"The Last-Minute Wedding Guest"
A girl races to France to stop her ex from marrying someone else in this hilarious story from Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau, author of FRENCH KISSING IN NEW YORK.
It’s hard enough to write books in one language. Our friend Anne-Sophie Jouhanneau somehow does it in two. French-born and now living in New York, she celebrated the launch of her latest novel, French Kissing in New York, on Tuesday! She also penned a laugh-out-loud story for us here at Heartbeat, perfect for Emily in Paris fans.
You know when you’ve had a third glass of pinot grigio and stumble across a post online from your ex, announcing they’re getting married? In real life, you probably pour yourself a fourth glass and send screenshots to your best friends. In “The Last-Minute Wedding Guest,” Alexandra spontaneously buys a plane ticket to France and races to stop the nuptials… in a language she doesn’t speak… and in a car she can barely drive. Bon appétit.
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“The Last-Minute Wedding Guest”
What you need to understand about this story–from the moment I received that cryptic text message from Mike three weeks ago until now, as I race through this charming French village in a capricious little rental car–is that I’m innocent. Nothing I did after that fateful lunch at Bobo in New York was a crime. It’s not even technically a breach of the Ex Code. (I said technically.)
I was just struck by a feeling, you know, that some things are simply meant to be.
Or at least they seem that way, right up until the point when your washing-machine-sized rental car stalls noisily in front of a group of men standing on the village square, and your silky dress is already drenched in sweat. It’s me. Bonjour. I’m the one who didn’t see the big deal when the rental company said they didn’t have automatic cars available last-minute. I’m the one in the dress that is clearly not silk at all, but actually some cheap polyester. The one who is now starting to wonder if that spur-of-the-moment trip to the picturesque Loire Valley was such an amazing idea after all.
But before I can ponder this further, one of the men staring at me in amusement steps forward and taps on my window. Even in my jet-lag-induced daze, I understand the international sign. Still, it takes me a good thirty seconds to locate the button and lower the pane of glass separating us.
“Bonjour,” he says with a grin. He’s in a dark navy suit with a skinny burgundy tie, his black hair is coiffed to the side, and two dimples appear on his freshly-shaven cheeks as his smile grows wider.
“Um, yes, bonjour,” I reply calmly, before I realize that I’ve just exhausted 90% of my high school French. Last night, as I waited for my flight to board, I vaguely considered looking up common French phrases, then promptly put my phone away. It felt like I was tempting fate, like this trip—if you can call it that—only made sense if I could reasonably claim it wasn’t premeditated.
“Jacques,” he says, pointing at himself. His tone implies that it should mean something to me, but why would I know any of the French guests? To be honest, I’ve only met Mike’s parents a couple of times and, aside from his closest buddies, I’m not sure which of his friends made the trip to France on such short notice. “J’imagine que vous êtes là pour le mariage,” Jacques adds, taking in my hastily-applied makeup and crinkled hot pink dress (an overtly bold choice I’m very much regretting right about now).
After my flight was delayed last night, I realized there wouldn’t be enough time to drop by the hotel to shower and change before the ceremony. As much as I wanted to blow-dry my hair, work the smoky eye that took me years to master, and take a moment to gather my thoughts, I could not afford to be even remotely late to this thing. Instead, I stopped at a gas station about halfway through the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the Loire Valley. There, I scarfed down two stale croissants and downed a cup of vending-machine coffee so fast I burned my tongue. I know I didn’t fly over here to sample the culinary pleasures the country is known for, but my first taste of France was not a great omen for what was to come. Trailing my carry-on suitcase behind me, I locked myself in a bathroom stall and changed into my off-the-shoulder mini dress, trying hard to ignore the fact that doing so involved standing barefoot on the sticky tiles of a public restroom. After that, I barely had time to wash my face, brush my teeth, douse my hair with dry shampoo, and conceal the redness from the flight with generous squirts of foundation. I didn’t even get a full-length look at myself before high-tailing it back to the car.
