The invitation that lay at the bottom of the mail slot offended Eric even before he opened it. The ecru envelope weighed more than a TV Guide and smelled faintly of lavender. The wedding invitation it contained was an origami puzzle of frosted tissue separating various pieces of cream paper. He marveled at the complexity of its construction, a fragile concoction of ivory, eggshell, and beige rice paper enwrapping or separating stiffer pieces of parchment as if each was a priceless artifact. Instead, all they contained was a simple announcement of Stuart and Amanda’s wedding. He’d heard about this invitation from Stuart on many occasions over the last few months, or, to be exact, about the fights, clashes and arguments that this project had caused. Decisions about dual or triple embossed borders, font type and size, printed or hand-calligraphed envelopes had dominated Stuart’s life for over three months. Amanda had been apoplectic when she found out that he had failed to reach the post office in time to get the last of the ‘LOVE’ stamps for the reply envelopes, a batch she had located, after several hours of phone calls, in a small satellite post office 45 miles outside of town. Exhausted by Amanda’s obsession with details, Stuart had resigned himself to the fact that Amanda would take control of all major and minor decisions in their life.
This was Eric’s fifth wedding of the year. By now he was familiar with all aspects of weddings and thought of himself not just as a groomsman, but as a godfather, a sage whose presence would calm everyone around him. Amanda and Stuart could certainly benefit from his tranquility. He wondered why couples were looking forward to their wedding, considering that every wedding he had ever attended was filled with stress, especially for the ‘happy’ couple. For the bride and groom, the wedding preparations seemed to create enormous relationship stress and tension before the relationship even formally began. While most couples blamed the organizational challenges of reception halls, photographers, bands and florists, Eric believed that most of the stress seemed to come from what Germans so aptly call ‘Torschlusspanik”, the panic that is caused by the fear of a gate closing, a gate usually leading to something desirable like freedom, or a half-price sale at Barney’s. Both parties realize that the gate to singledom, free will and independence will soon close, most likely permanently, and start to have second thoughts about the impending shackling. Do I really want this ball-and-chain for the rest of my life? Will I get bored and not be able to get out? What if the other person was only acting their best behavior until now to ensure that the wedding actually takes place, while secretly waiting for the day when he/she can go to bed with their socks on, eat ice cream straight out of the tub, and leave the bed unmade until the next day?
To alleviate these doubts and prevent buyer’s dissonance, the second-guessing of one’s purchasing decisions immediately following the transaction, Stuart and Amanda had focused all their energies on creating a perfect wedding day. They knew that it would be judged by all attendees and if it was generally deemed a successful one, then the guests’ approval of the meal, party favors and band selection could be considered an implicit approval of their decision to hold this event in the first place. This, hopefully, would give them some sense of hope for their impending and presumably everlasting relationship. They would never know how much money was riding on their wedding, considering the many wagers that were being placed behind their backs about whether they were actually both going to say “yes”, how long their marriage would last, how soon they would have kids. Despite being Stuart’s best man, Eric had not hesitated to place a bet on a much more wicked eventuality: who would have the first affair.
Amanda and Stuart were oblivious to all these currents. Relieved that the past nine months of planning were behind them, they seemed eager for the end of the evening to arrive so they could get away from their guests, half of whom they didn’t know but had to invite out of courtesy or respect for some obscure family tradition. These guests of their parents, invited for decorum, were ignored by everyone else and had through their stoic presence become part of the decorations. They added nothing to the wedding and were mostly irritated by the fact that their gift far exceeded the value of the dinner they received. Stuart would never be aware of how the men judged the food and drinks while avoiding for as long as possible the requisite social conventions such as congratulating the couple’s parents. Amanda would never know how the other women were scrutinizing the decorations and the bride’s dress all night long, trying to guess the cost of both and comparing everything to their own wedding, past or planned.
As Eric made his way to the men’s room, he passed the room that was dedicated to the wedding presents. The mountain of packages, a jumble of shiny pastel blocks wrapped in satin and lace bows, was carefully arranged to suggest total nonchalance, further reinforcing his suspicion that his gift, along with many others, would end up in a storage facility for years to come. Amanda and Stuart knew that this wedding was their best chance to furnish and equip their dream house and had asked for enough kitchen equipment, silverware, stemware and china to start a small catering business. The number of sheets and towels (and their flowery designs) suggested that they planned to open a Bed & Breakfast in the Poconos. The number of frames, vases and Waterford candle holders on the bridal registry was large enough to furnish a Victorian mansion. Yet their Manhattan apartment was so small that they refrained from buying books for lack of shelf space and had to store their small but exquisite wine collection in the oven.
