The church was so deadeningly quiet that every shuffle, sneeze, and cough made Caroline jump. Her stomach was in knots, every fibre of her being buzzing: Today's the day I get married. Finally. It felt like every moment of her life had been leading up to this moment, and she was so ready. She stood before the Monsignor, in her dream white dress (it had been so natural when she had tried it on, she had known it was the one. It had been her mother's, and she had wanted a new one but somehow the traditional approach seemed more appropriate. The minute she put it on she had seen herself, at the alter, beside Randy). Now here she was, her heart pumping so loudly in her ears that she could barely process the words the minister was saying. She felt sick, but excited, all at the same time. Randy looked calm, happy. She could hear the words from the Monsignor's mouth.
"...Speak now or forever hold their peace." For a moment, all was quiet. She smiled, and then, something stirred. A baby was crying. It was so loud in the completely silent church that everyone moved in their chairs to see who had been so inconsiderate as to bring their crying baby to a wedding. Curious, Caroline turned to the audience, wondering whose baby that could be? She couldn't remember anyone bringing a baby, it all seemed so odd. In fact, everyone looked confused. And then, knowing suddenly exactly which baby was crying, she looked up.
He wasn't even aware of her. For a second, she thought maybe it wasn't even him, he looked so absorbed in the baby, trying to coo it back to sleep. Caroline didn't know why, but her feet carried her down from the alter, trying to adjust her view, get a better look, make sure her mind wasn't playing some cruel, badly-timed joke on her. And just then, he looked up. Richard. He hadn't changed at all, she supposed. He looked just the same. Same silly coat, same gray sweater. Same hair. But in his arms, hidden from view, was a crying baby, wrapped in a blanket she had picked out.
"Honey, your quickest way out is right over there." It was her mother, looking as she had looked for months, like she had seen this coming from miles away. Strangely, Caroline hadn't felt that way. In fact Caroline hadn't thought of Richard in months.
For the weeks after he was gone, she had been inconsolable. She felt like she had experienced a death of some sort, as if not only someone she had loved had died, but a significant part of her had died as well. It was lucky she had already taken a leave of absence from her comic strip because otherwise she wouldn't have been able to work. Annie and Del would come over, and she would try and act the same, but it all felt like a grande illusion that everyone was painfully aware of. Annie even had to disconnect Caroline's phone because she had come so close to calling Richard and trying to find some way to fix all this. But there was no quick fix.
The break-up seemed so silly, because it wasn't based on something new she had learned, or something she had done. All her past break-ups were results of cheating, incompatibility, another person, or a fight. But with Richard, she had simply realized that all the things that made Richard who he was, that made him so different from all the other guys she had ever dated, were also the same things that made him impossible. He didn't want a house in the suburbs and 2.5 kids, he wanted to be a successful artist, to maybe have a wife by his side to enjoy it with (or be miserable with, knowing Richard). And while fatherhood had been thrust upon him, he couldn't even muster a smile. He was impossible. But she was so in love with him that life without him seemed impossible too.
And so she had let grief overtake her until, one day, Annie brought Randy. Randy was so easy. She and Richard had thrived because their contrasting personalities had made everyday interesting, but she and Randy were similar. He met the world with a smile, and loved to laugh and be silly. He liked people, he was a pediatrician. They knew all the same people and had so many old stories and shared history. Every moment with him was light and fun, so simple and without strain. It had never been like that with Richard. Even at their best, there had been not-infrequent moments when Richard had been extremely difficult to be around because he was so stubbornly set in his ways. With Randy, it had never been like that.
So, for months, she had never thought of Richard. In fact, there was sort of a mental block, a short-circuit in her brain whenever something reminded her of him. Randy had suggested she come back to Peshtigo with him. He said she should look at it like a vacation, and she could spend some time with her parents and enjoy her break from work. And, as an added bonus, there wasn't much there to bring memories of Richard. But her 'little break' quickly turned into a more permanent living situation. Without realizing it, she had taken most of her important things with her to Peshtigo, and then there hadn't seemed like much reason to go back to New York. And so, she had made the arrangements to work from Peshtigo, and very suddenly, without any true forethought, she had moved home again.
When she started working again, she immediately got a new assistant who was talkative and cheerful, who wouldn't allow her to dwell on the lack of a black-clad cynic sitting across from her critiquing every little detail of her comics until she dreamed about stabbing him with a pencil. Or maybe kissing him. Del hadn't been happy that she was working from Peshtigo, but he really hadn't had much of a say and she was always able to mail her work in on time. She never kept art around the house, she only watched cheerful movies, and she made it a point to never have any black clothing around. Really, there was nothing that could possible remind her of Richard. She never thought of him, it was like a fuzzy gray area in the back of her mind that existed but that she never visited.
Falling for Randy had been so simple. It had felt right. When she had moved to Peshtigo, he had been the perfect gentleman, sleeping in the separate bedroom, making breakfast in the mornings, re-integrating her into the town's activities and re-introducing her around. They played silly games and danced together. The went to the movies and he would make fun of her when she teared up at the end of the romantic comedies, when the couple finally got together. For a few weeks, nothing happened between them. But then, one day, he had taken her out on a long walk. It was the first truly warm day of spring, and all the flowers were beginning to bloom. They went a short hike, where the new bugs buzzed near their ears and bright colors peaked out of hesitant bulbs on mostly-bare trees. And, out of nowhere, he had said it.
