THIS IS WHAT I HAVE TO TELL YOU
All citizens of the United States shall be required by law to wed by or before age 30. Citizens failing to abide by this law will be prosecuted.
—U.S. Constitution, 28th Amendment
In Emma’s first real memory, one with shape and color, she is sitting under a blue table with her cousin Jo, their knees rubbing together like cricket legs. Overhead the sewing machine hums as her mother feeds it lace and silk. Panel by panel, she builds a wedding dress in the gold light of the afternoon.
By age ten, Emma knows that this memory is a lie.
The table that houses her mother’s sewing machine is white. No two children, no matter how small, can fit under it, and her mother never creates in the afternoons. In the afternoons, there are fittings and consultations with giddy young women and their anxious mothers. In the evenings, her mother brings home her sketchbook and her notes and draws.
As she works, her face folds with anxiety.
Emma’s father steals her sketchbook.
She complains, and he says, “You shouldn’t bring work home, Mari,” while penciling in suggestions to her drawings.
“Is that a rainbow and a unicorn coming out of the back of the dress?” she asks, leaning over his shoulder to look at his additions, laughter spilling from her mouth.
He shrugs. “All your clients think they’re special snowflakes.”
She takes her book back from him, rips out the page, and hands it to Emma. “Color in the rainbow, baby,” she says. “Then, we’ll put it on the fridge.”
Emma’s mother likes to give her discards from her shop—scraps of fabric and old catalogs with last year’s styles. Emma pins the fabrics to the corkboard above her desk. She lingers over the catalogs and finds the most elegant women. She wants to remove them from their glossy pages, but she does not trust herself to cut around the fragile edges of their faces and hands, so she waits for Wednesday. On Wednesday, Jo rides home with her on the bus.
Jo has no interest in the women, but she loves any task that is unhurried and deliberate. Emma likes to watch Jo turn the scissors for each cut, curling and curving through the paper. Jo hands each picture to Emma when she is finished, turning immediately to the next one. Emma tapes them up on the wall over her bed.
When Emma has no more space on her corkboard for fabrics and her walls are a collage of women in white dresses, her father gives her a book with blank, cream-colored pages.
“Maybe you can stop taping stuff to your walls now,” he says.
She cannot dismantle the collage of fabrics, nor can she remove her pretty women from the walls, but all the new additions to her collection are pinned and pasted into the book.
When she falls asleep, its soft cloth surface rests under her hand, and when she wakes in the morning, it waits—like magic, like clockwork—opened to a friendly blank page on her desk.
Amid growing concerns over family instability and in conjunction with the recent Marriage Amendment, divorces will no longer be granted in the United States.
Jo gets home from school, and her mom is shut away in her office, music pounding from behind the closed door. Her mom had photographed three weddings over the weekend, and, as she had told Jo’s dad that morning, she was going to be busy for a while, so, no, she wouldn’t have time to go to the grocery store.
Jo’s mom loves her job. Jo’s dad says it is what she loves most. He says this without derision or contempt. He says this so Jo can recognize it as an established, unwavering fact. He says this so Jo will not be injured when her mom leaves her office at the end of the day and looks at Jo like she doesn’t remember who she is. The look only lasts a second, but it numbs Jo’s limbs and creates a feed of fuzzy static in her head.
(Jo’s dad does not love his job, so he can afford to allow Jo to be an interruption when he is working. Jo does not have to hover outside the dining room where he grades papers, waiting for his attention. He always notices her and always invites her to him.)
Sometimes Jo does have her mom’s attention, and, under the dazzling lights of her mom’s gaze, Jo wants to be brighter and bigger. She wants to build a story of her life where she is someone her mom wants to know.
Jo hovers outside her mom’s office. She listens for movement behind the closed door, but she can hear nothing over the music. So, she retreats from the house, pedaling her bike around the neighborhood, in and out of dead end streets, and across the trail that runs behind the high school.
When she returns, her dad is home. She enters the house, and it smells like frying meat. Her dad is making bacon and eggs again.
“Hi, Dad,” she says.
He turns, a spatula hanging from his hand. “How was school?”
“We’re having breakfast for dinner,” he says like this doesn’t happen two or three times a week.
“I don’t eat meat,” Jo says because he clearly has forgotten again.
He pauses, then says, “Of course. I know.”
He carefully places an extra piece of toast on her plate and nudges her toward the table. In the silence, Jo can hear the music still thumping from her mom’s office. She turns her head toward the sound which her dad must take as a question because he says, “Your mom said she wasn’t hungry.”
