This is part five of our series called “Inspired By Sound,” where writers use a song as the muse for their story. This piece by Elissa Gray takes influence from “Cherry Wine” by Hozier.
The wiring of the corset ran perpendicular along my ribs, the spindles digging into my torso and tugging needlessly at my fragile skin. Cuffed around my neck was a thin strip of faded white lace — smudged, discolored and hand-sewn as a sentimental addition to my brand new dress. The aged fabric had come from my grandmother’s wedding gown, and was perhaps passed down generations earlier, from woman to woman whose names I have never known. My mother, in all her glory, skipped out on the tradition — no ceremony meant no dress, and no opportunity to sew the “something old” permanently into her wardrobe. Oh, how I wish now that I had followed in her footsteps instead.
My eyes sank as I met my reflection in the mirror, angled against the wall in the corner of the room. I reached up automatically to brush the hair from my shoulder away, but only found the soft tulle of my veil. It felt foreign as it danced along my upper back, in the small keyhole of skin that my dress left barren. Thin strands from my braided hair lingered along the top of my neck, but I left them alone, finding peace in the trivial imperfections of my contrived appearance.
Maybe it was just emotions, but as I gazed into the reflective glass, my face morphed until it no longer looked like my own. The thick eye liner, the golden eye shadow, the pale peach gloss coating my lips — it all seemed wrong, despite all the insistence that I have never looked more ethereal, more beautiful, more breathtaking before in my life. Even as I had applied my makeup, my insides couldn’t help but twist and turn, as if what was being covered up with concealer was more than just my dark spots and eye bags.
Now, standing in the back room of a chapel in the the town where I was born and raised, my vision began to fade. The tips of my strappy heels no longer peered out from the bottom of my dress. The amber silk sash that was wrapped tightly along my faux waistline was blurred — all I could make out was a wishy-washy memory of the pink, blending into the background more and more with every passing moment. The lofty engagement ring, heavy on my finger, was nowhere to be seen. My skin was transparent. My dress was invisible.
I was gone.
And as I stared through a mirror into an empty dressing room, I did not search for the space where I was supposed to be standing. It felt natural, assumed, understood that while I remained in this dress and waited for the moment to walk down that aisle that I was no longer in existence. I had left, gone away — disappeared. But this was not the first time. This was not a single instance.
This is a process, beginning with more than just a wedding gown and a shiny diamond ring.
“Marry me?” he whispered.
Fourth of July, one year ago.
We sat beneath an ancient willow tree in a nearby park, where we had set up our picnic hours ago. The sun had since set. The crowds had fluctuated after the fireworks shows came and went, and the evening turned to pure night. If I squinted, I could make out a towel left from a couple across the hill, but that was all that remained — the only evidence of a summer holiday well-spent.
Eating hot dogs with too much ketchup and drinking beer I didn’t like... hours passed like minutes, and before I knew it, he was resting against the trunk of the tree and I was curled in between his legs. His arms wrapped around my waist, fingers aimlessly playing a tune I couldn’t pick up against my stomach. I could feel his breath, soft but heavy, twirl along my neck. My own hands grazed the hair on his forearms, creating their own melody of touch that synced effortlessly with his own. The warmth of the day lingered in the darkness. The breeze was just chilly enough that my skin pressed against his, creating the perfect insulation.
And as we sat there, caught up in a moment that felt like a dream, the words slipped out of my lips before I could even catch them.
“I love you.”
This was not the first time I told him this, but it was the first time in quite a while. It was the first since everything changed — since the bruises appeared on my skin, since he pushed me against the wall, the ground, the kitchen counter.
It was the first since he flooded my cubicle at work with endless bouquets in apology.
Since he tried to cook dinner and do the laundry more often, promising that he wanted to be more involved, promising in any way that he could manage that he wouldn’t do it again.
Since he swore off alcohol, but then slipped off to the bar late at night, again and again, and I lay in bed, waiting until he would come home in both anticipation and fear.
It was the first time since my story became one I had only heard about in news headlines.