"Caroline, I love you." They had been talking about their high school football team. He had just said it. She felt her face burn, but she hadn't been embarrassed. She had been happy. She felt her face crack into a smile, probably the first truly genuine smile she had mustered in months. "I don't want to push you into anything, or make you feel uncomfortable, I just, well, I just love you. And I thought you should know. And I get it, if you're still hung up on Richard."
The name stirred an amorphous ache somewhere within her, but it was easily ignored. Maybe in response to the pain, to spite it or beat it or just to prove it was residual and not overwhelming, she had stood on her toes and kissed Randy, right there, among the flowers. Part of her expected to step back, realize that she was just using Randy and that she really was still in love with Richard. But little butterflies flew around in her stomach, and her heart beat in her ears, and it hadn't been difficult or confusing. She liked it. She liked him. She maybe even loved him. She had kissed him again. Yes, she thought, I might really love Randy. And that little ache had ceased.
She had meant to take things slow, to really prove to herself that she loved Randy and didn't simply not love Richard anymore. But as they walked back, hand in hand, she didn't want slow. She wanted fast, right now fast. Her steps quickened as they got closer to the house, and she could barely contain herself as they got through the doors. Weeks together in this house, she knew that she had wanted this the whole time, and obviously he had to. She was pealing his shirt off, while he struggled to undo the buttons of her shirt. The last time she had done this, she had been with Richard, before everything had so quickly fallen apart. Richard had been different, this had been different with him. Randy was muscular, an outdoors-type who worked with tools and fixed things around the house. His hands were slightly rough from doing odd jobs for people around town, from building the new shed in the backyard and playing touch football with some old high school friends. The most work Richard had ever done was hold on to a paintbrush for a few hours too long. The way Randy's hands brushed over her skin was different. She pushed Richard from her mind, the fact that his kisses were different and his hands and the way he had moved. He had been pale and skinny, and when they had been together that self-inflicted misery he always suffered from would melt away just for a second and there was nothing there but total and complete love for her. But Randy didn't have any misery to lose, she did, and she let him take it away.
And just like that, they had been together. Annie, of course, proclaimed that she had seen this coming the whole time over the phone. Del had made some dumb comment about getting back in the saddle, and Caroline could hear Annie hitting him through the phone. And from there, it was like puzzle pieces falling into place. The people in town seemed to already assume they were together, and so nothing really changed. In fact, only her parents had been skeptical. She had invited them over to dinner, and she had Randy had revealed that they were now dating. Her father and mother had exchanged a look, but had kept silent.
Just another few months later, he had proposed. She had woken up in bed surrounded by rose pedals, breakfast already made (eggs scrambled the way she liked, toast, and a daisy in a little glass). Randy liked big romantic gestures. He managed to find a horse and buggy to pick her up on their first date. He took her dancing and had the band play a song just for her. And that morning, he brought her breakfast with a little box perched on the corner of the tray. Her eyes had welled up with tears as he had opened it, and a little diamond had peaked out at her.
"Caroline Duffy, will you marry me?" he had asked, and tears streaming down her cheeks, she had accepted.
"Yes, yes of course!" she had sobbed, as he had slipped the ring onto her finger. It had fit perfectly. It was the perfect ring, given to her by the perfect man. She smiled through that little ache.
The both wanted a big wedding. With Richard, every little detail of their wedding had been pulling teeth. He wanted to elope, he didn't want family there, he just wanted to be married. But with Randy, they seemed to think with one mind. They both knew the Monsignor and had agreed immediately he would marry them. They both wanted to go to the local chapel, and their guest lists had been very similar (though hers was more substantial, as she had friends from New York she needed to invite. Caroline even managed to convince Charlie to fly back for the wedding, as he was in Europe and had called her every few weeks to tell her about all the nice people he had met and the things he had seen. Admittedly, convincing him hadn't been the hardest thing she had ever done, he wasn't exactly stubborn). They liked the same food, both excitedly agreed to the same band, and in every way proved how compatible they were. Everyone was happy, though her parents again exchanged that look. Later, Caroline asked what the problem was.
"Well, dear, it's not like we haven't been down this road before," her mother had said. Caroline had laughed it off at the time, but that ache had acted up again.
As the wedding approached, Annie had flown in to be by Caroline's side. She had just ended a run in an off-broadway show that had been a surprise hit, and though she had been a supporting character she had gotten well-reviewed. She was also glowing with new love, though she still claimed that she and Del were "not in a relationship. Seriously, I would rather be dead."
And so the day of the wedding came. Caroline had slipped into the white dress, her stomach filled with butterflies and feeling nauseous. This was her dream. She would have the right guy, the house in Peshtigo and the 2.5 kids.
And then a baby cried, and she looked up into the balcony of the church and there had been a man who, by all outward appearances, was exactly the same person she had last seen through tears getting on a plane to Italy. She thought maybe she was imagining it. Even though he was the same Richard, he was different and she could feel it, even from so far away. Their eyes met, and he smiled, a smile so carefree she was sure it was an impostor. He waved while cradling his little son, in the blanket she had picked out for him. And her mother had said those words.
"Honey, your quickest way out is right over there."
But she hadn't been thinking about leaving. She hadn't been thinking about anything. Her mind was a total blank, and here she was in the middle of her wedding. All eyes were on her. And she had absolutely no idea what she was going to do.