Helotes, Texas. Jobsite for a million dollar New Yorker wedding reception.
It was fall in the Hill Country of Texas, warm. Seven large white canopied tents dotted the arid landscape surrounding the old Spanish Mission.
She was around 40, trashy chic. A ravaged urban desperado from New York City. The victim of some sort of psychic crime. Her hair was shocked and indifferent. A cigarette dangled out of the corner of her mouth. She wore a blouse, a few buttons open, braless. A large belt buckle was centered on her shining polyester pants tucked into knee high riding boots. Her face was round, yet angular, soft but with an edge, like a Picasso. When she spoke I had trouble understanding because of her thick foreign accent. "Where are you from," I asked, as she stepped into the shade of the tent, slowly walking toward me. She paused, her eyes shifting in my direction as she pulled the thin hand rolled cigarette from her mouth blowing smoke from her nose. “France,” she said sharply and with as little enthusiasm as someone could possibly muster for a response, looking away absently.
I’d become a no one. My life at 35 had amounted to nothing.
She sensed me watching, glanced briefly out of the corner of her eye, one hand on her hip, the other pulling reflexively on the cigarette resting loosely in her lips as she and a pale, sour blond girl conspired over a set of plans they held between them. The French girl looked up, caught my eye briefly and stepped out from under the tent.
"What's your name?" I asked
Marie, she said in her thick accent, sun glinting off her eyes.
And she climbed into her white rented van, blasting hip hop, then disappeared over the small ridge of trees near the mission.
She was the indifferent truth of life to me, and I wanted her to care.
I watched her the next few days as she worked in the heat, sweat staining her shirts, her sooty eyes staring across the unforgiving landscape into nothingness as she directed the organized chaos of ten or so people on her design crew, guiding the of the setup of the event with a sullen graceful confidence, an air of quiet desperation filling her movements, as though she were trying to lose herself in the work.
One night after work her design crew, and the lighting crew that I was on, went to dinner at a barbecue place along the winding Hill Country road between the Mission and our nowhere motel on the out skirts of the urban sprawl of San Antonio.
Inside a Country band played for tips on a small wooden stage to a room full of locals sitting around picnic tables. Chicken wire filled the open windows. Out on the back porch music and smoked barbeque smoke filled the air. Neon beer signs advertising in the background.
Marie sat alone at the end of the picnic table, unwilling to engage with her co-workers in the morbid talk of work.
She didn’t look up at me once throughout dinner.
I was nothing more than background noise to just another job.
The next night Marie and a cute drugged out looking girl from the design crew walked into my room where me and a couple guys sat drinking, smoking joints to numb the fatigue. She walked in like I didn’t exist, posting herself up on Jimmy’s bed where she sipped on a bottle of red wine, rolling cigarettes. Car lights from the highway strobed past the streaked window in a steady stream of monotony. A rerun movie flickered incoherently joints were passed, and I drank, looking over at her from time to time. I tried to make small talk with her, some clichéd French. She showed no sign of interest in my advances and I moved to a chair by the darkened window staring out at the sprawling lights of San Antonio in the distance, turning from time to time to toward the mirror that hung near me, enveloped by her eyes, dark opals of emotion, her face a mix of beauty and sadness.
And soon she left, without a word.
The next day, in the midday heat I passed Jimmy.
"I hear Marie's in the process of a divorce. She's given up on love, that's all."
Ever since my divorce the year before I felt like giving up on everything.
And I knew she had too.
I watched her after lunch as she sat alone under the shade of the catering tent near the trees where the sharp grass ended and the woods began, Jimmy laughing at me, asking me what I saw in her. “Me,” I said as the sun beat down on our heads. “You’re crazy,” he said walking away.
The day of the wedding reception came with a mad rush to put the finishing touches on a weeks worth of work, then hide ourselves from sight, sweating, dirty and beat as the bands began arriving in their grand tour buses followed by shuttle bus loads of New Yorkers.
Purple dusk began to envelope the old Spanish mission.
Country music started playing from the small stage under the main tent as twilight fused with the hanging strands lights that covered the grounds. It was time to get drunk to wash away the pain in my body and the mounting sense of insignificance that I was feeling with my life.
Red dirt outlaw Country music played from my car stereo under the full moon in the woods behind the catering tents. Nearby, people from the different work crews - design, stage, lighting - gathered in a large circle in the dirt as bottles of stolen catering liquor and a couple of joints made their rounds.
Too stoned, I left to walk the grounds with Jimmy to see what we were missing. Nothing it seemed. The guests looked bored and indifferent to their surroundings. All our work meaningless.
We came upon Marie and a some of her co-workers in a side courtyard under rows of yellow lights we'd draped from the trees. Her hair was pulled softly off her tanned Mediterranean skin. Her eyes deep blue. I sat down beside her on the love seat.
She stood, holding an empty glass, making eye contact with me for the first time. "Do you want a whiskey?" she asked. I nodded, smiling to myself as I watched her round ass swish away.
