Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Anatomy of a Wedding, Part Two

Eric and I returned to Hadley and began packing. I kept hoping Marya, one of our housemates, would show up. Marya often wore her mother’s old wedding band. Having just told a complete stranger we were married, I was keenly aware that I had no wedding band to prove it, let alone an engagement ring. Maybe Marya would lend me her wedding band for the weekend. Of course, I’d have to devise a convincing story so she wouldn’t think my request was totally weird.

When we had packed and Marya still hadn’t returned, I persuaded Eric to make a quick stop at the greasy spoon where she worked as a waitress when not pursuing her true calling as a sculptor.

“We’ll tell her about the free weekend at the Northfield Inn, “I said to Eric, “but we’ll say we had to pretend to be married to qualify.” Never mind that we were married.

We found Marya at the restaurant, but she wasn’t wearing the wedding band after all and, although she believed our story and would have been glad to lend it to me, we didn’t have time to return to the house and retrieve it from her room. So we drove on to the inn, an old New England resort built in the grand manner. We deposited our bags in what seemed to us an incredibly luxurious room, furnished in colonial style and painted an historical shade of green. The two double beds would have to wait until later.

By the time we arrived on the verandah, the cocktail party was in full swing. We'd been too nervous to eat much during the day, but it was still warm and muggy and we were very thirsty. Eric, who ordinarily didn’t drink, headed over to the bar and ordered us both screwdrivers. When he returned, I was being introduced to our sponsors, a middle-aged couple from Greenfield, Tom and Joan. They were specially assigned to us to make us feel comfortable. Just what we needed on our wedding night—ersatz parents. I took a sip of my drink, and Eric swallowed his in one gulp. Tom was in the fuel oil business, we learned, and he and Joan had three children.

"And what about you?" they asked. "What brings you to Massachusetts?"

"We were just married," I couldn’t resist answering, "and this is our honeymoon trip." Eric rolled his eyes at me and excused himself to go get another drink. I asked Joan and Tom about Greenfield, and they told me we'd get to see a lot more of it during the weekend. There would be a tour starting right after breakfast the next morning.

"When was your wedding?" Joan asked. A natural question. I panicked. How could I tell these people we'd gotten married three hours ago? No wedding gown, no wedding reception, no family in sight. These were nice conventional people, who represented pretty much everything Eric and I had rejected by deciding to get married secretly. I'd have to invent.

"The wedding was last week, on Sunday."

"Oh, what date was that?" Joan was nothing if not persistent. Frantically, I tried to count backwards to last Sunday.

Eric returned. "What date was our wedding last Sunday, honey?" I asked him. What woman doesn't know the date of her own wedding? I was sure by now that Joan thought we were lying about being married at all, and I couldn't blame her, especially since I had no wedding band. Eric gulped his second drink down and was about to give some sort of answer, when we were saved by an announcement that dinner was served.

We entered a wide corridor and began walking toward the dining room at the other end of the sprawling inn. I was endeavoring to explain to Joan why I'd forgotten my wedding date, some fantastic story about the wedding having been postponed and how I always got the dates mixed up, when I realized that Eric wasn't beside me. I glanced back and to my horror saw him staggering blindly toward the wall. I rushed over just as he fell in a dead faint, and caught him before he cracked his head on the marble floor. He lay there, looking an historical shade of green and sweating profusely. I was wondering what to do for him, when a woman rushed over crying, "I'm a nurse!" She took his wrist in her hand. "No pulse," she said.

No pulse? My God, had my husband died on our wedding day? But no, surely he was breathing. And he was still sweating, buckets. Slowly, he regained consciousness, and appeared to recognize me. After a short consultation, during which most of the captured tourists and their sponsors gathered round, it was determined that a few of the men would help bring Eric to our room, where I would stay with him.

There we spent what was to be our idyllic wedding night, Eric lying spread-eagle on one of the double beds, overcome with nausea, only getting up sporadically to rush into the bathroom. Someone thoughtfully had dinner sent up for me. I ate while Eric tried to sleep it off. Whatever it was. The screwdrivers? The heat? The wedding itself? At one point I tried to lie down next to him along the edge of the bed, but my merest touch brought on more waves of nausea. So I spent the night in the other bed, consoling myself with the thought that I had probably saved Eric's life by catching him before his head hit the marble.

