I try not to breathe as the last corset hook is yanked into place. "Ow, that's digging into my rib cage."
Yenyen huffs a breath through his teeth and gives one last vicious tug, which forces a squeak out of me. "In the past, brides would break their ribs to fit into their wedding dresses," he says, and it strikes me that he's not saying it in a horrified tone, but rather a wistful one, which is somewhat worrying. "How do you feel?"
I risk breathing again, and to my surprise, despite the torturous time I had getting stuffed into the dress, once I'm in, it's actually-dare I say it-comfortable. What sort of black magic is this? I could've sworn I would hardly be able to take even the tiniest sip of air. I blink at him in surprise. "I can breathe in it."
I can't quite see his eyes behind the round, purple-tinted sunglasses, but I'm pretty sure I hear them roll.
"Aduuuh, of course you can breathe in it, silly. Yenyen's creations aren't just beautiful, they're also built for maximum comfort."
I can't help but smile at him. Yenyen has a tendency to refer to himself in third person, which should sound mildly deranged but actually comes off as somewhat endearing. His real name is Yenzhen, but nobody is allowed to call him that. Within the Chinese tradition, it's common to have phonetically repeated names as a pet name, and as Yenyen says, he's everybody's best friend, so we must call him Yenyen.
"Now, are you ready to see it?" he says.
Am I? My heart rate rises. My cheeks grow warm. This will be the forty-millionth dress I've tried on. I swear I've tried on every wedding dress L.A. has to offer, and each time, there's been something that Ma or my aunts didn't like. Over the last few months, as we exhausted every bridal boutique in greater Los Angeles, their comments have seared themselves onto my brain.
"Sequin not shiny enough."
"The lace look itchy, is making me itchy, is making you itchy?"
"Body too slutty." (Second Aunt meant bodice. I think.)
And so on and so forth, until Nathan announced that he'd arranged for Indonesia's premiere wedding dress designer to come to L.A. with custom-made dresses. Including-and this is the pice de rŽsistance-dresses for the mother and aunts of the bride.
I swallow and nod at Yenyen. "I'm ready."
"Okay, keep your eyes closed, though!" He gathers the skirt behind me as I turn slowly to face the floor-length mirror. After a minute of rustling and fussing, he says, "Open your eyes."
I do as he says.
My mouth drops open. "Yenyen-" My breath catches in my throat. There are no words to describe this dress. I know, in that moment, that this is it. This is The One. The bodice is swathed in the softest, most delicate lace that looks like it was sewn by fairies using spider silk. The skirt is a gorgeous frothy affair that somehow remains light enough for me to move around in. The entire thing hugs my body in all the right places and accentuates my curves in a way that is at once sexy and conservative. I feel as though I'm wearing a cloud. Tears rush to my eyes. "It's perfect," I whisper.
Yenyen waves me off, but it's obvious he's fighting off a huge smile. "Shall we show your family?"
Here we go. Deep breath. I don't know what I'll do if they say they don't like it. I steel myself, tightening my hands into fists. I'll fight for this dress. I've acquiesced to their never-ending laundry list of complaints, despite many of the dresses I've tried on being perfectly fine. This one isn't just perfectly fine, though. It's actually perfect. And I won't let them ruin it for me. I won't. I-
"Ta-da!" Yenyen cries as he yanks open the bedroom door with a flourish.
I grit my teeth, awaiting the cascade of complaints, but there are none. In fact, there is nobody around. The sofa and chairs arranged in a semicircle in Ma's living room are empty.
"Aduh," Yenyen cries, throwing up his hands. "Yenyen can't work like this. You know how important a good entrance is? This isn't just a dress; it's an experience!"
"I'm so sorry. I don't know where they went. Maybe to the bathroom?" I'm about to call out for them when footsteps thunder down the hallway.
"Meddy? That you? Sudahan ya?" Ma calls out.
"Yes, she is done!" Yenyen snaps. "Please take your seats so your daughter can show you her beautiful wedding gown."
"Eh, tunggu! Meddy, you close your eyes!"
"What?" Yenyen's face is turning red. His whole moment is being ruined, poor guy.
"Just go with it." I pat him on the shoulder.
"Unbelievable!" he snaps, but takes control of himself and arranges my skirt and train so it cascades flawlessly across the hardwood floor.
"Ready or not, ah?" Second Aunt shouts.
"Yes." I close my eyes, half-dreading what I'm about to see. Ma and the rest of my aunts come out of Ma's bedroom giggling like schoolgirls. But before they get to the living room, Yenyen mutters, "This feels wrong," and rushes over to the hallway to see them.