The first bruise was not the last.
This I love you was also not the last.
Despite all the wrong in our relationship, I could not help but sink into the comfort of this moment. And he, knowing me better than anyone, knew the weight these three words carried. Within seconds of my confession, he lifted me up and turned me around, so we were sitting face to face, knees touching.
Speaking rapidly, he took my hand in his. “You know how much I love you...and how much you amaze me, and everything we share...how you support me...accept me, believe in me...how much it all means. You know? And I haven’t known if you knew for quite some time now, but now I know, and I want you to know something that’s been on my mind.”
And then he reached into his pocket, pulling out a box that must have been in there for days, weeks, maybe years, and opened it as he spoke. “Marry me?” his tone softer, his eyes wide and pleading, his fingers tense against mine — impatient.
I don’t think it was exactly in that instant that I felt myself beginning to fade. It might have been earlier, when his hand first whipped across my cheek. It might have been somewhere in between all of the “sorrys” and the relapses. Or in the silence and the secrets that I kept.
But now, my disappearing act felt tangible and true. It was first my voice that seemed to answer without my full approval. “Yes,” I said without trouble, my words not stumbling, my lips not trembling. He hugged me immediately and I smiled, warmed and wrapped in his embrace, even though I felt as if part of me had eased into the background. Instead of being encased in the moment, half of me was watching from beyond — an observer in the scene, a bystander who could not stop the catastrophe.
Perhaps the part of me still in reality believed that with a ring, change would come. That half must be an idealist, an optimist, a hopeless romantic — and, inevitably, completely wrong.
I stand now, still built on the foundation of secrets that kept me trapped for so long. My head carries only questions, though my reflection in the mirror is still absent.
Why didn’t I say no? Why didn’t I leave at the start? Why, once it became a habit, did it feel natural, acceptable, tolerable?
Why did I still love him?
And, for god’s sake, why could I not escape his embrace, despite how hard I tried?
I moved backwards, my eyes still glued to the glass, and rested my back against the wall on the opposite side of the room. Silently, I remained there, faded into the background. Still. Patient. Lost. And simply, I watched.
I watched my mother and my sister glide into the room, asking excitedly if I was ready, and I witnessed their confused faces as they searched for me, but only stared right through my presence. I waited as a steady stream of people flowed in and out, checking repeatedly to make sure I didn’t sneak back in. I heard my mom’s angry phone calls to anyone who might know where I went. My best friend, in the soft pink bridesmaid dress she had picked out for herself, even scavenged through my phone, left on the dresser near the mirror, for some clue as to where I had fled.
“The crowd was rowdy,” my potential father-in-law insisted, his face a combination of annoyance and anger. My sister cried. My mother yelled. Everyone moved in and out, full of action, while I just rested, right before their eyes, but embedded into the walls behind me — hidden.
For all the passers-by, he never came in, not once. Though I waited. I waited, perhaps, for one more apology. For one more “I love you.” For one more promise that the bruise below my bottom rib would be the last. I waited, but he didn’t come. And I knew he wouldn’t. Maybe I also knew that it was for the best that he didn’t. That I was stronger because he made the choice for me, in some twist of fate.
Finally, I broke free of the chains keeping me back against the wall. I dug my eyes deeper into my barren reflection in the mirror, and charged forward, my tiny fist plummeting toward the glass until it broke right through — shards cracking and flying, cascading to the ground.
Hearing footsteps in the hallway outside, I moved quickly toward the window on my left. With ease, I undid the latch and opened it. It was just wide enough for me to climb through, feet first, and within seconds I was making the small leap from the ledge to the grass outside of the chapel. I reached down and undid the strappy heels, kicking them off behind me as I ran barefoot through the lawn and onto the sidewalk. As I crossed the street, my pace building with each step, I took a moment to glance to my side, into the store windows lining the boulevard. In the glass, I saw, clear and vivid, my ripped dress, my untangled hair, my smudged face — my everything, complete and present, no longer invisible.