Have you ever wondered what the underside of a table looks like? Not a cheap folding table that folds out every Christmas for your cousin’s four kids and your younger brother who couldn’t fit at the adult table. I’m talking about the underside of a real table. A table with four triangles of wood connecting the legs to the top. One with thick support beams crisscrossing between the corners that didn’t get the glossy finish of the topside, each roughly sanded with sharp points sticking out here and there. A pinch of pain serges through my pointer finger. Great! Because who doesn’t love a splinter.
Well, after lying under this one for the past 50 minutes, slowly drinking my way through my thoughts, I can safely say that I know what the underside of a table looks like. If you’re wondering how I found myself under here at my best friend’s wedding, it’s not a gripping story. There’s no damsel in distress, no monster to fight, and no romantic kiss at the end. But it is a story, nonetheless.
Lauri and I have been best friends since we were seven, when my family moved into the house across the road. On the first day I met her, she wore a white shirt under denim overalls, an old-fashioned headset hanging over her aged red sports cap. Walking her bike into her garage, she waved at me, the asthmatic nerd with thick glasses that looked like God had given sentience to a stick.
Not ten minutes after, she skipped to our front door and rang the doorbell, a sound I would come to miss after leaving for university nine years later.
Mum greeted her as dad continued to bring boxes in from the moving van. I felt like a ninja hiding behind the dividing wall a few paces down until—
“Tommy,” mum called, “come meet our new neighbour.”
Running up to my mum’s side, I almost trip as my foot catches on an uneven patch of carpet.
“Hi there. I’m Lauri,” she said, revealing a missing tooth as she grinned from ear to ear. “Mum sent me over to welcome you to the neighbourhood.” Lauri handed mum a batch of freshly made cookies, their scent wafting into the house.
“That’s so sweet of you. I’ll put these in the kitchen before Tommy ruins his dinner,” mum said, embarrassing me as per usual. “It’s lovely to meet you, Lauri.”
The two of them exchanged pleasant smiles before Mum’s footsteps echoed down the bare hallway.
“I wouldn’t eat them if I were you,” Lauri whispered, placing her hand near her mouth.
“Why’s that,” I asked. “They smell really good.”
“Don’t let that fool you. I’d stay as far away from those cookies as possible.” She shakes her head with a look of disgust.
“Are they like… poisoned or something?”
“Worse! They’ve got raisins in them.”
“Yuck. Raisins are the gross,” I say, screwing up my face as a phantom-taste creeps onto my tongue.
“It would have been worse if I didn’t hide the oats.”
We both laugh, almost in sync.
“You know what, it’s nice to have another kid on the street,” Lauri says, a shy smile finding its way to my lips. “I gotta head off. But we’ll hang out sometime, yeah?”
Over the following years, everything seemed to go her way. As she was studying hard to get out of high school, I was struggling through my second year of Uni. While I was buried in articles on the impacts of late Victorian literature on present-day genre fiction, Lauri was meeting her future husband at the café on Piers Street. Instead of cosying up with someone on the couch and having cutesy date nights for four years before popping the question (and yes, she asked him), I was cosying up to a bowl of two-minute noodles and rewatching Dragon Ball Z for the third time. And now she runs her own bookstore and café in town while I’m between jobs as a PhD graduate.
But despite our distance, geographical or otherwise, we were always there for each other. Lauri helped me pack my things when I left for the city. I made sure to get the best angles for her graduation photos. We both buried my pet hamster, Andy, near the pine tree in the park. Between our shared lows and highs, we made a pretty good team.
But if we were so close, then why am I lying under this table. Well, to answer that question, we need to rewind to the beginning of the evening.
Choosing to have a rustic backyard wedding reception, Lauri had invited about three-quarters of the town to her new house, previously owned by her parents. Naturally, I dreaded the onslaught of comments like “you’ve grown up so much” and “I remember you when you were this big”. Despite my feeble attempts to avoid these interactions by arriving fashionably late, I was bombarded by an assortment of familiar faces, many of which hadn’t changed in a decade. Not two seconds after walking through the front door, my two former neighbours took their chance to strike.
“Tommy Arlo? It’s so good to see you, dear,” Margery said, surprising me with a hug. For a 73-year-old woman, she’s got quite a grip. “My goodness, look how tall you’ve grown.”
“And handsome as well,” Lilith added.
“Thank you, Mrs Bedson. Thank you, Mrs Yarder. Have you seen Lauri around?” My eyes searched around the all too familiar lounge.
“She’s just upstairs getting changed,” a familiar voice chimed in. Emerging from a sea of people with a mostly empty platter of mini quiches, Lauri’s mum came to my rescue. “Let the poor boy go, you two. I need a hand in the kitchen, and I’m sure your granddaughters can find husbands on their own.”