Anyway, Jacques—the famous Jacques, apparently—is still leaning over my window, staring at me. Behind him, the rest of the men are starting to file away in the direction of the village’s city hall, where the civil ceremony is to be held. I can barely remember my own name right now, but the details of the wedding have been imprinted on my mind for the last few days.
The wedding. Mariage. Yes, that’s why I’m here.
“Le mariage, oui!” I say, way too enthusiastically.
He must catch my pitiful accent, because his face breaks into a different kind of smile: one you’d give a little girl who has just let her balloon fly away. “Oh, you are on the groom’s side?” he says slowly, searching for each word.
My throat catches. Any minute now, I will forever be known as the American who… But I can’t think about that right now.
“Yes,” I say, my stomach knotting even more deeply. I’m on the groom’s side all right.
His eyes narrow as he studies me with curiosity. They’re pitch black and neatly framed by thick eyebrows. “Friend or family?”
Just then, a car appears behind mine. A glance in the rearview mirror tells me that the driver, an elderly woman, is already grunting at me for blocking the way on this tiny country road.
“I have to…” I say, looking down at my feet in bewilderment. Driving a stick car is one thing. But driving a stick car in high heels on four hours of sleep and three cups of airplane coffee—not counting the one at the gas station—is quite another. I’m literally buzzing with adrenaline, fear and, okay… a little bit of excitement. Though that is quickly waning.
“You don’t know how to drive this car…” Jacques says, addressing a “just a moment” gesture to the driver behind me. It’s softly spoken, imbued with as little judgment as possible, but definitely more of a statement than a question. A reasonable statement, though I would like to let the record show that I did make it here in one piece. Unless you count my dignity, which definitely flew out the window and is now lying dead in a ditch somewhere in the French countryside.
The elderly woman honks, drawing the attention of the few guests who are hurrying up toward the entrance of the white stone building. I check the clock on the dashboard. Ten minutes until go time. I start the car again but, after it emits a loud vroom, it abruptly stalls to a stop before I’ve managed to go anywhere.
“Move over,” Jacques says, opening my car door and gently waving me out of his way. “Come on, we’re going to be late,” he says, pointing at my seatbelt.
I unlatch myself with shaking hands, scoop my knees to my chest, and swivel over the gearshift to slide across to the passenger seat. I’d like to say that this happened in a swift, elegant motion. I’d like to say the bottom of my dress definitely did not rise up to my butt and that I most certainly didn’t flash this stranger with my underwear. You’d think that, on a day like today, I would have done better than wear my flesh-colored granny pants with the lace trim partly ripped off.
Oh god, what am I doing here?
The truth is, I didn’t start this. I have proof. Mike texted me when I was doing nothing but minding my own business. Everything was going great. I had—still do have—a job I love, handling e-commerce marketing for an up-and-coming beauty company. After years of intrusive roommates and moldy ceilings, I finally found a tiny but cozy one-bedroom in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, lovingly decorated with pastel artworks created by my best friend Anita, and a wide collection of green plants, half of which I’ve even managed to keep alive (or alive-adjacent). I have the best of both worlds: a chill, waterfront neighborhood that is only a ferry ride away from the hustle and bustle of my dreamland, Manhattan. That exact same ferry I took to meet Mike three weeks ago, after he texted me out of the blue to ask if I was free for lunch.
He’s the reason why I’m now riding shotgun next to a French stranger, zooming past a row of stone houses with cute little brick chimneys sticking out from angled roofs, narrowly turning the corner back around the now deserted town square, and finally reaching the parking lot I really wish I’d been able to find on my own, behind the city hall.
The car suddenly comes to a screeching halt—my savior might be cute, he’s a bit of an erratic driver—sending gravel flying around us.
“Here we are,” he says, turning to me.
“Merci,” I reply, my jaw so tight it hurts.
