Leslie Jamison: On Weddings
"Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress..."
Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth. A whaler’s church in the afternoon, sunlit and salted, gives way to the drunken splendor of a barn, and an entire island is suddenly yours, yours and everyone’s. You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and you’re all in agreement—not to believe in love, but to want to. This, you can do. You dance with a stranger and think, We have this in common, this wanting to believe. In what, again? In the possibility that two people could actually make each other happy, not just today but on ten thousand days they can’t yet see.
Weddings are hassle. Hassle is spending money you don’t have to celebrate the lives of people who have more money than you do. Hassle is finding yourself booked on a round-trip flight, Boston to Tulsa, and wondering, How did this happen? Hassle is driving to an Oklahoma conference center in the middle of the night. Hassle is getting stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and listening to your friend’s boy- friend talk about getting his pilot’s license. Hassle is taking the PATH train to Hoboken at two in the morning, shoulder to shoulder with the drunkest bridge-and-tunnel crowd, thinking, “Bridge-and-tunnel” is such a demeaning phrase, and also, These people are really drunk! Weddings are taking a plane, a train, a bus, a ferry, and then setting down your bulky backpack in a little internet café to check your email and finding a note from your new boyfriend saying he just talked about you with his father for the first time. This makes the wedding ahead feel swollen with possibility. You’re someone who might someday be loved. You’re in the game.
Weddings are getting dropped at a post office on a dusty road in the middle of the Catskills and waiting for a ride to the lodge. There’s always a lodge. There’s always cocktail hour at the lodge, and group activities at the lodge, and a hurried hunt for a bridesmaid’s missing shoes at the lodge. We go distances to celebrate the love of people we love, but sometimes it hurts the heart to stand alone on an empty road and think, What am I doing here?
Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings. They give a horizon of closure to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.
Weddings are about being single and wondering about being in love, and being in love and wondering about being in love—what it’s like for other people, and whether it hurts as much as it sometimes does for you. At every wedding, all of a sudden, all bets are off and everyone is asking when your boyfriend is planning to propose, and you are watching your boyfriend talk to the girl at the cheese table, and the wine in you wants to fight, and the wine in you thinks, You will never love me like I need you to.
You thought you knew drunk crying before you went to weddings. You’d gotten tipsy on cheap wine in the middle of the afternoon, alone, and cried rereading emails ex-boyfriends sent before they were ex-boyfriends. But you didn’t know this kind of drunk crying: alone in the bathroom at your brother’s wedding, or your other brother’s wedding. And you couldn’t even explain it properly, because you were happy for them, you were, but you were also feeling something else, only you’d gotten too drunk to remember what it was. You learned there was a kind of crying that was okay, and another kind of crying that wasn’t—a violent, angry crying—and without quite noticing, you’d crossed from one to the other.But you didn’t know this kind of drunk crying: alone in the bathroom at your brother’s wedding, or your other brother’s wedding.
Sometimes the best weddings are the weddings of strangers. You are only a date. No particular feelings are required. You cry as a groom remembers his mother, who died of cancer years earlier, and even though you’ve never met this guy, he’d once been in a band with your boyfriend, you can see the way he looks at his wife, and you think his mother must have loved him well. When you step outside the barn, it’s sunset in early June and there are fields of something under the light, and you think of that Sting song, the one you were always embarrassed to love, except maybe it’s not embarrassing to love it here. You have a little quiche in your palm, and you feel your boyfriend’s arms wrap around you from behind—he has only one suit, you know its crispness well—and this moment might be a little too sweet, like wedding cake, but it’s yours. You summon your most primal, shameful dreams—for some kind of life you learned to love in magazines—and feed them tiny quiches, these dreams, and hope that these will be enough.
You wonder what they feel, people who get married, at the precise moment they commit to their vows. Is it only bliss, or also fear? You hope for fear. Because mostly you can’t imagine feeling anything else. Except when you can summon the edge of a man’s suit against your back, familiar, his hand on your arm, his voice in your ear.
By you, of course, I mean I. I wonder about fear. I don’t want to be afraid.
At 13 I took a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and wondered what my father loved in the woman he was about to marry, and what he’d loved in my mother, and if there was anything he still loved in my mother, and how these circles might overlap, if laid across one another. At the airport my mother hugged me and tried her best to pretend she didn’t feel betrayed that I’d chosen to go, that she wasn’t buckling under the weight of 30 years ending. Or maybe she was going to buckle once I left. I could see it. I took it with me.
At the wedding I cried what my mother hadn’t cried in front of me. I cried in a room full of the relatives of my father’s new wife. I was that terrible stepdaughter, the one from terrible movies, making a scene in front of everyone. I sat in the corner of a dim banquet hall and my brothers patted me on the back so I wouldn’t feel so fully out of place, so fully without an anchor. They didn’t have wives yet then. I didn’t want anyone to look at me. That was part of why I started crying even harder, which of course must have seemed like just the opposite: a plea for everyone’s attention.
I remember he got an ice-cream maker so we could make ice cream together. I remember the ice cream tasted like ice crystals. I remember finding a photograph of a beautiful woman with a blurry face on his dresser. I remember thinking the whole place felt incredibly lonely. I remember feeling sorry for him.
Months later, when he told me he was getting married, to a woman I hadn’t yet met, I thought of the woman in the photograph and realized that his loneliness had lied to me. It wasn’t his but mine, my own loneliness reflected in the cage of his new life, a space in which I felt I had no place.
When I cried at his wedding, I cried for the betrayal of that dim apartment—how I’d imagined him lonely when in fact he was happy, and how my sympathy had made a fool of me in the end.
This essay was originally published as “Rehearsals” in The Nervous Breakdown, and is collected in Make It Scream, Make It Burn, available from Little, Brown. Copyright 2019, Leslie Jamison.