Oh, I've been to plenty of weddings in my time on this planet, and been in my share too. But, having been sort of snide and cynical for most of my 34 years, I'd always maintained a sort of ironic detachment at weddings. The traditions made me uncomfortable; the outsized emotions just embarrassed me. Thus you could always find me far from the main action, lingering on the sidelines and scrutinizing things. Shameful, yes, but I come by it honestly, the heritage of being born into a family that's been known to hover together near the cake and take bets on how long the new marriage will last.
But this last nuptial event put a sledgehammer to all that callousness. For reasons I'm still trying to figure out, last weekend in Buffalo made me feel as if a laser beam of screaming mirth had been shot through my chest cavity. Did a wayward bridesmaid drop some pills into my wine? Who can say? All I know is, a few days after the fact I'm still a-laughing and a-crying, just like that time in Amsterdam when I tried space cakes.
The couple was Beth and Matt. He had been an intern at the newspaper where I worked as a reporter in 1999. I remember him approaching me early on, offering me story ideas for my beat. Who is this little upstart? I thought. But I was impressed with his journalistic insight, as well as his balls. Of course, he got hired at the paper as soon as he finished school. He introduced me to Beth. Sweet, funny Beth, with the nicest skin I've ever seen. Beth, with whom Matt had started off the awkward college-freshman courtship by saying, "I might like you."
Flash forward a few years. Matt and Beth have moved to Manhattan because Matt's landed a plum job at a big-name business magazine. And then Marty and I get an invitation to their wedding in Buffalo, Beth's motherland. We check "yes" on the RSVP card and start hunting for decent fares.
Flash forward to last weekend. A bus takes us from our hotel to the temple. It's Marty's first Jewish wedding, and my first entirely Jewish wedding. (My sister's nuptials 15 years ago were half-and-half.) We filtered in; we sat down. Marty wasn't sure whether to wear the commemorative white yarmulke he was offered. I had no idea either. Perhaps we should have read up on Jewish wedding customs beforehand.
Bravely, he put it on. He looked funny. We sat and stared at the blue and gold Hebrew letters etched on images of massive stone things that reminded me of the huge animated tower on Sesame Street, the tower that always crumbled to reveal the letter "B" while "Thus Spake Zarathustra" boomed. We stared at the monstrous menorah, which was about as big as a side-by-side refrigerator and looked like it was covered in hardened honey. We gazed at the chupah, a tentlike thing erected to represent the bride and groom's future home. I wondered if their home would also be dripping with white flowers. I wish my home was dripping with white flowers.
My musing was interrupted by the bridesmaids and groomsmen ambling by, followed by Matt, floating down the aisle. We studied him, this friend of ours we hadn't seen in months. He looked happy, but a little freaked. We watched him take several deep breaths. He looked like he couldn't breathe. I made a mental note for my wedding, just one month away: Don't forget the inhaler.
Then closed doors at the back of the temple opened up and the bride appeared. Celestial pink and blue lights somehow shone up through her veil, making her look like some sort of goddess, an earthly embodiment of radiance. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I found I had to look away in order to not lose it.
Me, lose it? How very odd. Since when do I lose it at weddings? This was an awfully peculiar contrast to the mental imagery I usually channel upon seeing the bride. Mostly I see visions from of Billy Idol's "White Wedding" video--brides covered in blood, surrounded by spontaneously combusting toasters. Stuff like that. Not very positive.
Beth came forth. Her mother and father met her about a third of the way down the aisle and walked hand-in-hand with her the rest of the way. They were smiling like maniacs, big, real smiles, and it hit me that this was the last time they'd escort her anywhere, really, and that elicited more blubbering. I dabbed at my nose. "What a lovely tradition," I simpered.
Lovely tradition? I don't believe I'd ever put those two words together before. I start getting nervous. What's happening to me? Has my body been possessed by the spirit of a sentimental old lady? Have I suddenly grown up--or gone bats? Where's the me I know? Where is the wisenheimer? Where is the smart aleck?
As I wrung my hands, the ceremony began. The main players stood in a semicircle facing the audience. The groom's mom and the bride's dad flanked the bride; the bride's mom and the groom's dad flanked the groom. Nice. The first official blending of the families. I watched the groom's mom shake with tears. I watched the bride's mom beam. It seemed to me that more real sentiment and depth was zinging around the temple, bouncing off the stone structures, than at most of the weddings I've attended.
And then it all started becoming clear: My own wedding was only four weeks away; emotionally, I was already about 5 centimeters dilated, primed to sob at every puppy and kitten and telephone-company commercial I encounter from here to Sept. 15. I began thinking about anti-crying pills--Is there such a thing? If so, can I get my hands on a batch in time for my wedding? If I was such a basket case 10 minutes into this touching ceremony in Buffalo, how was I going to be at my own nuptials? I might double over. I might vomit. My arms might begin flailing, my legs kicking. I can't have that. It'll ruin the pictures.
Just then, the cantor began chanting some really toe-tapping stuff with a lot of guttural, ancient sounds imbedded in it. Marty turned to me and whispered, "I like this! Let's have a Jewish wedding!" Before we knew it, Matt was stamping on the glass, crushing it like it was a roach. I felt a sense of sadness that I'd just finished planning a wedding devoid of just about all wedding traditions. But what traditions could I honor that would mean as much as what Matt and Beth were up there doing? None. My family had no religion, really, and no big sense of ethnic history we could tap into and swirl with glee and nostalgia. We were just a pack of mutts.
