Chapter Twelve: Penny Comes Through

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This is so crazy, Vic texted Diane, even though nothing particularly crazy had happened. She just wanted something to do while she waited to meet her new employer, who Vic was sure was some kind of psychopath, since she apparently had no friends. When Vic had posted in the FAMU KBA alumni group about her newfound joblessness, she had anticipated her sisters would come through for her, as they always did. But she’d expected a marketing analyst job at some kind of cool, young startup, or maybe a copy editor position at Africana magazine, where the editor in chief was a KBA (Class of ‘79). Instead, she’d gotten flooded with babysitting and dogwalking requests, which, ew, honestly to both of those things. She’d just started giving up hope when her great-great-grandprophyte, Penny, messaged her on Facebook, asking her if she’d be willing to “fill in” for one of “her girls” at a wedding.
Vic had, of course, screenshot the message and posted it to the group chat she had with her line sisters, asking them if Penny had misunderstood what kind of job she was looking for. But then Penny followed up with a link to the website for the business she started a few years after college: Maid to Order, a professional bridesmaid service for women who, for whatever reason, couldn't fill the numbers of their bridal parties with actual friends and family. Her most-requested maid, Roxanne, had pulled out of a wedding last minute, heading home to Arizona for Thanksgiving a week early. Penny had given the bride Vic’s number, and they’d made plans to meet in the lobby of The Plaza, where the ceremony and reception were being held, early in the morning before the festivities began.
Vic yawned, opening and closing her messages app as she waited for Diane to respond. It’d been so long since she’d woken up before eleven on a weekend, and she’d made the stupid decision to have another blackout night at The Bar yesterday. She was somehow still sad about being fired, even though she loved spending all of her unemployed time getting facials, working out, and catching up on all the good TV she’d missed since becoming a real adult. She looked up from her phone when she heard a delicate cough in front of her. A smallish woman dressed in a navy striped sweater and skinny jeans had walked up to Vic, her face bare and her dark hair pulled into a low ponytail that hung to the middle of her back. “Victoria?” she asked.

Vic glanced around the empty lobby, wondering if it could be anyone else. “Vic, yeah,” she said, shaking the woman’s hand. “Ainsley, right?”

“Oh, right, yes,” the woman said, wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans. “Sorry.” She gave Vic a sheepish smile. “I’ve just never done this before.” No shit. Ainsley was so nervous Vic could almost see it radiating off her in waves. She wondered if she should offer Ainsley a little bit of the Soothing Solution she now carried on her at all times and tell her it was just some organic, natural alternative to Xanax.
Vic gave her a tight-lipped smile. “I’d hope so.” Ainsley let out an awkward laugh and Vic cringed inwardly— was there any way she could escape and still get paid?

“Well, I guess I should show you the dress,” Ainsley said, gesturing for Vic to follow her. Ainsley led to her to what Vic thought was going to be the elevator bank, but then they bypassed the row of gleaming golden doors. They took a turn down an empty hallway that had even less foot traffic than the weirdly vacant lobby. For a second, Vic worried that she’d fucked up—that, as Diane had always warned her, her risky behavior had finally caught up to her—but then she noted a smaller, more secluded elevator with a sign reading PENTHOUSE SUITE mounted on the wall beside it. The tension in her back began to subside. If she was about to be murdered, at the very least she would be surrounded by luxurious floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park and the Hudson River, Sklo and Fornasetti accent pieces, and a bar stocked with expensive citrus-flavored seltzer waters, just as she deserved.

The doors opened with a soft ping, and Vic relaxed completely when she saw four white garment bags hanging from a rolling clothing rack in the suite’s spacious living room; the pale blue silk robes with bridesmaid stitched on the backs in metallic silver thread fanned on the California king-size bed; and the breakfast spread of strategic, bloat-reducing foods (bananas, kefir, ice water with lemon, apple cider vinegar, ginger, etc.) spread out on the kitchen bar counter.

“The other bridesmaids haven’t arrived yet. I asked you to get here a bit early,” Ainsley said, taking off her shoes. The sole of one had begun to detach from the canvas upper portion, and Vic was surprised by how badly she wanted to try and fix it, to see if she really was a “natural” as MJ had claimed. All week, she’d thought about the meeting she, Abbie, and Delali had had with the woman, seizing up whenever she lingered on the details too long. Eventually, she had to put it all aside and focus on the more pressing issue: how to make money again.

