The Girl Who Never Smiled
Jenny’s palms itched, and she could feel the prickling of fresh sweat at the small of her back, where the dress was slightly looser. She flexed and worried the fingers of the hand at her dad’s elbow, as he shambled on, oblivious to her discomfort as always, beside her. She loved her dad, but a glance over at his open, grinning face told her that he wasn’t going to be any help now.
Pretty soon they’d be inside, where a hundred pairs of eyes would fall upon her, and if she felt like a fraud now, how would she feel then? Wouldn’t they all pick her out in an instant? Wouldn’t all but the most certain of her recently made friends wonder at the nerve of her, all dressed up like a princess, when she was at best an awkward, lowly shop girl? Would Terry’s friends be able to hide their irritation, at having to dress up smart for this ridiculous little thing that was taking their friend away from them?
And what about Terry? What if he couldn’t hide his first instinct on seeing her like this for the first time: the sudden realisation that the girl he was choosing to marry was not the woman he wanted? The dress, the first truly beautiful thing that she had ever allowed for herself, was feeling more and more like a dreadful mistake. When she had first seen it, she had fallen for it instantly, and during the fittings, amid the cooing of select friends, she had felt some of the dress’s elegance and beauty rubbing off on her… that was how it had felt then, anyway. That was the hope; that it would elevate her convincingly to her elected position of ‘bride’.
But now, she was nervous that it had the opposite effect. That the contrast between her sad little shop girl blandness and the dress’s exquisite line would make both look ridiculous… a toddler in a grown-up’s high heels; a mascot in an ill-fitted chicken costume.
And worst of all, her mum had seen it all along, and her face would sing “I told you so” from her privilidged spot at the front of the church, throughout the whole dreadful ordeal of the ceremony.
Jenny hadn’t seen much of her mum since going to university… nor her dad, to be honest. Her dad was a well-meaning old sort, but mostly hapless. Jenny wasn’t sure if dad had always been so oblivious to mum’s innate coolness, or if his dullness of character had been fostered at some point before she was born, specifically to deal with it.
Either way, Jenny found it impossible to ignore her mum, because Jenny herself seemed to be the root cause of most of the older woman’s issues. That was certainly how it felt throughout her childhood, anyway.
Jenny found it difficult to express the problems that she had faced while growing up to other people, because whenever she tried, the words seemed petty and pointless compared to other people’s problems. Jenny had always been well looked after, dressed in new clothes and fed properly. She hadn’t been fiddled with or beaten up. And seemingly against the odds, her parents had stayed together, and stayed solvent.
The problem was that for her mum, within their perfect little family life, Jenny was the only dirty spot. Only plain, never pretty. Grade wise, always somewhere in the middle of any class she occupied. Hair too straight when she was small, then too curly when she got older. It was clear that she was a general dissapointment, the understanding of which permeated every action or conversation that the older had with the younger.
And it had made an emotional cripple of Jenny, she had realised later. Because as she understood it, a family was supposed to be held together by bonds of love like velvet, but trying to hold on to her mum was like holding onto a rope of barbed wire, suspended over an unknown emptiness. If you tried to hold on too tight, the pain was unbelievable, but letting go of her altogether meant submitting yourself to… who knew what? Who knew what life might be like, without your mum?
Until she’d gone to uni, she hadn’t really known that there was any way to live outside the damp shadow of her mum. Once she had got that small taste of freedom, there was no way that she was going back.
She got a part time job at Woolworths so that she wouldn’t have to rely on her parents for support, and when she finally collected her 2:2, she went full-time at the store; there was no way that she was going to allow herself that short family-bound hiatus that most students took, post-graduation. For them, it meant no rent, three free meals a day, and the singular comfort of the bedroom that they broke in as a teenager.
For her, it meant most of the same things, but with none of the comfort.
So she stayed where she studied, and worked hard until she got promoted to supervisor. Before long she could afford to buy herself a little flat. And then, on a night out with the girls from the store, she met Terry.
Terry couldn’t dance, either. His mates were all off on the dance floor, scattered around like her friends, and so he’d found himself at the bar at the same time as she was getting herself a fresh Bacardi Breezer. He’d obviously seen something in her eyes that evaded her when she looked in the mirror, because he had struck up a conversation instantly, and where her shyness was all pervasive, his ended at his dancefloor illiteracy.
He was witty, sharp, and headstrong, and he liked Jenny an awful lot. They talked for the rest of the night, their words weaving through thumping bass and mumbled DJ links, and when the music stopped, they both found themselves abandoned by their friends. They shared a taxi, and then shared a bed, and from there on in, were inseperable.
In fact, until this stupid, gorgeous dress came along, they spent very little time apart. But the rules say that the bride’s persona, built up between the dress, and the veil, and the flowers, is kept secret from the groom. And the rules also say that, unless she is a child molester or dead, the mother of the bride gets to be involved in building that persona.
Jenny had flinched from telling her parents at all, but Terry had insisted. He didn’t really understanding her misgivings, and so, after making sure the major choices were safely taken care of, she had made the call, and invited her parents back into her world.
After so many years of minimal contact, her mum had seemed okay at first. Pretty soon, though, the little digs began again. The tiny stabs of criticism that cut so deep. Within days, the assertions of how lucky Jenny was to have found such a good man turned into full blown breakdowns of the various ways that a girl like Jenny (with a full list of faults), was so lucky to have found such a good man that it seemed inplausible.
And when she had seen her daughter in the dress for the first time… well, Jenny felt stupid for not expecting the humiliating critique that came out of her mum. Blooming blushing and confident bride was broken down piece by piece by a catalogue of ways in which she wasn’t good enough for the dress; her shoulders sloped, her neck wasn’t long enough… her curves were not flattering to the cut of the silk.
Her friends tried to bolster her confidence. As far as they were concerned, she looked gorgeous, and the outfit couldn’t be more perfect, and their comments only managed to get her not to jack the whole thing in full stop.
By the time the day arrived, of course, she was all but totally convinced that they were just being polite, and stifling embarassed giggles at her expense for the spectacle that she was about to be at the centre of.
She walked, now, and felt her knees tremor, so she made an extra effort to steady them, feeling her legs straighten as she did… allowing her father to take a small amount of her weight, she tried to make her composure follow suit. It wasn’t working, however… She reached the archway that led into her ultimate humiliation, into the look of dissapointment that she knew would spread from her mum’s face to everyone elses’, and worst of all to Terry’s, the moment they saw her. She felt the barbed wire grow around her, from her palm up her arm, and up around her heart. You couldn’t work with barbed wire. It was too intricate, too tightly woven, and too solid to untangle properly. She didn’t think she could take the next step, but her dad was still moving, taken on by the momentum of his ignorance, and suddenly she was inside the church, and walking up the aisle, her head down, her face in the frown that had grown to fit it so well during her teens.
Not knowing the expressions on everyone’s face was too much, though. And not being able to see Terry, the man that she loved, and the man that she might never see again after today.
So she looked up into his face.
And the look she found there… well, it was beyond description. But the bonds holding together the barbs around her heart dissolved, and she felt the wire fall apart, and she was free. Walking towards his smiling face felt like walking up towards glory, and a glance towards her mum, sat with an unreadable look on her face, confirmed what she had suddenly realised was true; she didn’t care what the bitter old cow thought, and never had to care about it again.
And her own family would be held together by velvet, not steel.
And the girl who never used to smile, did.
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