The words are barely out of my mouth before I turn my attention back to Max. I squat down again. When I do, I'm shocked that Max’s face is no longer blank. Instead he has affected a horrified look.
“Your parents?” he hisses just barely low enough for me to hear. “Your PARENTS?”
“A little warning to me would have been nice.”
For the first time since we’ve met, Max sounds angry. His voice is low and harsh and I immediately decide I don't like it. Before I can bristle too much though, I remind myself that he's embarrassed and frustrated and just taking it out on me. And really, who can blame the guy?
“Can you maybe distract them?” he asks, lowly. “This isn't going to be pretty and I'd rather not have your parents as an audience.”
I nod mutely. Before I stand, I reach out and give his upper arm a squeeze. It's firm beneath my fingers, and I’m reminded again how strong Max is. He doesn't say anything, but he does give me an half-hearted smile.
“Mama, Daddy,” I say, walking over to them and leaving Max sitting where he was. “Y’all want to go on in and we’ll meet you there?”
My mom starts to protest so I shoot my dad a pointed look.
“Jeanie, we can meet him inside,” he tells her. “He’s not going anywhere.”
The implication behind Dad’s words make me wince. Mom frowns and looks over at Max. He’s still sitting where I left him. She sighs.
“You better introduce us,” she tells me using the Strict Voice. “Because I swear, Abigail Inez, if this is the only time tonight I get to meet your new boyfriend, I will not be happy.”
I gulp visibly as I watch their retreating backs. My mom is barely five feet tall, has a head full of curly gray hair, and kind blue eyes. Her small stature and appearance make her seem docile. But her Strict Voice strikes fear into my heart in ways that my six foot three ex-linebacker of a father will never be able to.
Use of the Strict Voice aside, I take it as a good sign she wants to meet Max under better circumstances, and I don’t miss her use of the B word.
Once my parents are finally gone, I hurry over to where Max is. He's managed to scoot himself next to a conveniently placed bench. How he's going to get up from the ground wearing leg braces and a tuxedo, I have no idea.
“Can I help?” I ask in an unsure voice.
He shakes his head. Then he grabs ahold of one of the arms on the bench and uses it to brace himself. With his other hand he grabs a crutch. He pulls himself up using the bench and braces his stance with the crutch; his legs are locked straight in the braces and his butt sticks awkwardly in the air. I get why he didn't want this to be the first -- well, second -- impression my parents had of him.
I can see the muscles bulging in his arms as he pulls himself upright. Finally, after what seems like a painfully long time, he stands up straight. He grabs the other crutch that he had propped against the bench and slips his arm through the cuff. He shifts his weight between the two crutches, shuffles a bit, and when he is finally done, he looks at me.
There is an apology etched into the lines of his handsome face. We stand there for a moment before finally, he sighs. “Fucking cobblestones,” he mumbles. “I’m sorry.”
“Cobblestones suck.” I finally agree, sensing that he needs the excuse. “Antiquated, ugly, and really just a tourist trap.”
Max looks at me, relief and gratitude written across his face. His expression gives me pause; what did he expect? That this incident would mean the end for whatever it is we have going? The thought might actually make me laugh if I weren't so tense. Sure, I'm embarrassed--who wouldn't be?--but right now, I wouldn't want to be embarrassed with anyone else.
Of course, that doesn't mean everything is rainbows and butterflies either, I remind myself as my gaze drifts towards the ballroom. The walls are glass and in the low lighting of the room, I can see a mixture of people dancing and lining up for dinner. It’s easy to spot the newlyweds--they’re surrounded by a group of guys who look suspiciously like the ones that rushed past us during Max’s fall. One of them especially--the one giving my little brother an awkward dude hug--looks familiar. My heart sinks. When he turns a split second later, I recognize him.
And here I was hoping all of the awkward bits of the night were over now that Max was upright again. Joke’s on me!
Finally, Max nods towards the Sheraton. “Ready?”
I nod, already dreading it.
Once we’re inside, my mother doesn’t waste any time. For a woman who has kept a good mimosa buzz going all day, she’s still impressively perceptive. Max and I barely have time to sit down at our table--just left of the bride and groom’s--before she descends upon us.
“Inez didn’t tell us she was bringing a date,” Mom starts in her Strict Voice, completely ignoring me as she and my dad walks our way. Max goes through the awkward process of shuffling to his feet and holds onto the table for support. I watch my mother’s face as she watches him--how her eyes widen and narrow, as if she hadn’t already seen him completely bust it fifteen minutes earlier--and I brace myself for what’s coming next. After all, this is a woman who is currently mimosa buzzed. “And such a polite date, too.”
To my complete and utter surprise, she smiles at him as he holds out his hand for her to shake. Then she ignores him and gives him an enthusiastic hug instead. I see Max’s left hand clench tightly onto the table as Mom’s hug threatens to throw him off balance, but he returns the embrace with his other arm.
