taking the vow
the child bride (and groom)
I was only twenty-three years old when I got married Dave was twenty- six. By today’s standards of arrested adult development, regression, and ever-rising life expectancy rates, I was a child, and maybe Dave was, too. In any case, that’s what it felt like and, with each anniversary we celebrate, we seem to have been younger and younger way back when we got married.
I met my husband, Dave, in grad school at the very first party of the year. A month later, we were on a road trip together. We pulled off I-95 to have sex in a Red Roof Inn, midday. This is astonishing only in that we were so damn poor. Sex at a Red Roof Inn was a huge luxury. There, perhaps inspired by the grandeur, lounging under the orange comforter, he told me that he wanted to spill his guts.
I said, “Okay.”
He said, “I really like you.”
Now this didn’t strike me as spilled guts. We’d been inseparable since we first met. He’d just taken me to a family reunion and, on the way, he’d met my parents. We’d pretty much covered the liking, even the really liking. I said, “I don’t think that constitutes having spilled your guts.”
“How about this?” He paused and then said, “I’m in love with you and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Now this, this was spilled guts. It was completely courageous and elegant—even amid the Red Roof Inn decor with its paintings bolted to the walls. I took it as a proposal. I said, “Yes,” as in I accept, as in I do. “I love you too.”
I should stop right here and say that everything from here on out in this essay is foofaraw. This is the essential moment that Dave and I consider to be the start of our marriage—not the wedding itself. Embedded in every marriage, there is a true moment when your hearts sign on for good. It doesn’t necessarily happen when the guy mows Will you marry me? into your lawn or trains a puppy to bring you a velvet box. It doesn’t necessarily happen in the white hoop gown or because some exhausted justice of the peace says so. It usually happens in some quiet moment, one that often goes unregistered. It can happen while you’re brushing your teeth together or sitting in a broken-down car in the rain. Some unplanned, unscripted moment.
But when people ask about your wedding day, they want a grand story. Not something that ends with stealing mini hotel soaps and shampoo bottles from a Red Roof Inn.
And so we make up another story. We create a grand affair.
A GENERATIONAL FOOTNOTE
We announced our engagement two months after the Red Roof Inn affair, and it’s surprising now how unsurprised everyone was. It seemed like such a normal thing to do at the time—to fall in love, get engaged in three months, and get married in less than a year—at age twenty- three. And yet now, a decade and a half later, this seems like a terrible idea—a choice that only the destitute would make in a time of crisis.
But this was all happening right on the cusp of a new generation of women. The generation that had gone before us and tested the you-can- have-it-all notion had come back and written up a sobering memo: Balancing family and work was much harder than they’d thought.
My friends evidently were digesting the news. They started in on careers first. Their marriages, if they came at all, came late. Many have just gotten married in the last two to three years and now in their late thirties are starting to have their first children.
All that needs to be said here is this: I missed the memo completely. Was I out drinking? Was I too distracted writing poems on cocktail napkins? Was I already in a Red Roof Inn having sex off I-95? Hard to say.
I had no real wedding plans in mind. I’d never dreamed about my wedding day. I knew girls were supposed to. I knew women were likely to have planned it many times over before the day actually arrived. But I hadn’t. I was in graduate school. I loved graduate school. I’d still be there if they’d have let me stay on. Dave felt the same way. We were only interested in the ceremony’s readings and in writing our vows—we were in graduate school for such things. Basically, we wanted in on the word action, but everything else, well, we didn’t much care.
When people would say, “Your big day is coming up,” I’d cringe. I didn’t want to shove myself into the gown and get dolled up. I didn’t want to have to accept the heavy weight of marital advice—from the blissful hand graspers to the depressives explaining, through gusty sighs, that marriage constitutes a life sentence of hard labor. I wanted bigger days to look forward to—maybe quieter but bigger in their own ways.
Our rings are a good example of our lack of interest. My great- grandfather had found a diamond brooch in a lump of tar while cleaning out a ladies’ room some decades earlier, and the diamonds had found their way into a number of rings throughout the family. We used some of these from a ring that my grandmother had given me, then got a plain white gold band and a gold ring for Dave, both purchased through the strip-mall chain Van Scoy. The total cost: $239.99.
My mother was going to make my gown, but in the first store we visited to look for ideas, I found a dress on sale. I said, “Close enough.” It cost $79.99.
My parents, who have four kids, have a system for weddings. They give each of us a set figure. One: You can elope and take it all in a lump sum. Two: Use all of it and then some of your own to throw a huge bash. Or, three: Our choice, throw a low-budget affair and pocket as much of the leftover as possible.
As I mentioned above, we were in grad school for poetry and fiction. This was, quite possibly, going to be the largest chunk of change we’d ever see in our entire lives.
We chose to have the wedding in my childhood church. It is one of the ugliest churches in America. When they do the photography art book of ugly churches, you’ll find it right up front on page two—if not the cover.
It’s a squat cinder-block number with a few stained-glass triangles in the concrete facade. The plastic chairs are mismatched—various shades of green, orange, and yellow. The art in the church was done solely by parishioners. The Stations of the Cross were abstract—black felt spiderlike things on purple felt backgrounds. The Jesus on the Cross was, well, how do I put this? Big-boned? Heavyset? He was fat. His loincloth was skimpy, and, because he was lifted high above us, you felt pervy when you raised your eyes to him—as if you were trying to catch a glimpse up his skirt.
The church was quite elegant, however, in comparison to the place we chose for the reception: the Sangerbund.
It’s a German beer hall. This wasn’t a nostalgic choice about our forebears and our mother country: Neither Dave nor I is German. Neither was it a style choice. Germans aren’t known for their gracious hospitality, decor, or food quality. They are known for their beer quality, however, and this seemed to outweigh the other factors at the time.
