About this time three years ago, I was standing at a sliding glass door in a bedroom, parting heavy goldenrod curtains to look into the backyard, where 40 friends and relatives fanned themselves in the Austin heat and a string quartet racked up overtime. I was stalling.
A young woman in a smart tux-the best man-opened the bedroom door and stuck her head in. “Are we ready?” she asked.
“Almost,” I said. My sister, sheathed in pink satin, ceremoniously poured a slug of Maker’s Mark into a plastic cup. My bridesman, Jon, passed me a black cap gun. I drank the whiskey and slipped the snub-nosed noisemaker under my blue garter for luck. “OK,” I said. “We’re ready.”
This was my Texas wedding.
According to SmartMoney.com, the average American wedding now costs $20,000, which, assuming a 30-minute ceremony and four-hour reception, means getting married costs roughly the same hourly rate as accompanying a top-shelf escort onboard a private jet with an open bar. Weddings generate $58 billion a year. So does the economy of Libya. Knowing this, I was resolved not to be one of those brides who rides a giant snowball of poor decision-making down a mountain of consumerism, only to engulf the chalet of her future happiness in a frozen blanket of debt. Not me. I would have a small, DIY, countercultural, backyard, lesbian wedding. And that’s exactly what I got. A small, DIY, countercultural, $10,000, backyard, lesbian wedding.
First there was the ring. I told S, my boyish girl groom, that I wanted a pink sapphire instead of a diamond because I thought it was silly to spend thousands of dollars on a rock whose value is so artificially inflated, and when the so-called tradition is just a marketing invention, and when the money tends to find its way into the hands of jungle warlords, and so forth. A nice pink sapphire would run us a couple hundred bucks, I thought.
S took me to the jeweler, who shook five one-carat pink sapphires of indistinguishably different clarity and hue onto a piece of black velvet and told me to choose one. I pretended to apply sophisticated discernment to the selection, looked at each through a loupe while clutching them delicately with needle-nose tweezers, and then picked one at random. I waited outside while S and the jeweler discussed the price. It turned out I’d picked a $3,000 rock.
Then came the dress. Picking a wedding dress is an exercise in relativity. First, innocent and ignorant as a babe in the woods, you go to a boutique where you’re treated like a princess. A princess of a country larger and wealthier than Libya, one whose king and queen have unlimited gold to spend on a gown made of purest silk woven by fairies from hairs gathered by lovingly brushing a unicorn’s tail. Then you find out the dress costs more than your Acura, and you go to a discount store and look at the off-the-rack alternatives. There, standing under the fluorescent lights on a little platform of green carpet with your nubby toes poking out from under the dull polyester hem, you think, “I’m not spending $400 to feel shabby.” Actually, first you think, “Fat underarms? Is that a problem I have?” And then you think, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” So you go to a department store and let them guide you through the infinite variations toward something you like and can kind of afford, and by the time you put on one you love, you are not only willing to spend $900 on a dress you’ll wear once, you’ve actually come to feel like quite the reasonable woman, the bargain shopper, the girl who wears her cake and eats it too.
I took to reading the books she wanted me to read (Siddhartha) and listening to the music she wanted me to listen to (Lou Reed). I spent every night at her house, even though she still lived with her mom. Even though her house was across town from The Omelettry, where I waited tables at 5:30 every morning, and my house was two blocks from The Omelettry. Even though she had a futon and I had a real bed. Even though her dog curled up between us every night, and her dog, once settled, was not to be disturbed for, ahem, any reason whatsoever.
Yes, it was a charmed romance. I spent what felt like years of my life watching her sleep. Watching her dog sleep. Starting to lift the dog off the mattress and then putting her down when she yelped. Pretending to be asleep. When I told her I wanted more affection, she offered me a vibrator. When I asked if we could go on dates, she said the dog would miss us.
