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Not to Be Entered Into Lightly

ISSUE:  Summer 2002

It can seem ironic only in retrospect that the plans for my wedding lasted as long as the marriage itself—14 months. The night before the ceremony in August 1995, I did not know the fate of the second 14 months, but I knew the dread and tension that had crept upon me during the first, a tightness in the chest and frequency of heartburn that I thought must be the result of so much planning. Shannon Holmes, the woman who was soon to be my bride, had wanted a small wedding at first. However, with a great deal of infernal prodding from her mother over the months, Shannon came to crave a celebration of massive elaboration and ornacity, one of such lavishitude and flamboyishness that it would inspire gossip for years to come. Though hesitant at first, I supported her dream. Because I wanted to be a doting husband, it seemed like a good idea at the time. But as my writing notebooks have taught me, when I revisit my good-at-the-time ideas a few months after first forming them, some of my nuggests of inspiration turn out to be kernels of misfortune.

Early in our relationship I often felt unworthy of Shannon. Though I am loud and humorous, my white skin is unfashionably pink, and I used to be quite fat: more than 250 pounds and just under 5’ 11”, nearly 40 percent overweight, twice the obesity rate. Shannon was gorgeous, a former cheerleader who maintained her stereotypical figure, with strong arms, bright teeth, and skin the color of chocolate icing. Intelligent and quick-witted, Shannon also maintained an astounding knowledge of 70’s and 80’s kitsch culture. At a party of blind people, we would have both been stars, but among the sighted, Shannon was always the center. I may have been funny, but I was fat. Besides the weight, we had other clashing features. She was socially adventurous; I was a loner. She was eager to start her doctoral program at Rutgers University; I insisted that four years of college was enough for one life. She came from a financially comfortable family; as a first-year public school teacher, I was woefully underpaid. I often wondered why she stayed with me at all. And I worried about how other people viewed us.

People are nosy. Not only do they look, but they ask. How did we meet was easy, if not inspiring: at a camp where we both worked one summer. How did we start dating was sort of funny, but not exactly romantic: she made highly suggestive comments to me in the coffee room and then I lured her away from her fiancé. How did I propose was downright glum: there was no proposal. I was graduating from college and needed a place to live that did not belong to my parents. However, Shannon feared that her stern and religious mother would likely disown her if she found out that we were together. In a surprisingly boring conversation late one night, we decided that marriage was the only practical solution, just a formality to make the parents happy. We’d live in New Jersey until she finished her degree, and then we’d move closer to her family in Prince George’s County, Maryland. After this conversation, I went to bed and Shannon went to the living room to smoke a cigarette.

That’s not exactly an event to boast about to your friends. For social purposes, we made up a cutesy little story: I tricked her into telling me the kind of ring she liked and then bought it and presented it to her on a plate of cookies I had baked, doing the whole knee thing of course. Better than the truth, but still a pathetic story. I watched Shannon tell the story with simulated joy, on the phone or at parties, and I pledged to myself that I would make it up to her. When the nuptial arrangements swelled, I thought the wedding might be my opportunity to delight her.

For the Big Day preparations, my standard response was, “Well, what do you want, honey?” I didn’t object when the calls from my mother-in-law increased from twice a week to once a day, and then to twice a day. I didn’t even wince at the $300 phone bills. I never grumbled about the numerous drives from New Jersey to suburban D.C. or the grading I ignored or the barrage of relatives I met. Even when—and this was often—I had no personal desire for the items themselves, I agreed when Mrs. Holmes asked if I would pay for this certain trinket or that certain service, since she was paying for so much else. I pretended to care about the bridesmaids’ dress color, and I only cleared my throat and smiled when Shannon told me how many people her mother had added to our list of 48 guests: 216. Our cozy little wedding had become grand.

In the early months, Shannon shared my lackadaisical attitude. She let her mother rattle on about photographer qualifications while we made funny faces at each other across the table. She had no opinion on lighting selections or seating arrangements. Surely, these things would work themselves out. We chose some simple secular vows, and agreed to a little bit of Corinthians (“The greatest of these is love”) to please her church-going mom. Otherwise, we tended to more fascinating items, such as movie release dates or the new flavor variations of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine.