Jo looks at her dad and knows he didn’t bother to ask if her mom wanted dinner. He doesn’t wear any of the signs of conflict. He does look tired. Jo has homework to finish and a math test to study for, but she still sits at the table and waits for her dad to finish eating, and then, she helps him with the dishes.
It is late, into the hours of the morning where time doesn’t function properly, when Jo’s mom wakes her up. She says, “Come with me,” and takes Jo’s hand and pulls her from the bed.
She places Jo in the chair in front of her computer. Her pictures, the ones she has labored over all afternoon, are displayed on the screen.
“Take a look,” she says.
Jo nods. She clicks through them and tells her mom that the pictures are beautiful. This is clear. But it is also clear that the bride and the groom have dressed up for a party that neither of them wanted to attend.
So, it is not surprising when they refuse to pay for the pictures.
Jo’s mom returns home with the invoice and the thumb drive, both of which she throws down on the kitchen counter. Jo takes the thumb drive and stores it in her desk. Through her bedroom wall, she hears her parents arguing.
“Honestly, Ana. What did you think was going to happen?” her dad asks.
“I can’t work with something that isn’t there,” her mom says. “I can’t lie for them.”
“Of course you can,” her dad says.
“You mean like someone lied for us?” her mom asks.
Jo hears their bedroom door open and slam. Then, she hears the front door open and slam. She ventures out to discover which of her parents has left the house. It turns out to be her dad. Her mom sits at the top of the stairs, her fingers vibrating against her thighs. Jo sits beside her.
“He’ll be back soon,” her mom says.
Jo nods. Of course, he’ll be back. This is their routine. Her mom leaves sometimes. Her dad leaves sometimes. They always come back.
“Are you hungry? Do you want dinner?” her mom asks.
“Okay,” Jo says.
They go downstairs and order a pizza. Her dad is back in time to pay the delivery boy.
The following week, Jo gives the thumb drive to Emma. Emma plugs it into her computer and then looks back at Jo, her face lit in perfect delight. “I can keep these?” she asks.
“Yes,” Jo says.
“These are amazing,” Emma says. “They’re so beautiful.”
Jo wonders why Emma can’t see how unhappy they are. She starts to point this out, but Emma has paused on a picture of the bouquet and she says she’s thinking about putting it on the next page of her book and would Jo mind cutting it out for her?
“Sure,” Jo says, and she smiles at Emma’s smile.
Texas, Arkansas, and Kentucky are the first states to require a compatibility test to ensure the success of state-mandated marriages.
—New York Times
In ninth grade history class, they are learning (again) about the Marriage Laws. Mrs. Rios puts on a film and sits at her desk reading the fourth edition of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The film’s narrator links greater numbers of unmarried individuals to failures in education, income inequality, high unemployment rates, depression, and obesity. Emma watches Jo pick dried gum off her shoe with a pencil.
After the film, Mrs. Rios tosses worksheets down the rows. The instructions request that each student use the provided compatibility test results to determine if a couple should marry and then write a short essay (no more than 500 words, please!) explaining their rationale.
“Please read through your descriptions carefully,” Mrs. Rios says. “You don’t want your couple to be miserable.”
Jo rides home on the bus with Emma, her legs tucked into her chest, knees flopping outward like wings. There are grass and dirt stains on her jeans, mud clinging to the hems. This must be her second or third day in a row wearing them. Last week, Emma’s mother had washed them. When Aunt Ana showed up to take Jo home, Emma’s mother said, “Maybe you could try sending your daughter to school in clean clothes.”
Aunt Ana said, “I don’t choose what she wears.”
Emma’s mother said, “Pay some attention to her, please” and then she sent Jo and Aunt Ana home with lasagna in a plastic container.
When they get off the bus at the elementary school, Emma can see that Jo has the container in a cloth bag, the handles clutched tightly in her fist.
“I don’t think my mother wanted that back,” Emma says.
“My mom spent fifteen minutes yesterday cleaning it by hand,” Jo says.
The mysteries of siblings are beyond both of them, so they shrug at each other and start walking to Emma’s house.
“They found this wasp in Thailand,” Jo says. “It paralyzes its prey and drags it off to a safe space to eat it alive.”
“Gross,” Emma says.
“My mom said it was a metaphor,” Jo says.
“A metaphor for what?” Emma asks.
“She didn’t say.”
Emma thinks. She considers how she feels when she is with her family, how sometimes she is so happy that she is afraid to move because if she does, she will break that golden bubble of joy in her chest, how sometimes she feels that her happiness is so big that it is eating her from the inside out.
