Matt Runkle


When I was a boy, and my mother was pregnant with an as-yet sexless child, I somehow ended up in possession of a baby doll. Its face and hands were clusters of convexities, hard and plastic with highlights that were fevered. The rest of it was blue and cloth and plush, a onesie with a hooded point at the crown of its head.

The only planes on the baby doll's surface were its eyes. They had labels affixed to them, blue circles with blank 1/8 slices of light. I tried to unpeel them once in a fit of boredom, but they wouldn't come off in one piece and left patches of residue.

I made a portrait of the baby doll, a simple line drawing I sent to the local paper in hopes of having it published in the daily feature, Kids' Korner. I can't say it was much of a likeness, although there was something about it that made aesthetic sense.

But this story is more about brides than babies, so I'll end my reminiscence by adding that the baby doll was a girl. Its hood and cuffs were trimmed in lace, perhaps. There may have been a pattern of tiny pink flowers embedded in its cloth. Regardless, I titled its portrait, "My Baby Sister."

My mother, the infamous romance novelist Maudlyn Monet, was furious. With a sneer, she dismissed the feminine blueprints I'd made for my brother. Immersed in a world where bemuscled he-men cradled maidens in mid-swoon, she insisted her children's upbringing be perfectly gendered. It was the first of our many clashes.


Now that I plan weddings, I'm constantly battling the elements. I plot out awnings and wind blocks. I supervise the rolling out of plastic mats over swampy lawns. I devise ways to keep elaborately coiffed mothers of the bride dry (ribbon-bedecked umbrellas), pasty-faced grooms free from sunburn (top hats are an elegant option), and AA-attending uncles warm (heat lamps are a must at evening receptions). Forlorne, however, has proven a peculiar challenge.

When my brother first introduced Forlorne to me, she was still an indistinct clump of flesh. I was stringing swan-lights along a hydrangea when Bruce appeared from between its branches with her cradled in his arms. He was practicing carrying her over the threshold, and was already being trailed by wedding attendants.

The moment I saw my brother in such a matrimonial pose, I began to coalesce the details of his wedding. Forlorne was the ideal bride, I decided. At the time she looked like an embryo gone awry, her lack of cellular development a wedding planner's dream come true. Though her complexion was blotchy and her hair a bit sparse (at that time it was a dull blond tuft poking out from the cleavage between two bony lumps), she retained a formlessness that I could only describe with a cliché: blank canvas.

I scanned my brother's frame for tuxedo measurements, and noticed he looked a bit worse for the wear. His face was warped from water damage. He was starting to tear at the edge and his thumb-sucking hand was smudged.

Somehow, also, though I'm loath to admit it, he'd been defaced with a mustache and cock-n'-balls. My mother had in the past tried similar alterations, but her efforts were always a bit more refined. I surmised that the vandal was one of the wedding attendants.

"Look at this shit," I once heard one of them say. "Thank God the age of Disney weddings is finally coming to an end."

They needed a lot of work. Their movements were inexcusably sloppy, and, shockingly, they were ignorant of nuptial protocol. I was grateful for my training at the Academy of Strategic Matrimonial Infrastructure. I'd learned that creating a blessed event often requires swift authoritarian action. It was essential that I stay qualmless when crafting my vision, for a wedding is all about the ends, and those ends must unfold as picturesque.

Chastising the attendants, however, would be child's play when compared to the main obstacle to my goal: my mother. Though we rarely battled directly over aesthetics, she often attempted to sabotage my artistic endeavors. I'd gone through countless pairs of rose-colored glasses, only to find a screw loosened, a lens fractured, the nose pads adjusted to slide off the bridge of my nose. Bruce, in particular, was a point of contention—a project to which we'd often applied opposing efforts.


The big day has arrived, and I frenziedly work to bring about the look and feel of an embarkment upon a lifetime's journey of love. The wedding attendants are sedated, and I've even reached a rare compromise with my mother. Forlorne, though, having recently gone through a fresh bout of evolution, is proving to be a nuisance.

"I feel like my face is melting off my skull," she says, scrunching her veil into her eyes, encrusting it with a mortar of mucus and muffling its pearly sheen.

"Where are those goggles I gave you?" I shoot a stern look at the attendants, who drift apart and start a futile hunt through pockets and purses.

"It's lonely back there behind the glass," says Forlorne.

"Not as lonely as spending your life miserable and single."

My mother folds into a deck chair and unfolds her cell phone, sighing a crackling sigh. In moments of tension, her breath achieves an electrical hum. The wedding attendants—trained by sleep-deprivation techniques— display their empty palms in unison.

"What about the pills?" I ask. "Are you taking the pills?"

"Fuck the pills," spits Forlorne. "They make me feel like a junkie."

She tosses back her veil and glares from behind swollen eyes. My mother whispers tensely into her phone, a tinnital whine backing every breathy word.

I take Forlorne's lace-enveloped hand and poke two round, blue capsules into her palm. She spasms and lurches toward the towering cake, crisping her fists through its shell and into its soft insides.

My mother—never one to overreact—re-crosses her legs and adjusts her heirloom barrette. I sense she has plans even as she hisses into the phone.

I'm relieved to be on her side for once.


When I began meeting with the couple to discuss preparations, I noticed a marked difference in Forlorne. She'd grown a defined skull, limbs, and a busty torso. Her hair had thickened and spread to cover her head, and her digits were fully developed and tipped with nails. Her calves were oddly pronounced, stockingless and scattered with small yellow bruises.

