Coupling: Wedding Belle Blues

No one is expressing the right emotions about my engagement.

THE TROUBLE STARTED almost immediately after we got engaged. I’ll spare you the details of the proposal since, as it turns out, there are two kinds of people in this world: the kind who want to hear the details about wedding proposals, and the kind for whom details about wedding proposals make them want to throw up immediately, and I don’t know which you are. But more on that later. Suffice it to say, we were in Puerto Rico, drinking celebratory piña coladas, and I was slightly tipsy. At least, I was until Mr. Huge killed my buzz.

“Aren’t you going to call your parents?” he said.

Oh. Was I? They would want to know. But what was I going to say? “I’m ENGAGED!!! EEEEEE!” Not really that type, me. Worse, my parents are divorced, so this would necessitate two awkward phone calls. My father I didn’t anticipate a problem with. It was my mother.

My mother is a saint, really. She’s a high-school guidance counselor, the kind adolescent girls cry to about their boyfriends, the kind who takes kids whose parents are too busy or disinterested to look at colleges on the weekends. I am her only actual daughter, and she loves me to death. She loves Mr. Huge. She’d be ecstatic.

Which is what gave me pause. Don’t get me wrong, I was comfortable with the idea of getting married. But I didn’t quite know how to deal with getting married — all the girly “Omigod let me see your ring!” and the dresses and the cake and the pomp and circumstance of a wedding and, oh god, an actual aisle? With what, like, organ music? These were all things I had rolled my eyes at since I knew how to roll my eyes. My mom, on the other hand, would love every minute of it. The woman has never met a cliché she wasn’t happy to use. When I got my first period, she actually said, “You’re a woman now!” There would be tears, I was sure of it, and squealing. And that would only be the beginning.

I lied and said my cell phone didn’t work in foreign countries. “Puerto Rico is America,” Mr. Huge said.

I shrugged.

“You can use mine,” he said.

I glared at him, then felt like a jerk. Why should my awkwardness deprive my mother of what might be her life’s greatest pleasure? I braced myself and dialed. Her voice was warbly, and not because it was traveling many miles under the ocean. “I’m so happy for you!” she snuffled. “I’m going to cry! Do you have a ring!?!?”

“I’m sorry, what? The reception here is bad. I’m going to have to call you back.”

As I expected, my twice-divorced father was more subdued. “That’s great,” he said, then paused. “Marriage is really difficult, you know.”

BACK HOME, I soon found that the reaction to my engagement fell into these two camps. There were the Squealers: women who were married or pre-registered on, possessed a jeweler’s familiarity with the four C’s, and had never been cowed by feminist texts. Like my high-school friend Alyssa* in Boston, who had gotten engaged two months before, soon after she designed her engagement ring on and left a printout of it on her boyfriend’s pillow. “Ooooooomygoddude!!!!” she said when I called her. “Howdidheproposehaveyousetadatehowbigisyourrock???!!!”

Then there were the Cynics, like my dad. Their reactions, as you might imagine, were cooler. Sometimes too cool. “Oh. That’s great,” said one good friend. Then she changed the subject entirely.

A subset of this group were the condescending types. “Oh, we’re not getting married,” one acquaintance, who had been with her boyfriend for six years, said breezily. “We’re just going to do that thing where you have kids and aren’t married. You know, like Europeans.

“Did you read that New York Times Magazine story last weekend about couples therapy, where all the couples hate each other?” my best friend Maria asked me one night.

“I saw it, but I haven’t read it yet,” I said. “I sort of hate stories like that, it’s like overhearing a couple arguing. Depressing.”

The next day I saw that she had posted about our conversation on her blog: “She had no idea,” Maria wrote. “Is the secret to a happy marriage utter and comprehensive denial about how bad it can be?”

To these people, it was like I had joined some kind of sorority, one of those really awful ones where all the girls wear pink and spend their time holding car washes in their bikinis and making pancakes for frat boys and being bulimic together, and joining up meant I was weak-willed and susceptible to societal pressure and a foe of women’s rights and, basically, a fool. As a result, some of the cool kids were no longer interested in hanging out with me.

“Oh, I can’t hang out with you,” a woman I’d enjoyed chatting with at a friend’s party said when she realized I was engaged. “You’re a boring old married lady.”

“SO ARE YOU going to have, like, a wedding?” a friend said one day. She said the word “wedding” as though it was something extremely distasteful.

I couldn’t fault her for it, or any of the Cynics. It was the way I’d always been myself. I’d seen the statistics about marriage. I’d bitched about people getting boring after they got married. And I’d read Rebecca Mead’s new book, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding. Well, I mean I’d read about it, enough to know that weddings are very very bad, that they cost almost as much as the average American’s yearly salary and are also somehow exploitative of Chinese peasants.