“Maybe she meant that it’s a metaphor for love,” she says.
Jo bites at her lip, tearing skin off with her teeth. “Nope. Can’t be that.”
“My mom doesn’t love anyone,” Jo says.
She says this easily, like it’s true, but it can’t be true. That is not how families work. A refutation piles into Emma’s mouth. Before she can speak, Jo says, “Wolf spiders purr to attract a mate.”
Because Jo expects it, Emma says, “Ew.”
“You think that’s a metaphor for something?” Jo asks.
“It’s a metaphor for how spiders are gross,” Emma says.
Jo exhales soft little huffs of laughter. Emma can’t stop thinking about Jo’s confidence in her mother’s absence of love. The wrongness of Jo’s belief makes Emma itchy with unease. But she also can’t map a way back to that comment, so she lets her questions chafe against her tongue until she can talk to her mother.
Emma’s mother says, “Your aunt, she just expresses her love in different ways.”
This answer is less than satisfying.
The next day in history class, Mrs. Rios makes them read their essays aloud. She has to prompt Jo twice before Jo starts reading. When Jo introduces her couple, it is clear they are intended to be compatible.
“And what was your assessment?” Mrs. Rios asks.
Jo doesn’t answer the question. Instead, she tells a story about the wasp that paralyzes its victims, and the spider that purrs to attract a mate, and a butterfly species that is specially attuned to live on a wild oregano plant.
Mrs. Rios stops her. “Did you do the assignment, Jo?” she asks.
“Yes,” Jo says. “This is my answer. It’s a metaphor.”
Mrs. Rios sighs. “Okay, Jo. Sit down. We’ll talk after class.”
Emma hovers outside the classroom until Jo emerges. Jo says, “I have to redo the assignment.”
The assignment is so simple Jo could complete it in her sleep, but Emma knows she won’t and she doesn’t really know why.
“I’ll write the essay for you,” Emma says.
Jo hands her the assignment sheet.
Jo gets the essay back a week later, and Mrs. Rios has written, “Excellent reasoning, Jo” at the bottom of the second page.
Jo hands the essay to Emma and tells her, “Good job.”
Emma tapes it up in her locker.
According to a new study, it has become increasingly common for married couples to live apart. The ramifications of these new living arrangements are yet to be determined.
Emma wants Jo to go to junior prom. She begins her campaign in January. She promises to get Jo a date. Jo is indifferent to this idea, so Emma then promises that Jo won’t have to have a date if she doesn’t want one. She also promises to make everyone go stag so Jo won’t feel like she’s left out. She promises that her mom will make Jo a dress, one that won’t make her limbs look too long for her body. She promises that Jo won’t have to stay at the dance more than an hour. Or more than thirty minutes. Or any longer than it takes to get a picture.
“Just one picture, Jo. That’s it,” Emma says.
Jo relents. It doesn’t take much to make Emma happy.
Aunt Mari puts Jo and Emma into her schedule, planning their dress consultations for a Friday in late February.
Jo’s consultation is mercifully quick. Emma’s is not. Jo watches Emma and Aunt Mari, and an old ache yawns open in her chest. It crawls up into her throat, and she swallows it down with water, so she can smile and nod and tell Emma that the pale purple satin looks really, really good. Emma grins, Aunt Mari says she wants to try a different fabric for the belt, and Jo picks up a straight pin from the floor and sticks it into her sleeve. When she curls her hand into a fist, the pin punctures her wrist.
When Jo gets home, her mom is on the phone in her office with her editor and three other people discussing the proofs for her photography book. Jo walks by, and her mother waves a hand at her and pulls her into the room.
“I need fresh eyes,” she says.
So, Jo spends an hour trying to give her mom the answers she wants.
Her mom ends the call while Jo is pulling the straight pin from her sleeve.
“Where did you get that?” her mom asks.
“Aunt Mari. She’s making me a prom dress,” Jo says.
“You’re going to prom?” her mom asks.
Five weeks later, the book comes out. Jo’s mom is suddenly in high demand. She is gone for weeks at a time. Her suitcase is always in a state of transition.
In her absence, the house relaxes. The rooms have softer, friendlier edges. Jo watches the tension bleed out of her dad when they work in affectionate silence, occupying opposite sides of the dining room table. The thought comes one evening, unbidden: it would be better if her mom would stay away. It feels like a betrayal, and Jo tries to burn the thought away, but its imprint remains.