“Hmm?” she said to Ainsley.
“I was hoping we’d get our story straight before the other bridesmaids arrive,” Ainsley said, wringing her abnormally small hands.
Vic turned away from the complimentary bottle of kombucha she’d been examining to face Ainsley, her brow crinkled with confusion. “Our story?” she asked, and then she remembered how Penny had mentioned brides often liked to meet their Maids to Order to craft a story to tell guests of how they’d met. Women who purchased the Basic Brideᵀᴹ package had to think of the stories themselves, but women who splurged on the Your Best Bridesmaidᵀᴹ deal would get a detailed backstory drafted for them by Maid to Order’s editorial team. Vic looked around the room, eyeing the Adrienne Landau rabbit fur throw draped over the back of the couch, the Gucci sneakers Ainsley had left by the door, and the suite’s gratuitous view of the George Washington Bridge, briefly wondering why Ainsley hadn’t just spared them both the trouble and ponied up for a custom story. But then she shook her head, thinking of what Penny had told her last night: Don’t waste your time trying to understand the brides. You’ll just get dehydrated.

“Yeah,” Ainsley said, fiddling with the silver Tiffany key pendant hanging from her neck. “I was thinking we could say we met while I was working in events at The Met in college, although,” Ainsley paused, eyeing Vic skeptically. “You’re a bit young for anyone to realistically believe we went to college together.”

“Yeah, but—” Vic stopped herself from saying what she was really thinking. “We could tell people you were my manager... And mentor,” she added, seeing the uncertain look that crossed Ainsley’s features.

Ainsley mulled it over before breaking out into a grin. “Okay,” she said, nodding. “I like that.” Suddenly, Ainsley let out an excited squeal, a high screeching noise Vic wouldn’t have thought she was capable of just by looking at her. “‘Mentor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,’” Ainsley said slowly as though savoring the feel of the words in her mouth. “Genevieve is going to fucking hate reading that in The Times,” she said with a gleeful smile.

Vic hummed in response, carefully schooling her face into a neutral mask. Penny had told Vic all about Ainsley’s feud with Genevieve De Vries, and she’d given Vic strict instructions to never agree, disagree, laugh, or express any kind of emotion whenever Ainsley mentioned her. According to Penny, even the smallest acknowledgement of Genevieve’s existence would likely send Ainsley into a raging spiral.

Ainsley’s fixation with Genevieve was the reason Vic had suspected Ainsley might be insane when they met—it sounded like she simultaneously wanted to be, kill, and sleep with Genevieve, a trifecta of emotions that Vic couldn’t quite imagine feeling herself. Apparently, up until just last year, Ainsley had had a perfectly normal group of girlfriends, made up of Spence friends, old classmates from The New School, and fellow members of the Junior League. Genevieve had been her oldest friend, as they’d grown up in adjacent townhouses on 72nd and Park. But that all changed when Ainsley became the head of admissions at Boulevards International, the most exclusive preschool in the city. It seemed obvious that Ainsley would do the right thing and secure Genevieve's youngest twins, Courtland and Whitaker, spots in last year’s incoming class, but despite her best efforts, the twins were simply too far behind the other applicants. When Ainsley failed to get the job done, Genevieve woke up to the unthinkable—an email informing her that her boys had been rejected. It was said that after reading the email, Genevieve had thrown her phone against the wall so hard it shattered, declaring Ainsley “done” in Manhattan. And from her lips to God’s ears—just like that, Ainsley was over.

She was kicked off the planning committee of the Let’s Bee Good charity gala, an event held annually to save the bees. She woke up one morning to find she couldn’t sign up for any SoulCycle classes in Manhattan, or even Brooklyn, banished to classes on Staten Island. Her favorite shopgirl at Barneys, Corrine, who usually pulled looks for her from the new inventory shipments every week, was now mysteriously busy whenever Ainsley came in for fittings. Her life was, in short, ruined.

When her boyfriend Brooks finally proposed, every invitation she extended to potential bridesmaids was summarily declined, even though everyone kept the custom Tacori bangles that accompanied them. The only people who’d accepted were Ainsley’s fifteen-year-old half-sister, the product of her father’s affair with the in-house masseuse at his hedge fund, her annoying cousin Daria, and her mother’s personal trainer, who, in truth, had been something of a surrogate aunt for the last ten years. She’d found Maid to Order by accident, after googling “how can i get more bridesmaids” during a rosé-fuelled spiral—or, at least, that’s what Penny had said when Vic called her late last night, looking for reassurance that she wasn’t walking into a meeting with an axe murderer or worse, a mouth-breather who’d never gotten over her middle school awkward stage.

