You’re 20 years old and clueless, stupid even. You are getting married soon to the boy/man who will one day become the father of your children, and your first ex-louse. You go over and over in your head why you are doing this. You are not in love, you have never been in love, you think perhaps you never will be. You think this is a huge character flaw and that you are somehow seriously defective. You’ve never had deep feelings for anyone, man or woman. You never had a date in high school; between playing mom to two kids and running a household while your mother went on strike or fled to her sisters’ on Long Island or your brother’s wherever he lived, there was time only for painting. By the time you go off to college, you know you are not someone that anyone would want. You are ugly with those half-inch thick spectacles, chicken legs and oversized chest, completely out of proportion, miserable inside and out. Your one redeeming feature, beautiful, glossy, long, flowing dark hair attracts comment, until they take a good look and see the rest of you. So when he asks you out your first few weeks at college, you say yes. Yes, because someone is paying attention to you. Yes, because you don’t want to feel like a freak, the only girl you know who has never had a boyfriend; the only girl you know who has never gone to a dance, formal or otherwise, never been to the prom. Your wedding dress, which you are making with the help of a kind German woman, the mother of your brother’s friend, is the first formal dress you will ever have worn. You will never wear another.
The wedding is just a few weeks away. Not exactly a lavish affair, you will be married by a justice of the peace, your father’s friend, in the presence of family and a few college friends, in the club house of the apartments where your parents are living before moving to Arizona in the winter. You work on your dress and when you have finished, you make your mother’s dress, the mother who has never really liked you. Never mind that you really don’t know how to sew. You take her shopping for fabric, buy a pattern and thread, and get busy. Her shape is similar to yours, big chest, chicken legs, only she’s shorter by three inches. The pattern is simple, the fabric an exquisite Japanese-style silk. You get some help on the button holes and cuffs, but otherwise you’ve actually done a rather nice job for a girl who can’t sew. It fits perfectly and she loves it. Your best friend since third grade will be your maid of honor. Her mother makes her a long pink dress for the occasion. She knows how to sew.
You plan the reception. Your father is ill, your mother is still paying off the medical bills from your spinal fusion surgery last year; they are broke. The reception will be right there in the club house, your next-older-than-you-brother will be in charge of the music, your eldest brother will take pictures, and you, your favorite sister-in-law and your mother who may be the world’s best cook and baker will prepare all the food. You decide on the menu, all hors d’oeuvres, but not the easy cheesy sort. Your friends will talk about those fabulous little meatballs your mom made for years to come. You decide that there will be no alcoholic beverages. Your uncle gets stupid when he drinks, your fiancé’s mother will be plastered before she ever arrives, and your friends are all college students. They drink. A lot. Your mother who only drinks herself into a stupor at night will be careful not to touch the stuff during the day. Your older brothers have no idea that their mother is an alcoholic and when you have tried to tell them, they have dismissed your assertions as simply a ploy to get attention. She knows how to hide it.
Mary, your future mother-in-law is a dreadful woman. Tall and large, she dyes her hair blonde that doesn’t match the blonde of her hairpiece, and wears pounds of makeup, with foundation that ends abruptly where neck meets triple chin. Her face and neck look as though they belong to two different people. She is ugly inside. She has repeatedly told her two children that she is sorry she ever had them, she never wanted them, and that they ruined her life. She doesn’t like “Jews, n*ggers or gooks” and is not ashamed to let everyone know it. You will never forget the first time you were exposed to her, when you hitched a ride home before Thanksgiving weekend your first semester of college; it fell on the day before your surprise appointment with the new spinal surgeon. You are quiet in the back seat of the car while she gushes to her son in her syrupy, high-pitched voice. Suddenly, without warning, she swivels her head around to the back so that she can see you, and says, “Well! I certainly hope she’s using birth control. I don’t want to be paying for anyone else’s baby.” She is looking at you, but addressing her son. You are mortified; you have not yet slept with any man. You say nothing, but you feel a deep crimson flush creeping from your chest to the top of your head. She turns back around and continues to natter at her son in her sing-song syrupy voice. This is so bizarre that you want to open the door of her orange Cadillac with the plaid upholstery and jump out to get away from her. Your fiancé’s grandparents seem nice enough and you wonder how they could possibly have produced such a bitch of a daughter. There is no father. He disappeared when your fiancé was 8 years old.
Your parents are doing their best to scrape together two nickels to make a wedding. Your mother, who has always been a gardener, has some women friends who offer to make your bouquet. There will be no other flowers at the wedding, save a corsage for the parents of the bride and groom. Mary, a high school English teacher, offers to pay for nothing. She has already embarrassed herself in front of your parents, who took her to dinner at a nice restaurant downtown in an awkward version of the meet the parents ritual. She is drunk when they meet her at the foot of the restaurant steps and it is raining. Your father, holding the umbrella, takes your mother’s elbow to help her up the steps. Mary trips on the first step, reaches out to grab your father’s coat to keep from falling and succeeds only in tearing it as she falls on the wet steps. He hands the umbrella to your mother and helps her up. She sits too close to him at dinner, has a few more cocktails, and then as they are saying goodnight, she reaches up and kisses your father on the mouth. Steam flows from your mother’s ears and your father, disgusted, reaches into his pocket for his Irish linen hankie to wipe his lips. The never see her again until the wedding.
The day arrives. You try on your dress one last time, realize that you’ve gotten a spot on it, and because it’s completely washable, you throw it in the washer so it will be clean by afternoon. Who wouldn’t? It’s done in plenty of time. You are wearing the requisite something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Nearly everyone has arrived for the ceremony. One of your younger brothers is AWOL, probably of fishing somewhere, and your father and second oldest brother are engaged in an argument about him bringing his gun to the wedding. Dad wins; no guns. Finally, it’s 3:00 pm; everything is ready, except that there is no sign of the justice of the peace. You’ve been considering calling the whole thing off ever since you first said yes, and this gives you one last opportunity. You can’t figure out how to get out of it gracefully. The justice of the peace finally arrives an hour late, and as you are saying your vows, a little voice in the back of your head is screaming at the top of its lungs, “SAY NO! SAY NO!” You want the floor to open up and swallow you. You don’t want to be married. You don’t love your almost husband. You think of every reason not to say yes and there are a lot of them. You say, “I will.”
The reception goes well enough, except when your new mother-in-law, drunkenly clumsy, steps on your mother’s favorite cousin’s instep. Her clodhopper corrective shoes don’t save her and she howls in pain, much to your mother’s consternation. Mary is overheard telling a guest who she does not know what a shabby wedding it has been. Once it’s over, you and your new husband escape to your own party with your friends. Your husband rides off with your best friend from high school and you ride off with his best friend from college. Something doesn’t seem right about this, but no one else gives it a second thought. Your party is everything a college party ever is, except that no one is allowed to smoke in our apartment. It’s late. His friends are so drunk they have collapsed in heaps on the floor. Your friends have gone, your husband is easily as drunk as any of his friends and has passed out in the recliner. You have had a few, yourself, but you are still sober enough to survey the disaster that was once your apartment and with a sinking feeling, you think to yourself, “You sure stepped in it this time.”