By the next morning, Eric felt better, though still a bit queasy. He didn't think he was ready for breakfast. But I convinced him. The people of Greenfield, I pointed out, had made us their guests. How would it look if we didn't appear at breakfast, if we skipped the tour of Greenfield's landmarks?

We arrived in the dining room to find other tourists greeting each other and sharing tables. As a concession to Eric, who was certainly not feeling sociable, we sat at an empty table in the corner. Before long, though, we were joined by a somber-looking family of four. We soon learned they were somber with good reason. They had just endured disastrous flooding in their hometown, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Their house had been virtually destroyed, they told us, but they had nevertheless persevered with their vacation plans. Not knowing what state their community would be in when they returned, they were living in the moment and claimed to be enjoying Greenfield’s hospitality. However, the entire family spoke in such affectless tones of voice that I could only conclude they were suffering from some kind of shell shock.

We were rescued from this gloomy conversation by the appearance of our sponsors, Tom and Joan.

"It's good to see you all recovered," Tom said, clapping Eric on the back. I watched anxiously, hoping Eric wouldn't barf up the meager breakfast he'd managed to get down.

"Eat up," Tom said. "It's almost time to head for the bus."

We had quite a day in store, with stops planned at the Greenfield War Memorial and the new Western Massachusetts Electric hydroelectric power plant. Tom and Joan didn't ask us any more questions about our wedding. I guess they'd decided to leave that subject alone.

When we arrived at the War Memorial in the center of town, everyone piled out of the bus. Eric noticed a photographer hovering nearby.

"You planning to take a picture of us?" Eric asked, stating the obvious.

"Sure am. You'll probably make the front page of the Greenfield Recorder."

"I guess we're pretty big news around here," I murmured to Eric, momentarily relishing the idea of being on the front page.

Eric pulled me aside and reminded me that our marriage was supposed to be a secret. How secret would it remain if we were identified in print as a married couple? Against my will, I felt a thrill. Soon we would be out of the closet. But I could see Eric wasn't ready for that, so I reassured him that no one we knew ever read the Greenfield Recorder. And the story wasn't likely to be syndicated, big deal though it might be in Greenfield. Our secret was safe. We joined the group posing in front of the War Memorial and smiled for the camera.

The rest of the day was interesting, but no honeymoon, in the ordinary sense of that word. It was more like fieldwork, with Eric and me as anthropologists exploring the heartland. Although virtually all the tourists and their hosts were white middle-class Americans, like us, we felt different and, from our counter-cultural perspective, superior. We thought we knew what was important—love, not propriety; justice, not power; inner peace, not material wealth; youth, not old age. The people we met were pleasant enough, but so conventional and dull, we thought. We somehow avoided noticing that we too had opted for the conventional in getting married, however unconventionally.

And, though we felt alienated, we hid it well. By lunchtime, Eric was talking business with Tom, even though Eric's business was two bins of used records for sale in a friend's music shop. And I discussed the vicissitudes of raising children with Joan, even though I couldn't yet imagine having children. I could barely imagine anything beyond getting through this experience.

The crowning event of our stay came that evening—a barbecue at the local Lion's Club. Eric and I, wanting to avoid a repeat of the prior night, decided beforehand that we wouldn't drink, which put us further beyond the fringe. Liquor flowed freely and the more sober we remained, the more smashed everyone else became. During dessert, the speeches began, first by members of the Chamber of Commerce, extolling all that Greenfield had to offer, and then by us, the captured tourists. There was no escaping. One by one, the guests stepped up to the microphone, full of gratitude and praise for our hosts. When our turn came, the crowd was hushed, expectant. By then, we'd become known affectionately as the "newlyweds," and Eric had gained special notoriety due to his fainting episode.

"Greenfield is totally unique,” Eric said. The crowd burst into drunken applause. “There's no place like it in the world." More raucous applause.

It was my turn now. "This has been an amazing weekend,” I said, wanting to tell the truth without offending anybody. "One I'll never forget," I added, as everyone cheered wildly.

We didn’t remain at the farmhouse long after our return from the Northfield Inn. Although outwardly nothing was different, we felt as if everything had changed. However uncelebrated our wedding had been, we’d taken an enormous psychological step, into the realm of commitment. It was time to move on.

Eric had saved some money playing in a rock band during his college years, and we both wanted to travel, so we decided we would spend a year in Europe. We had no idea what we’d do there. Perhaps Eric would join a band. I would soak up the local cultures. Most important, we’d be far from both family and friends and could avoid the question of whether and when to divulge our secret.