Then, on a Monday, Jo’s mom comes home and, at dinner, without prompting or warning, she says, “I think I’m going to get an apartment in the city. It will be easier for work.”
Jo’s dad says, “Sure. That makes sense” and places more broccoli on his plate.
“I’m probably going to stay there most of the time,” Jo’s mom says.
It takes a minute, but Jo’s dad finally says, “Okay. If that’s what you want.”
“Of course, I’ll have a place for you, Jo,” her mom says. “You can come see me whenever you want.”
“Yes. Okay,” Jo says. Her eyes start to burn, and when she exhales, her breath hitches. She leaves the table before she starts to cry.
She is sitting on the edge of her bed, rubbing tears off of her face with the heels of her hands, when her dad comes to find her.
He sits beside her. He sighs. He asks, “Do you want your mom to stay? Because I think she will. If you want her to.”
“She wants to leave,” Jo says because that much is readily apparent.
“Yes,” he says.
“And you want her to leave,” Jo says because they might as well air everything out.
“Yes,” he says.
“I,” Jo says, “I wanted her to leave, too.” The pain that accompanies this confession burns and oozes through her chest.
“Oh,” her dad says. “Oh.”
He falls silent. Jo thinks he must not have an appropriate reaction to her ugliness.
“But you know that’s not why—” he says.
“Jo,” he says. “Jo, that’s not why she’s leaving. You didn’t do anything. If anything she’s leaving because I—” He doesn’t finish this thought.
There are a multitude of questions Jo could ask, but she only wants to know the answer to one. “Why did you marry mom?” she asks.
Jo expects him to sit and think for a long time. But he doesn’t. He says, “Because we were dating and I liked her well enough, and we were running out of time, and your mom thought I was an acceptable match. She asked me what I wanted out of a marriage. I told her, and she agreed and we got married.”
“What did you want?” Jo asks.
“I wanted to be a dad,” he says. “And she was amenable to being a mom.” He exhales. “Jo, she does want what’s best. For you, I mean.” He folds and unfolds and refolds his hands. “I do, too. Always.” He wraps an arm around her, his hand a heavy comfort against her shoulder. “Always, always.”
Jo leans into him.
“But your mom and I,” he says. “We just. We just didn’t work out the way we thought we would.”
Jo thinks. She thinks about choices that become mistakes. She thinks about time and erasures and corrections. “Okay,” she says.
She and her dad sit together until Jo’s mom calls up to them that she doesn’t have any intention of doing the dishes on her own.
Proof of an 85 percent compatibility rate is now required prior to the issuance of a marriage license.
—Ch. 14, Article 5, Part B.6
Emma goes to college and turns into a cliché. It’s Jo’s fault. Jo was supposed to help her with College Algebra, but Jo is always in the lab or the library or in the tutoring center walking a senior through biology for non-majors.
Because Jo can’t keep promises, Emma fails her first quiz. She pins it up on their dorm room door.
Jo says, “Sorry. Maybe you can create a study group.”
So, Emma creates a study group. No one in the group can explain area word problems or factoring or imaginary numbers.
Jo says, “Maybe you can get your TA to help you.”
Emma’s TA is Louise. Louise has black hair and ugly glasses that do not fit her face. Louise doesn’t look at the students when she teaches. When she asks for questions at the end of her classes, she looks startled when hands go up.
Emma finds Louise in her tiny shared office on a Thursday afternoon.
“Need help?” Louise asks.
Louise’s explanations are clearly very, very smart. Emma is sure she could understand them if she had a math to English translator.
“Does that make sense?” Louise asks.
Emma nods because Louise’s face is hopefully bright.
“Okay, so why don’t you try one?” Louise asks.
Emma picks up a pencil and writes down a problem. Then, she puts down the pencil and looks at Louise. “Sorry,” she says. “I can’t.”
Louise sighs. “Yeah. I’m lousy at teaching.”
Emma shrugs. “Well, you could try again. Maybe?”
“Yeah,” Louise says. “Okay.”
So, Emma spends every Thursday with Louise in the tiny office.
Louise talks very fast, and she assumes that Emma is as smart as she is, which is irritating because Emma is very, very stupid. Emma has to keep reminding her that she has no base knowledge. She can barely add. This seems to make Louise sad, but she still treats Emma like a person, which is nice.
