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Weddings are holiness and booze, sweat under the dress, sweet icing in the mouth. A whaler’s church in the afternoon, sunlit and salted, gives way to the drunken splendor of a barn-ish-space—who knows the names or categories of these spaces, where we gather to celebrate other people’s marriages?—and an entire island is suddenly yours, yours and everyone’s, the whole fucking thing. You feel the lift of wine in you, you feel the lift of wine in everyone, and everyone is in agreement—not to believe in love, exactly, but to want to. This, you can do. You dance with a stranger and think, we have this in common, this wanting to believe. In what, again? In the possibility that two people could actually make each other happy, not just today but on a thousand days they can’t yet see.

Weddings are hassle. Hassle is spending money you don’t have to celebrate the lives of people who have more money than you do. Hassle is not finding a cab at 5 pm in Manhattan because it’s 5 pm and all the cab drivers are switching shifts and everyone else in Manhattan is looking for a cab and everyone who isn’t looking for a cab knows better than to try—because it’s 5 pm! And the drivers are switching shifts! Hassle is getting stuck in traffic on the FDR and even worse traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, listening to your friend’s boyfriend talk about getting his pilot’s license. Hassle is finding yourself booked on a roundtrip ticket Tulsa-to-Boston and wondering, how did this happen? Hassle is driving to Tulsa in the middle of the night. Hassle is taking the PATH train to Hoboken at two-in-the-morning, shoulder-to-shoulder with the drunkest Bridge-and-Tunnel crowd, thinking, Bridge-and-Tunnel is such a demeaning phrase, and also thinking, these people are really drunk!

Weddings are a plane, a train, a bus, and then a longish wait at the Woods Hole ferry station, where you pause at a little café to check your email, and find your new boyfriend left you a note to tell you how he just talked about you, for the first time, with his father. This makes the whole wedding feel swollen with possibility. You’re part of it. You’re someone who might someday be loved. You’re in the game.

Weddings are getting dropped at a post-office on a dusty road in the middle of the Catskills and waiting for a ride to the lodge. There’s always a lodge. There’s always cocktail hour at the lodge, and group activities at the lodge, and a hurried hunt for a bridesmaid’s missing shoes at the lodge. We go distances to celebrate the love of people we love, and sometimes it hurts the heart to stand alone on an empty road and think, What am I doing here?

Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings. They give a horizon of closure to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.

Weddings are about being single and wondering about being in love, and being in love and wondering about being in love—what it’s like for other people, and whether it hurts as much as it sometimes does for you. At every wedding, all of a sudden, all bets are off and everyone is asking when your boyfriend is planning to propose, and you are watching your boyfriend talk to the girl at the cheese table, and the wine in you wants to fight, and the wine in you thinks, you will never love me like I need you to.

You thought you knew drunk crying before you went to weddings. You’d gotten tipsy on cheap wine in the middle of the afternoon, alone, and read Rilke and cried. But you didn’t know this kind of drunk crying: alone in the bathroom at your brother’s wedding, or your second brother’s wedding, and you couldn’t even explain it properly—because you were happy for them, you were, but also feeling something else, only you’d gotten too drunk to remember what it was, and now you were sad because there was a kind of crying that was okay, and another kind of crying that wasn’t—a violent, angry crying—and without quite noticing you’d crossed from one to the other.

Sometimes the best weddings are the weddings of strangers. You are only a date; no particular feelings are required. You cry as a groom remembers his mother, who died of cancer years before—even though you’ve never met this guy, he was in a band with your boyfriend way back, but you see the way he looks at his wife and you think his mother must have loved him well. You step outside the barn and it’s sunset in early June and there are fields of something under the light, and you think of that Sting song, and you feel your boyfriend’s arms wrap around you from behind—he only has one suit, you know its crispness well—and this moment might be a little too sweet, like wedding cake, if you knew it wasn’t going to be broken immediately by something else, the ambient noise of so many almost-strangers gathered—one of his lesbian friends explaining her bid for a wedding announcement in the Times, or an unhappy man in ill-fitted tails strolling by to offer you another pig-in-a-blanket made with grass-fed meat. At weddings, you call out your most primal, shameful, dreams—for some kind of life you learned to love in magazines—and feed them little quiches, these dreams, and hope that these will be enough.

