This week, the Cut brings you True Romance: five days of stories about love as it’s actually lived.
Dustin and I got engaged in the fall of 2013, on a mountain in Vermont. He got down on one knee on this big rock in front of a waterfall, out of nowhere. I felt embarrassed for him, and in love with him, like all of his boyhood vulnerability had risen to the surface and he was down close to the earth looking up at me, asking me this literal question he wasn’t 100 percent sure of the answer to. I remember wanting him to stand up, that we were both crying in a way we weren’t accustomed to, the happy-overwhelmed-embarrassed way. Overcome. I held both his hands and he asked me to “think about it,” like, “no need to give me an answer now,” which was absurd and funny but also felt like it honored all the overthinking ambivalence I tended toward. Like even though I’d already said yes, maybe I could take some time to think on the rest of the hike and we could talk it out on the car ride home, come to a proper conclusion. No pressure. As if we hadn’t spent the past year having fraught and then light conversations about it over dinner once we’d had a second glass of wine. “Let’s do it, let’s get married.” “Okay!” Wait, did that count?
We carved our initials into a tree a few yards up the trail — “not so far up,” Dustin said, “that we won’t be able to hike back here when we’re old.” Then we kept hiking. I thought my way through the whole thing, freaked out a bit, nervously twisted the antique ring he’d just given me around and around my finger and then came out the other side content, at peace in a way I hadn’t been in a while. I remember looking at the back of his head and thinking, I’m going to have babies with this guy, and then feeling totally at ease.
I did not mean I am going to have a baby with this guy in approximately 41 weeks but that’s what happened. I got pregnant that night. And while I liked the idea of a shotgun wedding, well, we had so many other things to Google. The wedding got backburnered; the baby came. Then we moved across the country. Then I started writing a book. Two and a half years passed and we still weren’t married. We’d all but given up on the idea of it, on spending the money, taking the time. Then Dustin got offered a job in another country.
When it was established that we had a week to get hitched, for visa purposes, a little thrill passed over me. There was no dread with it, no abstraction. We were getting married and there was no time for emotional turmoil, for deep Googling, for dispiriting dress searches or arguments over the guest list. We’d spend a few hundred bucks at most ($500, somehow, in the end) and then it would be done. Time now became a creative constraint, how much we could do with how little. This I could handle. Maybe.
I looked at expensive wedding rings, ones that wouldn’t be ready in time for the ceremony. Ones we’d get “later.” I was surprised at how much I wanted one, how I’d repressed this for so long. I didn’t want to deal with everything that comes with a wedding but I did want to be married. I was genuinely surprised. It felt lucky, to have this attainable thing to want — the work already done! We had all the commitment of marriage (a kid really yokes you to a person, wedding or no), all the work of marriage, all the feeling of it, but none of the easy shorthand. No rings, no language, all the shrugging and saying, “Oh we’re not actually married,” and then wondering if it mattered at all, and if it did, why did it?
I immediately, in my joy, ordered $100 worth of bullshit from BHDLN.com. “Bride” and “Groom” hankies we forgot to use the day of the ceremony, little His & Hers notebooks that said “Vows” on them (also unused). I rush-shipped it to the house, and while I could use that money back, when I opened the box I got that rare, excited, “We’re getting married!” feeling. In the intervening days, each one of us got the flu and then our son got pinkeye. I got a blue T-shirt dress from my favorite store in Portland ($65) but then spent every night paging through endless retail sites looking for something white, something fancier, something to guard against potential disappointment. I panic-ordered two with a credit card, which was all I could do to end the insanity. They looked like hell.
Our hand was being forced because we procrastinated for literally years, and it felt right. Of course we’d put it off and of course now we were going to have to get married in the dumbest way possible, with none of our family and old friends, no nice meal, no nice dress, no professional anything. “Wait, is that sad?” I kept saying to myself, worried I wasn’t worried, worried that being unworried meant I was in for future worry.
