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Bride and Prejudice

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

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I never much wanted to get married. Growing up in New York City, my friends and I found the prospect of being a bride boring. Excitement was going to a demolition derby, becoming famous, or getting drunk in the middle of the day. By contrast, conventional marriage was, judging by the majority of those we knew about, doomed, or, at best, held together by a mesh of compromises and sacrifices that would never even begin to pay off.
     On January 1, I got engaged to my boyfriend of three years.
     He’d been planning it for months, at least since his mother died and I sat next to him at the little Pentecostal church in rural Texas and then made us martinis late at night in the rental car. I hadn’t been planning it at all. Since then, I’ve been learning a lot from American wedding magazines, like that women like fancy things and men like sports, women like money and sweetness and light and men like big tits and cars and to be left alone. There is a popular cake topper featuring a groom being dragged to the altar by a hell-bent bride. I was drawn to it like a tribesman to a Coke bottle.
     I didn’t know about such things because I grew up in Manhattan, the daughter of two people who came independently to New

I knew of girls who collected Barbie dolls and dreamed of white weddings. I saw them when I had to go to the suburbs.

York’s East Village in the sixties to escape from graham-cracker casseroles, green lawns and responsibility in general. I wasn’t sheltered from dead bums, the smell of urine, sexy movies or the corrupting influence of Kierkegaard, but I was protected, as if by a Cosmopolitan umbrella, from all things naïve or suburban. Even though no one said that marriage fit into that category, my mind made the leap.
     In the East Village, unconventional household arrangements outnumbered conventional ones. The majority of my parents’ friends were divorced, single, or gay. Many of the ones who were married had dresser drawers full of pot and cocaine or trapezes over their beds. In any case, the “norm” was not, I now know, what most people consider normal.
     Yes, as kids my friends and I played those fortune-telling games where we figured out who we’d marry, how many kids we’d have, and what we’d do for a living. But the “age married” option never dipped below twenty-six. Sure, I knew of girls who collected Barbie dolls and dreamed of white weddings. I saw them out the window on the few occasions my parents and I had to go to the suburbs. On such trips, the three of us stuck very close together, and as my father chain-smoked in the driver’s seat, my mother and I looked out the window and mocked the pudgy denizens mercilessly throughout the drive home, on which we inevitably got lost. All those streets look alike.
     Women desperate to get married were laughable. “Taking the jeep” became a homemade euphemism after a woman we vaguely knew gave her live-in boyfriend an ultimatum: a ring on my finger by Christmas or I’m out of here. The little box under the tree that year contained car keys. In the driveway was a jeep. She took it and shut up about the wedding and of course he dumped her shortly thereafter. Ha! Women who want to get married are a joke, more so if they don’t stick to their guns and walk out when someone tries to buy off their domestic ambitions with four-wheel drive.
     “If it’s a choice between freedom and security, always opt for freedom, and always make your own money.” That was the main advice my mother gave me about life. She was married, but she drilled the virtue of independence into my head as if she were a single mother, bitterly raising a dozen children in the Old West. Having grown up in a repressive traditional home, she hadn’t planned on getting married. The only reason she did was because my father wanted to and because it seemed like she could still be completely independent, her own person. And she was. She always made her own money and was, in my eyes at least, the undisputed head of the household. And she was forever joking about how if Tommy Lee Jones called her, she’d be off for a weekend in Puerto Rico. At least I thought it was probably a joke.
     Her single friends were even more liberated. They

I slept with so many rock musicians, I considered assembling them into a band I could manage.