That and the price. The Sangerbund was, by far, the cheapest per square foot and per meal. The meal would be something sauerkraut-ish, heavy on the gravy. And it would be served by women in lace-up tops—à la St. Pauli Girl—except the women would all be quite stout and aged.
THE BLURRY DAY ITSELF
Because weddings are sociological in scope, not psychological, I had the sense throughout it all that Dave and I barely existed. We were already married, in our own way, at the Red Roof Inn off I-95. This was the communal manifestation. This was an adaptation of some sort, something that was only loosely based on us.
I’ll spare you the battling bridesmaids and my brother-in-law’s last minute decision not to sing our wedding song because he doesn’t like to sing except when there’s a real focus on him and the beauty shop that gave one of my bridesmaids a satellite dish hairdo, and get right to the event itself.
Dave and I were kept in the church basement right before the wedding in two separate rooms, like holding pens. There was a door between us. I opened it and saw him across the room. He was wearing a rented tuxedo and a red bow tie and cummerbund. He was pacing, hands in his pockets. I whispered his name and he looked up.
“Hi,” I said.
“I’m getting married,” I said.
“Me, too!” he said, as if this were the strangest thing. And it did seem like a giant coincidence. Sometimes, still, one of us will say, “I love you” and the other will say it back—but in total amazement. “I love you too!” And sometimes we’ll admit to how odd it is. “What are the chances? I love you and you love me.”
I didn’t tear up at this point. I wasn’t yet sentimental about Dave. We were both too new to each other. This was more like a weird movie we’d both been chosen to star in. Soon enough it would be over and the paparazzi would ease up and we’d be back to our normal lives. This was something to endure.
And so when people asked me if I thought I was going to cry at the wedding, I’d shrug. “I don’t know.” I can be so unsentimental in so many ways. The traditional wedding—with all of its awwwing and honeyed adoration and cloying sweetness and condescension—well, I couldn’t stomach it. I wasn’t the type to go soft at flowers and candy. Pity the boyfriend who bought me a stuffed animal for a birthday gift.
But I didn’t realize that the wedding wasn’t only about becoming something new. It was also about leaving some other part of myself behind.
And so my father was the one who started me crying. And he’ll always get me. I can’t even begin to talk about him here. My God, this man’s sweetness and brilliance and his philosophies on life . . . I can’t begin. Here’s a quick description: He has, more than once, walked a stranger’s baby up and down the aisle of an airplane so that the single mother, traveling alone, could rest a minute.
He took my arm. We walked into the church and everyone stood up. It was this, too, that got me—this standing up, the formality of it, the respectfulness. The fact that people had come from such distances to be here for this.
I lost it. I bawled. People had to pass me tissues at the altar. There was a lot of snot. It was ugly.
But the priest, a true intellectual, a man of great wit and humility, gave an inspired homily. And although I can’t begin to understand how they fit together, I remember he quoted Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) and Erma Bombeck and plenty in between. He calmed me down. Dave and I said our homemade vows, which, for all of our wanting in on the words, ended up being very traditional and simple and vowlike.
Then it was over. We were married.
And we were loved unsparingly. In fact, we were pressed with so much love that we felt like flowers being flattened—wedding-dress bustle and all—into a precious-memories book.
From here on out, we got lucky. There were some wedding guests who needed a careful eye, but everyone was on their best behavior. A brief accounting:
Dave’s people were also a source of prewedding anxiety. My parental in-laws-to-be, especially. There are three of them—Dave’s mother, Dave’s father, and Dave’s father’s wife. I hadn’t yet figured out the meaning of the cliché about marrying the whole family. That would take years to decode. And because the in-laws were, by and large, WASPs, their passive aggression was so subtle that I just thought they were all sweet as pie.
I was nervous about my oldest sister. Kate is nine years older than I am and was living in New York, working as a director/producer, and unmarried. She had, in fact, just broken things off with a man she was about to move in with. The Triple Asshole, my mother had dubbed him. Kate’s happiness was of great concern, and there was a strict rule against making any allusions to The Taming of the Shrew in front of her. She did show up (fresh from an impromptu fling in Mexico). At the reception, she took to introducing Dave to people as such: “This is Dave. Julie’s first husband.” This was funny, of course. And every time she did it, I actually felt relieved. (My sister is unwieldy and wonderful and bitchy and hilarious and incredibly generous and kind and vicious, etc. . . .)
Even the conflicting groups—the nuns and college buddies—seemed harmonious. My mother relied on nuns throughout her life, and so more than a few showed up. One was in full regalia—the all-white habit with the enormous halolike wimple. We wanted them to be comfortable while at the same time we wanted our drunken friends to have fun— inoffensive fun.
A word on the young wedding. When you get married young, your friends are young, too. They aren’t yet worrying about a merger. They aren’t having to dodge in and out to breast-feed or check in with the sitter. They aren’t yet tied to their husbands and wives. The young wedding has a greater possibility of being a big, messy, sexy free- for-all. Dave and I still hear bits and pieces of what happened later that night.
Which brings me to later that night . . . Dave and I left the wedding as soon as we could. Someone had hunted down my grandfather’s Cadillac convertible, which had been sold after he died, and had sweet-talked the people into lending it so that it would be a surprise for us, just to drive around on our wedding day. And it was— a huge surprise, like having my grandfather there with us. We drove it to New Castle, where we had a room at the David Finny Inn. There was a celebration of Old Towne going on with fireworks. We found a window in a hallway that led to a tar roof. We climbed out the window and stood there—me in my wedding gown and him in his tux—among the humming air conditioners and watched the fireworks. The fireworks seemed personal. We took them personally—a celebration for just the two of us.
Excerpted from Altared by Edited by Colleen Curran. Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Curran. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.