While one might assume a wedding is about them—the couple getting married— a wedding is about everyone. It's a means through which we guests can identify and reidentify our friends, our enemies, our lovers, and those we no longer love.
Through it we see what we want, what we don't want, what we think we want, and sometimes, dangerously, that we have no idea what we want. Each wedding we attend, in whatever role we uphold, will highlight some aspect of our own lives, reflecting and reframing the way in which we look at ourselves. We do not go to weddings as blank slates. The event may be a happy one, but we are still whoever we are, beings comprising our past histories as well as our desired futures, when we show up to celebrate.
At the very first wedding I remember with any clarity, I was eight and my brother was five. We danced exuberantly around the tables and on the dance floor. The cake-cutting was as engrossing as any Disney movie. We learned to our great pleasure that a lift of one's fork to a glass would impel the bride and groom to kiss. What strange power that was! Love and this celebration of it seemed, frankly, wonderful, and it also seemed inevitable.
But nearly thirty years later, neither of us is married, though I have been to more than twenty weddings.
Think of how many you have attended that you remember. Then think of how many you don't remember, exactly or completely, because you were a child or perhaps very, very drunk, but nonetheless there exists horrifying photographic evidence of your attendance— yep, there it is! Untag yourself now. Imagine how many you'll have been to by the end of a life long and well lived, out of duty, friendship, hope, love, jealousy, self- torture, guilt, desire for free food or drink, or some confusing potluck mix of emotions. Sometimes the emotions evolve and change and are created anew right there at the wedding. Consider all the roles you'll have played, from guest to sister to bridesmaid to maid of honor to friend to colleague to date to person who has no idea why she's been invited— nor why she's come— to the one who will hook up with the best man, no questions asked, so that the bride and groom can, as they put it, "live vicariously" through her. We smile and nod and agree and wear what we must wear and do what we should do (or we try, we really try) because it's their big day. It's a wedding.
Count the dresses worn, gifts given, plane tickets purchased, and hotel rooms rented; the boyfriends forced to tag along and split the cost, or the groups of girlfriends shacked up for those weird adult slumber parties based in economy, hotel vanities cluttered with makeup and hygienic accoutrements, a cot shoved into a corner, an additional roommate sneaked past the eyes of hotel management to save a few more dollars. Number the brave or irreverent times you've gone solo and paired up with a groomsman or another wedding guest— and the other times, nights ended alone watching pay- per- view in an anonymous hotel room, the wastebasket next to the bed (just in case), or crumpled, tearsoaked tissues surrounding the pillow. Add up the bouquets held for brides, the bouquets caught, and the bouquets abandoned at our feet, each petal an unspoken accusation. Make a note of the dances danced, glasses of Champagne sipped, speeches delivered, goblets struck with the silver tines of forks held in fingers manicured, smiles forced, smiles honestly given, tears shed, friends and strangers embraced, hangovers and regrets treated the next morning. How many feelings have we had? How many feelings.
Like the weddings, the feelings never end. Sometimes we have all of them at just one outwardly simple— simple but elegant— nuptial occasion held at the quaintest of inns in rural Vermont, or at a tropical resort set in cliffs and surrounded by impossibly blue water in Jamaica, or at the tree- lined, leafy- lawned country clubs of the hometowns we haven't been back to since graduating from high school and aren't sure we ever want to return to again. The feelings can grow greater than the weddings themselves as they play out in heightened relief each time we again bear witness to a couple pairing off and heading down the aisle, leaving us alone, date or no date— and let's get this straight: Being part of a couple doesn't mean we're not alone. Couplehood can make us lonelier than ever, especially if we're in a certain kind of couplehood, barely hanging on, sniping and snarking or not really talking, or at least not "communicating," making it through yet another wedding.
For many of us who are single, it's not that we're dying to be married. It's more complicated than that. We'd never get married just to be married. We're set on finding that right one, whoever and however that may be, if we're going to do this thing. And yet, there's a certain misty desire that filters through even the most perseverant of hearts at the sight of a marrying couple, neither of them any better than us individually but somehow greater as two, vowing to stay together forever. All of this hope and light and the expectant faces and eager congratulations thrust upon the moment make it something we think we want, that we've been brought up to want. It is something of a luxury to be able to feel ambivalent about weddings, and yet, it's hard to feel truly ambivalent about weddings, about the institution as well as the reality of marriage. Both macro and micro, in the fabric of life, weddings are a primary thread— which is yet another reason denying any adult the right to weave that thread into his or her life seems so blatantly cruel, small- minded, and wrong.
But given the choice to marry, if we don't marry, are we, in fact, missing out? Is there something wrong with us if we never go down that aisle in the white dress or the crisply pressed tux, adhering to those old- fashioned, still- resonating traditions with our loved ones on hand to watch and support and celebrate?
Or is there something wrong with us if we do?
That what a marriage is in practice is hardly the same as this brief flower-and-cake and-love-studded moment, the wedding itself but a second in hoped- for years and years of life together, means that if we're part of a couple already and watching it unfold, we might begin to wonder if we made the right decision, if he or she is "the one" after all. As for those of us who remain unpaired, wanting love or the idea of love at the same time we're figuring out what exactly that means, or who we even are: Many of us believe deeply but unspokenly that the "final wedding"— the one that will mean the end of all of those single-person concerns and erratic, complicated ways we have of behaving at weddings— will be our own, the answer to so many lifelong questions. After that moment, the rest of our lives, our real lives, can finally begin.
Of course, it doesn't quite work that way. As it turns out, our real lives have been happening the whole time.
This is the story of a serial wedding goer. Thank you for having me. I'm sorry to anyone I've ever offended. I really did have a very nice time.
Image by Tara Jacoby.