Riding on the bus sucked.
Valerie kept waiting for some kind of nostalgia to kick in. For her brain to suddenly be hit with a fond memory of her youth. For her inner monologue to speak up and say, “Oh! Remember, Val, you used to ride the bus to your job at Clyde’s Drugstore when you were sixteen? Wasn’t that so much fun?”
But of course, it didn’t happen. Instead, Val was just reminded that the bus sucked just as much now as it had back then. She shifted, trying to get comfortable. It had been fifteen years; hadn’t they upgraded the seats? It was still the same hard plastic covered with vinyl that it had always been.
People kept looking at her, too. No wonder she was so uncomfortable, Val thought. She wanted to snap at them, to shout, to stand up and make a scene. “What’s the matter?” she wanted to demand. “You’ve never seen a woman in a four thousand dollar wedding dress, sitting on the bus and looking like she wants to jump out of it?”
Instead, Val did what she always did: she just sat there and let it fester.
That was how she ended up in this situation, she thought miserably. She folded her arms and sighed.
This dress sucked, too. It had always sucked, no matter how much her now-former-future-mother-in-law had insisted that it was perfect for her.
“This dress is elegant and classy,” Sararose had explained, her chin tilted up haughtily. “I know you’re probably used to more…rustic weddings, coming from a blue-collar family. But your wedding will be much more formal. The dress has to match that tone.”
Of course, Val knew that what Sararose really wanted to say was, “This isn’t a white-trash shotgun wedding, honey.”
But when Val suggested a few other dresses to try on, all Sararose said was, “You are not going to prom, Valerie. These dresses aren’t good enough.”
Valerie. Sararose always called her by her full name. It drove her crazy, because she’d always been Val.
Sararose had paid for the dress without another word, and Val hadn’t even complained. What was the point? She knew exactly what Jonathan would say if she tried to tell him that his mother had picked out a horrific dress.
“Just go with it, Val,” he’d sigh, exasperated. “She paid, right? Then why do you care?”
Because the dress was ugly, Val thought bitterly. It was too poofy, too glitzy, too much. She’d wanted a simple dress, one that was satin and seemed to pool on the ground at her feet. This tulle nightmare was his mother’s dress, not hers.
But Val hadn’t really wanted to argue; after all, she hadn’t really even wanted a wedding. It had been Jonathan and his family who had convinced her.
The bus lurched to a stop on Main Street, outside of the grocery store. The town had started to develop a weird hybrid of mom-and-pop stores and chain restaurants, Val noticed. Clyde’s Drugstore was still going strong, or at least, as strong as it had ever been. A white building with green trim and a hand-written sign with the hours in the window. She wondered if Clyde still ran the place. Probably not: he’d been retirement age when she’d left to go to college.
A few people got off the bus here, but only one got on. A young woman, maybe twenty, with headphones in her ears and music blasting so loud that Val could hear it. She was dressed in work clothes: khaki pants and a red t-shirt emblazoned with the grocery store’s logo. She tossed her backpack on a seat and Val saw the community college logo on it.
The girl flopped onto a seat near Val, exhausted, and tilted her head back. She seemed engrossed in the music, paying no attention to anyone around her. Val shifted and tried to make sure her dress wasn’t in the way of anyone.
The town flew by as the bus kept going. Val spotted her old high school, up on top of the hill, yellow school buses lined up along the road. There was the old ice cream place, a regular hangout for stoned high school kids and their dates. The lot that Val had bought her first car from, and the first place she’d learned the expensive lesson of how useful haggling was.
And then, finally, the bus reached Oak Hill Road. A brick road that made the bus rattle and rock, the cracked sidewalk lined with half-dead bushes. It stopped in front of a gas station and the door opened. A pleasant female voice crackled over the speaker.
“Oak Hill Road at Hershel Avenue.”
Val stood up, gripping her sparkling silver clutch in her perfectly manicured hand. Well, almost perfectly manicured: one hand had several chips in the nail polish.
