When we ask newlyweds to think back on what they wanted most for their big day — and we’ve interviewed hundreds of them over the years — the most common response is “For it not to feel like a wedding!” But in a monsoon of flower crowns and macaron towers, how do you see beyond the usual tropes and actually pull off a non-cookie-cutter affair? For the answer, we decided to interrogate the cool couples whose weddings we would actually want to steal — right down to the tiger-shaped cake toppers.
Here, we spoke with a couple whose 150-person wedding was originally scheduled for March 22 at the Arte Cafe in Chelsea. On March 17, hours after a press conference from Mayor Bill de Blasio warning New Yorkers to stay inside, Emma Aarnes and Jim Rohner pulled together a ceremony in Fort Tryon park — it involved five guests (including a friend as the photographer and a bartender in a kilt as the officiant), paper flowers made from the pages of a book, and a number of New Yorkers in masks applauding from a safe distance.
Jim: People were coming from all over the country, South Carolina and California and Pennsylvania. We were going to do a happy hour for a bit, then have a ceremony in the middle of it, then dinner and a trivia contest and dancing and a photo booth.
Emma: We had an invite list of 150, and had booked the Arte Cafe in Chelsea, which has this big open space; and based on the experiences I had with their bottomless brunch at the Upper West Side location in my 20s, I knew the food would be good. We wanted it to feel like everybody could be together in one room. The date was set for March 22.
Jim: We first became aware of coronavirus in January or February. One of my bosses was on a video shoot in L.A. and she came down with the flu and around the office it was a joke — “oh, she probably got corona, we’ve got to quarantine her.” It was a punchline more than anything else. Even as stuff developed in China and South Korea, it felt like someone else’s problem, basically.
Emma: We tried to pay our minister for the pre-cana, and he said, “Don’t pay me until I marry you.” We got our license on February 27, and it lasts for 60 days. At that point, we were still hopeful. My parents are both in their 70s, and they checked in with their doctor in early March to see if it’d be okay to fly from South Carolina, and at that point he said yes.
Jim: But then we started thinking, did we want to have a wedding where there was social distancing, where people couldn’t hug, or dance? We wanted it to be as joyful and wonderful as possible.
Emma: We met on Tinder a little over two years ago. We were in our 30s, and both really clear about what we wanted from a relationship. We skipped a lot of the nonsense.
Jim: In May 2019, we went on vacation to San Diego — we had just got back from whale-watching, and I pulled out not an engagement ring, but a necklace. It had one of those old skeleton keys on it; knowing Emma’s taste when it comes to architecture and art and vintage things, I thought it was something she’d really appreciate.
Emma: The planning came together early on. We knew we wanted the ceremony and the reception in the same place; we knew we didn’t want to bankrupt ourselves. I was an event planner for five years, so I actually really loved wedding planning. And Jim is a producer, and very organized, so he was really a partner in all of this; it all was really lining up with what he wanted, too. Then the virus started to snowball. We reached out to our vendors to see what everybody’s policy was — what is your plan if everything shuts down? At that point we got emails back from everybody that were like, “It’ll be fine. And if it’s not, we’ll work with you.” I do think we moved slightly faster than some people, and I suspect it led our vendors to be more flexible with us, before they realized they were losing all their business.
Jim: On Monday, March 9, we decided to postpone the wedding. And by Tuesday, we already had everything lined up for a new wedding, same venue, all the same vendors, on September 13.
Emma: Deciding to cancel was actually a huge relief. We’d spent the two weeks prior doing a sort of horrendous calculus about our own comfort with risk and what we could ask of our friends and family. I was feeling sick to my stomach all the time, and increasingly angry that I couldn’t just enjoy the lead-up to my wedding. We’d planned well. We were excited. We wanted to get to be excited. Instead, I had bookmarked the CDC homepage on my phone. We had a conversation about whether we wanted to have a wedding where it wasn’t safe to hug. We didn’t. So in that sense, it was easy. To my knowledge, no one who was planning to fly had to pay a cancellation fee for their flights or for their hotel. The 3/22/2020 we’d dreamed of wasn’t possible at all anymore and that was very sad but also just … incontrovertible? COVID wasn’t a hurricane we could hope would swing out to sea. It was coming.
Jim: We talked about how the most important part of getting married was, you know, getting married — we could do that that very day and it wouldn’t be any less special because it was our story and our commitment to each other. We didn’t want our story to be shaped by an uncontrollable factor.
Emma: And we still wanted to make use of the license before it expired — and to be honest, it seemed like a good moment to be legally connected. Before the shutdown began, on Sunday the 15th, we went for a walk up to Fort Tryon, which is a 15- to 20-minute walk from our apartment.
Jim: Just really in order to fight off cabin fever.
Emma: And then we came upon a spot with a sign that said, “happily ever after.” We thought, “okay, this is clearly for us;” I’ve never seen a park sign like that before. Then, we were sitting on the couch on Tuesday, the 17th, both working from home, and Mayor de Blasio came on TV and said we should prepare for a shelter-in-place within 48 hours.
Jim: We made the decision we should just do this now, do the ceremony outdoors in Fort Tryon. Our original officiant was the pastor from my church, but he was in the Poconos for a conference or convention—
Emma: We’ve since found out his wife has coronavirus.
Jim: And I knew a guy who officiates, this guy we called Sully who was a bartender at the local watering hole when I lived in Bay Ridge. I called him up and said, “Can you be in Fort Tryon Park at 6:00 or 6:30?” and he said, “absolutely.” He also said: “Listen, I’m Irish, it’s St. Patrick’s Day, I’m going to be wearing a kilt. Is that okay?” Emma said, “absolutely, definitely, do that. Yeah, show up in a kilt, man.” It was actually good because his phone died and we couldn’t get in touch with him and then we found him because he was the only guy walking around Fort Tryon in a kilt.
Emma: We called one of my bridesmaids, and Jim’s best man, and his other friend Benny Krown who’s a professional photographer — though he was going to be a regular guest at our wedding, we knew he had the equipment. I wore a dress I was supposed to wear for a big work event that got canceled. I didn’t want to use my actual ceremony dress. This one was purple and sparkly, and I thought it would look good at twilight. My bouquet was paper flowers, made out of a book — Emma, to be specific — from Etsy. I was named after the novel. We’d never planned to have real flowers for the wedding. We were trying to have a very green wedding, which paid off dramatically in that everything was reusable.
Jim: We didn’t even have time to discuss the ceremony words. We got there and were like, wait, which side do I stand on? Do I hold your hands? We cut out the readings and the sermon and just exchanged vows and put the rings on each other’s fingers.
Emma: I was a little worried that a rushed wedding wouldn’t feel real, but it felt very real. When we said “in sickness and in health” we both got teary-eyed. Mostly, I felt extremely lucky. Obviously, none of this has gone the way we wanted it to, but we got married at this beautiful spot, and people in masks were applauding from a safe distance. It felt like such a quintessential New York City moment.
Jim: We got married, and we got married in front of people that we cared about, and that was the most important thing. Sully had to get back home, and my best man did, too, because he lives in New Jersey, but a few people came back to our apartment and we ordered some delivery from an Italian place in the neighborhood, Saggio. We sat a few feet apart around the coffee table and had the food, a few drinks, good conversation.
Emma: There was no time to make a cake in the midst of it all, so we got tiramisu.
Jim: We woke up the next morning and we had rings on our fingers and we were husband and wife. We are moving forward.