I closed the bedroom door, and took a deep breath, willing peace into my body. I lifted the heavy robe, sliding into it and buttoning the front clasps. I pulled on my cords, blue ropes that signified my ranking on the Dean’s List. Then the cap was put on, the archaic indicator of graduation, not improved or fashionized in the last three decades. I smiled in the mirror, an image of peace and academia, proof that reflections could be far from the truth.

There was a knock on the door and my mother’s voice, muffled, came through. “Sweetheart, Becca and Olivia just pulled in.”

“Okay, I’m coming,” I called out. Grabbing my purse, I pasted a smile on my face and opened the door.

♥♥♥

Graduation. I could feel the sweat underneath my knees. The guy to my right twitched his knee in a way that made my chair vibrate, and I fought the urge to reach over and still it. It had been almost three hours, and I had reached a new low in the possible levels of boredom. There were four thousand names, four thousand souls packed into this civic center, four thousand bored, fidgety coeds who were regretting the decision to attend this event. The announcer’s voice droned on and more black robes crossed the stage. No streakers, no somersaults across the stage. Nothing to break up the monotony.

Then, the voice stopped, my ears perking up at the silence, an audible sigh of relief rolling through the audience. I reached for my diploma, noting that freedom was close, the president making only a brief closing statement before concluding the event. Celebration. We threw our caps, a sea of black rising and then raining down. Then, pure bedlam erupted. Everyone moving in different directions, anxious for release, tripping over folding chairs and climbing over rows in a mad rush for the door. My cell rang, vibrating against my side, but the crush of bodies didn’t allow me to stop and reach for it. The room was too loud anyway. I needed to get outside and then I could check my phone.

When I finally escaped, my feet hitting concrete, the summer heat and humidity caused my clothes to stick against my skin, sweat dripping down my lower back. I moved with the crowd, headed for the parking lot, looking for and finding Brad and my parents under the shade of a large palm tree. His eyes were scanning, worry on his face, and I waved to catch his eye.

“Hey,” I said, swept into a hug by his strong arms.

“There are too many people. You should have answered your phone.”

“I couldn’t,” I said tartly. “It was too loud and crowded in there.” I hugged my parents, posing for two quick photos before insisting that we leave, my body becoming a full-time sweat machine. I texted Becca and Olivia, and we headed for the house.

♥♥♥

Finally. I lay back in the sun. I was wrong. There was still goodness in this world. Maybe walking across that stage actually helped. Accepting that diploma, which now lay somewhere on the floorboard of Brad’s car, the proof that I had accomplished something. Closed one piece of my life. Lifted a layer of stress from my shoulders.

All I knew was that I felt great. A paper plate beside me, the remnants of a steak and a gnawed cob of corn, some of Martha’s potato salad sharing space with a speck of lemon pie. Olivia and I had swapped out turns manning the blender, churning out margaritas and daiquiris, the combination of iced alcohol and good food comforting in my stomach. From behind me I heard a snore that was most definitely my father’s, his and Mom’s chaise lounges set up in the shade. I grinned, twitching my toes to the reggae that Becca had chosen to play, and felt the last of my stress, for a few peaceful hours, lift away.

One more week. Then the wedding would be over, my family would leave, and I could relax with Brad, content in marital bliss, all cares and concerns gone, sunscreen application and sexual satisfaction my only obligations.

Chapter 54

Days until wedding: 0 days, 16 hours

10:00 p.m. I sat in my room, the smell of cardboard mingling with the stale air of a room half empty, a sea of open boxes surrounding me. I had sent my parents to the hotel three hours earlier, the rehearsal concluding with brisk efficiency, our choice to forego a traditional follow-up dinner a decision I greatly appreciated. Now, alone, I had turned off the radio and packed in silence, appreciating the peace and quiet. Fold, wrap, pack. This year had been so crazy, changing my life in so many ways. I searched my soul for doubts or uneasiness about the life-changing step I was about to take. But I had complete faith in my decision. The Magiano threat to my life was what had accelerated our relationship, caused the premature engagement. At that moment, when I had accepted Brad’s proposal, I knew I loved him. I knew no man would ever be able to compete, to compare, with him. But I didn’t know if I was making the right decision. I didn’t know if our initial infatuation would have legs, if a foundation could be built to support a lifetime of commitment. I had needed this year. Needed to find my place in the relationship, needed to know Brad would yield control at times, respect my opinion, allow me to maintain my identity in the face of his strength.

He had amazed me, challenging me when I needed it, knowing instinctively when to push and when to pull. With every day, I was more secure in my decision. There was nothing I wanted more than to walk down that aisle and become Brad’s wife. And soon, it would happen. Brad, Holy Matrimony, and me.

I pulled out a Sharpie, labeling the cardboard box in front of me with neat block writing. Yearbooks. I was close to being done, only three or four boxes left. My DVDs, my accessories, and an assortment of crap that I should probably be throwing away, instead of carefully packing in cardboard boxes, bound for a shelf in Brad’s garage.

I stretched, listening to the quiet of the house. The air conditioner, an ancient oversized unit that had wheezed and moaned its way through the summer coughed, raspy air expelled through its vents. That, and the noises of my own movement were the only sounds in the house. The boys had, in typical Friday fashion, gone out, Alex, and then Zach, stopping by my room, hugging me awkwardly before departing. They had been invited to the wedding but were not attending, both inventing a creative excuse that was completely unnecessary. I was secretly pleased they were hitting the bars tonight. The alternative would have placed them on our couch, weed smoke curling through the air followed by thumping bass, then unannounced guests. There would be music and laughter and arguments, and no chance for me to have a clear thought or good night’s sleep.

I could have just stayed at Brad’s. Packed my meager belongings and then drove over. But I wanted this night, this goodbye to my old life. Plus, I was a traditionalist—at least when it came to this. The day of our wedding, Brad would not see me until I walked down the aisle. It was a sticking point that irritated our photographer, Brad, and Rebecca, but I held firm. We needed every bit of good karma surrounding this union. And I would only be married once. I wanted the anticipation and impact of Brad seeing me in my dress.

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