But soon, a creepy preoccupation overtook my bride-to-be. She spent hours listening to harpsichord tapes, trying to choose a soloist for our ceremony. “You don’t know anything,” she snapped when I couldn’t tell the difference between them. She polled her bridesmaids about the best possible dress styles (all of them but one were chubby) and the best possible colors (all of them but one were light-skinned). She simmered for days on “Service or buffet?” She spoke enigmatically of something called a bell cherub.

There were other, more disturbing, matters as well. When Shannon’s grades slipped, I took on more of the household chores so she could study. Only, I rarely saw her with books, unless they were books of hairstyles. Because we were saving money for the wedding and honeymoon, we couldn’t go out as often. We ate more fast food and gained weight, watched more TV and talked less about every other subject besides the wedding. When we went to bed at night, we were very tired. Frequency of sex dropped from about five times a week to perhaps twice, and we never indulged in any more mid-day romps. Shannon, who had kicked the habit a few weeks after we bought the ring, started smoking again a month before the wedding. I do not smoke; I am severely asthmatic. Yet, the pesky tightness I kept noticing in my chest was far more muscular than asthmatic. I noticed all these trends, but told myself it was just the stress of the wedding. We were planning her dream day, and she deserved at least that.

So I was not nervous when the day itself arrived. In fact, when the hotel wake-up call came that morning, I opened my eyes with a great sense of relief. We had made it; time to get on with the rest of our lives. I roused my groomsmen, which was no small task after we had been out so late the night before in Georgetown. Stan, a Gulf War veteran, was out of bed, showered, and dressed in ten minutes. No such luck with Eric, my lifelong friend who in childhood was famous for missing the school bus. My college buddy Matt even suggested that perhaps he could skip the shower and sleep an extra 15 minutes. I reminded him—not too forcefully—that I was getting married today and would prefer his hair be washed. My brother John, my pale and skinny best man, was abstaining from marijuana for the weekend, but his motor skills were still impaired to say the least.

Finally, we two carloads of lads led the vanload of my relatives to the Newton-White Mansion in Prince George’s County. Juanita, the gold-spectacled wedding coordinator in a peach dress (the other wedding coordinator wore pale blue), greeted us at the door. “Jawfre, so good to see yoooo.” I don’t know what sort of accent it was, but it sounded like that. “Shawnon and the ladies are a-already hee-yah, so you must a-remain upstairs until we a-come to get yoooo.” She led us to our room, a brightly lit white cavern with hardwood floors, where we sorted through the tuxedos and got dressed. An hour early. The late August air hung at a humid 88 degrees, and the Newton-White Mansion is an old mansion, built before mansions had air conditioning. We sweated.

I looked okay, about as good as a fat guy can look in a tuxedo. Over the weekend, I had been mildly embarrassed to meet all these new people. Shannon’s extended family was a portly lot, but still, I wanted to be more handsome for her. First impressions rely on appearance. All my relatives murmured appreciatively over Shannon’s looks; I knew none of Shannon’s relatives did the same over mine. I shook everyone’s hand and with my sweetest smile, offered the barely unspoken apology of fat guys everywhere: “Sorry I’m so fat. I wanted to be better.” The tuxedo was spiffy, my hair was cut, and I had grown a beard to cover my bulging second chin. I kept a handkerchief to dab away the sweat. I looked okay.

Twenty minutes before the ceremony, Roy the photographer came up to the room and ordered us into various authentic poses. We pretended to be adjusting each other’s ties or looking into the mirror or laughing at a joke. Matt suggested that perhaps he and I French lass for one shot, but Roy didn’t find that funny. I stood over by a window while Roy took individual shots of the other guys. John walked up to me. “You nervous?”

I gazed out the window at the line of Shannon’s relatives entering the building. I took a deep breath and then smiled as I looked back at him. “No.” I shrugged. “I mean, marriage is no different than living together, you know?”

“Yeah, but now it’s forever.”

I nodded. I hoped so. In a flash, I felt my family, my parents’ divorce, my sister’s withdrawal, my brother’s drug abuse, my stepfather’s fists, my mother’s tears, all the tears of my mother. And then I saw Shannon, soft, and her family, stable. Forever. “I like that part too,” I said.

