The harmattan haze hangs orange in the sky, bronze Sobbra and Brakina beer bottles gleam before us, and I think,

This is not what I expected for my honeymoon.

We made a promise in the damp reaches of your parents’ basement after our eleven thousandth game of rummy with the Nickelodeon deck. Fifteen years ago. On the eve of graduation.

– If we don’t find anyone by thirty, we’ll get married.

– No, make it thirty-five.

– Thirty-three. It’ll be like Jesus.

– You’re suggesting that the age that our Lord and savior died is an appropriate
cutoff for a desperation wedding?

But neither of us had a better idea.

We left home, went to different colleges in different states. I got a degree in English. You contemplated doing something “more meaningful” than aging in the tree-lined suburbs, wound up in grad school. I broke two engagements. You dated men and women and couldn’t seem to settle on either – or both. But we kept in touch. Phone calls, emails. We turned up in that Wonder Years-tinged town every now and again and met up for lunch, for dinner, and – the year we were twenty-eight – a sloshing creamsicle cocktail-infused New Year’s celebration – then we fell asleep in the same bed, still fully dressed. And I woke to find the bleak January sunlight giving your face a deathly pallor and I cried until I saw you stir.

Suspicion loomed but I couldn’t tell you, not then. You’d just lost your dad. After breakfast I helped you sift through his flannel shirts, camo, blaze orange; you gave the hunting gear to your uncle; we ate much of the venison in the freezer ourselves. You sighed, “Thanks,” and sank into your father’s couch rut.

You stayed in that big bungalow, but you only inhabited the ground floor. Existential angst and umber-tinted shag carpets filled the rest. I visited more often and you said:

– You’re the best friend I’ve got.

– I couldn’t have gotten through this without you.

– You’re going to love Marcy.

I did not love Marcy. But I never said so because you did. And I waited, through years of cocktail parties and dinner parties and New Year’s Eves in front of the replay of the ball drop in New York. At your backyard bonfire, she announced that she felt ready to have kids. And you said you didn’t.

When you turned thirty-three, despite the breakup, you invited Marcy to your birthday party – a kindness you’d come to regret. You gave a little speech and announced that you were renting out the big old bungalow and joining the Peace Corps. Marcy burst into tears and ran out the door. You cut the cake. I served it.

At my birthday party, a few weeks later, I drank too much. You thought I was crying because I had vomited, but it was actually the blessed relief of having you walk me home. And watching you break out a deck of cards.

– Does the Peace Corps take English teachers?

– Yeah.

– Huh.

I stole a look at your face. You shrugged, and said,

Well, do you want to go to the courthouse tomorrow?

That wasn’t the time to tell you, either. I just nodded.

But now we are here in Ouaga. Together. I set down my lesson plans, and you say again how much you’re learning from Moussa about public health. And for the first time, there’s a gold glint in your eyes when you look at me, and you smile, and you murmur,

This marriage thing isn’t half bad.

Photo by Dave Lastovskiy on Unsplash

Linda McMullen

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, daughter, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines. Find her on social media @LindaCMcMullen