He envisioned them, several years from now, unwrapping their presents like long-lost archaeological artifacts in a suburban house that was large enough to hold all their possessions but had absolutely no resemblance to their original dream house. Their taste probably would have degenerated from the clean European brushed-steel-and-black-leather look of today’s hip downtown couple to the Ethan Allen décor so typical of suburban resignation. Or maybe they would have, impatient with their progress towards a life dominated by three kids and a temperamental SUV, settled for the first house they could afford regardless of its interior style. They’d wonder what fashion missteps drove them to the choices they’d made years earlier. He’d regret the fact that the sleek, pistachio green Italian cappuccino maker was completely out of place in her Shaker kitchen with lavender wainscoting surrounding the breakfast nook. She’d be relieved that his leather sofa from some obnoxious German designer named Rolf or Detlef would be relegated to the attic because the only piece of furniture appropriate for the country-style TV room was her old-fashioned Laura Ashley-print sofa that had been condemned to his parents’ garage in New Jersey.
Because Eric could see this future more clearly than the love-struck couple, he had refrained from purchasing anything from their registry. He certainly didn’t want to be forgotten as the one who gave them the fifth of twelve place settings. Not that they’d ever use twelve place settings -- Stuart’s nightly worship of baseball demigods at his big screen altar would prevent them from ever cultivating enough friends to justify a dinner party of such size. Eric also refused to provide the cappuccino maker that could never be sold at a garage sale because it would have to be available for display whenever he would visit them. Instead he bought them a $100 bottle of wine of a label they’d be sure to recognize. He almost hadn’t bought it, knowing that far better but lesser known wines were available for half as much as this brand, which lived off its reputation rather than its quality. But he knew that Amanda and Stuart would not appreciate a gift unless its price (and therefore, in their minds, its value) could be easily discerned, preferably from afar. That’s why they had requested Louis Vuitton luggage, the kind that had its brand logo emblazoned all over it.
They had chosen Hawaii for their honeymoon, the destination of choice for all Americans too timid to venture anywhere that required a passport. Eric knew that they’d never set foot on another continent, that they’d feel adventurous enough if they went skiing in Canada or visited Mexico in the safety of a tour group or a cruise ship.
When he reached the men’s room, Eric entered one of the stalls and waited until he was completely alone. He didn’t want anyone to hear or see the flash as he took pictures of his privates with one of the disposable cameras that had been placed on each table as an encouragement for the guests to commemorate their experience and share it with the wedding couple. He snapped a few pictures of his buttocks and smiled as he envisioned the proud couple returning from their honeymoon, picking up their wedding photos at Walgreen’s and finding bizarre pornography where they expected only scenes of drunken relatives and friends. He knew that Amanda would immediately blame Stuart for inviting one too many of his college fraternity brothers, starting just days after their pledge of eternal love the first of many marital squabbles. A few more well-timed acts of sabotage and he’d win his bet handily.
This morning he had driven Stuart to the local court house to pick up his marriage license. He was amused by the fact that one had to get a license before marrying as if it was a sport similar to fishing or hunting. While waiting in the reception of the courthouse, Eric wondered whether a test should be administered prior to handing the license to the couple, and if so, what it should look like. He knew instinctively that he would fail, but was saddened when he realized that Stuart wouldn’t fare any better:
Are you able to read your partner’s mind at all times and thus fulfill all his/her expectations?
Do you have the discipline to permanently maintain the weight you so laboriously achieved for this wedding to fit into your wedding dress/suit?
How well do you know your potential spouse? What is his/her deepest fear? Biggest dream? Does he/she have any tattoos inspired by previous relationships?
Marriage is the triumph of hope over reality. Discuss and elaborate in 500 words or less.
Have you explored and discussed all possible areas of dispute with your potential spouse? Sex? Money? Work? Children? Religion? Decorating style? Tipping policies? Music tastes? Food allergies? Fantasies? Vacation destinations? Driving habits? Sleeping patterns? TV addiction/aversion? Alcohol consumption? Appetite for high-risk sports like sky diving? Amount of time to be spent with in-laws?
