TODAY TONIGHT FOREVER
Author Madeline Kay Sneed
Publication Date: November 7, 2023
Publisher: Graydon House
Genre: LGBTQ+,Literary Fiction
When thirty-three-year-old Athena Matthias is asked, yet again, to be a bridesmaid, she’s not exactly enthusiastic about the idea. Still reeling from a messy divorce from her wife, she’s never felt less inclined to celebrate love. But Athena can’t say no, especially to one of her oldest friends, and at least it’s a destination wedding, which means three days of sun and sand.
As the wedding weekend commences on the gorgeous beaches of Watercolor, Florida, for the first time in ages, Athena finds herself surrounded by people who know and love her. There’s the bride, nervous about an old relationship; a groomsman grappling with a big mistake; Athena’s mother, ready to date again; and even a potential new romantic interest.
But just as Athena begins to feel herself opening up again, an unexpected guest from the past throws the entire wedding party into chaos. By the time the cake is cut and the ultimate betrayal is revealed, Athena must find the courage to forgive—both others and herself—and embrace the beauty of a chance to move forward.
The best day of someone’s life is always the worst day of somebody else’s. This is especially true at a wedding—even more so when you’re separated.
Since her college graduation, Athena had been a bridesmaid in seventeen weddings. Twenty, if you count being in the house party, which Athena never did since it was the same as making it onto the junior varsity team, a consolation prize, an afterthought. Not bad, but not good enough for the big time.
For most of her twenties, she’d done the whole hog, Katherine Heigl, 27 Dresses. An overpriced and cheaply made gown for every wedding she’s been in, except for the one right after she came out, where the bride insisted Athena wear a tux so that the bride could showcase her acceptance and allyship to the one lesbian she’d ever known.
Now, at thirty-three—her Jesus year, as her mother so constantly reminds her—Athena drives down a Floridian highway full of billboards advertising Heaven and Hell to be a bridesmaid in her eighteenth wedding. Her longtime family friend, Daisy, is getting married in Watercolor, Florida, a sprawling beachside resort with large, spaced-out, two-story vacation homes, each painted in a distinct pastel color, like, as the name suggests, a watercolor palette. The wedding party had made their mantra for the weekend: Best Wedding Ever in the History of Weddings.
Athena knew that, for her, this could never be true. The best wedding Athena had been in was her own. To Sydnee. The great light of her life.
It was nothing like the other weddings, with their churches and their pomp and circumstance. It was small and full of lights that twinkled from tree branches and wrapped around columns on the back porch of Athena’s parents’ house. They didn’t need a priest, they had their best friend, Deacon, marry them, and he recited Dickinson instead of Second Corinthians, and they danced on the grass in bare feet until the neighbors complained about the noise. There was no prayer, but they still felt blessed.
It was the happiest day of Athena’s life.
Now, after six years, they are divorcing. The papers are due in the mail next week. They have been separated for eight months, and soon it will be official.
Divorce does not suit Athena. She’s been too busy burying herself in work to do anything about it. It’s as if she believes that sorting through the fragments of Emily Dickinson’s envelope poems in her tiny, dimly lit cubicle at the University of Houston can help heal her heartbreak without her ever having to face it straight on.
There’s always a snag, though, some little reminder of Sydnee, who never particularly liked literature. She did, however, love Athena and how much she loved Dickinson, so she had a few favorite poems of her own: Split the Lark—
and you’ll find the Music—was a much-loved line between the two of them.
“I like the way it sounds,” Sydnee explained. “It’s weird. Twisted.”
“Unnecessary bloodshed, uncanny music,” Athena said after they first moved into their house in Montrose when they settled down in Houston, a few months before their marriage. Athena was organizing her books and flipping through the pages of the poet’s collection. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of her.”
“And me?” Sydnee rested her head in her hand, her hair swaying to one side, a curtain of darkness.
“Maybe after seven lifetimes, I’ll start to get bored,” Athena said, and Sydnee smiled, and they came together like Athena thought they would continue to do for the rest of their lives.
When she comes across the line, or anything similar (I split the dew—But took the morn), her heart cleaves, an open wound. She tries to hide from it, but it always finds her eventually. Not even her most sacred pleasures are safe from the pain of separation.
As Athena drives, she imagines her mother would tell her to snap out of the past and keep her eyes peeled on the present. It’s your Jesus year, Thene, she could almost hear her mother saying through a jaw tensed with superstition. Her mother is obsessed with the concept and terrified of it, too. Thirty-three was Jesus’s age when he was crucified, betrayed by his friends, strung up for all the world to see. It feels like a warning to her. Nothing good can come from thirty-three. And your Jesus year? her mother would say. It’s trying to kill you.
Athena grips the steering wheel tight, closing her eyes for a moment, exhaling, before jolting back into awareness as she swerves slightly into the other lane.
Not today, Jesus year.
A gulp of coffee. A turned-up stereo. Athena slaps her cheek and drives on. In the rearview mirror, the horizon blares bright and blue with the high noon sun doing its best to heat up the unseasonably chilly November day. If the cold stays at bay, it’s going to be a beautiful weekend for a wedding.