When she returned we were shooed away as guests were likely to spill over at any moment into the courtyard where she sat, and we head out back to the woods where the party was still going on around my car.
Bottles and joints were making their rounds. I sat next to Marie on the ground near a tree as the commotion swirled around and I began to think of all the jobs I’d worked on, all the jobs that had left me feeling tired and used up, that had amounted to nothing in me but a sense of my life passing by without my permission.
I looked over at Marie under the steady gaze of the moon and out of nowhere I said, “I want to sleep with you.” She looked at me startled. “What are you saying?” she said. “I want to be with you,” I said again. “OH! You are crazy!” She stood up as Jimmy laughed. “Tell her how you feel, Corey," he said, encouragingly. I wanted one thing that I’d done that week to mean something, to be real. I was grasping at straws, I knew it, but I wasn’t backing down. I wanted her to know how I felt about her. “I want you,” I said looking up at her. People were laughing at the scene that I was making as she opened the bottle of Tequila that she was holding in her hand, then began pouring it over my head, saying, “OH! You shut up! You are crazy!” as she poured and poured the Tequila until I was wilted on the ground. “Don’t give up!” I heard Jimmy yell, to more laughter. And I knew that he was right even if he was joking. I had given up too many things in my life, school, love, dreams, leaving me feeling like an empty vessel adrift in emptiness.
I got up, taking my Tequila soaked shirt off, throwing it over a branch of one of the shadowy trees as the country music carried on. I’ll show her love, I thought. I’ll show them all. I went to my car and shuffled through the middle console, and found them, the handcuffs from a short lived job as a corrections officer. I pulled them out, latching one end onto my wrist as I walked back toward Marie, Hank Williams Jr. crooning out of the windows of my car. The commotion of conversation distracted everyone as I sat back down next to Marie and slipped a cuff on her wrist with a quick click. There was a long flat moment of silence as it registered in her mind what I’d done and I worried that I’d gone to far. She jumped up screaming, jerking my arm along in awe, “OH! You did not! OH! You did not! What are you doiing?” she shouted. “You get these off of me right now!” Shocked laughter came from the background. And I smiled, feeling as though for the first time in my life I’d finally reached out for and taken what I wanted.
Her eyes were wild in the moonlight and I told her that I loved her. “OH! You stop that! You shut your mouth!” she yelled to more laughter as Jimmy told everyone that I’d reverted to caveman tactics. “You take these off of me right now"!
“I’m not taking these off of you until you tell me that you love me.” I stared at her, unflinching. A final burst of cheers came from the wedding reception and the mission beyond and Marie smiled a half smile, relenting slightly as she looked at me directly in the eyes, seeing that I was derangedly sincere. “Pffff… Fine… Ohh… I love you…” And everyone clapped.
Jimmy stood, beaming, "I pronounce you man and wife!"
Marie sat back down next to me.
"Now you take these off of me."
I unlatched my end, leaving hers dangling from her wrist.
"Oooffff... You are terrible."
I smiled, and she shook her head, passing me the bottle of Tequila. And I knew that I had her.
The Country band stopped playing for the wedding reception and all of the guests began shuttling away as Marie and I walked out to the mission grounds to see what remained.
The long tables under the dinner tent down by the dried up river bed were cluttered with leftover food that the caterers were scurrying away. The flowers were looted. The place was abandoned and in tatters, forgotten just like every other job that I’d ever worked on, leaving me with the familiar emptiness. This time I wanted something more.
As Marie and I stumbled back toward my car through the dark drunk, we fell into a tarp on the ground near the industrial sized dumpster that had collected all the waste of the week. I tried to kiss her, but she resisted, twisting herself on top of me, staring down at me, searchingly, the moonlight peering over her shoulder, saying only, “It’s been a while for me."
Back in her motel room, lying in bed together in the darkness she clutched my body in her sleep.
The next morning when I awoke she sat on the opposite bed from me wearing red jeans and a white T-shirt, watching a black and white Cary Grant movie with the sound off, smoking a cigarette, the handcuffs dangling from her wrist. A small plate of pancakes and a coffee sat for me on the night stand between the beds. I sat up and sipped the coffee, too hung-over to touch the food. I looked around the room. She’d taped newspaper pictures over the tired old reprints of landscape paintings on the walls, attempting to block out the banality of the room, just as I’d tried to block out the banality of my fading life with her.
"Do you want to have sex again?" I asked, looking over at her.
She took a drag off her cigarette in silence without looking over at me.
"Pfff...," she said.
The window was open. A strong wind suddenly blew through the room and I stood to leave, throwing the key to the handcuffs on her bed.
As I opened the door, I turned back to her, "I really think I love you."
“Pffff...” she said again, shrugging her shoulders simply and assuredly, turning her head toward the endless gray outside the open window, and I left, thinking that I'd never see her again.