“Oh, my mother made sure we knew our manners, Mrs. Carter,” he tells her with a disarming smile as she releases him. Then he extends his hand in the direction of my dad, who (thank God) accepts it with a perfectly polite and expected handshake.
“You make sure to tell her that she did a good job,” Mom instructs with an approving smile.
A sad look flashes across Max’s face, but a nanosecond later it’s gone as Dad begins to pump him for information about himself. They cycle through the usual mundane topics before my mom butts in with the question that no man ever wants to be faced with a month into a budding relationship.
“So, you and Inez are serious, Max?”
“Mother!” I want to strangle her. My dad looks like he feels the same way. He shoots my mother a pointed look.
But Max seems unfazed. He just flashes another one of those megawatt smiles. It’s wide and genuine, extending into his eyes and lighting up his entire face. He glances at me before he answers in a voice that is uncharacteristically shy, “I’d say we’re definitely getting there.”
“Ooohh!” Mom coos in excitement. “In that case, I’m going to send everyone important this way so you can meet them without too much trouble,” Mom tells him cheerfully. Then she pats his back affectionately before rushing away, to no doubt find more family members to thrust upon us.
As Dad excuses himself to catch up with Mom, I look at Max. There are a lot of things I expect to be written on his face, but mostly I expect there to be horror or disdain at being assaulted, interrogated, and then minorly patronized by my mother.
Instead, Max is beaming. He looks relaxed and confident. His reaction to my parents and theirs to him--especially after the fiasco outside--allows me to release a breath I had been holding for the last twenty minutes.
“You know what?” he asks as he lowers himself back into his seat. “All things considered, I think she liked me.”
“She's drunk.” Max’s face falls and I realize how that sounded. Whoops. I smile. “She definitely liked you though. My dad too.”
“Who do you reckon she’s going to send this way next?” He asks with a chuckle.
“No clue.” I tell him as I scan the crowd. There are so many familiar faces. Everyone from the housekeeper my parents employed when me and Greg were children to our grandparents is present. There’s no telling who she might send this way next. I just hope she doesn’t do anything stupid in her buzzed state.
Eventually, after dinner is served and another hour goes by, I stop worrying about who Mom might send our way. Dad must have reigned her in (and cut her off). I make a mental note to profusely thank him and schedule a daddy-daughter date later.
The rest of reception goes on about like any other wedding reception. Greg and Stacey dance their first dance to Elton John’s Our Song and then Greg and Mom and Stacey and her dad all shuffle around to The Beatles In My Life. The lights are dimmed but I can still make out my mom’s lips moving, and I know she’s singing the words right along with the band, because this is the song she used to sing us to sleep by when were little.
Everyone claps when the duos finish dancing--something I’ve always found incredibly stupid--and then the band announces that they’ll be taking a break. Max excuses himself to the restroom and I wait at the table. While he’s gone I debate whether I should make my way through the throng of people surrounding the newlyweds and congratulate them, but then I decide against it. For Pete’s sake, they’re my brother and sister-in-law; it’s not like I’m never going to see them again. But should I introduce Max to them...that is the million-dollar question...
“Weddings seem exhausting, don't they?.”
The voice behind me rips me out of my inner debate. I immediately recognize it; I also immediately tense. Silly me, to think I might have the good fortune to avoid him the entire night. My luck sucks.
I shake my head incredulously as I turn around to face my ex-fiance. “Did my mother send you over here?”
Mark looks sheepish; therein lies my answer.
“I’m going to kill her,” I mutter to myself. I try to laugh, but it's a forced, strained sound. Then I turn to Mark, “And what exactly do you know about weddings anyway? Except how to call one off?”
Mark sighs. “Nezzie…”
I shake my head. “Mark, please…” I let my thought trail off as I see Max slowly making his way back to our table. He’s significantly slower than he was a couple of hours and a fall later, but the way he moves is still impressive. He’s focused on the ground in front of him, keeping his eyes peeled for obstacles, not guessing there stands an unimaginable one in front of me right now.
I turn back to my ex-fiance. I really want to get rid of him before Max gets back. “Can’t you just say a polite hello and then leave like everyone else?”
To his credit, Mark looks abashed. For a moment, I feel the tiniest surge of pity--after all, he wasn’t always a cheating, lying, bastard--but the feeling is fleeting. We stand there awkwardly for a moment longer until he finally says, “I just wanted…” he starts, and then shakes his head. “Nevermind. I’ll see you around, Nezzie.”
Then he scurries off and disappears into the crowd.
I try to ignore the myriad feelings coursing through me. I tell myself not to dwell; I try to convince myself I wasn’t terribly spiteful. I try to forgive my mom--who has never understood how I could break off an engagement with the only man I had ever dated because of one “minor transgression” as she put it--for sending Mark over here in the first place. I try to tell myself to finally leave the past in the past.
