By Wei Tchou
The bridesmaid dress I purchased to wear for Katia's wedding arrived a week after I quit her bridal party. I tore open the plastic bag and slipped on the silk shift, its beige color uncannily similar to that of my skin. It didn't fit. The fabric was too tight on my stomach, my lower back—parts of my body about which I am the most self-conscious.
We'd only been friends for a few months, really, when she proposed that I join her wedding cortege. Though we'd taken some art classes together in college, we only interacted from time to time. Mostly what I remember from those days is that I thought she was very pretty. Willowy, with an angular face, her eyes sharp and green.
When she found out that I, too, had moved to New York last summer, she got in touch, suggested we meet for drinks. I could meet her fiancé, Saul. We had so much to catch up on. I didn’t have many friends yet in the city and was thrilled to have evening plans, finally. It felt like a huge success when, just a few days later, Katia, Saul, and I met up at a hip restaurant near my place in the Lower East Side and ordered rounds of cheap red and French fries.
I was surprised to see how much Katia had changed. She was always boyish in college with a long bob and clean face. Her uniform had been a sweatshirt and blue jeans. But as I sat across from her that evening, I studied her long layered hair, dyed burgundy, the precise black wings she’d painted onto her eyelids, the faint shimmer of blush across her brow. She wore a gauzy black blouse that she told me she got from a modeling gig.
I learned, over the course of the night, that Katia and I had a surprising amount in common. Our parents were immigrants, hers Czech and mine Chinese. We were both the youngest children in our family and had strained relationships with our brothers. We had a fondness for cheap beers and worked on websites for a living.
By the end of the night, I felt more grounded in the city having reconnected with Katia. Here was my first New York friend. Here was a half-stranger to whom I already felt connected. Here was something familiar to which I could tether myself in this anonymous, shining town.
We continued to hang out regularly, every week or so, mostly Friday nights and always Katia, Saul and me. Though we never had the long, emotional outpourings that accompany most deepening friendships, we did become more and more familiar, our bond formed by drunken nights in lower Manhattan. Mornings, we'd meet at a deli in Brooklyn for egg and cheese bagels.
"I need to tell you that when I first met you, in that drawing class, I was in a toxic relationship with a man twice my age," I told her once when we met for drinks; we were in the candlelit backyard of a Brooklyn bar. At the time, I kept this secret out of shame and insecurity, believing that if anyone found it out, they’d think I was a total freak. But that night, it came out easily, lubricated by booze and real feelings of trust. It was as much a token of friendship as it was an apology for not having reached out years ago.
"Oh wow. Yeah, that's the same as me. My first boyfriend was this guy, I was sixteen and he was thirty-something. We met online. I totally understand," Katia responded, glancing at Saul, who smiled at her then took her hand. Another strange coincidence, but this time, one that afforded me security. I felt safe, and in my somnolence there was a dim halo around Katia's face, the gold light caught on loose strands of her hair.
How fateful that we wound up together, at this very moment, here. I could list the reasons why we could relate, could articulate our connection. If I didn't feel some instinctive connection, I certainly felt a logical one.
We grew easy and made sure to have time for each other. We began to ask one another for small, but important things. I looked after Katia’s cats when she and Saul went home for a week in September, and she attended a reading I gave in Chelsea, braving the numbered streets during a relentless thunderstorm.
On Halloween, I wandered to Katia and Saul's apartment in Brooklyn for drinks and company, stepping through the premature falling snow. At the apartment, we played Kings, a drinking game involving playing cards. You lay out the cards in a ring and designate an arbitrary rule for each. Draw a two, you pick someone else to drink. Draw an eight, you require another player to drink every time you do. I thought the rules were totally arbitrary until I realized that it was all based on rhymes, words that match in form if not in content.
We passed around a plastic handle of vodka and when my vision began to blur, I walked to the kitchen for some water. When I returned, Katia was standing up, smoothing down the front of her shirt. She smiled.
"I wanted to ask you while you were here, " she began. "And I know it's early, but you're our first friend in New York. That's important." She took a sip from her red plastic cup. "Do you want to be a bridesmaid in my wedding?"
What an honor, I thought, I'd never been asked to be a bridesmaid before. "I would love that," I said.