You wonder what they feel, people who get married, at the precise moment they do. Is it only bliss, or also fear? You hope for fear. Mostly, you can’t imagine feeling anything else. Except for, at moments, you feel the edge of a man’s suit against your back, familiar, his hand on your arm, his voice in your ear.

By you, of course, I mean I. I wonder about fear. I don’t want to be afraid.

At thirteen I took a flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco and wondered what my father loved in the woman he was about to marry, and what he’d loved in my mother, and what he still loved in my mother, if anything, and how these circles might overlap, if laid across one another. At the airport, my mother hugged me and tried her best, which was badly, to pretend she didn’t feel betrayed that I’d chosen to go, that she wasn’t buckling under the weight of thirty years’ ending. Or she was going to buckle, once I left. I could see it. I took it with me.

At the wedding, I cried what my mother hadn’t cried in front of me. I cried in a room full of the relatives of my father’s new wife. I was that terrible step-daughter, the one from terrible movies, making a scene in front of everyone. I sat in the corner of a dim banquet hall and everyone else in that banquet hall was Chinese, or married to someone who was, like my father was going to be, except for my brothers—who tried, really did, to pat me on the back so I wouldn’t feel so sad. They didn’t have wives yet, then. I didn’t want anyone to look at me, was part of why I started crying even harder—which of course must have seemed like just the opposite: a cry for everyone’s attention. That afternoon is blurred for me, the way tears blur light.

When my parents separated, my father moved into a dark apartment in a modern white building on Sunset Blvd. I remember he got an ice cream maker so we could make ice cream together. I remember the ice cream tasted like crystals. I remember finding a photograph of a beautiful Asian woman with a face dimly lit but smiling. I remember all his pieces of art were propped against the walls. I remember thinking the whole place felt incredibly lonely. I remember feeling sorry for him.

Months later, when he told me he was getting married, to a woman I was just about to meet, I thought of the woman in the photograph and realized that his loneliness had lied to me. It wasn’t his but mine, my own loneliness reflected back in the cage of his new life, a space in which I felt I had no place.

When I cried at his wedding, I cried for the betrayal of that dim apartment—how I’d imagined him lonely, when in fact he was happy, and how my sympathy had made a fool of me in the end.

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Leslie Jamison LESLIE JAMISON is a writer currently living in New Haven. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, was released in paperback in May 2011. Her work has been published in places like A Public Space, The Believer, Vice Magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Tin House. When she is not writing, she is getting a PhD in American Literature at Yale. Find her at www.lesliejamison.com.

23 responses to “Rehearsals”

  1. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Wow, this is the kind of staggering piece that you want to read again immediately after just to make sure you got it all.

    So many lines, one after another, with rare wisdom like this: “Everyone talks about weddings as beginnings but the truth is they are also endings. They give a horizon of closure to things that have been slowly dissolving for years: flirtations, friendships, shared innocence, shared rootlessness, shared loneliness.”

    I recently attended a wedding myself. The collective dreams that you want to “feed little quiches” to, as you say, were on full, ecstatic display. A wedding really is an amazing monster, but I suppose maybe the best that we can do.

    Anyway, a great post.

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      Hey Nathaniel,

      I love thinking of a wedding as a monster–sort of like a pet gone feral once again; it begins as something you think you can control, and ends up something else entirely.

      It strikes me that weddings are a cultural version of the Monument Valley you describe–a place where no one has ever belonged, or at least, one at which everyone is continually questioning the status of their belonging.

      Thanks for your words–I’m glad you liked the piece.

  2. Becky Palapala says:

    Ugh. The worst cry. The cry you swear up and down is for someone or something else.

    Similar to a dead pet cry, kind of.

    Where you sit and project all your feelings of fear and uncertainty about death on to your dog and go “I hope she wasn’t afraid,” but you leave off “because I’m scared shitless” as if Dogs are the ones you’re concerned about suffering existential terror on their death beds.