told of adventures they’d had — skinny-dipping in Italy, giving rude sultans what for, getting drunk on the roofs of skyscrapers. I wanted to be like them. They seemed to want me to be like them. It was all very Miss Havisham and Estella in Great Expectations.
     After high school, I did them all proud. I traveled the world alone. I worked and slept my way around the planet. I shacked up with an art student named Fabio in Sardinia. I camped on beaches along the West coast of Ireland with Ian. I flirted shamelessly with Mahfuz in Bangladesh.
     I fantasized about having husbands all over the world. I called them husbands to myself, probably because if I called them what they really were, it would make me a slut.
     Later, I was fine with being a slut.
     When I was twenty, I married my then-boyfriend, who was Canadian, so he could get his Green card. We did it at the justice-of-the-peace on our lunch hour and told each other constantly that it was not a “real” marriage. We still referred to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. When we split up a year later, the divorce was as anticlimactic as the wedding, just a postcard in the mail. The only consequence was that I was now, technically, a divorcée, which I felt added to my allure.
     I slept with so many rock musicians, I considered assembling them into a band I could manage. In college, I managed to construct a love-rectangle by getting into nebulous relationships with three different boys in my art history class. I thrived off of the drama — at least two of my paramours in that class got C’s, but I got an A.
     Sex was enlivening, even when it was bad. I liked meeting new people, flirting, the game of it, and the boundless potential for adventure, discovery, and surprise. You never knew what was going to happen when you went home with someone. Even when it was fucked up, or awkward, or you wound up liking them too much, or they wound up liking you too much, or you wound up driving home at three in the morning cursing them, it was interesting. I couldn’t imagine giving it up.
     But then there I was four months ago, telling my boyfriend I would do just that. I’d been practically — “Sure, I’d marry you” — engaged so many times — to male friends in high school, to my immigrating ex-husband, to any number of boyfriends, to Fabio (if I correctly understood his Italian, which I possibly did not) — but being really engaged was radically different. The second that ring went on my finger I realized that being really engaged is in fact a Very Big Deal. I also realized that none of those other boys, for all their talk of how we should get married some day, had ever procured a ring, gotten down on one knee, and really and truly asked. In retrospect, all those affairs looked sort of alike, from the first adrenaline-soaked flirtation to the sad-song-enhanced denouement. This feeling I had about getting married, however, was new.
     One friend of mine, who had once been engaged, said, “Getting engaged is like suddenly finding yourself in a country you’d only heard about before, but the foliage is totally different from how you pictured it.”
     And she’s right. It is like a pretty, hard-to-imagine-till-you’re-there foreign country, and in the same way you feel different when you’re in other countries, I felt different as an engaged person. I felt, maybe for the first time ever, like a grown-up. And not like a boring, compromising grown-up, but like a fantastically sexy and exciting grown-up about to do something very impressive, like swimming the English Channel.
     We’re going to premarital counseling with the very eloquent priest who’s going to marry us. He says marriage is “for our living and our dying.” He says lots of smart things, actually, that make marriage sound the way I’m starting to see it — as way scarier, more dramatic, exciting, noble, weird and hardcore than sleeping around could ever be.
     Most of our single friends — that is to say most of our friends — are baffled that we’re getting married at all, much less in a church. Not that we aren’t the perfect couple, they say, just that we have never shown signs of being particularly, uh, religious. My fiancé, they point out, is a performance artist who has been known to perform stripteases to R. Kelly songs. But while neither of us has traditional ideas about gender or sexuality, we are discovering that, at least compared with our friends, we have extremely traditional ideas about marriage; i.e., it’s forever, it’s monogamous, and it’s a monumental undertaking.
     While some of our friends have had babies, or been married and divorced, or been living with someone for a long time, or been engaged twelve times and never actually gone through with it, we are the first of our peers to actually get married in the old-fashioned, till-death-do-us-part sense. Our marriage is shaping up like my grandparents’ — except I get to work — and like my parents’, except we think it’s okay to need each other.
     My mother surprised me recently by saying she’s jealous of us. “I just wanted to be independent, and I got that,” she says, gesturing in the general direction of my father, who was off playing computer games at the other end of the apartment they’ve shared for more than thirty years. “But you two,” she said, “are really partners.”
     It’s too soon to tell whether we’re at the front of a train, or merely a rogue engine. Our friends are all still touring with their bands or trying to finish their first novels, or thinking about going back to school. But, as our priest tells us, getting married is “a heroic public act.” We are “the light not to be hidden under a bushel.” The priest always makes us blush.
     The other day, a friend of mine said that he had to break up with his girlfriend even though he hoped to someday marry her, because he’d only slept with four people. He had to raise his number, he said, before he could settle down. But I’ve slept with dozens more than that, I told him, and that’s not really enough either. It is never enough. It will always be minus one bass player — or one baseball player, or one fireman — until you say, however arbitrarily, that it will just have to do.  

 

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©2004 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com