Five Years Earlier
New York City, 2000
See, it's simple," Alvin said. "First, you meet a nice girl, and then you date for a while to make sure you share the same values. See if you two are compatible in the big, 'this is our life and we're in it together' decisions. You know, talk about which family you're going to visit on the holidays, whether you want to live in a house or an apartment, whether to get a dog or a cat, who gets to use the shower first in the morning, while there's still plenty of hot water. If you two are still pretty much in agreement, then you get married. Are you following me here?"
"I'm following you," Jeremy said.
Jeremy Marsh and Alvin Bernstein were standing in Jeremy's Upper West Side apartment on a cool Saturday afternoon in February. They'd been packing for hours, and boxes were strewn everywhere. Some of the boxes were already filled and had been stacked near the door, ready for the moving van; others were in various stages of completion. All in all, it looked as if a Tasmanian devil had burst through the door, had himself a party, then left once there was nothing else to be destroyed. Jeremy couldn't believe how much junk he'd accumulated over the years, a fact that his fiancée, Lexie Darnell, had been pointing out all morning. Twenty minutes ago, after throwing up her hands in frustration, Lexie had gone to have lunch with Jeremy's mother, leaving Jeremy and Alvin alone for the first time.
"So what on earth do you think you're doing?" Alvin prodded.
"Just what you said."
"No, you're not. You're messing up the order. You're going straight to the big 'I do' before you even figured out whether you two are right for each other. You barely know Lexie."
Jeremy shoved another drawer's worth of clothing into a box, wishing Alvin would change the subject. "I know her."
Alvin began shuffling through a few papers on Jeremy's desk, then shoved the stack into the same box Jeremy was loading. As Jeremy's best friend, he felt free to speak his mind.
"I'm just trying to be honest here, and you should know that I'm saying what everyone else in your family has been thinking in the past few weeks. The point is, you don't know her well enough to move down there, let alone marry her. You only spent a week with her. This isn't like you and Maria," he added, referring to Jeremy's ex. "Remember, I knew Maria, too, a whole lot better than you know Lexie, but I still never felt as if I knew her well enough to marry her."
Jeremy removed the pages and put them back on his desk, recalling that Alvin had known Maria even before he had and still remained friends with her. "So?"
"So? What if I was doing this? What if I came to you and said I met this great lady, so I'm giving up my career, abandoning my friends and family, and moving down south so I can marry her? Like that gal . . . what's her name . . . Rachel?"
Rachel worked at Lexie's grandmother's restaurant, and Alvin had hit on her during his short visit to Boone Creek, going so far as to invite her to New York.
"I'd say that I was happy for you."
"Puh-lease. Don't you remember what you said when I was thinking about marrying Eva?"
"I remember. But this is different."
"Oh yeah, I get it. Because you're more mature than me."
"That and the fact that Eva wasn't exactly the marrying type."
This was true, Alvin admitted. While Lexie was a small-town librarian in the rural South, someone hoping to settle down, Eva was a tattoo artist in Jersey City. She was the woman who'd done most of the tattoos on Alvin's arms, in addition to most of the piercings in Alvin's ears, making Alvin look as if he'd just been released from prison. None of which had bothered Alvin; it was the live-in boyfriend that she'd neglected to tell him about that finally doomed their relationship.
"Even Maria thinks this is crazy."
"You told her?"
"Of course I told her. We talk about everything."
"I'm glad you're so close to my ex-wife. But it's none of her business. Or yours."
"I'm just trying to talk some sense into you. This is happening too fast. You don't know Lexie."
"Why do you keep saying that?"
"I'm going to keep saying it until you finally admit that you two are basically strangers."
Alvin, like Jeremy's five older brothers, had never learned how to drop a subject. The man was like a dog with a bone, Jeremy decided.
"She's not a stranger."
"No? Then what's her middle name?"
"You heard me. Tell me Lexie's middle name."
Jeremy blinked. "What's that got to do with anything?"
"Nothing. But if you're going to marry her, don't you think you should be able to answer the question?"
Jeremy opened his mouth to answer, then realized he didn't know. Lexie had never told him, nor had he ever asked. Alvin, as if sensing that he was finally getting through to his delusional friend, pressed on.
"Okay, how about these basics? What was her major in college? Who were her friends in college? What's her favorite color? Does she like white or whole-wheat bread? What's her favorite movie or television show? Who's her favorite author? Do you even know how old she is?"
"She's in her thirties," Jeremy offered.
"In her thirties? I could have told you that."
"I'm pretty sure she's thirty-one."
"You're 'pretty sure'? Can you even hear how ridiculous you sound? You can't marry someone if you don't even know how old she is."
Jeremy opened another drawer and emptied it into another box, knowing that Alvin had a point but not wanting to admit it. Instead, he drew a long breath.
"I thought you were happy I finally found someone," he said.
"I am happy for you. But I didn't think you were actually going to move from New York and decide to marry her. I thought you were kidding about that. You know I think she's a great lady. She really is, and if you're still this serious about her in a year or two, I'll drag you down the aisle myself. You're just rushing things, and there's no reason to."
Jeremy turned toward the window; beyond the glass he saw gray, soot-covered bricks framing the functional, rectangular windows of a neighboring building. Shadowed images swept past: a lady talking on the phone; a man wrapped in a towel headed for the bathroom; another woman ironing as she watched television. In all the time he'd lived here, he'd never said so much as hello to any of them.
"She's pregnant," he finally said.
For a moment, Alvin thought he hadn't heard correctly. It was only when he saw the expression on his friend's face that he realized Jeremy wasn't kidding.
"It's a girl."
Alvin plopped down on the bed as if his legs had suddenly given out. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Jeremy shrugged. "She asked me not to tell anyone yet. So keep it a secret, will you?"
"Yeah," Alvin said, sounding dazed. "Sure."
"And one more thing."
Alvin looked up.
Jeremy reached for his shoulder. "I'd like you to be my best man."
How had it happened?
At First Sight