    The more I think about it, the more I think it’s likely that a vast majority of crying is crying for ourselves.

    Excellent post.

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      Hey Becky,

      I spend a lot of time thinking about how much of my crying is about myself–more than I’d like, I think. I wonder about weddings; this cultural event where we’re supposed to be feeling toward other people, and the whole thing–the spectacle, and our tears–is very inescapably public. People enjoy that other people cry at weddings; it’s part of the deal.

      I cried hard for my first pet (Herman, a hamster) when he died. I’m not sure I understood about existential terror then, but I probably projected it onto him anyway.

      thanks for reading.

  3. dwoz says:

    Writing like this is worth paying for. Satisfying and working on all levels, Leslie. Five minutes of my life that I not only don’t wish I had back, I wish it had been ten minutes. Or twenty.

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      Thank you!

      I could have written for pages more about weddings, and everything they are/have been/will be for me, so I will hopefully be occupy many more minutes of your life with my musings in this vein…

  4. This is great, Leslie! I look forward to reading more of your work here.

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      Thank you. I just read your Naked Book Club piece (wild!)–it now makes me imagine a naked wedding. Just ponder. It blows the mind.

  5. J.M. Blaine says:

    Wow, this was sharp.
    When someone can say something
    about something
    that has been discussed a million times
    & say it this compelling – well.
    The detail, perfect and dead-on.

    Dwoz got it right,
    we all read a lot of writing
    & call plenty of it good
    but very little of it is worth
    paying for.
    This is.

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      It’s really nice to hear that.

      Most of the things I’m interested in (love, fear, bodies, all these colliding) have been written about a million times, so it’s good that there’s at least the possibility I’m finding something new in it.

      Glad you enjoyed.

  6. Laura says:

    This was a really interesting read. I enjoyed it.
    Yet, I do find it difficult to relate to your exact setting of a wedding. I am 46, been single since I divorced at 29, and haven’t been to a wedding in 10 years. I live in the Southwestern US, and have never been to a wedding where I had to catch cabs in NYC to reach some ferry which takes me to a lodge in the Catskills. All of that, along with the boyfriend who owns just one suit sounds very decadent and dreamy to me.
    The weddings I have attended have been Spanish weddings in small, dry, sunny towns in New Mexico, where you spend an hour in Catholic Mass before they ever get to the wedding vows. These weddings are followed by a reception in some beaten down, 30 yr old Masonic lodge ballroom, where fat Mariachis follow you around singing old Mexican love songs in your ear, and you eat green chile enchiladas and bowls of beans, and drink lots of Mexican beer and tequila.
    Yes, weddings are a spectacle, but when you’ve gone 10 years without being invited to one, you long to go to another one. I wish for one of my friends’ young adult children to get married soon. I look forward to dancing in a train led by fat Mariachis, and pinning money on the bride’s dress for good luck!

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      Wow; I have to say–your typical Southwestern wedding, as described, sounds pretty stupendous to me. Green chili enchiladas and a crooning Mariachi band–I’d love to get an invite to one of these. Your points are well taken; there is something very lovely about being invited to weddings, feeling some sense of being part of a social world, important in someone’s life, and being honored to share in the physical–enchilada-laden, pulse-thrumming, chipotle-flavored–extravaganza of their life changing. It’s not just a hassle, but an honor. This is worth remembering as well. Thanks for reading.

  7. dwoz says:

    I was sitting in a wedding many years ago, which was tacked onto the end of a high Catholic Mass.

    Going in to the church the day was sunny and hot, but there was a line of clouds just on the horizon.

    When the Father got to the “are there any among us who would object to this holy union?” part, there was a sudden crack/SMASH of lightning out of nowhere, striking the power lines just outside the church, with a huge crack of thunder and brilliant flash, that took out the church electrical power.

    The entire congregation jumped vertical in their seats by about a foot, and the Father continued after a long pregnant silence, reluctantly. By the time we got back outside the sky was cloudless and sunny again, and the power company and fire truck were parked about 100 feet down the street next to a smouldering pole-mounted transformer.

