Dispatches from a Small Wedding
I’m finally at the point in my life where this whole wedding thing is starting to taper off. It was fast and furious there for awhile, an intense and fund-depleting run into my early 30s. It felt like every weekend I’d be driving to Philly or the Eastern Shore in a thrift store suit of questionable cleanliness to watch my friends get married.
I don’t dislike weddings per se, but in many ways, they’re the perfect storm of things I hate about social gatherings:
1 – Unless creatively and artfully crafted, the ceremony itself is canned and trite. Especially the vows.
Look, I know it’s “tradition,” but unless you’re a Frost medalist or the Poet Laureate, don’t write your own vows. I’ve written plenty of nice things for my wife over the years, but I sure as shit wasn’t going to read them in front of 150 people when we got married. The reality is, most of the things you’ve heard about love is from television, and I can’t think of anything less romantic than subconsciously cribbing your vows from Uncle Jesse and Aunt Becky.
2 – The above complaint does not ever, even for a second, prevent me from crying like a baby at every ceremony. Seriously. A couple of years ago, I bartendended a wedding as a favor to a friend and stood behind the bar sniffling and opening bottles of Miller Lite. These people were STRANGERS.
I have lots of feelings. I don’t mind my wife teasing me when I cry during a particularly poignant scene in Creed or when the Eagles win the Super Bowl, but I definitely don’t enjoy dabbing my eyes and pretending to have a conveniently-timed allergy attack because my college roommate says “I do.”
3 – With the exception of a full-on family reunion (a practice my family thankfully never attempted, but again, thanks to Full House, I understand involves matching T-shirts and three-legged races), weddings are by far the most awkward conglomeration of people you can possibly construct. You’ve got cliques of high school chums, college friends, co-workers, neighbors, close family, extended family, all existing in the same space.
The diaspora of people invited to a wedding have exactly nothing in common except for the bride and groom, which leads to tribe-esque groupings and guaranteed banal small talk. They’re like those parties your over-ambitions friend throws when he invites people from all of his friend groups and then spends the entire night trying to get you to talk to each other. “Jake, Sam here grew up in New Jersey. Didn’t you once drive through New Jersey?”
Unless you’re a member of the Marvel Universe or a fan of ‘90s sitcom crossover episodes — like when Steve Urkel visited the Tanner family and made Stephanie feel better about wearing glasses — nobody likes when worlds collide.
(Side note: Are you not impressed by my THREE Full House allusions thus far? What can I say? That show resonates, man.)
4 – Basically by law, a wedding has to have a dance floor, which to me is one of the most loathsome arrangements of wood man has ever created. I don’t dance. I didn’t like it when I was young, I don’t like it now. Whenever I have made an attempt to dance, I am sickeningly self-conscious, regardless of drinks consumed.
I have no problem being the guy sitting at the bar and nodding his head in a dance club, but at a wedding, there’s an increased pressure to participate. There’s like, organized dances and shit. The dollar dance; that couples elimination dance where the DJ calls out the number of years you’ve been married; the fucking chicken dance. And if you just wave to your friends from the table and insist you’re fine right where you are, they frown and scold you for being a stick in the mud.
5 – The resulting anxiety and guilt that comes from reasons 1-4. Going to a wedding makes my chest a little tight. This is a quality I’ve no doubt inherited from my father, whom spent my entire childhood uttering the phrase “I’ll be in the car,” five minutes into every social function.
I used to get really annoyed when he did that, reacting with the “why can’t my parents be normal” moans of adolescence, but as I’ve gotten older, I find myself exhibiting identical behavior.
The only thing that makes me feel comfortable at a wedding is mocking it. This is a defense mechanism I know comes from my own shortcomings in social situations where I feel anxious. It also makes me a dick.
It took me a few years and multiple scoldings from my wife to learn it wasn’t appropriate to be critical of someone’s special day, even if the vows were cheesy or everyone danced the Electric Slide or the bride sat me at a table with her third cousin, who talked to me for four hours about her burgeoning career as a YouTube cosmetics reviewer.