“Now the brothers,” Roy announced as he approached us. “Let’s try something different.” He had us stand in front of the window and face him. John placed his right foot and I placed my left foot on the windowsill, which was about crotch-high, leaving us with our knees together at chest-level. I leaned my left elbow on my left knee and crossed my right arm over my torso to shake John’s right hand. John’s left hand dangled freely. Roy the photographer apparently hadn’t anticipated the effects of the backlighting from the window, and in the resulting picture, our faces are completely dark. But from posture alone, we look as if we are getting ready to jump.

Juanita reappeared and escorted us men outdoors to our places on the West Patio. The seats were arranged in a T-shape, all facing toward a calmed fountain in the center that erupted to life only in the moments of greatest joy; the ceremony was performed at the top of the T. Here, before Shannon arrived, my brother and I greeted her Uncle Wendel, the minister who would be doing the readings, a tall and broad man with a friendly face. We also shook hands with her grandfather, the minister who would be performing the ceremony. A slight man with a resonating voice, a long beard, and an impressive mass of well-oiled gray dreadlocks, Shannon’s grandfather bore a striking resemblance to the older Frederick Douglass. I only know him by the name of Pooh-Bah, a term everybody used behind his back on account of the huge cone he wore on his head. It was at least a foot tall. Maroon velvet with silver moons and stars all around it, the cone proclaimed “Orion Chief” in puffy metallic letters. A long black tassel dangled from the top. The cone signified that he was the leader of his own church, a unique Christian sect he founded, and which folded when he retired. He had come out of retirement for this special occasion, but we would soon learn that he was still the chief.

With the pluckings of some harp song or other, the procession began: weeping mother of the bride, Eric and some girl, Stan and some girl, Matt and my sister Amy, and then every one of Shannon’s cousins who was under the age of ten. There was Tierra, who held a basket and looked pretty. She was followed by James the ring bearer, a young boy I had never met, holding a fake ring in a pillow that matched the Pooh-Bah’s hat perfectly. Then came the flower girls, Tanisha and some other girl, who didn’t so much scatter petals as drop clumps. Finally, Taherra burst out of the doors and skipped down the aisle, clanging a bell and literally shouting, “The bride is coming, the bride is coming, the bride is coming, the bride is coming, the bride is coming, the bri-IDE!” That’s a bell cherub.

At last, Shannon emerged from the West Parlor doors, her dress simple, long, shiny, ivory, off the shoulders. Her hair tumbled in soft curls, pleated with tiny flowers that matched the huge bouquet in her right hand. She looked magnificent. Her left arm was looped through her stepfather’s, who looked very serious, stretched very tall. Of the three fathers I have had in life, I was closest to A.P. Holmes, who is one of the kindest and most sincere men I have ever met. Today, I miss him more than I’ve ever missed my ex-wife. When they reached me, I shook A.P.’s hand, and he hugged me. I wanted to never disappoint him. Beaming, he placed Shannon’s hand in mine.

Within a minute, Shannon and I both realized that her grandfather was disregarding our requests for the service. We had selected short vows, two readings, one harpsichord solo, and no sermon. We wanted a simple and sweet ceremony, one that would last, at most, 15 minutes. Pooh-Bah’s introduction, a lengthy interpretation of the nice weather, spoken in his crawling twang, lasted about five. Wendel then gave the first reading. I didn’t realize until later that in his ministry, Uncle Wendel uses the King James translation exclusively. The more modern editions translate it as love, but King James proclaims, as did Wendel, loudly, “The greatest of these is . . . charity.”

While the harpist fingered away at her solo, the fountains suddenly leapt in dramatic arcs. I mumbled to Shannon, “Charity?”

She whispered, “Perhaps they’re passing around a collection plate.”

I smiled. At least she hadn’t lost her sense of humor. Yet.