God, she had always hated having her nails painted. She worked with her hands, building and fixing computers, tinkering with hardware. Having a manicure just made all her work harder.
That was one of the first things Sararose had commented on when they’d met. She’d shaken Val’s hand and almost immediately said, “My word, young lady, I don’t think Jonathan’s ever brought home a woman who didn’t have French tips. What do you do for a living?”
That had started the long descent into the hellfire that was their relationship.
Val’s dress caught on the armrest of the bus seat as she stood. She tugged angrily on it; her petticoat had gotten stuck on the metal bolt. She lifted the dress a bit to try and pull the underskirt loose.
Who the hell wore petticoats anymore? What was she, one of Henry VIII’s wives?
Well, maybe she would’ve been. Jonathan was one of the ruthless businessman types; she wouldn’t put it past him to try and behead her. Especially now, considering that he was probably currently sitting in a very well-decorated ballroom, amongst very well-dressed guests, who were probably nibbling on very well-cooked food.
And missing a very well fed up bride.
A hand reached over to untwist the petticoat. “Here you go.”
Val glanced up. It was the girl who’d gotten on at the grocery store. She was smiling, her headphones dangling around her neck. Val swallowed, feeling heat prickle behind her eyes. “Thanks.”
The girl nodded and replaced her headphones, heading for the exit to the bus. Val gathered up her dress to follow her. It was harder than it looked; her dress was bigger than the narrow aisle between the seats. The other passengers glared as she jostled past them. The driver gave her a dirty look as she finally descended the steps and landed on the sidewalk.
“Tha—!” Val started to thank the bus driver, who had already shut the door in her face. She watched as the bus drove away, its taillights leaving trails of light in the distance.
“I wouldn’t worry about Hal,” a voice said from behind her. “He’s always been a bit of a jerk, as long as I’ve ridden his bus. Don’t take it personally.”
Val turned around with some difficulty and blinked. The girl from earlier was standing behind her. She held out her hand. “I’m Casey, by the way.”
Val hesitated, then shook Casey’s hand. “Val.”
Casey hesitated, then said, “So, why are you running away from your wedding?”
Val pursed her lips. “How’d you know I’m running away?” she asked. “I might just be going to it right now.”
Casey scoffed. “Yeah, not around here. Plus, why would you take the bus to get to your own wedding?”
A fair enough point, Val thought. Out loud, she said, “It just didn’t work out.”
Casey waited for a moment, then gestured dramatically. “Oh, come on, you can’t just leave me hanging like that. It’s not every day we get drama like a fugitive bride!”
“I’m not about to gossip about my relationship to a stranger,” Val said stiffly.
Casey gave her a sly grin. “That’s why I introduced myself. I’m not a stranger anymore.” She hoisted her backpack higher and started walking up the street. “You going this way?”
Val looked up the road. It went all the way down for almost ten blocks. Rows of houses of various levels of disarray. There was the Jackson’s house, a nicely maintained little home that had, in Val’s youth, housed a family of seven. Next door was a rental house, one that had a revolving door of tenants, paint peeling and stairs broken.
Somewhere up the road was a cozy little house that stood empty.
She exhaled and followed Casey, who looked ecstatic that Val joined her. “Alright! So, what’s with the dress?”
“What do you mean by that?” Val asked dryly. Casey grimaced and rubbed the back of her head.
“Just that it’s, uh, unique.”
“It’s a monstrosity,” Val replied, picking up her skirt and starting to walk beside Casey. “It’s big and poofy and there’s way too many sequins for my taste.”
“Oh, thank God,” Casey breathed. “Yeah, that thing’s ugly as sin. Why’d you pick it if you don’t like it?”
Val sighed. “I…my mother-in-law picked it out. She picked everything out, actually. My fiance said she’d been dreaming of his wedding since he was a little boy.”
“Did you like the stuff she picked out?” Casey asked. “I mean…not the dress, obviously, but what about everything else?”
