As it turned out, Franny and Leo waited nearly twenty minutes for Marilyn to arrive. When she did, it was on Douglas’s arm. Their friend appeared nearly herself, unless they looked closely, in which case they would realize that her skin had a grayish cast, her step had an unusual hesitation, and her shoulders sagged just a millimeter lower than they should.
But neither Franny nor Leo wanted to look that closely, or at least to register what their observations meant, so they smiled and rose to embrace Marilyn and Douglas, awkwardly, around the table, trying not to knock anything or anyone over.
“My apologies for being so dreadfully late,” Marilyn said as Douglas helped her into the chair.
“Only about twenty minutes,” Leo said, “that’s nothing. You are here now, and that’s all that matters.” Franny wondered at her own urge to disagree. Twenty minutes late was substantial, so unlike Marilyn, but she focused on maintaining a cheerful smile.
“I won’t have you apologizing for me, Marilyn,” Douglas said. “It was all my fault. Marilyn would have been here spot on time if she hadn’t been forced to wait while I searched for my keys.”
Something about his tone, and Marilyn’s expression, made Franny speculate about his veracity.
“The reason is less important than the result,” Marilyn said. “We kept you waiting, and for that I am sorry. Now, dears, let’s get down to the business at hand.” She paused, perhaps for drama, or perhaps to catch her breath, Franny wasn’t sure. “Douglas and I would be honored to have you at our wedding. It’s coming up quickly, I’m afraid, about three weeks from today, but we very much hope you can both be there to stand up for us. Such a charming old-fashioned idea, isn’t it – friends standing up for a couple. But there it is. We are old-fashioned people, in some ways.”
“We wouldn’t miss it,” Leo said.
“Of course not,” added Franny. “How can we help with preparations?”
“Before you make a final commitment, dears, we feel the need to be completely honest about our situation,” Marilyn went on. “No false pretenses. This is not exactly a love match.”
Douglas’s smile skewed a bit as he picked up the story. “Marilyn, this is a love match entirely. But perhaps not the way most people think about romantic love. The truth is, I love this woman with all my heart and soul. She is the best friend I’ve ever had, and her intelligence, artistic spirit, and kindness are balms to my wounds. It’s only that the legal part, transforming this friendship into a legal marriage – well, the reason for that is not the usual. We do not plan to start a family, for instance.” His eyes crinkled with the humor of it.
“Nor do we seek legitimacy for our physical passion,” Marilyn added with her own twinkle. “I leave it to you to decipher whether that means we don’t have passion, or we simply do not need any external body to legitimize it.” Franny felt a warm blush touch her cheeks. “In this uncertain world,” Marilyn continued, “there is only one thing we need that marriage license for: health insurance. I am facing some health issues that I prefer not to describe in excruciating detail. Suffice to say that since I have no children or siblings, I need a designated caregiver. And Douglas has agreed to extend his coverage to me, and to step in to help in my hour of need.”
As usual, Leo knew what to say first. “You are a true gentleman, sir, and a romantic at heart, I can tell. You are lucky to have one another. I love you both. Just tell me what I can do for you.”
Franny could only manage to nod agreement as she grasped Marilyn’s hand in her own, eyes moist, at the realization that her friend was facing something altogether dreadful, and transforming it into something lovely.
“There, Douglas, you see. I knew they wouldn’t balk, two such intrepid friends.” Marilyn beamed.