Yes, it was love. Deep, true, rich, fulfilling, one-sided love. I could see it, but I couldn’t accept it. If she didn’t love me, why did she keep me around? And then she suggested marriage. If she didn’t love me, why did she propose? So I said yes. Yes to this, forever: to molding myself to fit into her world rather than building one together; to being tolerated where once I was adored; to watching movies from opposite ends of the couch. Yes, forever, to a particularly cruel kind of unrequited love, a misshapen, platonic companionship flying the flag of romantic love. I loved her more than I loved my dignity. So I said yes.
Finally, my wedding day arrived. My memory cuts in and out. I remember looking out the window, then walking toward the back door into the backyard, carrying my skirts, rustling. I remember stepping out and seeing all the people I loved, my old professor, my family, my sister and friends standing in a row. I remember thinking that it should feel like something other than walking, but that’s what a promenade down the aisle feels like. Just walking, slowly. You don’t hear the music. I saw S waiting for me at the end of the aisle in her tux. She looked so happy, like she truly loved me, like she was proud to be marrying me. I loved her so much. The ceremony was presided over by the professor in whose class we met. We had picked our readings carefully. One was about the Keatsian concept of negative capability, whereby one can exist in a state of “uncertainty, mystery and doubt without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Another was by Rilke, about true love being a willingness to protect one another’s solitude. In other words, the readings were perfect for our uncertain, lonely union.
We read one another our version of vows, of which I remember nothing. In fact, the next thing I remember, after seeing her there at the end of the aisle, is having our pictures taken what seemed like hundreds of times, during which the dusky heat made my silk stocking-sheathed legs itch as if colonized by centipedes. I talked with my friends and drank cosmos and nibbled at the seared ahi tuna shavings on smoked asparagus crinkles or whatever it was S spent $5,000 on-and then, surprise, her mother brought out the belly dancers.
S’s mother was a wonderful, deeply loving, unsettlingly attractive, and highly unusual woman. I took it as one of the family’s many special quirks that in the evening, after a nice vegetarian meal, S’s mother would sometimes break out the finger cymbals and belly dance around the kitchen. I never imagined that this might foreshadow her wedding surprise to us. At some point after our first dance-to Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me When I Go,” which is about death-everyone was herded into a large, white tent that I’d been told contained our wedding surprise: three belly dancers, several hookahs of flavored tobacco, and a whole bunch of pillows. This was S’s dream. Not so much mine. But not being a bridezilla or anything, I watched the rest of my wedding evening from the sidelines, folded in my dress on the ground. I watched the belly dancers, watched S’s mother dance with them, watched S dance with them, and watched S dance with her mother.
By the time we cut the cake, we were both smashed. I get sleepy when I drink, so I went to S’s room (she didn’t want to go to a hotel that night), fell out of my dress, and left it on the floor, tumbling into sleep alone on the futon.
S crawled into bed sometime in the early morning and passed out. The dog curled up between us. I don’t remember morning.
Six months later, S and I were having brunch when she said something-one dismissive, cruel, little thing-that broke my heart. She didn’t know she’d done it, but at that moment I heard a crack like a bundle of twigs snapping, and it was the sound of my faith breaking, my faith that, appearances aside, she loved me. I knew then, as I had feared for the duration of our three-and-a-half-year relationship, that she did not. I waited for her to leave town, and then I placed my ring and my house key on the kitchen table and took a taxi, sobbing, to my new home-a home whose distinguishing characteristic was the absence of her.
I forget things that hurt too much, which is why, I guess, I don’t remember parts of the wedding. But I do remember her face when I walked down the aisle. Later, as I grieved over our dissolution, friends and even my bridesmaids assured me that it hadn’t been a real wedding, that it wasn’t meant to be.
I don’t believe in meant-to-be or not-meant-to-be, but when I left S, I too tried to tell myself that it hadn’t been real, that we were just kids spending a lot of S’s mom’s money, playacting with convention and commitment. I tried to tell myself that had it been legal-as it wasn’t and isn’t in Texas-I would never have done it.
But that’s not true. Dresses and rings and catering and money don’t make a wedding real any more than legality or the respect of your peers. Mine was a real wedding because I meant every word I said and every word I thought, looking at her face. It was real not because it lasted or didn’t, but because even knowing how it ended, I would do it again in a second.