But I’d also seen Martha Stewart Weddings, and it kind of looked like … fun.

“Yes,” I said.

Maybe I was rebelling against the anti-wedding contingent. But I was starting to find the idea of a wedding more and more appealing. I mean, I didn’t want a giant to-do, like my friend Alyssa was planning in St. Thomas, with garter tosses and flower girls. But a wedding would pretty much be the only party I would have, I figured, where everyone I liked would have to come. Other than I guess my funeral, but I’ll be dead and miss that whole thing.

Things being what they were, I realized I was on my own as far as the wedding planning. And I wasn’t the only one. One day I stumbled across, a wedding website where smart women talk to each other about how getting married doesn’t make you a bridezilla or a bad feminist, trade tips about stationers, and confess to their love of … Martha Stewart Weddings. Under pseudonyms, of course. It’s the Underground Railroad of wedding planning.

For me, such conversations were restricted to two people: my friend Lauren, who is also engaged but also not a Squealer, and another friend, Chris, who’s Jewish and gay and therefore claims that for him, weddings are, like, a cultural thing. Over cocktails, Lauren and I submitted details for his approval.

“Is it okay to serve just wine and beer at the reception?” I asked.

“Mm-nn, absolutely not,” Chris shook his head. “Everyone would talk about how cheap you were afterward.”

“I’m thinking of doing salt and pepper shakers as favors,” Lauren said.

“Mm-nnn,” Chris said. “Tacky.”

For me, a larger conundrum loomed. “You know, you need to start looking at dresses,” Lauren said to me one day. “You have to order them really far in advance.”

“Oh, I’m not wearing a wedding dress,” I said. “I don’t think?”

“Mmmm-nn,” Chris said. “You have to.”

“If you don’t, in the pictures, you’ll look like everybody else,” Lauren said.

Would I regret it? The problem is that shopping for a wedding dress is something that you do with your sister, if you have one, or your mother, if you can abide her, or your best girlfriends, if they don’t think getting married is totally cheesy.

Well, there was one who didn’t. Up in Boston, Alyssa made an appointment for us at a bridal salon. I was struggling into a puffy cream-colored number when my phone rang.

It was my friend Maria, the blogger. “What are you doing?” she said.

“Looking for a wedding dress,” I said.

“Ugh, already?” she groaned. That was so the wrong reaction.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “The reception in here is bad. Have to call you back.”

“Omigod!” came a cry from outside the dressing room.

I stepped out and saw Alyssa standing in a pile of marshmallow fluff. “Don’t you love it?” she beamed, showing off her dress. “It’s perfect!” she said. As strangers clapped and snapped pictures, I peered in the mirror. The dress I was wearing made me look like a bratwurst wrapped in a doily. We were both on the verge of tears, but for different reasons.

“YOU SHOULD have seen it,” I said to Chris back in Philadelphia. We were heading out to the Main Line to meet Lauren. “I mean, actually, I’m glad you didn’t. They were all hideous. I’m just going to wear a regular dress.”

“Hmmm,” Chris said.

As it turned out, Lauren and Chris had made an appointment for me at Suky, the bridal salon in Ardmore. It was a bona fide ambush. “I told them you had no one else to take you,” Lauren said, as they marched me in. “I might have implied that your mother is in a coma.”

The saleswoman approached carefully. “Hello, dear,” she said, looking concerned.

“No satin, no puffiness, no sparkly things,” I said. She disappeared and came back with a glittery white number.

“I just thought you should try this,” she said nicely. I gritted my teeth and let her put it on me. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad. It actually was kind of nice. I tottered out to meet Lauren and Chris.

“You have to get that one,” Lauren said.

“Mmm-mmm,” Chris said.

It was exactly the right reaction.

“My mom’s going to kill me for buying this without her seeing it,” I said at the cash register. Then I remembered the lie. “I mean. I wish she could see it, but unfortunately, she is in a coma.”

Later, I did call my mom, to tell her I’d bought a wedding dress and also to make sure she hadn’t fallen into a coma in order to punish me for lying. (She hadn’t.) She cried, and this time I did not hang up.

After some thought, I told my anti-wedding friends, too. Because I’d decided that being manipulated into not doing all the dumb wedding rituals because of the wedding industrial complex is just as bad as being manipulated into doing all the dumb wedding rituals because of the wedding industrial complex. In Afghanistan, people spend their entire year’s salary on weddings. Why? Well, life is short.

And it turns out you don’t have to choose between being a Cynic or a Squealer. Like Lauren and Chris and the indie brides, you can just be something in between. A few weeks later, I ran into the woman I’d met at my friend’s party, the woman who had said I was an old boring married lady. She was wearing a big sparkly ring. “Oh yeah, um, I got engaged,” she said.

“Cool!” I said, and I think I said it in exactly the right tone.