I got a ring for $20 from a shoe store and Dustin bought what we think is a key ring for 25 cents. We told our parents, then regretted it. We said we’d have a “real wedding” soon. This was the line of the weekend; I even used it on myself, not knowing if it was true or not.
I have a working theory about weddings, that there are two moments of actual romance and they happen (1) when you decide to get married, and (2) when you actually say your vows. In between that is a certain kind of hell. The hell that comes with expectations of joy and perfection and spending too much money and trying to impress people with your taste or your social circle or your own beauty or your love. It’s the sort of hell that comes when things begin to mean too much, the kind of hell that comes when you are trying to impress yourself. Big life decisions and self-presentation and public declaration and throwing an expensive party — these things all play into and off of each other. That you know all of it is a trap set especially for you does not keep you from walking right into it.
A few nights before the wedding, our friend/wedding officiant asked what we wanted the ceremony to look like, so we got to work copying and pasting things from various terrible wedding websites. We talked about writing our own vows but I found myself wanting to say the boilerplate, words that were familiar enough to feel official.We pulled up our first emails to each other over Gchat, and I felt sick and twitchy with the adrenaline of new love. I got butterflies. Everything felt wild and full circle; our son was sleeping upstairs in his crib. Dustin emailed me his own vows anyway, ones he read out loud to me in bed from his laptop after I’d cried to him about how weird and thrown-together, how vulnerable the whole thing felt. I didn’t know where to put my energy, didn’t know how to do things in a small way, didn’t know what to do with my anxiety when I couldn’t put it into planning and spending money. Here were all the hellish feelings of wedding planning I’d tried to avoid, compressed into one night. Nothing could save me from them, from wanting everything to be some perfect encapsulation and expression of our selves and our love. It was ridiculous, but still there. He said he felt it, too, that he wanted to be nonchalant about it, this feeling like it should be exactly what we want or totally half-assed. It reminded me of Halloween costumes — of avoiding planning and then feverishly obsessing for the final 48 hours, cursing yourself for not trying sooner. But there was, blessedly, no time left for us to scheme up anything grand or perfect, so we could finally relax. We fell asleep curled into each other, on the same team. If nothing else, we are screwed up in the same way. This can be enraging and unhelpful when it comes to things like deciding what to have for dinner, but rewarding on the soul-consolation level of being known. I’ve chosen the latter.
We got married in my writing studio in the backyard, or just outside of it, because the rain let up. It was dusk, the ground was wet, the sky was a beautiful color. I had a moment of feeling underdressed and strange when our five guests arrived (six, if you count the toddler), but then it passed and I gave in to whatever it was we were doing. Or maybe I just had a glass of Champagne. I wore one friend’s kimono over my T-shirt dress, another friend’s wedding comb in my hair. My oldest friend had a wedding cake delivered. Another sent a bottle of fancy Champagne and a big cheery floral arrangement. One of our wedding guests made me a bouquet, made Dustin and our kid boutonnieres. “Flower, my flower! See! Flower!” was shouted repeatedly for the next hour. Another friend, a Universal Life minister, married us using our copy-pasted ceremony, while our children ran circles around us shouting and laughing. Our son handed a friend his cookie for a minute so he could walk up to us with the wedding rings. He ran back to get his cookie and yelled, “MORE!” as I slid Dustin’s fake-gold key ring onto his finger.
It was not awkward, not weird, only joyful chaos. Tears streamed down my face while I said my traditional wedding vows, feeling them as if I’d made up the words myself, even though I’d grown up hearing them in movies and on television, wondering if that meant that the actors were technically married in real life. I was technically married in real life now, and it felt light and happy, worth celebrating. We’d been through the shit so many times together it was almost routine, and all that shit is what made the happy stuff light. There was no fear, no dread, when it came down to saying the words. I think we could have spent months planning a wedding, or a week, and that part would have felt the same. I was so worried about safeguarding against any potential unhappiness that day, forgetting it was what we’d spent years doing already, as we quietly built our life together. This was just another day where we put our bullshit aside and did something we really wanted to, which is noteworthy in its own way, harder than it seems; always worth celebrating.