“Who’d I miss?” Max asks as he returns. He lowers himself into the chair and then winks. “Nobody important, I hope.”
“Nope,” I shake my head. “Nobody important at all.”
And for the first time, I realize it's the truth.
The party finally starts to wind down around eleven o’clock when the band announces the last call for alcohol. The remaining handful of guests--mostly consisting of the bridal party and the families--flock to the bar. It makes me chuckle.
Max laughs too. “Makes me feel like I’m at a bar instead of a wedding.”
“The bar vibe is what Stacey wanted, apparently,” I tell him. “A big, fun, party with lots of dancing. I guess booze is a precursor for that.” I give a very unlady-like snort. “It sure as hell is needed to get me dancing.”
Max rewards my poor attempt at a joke with a half-hearted smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Yeah, I think alcohol might hinder my dancing abilities these days more than help.”
My eyes flicker to his crutches, which are leaning against the table. Max follows my gaze and sighs.
“Not that I was a great dancer before either,” he adds with a low laugh. “But at least I could sort of shuffle around out there.”
I shrug. “I’ve never really liked dancing anyway,” I tell him truthfully. “It’s awkward and most people suck at it.”
Max laughs but it seems a little forced.
“Would you be opposed to leaving soon?” I ask, trying to steer the subject away from dancing, which seems to be making him unusually melancholy.
“Ready when you are.” His answer is blase, but he immediately pushes himself to his feet. The action belies his nonchalance.
I quickly make the rounds and say my goodbyes. As I hug my brother and new sister-in-law, I mentally note how ironic it is that Stacey made such a big freaking deal out of me bringing a date, but that she didn’t even make an effort to meet him. I should have known that would be the case.
I wave across the room to my parents and my grandparents. Mom never sent Nana and Granddad over to meet Max, but I have a feeling that between the DeVinns and my parents, they already know plenty about him.
Max is waiting for me at the door when I’m finished. “Eager to leave, huh?” I joke.
“Honestly?” He starts as we exit the ballroom into the night, “I think six hours of wedding stuff is about as much as any heterosexual man can withstand.”
I roll my eyes, and then I take a chance wrapping my arm around his waist affectionately. "Thanks for coming."
I feel his lips brush the top of my hair as he whispers, "Any time," before stepping outside.
I feel his lips brush the top of my hair as he whispers, "Any time," before stepping outside.
It’s surprisingly cool outside. Loud too. The bars and restaurants and tourist shops of River Street illuminate the night sky like Savannah’s own miniature, seedier version of Manhattan. As we cross the cobblestone street once more, I stay close to Max. The street is less crowded than it was earlier in the day, but as I watch Max exert an alarming amount of effort with each and every step, I realize that the journey is as precarious now as it was earlier.
Once we reach the parking garage Max stows his crutches in the boot of his hatchback. It still marvels me that he can walk--albeit very slowly and awkwardly--without his crutches, only using the car as support. I reach over and pop the door open from the inside for him, praying I time it correctly so that I don’t whap him with it.
He smiles as me gratefully as he sinks into the seat. All of a sudden he looks tired. It’s possible he looked tired before now too, but this is the first time I’ve noticed. He uses his hands to move his legs into the car. They jitter disobediently, and he grunts in frustration.
“That's got to be annoying,” I say without thinking. Then I smack my forehead. “I’m sorry, I really need to start thinking before I speak.”
But Max only chuckles. “Please don’t.”
He finally arranges his legs to his liking and then closes the door. But he doesn’t crank the car just yet. Instead, he shifts and turns towards me in his seat. He extends his hand towards mine and I take it. It’s rough and calloused, strong yet supple at the same time.
A warm feeling starts to spread throughout my body. I give his hand a gentle squeeze.
“Inez,” he says, looking me straight in the eyes. “Earlier tonight? I hope you realize I wasn’t just sucking up to your mother,” he pauses. “I really do want to be serious with you.”
I resist the urge to squeal, but I can’t stop the wide smile from spreading across my face. “Me too.”
“Good,” he grins and lets out a shaky breath, which makes me realize he wasn’t sure what my response to his admission would be. God, men are so stupid sometimes. “Good.”
We sit there grinning stupidly at one another for a second longer, before Max cups my chin in his hand and tips my mouth in the direction of his. The moment our lips touch my body starts tingling and vibrating in the best way possible. I’m thankful that we’re already seated--and that we’re alone--because I lean into the kiss eagerly. Our hands begin to wander. While his move low, toeing the line between appropriate and scandalous, mine explore the wide and taunt expanse that is his chest; the image of what lies beneath that tuxedo jacket only making my heart race faster.
Then he lowly whispers, “Let’s get out of here.”