Emma starts to look at Louise more closely. Louise’s eyebrows need significant help and her shirts, even the nice ones, all have holes in the collars. The heels she occasionally wears are lined with black scuff marks. Her hair is wavy and thick and gorgeous but completely unmanageable. Emma pretends to accidentally leave holders on Louise’s desk. The following Thursday, Louise has her hair pulled up, and the smooth planes of her face are visible. She has a nice face.
By the end of the semester, Emma has learned enough to earn a C in the class. She has also apparently learned enough to have nostalgia for numbers.
“I think I miss algebra,” she tells Jo. “Maybe I liked the challenge of it.”
Jo says, “Nope. You just miss Louise.”
She’s right, so Emma spends every afternoon for a week sitting on the floor outside the tiny office. She finally gets the right day and the right time. When Louise sees her, she raises an eyebrow, and Emma didn’t know she could do that, and it is amazing.
“Do you need help with another math class?” Louise asks. And then: “Why are you taking another math class?”
“Do you want to go get dinner or something?” Emma asks.
“Now?” Louise asks.
This is not what Emma meant, but she says, “Yeah. Sure.”
So, Emma ends up dating her TA.
“Former TA,” Jo says because she thinks semantics matter and because she is fond of definitions and lists and little boxes that can be checked. Because Emma likes this about Jo, she doesn’t correct her.
It takes a year and a half before Louise suggests that they fill out compatibility papers. The forms take three hours to complete. It takes six weeks to get a response from the state.
Jo says, “You know there’s a way to fix the results.”
Emma isn’t sure why she didn’t mention this earlier.
Jo says, “I don’t think it’s going to matter.” She’s right. Emma and Louise have a ninety-three percent compatibility rate.
Louise’s parents love Emma. Louise says that they love Emma more than they love her. They want her and Emma to have a huge wedding in their backyard. Emma’s mother wants to make all the dresses. She starts sketching immediately.
“She has six designs for you to choose from,” Emma’s father tells her. “And she also wanted me to emphasize to you that she’s happy to start over if you don’t like any of them.”
“Okay,” Emma says.
Because her father can read her mind, he says, “Yeah. It’s madness.”
Decisions are made about flowers and bridesmaid dresses, but, on a Tuesday, somewhere in the middle of choosing a cake flavor, Emma realizes that she has no interest in cake flavors. She has no interest in roses or table settings or purple dresses that make Jo look like a giant plum.
She tells Louise, and Louise says, “Huh.” Then, she says, “So, you want to elope?”
Emma calls Jo, and Jo says, “You’re not eloping without me.”
Louise agrees. “She can drive while we drink champagne in the backseat.”
Jo washes and vacuums out her car and gets an air freshener. Louise gets her a chauffeur’s hat. They drive to a twenty-four hour chapel right over the state line.
Emma is delighted with everything. She is delighted with the car ride. She is delighted with the cheap chapel. She is delighted with Louise who takes a thousand pictures with her phone. She is delighted with the daisies she gets as a hand-me-down bouquet from the couple who gets married before them. She is delighted with the minister who says that she and Louise are adorable. She is delighted with the champagne that they drink out of the bottle on the way home.
Jo drops them off at Louise’s apartment. Emma gives Jo a daisy and says, “Thank you.”
Jo slides the flower behind her ear, says, “Don’t forget to call your mom,” and lets her car idle in the parking lot until Emma and Louise are safely inside.
Louise puts the bottle of champagne in the kitchen sink. Emma waits at the window until Jo flashes her headlights twice and drives away.
A motion to change the marriage age to 35 has been voted down by a Congressional sub-committee.
Jo waits until she is twenty-three to have sex. She spends a year rotating in and out of relationships and in and out of beds. Her experiences are interesting but uninspiring. It is nice to make other people feel good, and it is nice to be petted in the afterglow, but she doesn’t crave these feelings.
She does crave simplicity and order. She explains this to Emma.
“Thirty is still a long way away. Besides, I didn’t like any of the guys you dated,” Emma says. “Also, are you still in town? Do you want to come over for dinner?”
“Yes. All right. Thank you,” Jo says.
Another year and Jo finishes school and gets a job and a small apartment and a goldfish. She spends her evenings with Emma and Louise and the people they’ve collected. She goes home every other week to see her dad. They talk about nothing while watching movies and playing games of Monopoly that no one ever wins. Sometimes he leaves the board untouched between her visits so they can pick up where they left off. When she leaves on Sunday morning, he always follows her out of the house and waves at her from the front porch. She always slows down when she turns off of his street, waiting to see him lower his arm and disappear into the house.