"We're going to have the wedding in October, on Saul's family's property in Asheville. It won't be fussy," she said. "You know Saul and me, we wouldn't even be having a wedding if it wasn't for our families,” she smiled and rolled her eyes. “If it was up to me, we'd elope."
I wrapped my arms around her, long enough to feel her draw in a deep breath. I pulled back, my hands on her shoulders.
"What are your colors? Do you have a dress?" I asked.
She waved off my questions as if they were flakes of snow, as if those things—wedding colors, wedding dresses—were just that, immaterial vagaries, a bend in the air.
The colder it grew, the less I saw of Katia. We saw each other only when she could meet up on her way home from work or when I happened to be in Brooklyn. It made sense to me at the time. We were southerners, after all, new to the northeastern chill. Real cold took us by surprise.
I have always been struck as well by how elegantly northerners transition from fall into winter. City-dwellers know by instinct to take their silk dresses to the cleaners, to retrieve wool felts from the box underneath the bed, to shake out their fur stoles. Though I’ve lived north of the Mason-Dixon for a few years now, I’m still awkward at all of that. I put my tee shirts in with the sweaters and keep clothes around that I don’t ever intend on wearing. Even after that first winter, I still hadn’t bought anything that amounted to a proper winter coat.
In the spring, I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I was leaving my dingy two bedroom in the Lower East Side that I'd shared with my best friend Rachel—she was moving in with her boyfriend—to move to a dreamy and bright studio in Brooklyn, coincidentally, in Katia's neighborhood.
By then, Katia had decided what do about the bridesmaids dresses. Rather than assign an expensive and potentially unflattering uniform, she encouraged each of us to select our own dress. The only requirements were that the hem end above the knee and the color range from neutral to pink. I looked for dresses online, sending her links to ones with pleasant-sounding names. Organza Antipodium Tempest. Mariposa Lace. Tracery. Silk Chiffon Arabelle.
One by one, she rejected them all with terse, fragmentary emails. Too coral. Too structured. Too pink. Too unconventional. My boyfriend joked that once Katia ran out of adjectives, I'd have my dress, but I began to suspect that it wasn't the dresses she was displeased with, but me. I hadn’t made an effort to see her but once since I moved, though the weather had become balmy, though her apartment was only a whistle away.
I suppose something shifted within me when I moved in alone. So often, in Manhattan, I felt like I would book dates in order to escape my crappy apartment, its dark, stale air, its mice. The only time I would spend alone, it seemed, was when I was asleep or walking to another engagement. Over the course of a year, I’d forgotten the quiet joy of solitude.
But it came back almost immediately—it came back with the sun drenched hardwood floors, with the petals in my tin pressed ceiling, with the wainscoting on my living room wall. I became withdrawn, pleased to sit in the corner of my new home, under the window, reading or writing alone. I didn't even think of buying furniture for an entire month, content with just a bed and the white curtain I’d hung up. Even Rachel, with whom I was used to spending most of my days, wouldn't see me for two weeks at a time.
When Katia expressed to me in a curt email that she felt as though she'd been sidelined, I understood immediately. I apologized profusely. I hadn't seen her in six weeks; I usually saw her once a week, once every two at the least. She suggested we meet to talk about our relationship and I agreed, feeling very sorry. We decided on coffee the following Saturday, but she texted to cancel the morning of. I had the vague sense that she was either avoiding or punishing me, and a few days later, I called to reschedule.
At a bar called Camp the next day, we sat down with beers. We exchanged pleasantries, caught up about how work was going. She explained that she knew she tended to be dramatic, but it annoyed her when I flaked out on plans. She knew I was busy but felt ignored and hurt and had trouble confronting me. It wasn't a human instinct, after all, to call and ask me to be a better friend.
We decided on a compromise. I would check in with her more often and she would make a better effort to tell me if she was upset with me.
"Honestly, I was starting to think that maybe I'd asked you to be my bridesmaid too soon," she said. Suddenly, the wedding appeared as a challenge to my integrity. Being a bridesmaid became, in that moment, not merely an appointment of present character and circumstance, but also one of faith.
"No way," I responded. "I'm totally solid. You can rely on me one hundred percent." I drank the last of my glass, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. "I am so excited to stand next to you on your wedding day."
