“You should go on Shark Tank!”
“We’re trying,” Heather cheerfully replies.
I whip around to see Heather chatting with a well-meaning customer, her eyes crinkling at the corners upon catching my wicked grin. The woman takes our business card and tucks it into her oversize purse before wandering off. As soon as her back is turned, Heather mimes tossing a coin into the imaginary jar we keep for every time someone tells us we should be on Shark Tank.
I glance at my phone and feel 1:16PM like a punch to the gut. We’re at this bridal show until four. A particularly grating song from the nearby DJ’s booth is threatening to snuff out the guttering wick of my tolerance.
There are maybe forty brides at most, easily outnumbered by vendors. They wander sluggishly by cupcake samples and photography portfolios. The DJ’s, a group wearing matching pinstriped vests and fedoras, stand in stoic contrast to their looping DVD of wild wedding revelry. Lil Jon keeps asking me, “Turn down for what?” and at this point I could give him a million reasons. Chief among them are my aching feet. The cement floors are merciless.
I glance over at Heather. My heart sinks at her distant and worried expression. She’s invested everything into this. And it truly is brilliant – she’s answered a question as old as the invention of the formal gown. We desperately need to make sales and these dismally attended small-time bridal shows aren’t cutting it.
A group of women round the corner. Looks like a mother and two daughters, all with the same massively curly hair. The future bride is wearing a white sash and they are all chatting and laughing with mischievous good nature. I brighten immediately. After so many Sundays of flashing my underpants at strangers, I have developed a sixth sense for the type of person who responds well to our product.
At last they approach. Mom squints as she reads the banner behind me, eyebrows flying up.
“I’ve got you now,” I say, startling them all. “I can see you’re curious.”
I slide into my routine. They are politely impressed when I begin to bag up my dress, but as usual, they absolutely lose it when they see me put my arms through the armholes. They are whooping with laughter as I tighten the drawstring. I don’t know what it is about the armholes that always gets people. I admit it could be due to the fact that it makes me resemble a giant loofah.
“How much?” asks Mom as she reaches for her wallet. My heart soars. Each sale feels like we are getting closer to something. Heather navigates the purchase using the Cube plugged into her iPhone. They stride away, trading jokes.
We manage to sell eleven Bridal Buddies before it’s time to pack up.
“Eleven, Heady!” I try to encourage her as we stuff dozens of unsold product back into boxes. “That’s really good! There were less than fifty brides here. That means about twenty percent of brides bought one!”
The smile I get in return is far too sad for my liking.
“You did great today,” she tells me. “And I’m glad we were able to make some sales, but…”
She drifts off while rolling up the banner. We both know it’s not enough.
“This is a million dollar idea, Heady,” I tell her. “It’s just a matter of time.”
She gives me the same sweet, thankful smile I spent most of my childhood finding ways to earn and says, “Thanks, Mariss. I hope you’re right.”
I don’t remember the first time I met Heather, but I know I was very young. She says she changed my diapers and I believe it even if I can't remember. I call her ‘Heady’ because I was too young to even pronounce her name. Frankly, she lucked out. My other babysitter’s name was Susan and I still call her ‘Soupie’ when I see her at the grocery store.
When I think back to those days, I most vividly remember how my older sister Lisa and I would react when our mother told us that Heather would be watching us. It involved galloping around the house like gazelles on PCP and shrieking unintelligibly with excitement. (Writing this, I now realize my mom would wait until Heather was about to arrive before making The Announcement and I totally don’t blame her.)
I remember bits and pieces, like scenes cut from a film. I remember sitting in our living room chair as Heady drew henna-like patterns on my hands with brightly colored gel pens, her whole being illuminated in a shaft of light, tiny particles of dust dancing around her. I remember the pivotal moment in my life when she showed me a graphite drawing of a rose she had done, solidifying my desire to be an artist one day. I remember an Easter egg hunt at her Memmy’s house , the only one I ever attended as a child. I remember when she showed me her “elf ear”, the one that is pointed on top, and privately believing she was part magic. Mostly I remember just not feeling lonely or judged. Schoolmates never failed to remind me that I was unlikable, but Heather always made me feel loved.
I remember a gray and cloudy day when, for the first time, I could see that she was sad. We were sitting in Heather’s car in the old Ames parking lot. Raindrops as fine as grains of sand misted the windows.