After half an hour of nothing but pine trees and billboards, Athena finally exits the highway, passes the Publix, and finds herself in the strange, beautiful, pristine, idyllic world of Watercolor, Florida.
Athena and her brother used to join Daisy’s family on their weeklong trips to the resort during the summers in middle school and high school. It hasn’t changed much since then. It’s expanded, but otherwise remains timeless. People cruise down the paved roads in their three-row golf carts or beach cruiser bikes with baskets on the front, going from their homes, to the Publix down the road and to the beach club across the highway. The sidewalks are manicured and lined with pine trees and magnolias, the needles and leaves of which are finely collected on the sides of the paved walkways, never a twig out of place, giving the residents and guests a taste of nature without all the messiness it brings.
Back then, Athena loved the sun-soaked days at the beach, salt water settling into her hair, making it coarse and curly and wild. They spent summer nights riding up and down the streets on their bikes, going on ice cream and soda runs until their stomachs got sick. Life was simple then. Athena had been happiest here, after days spent diving into the crashing waves, riding their force toward the shore, her belly scraping the shallow sand once the wave died out and deposited her back where she belonged.
It’s November now. Too cold for waves, and she’s too old to ride them, anyway. Her back might tweak or her knee might shift in the tide at the wrong enough angle, leaving her sore for weeks. The world had seemed so open when she was young. She realized now the scope was much smaller. Caution cursed her every step because she had known consequences and understood they could come when you least expected it.
Athena’s father used to say that age gave you double vision. You see the world both as it is and as it was before. It’s like your friend says, he’d say, always referring to Emily Dickinson in this way, “the past is such a curious creature!”
She wonders what her father would think now. About Daisy’s wedding, about her own divorce. He’s been dead three years, and still, every day, she wonders what he’d say. Three years of questions. Three years without answers.
Athena blinks away the thought as she turns off the 30A highway into the massive, sprawling beach resort, circling past the bustling beach club before finally finding the towering town house where Daisy and the other bridesmaids will spend the night after the rehearsal dinner and then spend tomorrow getting ready for the wedding. It’s blindingly white, exactly like the row of townhomes it stands beside, with two decks that overlook the white sand beach and emerald coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Behind it, the midafternoon waves swell and crash onto the coast, the sun starting to sparkle in the water. All nature, no artifice.
Once she cuts the engine, Athena slowly gets out of the car, relishing her last moments of silence before the chaos of the wedding begins. The air is thick with humidity. She savors the smell of salt air and pine needles, happy to have the sun on her cheeks. She’s spent so many hours inside her office and classroom these past eight months. She hadn’t realized how much she missed the world—the natural, reviving tonic of fresh air and warmth.
“There she is,” a voice calls from the front door. “The divorcée.”
Deacon steps out from the house, an enormous grin stretched across his face. Tall, lean, and shirtless as always, he leans against the doorframe, two cups of coffee in his hands, his board shorts sagging slightly. He sets the coffees down and tugs up his shorts before walking over to Athena, his arms outstretched. His blond hair sticks up straight at the back, like he’s just woken up from a nap, and he traces the now faint and faded scars underneath his pecs, a habit he’d kept up for over a decade since he got them. Athena embraces her best friend, burying her face in his chest, the tufts of blond chest hair tickling her cheek.
“So,” Deacon says, pulling her away from him so that he can look at her. “How is the divorcée?”
“I told you that’s not funny yet.” Athena smiles despite herself.
“I guess I’ll keep doing it until it is,” Deacon says as he takes her arm in his. “Come on. I’ll show you to your designated chambers.”
They walk through the house, steering clear of the rest of the bridesmaids for the time being, and make their way to Athena’s room, which has one tiny twin bed.
“Doesn’t seem like Daisy has any faith that you’ll be hooking up at this wedding,” Deacon says, gesturing to the bed.
“What else is new.” Athena sets her bag down at the foot of the bed before taking the hot cup of coffee from Deacon. It’s strong, with a hint of vanilla and cinnamon. “What are the other dudes doing?”
“Getting ready for the rehearsal dinner.” Deacon checks his watch. “Still got a few hours, but Chad wants to experiment with gel in his hair. Doesn’t want to take a chance in case it’s terrible—which it will be—and he has to start over.”
“At least he’s thinking ahead,” Athena says. She pulls out her suit for the dinner and tugs at her messy bun. “Wish I could just gel this mess. My hair is driving me bonkers.”
“Shave it off,” Deacon says, digging through Athena’s bag. He removes a pair of her white sneakers and tries them on. “Can I borrow these tonight?”
“I can’t shave it, I have an egg-shaped head, we’ve discussed this,” Athena says. “And no, I’m wearing them.”
“More like a bowling pin.”
“Any cone-shaped object will do.” Athena points at the bridesmaid dress she will wear tomorrow. The lavender silk will hug every curve and constrict her breathing so badly she worries it will induce a semi—panic attack. “Wish Daisy would have let us choose our dresses.”