Other than her fanatical desire to best Genevieve, Ainsley seemed normal—maybe even fun, when she got her way—and the pre-wedding prep party she held for her few bridesmaids was excellently curated. As the day progressed, Vic found herself sliding comfortably into her role as a Maid to Order. She drank mimosas and prosecco, danced to the surprisingly good jazz band Ainsley and Brooks had hired, and didn’t even complain when she had to hold the train of Ainsley’s gown up off the floor while she peed. She’d run minor errands for Ainsley all day, as Penny had warned her she might have to—running back to the suite in the middle of the reception to retrieve her rosewater face wipes and rushing out to buy a strapless bra for Ainsley’s mother, who’d mistakenly thought she could go bra-free in her unlined dress—but overall, she’d made 750 dollars to look beautiful, drink free alcohol, and be charming and personable, all things that came naturally to her.

As she fell into her cab at the end of the night, Vic wondered how she’d never heard of being a professional bridesmaid before. She would never have spent even a second looking for an office job if she’d known she could make a living just being a heightened, glammed-up version of herself all the time. She did the math quickly on her iPhone calculator. If she did two weddings a week for the whole year, she’d make $78,000, way more than she’d been making at CS. On her way out, Ainsley had drunkenly wrapped her arms around Vic’s neck in an intimate hug, thanking her for being “the best bridesmaid ever.”

“Mentor at the Met! Fuck yeah!” she yelled before Vic pulled away and slipped into the cab Ainsley and Brooks had agreed to pay for in addition to her base fee. Vic kicked off the Jimmy Choos Ainsley had told her to keep, marveling at how well the day had gone. She could do this until she was at least thirty-five, maybe even longer, now that people were getting married later and later, and Vic didn’t plan on aging visibly anytime soon. She smiled to herself, suppressing the urge to shoot Tatiana a snarky Facebook message and thank her for getting them both fired. All her life, and especially after getting her first job, Vic had never understood people who loved their jobs; now, suddenly, she’d become one of them.

Vic at the back of a cab

After Georgia wrapped and Deladrian dissolved, Lionel had been put under strict instruction to keep information about Delali and Adrien (and their careers) far away from each other. He’d been repping them both since the Georgia years, and while they were grateful to him for jumpstarting their careers, they didn't want to get stuck playing frenemies-turned-lovers for the rest of their lives.

But it seemed that, having lured Delali back to acting with Sit Awhile, Lionel just couldn't help but meddle. When Isaac dropped Delali off at Adrien’s apartment after the girls’ first lesson with MJ, Adrien already had tons of ideas on how to accurately render Hansberry on screen. It was funny, Adrien said, that she was considering a Lorraine Hansberry biopic, since he’d just had a meeting with Skyler Ferry to discuss the possibility of adapting Les Blancs for a modern audience. That night, Delali had shut Adrien up about the film by pulling her dress up over her head, but today nothing could deter him from talking about it.
“Come on, Dela,” Adrien said as Delali poked her head through the neck of his faded black T-shirt. “Why don’t you want my help? We work so well together. You know how high the quality of our work is after we think things through.”
“Adrien, please,” she said, pulling on her boyshorts. “Can we not?”
“But why?” he demanded, and Delali suppressed the urge to reply with her trademark “because I said so.” When they were dating, Delali had seen Adrien’s constant questioning as his way of challenging her to be a better, more thoughtful person. Now, however, she just thought it was fucking annoying.

Adrien continued, not picking up on—or maybe just ignoring—Delali’s strong ‘drop it’ vibes. “Do you remember episode five-thirteen, where—”

“Georgia stops Tony from drinking and driving the night of junior prom? Of course,” Delali said. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Remember how you weren’t sure which way to deliver Georgia’s pivotal ‘I sort of love you,’ and I ran lines with you until we settled on embarrassed but solemn? And then—”
“And then we won the Teen Choice Award for Best Kiss. I know.” Delali remembered how the editors had to do a weird jump to keep the scene wholesome enough for a family audience. At the time, she and Adrien were still deep in their honeymoon stage, and they kept getting carried away, even on camera. Delali sighed, holding up a hand to stop Adrien when it looked like he might start speaking again. “Adrien, I just really don’t want to talk about it.” She moved toward the door, desperate to get out of the bedroom. “I’m gonna get some water,” she said. “Do you want anything?”