The two old women rolled their eyes as we manoeuvred through the labyrinth of guests, finally making it to the kitchen.
“It’s so good to see you, Mrs Wilkins. What can I help with?” I watched as the catering staff busied themselves with fresh platters and fancy looking meals.
“Oh, you’re so sweet, Tommy, but we’ll be fine in here,” Mrs Wilkins said, shooting me a smile filled with a lifetime of kindness. “Just wait a few minutes for our nosy neighbours to find another young man to prey on before you head on up.”
Despite taking the far less crowded path to the stairs, I got stopped by two mildly intoxicated high school classmates.
“Yo! What’s cracking Big T,” Dean asked, his arm around Rick’s shoulder for balance.
“Hey guys, it’s good to see you. I’m just heading—”
“Whatcha up to these days,” Rick interrupted. “Aren’t you some big-time doctor in the city now? Must be pretty exciting, aye.”
“Not exactly. I finished my PhD a couple of months ago, and I’m looking—"
“Woah, woah, wait. So… you’re like a head doctor? Alright, what am I thinking right now?” Dean stared blankly at me, his eyes glassing in and out of focus.
“Um… you want another beer?”
“Woah, Big Ts got this doctor-y stuff down pat!” The two of them stumbled past me, beginning a chain of similar awkward conversations about my new doctorate with Lauri’s cousins, the butcher, and my old physics teacher. Every time I explained, “No, not that kind of doctor. It’s my Doctor of Philosophy,” they’d all tilt their heads to the side, scrunch up their noses, and raise the tone of their voices.
“Oh…. That’s nice. Good for you,” they offered. Their false sympathy fed my fears of not finding work, a dilemma that had plagued my psyche ever since I graduated.
After struggling my way through the conversations, I finally managed to get up the stairs. Seeing no sight of the bride in her old bedroom, full of tipsy bridesmaids touching up their makeup and dresses, I turned to see the study door slightly ajar. I knocked three times.
“Come in,” Lauri called. She was fixing her makeup in a mirror rested on the bookshelf. Her dress was baby-powder white with small ornamental flowers laced into the fabric around her waist. Golden petals wove in and out of her braided hair.
“Delivery for Mrs Wilkins,” I said, “Or should I say Mrs Verin now?”
“Tommy!” She got up and threw her arms around me, careful not to get any makeup on my suit. “I’m so glad that you could make it. Have you eaten something yet? I’ll get you some of mum’s mac and cheese pops. They’re—”
“Okay, okay, take it easy there. You do know that this is your wedding, right?”
“Yeah, I know. Just want to make sure everything’s perfect.”
“Well, you look absolutely perfect.” I took a step back as she spun, her dress frilling around her.
“I’m honestly so surprised everything’s gone to plan today,” she said, her eyes glowing with happiness. “No catering mishaps. No late cars. No missing rings. And only two people fell asleep at the ceremony!”
“Jean and Mason,” we both said, laughing at how terribly well we knew our hometown.
My smile faded faster than hers. Every nook of the room ignited memories of a life before the many coffee-induced study sessions and the pressures of adulthood.
“I’m so sorry I missed the ceremony. I do have something to make up for it though.” I pulled out a flat jewellery box from my suit pocket and handed it to her.
“Oh Tommy, you shouldn’t have,” she replied, untying the white bow of the blue-velveted package. “You know I never wear fancy stuff like—.” She covers her mouth with her hand, trying to hold in a snort but throws her head back and lets it out. I can’t help but join her in laughter as she holds up the rusted horseshoe lying inside the box.
“I can’t believe you still have this!”
“Of course,” I replied. “If I lost it, buck-tooth Billy would finally be able to hunt us down for stealing his treasure.”
“Not to mention hang us for painting his saddle pink.” The light glinted off the metal U in her hand, taking us back to the made-up adventures of our twelve-year-old selves. It seemed like our childish imaginary stories would live forever in that moment.
“Anyways,” she continued, putting the horseshoe down on the cloth-covered mahogany table, “we’d better get back to the party. This is my wedding, of course.”
“I might join you later,” I said, sitting down on an ottoman. My elbows rested on my knees, kicking up my shoulders. “Just a bit tired from the flight and stuff.”
“Alright. Well, if you get lonely, there’s a couple bottles of champagne on the desk to keep you company.”
As she left the room with a cheeky smile, I felt like the camera had cut away from me, following her down the stairs to the guests waiting for the beautiful bride. Meanwhile, I was coming to the harsh realisation that the old Tommy, the Tommy that first spotted the horseshoe in the creek, the Tommy that watched from the sidelines, the Tommy that left town to get his hopes crushed by the real world, was the same Tommy that I was today.
Just another side character.
Grabbing an open bottle of champaign, I crawled under the table and laid down, contemplating life as my eyes traced out the underside supports. The hardwood floor butted up against my back was more than just an arrangement of floorboards; it was a reminder that I was right back to where I began.