But then I feel guilty for being shitty. I don’t want to be the killjoy or the wedding ruiner, the guy that sours the couple’s memories when they look back on that momentous occasion. “Our wedding was perfect,” says the bride to her groom. They’re old now, holding hands and sitting on a bench outside a nursing home like Allie and Noah from The Notebook. “But remember how shitty your friend Sam was? He was just so spiteful.”
The guilt starts coming for me the second an invitation comes in the mail, because what do I do with it? Someone put thought and money into this glittered, bejeweled piece of card stock, and I’m what, going to throw it away? That seems mean. So I just defer the task and leave the invite to yellow and curl under a magnet in refrigerator purgatory until I muster the courage to dispose of it.
So like I said, I was pleased when the invitations stopped arriving, because it signaled the sunset of my wedding season. Another chapter of awkward life encounters closed, like the potential for group showers after gym class or that a party I’m attending will get broken up by the cops. At this point, I assumed the window of opportunity for weddings had closed, and all of my friends suffering from arrested development had missed their opportunity to dive into the relationship deep end.
And then my friend Jen had to go and fuck it up.
Jen and I have been friends for almost 10 years. We taught at the same school and spent countless nights and weekends at each other’s houses, watching TV premiers and grilling. She was the maid of honor in my wedding.
But the thing about Jen is that she is the type of person who never does anything small. Every party had a theme, every social interaction morphed into some elaborate and intense game.
During the time we taught together, Jen and I belonged to a friend group that frequently took happy hour to another level. There were mascots, theme songs, and an end-of-school-year awards ceremony we named after our principal. A recurrent happy hour game we played was called the 2:30 Challenge, in which we stood in our classrooms until 2:30 (the end of our required contract hours) and then raced each other to the bar. Whoever arrived first got their drinks paid for the rest of the night.
During these festivities, I often played the role of sarcastic nonconformist, rolling my eyes and insisting on playing “drink the beer” instead. Not because I hated fun, but because in truth, I’m a hyper-competitive human and an absolutely terrible sport. There’s home video footage of me in tears at my 6th birthday party because I didn’t win musical chairs. I once flipped a Monopoly board in college over a rule technicality.
Even before the save the date arrived, I knew Jen and Kevin’s wedding was going to be elaborate and absurd in ways I had never experienced. My suspicions were confirmed when Jen asked my wife Melinda to be the day-of wedding planner, and I became privy to the details, which included a band AND a DJ, live animal centerpieces, and a small collection of special guests.
“This wedding is going to be fucking insane,” Melinda said after she returned home from her first planning meeting with Jen.
My stomach soured. Oh no. How will I be able to control the snarky beast within myself?
What follows this rather lengthy introduction is a documentation of the wedding weekend and my battle with myself.
I will say in the interest of ethics that I did get permission from Jen to write about all of this, and she was in fact elated to hear I intended to lay my sarcastic crosshairs on her most joyful day. I even gave her and Kevin the opportunity to choose their own pseudonyms to protect their identities should they find the need to disavow the content of these dispatches.
Their choices? Jen and Kevin. Their real names.
As such, with the approval of the bride and groom, what follows is an approximation of the wedding festivities as they occurred. I say approximation because as you will see, there are several dim spots and scenes missing that will unfortunately be lost to the sands of time.
Which, frankly, is the mark of a good-ass wedding.
THE REHEARSAL – Thursday, 6 p.m.
It doesn’t take me long to realize I don’t belong here. Normally, a wedding rehearsal is for the wedding party and the family to run through the ceremony so they don’t look like buffoons who accidentally stumbled through the back door and ended up at the altar in front of 250 guests.
But since I am neither family nor a member of the wedding party, I sit in the chairs and am an audience of one.
The wedding party trickles into the ballroom and scans the crowd for their clique like nervous high schoolers in a cafeteria. Still more than 48 hours before the main event and I’m already anticipating the dreadful exchanges of “how are yous” and “what’s news.”
As they wait to get the walking practice underway, everyone kind of mills around giving each other polite smiles of recognition like kids at a middle school dance. Most of them are looking for the bar, I think, but that might just be me.
The only group that’s seemingly unaffected by the strange dynamics of the room are the groomsmen, who burst through the door in a raucous pack and make a beeline for the balcony to smoke.