“Could you grab me one of the wheatgrass shots in the fridge? They’re boosted with vitamin E oil, if you want some extra protection from harmful air pollutants and cataracts.”

Delali turned away from him, hiding her grimace. “I think I’m good, but thanks.” She walked out of the room and toward the kitchen, thankful for some time alone. Delali knew it was stupid, but she couldn’t stomach the idea of asking Adrien for help, even though she was incredibly nervous about her audition next week. If she landed it, Sit Awhile would be monumental for her career, and she was rusty; she hadn’t auditioned for anything for three years— hadn’t even finished a reading a whole script. But outside of that, there was still a bigger-than-she-wanted-to-admit part of herself that was obsessed with building the perfect myth surrounding her return to Hollywood in what was almost sure to be a Best Picture nominee—a prestige biopic stocked with flawless sixties looks. At the Hollywood Reporter roundtable she’d inevitably do during her Oscar campaign, she wanted to talk about how she’d shut herself in her apartment for seven full days, listening to Lorraine Hansberry interviews so she could perfect the cadence of Hansberry’s voice, not about how she’d read lines with her ex-boyfriend and former sitcom co-star in his Craft Chamber—a space Adrien carved out in every apartment he lived in, “dedicated to maintaining the purity of his creative energy” (Esquire, May 2015).

But, a small, annoying voice that sounded suspiciously like Lionel’s said in Delali’s head, you’ll only be in the movie if you nail the audition. Even though Delali’s instinct was to ignore Adrien’s offer to help her prepare, she couldn’t deny that Adrien (both Adrian Carter and the mononymous Adrien) actually knew how to act. The critics were right about Adrien’s performance as Reggie—he did bring a great deal of “wide-eyed, tender sincerity” to the role, elevating even the most horrifically trite scenes to something that distantly resembled art. It was a level of skill Delali wasn’t sure she could’ve brought to the comparable role of Magnolia, for example, Reggie’s starter girlfriend who he had to abandon early in his iliad.

Delali took a deep breath and gulped down her pride. “Adrien,” she said, pushing her way back into the bedroom. Adrien had left the bed and settled into child’s pose, naked, on a thin, black yoga mat.
“Yeah?” he asked, peering up at her as he slid into cobra. Delali bent to place the wheatgrass shot in front of his mat, and then sat on the edge of the bed, facing him. She watched as Adrien rolled up into a sitting position and sat crossed-legged, pressing his palms together in front of his chest.

“Fine,” she said. “You can help me.”
“What?” Adrien stood before folding over into triangle. “Are you asking for my help or are you giving me permission?

Delali bit her tongue to keep from saying something too mean and fucking up the amazing arrangement she had somehow stumbled her way into: access to Isaac when Adrien wasn’t using him; invites to the admittedly cool, low-key art functions Adrien had started frequenting in the city; and regular sleepovers scheduled as she saw fit. “Please don’t make me repeat myself,” she said evenly.

Adrien turned his face from the ceiling to grin at her. “Thanks for clarifying,” he said, beginning to move from triangle into half-moon pose. “Sure,” Adrien said. He lifted one of his legs until it was parallel to the ground. “Of course I’ll help you.”

On the drive over to ReL8 Studios, Delali initially felt comfortable and calm, partially from the genuinely encouraging pep talk Adrien had given her before she’d ducked into his car, and partially from the tiny bit of Soothing Solution she’d sucked off her pinky to mollify her jittery nerves. The final time they’d read together, just last night, Adrien said Delali’s interpretation of Hansberry was “soft, yet forceful,” the kind of meaningless Hollywood praise Delali usually hated but somehow registered as useful when Adrien said it.

Lionel had told her she’d been shortlisted for the role; the production company wasn’t holding an open casting call, but instead had reached out to five or so actresses they were interested in. Black Fur Media was being super secretive about who was in the running, but Lionel had heard through the agent grapevine that Celeste was among the small group reading for the part, riding the Cha Cha Cha wave, as was Kira Hanley, whose performance in short-lived teen drama Cedar Country Day was the show’s only redeeming quality.