He puts a hand on the door handle, then stares back at me. I stare back at him. We sit there in silence for what feels like several minutes, and it’s only when I feel my face go bright red that I realize I must have stopped breathing. I take a comically loud inhale, and then it’s like I’m seeing stars. All that coffee was a really bad idea. But I was so desperate to get to the wedding on time. And now that I’m here, I can’t move.
Jacques studies me curiously, probably because he understands that I’m not going anywhere. “Who did you say you were again?”
Oh, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t. Couldn’t.
“A…Alexandra. Alex, for most people, but it’s always been Alexandra for Mike.”
It was about six years ago, at one of so many college graduation parties I lost count along the way. I had lived in New York for four full years already—a fact that never stopped to blow my mind. My friends back home in our small town outside of Pittsburgh reveled in the photos and tales of my fancy city life. The dive bars, the late nights walking down the Fifth Avenue in high heels, the karaoke brunches, the picnics in Washington Square Park, the off-off-off Broadway shows where one of my friends always knew someone on the cast, making me feel extra-cool. It was the dream life, except it was better than that, because I was living it. And it was just only beginning. That’s when I met Mike—sweet, round-faced, nerdy Mike—who had just started dating one of my roommates’ friends whose name I don’t even remember now.
“My best buddy’s name is Alex,” Mike had said over the blasting pop music, shortly after shaking my hand. I remember his being soft and warm. Inviting. “So I can’t call you that. Besides, Alexandra has a cool ring to it.” Everyone else always went straight for my nickname. It was short and easy. I remember thinking he seemed like such a warm, easygoing guy. I also remember telling myself I’d likely never see him again.
Obviously, I was wrong. For the next two years, we bumped into each other every few months at some event or other. There was a birthday or a new internship to celebrate, and we appeared to move in the same circles. He’d notice how wavy my hair was that night or would compliment the new gold pendant around my neck. He was single again, and then he was not. Same went for me. Sometimes, there were lingering looks, hands brushing across the bar counter when there was plenty of space to avoid contact, a couple of drunken confessions that we enjoyed seeing each other, even though it was never planned. And then, one night, a 2 a.m. kiss in the drizzling fall rain.
Six months of no-fuss dating followed before he moved to Chicago for a job at a law firm. We broke up, but stayed in touch. Just over a year later he was back in New York, and we slipped back into our routine like a cozy sweater, taking long walks along the waterfront in Williamsburg up to my place, where he spent every other night. We played video games while eating greasy Thai takeout. Intimacy came easily to us, even if I wondered if we were a little too vanilla at times. He went running with his friends while I boozy-brunched with mine. We texted each other silly cat videos during the day. Our worlds fit nicely together. It was comfortable. Uncomplicated. I had dated enough jerks with weird fetishes to recognize something good when I had it. And then, I realized I wanted more: if not fireworks, then at least that all-consuming feeling that I couldn’t possibly live without him. Our second breakup was like our relationship: tear- and drama-free. We promised to stay friends, though we hadn’t seen each other in over a year when he texted me.
Stifling the queasy feeling in my stomach, I follow Jacques’ lead and step out of the car. The warm, soft scent of lavender lingers in the air. The sky is bright blue with the sun just peeking out from behind puffy little clouds. It’s a gorgeous day for a wedding. Or maybe it’s not.
I’m checking my hair in the car window—it has gone back to limp and frizzy despite my earlier attempt to revive it—when I hear a phone ring. It’s Jacques’s.
He shoots me a warm smile and winks at me before answering it. “Allô? Oh yes! Yes. I’m right outside. Coming now! I was helping someone park. Alex, actually…”
I clear my throat so loudly, it sounds like I swallowed a bag of onions. He’s talking to Mike. He has to be. And I can’t let that happen.
“Yes, of course I have the rings,” he adds, patting his suit pocket.
I swiftly move to the other side of the car, my heels digging into the gravel and my ankles threatening to give out.
