The first thing you see when you get to your best friend’s wedding is a bridesmaid in a long lilac gown distributing bottles of water, like you’re about to run a marathon. You take a bottle, even though you’re not thirsty. The label has been custom-designed for the occasion, which is something you’ve never seen before. On one side there’s a photo of your best friend and her fiancé, their shoulders almost touching. The shot is slightly out of focus, but they look flushed and happy. On the other side an elaborate font spells out their names, the date, and the location of the wedding — Wallen Hall, Melbourne, Australia — just in case you forget where you are, or who you’re supposed to be celebrating.
Not even 10 years ago, you and 19 other girls participated in a bat mitzvah ceremony in this room. You wore slippery white flats and sang songs about Shabbat and the Holocaust on a temporary stage that creaked every time you moved your feet. The lighting was terrible, and in the professional photos you all look jaundiced and mustachioed — even Aviva, who was the prettiest. Twenty years before that, your parents got married here. There’s a picture of them on the mantelpiece in your living room. Your mother wore a white fez-like hat underneath her veil; your father’s velour suit matched the exposed brick.
The hall looks completely different now. The shape is still the same — hexagonal, with sliding glass panels opening onto a garden of lustrous, drought-defying green — but the walls and furnishings are new and white. It’s so bright you consider putting on your sunglasses, but you decide not to, because that would be rude. Today you are going to be enthusiastic and happy, because that is how you are supposed to be at your best friend’s wedding.
The women have congregated at the far end of the hall, and through their moving bodies you catch glimpses of Aviva: the skirt of her dress, the white book of tehillim in her lap, the curve of her smiling cheek. Every inch of her body is covered, bar her hands, neck and face — and even that, too, will soon be hidden. A diaphanous veil springs from the crown of her head, and when she looks up from her davening to greet her well-wishers, the top of the veil bobs up and down like a small animal. Several yards of white tulle have been arranged at the foot of the chair. You cannot tell where the decorations end and your friend begins.
You count eight bridesmaids, including the one with the bottled water. They are singing and smiling and smoothing their hair in a way that suggests years of bridesmaid experience that you do not have. One of the bridesmaids is pregnant, and her dress has been altered to accommodate the small swell of her belly. Her face is babyishly round. The pregnancy doesn’t look real, or even possible. You imagine her pulling a pillow out from under her dress in the middle of the reception and tossing it into the hora circle, like a beach ball.
In front of you, two modestly dressed girls are taking photos of Aviva, their cameras raised above their heads.
“Stunning,” says one, shaking her head.
“Seriously, she is so gorgeous,” says the other. “This is fully killing me.”
You went to the same Jewish day school from kindergarten, but you didn’t become friends until year eight. That was the year Aviva’s father grew a beard and started wearing a black fedora. Her parents — who were the sort of Jews who fasted until midday on Yom Kippur — joined your shul, and your parents started inviting them over for Shabbat lunch.
For about a year, Aviva’s mother went along with the whole thing: covered her hair, told people to call her Tova instead of Thea, got pregnant. At four months she had a miscarriage, and a few weeks after that Aviva’s father moved out. The rumor was that he’d been having an affair with one of the nurses at his clinic, but your theory was that the marriage had sagged under the weight of their grief, like a tarpaulin heavy with rain. Your mother told you to stop taping Oprah.
After the divorce, Aviva kept coming to Shabbat lunch, without her parents. She seemed to actually enjoy hearing your father drone on about physics and religion and Einstein and Maimonides. She evaded questions about her family, but told you in excruciating detail about the holidays she took with her mother and grandmother to Jerusalem and New York and London. She flaunted her worldliness like a fat roll of 20-dollar bills, occasionally deigning to peel one off and slip it surreptitiously into your pencil case: a lipgloss from Sephora, biscotti from Pret-a-Manger, tiny foil-wrapped chocolates from Cafe Aroma. You thought her situation was ideal — all the tragedy of a broken home, minus the money problems. (You kept this opinion to yourself.)
Like a couple in an arranged marriage, you grew to love each other.