Delali was confident because of last night’s practice with Adrien, but still, a bundle of nerves began to unfurl in her chest as Isaac neared Union Square. The weird almost-nausea made it difficult for her to concentrate, breaking the tenuous control she had over her power— including her ability to shut it off.

my facial this afternoon, she heard. She gave Isaac a sidelong glance before shrugging: she was glad Adrien paid him enough for him to pamper himself. The past few weeks of lessons with MJ had helped Delali hone her intention, and while she’d gotten better at keeping other people’s thoughts out of her head (when she didn’t want to hear them), they still broke through when she had her guard down.

“Thanks, Isaac,” Delali said as he pulled up to ReL8. She exited the car, and when she walked in, a slight young man in swamp-colored chinos and a cornflower blue checked shirt was waiting for her.

“Miss Tamakloe,” he said. “Right this way.” He gestured for her to follow him down a long hallway that led to the audition room. Hanging on the walls leading to the room were posters from films ReL8 had casted, and Delali found herself unsettled by all the blockbuster films she recognized. Two Time, a time-travel rom-com where Dev Patel, a plucky, London-based architect finds himself accidentally dating a woman and her great-grandmother at the same time. Lean Out, a social thriller where Lupita Nyong’o, an ambitious corporate lawyer, attempts to escape a zombified San Francisco in a dystopian near future where her office pantry runs out of hibiscus Tazo teas. And, finally, closest to the door, A Little Devil: The Josephine Baker Story, starring Nicole Armor, whose performance as a Vegas bottle service girl turned professional cyclist in S(p)in City inspired little Delali to start acting. Delali’s nerves again threatened to get the best of her.

“It’s just through those doors,” the man said, nodding in front of them. “Good luck—I loved you on Georgia on My Mind, by the way.”

Delali gave him a strained smile before thanking him, and opened the door to the audition room. It was broad and sparse, well-lit by strategically placed bulbs hanging from the unfinished ceiling. As Delali walked in, she faced four people seated at a long folding table: a woman and man she assumed were the casting directors; Liza Kutekwa, the bookish screenwriter she recognized from the pictures accompanying the initial Deadline press release; and, most frighteningly, Ruth Bailey, the offbeat director heading the project. Sit Awhile was her debut feature, but she’d been gathering buzz on the festival circuit for a few years now.

Ruth was a true Hollywood eccentric in the way Adrien was playing at but could never really be, from her arugula leaf-print highwater pants, to her lime green locs, vintage Pelle Pelle jacket, and the thick, red-framed coke-bottle glasses she actually needed to see. Weird artists types like Ruth had always scared Delali—and if she was being honest with herself, made her feel vaguely inauthentic, like she was playing the role of being an artist rather than actually being one. As much as she loved acting, it wasn’t like, the air she breathed or anything. She mostly thought the work was fun, and the lifestyle it afforded her was even better.

“Delali, hello,” one of the casting directors said. He reached up to smooth his hair, and Delali could hear the crunching noise of over-gelled locks from where she stood. The director then nodded towards a man, seated off to the side. Delali had completely missed him upon entering, but guessed he was there to read opposite her. “We’d like if you read from page forty-two, if you’d like to begin.”
Delali’s now well-worn copy of the script fell open easily. Even though it was said that Black Fur liked to “surprise” actors with the scenes they asked them to read at auditions, Lionel had helped her as much as he could, telling her to focus on five pivotal scenes. The one on page forty-two was an interview Hansberry had done with Studs Terkel, the famous author and radio host, on A Raisin in the Sun. “Right, yes,” Delali said. She took a deep breath and adjusted her stance as the actor read Studs’ lines. When he finished, Delali glanced quickly at her script and then began to recite the words she had already memorized. “It’s an excellent question,” she said, modulating her voice to imitate Hansberry’s midwestern drawl. She delivered the lines until the knot of pressure at the base of her neck unwound, freeing her to get lost in the rhythm of the scene. She shifted her gaze to steal a glance at the casting directors. They exchanged a quick, pleased look; Liza nodded every so often, scribbling on the yellow pad on the table in front of her. Only Ruth’s expression was completely unchanged, as stoic as it had been when Delali had walked into the room.

