and turning the lock. “Remember that game we play? Who can hold their breath the longest?” She took a deep breath and puffed out her cheeks. Leon did the same, and imagined Fritz doing it, too, just for good measure.

“Where’d you go, boy?” Paul’s footsteps were louder, right outside the door. “Leon—”

“He’s in here,” Tilly said.

“Matilda?” Paul’s voice came from the other side of the door.

“Yes,” she said.

The doorknob shook. Tilly pressed a hand to Leon’s shoulder and drew him close. The beading on her dress was sharp on his cheek.

“Will you let me in?”

Leon looked up at Tilly. Tilly looked to the closet.

The door shook again. “I just want to talk to him.”

“You can’t see the bride on the wedding day, you know that. Dear.”

Leon giggled. She shot him a look designed to maim, one she’d perfected and one he’d received many times. He stopped.

“I can hear him in there, couldn’t you be agreeable for a single minute?”

“Paul, honey,” she said, between her teeth, “it’s really indecorus of you to break this tradition, I cannot—”

“Just open the goddamn door!”

His palm hit flat against the wood. Tilly whirled and threw the door open.

“Happy?”

Leon had little by little retreated to take refuge under the table by the window, making him the first thing Paul saw before Tilly moved to block his entrance.

She waited.

“You look lovely, Matilda.”

“Shouldn’t you be downstairs?” Tilly asked.

Paul craned to see around her. She leaned with him.

“I’d like to speak to Leon.”

“You’ve actually interrupted a chat we were just having, my dear.”

They were using their grown-up voices, the ones that said mean things but sounded nice.

Paul let out a sharp sigh. “Are you finished?”

“I’ll finish when you leave.”

“Don’t take that tone with your husband.”

“Well, we’re not married quite yet, are we?” Tilly said. “Are you finished?”

Paul cast an eye around the room. The closet door hadn’t closed properly. Leon willed himself not to look. Finally, Paul took a step back into the hallway.

“I’ll see you downstairs,” he said.

“Down in a flash.”

Tilly closed the door and sank to the floor. Her veil snagged on the doorknob. Leon crawled over and unwound the fabric as carefully as he could.

“I’m sorry for spitting on Paul.”

“Don’t be,” she said.

The closet door swung open and Fritz stepped out. “Tilly—”

“Why don’t you go help downstairs, Fritz?” She didn’t move. He stepped over and Leon watched him bend to place his lips on the top of her head.

“Don’t do this, Til.”

“I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

“Please.”

“Go, Fritz.”

Fritz closed the door behind him. The only sound now was Tilly’s sigh in the empty room.

“Why were you dancing with him?” Leon asked.

“I was saying goodbye.”

Leon wedged his head and shoulders under her arm. She ran cool fingers over his scalp. “Do you know why I’m getting married, Leon?”

Leon considered it. “No.”

“Neither do I.” She laughed, bitter as black licorice. “Well, I do, but not really.”

“No more crying,” Leon said.

He disentangled from her hug and wiped her cheeks with the sleeve of his shirt. They studied each other.

“I like Fritz more than Paul,” Leon said.

“I’m glad you think so.”

“Do you love him?”

Tilly looked at him with a look he had never seen before. She pushed to her feet, quite an endeavor swathed in so much satin, and held out her hand to him.

“Time to take your spot, Leon.” The white curtains billowed up behind her, and for a split second it looked as if Tilly was about to take flight. On the breeze trailed the sound of violins and a cello. The orchestra was tuning.

Leon took her hand and stood. “You never answered.”

Tilly smiled at him, the kind she usually reserved for her soup. “And you said no more crying, champ.”

And even though Leon watched her face for the entire ceremony, true to her word, Tilly didn’t cry once.