You do not want to congratulate Aviva in front of all these people. Your outfit, which seemed modest enough before you left the house, now feels inappropriately short, and you’re angry with yourself for feeling self-conscious, because really your dress is fine, it’s perfectly fine, and you shouldn’t have to cover your elbows and knees for Aviva. Aviva! Who asked your year seven Jewish Studies teacher if frum people really had sex through a hole in a sheet. Who teased you for picking the pepperoni slices off your pizza. Who drove you to Habonim meetings in her father’s Lexus, sans license, during her Labor-Zionist phase in year eleven.
Also, you don’t know what to say to her. Mazal tov, Aviva, this time next year you’ll be pregnant or breastfeeding. Mazal tov, Aviva, half a dozen Bengali orphans have been relieved of the burden of hair so that you can have a really, really nice shaytl. Mazal tov, Aviva, you’re going to have sex before me.
You stand behind a group of young women you don’t know. Half of them are wearing engagement rings. A hope, bordering on a prayer — that the men will enter the room and the bedekin will begin and you won’t have to speak to Aviva — runs through your mind, and you strain for the sound of distant singing and clapping. Then, like the Red Sea, the women are parting to either side of the bridal throne, and Aviva is holding her hand out to you, smiling graciously.
“Naomi,” she says. She looks like a queen.
You lean in to kiss her cheek. “Mazal tov, Vivi. I’m so happy for you.” As the words are coming out of your mouth, you’re surprised to find that you mean them; sort of. What else are you supposed to say to a 21-year-old girl who is marrying the Orthodox man of her dreams? You don’t know. You have never seen her so happy.
She gives your cheeks a gentle, affectionate tug. Your face is very close to hers; you can see the delicate feathering of lipstick at the edges her lips. You feel swoony and cross-eyed, like you’ve leant in too close to a TV set.
“Please God by you,” she says. “I won’t say soon, though. I know how you feel about that.”
“No,” you laugh. “Definitely not any time soon.”
There’s a piece of paper in her lap: a list of names written out in elegant Hebrew cursive, the script so flat and low it looks almost Arabic. You wonder if she prayed for you today, like she told you she would a few nights ago, in the supermarket.
It was late, almost midnight, but she marched up to you as though she’d been waiting for you, as though she knew that you’d be standing in the personal care aisle buying tampons on exactly that day, at exactly that moment. (Once, when you were 14, you tried to synchronize your periods. You spent several hours sitting back-to-back under the eucalyptus tree in your garden, chanting in unison. It didn’t work.)
She asked you what your mother’s Hebrew name was. You told her you couldn’t remember, which you both knew was a lie.
No, wait, you said, pretending to remember, because you didn’t have the guts to continue the lie. Shulamit.
You were standing in front of the maternity pads and you threw a couple of packets into your trolley, as though they were exactly what you’d come to buy.
Naomi bas Shulamis, she murmured, keying your name into her mobile phone. She told you she’d daven for you on the morning of the wedding, to find your bashert. Then she looked up, and, observing whatever was written across your face, smiled. Trust me, she said. You won’t feel a thing.
You can hear the low rumble of the men’s singing coming from outside; someone has opened the sliding doors. There’s a subtle shift in the atmosphere of the hall. The younger women turn their glossy heads towards the entrance and start clapping, trying to match their song with the men’s.
Aviva removes her engagement ring. The diamond dangles between her thumb and forefinger like a ripe, shiny fruit. “You should wear this for me, while I’m standing under the chuppah. It’s good luck.”
When she asked you to be a bridesmaid, you told her you couldn’t condone her decision. Like you knew what was right for her; like you knew anything at all. Her generosity shames you now. You slide the ring onto your necklace for safekeeping and slip the chain back over your head. A camera flashes. Tomorrow — tonight, even — dozens of wedding photos will be uploaded to Facebook. Among them will be this one of you and Aviva, accompanied by several ecstatic, lavishly punctuated comments from people you’ve never met. You won’t see the photo right away. You’ll stumble upon it months later, when you’re supposed to be studying for your Political Movements exam. You’ll lean in close to the computer, close enough to see the ring nestled in the folds of your dress, close enough to see the individual pixels on the screen. This will make you dizzy, so you will shut your eyes and remember that you are supposed to be reading about Samuel Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations, and in the midnight glow of your computer monitor it will all feel pretty fucking apt and poignant.