But first we had to deal with Eric’s beloved Saab Sonett, a sports car which had been handmade in Sweden and purchased with part of Eric’s hard-earned band money. Eric wouldn’t hear of putting it in storage. He preferred to drive the car to California, where he could leave it with his parents while we traveled. This scheme would have the added benefit of enabling me to meet my new in-laws, so in early July we headed west.

* * *

Once in California, we moved temporarily into Eric’s old bedroom—his parents seemed to have no qualms about our sleeping together despite our apparently unmarried state. They were delighted to have Eric back home and, as I gradually realized, they were determined to keep him there. If that meant allowing me into their son’s bed, they were willing.

Eric and I quickly fell into a pleasant routine—days spent by the pool or exploring the Stanford campus on bicycles; in the evening, leisurely dinners with Reggie, Joe, and sometimes Mark. Over white wine, crab legs, and artichokes, Reggie initiated intense conversations about Eric’s career options. This parental “guidance” seemed a small price to pay for such opulent hospitality, and we politely refrained from discussing our European plans. After a few weeks, Europe began to feel very remote, and our plans began to seem a bit self-indulgent. After all, our savings didn’t amount to much, only a few thousand dollars. Besides, we were finding the California lifestyle very agreeable.

We began to think about moving into our own place and soon figured out how to do that without dipping into our savings—we answered an ad seeking a married couple to manage a garden apartment complex in East Palo Alto. In return for performing managerial duties, we could live rent-free. To the man who hired us, we were a conventional married pair, but Eric and I agreed that we would still keep our marriage secret from family and friends, who assumed we’d lied to get the job.

Since we’d been hired as a married couple, though, we introduced ourselves as married to the tenants in our building. We were leading a double life, but at first we felt we could handle it. Then a young couple moved in. We hit it off with them immediately and they soon became friends as well as tenants. Having introduced ourselves to them as husband and wife, we now found ourselves with new friends who thought of us as married, while our old friends, as well as our families, viewed us as unmarried. The line between our true (married) and false (unmarried) selves was becoming increasingly blurred.

We began to fantasize about revealing our secret. We imagined how surprised people would be, especially our parents. Finally, in late October, we gave in to the urge. We told Eric’s parents in person, then immediately called my parents. They were all, as expected, shocked but not, alas, uniformly pleased.

My mother, who had been the most opposed to our living together out of wedlock, was the most upset at having been excluded from the wedding. Joe was perplexed, and wondered why we hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him. On the other hand, my father was happy that the wedding had already occurred—perhaps relieved at having dodged a financial bullet. Reggie showed delight over the union by running up to her bedroom and emerging with a gold and amethyst ring, which she insisted on giving to me as a wedding gift.

In the end, Reggie’s exuberance prevailed, and what resulted was something approaching a conventional wedding without the ceremony. Reggie and Joe invited friends and both our families to an afternoon reception in December. Eric and I registered for gifts at a local Scandinavian housewares store where, ever the non-conformists, we selected stainless steel flatware instead of the then-customary silver. We took a similar stand against tradition with our wedding announcements, which we designed in the unusual format of a newspaper article. Entitled “Secret Nuptials Revealed,” it detailed the story of our wedding and unexpected honeymoon.

The party was a great success. A lot of champagne was consumed, but no one fainted. Eric and I found that we actually liked being the center of attention. We even enjoyed showing off our new wedding bands. After all, we never had been as unconventional as we liked to think. Moreover, by following our own weird path to the altar, we’d managed to conform quite well to the prevailing ethos of the seventies—do your own thing.


Anonymous said...

Among the best you've shared with us. I especially liked the humor and self-realization (insights).

Anonymous said...

I laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes. Great story.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story and a perfect day to read it--Happy Anniversary! Judy

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story, Barbara. I loved your insight about thinking you were so unconventional and then realizing you were so very conventional for the times..... I'm amazed at how you can remember so many wonderful details.

Anonymous said...

As usual a delightful post. I thought it especially hilarious how you had to convince Marya that you weren't really married but needed her ring because you had had to pretend you WERE married to get the free honeymoon weekend...ahhhh the complexities of the sixties.

Anonymous said...

and seventies! :)

Anonymous said...

Loved the use of "historical green" - what a unique story to be able to share. Cheryl