When the harpist stopped, the last spurts from the fountain fell to the pool, and Pooh-Bah started one of the most breathtakingly original sermons I’ve ever heard, astonishing for its breadth, redundancy, and length. The 30 minutes are radically condensed below:

“When I see Geoffrey and Shannon before me, I am reminded of the words of that great statesman, Martin Luther King, Jr.(Shannon and I—facing each other this whole time—squint in confusion.) On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of the brotherhood of man, the future when black people and white people, brown people and even little yellow people, all Americans would live together in peace.(Shannon clenches her jaw to keep from laughing at “little”; I smile broadly, hoping people will assume it to be out of immense love for my bride.) When I see Geoffrey and Shannon before me, I know that the brotherhood of man has come. [Radical condensation here.] Geoffrey and Shannon surely represent the future of America.”

Shannon squeezed my hand and let out a silent “phew” that proved wildly premature.

“Now, when I see Geoffrey and Shannon before me, I am also reminded of the words of the other great statesman, John F, Kennedy.(Shannon’s eyes bulge unflatteringly. I wonder, are there only two great statesmen?) In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country.” (More squinting between Shannon and me.) Now when I heard that at the time, I thought it sounded pretty good, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country,” but I don’t think I fully comprehended the meaning of those words. So I stored it in the back of my mind until I wanted to think about it later, and when I thought about it later, I realized that President Kennedy was speaking about the difference between human love and the divine love. You see, human love is selfish. It says, “What can I get for myself? What can the other fella give me?” But the divine love is selfless. It puts the other fella first. (We are holding hands, but with her thumb, Shannon points back at herself and mouths, “The other fella?”) The divine love says, “What can I do to make the other fella happy?” [Radical condensation here, during which our hands become slick, Shannon’s hair wilts, a flower girl begins to cry, James the ring bearer plays with himself four times, each time stopped quietly by my friend Matt, who is once punched in the crotch by James the ring bearer. Everyone becomes a little prickly.] So that is what President John F. Kennedy meant when he said the words, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country.” Geoffrey and Shannon are an example of the divine love.” A moment of silent reflection, followed by an unmarred second reading, and then a surprise vocal solo that was not on the program. “A friend of my mom’s,” Shannon explained later. “She insisted when she arrived.” Of course.

Any hope we maintained of actually using our chosen vows was crushed when Pooh-Bah started again. “Marriage is an institution . . .” So we spoke, with simulated piety and some lingering genuine elation, the traditional vows, minus the “obey,” which Pooh-Bah had the good sense to avoid. He knew his daughter. Mrs. Holmes would have probably shot me dead if she heard Shannon promise to obey me.

Rings exchanged, “I thee,” all that, we turned around to face the congregation, or in our case, whatever a bunch of people who come to a churchless wedding is called. It was time for the communal prayer, another tradition that, like the bell cherub and the phantom soloist, I knew nothing about until it happened to me. “Shannon and Geoffrey,” it began, “we recognize your union . . .” There were several more excruciating sentences, during which the congregation or whatever tried to slow itself down to synchronize with Pooh-Bah. But every time they slowed down, it seemed that Pooh-Bah slowed down even more, so that by the time they finished a full two minutes later, Pooh-Bah rattled on behind us for another 15 seconds. “And accept you into the community (I try to look reverent) with the blessings of our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

We turned again to face each other: time to kiss the bride. At least, I thought, we can’t mess up this part. My relief proved unfounded, for while I wouldn’t say we exactly messed it up, it was shorter than we planned. It was more like pecking the bride, because Shannon pulled back quickly. She apologized later; she said she was annoyed and in a hurry. With the ceremony running over by nearly 40 minutes, the hors d’oeuvres would be getting cold. I hadn’t realized. I smiled like I knew what I was doing when we turned to face our applause. The deftly timed fountain came on again, and we led the procession back into the only slightly cooler West Parlor.

Roy the photographer scooped us up immediately, and we posed with my in-laws, her in-laws, the grandparents, the full wedding party, the groomsmen, the bridesmaids, the Ministers, and any combination thereof. Mercifully, my biological father brought me some water. Angelically, Eric fetched us two gin-and-tonics. During one all-girl shot, while we leaned against the empty fireplace, Eric elbowed me and mumbled, “So, uh, tonight . . .you think you’re gonna get some humpin’?”

Sweaty, I blinked at him. “You’re stupid. I hate you.”