    The bride gave birth to a blind albino child, and has not had an entirely happy marriage

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      This is such an incredibly eerie story, as if the bright sunlight and looming clouds conspired in their vigilant and pale aggression to create, years later, the albino child. I think that’s part of what’s so powerful about weddings–everything, every element of the day, every object around us–seems to have nerve endings, to be granted power of divination and significance. As if the whole world, for that period, is composed of tea leaves to be read. And here the tea leaves spelled the Book of Revelation. I always get so nervous for the moment when the preacher asks if anyone has objections. Sometimes I’m afraid my own voice will make noise without my intent or permission. I’ll remember this story, anyway; thanks for posting it.

      • dwoz says:

        what was incredibly sad about it was that the boy was just a little boy. He had this sight deficiency, and had to be protected from sunlight. No biggie. At least he had two kidneys, two lungs, a heart with no extra holes, a liver, a spine inside his body, ten fingers and ten toes, and a nice smile.

        Everything that any parent could ask for.

        But the mother just went a little insane over it. She became consumed by fear of the sun, living in a dark house with the curtains always drawn. She ceased bathing and eating, for a time in there. What was oddest of all, is that her husband was an executive administrator at an august and prestigious school for the blind and they lived right on campus. There was not a more ideal accommodative environment for that boy in the entire WORLD. Literally.

        As for the bolt of lightning, it would have been impossible to better time the strike, for comedic and theatrical effect.

        She (the wife) eventually pulled it together, and I think they’re in a better situation now. At the time, the marriage seemed to many others, including myself, to be passionless, a sort of “get married because we can’t think of a practical reason not to” rather than because they couldn’t stand to be out of each other’s sight.

        • Leslie Jamison says:

          I’ve felt this impulse myself, I have to say–though I don’t know and probably won’t ever meet this woman–but to take some strike of misfortune as pretext/catalyst for a more comprehensive removal from the world. Not that that makes anything less sad, especially for the boy, but that the impulse to retreat into the darkened house can be absurdly strong–to close the curtains, to live in fear of something as simple as sunlight. I will never think of weddings again without thinking of this story, and that bolt of lightning. Before this, my only frame of reference for natural disaster at a wedding was the sudden rainstorm in the music video for “November Rain.” I could write an entire essay about that video alone.

  8. Mandy says:

    I enjoyed this essay. I have a daughter who endured divorce at 14 yrs., and she has expressed some of the feelings in this to me. I also related to the mother-daughter scene at the airport, and the tremendous feeling of betrayal the ex-wife feels, almost continually.

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      Hey Mandy,
      I’m glad this essay resonated with your own experience–my sense, at weddings, has often been that so many of the darker feelings under the surface feel like a betrayal to express, or a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. My own mother-daughter scene at the airport is still with me very powerfully. Thanks for reading and responding.

  9. The other commentators have done an excellent job praising this gorgeous essay, Leslie, so let me just add my voice to that praise. Can’t wait to read more.

  10. Tom says:

    I see weddings and funerals are often about the survivors, so to speak and their self satisfaction or self pity. Powerful piece.

    • Leslie Jamison says:

      Survivors! It’s true. Everyone else is grieving a kind of loss, though I’d never thought of it that way. Certainly parents get territorial about the celebration. Have witnessed that many times…

      Thanks for reading.

  11. Sarah says:

    Lovely and worthwhile and needed.

    I’m getting married in about a month, and I have been struggling against the pageantry of a wedding. It seems, like your piece wonderfully depicts, that those around me want to make a pageantry of our love when our relationship has been a little like Stanley Cavell’s description of a marriage: “the willing repetition of days, willingness for the everyday.” I just want to stand on my wedding day, and not think as I have as a bridesmaid and guest so many times, “What am I doing here?” I hope to find my roots.

    Thank you for providing a different way to think through all these thoughts that overwhelm me.

  12. Dennis Boutsikaris says:

    My god. What a brilliant piece of writing. “the betrayal of that dim apartment..” I am completely devastated. Thank you

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