Val blinked. She remembered watching Sararose pull out a thick binder of her vision for her son’s wedding. Red roses, even though Val loved sunflowers. Elaborate crystal centerpieces, even though Val thought they looked kind of tacky. She’d even picked out the honeymoon, a trip to Cancun, even though Val and Jonathan had talked about traveling through South America.
But it hadn’t really been important, so Val hadn’t argued. After all, she hadn’t originally wanted any of those things. She couldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth, she supposed.
“Not really,” Val finally said. “It wasn’t bad, it just…wasn’t my style.”
“Why didn’t you tell her no?”
A good question. “It was easier to go along with it,” Val admitted. “My fiance and his family were so excited, and I just…I didn’t care enough about it to make a fuss.”
“But you did care.” Casey stated it plainly, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. Maybe it was, from the outside looking in. “That’s why you left, isn’t it? Because you really did care about the dress.”
“It wasn’t the dress,” Val told her. Casey raised an eyebrow. “It wasn’t the dress, or anything about the wedding itself, or even my mother-in-law.”
“Really? ‘Cause it sounds like it was.” Casey tilted her head curiously. “What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? There’s always something.”
Val didn’t answer, almost embarrassed to tell the truth. Casey continued, though, undeterred. “Did he cheat? Was it with a bridesmaid?” She gave an exaggerated gasp. “Was it with your sister?”
Val smiled in spite of herself. “I don’t have a sister. I don’t have any family, actually, the whole wedding was his family. I only had a few friends who came.”
“Your bridesmaids,” Casey noted.
Val shook her head. “No,” she sighed. “My bridesmaids were all his sisters and cousins. I didn’t know any of them very well, but…well, it was easier to just let them worry about it.”
“So what was it?” Casey demanded. “What made you finally run off?”
“...When I was a little girl,” Val explained slowly, “my mom used to make this amazing cake for holidays. It was a vanilla cake with strawberries in between the layers. It had strawberry frosting, and little strawberries on top.”
“Sounds delicious.” Casey kicked a chunk of broken concrete into the street. “Was it your wedding cake?”
“It was the only thing I asked for. I didn’t put up a fight about the dress or the ring or the venue. But I wanted a strawberry wedding cake.” Val’s arms started to ache, so she gave up on keeping her dress off the ground. It’s not like it mattered much. “But the morning of the wedding, when I saw them bring in the cake, I saw it covered with blueberries instead. My fiance had told them the wrong berries.”
“Oh.” Casey shrugged. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, you probably should have left. But it was because of the cake and not…you know, everything else?”
“I’m allergic to blueberries.”
“Oh.” The other shoe dropped and Casey blinked. “Oh! Yikes.”
“Yeah.” Yikes indeed.
That had been the moment everything seemed to shatter. She’d come raging into Jonathan’s dressing room, wearing street clothes, and started shouting.
“How was I supposed to know you were allergic to blueberries?” he’d shouted back.
“Because we’ve been together for eight years!” It had been so damn cathartic to scream. “Because we’ve had this conversation at least once a year since then! Remember the scones?!”
Jonathan had held his hands up helplessly. “I’m sorry, I forgot! Am I not allowed to forget, Val?”
“No, you didn’t forget!” Val argued. “You just didn’t care enough to remember!”
“Just…go get ready, Val, we’ll talk about this after the wedding.” Jonathan was practically allergic to confrontation. He’d literally waved her away from him. “It’s not that important.”
But it is, a little voice in her head had said. And Val had just answered coldly, “I can’t even eat my own damn wedding cake.”
“Go get ready,” Jonathan snapped as she turned heel and stormed out.
To the outside, it might have seemed obvious: poor little bridezilla didn’t get the fancy cake she wanted, oh, her wedding must be ruined!
But as Val went back to her dressing room to get ready, letting people she barely liked stuff her into a dress she definitely didn’t like, all she could think was that she had really been looking forward to tasting that strawberry cake again.
So, while all the bridesmaids were getting ready to line up, chattering excitedly outside of her room, Val just sat there thinking. She sat there, drumming her fingers on the vanity, watching her reflection as the expensive manicure chipped away.