Jo calls her mom every Monday. Her mom always complains about work and about the class she was coerced into teaching at the university and about her neighbors. Occasionally, she asks Jo to come to see her, and when Jo visits, her mom buys her beautiful things and takes her to nice places and introduces her to brilliant people who find Jo delightful because she knows how to nod and ask questions and never talk about herself.
Two more years go by, and Emma and Louise have a daughter named Daisy who is remarkable. When Daisy turns one, there is a party. Daisy is fascinated by the candle on her cupcake and tries to pull it off. Jo picks her up before her fingers can reach into the flame.
The party is over, and Jo is shoving wrapping paper into a plastic bag when Aunt Mari sits down on the couch and says, “You’re going to be twenty-nine soon.”
“Yes,” Jo says.
“You haven’t filled out the compatibility forms,” she says.
“No,” Jo says. “I haven’t.”
“You don’t have much time left.”
“Are you scared?” she asks. “It’s okay, you know. If you are.”
Jo isn’t scared. She doesn’t know what drives her inertia. “I don’t know.”
“Well, I can help you with the forms, if you like,” she says. “We can get them done this week.” She smiles, and Jo can see a plan take shape in her head. “I can bring over dinner. We can make it fun.”
“No,” Jo says. “Thank you. I can do them myself.”
So, then, she has to fill out the forms.
She clicks through the questions and barely thinks about her answers. She gets contact information for her top three matches, and she sends the same message to all three: “Hello. As you are probably aware, we have been determined to be compatible. If you would like to meet and talk, please let me know. Thank you.”
All three send responses. The responses vary significantly in enthusiasm. Jo picks the least enthusiastic one first. She meets him for coffee. He is twenty-six and unhurried. He does not care to find someone right now, he says. “I have time,” he says. “You do,” she agrees. They pass a pleasant but boring hour together and part amiably.
Emma calls her later. “How was it?”
“Uneventful,” Jo says.
She meets the second one for lunch. He shows up twenty minutes late and pays for her meal as an apology. He tells her (“so there aren’t any expectations”) that she is just one of seven women he will be meeting over the next month. He tells her that he had a girlfriend, and he thought he was going to marry her, but she found a better match and left him two months ago. She tells him that he’s the second of three men she’s meeting. He frowns and says, “You may need to broaden your parameters.” Lunch ends, and he shakes her hand and tells her he’ll be in touch.
She has dinner with the third one on a warm Thursday evening. His name is James, he is twenty-eight, he is a dermatologist, and he is beautiful, with dark eyes and smooth, pretty skin. She asks him so many questions about his work, he says he feels like he’s on a job interview. But he laughs. The next weekend they go hiking. He points out the plants that can cause rashes. She identifies the insects that land on his backpack which he must like because he asks her to repeat the scientific names, so he can say them back to her.
On their third date, they go to the art museum. She doesn’t like art, but she follows him around and stares hard at the paintings. He smiles at her and asks, “What are you looking for?” She shrugs, and he asks, “Can I kiss you?” She nods. The kiss is gentle and sweet. Jo waits for some physical acknowledgement of desire. Nothing happens. Jo kisses him again, and her body has the same quiet non-response.
But James is nice and he is accommodating and he likes her, so she says yes when he asks if he can see her again.
Emma demands to meet him. “Bring him over. Louise will cook,” she says. “We’ll figure out if there’s anything wrong with him.”
They have dinner on Wednesday night, and it is lovely. Jo watches Emma and Louise and James talk and laugh and pass food around the table. She knows that this could be her life. All she has to do is reach out and grab it and cram it into her pocket to keep.
When Emma calls her the next day to declare that she likes this one, Jo says, “I’m glad.”
Jo meets James’s friends at a party. It’s one of those parties that she always thought only happened on television. Everyone hugs everyone. They hang all over each other, take food from each other’s plates, and drink out of each other’s glasses. They sing and play music, and they talk too loudly.
Later, when James brushes her hair to the side so he can kiss her neck, he tells her that they liked her.
“How could you tell?” she asks.
She takes James to meet her dad. They eat Thai food, and Jo listens to James and her dad talk about nothing while a movie plays at low volume.
She calls her dad the next day. “Did you like him?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says. “Do you like him?”
“Yes,” she says which is not a lie.
“Have you asked him what he wants out of marriage?” he asks.
“No,” she says.
“Do you know what you want out of marriage?” he asks.
Her first thought is someone who will leave her alone. She thinks harder. It is troubling that she cannot think of anything else she wants. “Companionship,” she finally says.
“You’ve already got that,” he says.
