Contents of the Newlyweds Kit given to me, in a yellow plastic bag, as a free gift from the State of Utah when I obtained my marriage license:
1 trial-size packet of Tide detergent with color-safe bleach
2 purse-size packets of Kleenex
1 trial-size box of Nabisco Wheat Thins crackers
1 romance novel about a private detective/body guard who falls in love with his client, a lady reporter.
Detective McGuire is ruggedly handsome, with a chiseled jaw and abs to match. He has secreted the Lady Reporter away to remote cabin in the desert, where they are hiding from mobsters. While Detective McGuire patrols the cabin, shirtless on an ATV, the Lady Reporter gets out of her dirty clothes and is caught in nothing but one of the detective’s Oxford shirts when he comes back inside. Finally, 163 pages into the book, Detective McGuire and Lady Reporter resist no longer and do what two attractive people with similar interests and commitment issues must: collide in passionate embrace in front of a roaring fireplace. The savvy young professionals can hide from highly-skilled killers, but they can’t hide from love.
I closed my book and looked out the plane window at San Francisco, the home I was returning to like the prodigal son-before he is forgiven with loving acceptance. I was coming back empty-handed and having spent my dowry. I fastened my seatbelt and prepared for landing, and thought, a romance novel is a strange gift for a bride-to-be.
Seven days earlier. At my parents’ home in Salt Lake City, the morning of my wedding, 4:45 a.m. Outside it was still blue-black, winter early morning. The heat lamp hummed, and turned the tile a surreal yellow. I had to be at the hair salon at 5:30 to get an updo. I had grown my hair out for six months so it would be long enough for a French twist. I sat on the shower bench, and vomited into the drain. It was five hours before the ceremony, and I was vomiting again. I picked up a tub of apricot-scented exfoliating scrub someone had left in the shower, and wished it would scrub away the red raised bumps I always get on my arms, which wouldn’t be covered by my short-sleeved gown. I took mental inventory of my satin shoes, veil, makeup. A shard of panic: had I packed the bra, the one that, as the woman at the bridal shop said, “sucks everything in and pushes it up”? I looked up and my Mom was standing in front of the fogged glass door. Are you vomiting again? She asked. Yes. She opened the door. You still don’t feel good about going through with this, do you? I shook my head, no. She sighed. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Get out of the shower. You’re not getting married today.
My first day back to California from a trip that was supposed to be my wedding and honeymoon in Utah, a cab took me from the airport to my house. Opening the front door felt like opening the door to a hotel room. The smell was familiar, but it had that uneasy stillness that made you wonder what had happened there before you arrived. Until I could find something else, some old roommates were letting me stay in their study. Desks and couches had been shoved against the walls and in between were haphazard stacks of my things, which my former fiancé had evacuated from the apartment we were going to share. There was a deal. I had to take care of all the wedding undoings in Salt Lake, and return all the presents. He had to clear out our apartment and get us out of the lease. He had made good on his end of the bargain, and unceremoniously dumped my stuff here in piles: clothes in a heap still on their hangers, my kitchen table upside-down, a column of gift boxes that almost reached the ceiling. Planning a wedding is mostly long check lists. Pink ranunculus bouquets for the bridesmaids: check. Four layers of cake with vanilla butter cream: check. Cheesy cover band: check. Undoing a wedding required a similar method. I scanned the room and start making a list, the only thing I knew to do:
Queen-size mattress and box spring: keep.
Wayne Thiebaud print purchased with my fiancé to hang in our kitchen: give away. Dozens of boxes of wedding gifts from Crate & Barrel that had been mailed to our new address: return.
1 platinum men’s wedding band, inside a shoe box alongside a cell phone charger and a few old cassette tapes: sell on eBay?