Stuart looked relieved when he emerged from the court house (Eric should know, having stood next to Stuart in many men’s rooms), and as he opened the door of the rental car, he said with a resigned calm: “The hard part is over. It’s done. It’s official. Everything else from here on is for Amanda’s sake.” He sighed. “Just a big show for the relatives and friends. Well, let’s party and giv’em one!”
At the reception following the excruciatingly generic wedding ceremony, Eric, along with the other groomsmen, basked in the attention their formal attire garnered. They were moving lazily through the crowd like a pack of sharks through a school of pilot fish, separating the clusters of other guests not worthy of their attention, their cold eyes roving in search of the perfect prey. Every single woman in attendance, jealous of the bride, was bleeding with flirtatiousness. The women were happy to be bait for any good looking predator, as if the wedding had reminded them that their clock was winding down, winding down fast. Of course this heightened sense of urgency was recognized only too easily by the circling vultures in their tuxedos who could smell desperation from across a ballroom. They were on top of the food chain at this event because their formal attire gave the women a glimpse of what they would look like at their own wedding, allowing the women to appraise each man not just as a potential date but as a future husband.
Searching for an opportunity to score, Eric separated from the pack and flitted from group to group to survey the women, hoping to catch that tell-tale smile that signaled a willingness to explore wild fantasies following the reception (or during, as he was fortunate to experience one time several years ago when a 35-year old secretary, not bothered by their 12-year age difference, dragged him into the ladies room and surprised him with her ability to remain balanced on the toilet tank despite her violent thrusts). The earliest weddings he attended, of couples far younger than Stuart and Amanda, featured more single women to target; however, the dearth of unattached women at this year’s weddings was compensated by their increased desperation to find the man, any man, of their dreams. While the younger women seemed to be emboldened by knowing that any missteps resulting from their promiscuity could be blamed on too many flutes of champagne, the older women had no reservations and he wondered who the real predators were at this event. He considered heading back to the cash bar attended by a cute bartender who was gaining in popularity as the evening progressed, but then noticed that she was already being wooed by the rest of the pack. Unaccustomed to wearing formal wear, they kept adjusting their bow ties and leaning against the bar as they imagined James Bond would. They poked fun at each other’s outfits, blatant in their unconscious envy of men who spend most of their life in dinner jackets. Like all lower middle class men identifying themselves as upper middle class simply on account of being able to afford big toys like trucks, speedboats and snowmobiles, they gripped their bottles of Bud Light like miniature barbells. With the awkward swagger acquired from too many weight-lifting sessions, they completely lacked the natural grace required to raise a Martini glass for a toast without spilling. As his eyes wandered back to the bartender, her eyes were fixed on him and she smiled bemused. He made a mental note to return to that bar should his search among the guests prove futile.
Before he could proceed, the room hushed and Stuart appeared on the band’s stage, microphone in hand. His tepid toast to his new bride was followed by an awkward pause before several of the bridesmaids got up and delivered a tearful toast to the happy couple. Despite their brave faces, Eric could tell that these were tears of desperation. They knew they’d be left behind as soon as the petty complications of married life sank their claws into the couple. Matrimony had claimed another victim amongst them, and the number of single girlfriends offering each other emotional support on lonely Friday nights was dwindling rapidly. Suddenly Paul, one of the groomsmen, stumbled across the dance floor and straightened his bow tie in preparation for giving the next toast. Unmarried himself, he obviously had no idea what was expected of him. He was just attracted to the limelight and emboldened by the presence of the pretty bartender. But once he held the microphone it was obvious that he had no idea what to do next. Eric knew that Paul had been in the Navy, so it didn’t surprise him when Paul blurted out: “Here’s to our wives and girlfriends! May they never meet!” Expecting a big laugh, he seemed stunned by the room’s silence as the guests wondered whether he was drunk or just coarse. After a tense pause, he followed his faux pas with a quick congratulatory gesture to the couple before scurrying back to the safety of the bar and his bottle of Bud Light. Eric looked over to the dais and saw that Stuart was trying to suppress a laugh while attempting to match Amanda’s expression of dismay. She sat upright and uptight, seething at his careless selection of groomsmen. Eric realized that he needn’t have bothered with the photographs. Stuart was helping his odds just fine.
copyright 2004 - Hunter Braum