June 22, 2007, dawned beautiful, clear and bright in our corner of the Mid-Atlantic. A perfect day for a little bit of a sail. A perfect day for a little bit of a wedding.
John and I had been living together for most of a decade. We’d always made a big deal about the anniversary of our hooking up, I guess you’d call it, romantics that we were. In thinking of how to celebrate our 10th, getting married seemed like the obvious choice.
There was only ever one consideration for a venue. She was one of a gorgeous pair of 72-foot schooners, operating in town, berthing at night in the slips right outside our apartment complex. Surprisingly affordable, she offered many things, including an organic constraint to the size of a wedding party, and extra conversational points for having been featured in a big-budget movie. Those are just minor details for flavor, though. All we really wanted was to get married on a boat, on the water, with plenty of booze.
But of course, even for a little bit of a wedding, there are a host of sundries and attachments.
I bought my wedding dress for $129.99 plus tax from the JC Penney prom section. The cream-colored gown ambushed me from its hanger while I was on my innocent way to the jeans section. I called John from the dressing room with it on, turning around and around in front of the mirror, and told him I’d found my dress. He said, after a confused pause, “I thought you were buying jeans.” (As I regaled reception guests with this tale, a friend of mine told me under her breath, in slight horror, “You don’t have to tell everybody that!” My God, what would the point be otherwise?)
We bought a suit for John, the clerks trying desperately to get us to say it was for a wedding, our wedding, so prices could ascend heavenward correspondingly. We were tight and thick as thieves, though. “And do you have your outfit picked out?” they asked me, digging. “Oh, yeah, I have my dress.” “What color is it?” “It’s white.” It’s probably not usually an issue because so many are so eager to talk about getting married, and here we were like it was the funniest secret and the biggest prank we’d ever get away with.
We emailed invites. An uncle of mine didn’t even realized he was invited until he checked an old email address.
Two weeks before the ceremony, I attempted to dye my hair red with a home kit, ending an anthropological experiment with blonde. The results were genuinely horrifying: Bozo’s preferred shade of abject orange. I goggled at it in the mirror for a moment before figuring that two weeks’ worth of shampoos should get it just about right.
For John, his immediate family fell under “sundries.” For me, mine are “attachments.” They came down together from Maine, my mom and dad, my sister (my best woman) and her family.
My mom brought bubble bottles in the shape of tiny wedding cakes, so we could blow bubbles on the boat. She brought ribbon for the favors with the wrong date on them and I didn’t even notice until we were making them (and still have to remind myself occasionally that the actual date was June 22, not June 27, as the ribbons read). She also brought us vows she had written.
My sister made the cake, the legendary Brick of Love, at home, and brought it down in parts and pieces to assemble in our apartment on the day of the wedding. One of the three tiers leaned a bit to one side, distressing her greatly. She and Mom hid the slant under a cascade of roses.
My nieces, still so young, shared in the excitement the way only kids can. The two oldest sang (the eight-year-old at the ceremony and the six-year-old at the reception), and the toddler, not quite two, helped assemble the candy favors by putting the pieces of candy she was charged with in her mouth before putting them into the netting to be tied up with June 27 ribbons (my far-too-late apologies to any guests who actually ate our favors). My brother-in-law, a musician who never really liked Neil Young but knew I did, learned “After the Gold Rush” and we all sang it together at the reception.
My dad held the toddler during most of the ceremony. I’d asked him if his feelings would be hurt if I didn’t have him “give me away,” and he seemed a little flustered even as he chuckled his response, “No problem!” I told him I knew, but I still wanted to ask. The words are important, even when you know the answer.
The day before the wedding, we tried to have a picnic outside our apartment complex, and a torrential storm came out of nowhere, raining sideways in everyone’s ear until we could get 30-plus people along with the pizza to feed them jammed together in our one-bedroom apartment. We spared a thought for what might happen the next day.