“Okay guys,” she said in a voice that was tremulous and trying very hard to be upbeat. “Let’s go rent a movie.”
“Can we get ‘Ever After’?” Lisa asked.
I moaned. My sister Lisa had (and still has) the excruciating habit of watching a movie to death. We’d rented ‘Ever After’ about a hundred times. Once, when I was in my 20’s and helping my mother dig out fancy silverware to set the table for Thanksgiving, I found a VHS of Arnold Schwarzenegger's 'True Lies' sandwiched inside a pile of doilies in a cabinet in our formal living room because I’d squirreled it away years prior in an attempt to preserve my nine-year-old sanity.
“Let’s try renting a different movie today,” Heather replied bravely. I braced myself for the impending storm.
“But I want to see ‘Ever After’!” Lisa insisted.
The sliver of Heather’s face that was visible in the rear view mirror began to crumple. Tears formed in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” her voice shook, “I’m sorry honey, I just can’t-” She choked on a sob.
The stubborn expression slid off of Lisa's face at once. Drew Barrymore could never be more important than Heather.
“Oh, no, Heady! We don’t have to rent ‘Ever After’, we can rent something else-”
“Oh no, oh honey,” Heather replied, trying to comfort us through her own grief. “I just, I just…” she struggled to get a hold of herself for our sake, to phrase her grief in a way that was understandable and appropriate for us.
“My boyfriend dumped me,” she settled on, and gave a shuddering gasp before a few more sobs escaped. “And I just, I’m sorry-”
The pitch of her voice became high and strained, and all the words gushed out at once. “I feel like I pooped out my heart and I really can’t watch anything romantic right now.”
She cried even harder, the way you cry when you’re trying really hard to stop and that only makes it worse.
Lisa and I looked at one another, our expressions mirror images of sadness and confusion. Who would be stupid enough to dump Heather?
I leaned forward against my seat belt to press my little hand onto the back of her damp coat, the only part of her I could reach. She held her breath to stop crying and put her hand atop my own. I remember that her fingers were cold, but I was glad to feel them.
She took a deep breath and let it out in a shuddering whoosh.
“Okay,” she said, and tilted her face to heaven, wiping the tears from her face with both hands. “Okay,” she said again, this time more firmly. She swiftly did what she could with her reflection in the mirror. She looked determined. Years later, watching Holiday Golightly in the backseat of a New York City cab, applying lipstick in a compact mirror with a trembling hand to brace herself for bad news in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's', I am reminded of this moment. She took a deep sniff and wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“Okay,” she repeated and turned to face us, her expression bright and engaging. “Do you want to rent 'The Princess Bride'?”
“What's 'The Princess Bride'?” asked Lisa.
“WHAT?” she exclaimed, gobsmacked, totally scandalized. “You've never seen 'The Princess Bride'?!”
“Noooo,” we admit in unison, laughing at her expression.
“To the video store!” she cried, and made a game out of hurrying to find it in the shelves in order to correct this grievous error at once.
Later at home we all piled on the couch. We clung to her when the eels begin to shriek, gliding in the dark water beside the pirate ship. We howled with laughter at the dead Sicilian. Any time Wesley and Buttercup were getting too cozy I glanced back at Heather's face to make sure she was okay. And she was. The only expression I found as the colors of their long-awaited kiss danced across Heather's face was one of contentment.
“OhmyGod,” Heather says first thing when I answer her call. “Guess what?”
“I got a call from the Steve Harvey Show!”
I let out a garbled, high-pitched bark.
“I'm serious! He's doing a segment on single mom inventors and they invited us to be on the show!”
The noise I make in response is long and squeal-y and absolutely terrifies my dog.
I knew this moment would come, but I had no idea what form it would take. Months prior, when Heather asked me to be the face of her invention, I knew. Her idea is just too brilliant not to succeed.
In the beginning, when we made the commercial, I remember driving to the winery for filming and really thinking of the implications of my promise to Heather. I was driving like a bat out of hell. My shift at the doctor's office had run late and I had flown through the house, stripping out of scrubs and frantically applying makeup, my lateness playing my nerves like a violin.
I knew I looked tired, and I was. The toll of working two jobs while trying to finish a degree lay upon me like a heavy blanket. I was twenty pounds heavier than I could stand from the stress. The idea that I had just agreed to take on a third job made me want to quit everything, curl up in a blanket like a burrito, and binge watch 'The Blacklist' on Netflix until I passed out or maybe died.
