The Red Dress
Did you know if you wear red to a wedding it means you’ve slept with the groom before?
I find that out from a woman I think is your aunt. I point out to her that neither of you are the groom, and she gestures to you and says well Kate’s in a suit, so, then puts her drink down and picks her way towards the ladies’ bathroom. The olives in her glass have fallen off their cocktail stick and bob placid as islands. I dip my hand into the glass and pop one into my mouth, shake the salt and alcohol from my thumb. You’ve taken your jacket off now and rolled up your shirt sleeves, exposing your forearms, milky like silver birch. I don’t like your hair like this, by the way, cropped whisper-close and un-ruffleable. I've always found it a little weird that you are both blonde, a little incestuous somehow, but then I suppose I wouldn’t think that about a heterosexual couple. All day I have not had a clear view of you for longer than a second before someone’s else’s head eclipses yours. My mouth ulcers wince at the brine.
Moira has one of those families whose names and relations to one another never stick with me, so I am not sure if the brother flirting with me is the one who’s had a divorce. His head is cuboid, flushed meaty with beer, and when he hugs he thumps the other person hard on the back until their chest echoes, even women. Sex with him this evening will be like that, I think, a laboured, manly thumping. I don’t know why I didn’t get a hotel room for tonight; when I looked online they were all pretty expensive, so I put it off until they’d all booked up. I knew I wasn’t going to stay at your house after your wedding, so don’t even ask. I knew I wasn’t going to sleep on an air mattress in your living room and wake to it all sighed out, my spine on your floorboards. I would not sneak looks at your diary in the morning light or snap it closed every time you stirred, and if I did then none of your secrets would be interesting anymore.
What do you do for work? Moira’s brother yells over the music, and I pretend not to hear, instead taking his hand in mine, tracing patterns on his square pink thumb, ricocheting gently off the edges of other conversations. He is gripping the stem of his wine glass so hard his fingers tremble. I get a pale glimpse of the maple leaf tattoo on your arm, so delicate it could have fallen from a tree and landed there, as you collapse with laughter in the arms of a family member I do not recognise. I think of us, aged eighteen, ducking out of the storm into charity shops and trying on other people’s lives behind the changing-room curtain, delving into pockets for old receipts and the furred remains of train tickets. Companionable, we called it. The friendly debris of strangers. I stare at the back of the woman in front of us, the mole at its centre, plump and dark as a berry. I could pluck it. I could claw my nails right down her skin. I could bite right into that big wheel of brie, shiver at the cold thick richness at the back of my throat, the quease, cleanse my palate with a rough bite of cake from the highest tier, leave my teeth marks in everything until you looked.
Moira’s cousin’s phone lights up in his hand and he curses, leans in close. I have to be off, he says, his breath scalding my ear, but put your number in my phone, let’s get a drink. He kisses me on the corner of my mouth. I go to the bar but they’ve run out of red wine and it’s too late, now, to find another man whose bed I can borrow. The night has soured, marinated in that clinging grey heat that licks itself into corners of rooms and bodies and will only leave with rain. The spit is drying on my cheek.
When I finally catch you, you are in the queue for the ladies’ toilets, rosy-cheeked from too many parting hugs and shouted conversations.
I think I was rude to your aunt.
I think I was rude to your aunt!
You are drunk, I don’t think you hear.
Are you having a good time? you ask. I feel dizzy, try to hold onto some part of you to anchor myself and end up with your shoulder, the soft fragrant place where jawline meets throat, the velvet buzz of your hair at the nape of your neck.
Moira appears beside me, glances at my shoulders with her nails, pink and lacquered like blushed bullets. Do they not hurt during sex? There are cake crumbs warm in her cleavage, a smear of icing glistening on her left breast. Perhaps she won’t notice. Perhaps you’ll lick it off later, but for now my head is on your shoulder, I look up to the soft curl of your eyelashes, I can count each one. I promise I don’t want to sleep with you. But please, if you can, tuck me inside your life somewhere. Warm and tight as a bookmark. I can take the box room or the broom cupboard or the pages of your diary, I can fold myself up neat between you two, like now, my red dress smothered in white. Blood spilt on snow. Tongue between teeth.
Ellie graduated from her Classics degree at the University of Oxford in 2022. Her work has been published in the Isis and the Oxford Blue, and will soon be published in the Cambridge Cult. Her favourite writers at the moment are Carmen Maria Machado, Olivia Laing, and Alison Rumfitt. She loves short stories, autofiction, and most of all finding the eerie in the everyday.