The newly married couple turned to face the assembly and sailed briskly down the aisle--not with fake wedding smiles on, but some serious-ass real ones. Rapture was abundant. My Kleenex was soaked, my head puzzled.
We ambled over to the temple's reception hall to find huge Chinese lanterns the size of boulders suspended from the ceiling. Flower arrangements were thrust several feet into the sky at each of the 18 tables, balancing on top of impossibly tall and thin vaselike structures. Strings of white lights hid behind gauzy fabric, giving the edges of the room a blurry, dreamy cast.
After mingling and cocktails, all sat down and the seriously tear-jerking speeches started. The bride's dad, who vaguely resembled Mel Brooks, emceed that part of the evening, calling people like Uncle Walter and Aunt Linda up to say a few words about and to the bride. Speeches--I dread 'em, but I always look forward to seeing others in the limelight. Because of the golden rule, though, there are no speeches planned for our wedding. I just don't want to put anybody through it. Especially not any Redfearns, who'd rather drag their butts across flaming coals than give a speech. And I'm with them--give me the hot coals too.
But the speeches at this wedding sent an already entrancing event rocketing into the bliss ionosphere. The old me's schmaltz-meter would have long since lunged into the red zone by this point--but the new me, sitting very close to the action, was eating it up, loving every quiver in Beth's dad's facial muscles. He was all broken up, talking about how kind his little girl is, and how that's the main thing you want in a wife. An uncle by marriage got up and said some sort of Hebrew prayer. The groom's brother then did a dramatic reading of a kooky poem, punctuated by enigmatic keyboard riffs delivered by the other brother. Very Beat Generation. The groom's little sister, a tiny pre-teen flanked by her adult brothers for support, read a tremendously personal blessing that she had written.
Why was all this killing me, and Marty too? We weren't close to the family. It wasn't as if Matt was my long-lost little brother or something. It wasn't like Beth was severely handicapped and then had a miraculous recovery just in time for her wedding. But the level of emotion in the room was running that high, and I was ever beseeching my tear ducts to drain, drain, drain already. How, I thought, does one go about creating this energy at their wedding? Was it the Chinese lanterns casting a spell? Or the gorgonzola-covered mushroom slices? Yes, perhaps the caterers had gathered the wrong sort of mushrooms from the field . . .
Soon it was time to dance, which I don't do. Most of the time, I feel too self-conscious. Marty dances, though. A lot and quite well. Each time we go to an event that involves dancing I strategize how I'm going to get out of the choreographed gyrating when the time comes. This is not easy at wedding receptions. But when, between the salad course and the main course, my betrothed asked me to dance, some strange creature inside me stepped forth and said, "Why, sure!" Freaky.
I guess all the robust sentimentality, along with the wine, and maybe the mushrooms, had lowered my resistance to sub-subsistence levels. Next thing I knew, we were out there and Marty was spinning me this way and that, leading so well that I didn't have to think about anything. In the space of what seemed like seconds, several songs had passed and we were still dancing, and there was no self-consciousness and I was laughing and yelping like I was on a roller coaster. It was positively euphoric, a fat natural crest in one of the evening's manic swings.
Then it was time for the traditional Horah dance. Everyone held hands and moved in a big, undulating circle, Marty and I included. The men then came into the circle to hoist the bride and groom up on chairs, then the parents, all of whom whooped and giggled and screamed. Fifteen years ago, when my sister married a Jewish man in a bi-faith ceremony, the chair-hoisting thing seemed the perfect opportunity for my usual secret mocking. I closely observed everyone who was lifted skyward, and decided what was wrong with them. I made fun of my mom for kicking out her legs a lot while up in the air in her pink dress. I was an ass.
But this time, I had no will to make fun of anyone. The ability to find something mock-worthy had drained out of me, completely. The people sliding around on those white wooden chairs were the embodiment of roaring joy. That's all I could see.
During the next song, folks spun and laughed and threw their heads back and there wasn't a self-aware person in the room. People danced and bounced wildly in little circles that kept growing and reducing and shifting like reproducing amoebae. The bride burst into one of the circles and spun around, her dress flying into a big white disc. It was like something out of a movie. I'm sure this scene had played out at many of the weddings I'd attended before--but was I just blind to the beauty of it?
Before I could think about that too much, it was back to the bawling. The dance floor cleared and the groom's mom slow-danced with groom, weeping openly. Next the bride and her dad did the same thing. And then in the next manic moment, Marty was spinning me again and I was giggling and giggling and giggling. That was interrupted by the bouquet toss. I trotted up to it. I watched it. I didn't mock it. I thought it was cute. Internally, I celebrated this as the first time I didn't have to go out there and pretend to try and catch the thing. I was engaged; I was immune. Thank goddess!
Pretty soon, the bus was there and it was time to head back to our hotel. Marty's blue shirt had big patches of sweat on it. My makeup was smeared and I was trapped in a strange, elation bubble that included frequent lumps in the throat followed by tittering. My therapist would have had a field day with it. But the world was beautiful, dammit.
And the world was changeable too. I hoped it wasn't too late to tell the DJ we needed to add some stuff to our wedding.
Exit Stage Fright (2/26/2003)
Editor's note: With this installment we bid adieu to Germ Bag.
Cabin Pressure (2/12/2003)
Escape -- you might think it's what you desire. Until you've actually run somewhere.
New Traditionalists (1/8/2003)
It was Christmas Eve morning on Harvard Street. Marty and I sat on the hardwood floor near our...
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