“He’s my best match,” she says.
“Well,” he says. “There is that.”
She meets all of James’s family at once: his two sisters and their husbands, his niece and nephews, his dad and his mom, his uncle and aunt. They have a cookout in the backyard of his parents’ house.
James apologizes to her on the drive over. “This was really not what I intended,” he says, “but my mom said that you might as well meet everyone.”
“It’s okay,” Jo says.
“I did tell them that you don’t eat meat,” he says.
“Thank you,” Jo says.
Sitting on a plastic chair in the fading light of evening, Jo digs her toes into freshly cut grass and wonders what it would be like to disappear one tiny bit at a time. A toe, the tip of a pinky finger, an earlobe that grows more and more faded until one day it’s no longer there at all. It would take time to disappear completely. It would take so much time that other people might not notice until you were nearly gone.
James leans close and asks her, “What are you thinking about?”
“Your family is wonderful,” she says.
He smiles, big and bright and happy, and he is beautiful.
Jo calls her mom to tell her about James. Her mom says, “I’d like to meet him. I can probably do an early dinner on Sunday. Will that be all right?”
Because Jo knows it has to be, she says, “Yes. Thank you.”
James is suitably awed by her mom, and he asks all the right questions about her work. (Later, he confesses to Jo that he did research. “I bought all three of her books,” he says. “You could have just borrowed them from me,” Jo says. “That would have defeated the purpose,” he says.)
Jo’s mom sends her a message the next day that says, “He seems like a good match for you.”
Jo can’t disagree with this statement.
One evening, a month later, she and James are in her apartment watching a movie, and during a commercial, he looks at her and says, “Should we talk about marriage?”
“I suppose,” Jo says.
He turns off the TV. “You don’t want to get married,” he says.
There is no point lying to him. “No,” she says, but because there is also no point in being cruel, she adds, “It’s not you.”
“I didn’t think it was,” he says. “My oldest sister, she felt the same way as you. But she’s happy now.” He places his hand gently against her cheek. “We could be happy too.”
She pulls his hand from her face and because she doesn’t know what else to do with it, holds it between her own cold, small hands.
“I know I’ll be good to you,” he responds. “And I won’t get in your way.” He is so earnest. He is saying what she hoped he would say.
“You should say yes, Jo,” he says.
She stares at her hands, bloodless and pale, piled on top of his. She nods. He’s right. She will be thirty in six months. “Yes,” she says. “Yes.”
His happiness is blinding, and when he leans forward to kiss her, she thinks how wonderful it would be if she could love him.
Any United States citizen over 30 who leaves the country to avoid the Marriage Laws will be fined and prosecuted following their return.
—Ch. 2, Article 6, Part A.2
Emma delivers Jo’s wedding dress to her apartment on a Tuesday afternoon. Jo greets the arrival of her dress with a quiet “oh.” She looks at Emma and says, “I guess you want to see it.”
Emma pulls the dress out of its protective bag and holds it out for Jo to step into. Jo strips off her sweatshirt and her jeans. Across her back, patches of red, bumpy skin form an angry constellation.
Emma touches one lightly.
“James says it’s stress,” Jo says.
“How long have you had them?” Emma asks.
Jo shrugs and pulls the dress on to her body. With care, Emma hooks and buttons and zips.
Jo turns, her fingers rubbing the silk of the skirt. “What do you think?”
The dress is beautiful, but Jo looks like she would rather not be wearing it. The effect is unsettling. “You look beautiful,” Emma says. “You should go see.”
“No, it’s fine,” Jo says. “Help me out of it.”
Over the next two weeks, Emma watches the red patches invade and encamp Jo’s body. Jo approves the fittings for the bridesmaid dresses, and Emma sees one encircling Jo’s forearm. They are checking the RSVP list for the final time, and Emma notices one clamped onto her neck. She and Louise have Jo and James over a month before the wedding, and Emma sees one inching up on to her face.
She watches James touch it with soft fingers.
“It’s getting worse,” he says to Jo.
“It’s fine,” she says.
“It’s not,” he says, “but I’ll fix it.”
Emma wonders why he hadn’t already prescribed something for her.
Medication, however, was not the fix he had in mind.
James calls Emma on Saturday. “I thought she would be okay,” he says. “She’s not.”
“No,” Emma says. “What are we going to do?”
He tells her. He has built a neat, meticulous plan. It is still missing a few moving parts, but there’s nothing that would derail it completely or make it unviable. There’s nothing for Emma to oppose or tear apart.