Delali wondered... She focused in on Ruth, careful not to trip on her lines, speaking seamlessly as she urged her power into action.  Soon, she felt something sticky in the back of her mind, like the pull of a bandage as it was being removed. Then, a second later, Ruth’s thoughts filtered into her head. Ruth thought the way most people took notes, fragmented and a bit disjointed.

Good voice quality. Actions too small. Expressions veer toward sleepy.

“Not only is it offensive,” Delali continued, widening her eyes and gesturing expansively. “But it’s bad art, because it doesn’t tell the truth, and fiction demands the truth, you know? You have to present a many-sided character,” she said passionately.

Delali poked into Ruth’s head again, deciding it was worth it to risk breaking her concentration. Better, was all she heard, and Delali gifted herself with a teeny half-second smile before continuing to read the scene.

When she finished, the casting directors and Liza thanked her for her audition while Ruth sat silently typing on her phone. Delali was tempted to read her mind again, just to get one final sense of what Ruth had thought of her audition. But no need: she could already tell, just from swooping rush of adrenaline she felt as she left the room and headed toward the exit. She’d killed it.

It was so annoying that Vic had to travel over an hour to get to this week’s wedding. Realistically, the time wasn’t what bothered her— she’d gladly made similar trips for house parties in East Harlem and concerts in the parts of Brooklyn without ride app service. It was the mental leap of leaving the city that was so difficult for her. Still, she’d been to three weddings in the past three days and the high of her new job had yet to wear off.

In the last few weeks, she'd been to her fair share of boring UES weddings, all of them at cathedrals booked a minimum of three years before the proposal. She'd also gotten to see some truly wacky shit— a Hawaiian themed wedding where the couple filled the lobby of the Four Seasons with sand and Vic wore a floral crop top and hula skirt; a CrossFit wedding where she'd been sprayed with water before the ceremony to look drenched with sweat and the dinner (including the Quest Bar cake) had been served in meal prep containers; and a steampunk wedding where the bride had dressed as Beyoncé from the Formation video, which would’ve been cool if it hadn’t already been Vic’s Halloween costume.

Vic stepped off the train platform and looked around expectantly. Today's shift had been organized by the bride’s mother, who'd agreed to drive Vic from the train station to the wedding’s location at a small upstate farm. Her requests had been normal enough: she'd asked Vic’s measurements for her dress, her height so she could pair her with a groomsman, and what food allergies she had, but one thing had stood out to Vic. In all her time (around a month) working for Maid to Order, Vic had never encountered someone who sounded so desperate for a bridesmaid or so grateful when Vic returned her call. And the number of times the woman had complimented her headshot was honestly kind of weird.

A purple Porsche Cayenne pulled up to the curb. The window rolled down to reveal an older woman with graying dreads pulled into a neat half up, half down style. Tiny square-framed sunglasses covered her eyes.

“Victoria? Sweetie? Is that you?” The woman started to push the door open.

“Hi, Mrs. Bumble. Yes, it’s me, Vic.”

“Well, come on in!”

Vic walked around the car to the passenger’s side, wondering for the first time since Ainsley’s wedding if she was walking into a potentially dangerous situation. Mrs. Bumble seemed nice enough, like an overzealous auntie, but she was just so extra. Vic sat in the soft leather of the passenger seat and placed her Sole Society weekender bag between her feet. The car smelled of mint, though Vic couldn’t see a freshener anywhere, and there was plastic bag from CVS lining the magazine rack, filled mostly with gum wrappers and crumpled up napkins from Dunkin’ Donuts. The carpets seemed freshly shampooed.

“So nice to finally meet you, Mrs. Bumble,” Vic said as Mrs. Bumble started the drive to Huckleman Farms. According to Vic’s pre-departure Google search, it was on some dusty country road.

“The pleasure’s all mine,” said Mrs. Bumble, making a left turn.

Vic quickly texted the address of the farm to Elise, just in case. “So,” Vic said, looking around cautiously. “Is there a theme for the wedding?”

“Theme?” Mrs. Bumble asked. “Fuck if I know.”

Vic choked on her saliva. “Sorry?”

“I didn’t have much to do with the planning of the thing,” she said. “The wedding, I mean.”

