“The Vows,” by Kelly Dowling, is the winning story for the 16th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an interview with Dowling, check out the July/August 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. You can also view a complete list of winners and an extended interview with Dowling. To read all 25 winning entries, check out the 16th Annual Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Collection.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Dowling’s winning entry.
I remember the first day that I met you. I remember the look on your face as you spun out from your dorm and slammed directly into me. You bowled me over, both metaphorically and physically. I had the bruises to prove it. You were dressed in a sports bra and tight little spandex shorts and I was suddenly feeling a little resentful that I was picking your roommate up for dinner and not you.
No, it can’t start that way.
Who starts a speech with a memory about what bra someone was wearing? How about this?
I remember staring at the shoddy projector image of stars in Astronomy and thinking only of your eyes. I only signed up for Astronomy because you said were taking it. You hadn’t said it to me, of course, but to one of your girlfriends. I was behind you in the sandwich line at the student center and I heard you ask that redhead girl—Jessica Randolph, I think her name was. Well, it’s Johnson, now; she’s married with a baby on the way. I heard you ask Jessica if she thought the professor would talk about the possibility of aliens. That was all it took. I signed up for Astronomy almost immediately.
That sounds like I’m a huge stalker. I won’t share that story. No one wants to hear about aliens and about the stars in your eyes. No one wants to hear about Jenny Randolph, now Johnson. Jenny and her husband will be there today. She’ll cradle her distended, pregnant stomach and she’ll cry. I’m certain that she’ll cry. A lot of people will, I’d assume.
I can’t think about that. I don’t want to psych myself out too early—I don’t want to flub this in front of everyone. All of our family and friends will be there, watching, and I’ve never been good at public speaking.
I remember the peppermint smell of your gum as you leaned over and whispered that you didn’t think a class about the universe would involve so much algebra. You thought it would be mystical. Endless. I elbowed you and told you to fix the numbers in your notes. The equation you had jotted down on your paper didn’t even make sense, but then your equations never did. You weren’t a woman who relied on reason and rationale. Your thoughts lived among the stars.
You called me later that night and demanded I meet you on the quad. We studied the moon and I smelled the lavender of your shampoo and thought about kissing you beneath the cosmos. You asked me whether or not I thought we were the only ones out there. At that moment, we could have been. It was you and I alone, spinning through space on this great big ball of planet. We could have been the only humans left, and I wouldn’t have cared.
I’m rambling now. No one wants to hear these memories.
But they’re my memories.
I remember sitting next to you on the couch while I waited for your roommate to get ready for dinner. She always took so long to do her hair and makeup. It was intentional, I think. She thought it was classy to make me wait. She read it in a dating handbook or something. Do women read dating handbooks? You never did.
Anyway, I was waiting for your roommate to be ready for our date. All I wanted to do was put my hand over yours as you flicked lazily through the channels, your thumb idling on the glowing buttons of the remote. Something funny would happen on the television and you’d laugh so hard you’d snort. I loved you even then, I think.
Christ, I can’t talk about that. People will think I’m a cheater. I never cheated. I was set up with your roommate on a blind date and she dug her nails in for a month too long. It was you, you, always you from the moment I saw you until today.
I broke up with her that night, I remember. We never even made it out of the parking lot. I don’t know what made me do it, I just knew that whenever I closed my eyes I couldn’t picture anything but your face—I couldn’t remember anything but the sound of your laugh.
I loved you from the moment you barreled into me in the hall, maybe, or from the moment I saw you in the sandwich line, ordering a peanut butter and jelly without the crust. I loved you since astronomy and the stars.
Today is so important, so critical. Today it matters what I say. I can’t mess up. Not when you’ll be there, so serene and lovely. They’ll all be watching, and I’ve got to make the moment count.
I remember the first time I kissed you. It was summer and the night hung heavy with saturation. You were breathless from a night of dancing—you had wanted to go dancing so badly that day—and your damp curls clung to your cheeks. I pushed your hair out of your eyes and let my fingers linger upon your neck. I could feel your pulse dancing beneath your skin as I leaned in close. Your lips, sweet with sweat and grenadine, parted beneath mine and I could taste your peppermint breath upon my tongue. You leaned into me and I thought about the stars swirling endlessly above our heads—of the cosmos yawning away from us.
That memory is mine. It’s ours. I won’t share that one today.
What about the day I proposed? I had planned it out so meticulously and nothing went right. The flower order was wrong. I burned my new shirt with the iron. The sweater I had ordered for your stupid dog—the one that read, “will you marry my daddy?”—arrived in the mail just that morning and was two sizes too small. I squeezed him into it anyway, and it somehow made his already giant head look even bigger. Maybe that’s why you couldn’t stop laughing when you saw him. You were cackling—loudly—your dress half on and your nails half painted. I had come to get you for our date too early. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t wait. I was sweating through my burnt shirt and clutching wilted flowers, kneeling like a fool. You didn’t say yes or no, but the stars in your eyes were confirmation enough.
I can share that. That’s easy. I’ve shared it a hundred times before. Everyone wanted to know the engagement story, after. Everyone has heard us reenact it, some more than once. We told it over and over, our faces glowing as we remembered the zany mishap that led us to the altar.
I made you a promise there, in my own stilted way.
I thought, then, that your idea to have us write our own was a terrible, mean-spirited challenge. Where you failed in mathematics, you soared in creativity. You would sound like a poet in front of our family and friends, and I—I would sound like a clown.
I thought that it would be impossible—the hardest thing I’d ever have to do.
But I did it. I stood up there and stammered and stumbled my way through the speech I had prepared for you—floundered through the promise I had written for you. It was nowhere near as hard as this. My vows, then, included that eternal drivel, for better or for worse. Till death do us part.
How was I to know?
How was I to know there was another speech to write, another vow to make?
What story do I share, standing before our friends and family—before you? What goodbye can I give that honors your memory? I am selfish with my memories of you. I don’t want to share them.
Once, you told me that when you died you wanted to be ground into dust and scattered beneath the moon. You told me that you wanted to fertilize the earth so that trees would grow from you and you could stretch among the stars. I told you to stop being so morbid. Who thinks that much about death?
I didn’t believe in fate, then, but I do now. It yawned above us that night as you took my hand beneath the moon and asked me if we were alone in the universe.
You are among the stars, now—scattered among the cosmos that first led me to you. You don’t need a tree to reach the heavens. The universe called you home too soon, and I will let the universe eulogize you.
I don’t need a memory to say goodbye. I only need to remember the vow I made then, and the vow I’ll make now.
I’ll see you again.