The Lovely Brides – Cathy Ulrich

All the girls got married that week. Wore their best dresses to school, carried posies plucked from their parents’ flowerbeds.

Speak now or forever hold your peace, they said.

Jemma Lee from Class B was the first one. She married a jump rope named Bobo. Bobo had red plastic handles and was coming frayed in the middle. Before Jemma Lee from Class B, Bobo didn’t have a name. That’s how everyone knew it was love.

Jemma Lee stood behind the slide with the rest of the girls. Her best dress was navy blue with a Peter Pan collar. That’s what her mother said it was called when she straightened it for Jemma Lee that morning, pinched her cheeks for a natural flush.

You’ll be a lovely bride, said Jemma Lee’s mother.

Behind the slide, Jemma Lee clutched her bridegroom in her hands.

Oh, Bobo, she sighed.

The girl who was playing the minister had a math book instead of a Bible. It was the holiest thing the girls could find.

The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides, she read. Do you take Bobo to be your husband?

I do, said Jemma Lee.

When it was Bobo’s turn to answer, one of its red handles flopped up and down like the head of a snake.

Oh, it’s a yes, cried the girls, clutching their pilfered daisies, tulips, alstroemeria. It’s a yes.

Kiss the bride, the girl holding the math book commanded.

Jemma Lee brought one red handle up to her mouth, puckered her lips, kissed.

The girls threw their bouquets in the air. They shouted: Hurray!

They shouted hurray, hurray till recess was over and Jemma Lee wound Bobo around her waist, sighed at her husband’s embrace.

The other girls all decided to get married too. Stephanie Stieg married the pretty rock she’d been keeping in her desk, that sparkled when the light hit it just right. Erika with a K married her best library book, The Westing Game, left a lipstick print on its cover. Codi Schmieding, who dotted all her is with tiny hearts, married an eraser shaped like sushi. She tucked it into her pocket when the ceremony was over, feeling something like heat against her thigh. Jemma Lee watched them all, Bobo encircling her waist.

By Friday, all the girls were married and the boys held the school doors shut so they couldn’t get back inside after recess, till they had to empty out their pockets, leaving their new husbands on the sidewalk, on the grass. Stephanie Stieg kicked at her pretty rock, a little embarrassed that she had ever even wanted to keep it in her desk in the first place, and the boys let her in first.

The teachers thought they should stop the boys, but they mostly wanted the girls to quit marrying things. They watched from the second-grade classroom window as the girls put their husbands down, one by one.

Only Jemma Lee wouldn’t set Bobo on the ground, pulled him tight on her waist so she could hardly breathe.

He’s my husband, she wheezed. We made a commitment.

Some of the bigger boys let go of the door and started chasing Jemma Lee. She fluttered just out of their reach. Ran and ran from them, till she finally climbed the fence and disappeared.

Oh, said the teachers in the second grade classroom. Oh, oh.

The whole school went looking for Jemma Lee, even the little kindergarteners in their matching smocks, looked and looked and couldn’t find her.

The girls trudged back inside, feeling a bit guilty when they glanced at their husbands, piled haphazardly by the school doors. And when Jemma Lee came back to school the next week, none of them would talk to her, for their shame. Except Codi with her heart-dotted is, bravely whispered: Where’s Bobo?, but Jemma Lee wouldn’t say.

After the girls were all grown, they met once for a beer, leaving their children behind with their husbands. Husbands with beards, husbands with mortgages, husbands with cars that always leaked oil. Second husbands, the girls sometimes thought of them, though they never said.

They clanked their pint glasses together, complimented haircuts and flattering necklines, discreetly checked for crow’s feet.

Remember? they said. Remember when we all got married?

How young we all were then!

And they all turned to Jemma Lee in the corner, quietly sipping her water through a straw, Jemma Lee who had never married again, Jemma Lee with rope burn on her palms. Turned to her and waited, waited.

Yes, said Jemma Lee, twisting her red straw in her fingers. Yes, we were very young.

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Image: Bruno Glätsch

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