Meat loaf and macaroni and cheese may be the classic comfort foods, but personally I prefer a carne asada burrito. None of my roommates were home when I arrived, so I was alone with the stacks of what was supposed to be my future life. But I was terrified to leave the house. At the thought of seeing someone I knew, all I could think to do was turn and run. Two weeks ago I’d left town for my wedding. Now-here I was, not married, no wedding, ring conspicuously absent from my finger. I was hungry, though, and had no food in the house, so I sought out that place of solace–the local taqueria. I had lived in this neighborhood for two years, but now I felt like I was somehow on the lam, ready to be busted any moment. The guy with the quesadilla, the kid sneaking extra tomatillo sauce from the salsa bar, the lady sitting at the table across from me who seemed to look at me a little too long. Any minute one of them would say “Hey, I recognize you. Weren’t you supposed to get married?”
I was the anti-thesis of every bodice-ripper novel and romantic comedy. Unlike Detective McGuire and the Lady Reporter who couldn’t hide from love, I couldn’t hide from not being in love. While the story of the young couple who can’t help themselves and fall head-over-heels and live happily-ever-after is universally comforting, the alternative young couple who falls head-over-heels but doesn’t quite make it is equally disquieting. My story was worse than a cliché, which is at least satisfying in its predictability. Mine was a non-cliché, not profound but not familiar either, a favorite melody gone sour, an unhappy ending no one wants to buy.
Most Awkward Moments after Aborting a Wedding:
Returning wedding gifts in person, door-to-door, while my Mom shuttles me around the neighborhood in her SUV, waving to people from their driveways.
Phone Tree from Hell-My parents and I leap into action, calling the caterer, the band, the venue, and of course the entire guest list, to sound the alarm that it’s off.
The Question. Stares, whispers, and gossip are sweet, merciful blessings compared to answering the question: “Wait, weren’t you supposed to get married?” The only thing worse than that is the next question: “So, why didn’t you?”
Once a surfer I knew explained to me how he made the decision to marry his wife: “It was like walking on the beach with the sun on my back. Do I need some thunderbolt from above to tell me that feels good? Same with getting married, it just felt good.”
I guess you could say my fiancé and I were walking on the beach with blown-out flip flops and sand in our swimsuits, it wasn’t miserable, but it wasn’t comfortable, either. We didn’t need a sign from heaven to tell us it didn’t feel good.
Arriving home from the taco shop, I finally got up the nerve to call my boss and tell her I was coming back to work on Monday. I had sent her an email saying I didn’t get married and that everything was okay (meaning, no one had died). Otherwise, everything was not super okay as far as canceling my wedding the morning of. “Hi Leslie! This is Lane.” I was extra chipper. “Yes, I am definitely coming in Monday-I’ve just got a bunch of stuff to take care of over the weekend (amused groan, as if cleaning up my would-be nuptials were just a big, silly chore!). Oh yes, I’m fine. I’m okay (why wouldn’t I be?) thanks for asking.” I am the very picture of a responsible, dependable, absolutely stable corporate contributor, never mind that last time you saw me you had just thrown me a wedding shower and reminded me to bring back honeymoon photos.
Saturday morning, I had been back for almost 24 hours and my roommates insisted I go out with them. It will be fun, you can’t hide in the house forever. They were going to the Dumbarton Bridge. For the first time on record gray whales were spotted in the south end of the San Francisco bay just across the freeway from our house. The whales were two adolescents, young adults 30 to 35 feet long, the length of three sedans or two train cars. They had become lost, or possibly trapped inside some old navy lochs. In early spring, on their migration from Mexico’s Baja to the Gulf of Alaska, gray whales pull in under the Golden Gate for a snack of tuber worms from the marine floor. But for as long as anyone could remember, no whale had ventured down to the shallow waters of the residential South Bay, and the two-ton visitors caused a sensation. Motorists pulled over on the road sides with binoculars to catch a glimpse. The surrounding towns of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Fremont watched the whales day by day, and days later when they still hadn’t left, began to worry for their survival. Locals and marine biologists alike pondered whether they were trapped, lost, angry teenagers runaway from the pod, or just hungry.