Finally, she’d stood up and walked out. She’d left out the backdoor, and no one had even noticed, because she was practically invisible despite being the bride.
She’d pulled out her phone and ordered a rideshare. Jonathan had insisted that she be picked up and dropped off by a limo that he’d ordered. There’s champagne there, he’d said, so she could enjoy herself on the way. And he’d been so excited about his gift, that Val didn’t even remind him that she didn’t care much for champagne.
They’d gotten stuck in traffic, so the driver had only taken her to the gas station on the outskirts of her hometown. “Sorry,” he’d said, sliding his glasses up his nose. “I gotta get to work. But there’s a bus that comes this way.”
“Yeah, I know,” Val had replied. “Got any change?”
Casey jerked her out of her thoughts by saying, “Geez, your fiance’s a jerk! I’ll bet he was trying to kill you for the insurance money.”
Val burst out laughing. Casey gave her a crooked grin.
“My dad always says I’m great at cheering people up. You seemed like you could’ve used it.”
She stopped in front of a pale blue house with a wooden fence. “Well, this is mine. You need a ride anywhere? My dad would probably take you.”
Val shook her head. “I just live up two blocks,” she said, gesturing up the road. “I grew up in this neighborhood, you know.”
“Huh. Small world, I guess.” Casey opened the gate and turned around. “It was nice to talk to you. Be careful going home!”
Val nodded. “Yeah. You too, Casey.”
She bounced up the stairs onto her porch. Before she went inside, Casey turned around. “And, hey, Val? Things’ll get better.”
Val watched as Casey disappeared into the house with a wave. She stood there for a few seconds before she continued walking up the street. It was quiet without Casey, leaving only the sounds of the birds and dogs barking. With no one to talk to, Val kept her eyes low automatically. By the time she arrived at her old house, the hem of her dress had gotten dirty and torn up from dragging on the ground.
Val reached up underneath the rusted awning and produced a silver spare key. It slid into the lock easily and she turned it with a satisfying click, opening the door carefully.
The house was empty; it had been ever since Val’s mother had died. Val had planned to sell it, but she couldn’t bring herself to let it go. So she’d just left it empty, paying the taxes and utilities and checking on it once a year to make sure everything was fine.
She would need to dust, Val thought. And vacuum, and scrub the tile, and a thousand other things. She flipped the kitchen lights on and glanced around, setting her clutch on the counter.
A wooden shelf was bolted to the wall above the sink. It housed all her mom’s cookbooks: thick ones with faded titles, magazines that had grease-stained fingerprints on the cover, little notebooks with handwritten recipes and cutouts from boxes of ingredients. Automatically, Val’s hand reached up and pulled down a little black book. She flipped through it to find a certain page and smiled. She pulled out her phone and, ignoring the dozens of notifications, opened the memo page to scribble down a shopping list.
Val couldn’t eat this whole thing by herself, though. She wondered if Casey’s family liked strawberries.
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This is perfect. We get the whole story. Why she ran away from her wedding, we get to see her start to live for herself which is why her relationship didnt work out because she kept burying her own wants to keep the peace. We see that she's made a new friend. I really liked it.
This was an enjoyable story. Starting us off with a bride on a bus is certainly an interesting hook. It's a story of "death by a thousand cuts". There was no one event that did it. I don't even think it was really the blueberry cake -- that was just the final straw that opened her eyes. She had been living a lie, pretending to be fine with being treated like an invisible, inconsequential prop more than a human. I don't think anyone would enjoy being ignored like that. There's a passage that stood out: > “No, you didn’t forget!” Val argued...
What a great, feel-good story! Thanks, I needed to read about freedom relinquished and regained. The characterization is vivid. We can easily get into Val's head and share her pain. Casey is written just as convincingly, sympathetic but not over-sweet, serving double duty as a friendly presence (a breath of fresh air that keeps the story from falling into pathos) and the voice of Val's conscience without being Jiminy Cricket-grating. It's obvious (without being too obvious) that she represents a freer version of Val, the person she could hav...