“She’s an influencer, Athena,” Deacon says, running the fabric of the dress through his hands. “The only thing that matters are the pictures, tagging her designer sponsor and making sure that everyone seems the same, and by same, I of course mean not quite as good as Daisy.”
“So I’m getting punished because she has half a million followers she needs to impress?”
“Dude, you’re going to look good, a real heartbreaker.” Deacon walks around in Athena’s sneakers, checking them in the mirror. “I’ll catcall you when you walk down the aisle if that makes you feel better.”
“Exactly what I need at all times, a mobile fan club, thank you very much for understanding.” Athena points at the sneakers and gestures toward her suit, trying to get him to take them off. “What about you? You getting ready with us tomorrow?”
“Bride’s orders.” Deacon nods as he takes off the shoes and puts them under Athena’s suit. “She wants me by her side every step of the way. Until the actual wedding. A guy standing with the bridesmaids would ruin the aesthetic. At this wedding, gender is very much a binary.”
“Why push boundaries when you could just reinforce them, right?” Athena says.
“Well, she’ll have plenty of pictures to post for all the trans awareness, appreciation, whatever-the-fuck hashtag weeks they come up with.”
“Gotta feed the followers.”
“Name of the game.” Deacon rubs his forearm slowly, tracing the tips of his fingers over his bluebonnet tattoo. “Talked to Sydnee recently? We’ll see her tomorrow. At the wedding.”
A jolt rushes through Athena. It happens every time she hears her name. When they first started dating, she’d get a similar flood of electricity. It is still a marvel: the dread, excitement, giddy joy contained in one name. The thought of her face is instinctual. The dark hair, curly when left untouched, hanging just above her shoulders. Her easy smile, her eyes, green unless in sunlight, when they transformed into an almost translucent blue. Her hands were always in motion, when she talked and when she was silent, where they’d move from the back of her neck to the front of it, fiddling with the crucifix necklace she wore every day, a reminder of her family and the Catholicism of her youth. She called it a bad habit, but Athena had always known that the comfort of home could take many forms.
“We’ve talked a bit,” Athena says, trying to play it cool. “You know lesbians and their exes. Always staying best friends.”
“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter.” Deacon opens his mouth to say more, but hesitates, tugging on the thin wisps of hair at the end of his chin instead. “I gotta shave or Daisy will kill me.”
“What is it?” A flush of panic heats through her. She’d dreaded this possibility so much it almost felt prescient, like she could sense Sydnee’s shifting heart, moving on from her to someone else without having seen her since she asked for the divorce. “She’s dating. Her. Isn’t she?”
“I thought you weren’t on social media anymore.”
“I knew it,” Athena says, kicking herself for talking through lawyers instead of staying in the loop. There is no dignity in silence. Knowing is always better than being blindsided. “I knew it was more than just sex.”
“I don’t think it’ll last…” Deacon trails off. He bites his lower lip. “It’s hard.”
“Staying faithful shouldn’t be hard.”
“I mean for me.” He clears his throat, his voice dropping in the hollow sort of way that means he’s telling the truth. “Y’all are both my friends…”
“Let’s just not talk about it,” Athena says quickly, going back to her suitcase and unpacking her pajamas. She gets up and puts them in the mahogany chest in the corner, her back to Deacon.
Athena is not willing to listen to other people talk about how her divorce has affected them. It is her pain, her isolation. She doesn’t want to be miserable, but she’s settled into her misery in such a way that it’s now become a part of her. Every step she takes is steeped in the stuff. No one can top her in terms of agony. Her father is dead. Her wife left her. There is nothing else that matters.
Deacon clears his throat. She senses his frustration, but does nothing to ease it. It’s not his fault that her marriage ended. Outside of her mom and brother, Deacon is the only person she’s willingly let into her life during this period of upheaval. He’s shown up for her. During their weekly meetups at their favorite pub, he chomps on fries as she regales him with all the reasons she should have seen the divorce coming. He never complains. He rarely talks about himself. He sits, and he listens, and Athena does nothing to change that. She does wonder, sometimes, when she’s alone and she can’t sleep, why he doesn’t stop her, why he always sits and takes it, all her anger, and all her frustration, and all of her grief. It’s a purgatory with an open exit that he never seems to take.
“Put down the coffee,” Deacon says before Athena can reflect further. “And get your tennis shoes.”
“What?” She puts her suitcase under the bed and clutches her coffee closer, not ready to leave so shortly after her arrival.
“We’re going for a run.”
“The rehearsal dinner’s in a few hours.”
“Just a quick one.” He fishes through Athena’s bag to find her running shoes and throws them at her. “Come on. Lace up. We need it.”
Excerpted from Today Tonight Forever by Madeline Kay Sneed. Copyright © 2023 by Madeline Kay Sneed. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
About the Author
Madeline Kay Sneed is the author of The Golden Season. She received her BA in English Literature from Baylor University and her MFA in Fiction from Emerson College. She lives in Houston, Texas, a city she dearly loves, despite its sports franchises so frequently breaking her heart.