The thing that most strikes me is that every single one of them looks like Kevin: broad shoulders, ruddy faces, crew cuts. I can’t tell whether it’s because they’re actually related to Kevin, or if they’ve been friends for so long they’ve just kind of morphed into each other after spending decades drinking tequila and playing golf together.
It’s clear they want no part of this rehearsal and plan to be the guys who make jokes in the back until an authority figure grabs them by the ear and drags them into formation.
Fortunately, this happens to be Melinda’s forte, and she wrangles the goons off the balcony, smoke streaming into the ballroom.
Some of the bridesmaids are not so casual. One woman actually trembles as she walks up the aisle.
“It’s just so nerve-wracking,” she says to Melinda. “I mean, 250 people will be watching us, you know?”
Despite gentle encouragement from their mother, both the ring bearer and flower girl are uncooperative, offering a preview of meltdowns to come during the main event.
The groomsmen seem satisfied with their performance, but Melinda is not. She wants them to run the whole thing again just to be sure.
The party walks the aisles and gets the blocking right, and Melinda congratulates them on a job well done.
“Good job, fellas,” one of the groomsmen mocks. “I think we nailed that whole walking thing this time.”
THE REHEARSAL DINNER – Thursday, 8:30 p.m.
The tasks of walking and standing in a line sufficiently practiced, we load up for the real reason anybody showed up in the first place: the rehearsal dinner.
The restaurant we’re going to is located in a different state from the wedding venue, which might sound strange to people who live in places where you can drive for hours without crossing a county line. In DC, it’s not that weird. Jen and Kevin are getting married in Maryland, but dinner is across the Potomac River in Alexandria. To transport the party and discourage the groomsmen from driving home under the influence, Jen and Kevin purchased tickets on the Water Taxi, which runs across the river every couple of hours.
Logistically speaking, it would make way more sense for Melinda and me to drive. Weddings are not the occasion for logic, but I still spend the next 45 minutes waiting for the water taxi and obsessing over how we plan to retrieve our car.
We wait. And wait. The taxi is almost an hour late, and it feels like days.
Partially because I’m wearing a light sweater and the dock has suddenly been consumed by a polar vortex, but also because I’m now standing among all of these semi-strangers and there’s nothing to do but make small talk. My chest tightens.
I make some accidental eye contact with members of the wedding party, and I widen my eyes and raise my eyebrows and look away.
I’m being weird. I don’t want to be weird. Jen invited me to be a part of the rehearsal, she bought me a ticket on the water taxi and what I imagine will be a delicious dinner, and I don’t want to be a dick. I decide I need to break out of my gawky little bubble.
I sidle up to one of the groomsmen and his wife. While I’ve never met them before, I feel like it’s a good place to start. Initiating a dialogue with strangers is almost easier, because at least you’re on equal footing. You’re starting from square one.
“Man, it’s cold, huh?” I say to the wife, who is huddled under her husband’s sport coat. She nods and it gives me an opening to introduce myself and talk them up.
With my first conversation under my belt, I feel better about trying to mingle. It’s time to graduate to a more difficult target, someone I’ve met before.
The trouble is that now, I’m in this weird limbo where the opportunity for hellos have long since expired. It’s fine to greet people when they enter a room, but we’ve been standing in close proximity to each other for almost three hours without acknowledging each other.
Seriously, this is how my brain works. It’s fucking torture.
I bite the bullet and say hello to Jen’s brother, whom I’ve met on multiple occasions over the last decade. Most recently, I spent an entire day with him in Las Vegas a few years ago.
“What’s up dude?” I say. “How’s it going?”
He looks at me like I’m a fucking alien.
“I’m Sam?” I say, my confidence shrinking. “We hung out in Vegas that one time?”
“Oh, right, hey,” he says, and turns away to talk to his wife.
That was pretty much the end of me trying to be social. I spend the rest of the time waiting for the water taxi, shivering and avoiding eye contact.
When we finally get to the restaurant, I dispense with all manner of decorum and rush to the bar like George Constanza in a house fire.