The Pooh-Bah sauntered over to us. Shannon and her mom had warned me about this possibility, and I saw them pointing and snickering from where Roy buzzed around them near the doors. “Geoffrey,” the Pooh-Bah announced, “I’d like to have a word with you.”

“Certainly, Reverend.” I nodded at him. “What is it, sir?”

“Concerning your new marriage, son, I want to inform you of the Word of God.” He rolled his shoulders several times, as if warming up for a boxing match. “Now, you see, most people know all about the honoring and the cherishing, but did you know that there is now . . .” he reached up his long fingers and grasped the top of my forehead. Even if he had moved more quickly, I couldn’t have been more surprised. What was my head doing in this man’s hand? The effect was disorienting. “A silver cord that runs here from your head to the same part on Shannon’s head.” He released me and continued. “This silver cord conducts the divine love from you to Shannon and from Shannon to you. This is not a figure of speech, now, it’s an actual silver cord. [Radical condensation here, during which Eric, standing slightly behind Reverend Pooh-Bah’s left shoulder, examines his own head three times and once pretends to pull the Pooh-Bah cone’s tassel] You can look it up. It’s in Ezekiel.” He nodded sagely. Then he did it again.

I figured he was waiting for me to say something. “Did you say Ezekiel, sir?”

“Yes, that’s right, the Book of Ezekiel. Silver cord.”

“Well, thank you, Reverend, I’ll be sure to look that up real soon. Oh hey,” I noticed, “it looks like Shannon needs me.”

I walked over toward my bride, punching Eric’s shoulder along the way. “Shannon, my new wife?” I tried being cute. “Are we going to go into our reception now?” It had been almost an hour since the almost hour-long ceremony ended. My feet hurt.

She sighed. “Yes. My dad is getting the DJ ready, but my mother is out on the lawn with Roy, taking pictures of all the kids.”

I nodded. “Okay.” I smiled. “We’ll wait.”

In ten more minutes, the DJ started the music. Shannon clasped my arm when the last of the wedding party disappeared through the doors, leaving only us in the room. We strolled regally onto the betented and globe-lit South Patio of the Newton-White Mansion, to the announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. and Mrs. Godfrey Holmes-Whitman!” Everyone applauded; those who knew laughed as well. We hyphenated our last names, and in the spirit of the moniker, Shannon insisted that her first name be used as well. She refused to be introduced as “Mrs. Geoffrey.” Technically, I suppose, she got her wish.

We made our way to our seats at the head table, Shannon having a little bit of trouble with snagging the train of her dress. One glance at our guests revealed that they had ignored our seating suggestions. Everyone sat with whom they knew, so we had rigidly segregated tables, 19 black and three white, with three miniature United Nations tables made up of neighbors and college friends in the back. Later on, they would all mix a bit for the buffet lines, but the music didn’t help. My relatives only rose for the “The Electric Slide.” Perhaps, I reflected during the reception’s final hour, I should have made more suggestions months ago when my mother-in-law had asked, “Tell me, what do white folks dance to at weddings? Besides “The Hokey-Pokey?”” Segregation during dancing confirmed the pesky stereotype about white rhythm. During dinner, at least, we could shrug it off with the handy excuse: “People want to be with family.”

Waiters filled the champagne glasses for the toast. My brother, sweating and now shaking, whispered into my ear, “Geoff, I don’t think I can do this.”

I smiled at him. “Oh, come on, John, it’s not that hard.”

“Yeah, but I had something written down,” he glanced quickly over the table, “and now I can’t find it.”

“Maybe if you didn’t smoke so much pot, you wouldn’t be so stupid.” I only thought that, I didn’t say it. I smiled. “John, you don’t need to have anything written down. It doesn’t have to be anything long. Just say something nice.”

He breathed for a few seconds and then nodded. “Okay.” He stood up, mumbling quickly, “I just wanna say—”

“Hold on, hold on,” I caught him. “Wait till everyone is paying attention.”

Someone at the head table did the spoon-on-the-glass thing to get everyone’s attention, but then everybody did the spoon-on-the-glass thing to make me kiss Shannon. So I did. My bride. Kissy-kissy. Then John said, in a surprisingly clear voice, “I just wanna say, Geoff you’ve been a good brother, and Shannon welcome to the family. So a drink.” He held up his glass, and when everyone else did the same, he sat down swiftly and drank his champagne in two gulps. Then he burped. “Do I get any more of this?”