“Don’t worry, everything’s going to be great.”
I stare from Jacques to his phone, silently pleading with him to stop talking immediately. But he must mistake my puppy eyes for something else, because then he says, “Actually, do you want to talk to…”
Panic makes my heart race wildly and, next thing I know, I’m lunging toward Jacques and grabbing his arm so forcefully that his phone flies out of it and lands on the ground with a thud a few feet away from us.
“Sorry!” I say, rushing off to retrieve it and crouching down, which requires hiking up my dress and maybe—probably—giving him another peek of my underwear.
But instead of swearing at me in French, he simply joins me and, with an amused smirk, says, “You really wanted to speak to Mike, huh?”
I raise an eyebrow.
“The way you grabbed my phone,” Jacques explains. “You seemed to…” He trails off, clearly expecting that I’ll finish his sentence for him, but I’m way too in over my head to think straight. They shouldn’t let you book flights at the last-minute for the worst possible reason. That should be airlines' rule #1. You must be of sound mind and heart while booking your ticket for a trip you have thoughtfully planned. If you do not meet these requirements, please put the credit card and that third glass of pinot grigio away. Seriously, we mean it. You can go travel another time, when you’re not trying to ruin your own life.
“Here’s your phone,” I say, handing it to him. “Sorry about that, I flew in overnight and I’m a little… tired.”
Jacques takes it from me and slides it in his pocket.
“Oh, it all makes sense now,” he says, leaning his head back like he’s suddenly been hit with a world-changing revelation.
“It’s not what you think,” I quickly say, the words tripping out of my mouth, even if it’s probably exactly what he thinks. “I can explain…”
“I’ve been wondering why I didn’t see you at the welcome party last night. We had this big dinner for everyone who traveled for the wedding, mostly the American guests from Mike’s side. I would have noticed you,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye, which makes me wonder if… wait… what? No. No, no, no, no. I’m not here to flirt with an admittedly very charming French guy.
“I definitely wouldn’t have noticed you,” I say, before slapping my hand in front of my mouth. “Um, that came all wrong. I mean, you’re, like, very handsome. If I were asked to picture a stereotypical, sexy French guy, you’d basically be it. And that accent, man. Seriously, if you’re ever questioning your life choices, come to New York. Girls would listen to you recite the terms and conditions of their gym memberships. I mean, assuming you’re straight and single…”
“I feel like maybe you need to stop there and take a breath,” Jacques says, cutting in. “Not that I’d mind you calling me sexy again. Though I’m not sure about ‘stereotypical.’ What that supposed to be a compliment or…?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a shiny black car decorated with strips of white lace draped over the hood, and tied in bows around the wing mirrors.
“I should never have come to this wedding,” I whisper, realizing that this must be the bridal car.
“Don’t tell me you have wedding jitters too,” Jacques says with a laugh.
But instead of joining him, I stare ahead, mouth agape.
Following my gaze at last, Jacques turns around and immediately brightens. “They’re here! Let the party begin!” Then, looking back at me, he adds, “Camille was so nervous this morning. I think she downed an entire coupe of champagne before she even had breakfast.”
Jacques frowns. “The bride? My sister. You don’t know my sister?”
The thing is, I never really thought about the bride. Not when I opened that bottle of pinot grigio after scouring Mike’s Instagram account for the tenth consecutive time that day. Not when I grabbed my laptop to—jokingly, of course!—google “flight to Paris tomorrow.” Not when the screen announced “one ticket left” and I stumbled over to the entrance to get my bag and whip out my credit card. Just in case! It’s not like I was really going to use my emergency fund to come to this wedding when I’d already told Anita there was no way I could join in her in Cabo for Labor Day weekend.
There wasn’t supposed to be anyone’s brother either.
“I have to go,” I say, way louder than I should have. That’s when I realize Jacques is still holding my car keys. I lean forward but, just as I try to snatch them out of his hand, he pulls it back.
