"The Proxy Marriage" by Maile Meloy Originally published in the May 21, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
It isn’t a secret to anyone who has followed this blog in the past that I’m a huge fan of Maile Meloy’s short fiction. I loved her excellent debut collection, Half in Love, and cannot praise enough her even better follow-up, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (my review of Half in Love here; of Both Ways here). I was thrilled, then, to see that she was back with this week’s New Yorker story. I was doubly thrilled to see that it begins in Montana, where my favorites of her stories take place.
“The Proxy Marriage” focuses on the love that William, an awkward and shy boy, has for Bridey Taylor, a confident singer who wants to become an actress. The story begins when each is in high school, looking forward to a life beyond the small town they are growing up in. Though William loves Bridey desperately, he is under no illusion that his future will include her in any greater role than she already plays. He hasn’t the courage to ask her out. In fact, after another boy has asked Bridey out, told her that he has already accomplished two of the three goals he has for high school, and that he thinks she can help him with the third, which is to have a serious girlfriend, Bridey laughs to William, “He was so earnest.” Then, “William made a mental note never to be earnest with Bridey.”
Bridey’s father is an attorney. As it turns out, Montana is one of the few states to allow proxy marriages and the only state to allow double proxy marriages, where neither person has to be present. Due to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is quite a demand for these types of marriages, and Bridey’s father asks William and Bridey to act as the proxies. Of course, the prospect of even a proxy marriage to Bridey makes William unable to speak straight. He accepts and shows up to the ceremony dressed in a suit. Bridey hasn’t taken it nearly as seriously.
“You look nice,” she said. There was annoyance in her voice.
“Thank you,” he said, mortified.
Bridey looked like an ordinary girl in a sullen mood, not like the love of anyone’s life, and he felt a flicker of hope — not that she would ever come to love him, but that someday he might not be in thrall to her, he might be free. She was chewing gum.
We feel for William for whom this love is a torture, especially as we see him recognize that peace might come if he could only stop loving her. Even when they both go to school in different states, and even when they are both finished with school and seeking stability. In expert fashion, Meloy quickens the narrative pace, while showing us that through the passage of the years William’s feelings do not change.
Bridey laughed, and then it turned into something like a sob. “Maybe my mother was right,” she said. “I’m just not pretty enough.”
“Bridey,” he said. “You’ve been there eight months.”
But they had the same conversation after two years, then three. [. . . .] Sometimes he went weeks without thinking of Bridey, and sometimes she haunted him. Then came a year when there were no calls, no e-mails, no word.
The years continue to pass, and William cannot remove himself from his feelings for Bridey; it doesn’t help that any time both are visiting home and are free they participate in proxy marriages. William spends much of him time resenting his feelings, even suspecting that Auden’s line — “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me” — is just an example that proves “[t]he role of the human brain was to rationalize suffering.”
This isn’t my favorite of Meloy’s stories, but I still loved being back in her world where the writing is succinct and direct. There’s no evasion here, as we learn the story of William’s love through the years. Highly recommended.