“I don’t even think you’re supposed to have that one. You are 17.”

“Damn.” He drank the remaining drops. “I swear, what I wrote was better. I was gonna tell everyone about how we used to wrestle, but oh well.”

I smiled, clapped him on the back. “What you said was just fine.”

While mere guests had to stand in buffet lines, we at the head table were served our dinners. This was not quite the advantage we first thought it would be, for random relatives, impatient with the length of the lines, stumbled over to offer a kiss on the cheek or a firm handshake along with their very best wishes and yadda. I must have been asked how I felt more than a hundred times that night, and my answer was always the same. “Oh, fine,” I beamed, “just fine.” Shannon’s cousin Randy, who earned the nickname Grape Ape because of his blazing purple suit and his immense girth, said I sure would feel fine tonight, that Shannon was the prettiest in the family. “Trust me,” he chortled, “I’ve been payin’ attention!” He erupted into laughter, which I echoed mechanically as he shuffled away. I looked back down at my food. Though immensely grateful that the sun’s setting had cooled the air, I was a bit disgruntled that my chicken gravy was now congealing. I glanced over at Shannon’s full plate. “Not hungry?” I asked.

“I guess not everything can be perfect,” she grumbled.

Mrs. Holmes wrung her hands up to us. “The buffet is a disaster. Did you see those lines? Awful, just awful.” She grabbed my right hand, Shannon’s left. “I want you both to know that I am so sorry.” She dropped our hands. “I should have paid the extra for the table service. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” She scampered off, followed by our it’s-okays and don’t-worry-about-its.

After a few chilly morsels, we abandoned our dinners. Most guests were nearly done eating, so it was time for the dances. First, of course, was the bride and groom dance. Nothing fancy for us: “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers, the first song we danced to, on the last night of camp surrounded by hormonally-challenged seventh graders, many of them having their first dance ever. Shannon enjoyed responding to the question, “Why’d you choose that song?” It was one part of our relationship that was actually kind of sweet; we giggled about it as we danced. Strangely, with so many people staring at us, we relaxed. For three minutes anyway, everyone left us alone. Well, except Roy the photographer.

After our song, Shannon danced with A. P. to the oohs and ahhs of everyone. And then it was my mom’s turn. Mom had called at the beginning of July with “terrific news, Geoff, terrific news. I was at the formal wear store and I found the perfect song for our mother-son dance!”

I put down the magazine I was reading and asked, “Mother-son dance? I didn’t know people did such things.”

My mother let out an angry breath. “We’re not having one?”

“Uh, no, I don’t know, Mom, I mean, that’s not what I meant. I just . . . do people do that”

“What do you mean do people do that? I’ve got the tape right here in my hand. It’s called “Your Boy, A Mother-Son Song for Weddings.” Do you think I’m stupid or something?”

“No, Mom, no, I just. . . they probably just didn’t tell me about the dance. Of course we’ll have it if you want it.”

“Well, don’t you want it?”

Throughout my childhood, my mother had been possessive. When I began dating, she grew jealous of each one of my girlfriends within a month. At 17, I left home permanently after some bloody fistfights with my stepfather, brought on by my refusal to leave my then-love, Sandi. Six years later, Mom hadn’t taken the announcement of my engagement — along with the idea of my having another mother — very well. From May 1994 to June 1995, Mom disowned me four times, and she ordered Shannon and me to leave her house when we drove up to Connecticut to visit at Christmas. When she called about the mother song less than two months before the wedding, the current truce was rather shaky. “Of course I want the dance, Mom.”

“Wait till you hear this song. Oh Geoffrey, it’s so beautiful it made me cry.”