His gasp can be heard all the way over in Santa Monica. "Those are not the dresses Yenyen brought you!"
"No, it's the dresses Jonjon brought them," someone else says regally.
Okay, not even the strongest-willed person can keep their eyes closed through this. I crack one eye open just as a tall, thin man wrapped in a tight-fitting snakeskin suit emerges from the kitchen.
Yenyen gasps again. "Jonjon. How dare you!"
"What's going on?" I say.
"Hello, nice to meet you. I'm Jonjon, you might have heard of me? Voted most avant-garde fashion designer in Indonesia? I was featured in Tatler and Vogue?" He extends a hand dripping with various chunky rings. Unsure what to do, I shake it limply. "Your family asked me to design their gowns for your wedding."
"But Yenyen designed their gowns!" Yenyen cries.
Jonjon snorts. "Those lumpy brown sacks? I don't think so. These ladies deserve better. Ready to see them?"
"Wait, wait!" Yenyen grabs a wool blanket off the couch and throws it around me. "Okay, when the time is right, throw off the blanket with a flourish, ya?"
"Um. Okay." I hug the blanket tight around me and nod at Jonjon, half-dreading what I'm about to see.
"Behold!" Jonjon waves grandly, taps on his phone, and tinny pop music plays as, one by one, my family struts down the hallway.
I turn around. And stare in shock-horror at the spectacle before me.
Big Aunt, Second Aunt, Ma, and Fourth Aunt are all decked out in the most blinged-out, most aggressively purple dresses I have ever laid eyes on. Ever. How do I describe the particular shade of purple? It's as if flamingo pink and electric blue had a baby and then that baby snorted a line of coke and proceeded to punch you in the face. It is a lot of purple. And it's a lot of different kinds of material. I'm talking taffeta, and embroidery, and sequins-oh god, so many sequins. With every move my mother and aunts make, crystals and jewels flash and threaten to blind me. And that's not even the worst part.
"What are those things on your heads?" My voice comes out hushed with horror, but Fourth Aunt must have misheard it as awe, because she simpers and flutters her fake lashes at me.
"Aren't these just gorgeous?" She pats the-the thing on her head gently. "It's called a fascinator. They are a must-have for English weddings. We're going to fit in so well."
"With that thing on your head? I mean, what-I-but-" I sputter.
"Aiya, you hate it!" Ma wails. She turns to her sisters. "I tell you, I say, Komodo dragon is not good choice, we should have gone with flamingo!"
My mouth opens and closes, but no words come out. What does one say when faced with four women wearing ten-inch-tall Komodo dragons on their heads? Well, not actual live ones, at least. I think. "They're not real, are they?" I don't know that I'd be able to forgive my family if they were.
At this, Jonjon smiles smugly. "They look real, don't they? I understand why you'd think they are; the craftsmanship is flawless, isn't it?"
Again, no words come. The dragons are in various positions, each one weirder than the last, but also somehow compatible with each woman's personality. Big Aunt's dragon is standing on its two hind legs, the front ones akimbo, like an Asian auntie who disapproves of your life choices. Second Aunt's dragon is-of course-stretched into some bizarre Tai Chi pose. Ma's is sitting down, primly sipping tea. Yes, there is an actual tiny teacup in its paws. And Fourth Aunt's is doing karaoke.
I turn to Yenyen. Maybe he can play bad cop for me and shoot this whole ridiculous getup down in flames. Like me, he's also staring openmouthed at their fascinators. He extends an arm and touches Fourth Aunt's dragon gingerly as though expecting it to come to life and take a chunk out of his hand.
"Amazing," he says.
I sidle over to him and whisper, "Don't you mean 'ridiculous'?"
His gaze flicks over to me and I see belatedly that the expression he's wearing isn't so much shock as it is wonderment. "Look at the craftsmanship. The scales, those eyes!"
"You mean how they follow you around the room?" I can't help but shudder.
"It's called the Mona Lisa effect," Yenyen says.
My mother and aunts preen.
"You do realize he's calling the dragons Mona Lisa, not you," I point out. Which is probably a petty thing to say, but really, now. There is no way in hell I can let this happen. I can't have them meeting Nathan's parents wearing Komodo-freaking-dragons on their heads.
"Okay, yang bener ya. Serious time," Big Aunt says, straightening her back and smoothing down the front of her ruffled skirt. "What you think, Meddy?"
