Sean L Corbin is a senior in the Creative Writing BFA program at Morehead State University. He’s currently working on a nonfiction manuscript and a poetry collection.
“Freebird” at Eleven
I’m watching my two best friends drink hooch in the foyer of the Ramada in Mount Sterling while my uncle turns back a pint of Crown Royal and my father bellows like Paul Revere.
‘“Freebird’ at eleven! Bon Jovi right before it!”
My friends and I crack up at my father’s excitement – he’s a child on Christmas morning if that child has been drinking bourbon for four hours. The DJ has bestowed upon my father the most precious of gifts – the inclusion of a deep-fried southern symphony to the jubilation that is tonight. My sister scoots past us in jeans and a t-shirt, her long white veil still pinned in her hair, flowing behind her like a trail that says this is the path of happiness, follow me to make our parents proud. My fiancé is hanging around the doorway staring at her. I know what she’s thinking.
Kyle puts down his red plastic cup and gets pulled into a conversation with my father and one of his best friends, Jimmy, about the artistry of playing guitar. Kyle and Jimmy seem uncomfortable, but that could just be the half-gallon of alcohol shared between them. Thom takes a drink and laughs.
“Your dad’s having the most fun I’ve ever seen anyone have,” he says.
“Well why wouldn’t he?” I say.
My father has spent way too much on this wedding, and I know this because he says it frequently. And whenever he does, he gives me a barely noticeable look, one that says and I’m not spending it again. He’s a traditional man, a man who will open his heart and his wallet whenever needed, unless tradition tells him otherwise. He once told me that there wouldn’t be one penny from his pocket going towards my college education, even though he was the loudest voice pushing me into the universities. Of course he’d buy me groceries or give me gas money, but nothing towards the actual bill. College is something you work for, tradition dictates. The bride’s family pays for the wedding, tradition dictates. There won’t be anything from my parents for my wedding, and to be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t expect it. They don’t agree with my engagement as it is. I guess there’s something about being an unemployed college dropout that tells them I’m not ready for that kind of responsibility, or maybe the fact that I’m on my third go-round of dating my fiancé and they’re not exactly charter members of her fan club isn’t helping, or maybe everything about me has simply congealed into a thick mass of disappointment and they’d rather I didn’t continue adding to it and turning myself into a massive pimple.
My entire family is dancing to Tom Jones’ “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” It’s one of my father’s favorite songs. Uncle Barry is dancing on top of a chair, the world’s skinniest, hairiest striptease. The family is dying from laughter, as is Thom. I may just be dying. I need a drink but can’t have one because I have to drive home later and also because my entire family is standing guard over the alcohol like it’s gold at Fort Knox. With an incurable liver disease, I’ve gotten used to things like that. Doesn’t help my thirst, though.
A slow song ushers Barry off the dance floor and all the couples rush over to the parquet to hold each other and pretend their love is the same as my sister and brother-in-law’s. This is the true meaning of weddings—a reminder, a wake-up call, a knife buried deep in your chest and twisting and turning up the pressure on an already damaged heart. Pressure. The air is thick with pressure, to where the neon floodlights from the DJ’s table struggle to break through.
My fiancé pulls in close against my chest and I can feel her smile through my cheek.
“Shouldn’t we go ahead and go change before it gets too late?” she whispers.
“Why, I believe you’ve got a good point there,” I respond.
We slip away from the dance floor and she grabs her purse as I tell my mother what we’re doing, or at least all Mom needs to know about it. Mom gives me a stern look.
“Be back soon,” she says.
“Of course,” I say. “Back in a second, promise.”
I am determined to keep my promise so we don’t waste any time at the house and I’m not really sure we need to rush anyway to get back quickly but we don’t even make it to the stairs and I’ve never seen the house so dark and the living room floor is cold and I don’t have a condom, but the only condom I need is on her left third finger and there’s nothing but silence and grunting in the air and we’re done.
“You know that’s going to be us next year,” she says, slipping her bra back on and pointing across the photo-covered television stand in the vague direction of the hotel.
“What, two old people covered in dust?” I say, wiping the sweat from my forehead.
“No,” she says, agitated, “not the picture of your grandparents. Married. We’ll be getting married! What’s wrong with you?”
She’s pissed because that’s our trade—I get three minutes of ecstasy and she gets hours to talk about marriage and all the babies we’re about to start producing—and I’m not playing along.
“Nothing,” I say, “I’m just tired. You ready to go?”
“Thirty minutes, told you we’d be back quick.”
“Why do you care so much?” Mom says and hugs me. “I’m glad you’re back.”
Dad, Jimmy, and my Uncle Brent are laughing heavily and dancing with my sister’s high-school friends. Kyle and Thom are sitting at a table sipping hooch and laughing.
“I miss anything?” I ask them.
“Just this,” Thom says, pointing at my father. “I love your dad.”
We all check our watches. It’s a quarter till eleven.
“Bout that time,” Kyle says. I see a four-year-old at Chuck E Cheese’s in his eyes.