When the first synthesized notes twinkled through the speakers, I did not cry. I smiled broadly and walked to the middle of the dance floor. My mom, in a coral chiffon dress that made her very proud, stepped out of the crowd toward her son who had always made her very proud as well. Several steps before she reached me, as if she were getting in a few final seconds of practice, she put her hands up and began to rock back and forth, a stance and motion we continued in circles for the duration of the song. She led—I had no choice— and, as per her whiteness, she has atrocious rhythm; our tempo was almost, but not quite exactly, double that of the song. When turned in their direction, I saw Shannon and Mrs. Holmes in the far corner of the terrace, pointing and laughing loudly. Cackling, it seemed to me at the time. And I thought of when my mother had called Shannon’s mother “a snake in the grass.” I thought of how, just five days before the wedding, my mother had rescinded her offer to pay for the rehearsal dinner. And I thought of how, just last night, my mother had stormed out of that dinner and demanded that I take her home, at least to the hotel, if not to Connecticut. I thought of all these things, but still, she was my mom, and it seemed to me that she deserved better than to be heckled by my new wife and my new mother-in-law.

I am thankful that my mother seemed oblivious to the noise around us. After three minutes, she lifted her left hand from my shoulder and began to wipe her eyes. “This is my favorite part,” she choked, and then there was something about joy, followed by: “You will always be my mom/ And I will always be your boy.” For five or six long seconds, she wept, then she inhaled, stretched up to kiss my cheek, and fluttered away. Alone, smiling on the dance floor, I didn’t know which I wanted to do more: vomit, or slap Mrs. Holmes.

The DJ saved me. “Can we have the members of the wedding party on the floor please?” My bride again, some song, lots of smiles. Then came a dance for the parents, a less than simple affair. My stepfather danced with my mom, my biological father danced with his new wife, Shannon’s mom danced with A.P., and the new wife of Shannon’s biological father danced with her own brother because Shannon’s biological father was in prison again. The next dance began with the grandparents (or, I should say, Shannon’s grandparents, because all mine but one had died in the previous five years), and slowly ballooned according to the instructions of the DJ: “Will all couples married more than 50 years please come out to the dance floor? Now 40 . . .now. . . .” On down to couples married less than a year. Finally—and I never thought I’d be so grateful for it in my life — I heard the blissful stomp of “The Electric Slide.” At last, four and a half hours into our planned five-hour wedding, the general music began. People could dance now. They could stop looking at us.

They did stop looking at Shannon, because she disappeared. Her mother rushed up, grabbed her elbow, and said, “It’s time for the second dress.” Mrs. Holmes had a special reception dress made for Shannon. I glanced at my watch. To me, it seemed silly to change now, but they jogged off anyway. Because of the late hour, I began to tour the tables and do the obligatory greet-and-thank-yous alone. At every table someone hooted, “Where’s Shannon? She leave you already?”

I should have taken the hint, because of course, she would leave me soon enough. Where I had hoped our relationship would return to its former glory after the wedding day, nothing of the sort happened. Shannon’s difficulty with school, her attachment to her mom, and her fondness for credit cards all increased. Me: I withdrew emotionally and physically got fatter, a talent I have for simultaneous growth and shrinkage. Who wants to object to the wedding video again if you can just eat a cheeseburger while watching it? A cheeseburger makes everything better. The marriage basically followed the same arc as the wedding plans, only in reverse: intense involvement, hectic activity, mild interest, until at last, we were once again carefree. Only this time, the care we were free from was our relationship. The final arguments and divorce seemed to be just a formality, like the engagement itself. And like walking around to thank relatives I barely knew,

I laughed along with their chides, and returned, “Hope she left me the gifts.” She didn’t.

Seven tables in, Shannon came back out onto the terrace. To my horror, her ivory dress was an identical match to her mother’s pale yellow one. The two of them gleamed, walking hand-in-hand out onto the dance floor, amid the coos of notice and appreciation. The single girls lined up. Shannon tossed the bouquet. The boys lined up. I tossed the garter. Mrs. Holmes had insisted on these traditions, which Shannon and I had originally rejected because they just take time and cause problems. We were right. Fred, Michelle-the-maid-of-honor’s fiance, slid the garter so far up the leg of a 52-year-old Jackie Joyner-Kersey lookalike aunt that Michelle stormed out of the room. I was startled by the aunt. Fifty-two-years-old and legs like that? I looked back at Shannon, She had nice legs, but in that dress she sure looked a lot like her mom.

I stood leaning against the wall with Matt, who had just barely missed catching the garter in a brave diving attempt, when A. P. walked up to me. “Geoff, the limo’s here. Where’s Shannon?”