I tear my eyes from the tops of their heads to her face, and that's when I realize it: Big Aunt is nervous. It's the first time I've seen that vulnerable look on her face. Well, I guess I have seen it one other time before, when she had to move the body of a man I'd just killed. The naked worry and hope in her face make my chest squeeze painfully. My eyes move from Big Aunt to the others and find all of them wide-eyed with anticipation. Ma is wringing her hands, and Second Aunt looks like she's one mean comment away from plunging into a Tai Chi pose. Fourth Aunt is studying her nails, but now and again, she steals glances my way, and I know then that she's just as nervous as the others.
"Um." My voice falters. I clear my throat and try again. "Well. Um. More importantly, what do you think, Big Aunt? Do you feel good in it?"
She starts to nod, but Jonjon shrieks, "Be careful!" and she jerks her head upright. Her Komodo dragon wobbles precariously for a few tense seconds as we stare with bated breath. Then it rights itself.
Sensing an opportunity, I pounce. "Well, uh-as incredible as they look, if you can't move freely in them, then I don't know if they're a good idea. I want you to feel completely comfortable at my wedding, Big Aunt."
"True . . ." she says.
Hope flutters in my chest.
"Oh, not a problem. On the day of, you just tell your hair and makeup artist to sew the fascinators to your wig," Yenyen says. "That's how most celebrities get them to stay on, you know."
"Thanks, Yenyen, very helpful," I hiss through gritted teeth. He's supposed to be on my side.
"So you like?" Big Aunt says, her eyes searching mine.
"I . . ." Six pairs of eyes bear down on me like six searing-hot laser beams. I know when I'm defeated. "If you like them, then I like them too."
Ma and the aunties' faces melt into huge grins, and for just this one moment, I'm glad I went along with it. Then common sense returns and I kick myself inwardly. What have I just done? What did I agree to? What is Nathan's prim English family going to think? The thought of introducing my batty family members to his well-dressed, eloquent mother is almost enough to make me break out in hives. Of course, as always, as soon as I think this, the guilt comes in full attack mode. I shouldn't be ashamed of my own family, not even with Komodo dragons on their heads. They've gone through so much for me, like covering up an actual murder. The least I can do is pretend to like their hideous outfits.
But I don't get a chance to say anything as Yenyen crows, "Okay, Yenyen's turn!" and whips the blanket off me. My family gasps at the sight of my dress.
"Wah, bagus, bagus," Second Aunt says.
"Mm, I love it," Fourth Aunt agrees. "Sexy, not trampy."
I turn to Ma. "What do you think?"
Ma is blinking away tears. "Oh, Meddy." Her voice catches and she grasps my hands.
A lump forms in my throat and I nod through my tears at Ma.
"Yes, so very pretty, so beautiful bride," Big Aunt says, patting my cheek fondly. I smile back at her. The Komodo dragon atop her head grins down at me. "You going to make big splash in Oxford."
Well, some of us will, at least. The mention of Oxford fills my stomach with butterflies. Ever since I cracked open Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at age ten, I was hooked. And when I visited Nathan's family all those years ago, he'd taken me on a tour of Oxford University. It had cemented my love for the gorgeous city. It was a no-brainer when he'd suggested having the wedding at one of the oldest and biggest colleges at the university: Christ Church College. With its expansive gardens and magnificent cathedral, Christ Church makes the perfect wedding venue. I'd thought Ma and the aunties would be against it, but when I told them, they'd literally whooped with joy, especially when we offered to pay for their airfare. And, as horrible as it sounds, there's an additional benefit to having a wedding in England-I won't have to invite the rest of my humongous family.
Not that I don't love them; it's just that there are so many of them-all of my cousins and their families, for one, and then my mother's cousins and their families. Chinese-Indonesian weddings tend to have thousands of guests for a reason; everyone is related to everyone else, and if you fail to invite your cousin's cousin's spouse's cousin, there would be such Slighted Feelings. Generations of family feuds have stemmed from this uncle not inviting that cousin's brother-in-law's father-in-law to his daughter's wedding. With a destination wedding, we can just tell the rest of the family that we don't want to impose, and that they shouldn't feel obligated to spend thousands of dollars to travel all the way to England just to watch me get married. In the end, the only people from my side of the family who are attending are Ma, the aunties, and a handful of cousins, which is such a huge relief. None of my aunties' sons are coming. I had a video call with them and we all agreed that the aunties would be so emotional and overbearing that it would probably be best for everyone's sanity not to have them there. The relieved expression on my cousin Gucci's face was so palpable that I couldn't help laughing and taking a screenshot, just in case I needed to blackmail him in the future. They promised that we'd celebrate ourselves when we next had a family gathering. We've somehow ended up with over two hundred guests anyway, thanks to Nathan's numerous business contacts, which appeases Ma and the aunties' need for big weddings.