Aviva leans forward, gripping her bouquet. A horde of men in dark suits are gravitating slowly and rhythmically toward you, like a human spinning top. At the eye of the storm, sandwiched between his father and future father-in-law, is Menachem. He looks like he is about to faint. But when he sees Aviva, something remarkable happens: his face, which is drooping, lifts into a beatific smile. The transformation would be comic, were it not such a genuine expression of relief and love. A sigh of tenderness passes through the crowd like a Mexican wave. Menachem bends down to affix a piece of opaque, white fabric to the veil on Aviva’s head. Aviva’s face is turned toward you, so you raise your hand in a little wave, but she doesn’t see you. She doesn’t see anyone except for Menachem, and then the veil drops over her face, and she sees nothing at all.
The ceremony takes place on a deck in the garden. You think, there really is a season for every thing. A time to laugh; a time to cry. A time to RSVP no; a time to show up anyway. A time to drink bespoke bottled water; a time to yearn for vodka. Your feet are already hurting. You should have worn flats.
Under the chuppah, Aviva is as still and white as a snow-capped mountain. Her face is completely obscured, but her veil is damp with mascara where it touches her eyes. Sunspots flare at the edge of your vision when you look at her. Next to her, Menachem rocks back and forth on his heels, his hands fluttering at his sides. In his black suit, white kittel and gray overcoat, he looks like a dove about to take flight.
In the summer between your second and third years of university, you traveled together to India. You went to an ashram in Goa where you were supposed to meditate in silence for 12 hours a day. You bailed on day two; Aviva stuck it out for the whole week. You realized, then, that she had an exceptional talent for devotion. In Mumbai, she met a Chabad rabbi who told her that her neshama, her soul, was crying out for nourishment, and she was feeding it the spiritual equivalent of McDonald’s. You said you thought that sounded delicious.
When you got back to Melbourne, she stopped wearing jeans and started keeping Shabbat. A few months after that, she started seeing Menachem. You languished in your lukewarm bath of agnosticism and went on a few dates with a law student who told you his parents were “benignly anti-Semitic,” then got offended when you broke up with him.
You met up with Aviva the morning after her first official date with Menachem. She arrived at the cafe 20 minutes late, breathing apologies and air-kisses into your hair.
Check this out, she said. She unwrapped her scarf to reveal a hickey the size of a 50-cent coin in the hollow between her shoulder and collarbone.
Jesus, you said, tracing the tiny purple striations with your finger. Frum boys gone wild.
I think he’s my bashert, she said. I think I’m going to marry him.
You pictured a gull swooping down to pluck a fish from the ocean.
A long white partition runs the length of the hall. The women’s side is a blur of silk and sequins and taffeta. You stand on the edge of the outermost circle and watch as Aviva dances with her mother and her grandmother, her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. You watch as she drinks ice water from a wineglass brought to her by one of her bridesmaids, her hands wrapped around the bowl of the cup. You watch as she is wrestled, laughing, onto a chair and lifted into the air.
You see that the chair is teetering dangerously to one side, so you push your way to the center and grab the edge of the backrest. You and the other chair-holders move across the floor as a single organism: red-faced, quietly grunting, focused on the task at hand. Above you, Aviva yelps and smiles and waves to Menachem, who throws roses across the mehitzah. After a long minute of hoisting, you put the chair down. Aviva hugs each of the chair-holders in turn, then she grabs your hands and starts spinning you — just you — around in a circle.
“You were carrying me!” she cries. Her veil is loose and her hair flutters through the air like a handful of ribbons. “I didn’t realize.”
“Yes!” you say. You nod your head exaggeratedly. You have to yell over the music.
“Can you believe this?” she says. “We’re dancing at my wedding!”
The band is playing a traditional wedding tune, one you know well. There is only one lyric — How do you dance before the bride? — so they sing it over and over, and soon you are singing it too, as though there was never a more beautiful bride than Aviva, as though there was never a better friend than you.
Elissa Goldstein, a fiction student in the MFA program at Brooklyn College, was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. She tweets under the handle @Book_Moth.