“You’re not serious. It’s about to start.”
“That’s exactly why I should leave.”
“But aren’t you here for the wedding?”
I breathe out loudly. “Well, yes. I came for the wedding. I mean, because of the wedding.”
“So you’re not leaving now. My mom told the caterer to plan enough food for the entire country. I don’t even know how the guests will get through all of the nine courses, so if we’re already down one…”
“Yeah, about that… I’m not exactly one of them.”
“You’re not what?”
“A guest,” I say, dripping with sweaty shame. “I wasn’t… invited.”
Jacques opens big wide eyes. “Aren’t you a friend of Mike’s?”
Geez, this is painful. But Jacques is clearly expecting a response, so I nod.
“And you’re here, at his wedding.”
Again, I nod, confirming the very obvious fact that I am, indeed, outside the venue where my ex-boyfriend is about to get married and be someone else’s husband for the rest of his life.
“So you came here because…”
I swallow hard. For a moment, I consider running away, leaving the car and, hopefully, every last memory from this day behind.
I don’t need to look up to know where the voice is coming from. It’s him. Mike. My only small reprieve is that Jacques is tall enough that he’s obscuring most of me.
“Jacques, I’ve been trying to call you!”
As he turns around to face Mike, Jacques pulls out his phone, staring at his phone. It must have been on silent.
And then Mike sees me. His eyes bulge wide open as his lips turn into a frightened grimace. His arms dangle by the sides of his body. I take in his sharp black suit and tie, the crispness of his white shirt, and how shiny and new his shoes look. He smells like soap and the fancy hair pomade he only whips out on special days. He’s dapper, more handsome than ever, a new and improved version of the man I only last saw three weeks ago.
“Alexandra?” he says at last, conveying so much horror and shock in one word that I’d be quite impressed if it weren’t directed at me. “What… are… you…”
Jacques looks from me to him, but neither of us speaks. “Is anyone going to explain what’s going on?”
“Well?” Mike says, still in shock.
That, strangely, is the moment I realize that I didn’t have a speech prepared. I worked myself up in tizzy, tallying up the evidence and then, making note of all the details Mike was sharing on social media. The venue, geotagged to the exact address as they were doing final preparations two days ago. The date, the start time. Even the hotel he was staying at. It’s like he wanted this to happen. He was calling to me. I was sure of it. So I booked my plane ticket. Packed a bag, caught the train to the airport. I did the things. I just didn’t really think through any of them.
“You invited me to lunch!” I blurt out, sounding deranged even to my own ears. “You texted me. Said you really wanted to see me. That you had something important to talk about. It sounded so… dramatic.” I was going to say romantic, but that felt a little off, especially since the bride has now stepped out of the car and is impossible to miss in her big white gown and veil.
“We’ve been friends for years!” I’ve never seen Mike so flustered. Never heard him scream before. “Of course I wanted to tell you that I was getting married and moving to France.”
“But you were the one who ordered the cocktails. Who wanted the long lunch and spilled out your heart to me. You said it was such a big move, you couldn’t believe you were really doing it. You acted like you were having second thoughts!”
“You were?” Jacques says, horrified, looking back at his sister. The bride and her dad—Jacques’s dad, too, I assume—are sharing final words before entering the building. They’re too far away for me to make out the details of their faces, but her dress looks regal, with a full skirt in creamy silk, a deep V neckline and cap sleeves. Exactly the style I would consider for myself, to be honest.
“No!” Mike screams as the same time as I yell, “Yes!”
Before he can contradict me, I continue to rest my case. “It felt like you were sending me all these mixed messages. ‘We’ve been together less than a year, engaged for all of two months… is it crazy that we’re getting married already?’ And then all that talk about how she wouldn’t leave Paris and you were going to join her even though you’d have to quit your job, didn’t speak the language, and weren’t sure how you were going to make it all work.”
Between us, Jacques ping-pongs his head back and forth, like he’s refereeing this game.