Weeks turned to months, and nothing changed. I texted her once a week to ask her to drinks, to brunch, to see movies. I scoured catalogs, boutiques, department stores, and online shops for dresses. One by one, she rejected them all. I began to grow increasingly apathetic towards the wedding, towards what I perceived as an over-demanding and immature friend. On top of this, I grew more certain that she experienced perverse pleasure in rejecting me, that she was punishing me to get even for my earlier negligence. I grew increasingly anxious, feeling as though I could intuit her anger towards me, several chat windows away.
Adding to this was my reluctance towards asking others for advice because it felt too much like gossiping—anyone I could think to ask, even my boyfriend, was by now a mutual friend. And it felt inconsiderate to confront her again about our relationship and her feelings towards me, as her wedding date drew closer.
I was in a pickle. I had brunch with Rachel on Saturday and when she asked me a series of questions regarding the wedding, I broke down and explained everything that had happened. I told her I wanted to bow out of the wedding because it felt like the gracious thing to do. At this rate, it would be disingenuous to stand next to Katia on her big day. Would she really want to look back at her wedding photos and have someone in them with whom she rarely spoke anymore, barely remembered?
"It's not about you," Rachel admonished. "It's about her." I realized then how selfish I was being. Of course, I thought, Katia was the one getting married. If she wanted me to be in the wedding, it wasn't my place to say she shouldn't have me.
Rachel was usually clear-eyed about this sort of thing when I was not. I relied on her often for advice regarding ethical dilemmas. When we lived together, we would talks for hours and days about professional and social quandaries, sussing out the possible worlds for any conflict in our lives, no matter how minor.
We'd met at camp in high school, drawn to each other because we were weirdos, but also for something more instinctive and indelible. I could offer theories. I could say it’s that we have the same compulsions, the same anxieties, the same sense of humor, but there are also major differences in our dispositions. I am usually indecisive where Rachel is mostly certain. I rely first on my impulses where Rachel always seems to have a plan. Beyond that, our connection is less definable; somehow, we just fit. In the six years after we first met, we only saw each other once a year, less probably, but we remained very close, keeping in touch mainly by writing letters. After college, we decided to move in together on a lark and quickly became inseparable.
We spent most of the year together in our tiny apartment, sitting on the couch and discussing books, devising elaborate pranks—we once schemed over hiring an intern for our apartment, going so far as to post an ad on craigslist and buying interested candidates drinks at a neighborhood bar. I couldn’t imagine living in New York without her.
"The noble thing to do is to continue on," Rachel advised. "Just keep being generous towards her for now, schedule something special just you and her every week or so. And then, after the wedding, you can talk about your friendship." It was the right advice. I shouldn't have been so self-centered.
The urgent thought—no matter how fleeting—occurred to me then, that if one of my relationships was falling apart, it was possible that the same might happen with Rachel.
That night, I went home and ordered a dress she'd sent me as an example of something she would like me to wear, a peach tent number from a retailer in Hong Kong called All Neutral Dress. As soon as I confirmed the order, I felt vindicated in part, emailing her immediately to share the news, but I also felt something else: a rush of anger. I had met her in the middle on this friendship, and she hadn't even attempted to commit to her end of it. She hadn't been more forthright, she hadn't confronted me when I knew she was upset, she hadn't even called to reschedule our cancelled dates.
But what would have happened had she actually gotten the pluck up to say what was bothering her? Would I have considered her feelings more closely? Would I have altered my behavior? I'd wager that if she'd actually named her grievances to my face, I'd have just rolled my eyes and grown more resentful.
We were only meant to be drinking partners, acquaintances. And now, our relationship had been forced to a head. Was there any value in forging on?
Lately I've been evaluating friendships in this way, and I'm struck at how strange and cynical the thought process seems. When Katia and I first met in college, boundaries were much hazier, the lines between acquaintances, classmates, confidantes, even boyfriends were always in flux, shifting and overlapping. And that was fine—perhaps preferable even—in a world where you are made to interact constantly. I suppose it's no coincidence, then, that alcohol is so often employed in those years. It’s an equalizing agent and a social lubricant, especially valuable when your friendships are often based more on physical proximity and routine togetherness than ineffable connection or networking potential.