We were running appropriately late, my family a/k/a the bride’s party, so to save some time, I jaywalked my whole crew across a four-lane street to get to the schooner’s daytime berth. The traffic stood absolutely still for us, and I explained to my nieces that they must never try to do this, unless perhaps on their own wedding days, where the rules of normal life seem to be suspended.
Everyone else was there at the berth, waiting. John was relaxed and smiling in his bespoke suit that still felt amusingly ill-gotten. Last to arrive, I was the first on the boat. Once everyone else had joined me, we set sail.
The wind was brisk. We were slipping across the water at nine knots as we said our vows. We wore sunglasses as we spoke the words that my mother had written, because it was bright and blue on the water and we forgot to take them off. A sudden gust whipped up at one point during the vows, and our officiant friend almost got knocked overboard. A favorite photo of mine from the wedding is of John and I grabbing him to hold him on board with us.
There was no official photographer, so all evidence of the ceremony and reception was captured and compiled from random acts of documentary kindness. One of my other favorite pictures of us at our wedding isn’t of us together at all: a clever shot of John’s left hand, shiny new gold band prominent, holding a bottle of Dogfish Head IPA 60. My distorted image, cream gown evident, is reflected off the amber glass.
Our reception, in the event room at our apartment complex, was catered by a local ribs joint, and they forgot the cole slaw. Aunts and uncles bought dozens of mismatched vases from Goodwill for the tables, and every spare bouquet available at the local chains in a five-mile radius, and the reception was a lush and wild blooming cottage garden after a rain.
There was no smashing of cake in anyone’s face. Even if we’d been so inclined, the cake was too delicious to do that to.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a more carefree day in my life. There was only one thing that mattered, and that was a certainty: we were getting married. Everything else was extra, good fortune, kindness. Nothing remained to be threatened. It was a perfect, lovely, absurd play, staged just to ask a single question, because the words are important, even when you know the answer: I do.
There were ten couples on the boat that day. Five are still together. Which I guess makes us average. Maybe even ordinary. I can’t account for the unravelling of all these joined lives, though I’ve spent some time trying to with John and me. But there were still ten couples when we took off to the beach for our honeymoon. We couldn’t get used to “wife,” or “husband,” these ridiculous grown-up words that fit like our parents’ 5-sizes-too-big shoes from the dress-up box. Faking it felt fun, though. John loved announcing that his wife had more luggage in the car, and my husband and I tipped obscenely with the cash that guests had bestowed on us for the reception; young bellhops seemed to elbow each other out of the way to assist us as our stay went on.
I’d bought two pairs of shoes for my wedding day: ten-dollar cork sandals for the boat, and beautiful sequined ivory heels intended for the reception. The whole day, I only wore the sandals. I carried the heels with me to the reception, and never put them on. Those cheap sandals are long gone. I still have the heels, though, unworn yet oddly decaying in my closet, the ivory yellowing, the ankle strap stiffening, the glued insoles drying out, cracking and unsticking.
Something terrible happens to memories as they become infected by disease and substance-induced dementia. History gets re-written.
“I never wanted to get married, I wanted to break up right after we moved east,” John told me at the end, multiple empty handles of vodka under the bed he sat on: his bed, not ours. We moved east eight years before that perfect day. I never saw any threats to the one certain thing from that day, around which everything else revolved, because I couldn’t see a decade and a half into the future.
Devastating isn’t quite the right word. I’m tough, but I can’t imagine ever having the stamina to dispute someone who insists they don’t love me, and haven’t. So the wedding pictures came down.
That’s appropriate, right? I mean, we were getting divorced…
But as I worked to move him out, digging through a box of our mementos, I found the distinctive little columns of photographs from the photo booth on the boardwalk at the beach. They’re some of just a handful of pictures from our honeymoon. I hadn’t seen them in ages. He’s tilting his head toward mine. We’re tight, thick as thieves, and we’re grinning like it was still the funniest secret and the biggest prank we’d ever get away with.
God, I miss him.
Now I realize that the cost of keeping the memory of that perfect wedding intact is feeling the loss. His loss. Our loss.
And I realize, I’ll pay it.
It’s worth it.
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