Her facial features, however, were still half-formed. It was difficult to ascertain her eyeballs' development behind the swollen folds of their lids. Her nostrils oozed with mucus, and the line between flesh and slime was unclear. Despite this, she already had an astounding grasp of language.

"Of course, you'll need a makeover," I said, as I seated Bruce and her at a white wicker sweetheart table.

"A makeover?" she said, stirring the mess of her nose. "Do you realize how much I've changed already?"

"Well, we're going to have to do something about your face. It looks . . . puffy."

"I have allergies," she said. "There's so much pollen recently." She pinched at the air, and squinting with eyes both bloated and sullen, presented me a sulfurous-looking dust.

I prescribed her the goggles and blue pills, knowing full well that they would only bide her time. It was now clear Forlorne had failed to adjust to the aesthetic I was creating.

I looked at my brother flapping gaily in the breeze. I missed the complexity of when he was still a three-dimensional concept—a potential kid sister made of plush and plastic. He came out looking so flat.

I pondered the sort of wedding my mother was now writing for him.


"Don't think of it as losing a brother," my mother said, once I'd expressed my concern about Forlorne's new look. "Think of it as gaining a sister. You've always wanted a sister, haven't you?"

She reclined on one elbow beneath a parasol, her laptop open against her apricot skirt. I asked her what she was writing.

"An understated affair," she said, "weighted with awe-strikingly reserved elegance. A stirring retelling of an age-old ritual of loss and redemption. A solemn ceremony of commitment with unmistakable erotic undertones. And you?"

"Perhaps something a bit more detail-oriented," I replied.

"Gender ambiguity hardly allows for detail."

"Actually," I said, "our bride has matured into quite the lady. She's become too curvaceous to deny it. And obstinate. She's not one who takes well to the designs of others."

"I'm not worried," said my mother, shifting to reach her mimosa. "She's hardly prominent in my plans."

"She may soon be," I said. "She's not easily subdued."

My mother shut her laptop with a snap, and raised herself onto her hip.

"I'll make a deal with you, darling. A compromise of sorts, in honor of Bruce's blessed day. I'll acknowledge you're the professional, and let you manage every detail but one."

Champagne bubbles glistened on her lips; she shoveled them aside with her nail.

"The cake," she said. "Let me handle the cake."

"As a professional, I feel it's imperative to include the cake as part of my work. It's the celebration's centerpiece."

"And as a mother, I ask you to grant me this one honor. I assure you I won't meddle in any other aspects of your craft."

Her priority as mother was questionable, as it was obvious that I'd played a crucial role in Bruce's creation. It was a title, I felt, she'd attained by default, due to her matronly visage and pushy demeanor. But I'd learned from experience appeasing my mother could sometimes, in the long run, prevent her from sinking the ship.

"Excellent," she said. "You're so used to fighting nature, darling. Sometimes it's better to just let it take its toll. Maybe harness it, even, for the greater good."


Forlorne extracts her hands from the cake and covers her eyes.

"Your act is half-baked," I tell her. "You need to give in to the fiction of this perfectly planned event."

"I don't understand," she says. Crumbs cling to the goo that encrusts her eyes.

"Your pollen allergy is simply God's last-ditch effort at filling you the rest of the way in. He's trying to redraw your facial features, Forlorne. Letting the pollen seep into your skin will allow the necessary swelling."

Forlorne sticks her knuckles in her eyes, making the rash creep outward to her hairline. It's a rather chic effect, I think, but perhaps a bit too chic. One liable to cause people to talk.

"I just want to dunk my head in something soothing," she says. "Not God."

From the blurry border of the lawn drifts my brother, looking stunning in his hand-painted suit.

"Forlorne, my love," he says. "Can you see me?"

Forlorne crouches and clutches her knees. "No," she says, beginning to rock. "Not before the wedding."

My mother snaps her cell phone shut and sighs.

"What's wrong now?" she asks.

"She always cries at weddings," I say, arranging some lilies, flicking their stamina, sending some yellow clouds afloat. "Who was on the phone?"

"The baker, of course, darling," she says, moving away. Then, in a feedback-laced whisper: "And the newspaper editor."

"The editor? Of the newspaper?"

 "By the way, the baker also agrees we need to make a public service announcement."

She gestures for the attendants, who unsheathe their forks, tapping them against the prisms dangling from the eleventh layer of the cake.

"All right, everyone," my mother announces. "The baker's cleared up some safety issues.

"You see, when I first arrived, I was in ecstasy over this . . . this colossus behind me. Has a star, I wondered, fallen to earth to mark this blessed day?

"On further inspection however, I realized it was rather the exquisite cake I'd ordered. Well, of course, I was concerned about its palatability—the way its decorations glisten struck me as rather, well, sinister."

She pauses for a chuckle from the attendants.

"But have no fear," she continues. "The baker assures me it's harmless. Every light-catching detail is handspun from sugar!"

She lifts her hands, her thumbs and forefingers encircling two lens-like discs of candy. They suck the sunlight and thrust it in Forlorne's puffy eyes, searing them into two smoking craters.

"Mother," I scold. "You're doing my job for me again."

Forlorne, gazeless and moaning, continues to rock squatly. My mother blinks as if sloughing off a trance.

"I told you an autumn wedding would be more tasteful," she says, approaching my brother's eyes. "Bruce, darling. Are you wearing eyeliner?"

Earlier, when I helped Bruce dress, I took a pencil to the hem of his eyes, creating a rather striking look for a groom. Given recent developments, though, I fear it may detract attention from the bride.