“Yeah,” I say.
We bullshit for a few minutes, making fun of our other friends, and I sneak a quick sip of the hooch. We marvel at its wonder. As I look over towards my fiancé and smile, the DJ lowers the lights and we all hear the strum of an acoustic guitar twang across the reception hall.
“Well, if you have to choose a Bon Jovi song, ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’ is probably the least embarrassing,” I say. Then my father throws his fist in the air and everyone begins to swarm the dance floor.
A noxious bellow thirty voices strong rumbles from the throbbing crowd. They are all cowboys, it seems, and on steel horses they ride. All wanted, dead or alive.
It’s infectious, the neon-bouncing cloud of sweat and catharsis that sits on their shoulders and permeates towards the ceiling and out against the white-covered tables. I smell it, Thom smells it, Kyle smells it. We drag our feet, struggling against the inevitable desire to be a part of this legion, wanting nothing more than to sip warm liquor and pray for a Radiohead song, but it’s like a finger curled into our nostrils, pulling us across the carpet to the parquet, and we follow.
We join the masses. We become cowboys in dress shirts and khakis, cowboys in thin ties and Harley Davidson boots. We are outlaws to our own cultural attitudes.
The final strains of the guitar fall silent, and everyone stops breathing, anticipating. Sweat trickles down into my boots. I feel my fiancé’s hand on my back. I acknowledge her. Kyle is sneaking a quick drink from the table, in a rush to get back. Thom is talking to some of my sister’s friends from high school. My father’s bellowing like Ric Flair, saying “woo!” and clapping. Everyone is trying to catch a break. And then it happens. The organ fires up. Acoustic guitars strumming, drums snapping. It is eleven o’clock and everyone is going to experience a wedding-night orgasm.
Van Zandt asks us all if we would still remember him, and we whisper “yes.” I think my father might be crying. The collective has split into a sea of pairs slowly shifting from foot-to-foot, cheek-to-cheek, foreheads pressed against shoulders, lips pressed against lips. This is everyone’s first concert, everyone’s prom, everyone’s wedding dance. I see my parents holding each other. I see my sister and brother-in-law pressed together tight. My hands are around my fiancé's waist, our hips one, her face in the crook of my neck. I am completely, absolutely, one hundred percent drenched in this moment, and completely detached. That’s how I always seem to be, and lord knows I can’t change.
I’m thinking about the fluorescent purple shots arching across my face, the fog of perspiration, the dwindling numbers of my bank account, my friends dancing with people they’ve never met, the thunderous condition of my car brakes, the screaming electric symphony in my ears, the descriptor beside my name that says “unemployed,” the scraping of dishes on the tables as the caterers start to clean, the empty August two months away when my friends go back to college and I continue waking up in my parents’ home, the little arguments between me and my fiancé that echo in my ears, how easily we all paired off for this song and if it should really be that easy, the ever more frequent stuttering of my heart, the emptiness of the hooch table for the first time tonight, my cracking and decaying ideas on life, the dry bit of icing on my uncle’s lip, how sharp my fiancé’s ring is, how it scrapes into my hand like a Brillo pad, how I need a shower, how I need to scrape everything clean.
We’re all sore, all covered in saltwater, all dragging our feet out the door of the Ramada and towards our cars and towards our beds and towards our well earned rests. I kiss my fiancé goodnight and she rests her forehead on mine and whispers, “I can’t wait.” I lie and agree. Kyle and Thom are helping each other to the car. My aunts and uncles all laugh and hug and kiss my sister and brother-in-law and mother and father. They forget about me and I don’t mind. The boys climb into the back seat of my station wagon. I go back and hug my family, tell my sister congratulations, tell my parents goodnight, tell them I’ll take care of the house while they stay here for the night, tell them how wonderful everything was.
Driving home, Thom and Kyle are muttering ridiculous things about girls at the wedding and how delicious the hooch was. I’m laughing with them and making fun of Barry, focusing on the road, and thinking about how epic the evening really was, how there will be nothing that could ever top the energy, the collective passion of that reception hall.
In a year’s time, I’ll be trying to duplicate the atmosphere and failing miserably. I’ll be standing in a rented tux and looking at my exasperated family and my fiancé’s conservative, anal family sipping sparkling cider and casting uneasy looks at my uncles. I’ll be smiling thankfully and shaking hands with strangers and looking at my fiancé and regretting every goddamn minute of it all, knowing there will be no “Freebird” at eleven, no Bon Jovi right before it. I’ll be sore from factory work and weary from meticulous wedding planning and tired of the whispers of having babies nine months later. I’ll be jealous of my sister all over again, hating her perfection, her common sense. I’ll be moving slowly, trying not to let my heart burst through my chest. I’ll be in misery, knowing things just couldn’t be the same.
When we get home, Thom and Kyle crawl out of the car. One of them proceeds to vomit all over the grass beside our sidewalk. I don’t notice who – I’m too busy staring up through our chestnut tree, wishing I was brave enough to fly.