I order a Bulleit bourbon, and I must look like I need one, because the bartender fills the rocks glass to the top like she’s pouring iced tea.
I check my watch. It’s 9:30, and I have to be at work in nine hours. I drop a ten in the tip jar and the Bulleit goes down the hatch.
I’m happy to report my anxiety and the chill from standing on the dock disappears within minutes. I sip bourbon and shovel hors d’oeuvres into my face like it’s my job.
Melinda and I end up sitting with Jen’s cousin Maggie and her husband Logan. Logan is from Scotland, and he speaks with the most delightful brogue. I spend the rest of the night talking to him and pretending a Scottish accent isn’t cool as fuck.
My tongue sufficiently loosened, I tell them my theory about how awkward weddings can be, and Maggie laughs.
“You think this is awkward? Let me tell you what happened at our wedding.”
Maggie and Logan share that they got married at an old theatre in Scotland. As is tradition, the men wore tartan kilts, and many of them chose to go commando under their skirts. Logan says this is pretty common, especially in the summer. But things got weird when Maggie and Logan stood before the priest to recite their vows and happened to look up into the balcony, where all of Logan’s extended family was seated. They were met with a generous view of the whole clan’s twigs and berries.
“It was pretty tough to get hugs from Great Uncle Caleb once I had to stare at his balls for half an hour,” Maggie says.
Okay, yeah, maybe my encounter with Jen’s brother wasn’t so bad after all.
I have to be honest, this is where things get a little fuzzy. My note-taking drops off significantly, and it’s difficult to piece together a sustained narrative. So I won’t try.
Here’s what I do remember:
– Jen and Kevin sit with us and we order dinner. I think I have some sort of Parmesan-crusted salmon, but cannot confirm.
– At one point, Kevin collars the waitress as she walks by.
“What’d that guy order?” he says, pointing to Wood, his best man.
The waitress looks at her order pad. “He got the steak, medium rare,” she says.
“Can you bring him a taco instead?”
She laughs, but Kevin’s chiseled face shows he is not joking. “Like, one taco?” she says. “Or a plate of tacos?”
I don’t know Kevin’s best man. We’ve been at dinner parties together a couple of times, and he’s a really nice guy. But the origins of his ethnicity have never come up. He has olive skin, and what I surmise COULD be a Hispanic complexion. Is the taco a racial joke? Does the guy really like tacos? I am certainly in no position to verbalize this question, but it is not the last ethically questionable decision of the wedding.
“Just one taco,” Kevin says. The waitress makes a note on her pad and heads into the kitchen.
I’d like to report Kevin’s gag went over well and Wood frowned with resigned surprise when he saw a taco on his plate instead of a steak, but I lost track of the thread, mostly due to the bartender’s six-finger pours of bourbon. I am usually a consummate professional, but the evening got away from me.
— When dinner is complete, some of the guests make speeches. Jen announces she is not good at expressing her feelings verbally, so instead she hands everyone a gift bag, which includes a Capitals hockey sweater with the couple’s new last name sewn on the back.
When the oohs and ahhs subside, Jen turns to Kevin and asks if he wants to say a few words.
“Yeah, I’ve got something to say,” he says as he climbs from his chair and raises a glass of tequila. “A toast!”
The room hoists their drinks.
“To virgins and lesbians, thanks for nothing!”
The groomsmen like this one, and they hoot and clap.
Kevin sits down, grinning, and Jen pats him on the back.
“Good speech, honey,” she says.
“Do I still get a blowjob on the way home?” he asks.
“I think that’s unfair,” Melinda says to Logan. “I’d argue some lesbians offer plenty of entertainment to straight men.”
Melinda and Logan debate the merits of lesbians and virgins’ contributions to society for a few minutes before I decide it’s time for us to depart.
I look at my watch in the Uber. Seven hours until I have to be at work.
“That was fun,” I say to Melinda. “I won’t think so in seven hours, but I want you to remind me in the morning that I said it was fun.”
“If you think that was fun,” she says, “wait until you see who the special guests will be at the wedding.”
“Special guests? Like, the Kardashians or something? Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer band?”
“No,” Melinda says. “The special guests are smaller than that.”
— to be continued —