“Oh, I see.” It definitely hadn’t seemed that way from Mrs. Bumble’s dramatic messages. “I just— I don’t know exactly how to put this, but the demographics of my daughter’s bridal party are a little bit troubling, you know, the look of it. I didn’t really have a whole lot to do with the planning. I couldn’t care less if they ate vegan fried chicken, or the real deal, or artisianic sprouted wheat rolls or whomever. Couldn’t give a damn. It’s just the bridal party really. We had one fitting, one horrible, horrible fitting for the bridesmaids in the city and I was just standing there thinking, well, this it, huh? This is really, truly it. No other girls are going to walk through those doors, are they? This is the whole damn party. My daughter’s going to be a Cocoa Puff in a sea of Kix on her very own wedding day.”

“I…” Vic didn’t know how to respond.

“I even invited the baker’s assistant because she was the only girl I could find before I discovered Maid to Order. Paid her train fare and everything, even though she wouldn’t agree to be a bridesmaid. And then there’s you. Thank God for you, Victoria!” She clamped her hand down hard on Vic’s arm, causing the car to swerve a tiny bit. “It was so last minute; it’s clear God blessed us with you.”

“Mmm,” was all Vic could manage to say.

“Honestly, it wouldn’t even bother me if it weren’t for the pictures. I just keep thinking: there is absolutely no way this color composition is going to look good in photographs, you know? It’s either gonna be Maya lit up and the girls in shadow, or the girls glowing like Casper and Maya in the dark. It just doesn’t look nice, and that’s a fact. My husband agrees.” Mrs. Bumble turned onto a narrow, unpaved road. “Of course, it’s his fault for moving us all the way out here in the name of ‘better schools,’ but I digress. The fiancé is beautiful, though, but he’s the same way as her. Just wait till you see those damn groomsmen.”

Mrs. Bumble pulled into the driveway of a small white farmhouse with navy shutters. Candles in miniature mason jars lined the perimeter of the field behind the house, strung about with fraying twine. A few others were nestled in the branches of the trees lining the driveway.

Mrs. Bumble parked outside the garage, where the groomsmen were fake sparring with each other in their dress pants and undershirts, their button-downs and bow ties hanging from the rafters above. Vic eyed the men as Mrs. Bumble led her past them and into the kitchen, wondering if the groom had stipulated long brown beards, man buns, and stick and poke tattoos were requirements to join the bridal party. “Maya, this is Victoria, the one I was telling you about.” Mrs. Bumble placed a strong hand on Vic’s shoulder.

“Oh, hi!” Maya turned around abruptly in her chair. The movement yanked a tendril of blowdried 4c hair out of the hand of one of her terrycloth robed bridesmaids, who had been— backcombing it? “I’m so happy to meet another one of my mom’s students! My mom told me your dream of being in a wedding one day and I just couldn’t say no.”

“Um, yeah,” Vic said, smiling sweetly. “I’ve always wanted to be in a bridal party. Just seemed like so much fun.”

The bridesmaids looked up from where they sat at the dining table doing each others’ hair, makeup, and nails to smile and wave at Vic. Vic attempted to return each girl’s greeting in turn, but she had trouble keeping them all straight. They all looked like they could be the fourth member of Haim.

“I’ll let you girls get into it while I go start my makeup— Maya will catch you up on everything.” Mrs. Bumble hurried out of the room, giving Vic a sly thumbs-up before she turned into the hall.

Maya faced front again, and her bridesmaid picked up the same lock of hair, apparently determined to rip it straight out of Maya’s scalp with a rattail comb.

“So, is there a theme here?” Vic sat in one of the empty chairs. She crossed her legs and looked around the kitchen and adjacent dining room. There was something holding together all the decorations, but she couldn’t put her finger on what.

“Can’t you tell? The theme is burlap, silly!”

Vic turned to look at the bridesmaid who had called her out of her name. “...What?”

“The theme is rustic charm, Moses.” Maya turned to give the bridesmaid a look.

“Mm,” Vic responded. “Well, it definitely looks like that.”

“So cozy, right?”

“Definitely,” Vic agreed.

“Very hygge,” one bridesmaid added, setting off a chain of nods from the others.

Vic sat still, debating whether to ask the last bridesmaid to repeat herself. She decided to ignore it, and walked over to Maya. “Honey, do you need a break?” she asked the bridesmaid who thought she was combing Maya’s hair. “I can take this over,” she said, reaching for the comb. If she heard the twang and pop of another tortured strand of hair, she was going to scream.

“Yes, thank you,” the bridesmaid breathed, flexing her sore arm muscles, and Vic took her place, saving what was left of Maya’s edges.