“You’re my friend,” Mike spits out. “I thought I could be honest with you.”
“But I’m also your ex-girlfriend!”
“You are?” Jacques says, looking like he very much wishes he could grab a bucket of popcorn while the rest of this telenovela unfolds.
“Oh my god,” I say, gasping for air. “I actually thought I was going to come here and tell you that I was madly in love with you, and that you shouldn’t marry some French girl and move to Paris. I seriously told myself we were destined to be together.”
I mean, yes, Mike and I dated. He’s the closest thing I’ve had to a semi-serious boyfriend. But in the clear light of day, it dawns on me. He’s always been so much closer to a friend, even when we were actually sleeping together. We never said “I love you” to each other. There were no butterflies at any time, no such thing as my heart racing when his name flashed up on my phone. When he told me about the Chicago job, I was just happy for him. I never even thought about what that meant for our relationship. In fact, I think part of me was relieved: a natural end meant that we could still be friends after we split. And when he came back, would I ever have fallen into his arms again if I hadn’t had my heart broken by some douchebag the week before?
The two men stare at me, frozen and waiting.
I shake my head. “I don’t love you. I never loved you.” And then I let out a laugh, which quickly turns loud and snorty.
A few seconds pass before Mike starts to chuckle. “I don’t love you either. You’re not even my favorite ex-girlfriend.”
“Ouch!” I say, giggling. “And I always thought you were a little boring. I mean, come on, live a little.”
Mike gasps. “I’m sorry, is moving to France on a whim and getting married to someone I barely know not daring enough for you?”
“Huh,” I say, conceding.
Another round of laughs sweeps through us. But then, the reality of the situation hits me again. “Is there any chance whatsoever we could forget about this and pretend it never happened?”
Mike shakes his head. “Oh, hell no. But lucky for you, I kind of have somewhere to be right now.”
“Go be happy,” I say. “Camille must be a pretty cool girl if she managed to convince you to do something wild like this.”
“She’s really great,” Mike agrees. “And she’s waiting for me.”
He hesitates for a beat, then leans in for a hug. I’m so relieved that I practically fall into his arms. That was the thing about Mike, he could never hold a grudge for long.
I watch as he walks away toward the side entrance of the building, ready to take his rightful place as the groom waiting for his beloved.
But Jacques hasn’t moved. In fact, he’s still looking at me with a spark of mischief in his eyes. Stepping forward, he grabs my hand. “So, um, my sister is one-hundred-percent going to murder me when she hears about this but, since you’re here…” He trails off, thinking I’m going to catch his drift, but my mind is fried. “I mean, I saw the seating plan for the singles table and honestly, it’s going to be a drag.”
I shake my head, ready to spill all the reasons why I’ve embarrassed myself enough for a lifetime.
“Come on, Alexandra,” he continues in a sweet, pleading voice. My sister promised that, if I happened to meet a girl before her wedding, I was welcome to bring her. And they haven’t said ‘I do’ yet…”
Well, if he puts it like that. I think about it some more. “So, um, just to be clear, you’re definitely single, right?”
Our next story on Heartbeat will be by Jenny Lane.
Follow Heartbeat on Instagram at @storiesbyheartbeat for upcoming behind-the-scenes sneak peeks at Jenny’s story!
Three quick things from Hannah:
Two books I read and loved recently: Disorientation by Elaine Hsieh Chou, a bizarro satire of the academic world, and Drinking Games by Sarah Levy, a memoir about one woman’s choice to get sober at 28 while living in New York City.
I’m just gonna leave the link to this Bustle story I edited about a night at the world’s most expensive sex party here and remind you that we can’t see who clicks on which links.
I’ve made this pasta with roasted cauliflower and blue cheese twice now and keep having vaguely romantic dreams about it. If you need a grown-up mac-and-cheese recipe to get you through the winter, this is it.
What did you think of this week’s story? Let us know in the comments below!