Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Starter Marriage

If the statute of limitations weren’t already up, I’d file a class action lawsuit on behalf of all 1980s brides. Our wedding consultants were grossly negligent when they told us that leg-o’-mutton sleeves were flattering on all body types.

My own frothy confection was a vision of sequin-encrusted Alençon lace and faux pearl beads. It required all eight bridesmaids to fasten the sixty satin-covered buttons that crept up my spine. Like most wedding dresses of the era, mine was punctuated with a gargantuan bow snapped to my tailbone – hideous and lovely like a dead bird.

That’s not why the marriage ended, of course. But looking back, the bulbous sleeves and grandiose bow certainly heralded lofty expectations of a charmed marriage that never came to pass.

I wasn’t too young to know better. Twenty-seven is a reasonable age for marriage. By my suburban, white-girl standards it was damn near spinsterhood. The problem was that my marriage was more about the wedding to me than the relationship. I couldn't see past the day set aside to celebrate with girlfriends and be the center of attention; a day to call up childish images of Cinderella coachmen and ladies in waiting. A culmination of twenty-some years of puffy princess fantasies played out in a local rental hall.

Long before epidemic reality programming, weddings were our one and only method for gaining unearned fame. As little girls, my friends and I prepared by playing the Mystery Date board game. We’d turn the little knob of the plastic door and pray that the latch wouldn’t stick on the photo of the “Dud.” We dressed up as brides for Halloween. As we entered our twenties, my girlfriends and I planned our colors and salivated over thick copies of Bride magazine years before anyone was engaged.

Finally, when it seemed most of my close friends had stutter-stepped their way down dimly-lit church aisles I figured it was my turn. I grabbed onto my current boyfriend's button-down shirt, and started planning my own Big Day. He looked good on paper: he was funny, college educated, gainfully employed and had been introduced to me by a co-worker. We had been seeing each other for more than a year when I started steering him toward jewelry shop windows.

He wasn’t in the same wedding trance that I was, but I didn’t pay attention to that. Nor did I put much thought into the troubled childhood he was still trying to sort out. I knew what I wanted – all he had to do was follow me.

Unfortunately, that’s what he did. On our wedding day, his buddies were lined up at the alter like pallbearers. They wore rented tuxedos with mauve cummerbunds to match the “you-can-wear-it-again” bridesmaid dresses and dyed-to-match shoes.

Looking back, I’m sure three-quarters of the invited guests knew it wouldn’t last. But they followed protocol: they sent the Gorham crystal wine goblets, the Lenox China from the presidential collection and the silver candlesticks listed on our Macy’s gift registry. They came to the reception and ate the chicken dinner, emptied the carafes of Chablis and applauded as we shuffled through our first dance – “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which I had selected all by myself.

They listened politely to the Best Man’s slurred and sloppy toast as he rambled about his childhood memories with my groom, forgetting to mention the bride or congratulate us on our marriage. The guests smiled as we fed each other first bites of cake without smashing butter cream frosting on each others’ faces, thanks to countless pre-wedding admonitions from me.

The reception lasted four hours; the marriage only two and a half years. I spent most nights of wedded bliss by myself in a crappy apartment while my new husband was “unwinding” at the neighborhood pub. We moved four times during our short marriage. Every neighborhood we lived in had a bar more inviting and comfortable to him than our own living room couch. He wasn’t mean or violent; He was simply not present.

My husband came home nights smelling of the Riccola cough drops he kept in the glove compartment to mask the stench of beer and cigarettes that clung to him. He fumbled and pawed his way into our apartment like a bear cub searching through campsite garbage. No honey, not now, I’d say in disgust. Large, sloppy animals don’t do much to whip me into a sexual frenzy. It was a downhill slide.

One Sunday, as we were relaxing together in our new house, he sort of giggled, looked away and said: I don’t want to be married anymore. I don’t think I’m any good at it. You’d think I would have been relieved, but I wasn’t. I’d always expected he would turn around -- grow into the image I’d held of him. My biggest mistake was marrying the potential and not the man.

There was anger, disappointment, therapy, yelling. Then, like a hurricane, it was suddenly over. The Bride magazine fantasies were moldy and ruined. The social expectations were cut away. It took two years to sort out the paperwork, with no money to hire a lawyer. I got a copy of How to Do Your Own Divorce from Nolo Press and went through the steps alone.

I took my eighties wedding dress to a consignment shop and left it there. For several months the trunk of my car held all my essentials and I worked out temporary living situations by housesitting and staying on friends’ couches. When I finally got the strength to make another commitment, I signed a rental agreement and lived alone for the first time in my life. What might have been a lonely time turned out to be my halcyon days. Sunlight streamed into my hilltop apartment in Oakland. I ate popcorn for dinner and browsed the cool boutiques and used bookstores in my funky neighborhood. It was glorious. Colors were brighter, the air was cleaner; I felt new.

I rarely missed my husband, but I missed his sisters and my mother-in-law. Once again, it was all about the girls. We’d spent holidays sitting around the kitchen table in his childhood home, laughing and eating his mother’s thick bacon and buttery popovers. His youngest sister used to stay at our apartment and clean the kitchen while I was at work. She’d leave with armloads of books from my bookshelf that never got returned. His other sister and I went to art galleries on the weekends. They had been my confidants and friends. When the marriage ended so did my relationships with them. They didn’t return my phone calls and I understood. Experiences I had with them are like filmstrip flickers now. The images are jumbled together with images of high school friends and college flings.

Last year, I read in the Examiner obituaries that my ex-husband’s mother had died. Without much hesitation, I picked up the phone to call him. It had been years since we’d talked. I’d had a corporate career, international travels, a variety of men and finally a whirlwind affair with a Hollywood stuntman that resulted in an imperfect yet stable marriage and two unique children. My ex-husband was listed in the phone book, still living in the same apartment he’d rented in San Francisco after our divorce. He picked up on the second ring.

I just heard, I said, I’m so sorry about your mom. He was surprised and happy to hear from me. He told me she’d had a stroke after many years of illness. He and his sisters were all with her when she passed. We talked amiably for a while, filling each other in on the past years. He was still working in the same financial services company. He had never married. He had medical problems of his own, including a heart condition that put him on the heart transplant donor list.

He asked me how I was doing. Self-consciously I told him: I work from home as a freelance editor, volunteer at the kids’ schools, keep busy with family. We’re not rich but we live well. My partner and I are an unconventional couple, but our marriage works.

He was silent for a moment. Then I heard him take a small breath and exhale slowly. So, you did it, he said. You got everything you wanted.

At that moment I realized he’d been holding his breath for a long time. He’d bathed in the failure of our marriage and kept reapplying the guilt. Like a good Catholic, he’d gorged himself on all the blame while I’d moved forward. I’d never considered what our relationship meant to him. I always assumed he’d been relieved just to get out of it. Over the years I realized I’d dodged a bullet and was grateful that we had divorced before having kids and making each other irreparably miserable. But I had never told him that.

Yes. I guess I did, I answered.

No one ever bought my wedding dress from the consignment store. After the six-month contract lapsed, I got a phone message saying I could come pick it up. But I never did.

Leg-o’-mutton sleeves, it turns out, don’t look good on anyone.

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