Maile Meloy: “The Proxy Marriage”

05/16/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 21, 2012.

You know what’s romantic? Sincerity. And how better to illustrate the depths of said sincerity in the one-directional love that William (“tall and thin and shy and awkward”) feels for his high school classmate, Bridey, than by watching him stifle his feelings over the years, lest he be rejected like Monty and the many other men she has flings with, lest he show her a hint of the earnestness that she, whose mother had left at the age of nine (at the advice of a psychic channeler), has no capacity for taking seriously. To put this to the test, Maile Meloy has chosen an excellent device, the sort that somebody surely must have written about before, but which comes across in a wholly fresh way here: Bridey’s father is a lawyer, and they all live in Montana, which allows an apocryphal scrap of law known as the “double proxy wedding,” in which neither party actually needs to be present to legally wed. (It was used primarily for soldiers, so as be sure that death benefits, if necessary, would be properly paid out.) So as the years pass by, with Bridey leaving first for a conservatory and then New York (to Make It as an actress), their lives keep intersecting, and we get updates on their growth after each new proxy wedding. And although the story is primarily told from a third-person that’s clearly siding with William, Meloy’s precise with her observations: Bridey’s emotions feel fully developed, even when they’re occasionally described in shorthand. (“Her eyes went through a whole sequence of emotions: surprise, then compassion and sadness, and then something that looked like joy. Her face flushed pink again, and she looked like the Bridey Taylor he had fallen in love with.”)

What makes this odd love story so effective, though, is Meloy’s commitment to its length: as the years pass, William finally gets a girlfriend of his own — an oboist at Oberlin (nice sense of humor) — and finds a rhythm in his piano playing that shifts him to the creative art of composition. He attempts to suture shut the unrequited wounds in his heart, and the flicker of hope that he feels comes from the thought “not that she would ever come to love him, but that someday he might not be in thrall to her, he might be free.” Disappointment breezes through the door for both of them:

“Maybe my mother was right,” she said. “I’m just not pretty enough.”

“Bridey,” he said. “You’ve been there eight months.”

But they had the same conversation after two years, then three. Sometimes there were happy calls abut jobs: a cat-food ad that paid bills, a touring company that never made it to Indiana. But rejection was wearing her down. Sometimes he went weeks without thinking of Bridey, and sometimes she haunted him.

That elision between eight months and years sneaks right by, because isn’t that just how it is with some people, especially the ones you still feel something for? And time isn’t the only thing shifting: feelings are afoot, too. For those first few proxy weddings, Bridey comes across as a sullen child — and understandably so, given the failed marriage between her parents; toward the middle of their “career” of proxy weddings, she opens herself up to the possibility of true love — “What are the chances? That you’ll meet that one person?” she asks. “Better than the chances of contacting a dead pioneer woman,” he replies with the easy comfort of a friend who knows all about your mother’s psychic obsessions. Bridey’s final realizations come as shocks to her: one couple requests that they read their vows, and although Bridey guardedly begins by almost laughing at the romantic notion of the script’s “I will run through the rain for you,” she’s blown away by the ending: “‘You are irreplaceable to me, you are the man I was meant to spend my life with, and I hereby put my heart in your hands.’ She put down the script. ‘Oh,’ she said, startled. ‘That’s really–I’m sorry I laughed.'” The last push comes from their final proxy wedding, with the bride and groom watching via Skype; it turns out that the bride is superstitious, and asks them to seal the deal with a kiss: “But then it just seemed to happen, as if by magnetic force, as if human lips couldn’t be in such proximity and not meet.” That’s some A-grade romance right there, this notion of inevitability, of the forces — no, rules — of attraction.

By this point, Bridey has been in a failed marriage, at least one of the soldiers they “married” has died in Afghanistan, and William has worked his way, musically, through an unsettling depression (“Without Bridey to hope for, he felt that he was living in a timeless universe”). So when they finally reach one another, as she realizes what he has felt (or known) all along, there’s a real sense of the ending being earned, and if it’s a bit sappy, well sure, but that’s because I don’t think any of us handle earnestness all that well. I’ll let Meloy close it, then, as she’s fully earned these last lines:

He thought he might weep at the relief of it, with the release of all the years of waiting, the intermittent periods of suppressed grief. Equal affection. Was this it? It didn’t have to be exactly equal. He would take anything close.

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