My roommates had invited a bunch of new guys they had met, and we took a frontage road that ran underneath the bridge until we reached a dusty parking area where we could pull off. There are many beautiful bridges in the Bay Area, but the Dumbarton is not one of them. Still, I take a kind of pride in the Dumbarton, with its funny name and unimpressive expanse. It has no towers or sweeping cable like the famous suspension bridges of San Francisco, it looks just like an ordinary highway, like 101 took a turn to the east and just skimmed above the water. It’s my bridge though, it’s the bridge from my house on the thin San Francisco Peninsula to the green hills of the East Bay and beyond. When I packed up my Honda Civic and moved to San Francisco years before, the Dumbarton Bridge was my last stretch before arriving at my new address. It was sunset and the water on the bay was glowing with pinks and blues. I looked out across on the Dumbarton, Paul Simon’s “Obvious Child” blasting from my CD player, the sun roof open. I had that quickening of joy and aching that comes when you realize you’ve just left one phase of life behind, and shot across to the next.
Not everyone feels the attachment. “This is the crotch of the Bay,” my friend Catherine liked to say. The bay starts to peter out here, the land is alternately dry and wet, depending on the mood of the Pacific Ocean, which leaves the surrounding landscape marshy. Patches are dried up and veined with salt like dried fish, and the wind sometimes delivers a whiff of boggy aroma of decay and sulfur. Walking out along a dusty footpath that skirts the water, we got about as close as we could without wading in and joining the herons.
We stared out at the gray waves, power transformers rose on platforms in the water and loops of wire stretched across the horizon. We shivered in the gray spring weather and our eyes played tricks on us, we thought we saw a fin or a fluke on the choppy surface. Then-we didn’t see it first, but heard it. The puff of a giant, wet exhale, and then a fountain of water, maybe 50 yards away, shot up and the spray fell lazily back to the water, splattering as it rained down. There was the sensation of some dark Leviathan groaning and rolling over in the water.
It’s amazing the kind of attention you can get from women when you mention the words “cancelled my wedding,” varying from sympathy to paralyzed awkwardness. That night, it was time for the epic gift return at Crate & Barrel. I called ahead and explained the situation to Carol, the night manager at the Stanford Shopping Center Crate & Barrel store. Carol sounded like she was middle-aged, mothering, and judging by her sympathy to my predicament, possibly divorced. “You can just bring that back in here, every box. We’ll return it for you, no problem.”
I had the same luck with the wedding planner at the mountain resort lodge where my reception was supposed to have taken place. When my mother called her and told her the news, the coordinator, a young divorcee and single mother, said, “Good for her. I only wish I’d been that smart five years ago.” She arranged to sell half the food we ordered to the lodge restaurant and sold the bread and rolls door to door to the hotel guests. It may be coincidence, but the jazz band, which happens to be comprised of men, charged me in full.
I brought a friend to help, and we brought the boxes from the car in waves, rather like a land-to-sea attack. My friend took a sort of sick glee in the awkwardness of our task, and before I could find Carol an unwitting cashier asked, “What’s the reason for your return, Miss?” My friend announced, “She called off her wedding!” and laughing maniacally, went to the car for another load. By the time we were finished, we were shadowed at the cash-wrap by a small fortress of boxes. When Carol finished she held up the long coil of receipt-it was longer that I am tall-and chuckled. Then she rolled it up and sent me home.
Two days later, I went back to work. Five co-workers swarmed my cube while I tried to dodge their questions. “So ya didn’t get married?” said Steve, the office smartass. “Nope,” I said, nonchalantly, not knowing what to say. “Half of marriages end in divorce, anyway,” he said, until Leslie, my boss, said, “Oh God, Steve. Shut up.” And that was the end of it. The worst was over. Three weeks later, my boss would ask if I was dating anyone new.
The same day, the newspapers said the bay rose and the whales freed themselves, or simply decided to leave. They got lonely, or bored, or finally figured out they weren’t where they were supposed to be. Maybe the sulphur odor of the bay got to them. Maybe they ate all the tubor worms, or maybe they got tired of being watched. There was no explanation for why they stayed or why they left. Without any warning, or any clue why, they crossed, quiet black shadows in the water, passed back under the Golden Gate, and swam into open water.