I'm no stranger to being made fun of, but this was different. For the rest of my life I'd be The Peeing Bride. I have a lot of ambitions in life. Big ones. Would I really be able to handle the inevitable Youtube remix of this commercial I was about to shoot? Could I really accept potentially becoming an Internet meme? All of my ugliest memories came rushing back. Sitting alone on the playground doodling in my marble notebook, trying to pretend I didn't care that nobody wanted to play with me. A girl handing me a note in middle school about how everyone hated me. Those black and horrible years where everything spiraled out of control and I flunked out of college, too broken to do anything but lay in my dorm bed and long to escape in sleep.
As I drive, I come upon The Curve and The Tree and see The Flowers that someone lovingly tied there two years ago. They are faded a little bit but they still look nice.
The loss rips through me all over again, but then it passes. Suddenly I feel calm.
Of course I can do this. I can do this, and I can do whatever the hell else that I want. Out of nowhere I remember our favorite movie, 'The Labyrinth'. I meet my own eyes in the rear-view mirror.
“You have no power over me,” I say quietly to myself, and I don't allow myself to feel foolish for doing so.
She'd have thought this was great. We loved everything brash and absurd. The both of us howled with laughter and rolled across the carpet watching Nicolas Cage punch a lady in the face while wearing a bear suit in 'The Wicker Man'. One time we dug out this crappy old keyboard I had from the 90's and used the horrible, pre-made beats to do R&B covers of Disney songs. “Shimmering. Shining. Splendor,” I rapped during 'Magic Carpet Ride' from Aladdin in my best Marky Mark impression, and we had to stop for five minutes as we snorted and cackled and cried.
And we adored ridiculous infomercials. Actors ham-handedly smashing eggs into bowls to illustrate their deep-seated need for a kitchen appliance that could relieve them of the Herculean task of cracking an egg. Actresses beaming with vapid delight at having paid twenty dollars for what is, ostensibly, a backwards bath robe. We lived for that stuff.
When I arrive at the winery, my game face is on. I don't have to fake my positivity or enthusiasm. And I make it as ridiculous as humanly possible for posterity's sake.
After all, you can't star in an infomercial without throwing caution and dignity to the wind.
I'm sitting on the leather sofa at Happy Nails, buzzing with excitement and trying not to breathe in too much acetone. I gaze fondly at the dated posters, the masked nail technicians, the shelves of polish neatly lined in rainbow order. We leave for New York to take our flight to Chicago in two hours, and tomorrow I will be on the Steve Harvey Show watching Heather's dreams come true. I have already promised Heather that I won't bring up Miss Universe or ask to touch his mustache.
“He's a good man, Steve Harvey,” my Tio Eric had said between rounds of canasta. “I remember him from the comedy scene in New York in the eighties. The other comics, they would stay after and get drunk and hit on their fans. Not Steve. He would do his set, and when he was done, he would go straight home to his family.”
“I hear he has a free summer camp for boys raised by single moms where they teach them how to tie a necktie and fish and stuff,” said one of my favorite patients whom I told of my upcoming adventure.
“I hear he can walk on water and once saved an elderly woman from a cougar attack with his bare hands,” said nobody. I just made that up.
And besides, he was totally set up for that Miss Universe fiasco to draw in ratings. I hope Miss Columbia forgives him.
I glance down at my nails and am immediately reminded why I need to pay to have them done. I have the nails of a nine-year-old boy. I putz around on Reddit, waiting my turn, when Heather's text pops up.
“They just called. They cut the segment.”
All the background noise around me is muted. I feel my heart sink deep, deep down a hollow place inside of me. Everything is surreal as I numbly stand up, shoulder my purse, and go to the counter to cross my name off of the walk-in list.
As soon as I'm outside, I call.
“Heady?” I say timidly into the crackling silence.
“Hey,” she replies in a voice so soft I can barely hear it.
A pause. I can hear her snuffling breaths and I know she is crying.
“What happened?” I ask before I can stop myself.
“They just...” her voice trails off. “They just called me and told me they won't be doing that segment anymore. We're not going.”
Hearing her say it makes it real. Everything seem so vivid. The gray sky is wicked bright and I truly feel the cold.
“Oh, Heady,” is all I can bring myself to say.