Though many of my friends still seem to employ this approach in their post-collegiate social circles, more and more, I find that my friends are settling down, getting married, having to choose bridesmaids and wedding guests. I imagine it's the first time many of them have had to make moves towards solidifying social circles, delineating relationships into lists and spreadsheets. Falling apart with acquaintances that live far away. Breaking up with significant others when it’s certain there’s no future between them.
I’ll admit that I’m wistful over this, over growing up, having less time and feeling as though I need to arrange my relationships into some jaded hierarchy. But if I am to be deliberate in my life, shouldn’t I begin with my relationships?
Weeks after I had received the bridesmaids dress in the mail, I would try it on compulsively, at least once a day, wondering each time if it would fit differently, if I'd just forgotten how it had fit last, if I had just put it on the wrong way.
Still, the dress would sit awkwardly on my waist, the darts aimed too high, the seams bunched on either side into deep ripples.
When the wedding invitations came out, a month before the date, I learned that Katia and Saul’s ceremony was not to be held in Asheville, but a full hour and a half drive into the city's countryside.
I emailed them immediately and asked if someone would be able to pick me up at the airport. I'd looked up taxi prices into the country—I don't drive so a rental was out of the question—and found that the trip, at its cheapest, would be $250 each way. I could afford it, but only just, and I was starting to see the relationship in economic terms. Was this friendship worth the price of cross-country plane ticket, time away from work, an ill-fitting bridesmaids dress?
Saul responded to my email a few hours later. He wrote that he was sorry but they couldn't help me directly, and he'd have to rescind his previous offer of allowing me to stay at his family's house. He could, however, forward a list of names and phone numbers of people who might be driving to the wedding site from Asheville the day my flight arrived. They were very sorry, he wrote, but they were way too stressed out to help.
It occurred to me then that perhaps Saul and Katia didn't want me in the wedding as much as I didn't want to be in it. Had this entire enterprise turned into a game of chicken? I didn't believe it was my responsibility to broach the subject—it would be terribly hurtful to have been wrong, to have resigned my bridesmaidship when Katia truly, actually wanted me in the wedding—but I saw an opportunity in the transportation impasse.
I immediately asked Katia to coffee. I would say that I couldn't afford the transportation to the wedding, a bluff. If she, in fact, felt dubious about my position as well, she could tell me that she just couldn't afford to help. It would be a sort of meta conversation. And that would be it.
The earliest Katia could meet was the next evening at 7:30. I asked to meet at Bien Cuit, a coffee shop I often wrote in that closed at eight. When she arrived, the conversation was stilted and brief. I fidgeted with my coffee cup and spoke slowly.
"I can't afford to fly and hire a car to drive the wedding site," I said, my hands shaking from anxiety.
"I know," Katia said. "I've been concerned about how you would get to the ceremony." She measured out each word as if she was saying them by heart. "We can't help. I'm sorry." I thought about our college town, Chapel Hill, of the prepossessing campus we both knew. The canopy of the ancient oak trees would be extraordinary now, shot through with light, filtering only enough to affect a calico quality on the late summer lawn.
"I just wouldn't feel comfortable putting it on any of my friends to pick you up," she said. Whatever annoyance I felt at her nonchalance was masked by overwhelming relief.
"We'll miss you," Katia said, shrugging. We sipped our coffees and I looked at her square for the first time during the entire conversation. She was disheveled after a long day, makeup smudged, ponytail mussed. It was closer to how she looked in college, and I thought of the only occasion we'd ever spent time together alone: we'd snuck away in the middle of an art class to drink beers at a dive.
In a few days, I'd get an email in which she'd dress me down for being cruel, would question my character and admit that hadn't wanted me to be her bridesmaid for a long time, that she's regretted asking me to be her bridesmaid at all.
None of this was in the air, though, at the coffee shop. Then, I was recalling the rounds of cheap beer at that cantina during our senior year. We gossiped about our classmates, rolled our eyes at the strictness of our professor. We wouldn't have been there had we not been bored and cut class, meeting in a sort of negative space we'd carved out together. I was reciting some dirty joke—the one about the three daughters and the handsome vagrant—taking in a deep sip of beer for emphasis, the gold liquid rolling towards me through the neck of the bottle, and she was tilting her head back, slamming down her drink, laughing.
This piece originally appeared in issue 1 of The Intentional.