I looked around. “I don’t know. She went to look for Michelle. Let’s see.”

We walked back inside, through the South Parlor, past the gift room, past the rest rooms, and into the West Parlor where we had posed for so many pictures. Michelle was slumped in a corner chair, sniffles stuffing through her palms. Shannon hovered over her apologetically. Mrs. Holmes stood with her arms folded across her chest, tapping her foot in the opposite doorway.

“Honey,” I smiled. “It’s time to go.”

Once again, spoken too simply. Michelle nodded and promised to pull herself together, A.P. went to alert the groomsmen, and the groomsmen collected their belongings from upstairs. Juanita the wedding coordinator went to find Roy the photographer, a bridesmaid told the DJ to stop the music, and my brother—quite mysteriously—produced a suitcase for Shannon and me. Shannon and I went back onto the dance floor to say good-bye, everyone lined up to pat and kiss us, and my biological father made one last sprint to the open bar. Mrs. Holmes gathered a dozen of our friends and gave them bottles of bubbles, those friends arranged themselves strategically outside the door, and A.P. told us to wait inside the door while Mrs. Holmes gave instructions to the videographer about how to perfectly capture this precious moment on tape. Shannon and I, exhausted, waited.

Mrs. Holmes bustled back inside. “Okay you two, the video guy is ready, so just act surprised, like you weren’t expecting bubbles. Rice maybe, but not bubbles. And Geoff,” she grabbed my arm. The eyes of Mrs. Holmes, in situations that rarely required it, occasionally displayed a combination of intense concern, confusion, and horror that would only seem justified if she were watching her own leg being chewed off by rabid hyenas. Now was one of those times. “I just thought you should know. You have a lovely family. Your stepfather,” she lifted a finger for each person she named, “your father, your uncle, your sister, and your brother all thanked me personally for this wedding and told me how lovely it was. But that mother of yours,” her hand snapped shut, “didn’t say a word. I just thought you should know.” The look. I nodded. She peeped her head outside and then turned back to us. “Okay, you can go now.”

Walk. Hey. Smiles. Bubbles. Wow. Limo. Wow. Nice. Bye.

We slid onto the slippery leather seats and sighed. Almost there, I thought, stay positive. I knocked on the wood paneling and whistled, “So this is the kind of car great statesmen get to use.”

Shannon grinned only briefly and then exhaled. “Let’s not joke about it just yet, okay?”

“Okay.” I kissed her, another peck. To my disappointment, even here, she tasted like an ashtray. I wondered how she had gotten a cigarette; she hid the habit from her mother.

Michelle poked her head into the limo. “Guys, can you give Fred a ride to his hotel?”

Shannon’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

Michelle’s voice was smaller, “Fred needs a ride to the hotel.”

To end the fiery silence, I piped in, “If you’re riding in the other limo, can’t he just take your car?”

Michelle’s face pinched up. “But he’s had so much to drink and he doesn’t know where he’s going. I’m afraid he’ll die.” She began to sob.

I turned to Shannon. She rolled her eyes and said, “Whatever, Michelle.” Ten seconds later, Fred tripped into the opposite seat, and within two minutes, we drove off with a few people waving at us. Fred groaned as we bounced over each pothole. On full turns, he fell over completely. Four times, he corrected himself, until finally he remained roughly horizontal on the seat, his head propped awkwardly, ironically perhaps, upward against the bar. When he woke up ten minutes later and coughed that he needed fresh air, Shannon and I rolled down every window and opened the moon roof. When we arrived at his hotel, I had to lower the partition and ask the driver for help. I checked my wallet: one last 20. I gave it to him.

While the driver dragged Fred to his room, I looked over at Shannon, who with a big “ugh,” collapsed onto my shoulder. “We made it,” I said. Not too bad, I thought. A terrible day, but do grooms have any other choice? No, it seemed to me, no they don’t. Weddings are for women and guests. I had done it for my wife, my bride, given her the day of her dreams. After all, this was the brotherhood of man. The divine love. Put the other fella first. I was off to a good start.

In our hotel room that night, the first thing we did after setting down our bags was to call room service and order a cheeseburger.


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