Now it’s been over an hour under here, and I am well and truly reacquainted with the underside of this table. Lauri and I used to sit under here and pretend we were in a different world. We’d make up stories of faraway lands, hidden temples in the Amazon jungle, moss-covered castles at the bottom of the ocean, or anywhere that wasn’t New Millicent. But in every one of those stories, I was always the Goose, the Mercutio, the Luigi — minus the moustache.
No one chooses to be the side character. I didn’t ask to be written like this, to be made this way. In fact, that’s why I moved away. I got out. I chased my dream of becoming an academic researcher. And… look where it’s gotten me: nine and a half years of study, a mountain of student debt, no job, and two different letters in front of my name.
What would have happened if I had stayed? What if I bit the bullet and worked at the bakery around the corner from her café? What if I was fine with being in the background? Maybe I wouldn’t have ended up here. Maybe I could celebrate with everyone. Maybe I’d be… happy… or at least not so crappy.
Before long, I find myself staring at the same spot on the mahogany table: a chip in the wood made by someone who had their life together. A mistake in the manufacturing process. This chip is alone in the world. There are no others like it, but it’s not meant to be there.
“Me too,” I say to the chip, “me too.”
The alcohol holds back my tears, not that my tired eyes can cry in this moment. Marinading in my own self-pity and lack of meaning, I hear a knock on the door.
“Tommy,” the voice says, “you still here?”
I shut my eyes and don’t reply, hoping that maybe if I’m quiet enough, I’ll slowly fade away.
The hinges creak open, followed by the sound of the bolt hitting the strike plate. A pair of heels clack against the floorboards, the sound rivalled only by the muffled music playing downstairs. The ice cubes clink against each other. Lauri’s head pops out from under the tablecloth.
“Well,” she says, “looks like you’re having a good time up here.”
“Yep,” I reply, taking a sip from the nearly empty champagne bottle. “Loving life.” I shuffle over as she crawls under the table and lies down next to me.
“I would be too if I was a fancy-schmancy doctor like you. I could never do something that amazing.”
I scoff to myself, staring blankly ahead as she turns her head towards me.
“Can I tell you a secret,” she asks, wiping her lips after taking a gulp from the other champagne bottle. I nod my head, knowing she’ll tell me either way.
“I’ve always been… a bit jealous of you.”
“What?” I prop myself up with my elbows, giving her as much of my attention as my alcohol-influenced consciousness can manage. “Why? There’s nothing to be jealous about.”
“You got out, T. You get to have proper adventures in the real world out there. You did something amazing with your life. And I’m just… stuck here.”
“What do you mean? You’ve got the best job, you have a beautiful house, and now you’re married to an amazing guy. That’s what I call an amazing life.”
“That might be true to you,” she said, “but from someone on the inside… it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” For the 18 years that we had known each other, Lauri had always been brave, confident, and above all, sure of herself. So, when her eyes welled with confusion, uncertainty, and longing, I was thrown.
The muffled music downstairs fights against the quiet of the study as the first few bars of Dancing Queen prompt a chorus of high-pitched shouts.
“I had… no idea,” I said. “But you were always… being you.” Before me, the girl I had grown up with, who I had come to look up to and admire, had transformed into someone different, someone just like me.
“Yeah, always the sidekick.” Lauri brought the bottle to her lips and took a larger gulp, a drip falling from the side of her mouth to her chin. “The girl next door to the girl next door, the Luna Lovegood, the Princess Leia… minus the side buns.”
“I think you’d look good with those side buns.” She nudges my shoulder, trying to hide a smile as she carefully dabs at her eye with her finger. “Maybe… we’re all someone else’s side character. If you’re someone’s side character, you’re just as important to the story as they are; otherwise, you wouldn’t be in the story. And for what it’s worth, I am really glad we’re in the same story.”
An eternity passes under that tablecloth as our eyes meet. Lauri smiles at me, this time gentle and understanding. But she’s not the same Lauri that checked on me under the table.
And before you ask, no. This is not when I confess my undying love for her and break up her wedding, sending her new husband chasing after the car with the clanking cans and the words “just married” spray-painted on the back.
“Perhaps we should re-join the party,” Lauri says, crawling back out from under the table and offering me her hand. She adjusts her dress as I get to my feet, the two of us taking a moment to steady ourselves as blood rushes back to our heads.
We hug to the muffled tune of Nutbush City Limits, squeezing each other tight like we’re kids again.
“You know, there is one good thing about being a side character,” I say, opening the study door.
“While everyone’s watching the main character, you get to have all the fun.” Taking my hand in hers, she spins herself through the doorway and pulls me along. As the door shuts behind us, I know a part of me will always remain in that study, lying next to the bottle of champagne, looking up at the underside of the mahogany table.