We stay on the line in mutual silence. I thank God that she's home alone right now. The kids are with their dad.
“Are you going to be okay?” I ask. How could she possibly be okay?
“Yeah,” she replies in the least-okay voice I have ever heard. “I just thought this was going to be my big break-”
She begins to cry, and all of a sudden it hits me that I am in that very same parking lot from years ago, except this time it was Steve Harvey doing the dumping. I remember reaching out to touch her coat.
“I love you, Heady,” is all I know to tell her.
“I love you too,” she says, and I know she does. “And don't worry about me. I'll be fine. This is just- just another mountain to climb. You know, when one door closes, another one opens...” She chokes on her platitudes. “I gotta go.”
“Bye,” I say, and the line goes dead.
Home is right across the street. My feet feel like lead on the two flights of steps leading to my front door.
“John?” I call for him.
“Hey baby,” he emerges from the bedroom and the smile vanishes from his face when he sees my own. “What happened?” he asks, and the concern in his voice unplugs a torrent of emotions.
“They cut the segment,” I tell him. “We're not going.”
I feel my face fold in and then he's holding me and I'm crying.
“What?” He is stunned, but quickly recovers. “Oh, babe. I'm so sorry.” He sways me gently from side to side and holds me close. I booger helplessly onto his Game of Thrones shirt. When I press my cheek to his warm face I feel his stubble and I breathe in deep, cherishing the way he smells. Even though I am hurting I love him so much in that moment.
“Heather called me while I was at the nail place. It was h-horrible, she's crying...”
I can't go on.
“Oh babe,” he says in the saddest voice, and it's all he needs to say.
If the next few hours are hell for me, I don't even want to imagine what they're like for Heather.
I feel a rush of affection for everyone I tell. I text my sweet and hardworking manager Carla, who has bent over backwards to accommodate my PTO requests. I text Amber, my best friend at work and one of the finest people I have ever known, who tells me how sorry she is and does me the mercy of breaking the news to the rest of the office so I don't have to.
The idea of going to work tomorrow when I daydreamed of being in Chicago is nearly enough to break me. My coworkers, all wonderful people, were so happy for me. I can't bear to see the sympathy on their faces. There's a hard lump in my throat as I think of how Dr. Christian, always good for a laugh, has spent the last few weeks mock-seriously listing all the reasons he deserves a shout-out on the Steve Harvey Show.
My dad, the absolute best ever, who makes Liam Neeson from 'Taken' look like Rick Moranis in 'Honey We Shrunk the Kids', immediately offers to reimburse Heather for her last-minute plane tickets. I call my mother, sweet and bright and so loving, in whose very voice I find comfort. Even though she is thirty minutes away and at work I can feel her arms around me and the softness of her sweater, and I can breathe in that comforting, clean laundry-detergent smell that I will forever associate with her. I call my sister Lisa, whose big and generous heart is totally broken for the both of us. I call my best friend Danielle, super practical and absolutely hilarious, who promises to come visit me so we can get drunk and play Snowboard Kids on my N64 together. My little Sicilian-Brooklynese grandma, eighty-six, still spry as a fox and the wisest person I know, tells me not to lose faith and that everything will turn out all right.
At last, I text Heather.
“Hey, I know you have a lot on your mind, but I wanted you to know that I love you and that I'm here. My dad was appalled that they did this to you and offered to cover the costs of the plane tickets. I hope you'll consider his offer. We all love you, and we WILL do this with or without Steve Harvey. This is just another bump on the road, another story to tell once you've made it. And you will.”
I believe every word that I type, and I hit send.
She swiftly responds.
“Tell him I sincerely appreciate the offer- that's very sweet, but they actually covered the plane tix.
I just need to have my pity party. I feel like a failure in front of my kids and everyone around me. They said they wound consider a segment in the future but quite frankly I wouldn't bank on it.”
The idea of Heather feeling like a failure causes a rockslide of grief inside me.
“Yeah, this is unbelievably shitty. I'll see you later,” I reply, and add a heart emoji because that's how I roll.
I stare out the big windows of my studio onto the pond below, numb. Suddenly I feel a rush of pure hatred for Steve Harvey. Just who the hell does he think he is, getting her hopes up and then smashing them to pieces? I savagely think that if I ever see him, I'm going to slap a Nair strip on his mustache and leave it so he has to rip it off himself.