Still, a week passes before Emma tells Louise about it.
Louise nods and says, “Yes. That’s smart.” She takes the plan, adds in the missing pieces, perfects it so Emma can have no complaints, and then declares it ready.
James and Jo are supposed to come over for dinner on Wednesday, and, after dinner, Emma, James, and Louise are supposed to gift the plan to Jo.
This is not what happens.
James calls late on Monday. “I think Jo is coming to you,” he says.
“Why?” she asks.
“I told her,” he says. “What we planned.”
Over her surge of irritation, Emma asks, “What did she say?”
“She didn’t. She left,” he says.
“Okay,” Emma says. “Why do you think she’s coming here?”
“Where else would she go?” he asks.
It is raining when Jo arrives. Emma opens the door and watches Jo dash in from the street.
“You never have an umbrella,” Emma says.
“No,” Jo agrees, and then her bony arms wrap tight around Emma’s shoulders, her breathing shallow and sharp against Emma’s hair.
“What should I do?” Jo asks.
“I don’t know,” Emma says. Her fingers dig into the taut muscles of Jo’s back.
“If I leave, I couldn’t ever come back,” Jo says. “I’ve checked. I couldn’t come back.”
“We could come see you,” Emma says though the words taste sour in her mouth.
“When?” Jo asks. “When would you come?”
“Whenever you wanted to see us,” Emma says.
A sound too wet and strangled to be a laugh bubbles up from Jo’s throat. “Yes, I’m sure it will be that easy.”
Emma inhales. Jo exhales. They stand, clasped together in the dim light of the hallway.
“Am I a coward if I stay?” Jo finally asks.
“No,” Emma says. “Am I selfish if I ask you to?”
“Probably,” Jo says.
Emma laughs and discovers that she’s been crying.
“But I don’t mind,” Jo says.
They, the photographs, are a story, but not just of the couple or their history. If they’re good they can say so much more than that.
—Picturing Love: The Art of Wedding Photography
Aunt Mari had found a popped seam on the shoulder of Jo’s wedding dress, so she told Jo to hold completely still while she ran to grab her sewing kit from the bag that she left in the trunk of her car. Emma went to steal a bobby pin from Louise because there was a strand of hair falling out of Jo’s bun. Jo had told her to leave it. Emma said, “No. It should be perfect. Everything should be perfect” and she kissed Jo on the forehead and left.
Jo is left alone in the getting-ready room with her mom.
“Turn toward me, Jo,” her mom says. Jo moves. “No, don’t turn your body completely. Just look over your left shoulder and toward the floor. Yes, like that.”
Jo hears the click. When she looks up, her mom is frowning at her camera.
“Do we need to try again?” she asks.
Her mom looks up. “What? No. No. It looks beautiful.” She holds out the camera. “Do you want to see?”
Jo shakes her head.
Her mom looks toward the door and taps her fingers against her thighs. “I should be out there,” she says. She lips curl into a strange, closed-lipped smile. “Capturing your big day.”
Jo does not want to be by herself in this room. But she says, “You can go.”
“No, that’s not what I meant,” her mom says. “I meant.” She pauses. “I don’t know what I meant.”
Jo’s fingers rub at the red patch of skin that had appeared on her hand two days ago.
“You should probably cover that,” her mom says.
“Louise probably has a bandage,” Jo says. “I could ask Emma when she gets back.”
“That’s not what I meant either,” her mom says, and she bends down and pulls out a small off-white box from her camera bag. She lifts the lid and pulls out a pair of crocheted gloves. “They were my mother’s,” she says.
She sits down next to Jo. Her warm hands slide over Jo’s, cradling them gently, sliding the right glove on and then the left one. Then, she turns Jo’s hands over and fastens the buttons at the wrists.
“There,” she says.
She tries to nestle Jo’s hands back in her dress, but Jo refuses to let go. Her mom squeezes Jo’s hands. Jo squeezes back.
“Will it be okay?” Jo asks.
“I don’t know,” her mom says.
“It wasn’t for you,” Jo says.
“No,” her mom says. “But maybe you’ll be luckier than I was.”
The door opens again, and Emma and Aunt Mari reappear, and Jo is surrounded by movement. They stitch her up and pin her hair and pet her shoulders and back and tell her how beautiful she is. They stand her up so she can see herself, complete and perfect, as a bride.
Jo finds her mom’s face in the mirror. She turns. “Mom?”
Her mom puts down the camera, steps forward, and offers Jo her hand.
Then, it is time to go.