I stomp around my kitchen and pour myself a humongous glass of wine. I stand there, fuming, and drink half of it before topping it off again. Then I stomp on over to my bedroom and set the wine down as hard as I can without spilling it (which isn't really hard because it's so full), so I can flop on my bed and roll furiously into a blanket burrito. I am burning with inner anger hotter than any Taco Bell Fire Sauce. 'The Blacklist' it is.
Then I realize my arms are trapped and I yell for John to come work the Playstation controller for me.
Just as I am settling in and starting to let Reddington draw me out of my bad mood one witticism at a time, my phone goes off.
I writhe furiously to free my right arm, murderously angry at my phone, at the world, at God, and especially at Steve Harvey.
It's Heather. My anger evaporates at once.
“Remember the movie Joy that was out” is all it says. Of course I do, the one where Katniss Everdeen invents the Miracle Mop. It was brilliant.
“Yes.” I respond cautiously.
“She will be on the show on March 30th and we're on board to be there. Joy herself will be there.”
And joy is inside me, like a grain of sand swelling up into a hot hair balloon. The rest of the conversation goes as follows:
Heather: Her story is so so similar to mine
The producer just called me
Heather: So we're flying out March 29- taping the 30th
Heather: It is my dream to meet her
Me: OMG HEATHER OMG!!!!
Heather: After I just ate like a pound of crap lol and cried for hours lol
Heather: When one door closes/ another one opens.
At this point John has barged into the room to make sure a spider didn't crawl into my blanket burrito because that's probably what it sounded like. When I tell him and see his smile, I feel my own nearly split my face in half.
I am just as eloquent as I was in my texts to Heather when I call every single person back to tell them we're actually going. The next half hour is a happy blur. I love everyone. I love everything. I forgive Steve Harvey and I love him, too.
“You see?” says my Grandma. “What did I tell you? You're going places, kid.”
I feel a beatific glow, so full of happiness I don't even know what to do with myself. I get down on the floor with Blink, my pitbull, and kiss his face and hug him. He runs circles around me and rears up on his hind legs in excitement as I go cat hunting. I find Teddy, fat and fluffy, lounging on my pillow. He accepts my kisses with the same placid compliance as always, and promptly falls back asleep. Misu, sleek and pretty, who hates everything, gives an ugly growl as I kiss the top of her head. I dart away before she can mangle my face.
I will never forget today.
A lot has changed in less than a month. We won Best New Product at the David Tutera Bridal Show in Philly. David Tutera's assistants, Bluetoothed and hyper-efficient, were wonderful people who moved heaven and earth so that we were able to meet him. And we did, briefly, and he told me I did an “excellent” demonstration. He would have won my award for Best Compliment of the Day, but hours prior an older British guy with the most adorable accent ever said we were “brilliant”, so that ship had long sailed.
Someone in the crowd had taken a video of me demonstrating and posted it online.
It went viral.
“OMG, 360,000 views and counting!!” Heather texted me. “This is crazy.”
That video has 7.8 million views. Right now. I just minimized Microsoft Word to check.
And I'm actually at peace with being The Peeing Bride. It makes me laugh to see my friends and my cousin Jessica sending me the links. I'm on Buzzfeed now, right alongside '12 Reasons to Hate Eyelash Curlers' and '20 Llamas Who Can't Even!'. I am now one of the Suggested Posts I always hate seeing on Facebook. (When I want your suggestions, Mark Zuckerberg, I will ask you for them.)
One day, as I tear my house apart in search of my other fish earring, I get a call. Heather wastes no time.
“Marissa. Guess who just called,” she said in the kind of way where you can hear a period at the end of the question instead of a question mark.
I remind myself that Stephen Colbert has no reason to be calling us and compose myself before asking, “Who?”
The inhuman noise that rises from within me sends Teddy rocketing off the bed.
“There,” she says, and the quality of her voice changes. “I've taken you off of speaker phone so you can launch into the expletive-laden freak-out I know you're dying to hold in. Go on. Layyyyy it on me.”
“What? No!” I cry, having already swallowed it down because I am practicing not accidentally blurting out curse words in front of Heather's adorable kids like a depraved pirate. “Listen, I'm getting really good! HOLY FIRETRUCK, HEATHER-”
She laughs. And it feels like all the doors are flying wide open.