Attending a wedding while your own marriage falls apart is one of the most emotionally conflicted experiences possible. Now imagine doing that every weekend.
It’s sophomore year of college and the air is full of possibility in Pittsburgh. I spent the summer healing from a breakup by stuffing whole muffins into my mouth at three a.m. and watching “Love Actually” on repeat. I’m ready for a fresh start.
I’ve arrived on campus with a head full of dreams and a notebook full of resolutions. I’m going to steer clear of the heartbreaking frat boy type who filled my foolish freshman year, and I’m going to embrace life. Live in the moment! Be spontaneous! Say yes! I’m wearing my first pair of expensive shoes, army green boxing kicks, and I feel like a fighter on my walk to class. On the sidewalk, I step on the chalked outline of an exclamation point. I moonwalk to read, “free bubble tea!” and immediately detour to follow a path of colorful chalk arrows. Yes!
The arrows bring me to the handsomest boy I’ve ever seen: tall, reserved, with hair like an anime character. He holds out a bubble tea, and I smile from ear to ear. He is not the heartbreaking type. He’s the caring, giving, love-you-till-you-die type. With truly great hair.
We will spend every day together. When he’s down, I’ll tirelessly work to make him smile. When I’m sick, he’ll make me honey-ginger water and watch “Love Actually” with me. He will ask me to marry him. I will say yes.
* * *
I adjust my lemon yellow dress and teeter through the church doors. I’m the first of five bridesmaids to go down the aisle, and I smile from ear to ear. I hope it will distract from the fact that I am not gifted at walking in heels. Behind my smile is a nagging question, and not just about whether or not I will face-plant before I reach the altar: I am also wondering if anyone sees my presence here as bad luck. I wonder if I do. I can’t help but feel that I have no business participating so intimately in the union of two people, when my own union is in the process of falling apart.
A month ago I hosted a bridal shower for today’s starry-eyed bride. It ended in a hurry, because my husband and I had to have a talk that day. He wanted to know if I was in love with someone else. The talk exploded into an outpouring of all the problems that had been quietly hiding in the past eight years of togetherness. After an emotional few hours, I decided it would be best for me to sleep elsewhere that night. I haphazardly packed a bag and went to stay in a nearby Marriott. I approached the hotel’s front desk still in my bridal shower hostess attire: black ballerina skirt, pink top, and pompadour up-do, mascara streaks running from eyelashes to collarbone. When they asked how many nights I planned to stay, the words “I don’t know” caught in my throat.
Walking with the other bridesmaids, I shake my head like an Etch A Sketch. I need to focus on the bride. The violinist switches from Bach to Pachelbel. All eyes to the back: My friend in blush pink gown and long veil steps carefully down the aisle, flushed cheeks and romance hair. At the altar, the groom’s eyes fill with nothing but his bride’s face. He looks like he can hardly keep still; I half expect him to leap out of place to accompany her and her father for the remainder of the processional.
I remember walking down a church aisle with my dad once too, towards the boy I had spent six years with, and with whom I expected to spend sixty more. “Something” by the Beatles was playing, and my groom made this cute face, a kind of exaggerated purse of the mouth that made his lips disappear. We laughed when we saw it in photos later. He said it was his way of trying not to cry. We called it his “Tria’s Walking Down the Aisle” Face, and made a Facebook album dedicated to imitating it all over the world. We hung a photo of it in the house we bought in Cupertino, our sunny, idyllic Northern California suburb, chock-full of bubble tea. The world seemed made for us.
That was just shy of two years ago. Now it’s another couple’s turn to exchange vows – the bride’s voice, even and sure, the groom choking up on “as long as we both shall live.” They are looking into each other’s eyes and seeing forever. They are making promises, harder to keep than they can possibly know. Promises that I haven’t been able to uphold. My heart is heavy with guilt, but today is not about me.
The rest of the day is a blur of smiling for photos, coordinating a grand entrance in which we do “the robot,” and small talking with strangers. At dinner, the seat next to me is empty. The catering staff must not have gotten the update that my plus-one is not coming. Sitting at a table of married couples, I try to appreciate the space for my purse that the empty chair provides. When it’s time for the couples dance, I sip my Coke like it’s a deadly serious task that requires all of my concentration. When it’s time for the bouquet toss, I slip away to the ladies room. All my single ladies are out on the dance floor trying to catch their chance at a wedding, and I wait it out on the ledge of a marble sink. When the DJ plays “Call Me, Maybe,” I dance and sing with a girlfriend maybe a little too loudly. At the end of the night, I toss those damn yellow heels into my minivan’s passenger seat, and manage to drive all the way back to my shabby apartment complex without shedding a tear. Once I pull into the dark parking lot, I let my heart flood with all the day’s images and the memories they bring up. The heaviness hits hard, and I gasp for air between sobs.
* * *
Word to the wise: It is probably best not to attend weddings when you are freshly separated from your spouse. It’s a heavy dose of dangerously mixed emotions. The problem is, wedding season is just beginning. And I am a wedding planner.
I had always wanted to start a business, and while planning my big day, I found that the wedding industry was full of inspiring female entrepreneurs. I wanted to hold onto the magic of my own matrimonial experience, so it made sense to grow my career in this rose-colored garden.
The most common sentence you’ll see on a wedding planner’s website is “I love love!” followed by a description of how on Sundays, she goes to the farmer’s market with her husband and they spend the evenings cuddled on the couch with their dogs Williams and Sonoma. When I first started my company, I was in this club. I loved love too! I did nothing but plan weddings and share dreams with my husband and our two cats. In initial meetings, potential clients connected with me because I had that newlywed glow. I was eager to swap engagement stories and date night ideas. I was relatable, a glimpse into their future. They would ask me:
“Are garter tosses considered tacky these days?”
And I’d say, “It’s really up to your personal preference.”
“Well, what did you do at your wedding?”
“No garter toss.” I’d say with a smile.
They’d nod knowingly and cross “garter toss” off their list of desired activities. I felt like a big sister, there to guide them and help them to have the perfect wedding and marriage that I had. But I don’t have it anymore, so I’ve had to change my approach. I still talk about love, but only theirs. They hire me to make their wedding sparkle, so I can’t be the one to mar their view of marriage. As far as they’re concerned, I have no personal life.
I have seen people, planners and divorcées alike, become bitter and jaded about weddings. I refuse to do that, but I do notice another feeling arise in me: concern. Some couples I worry about because I see similarities between their relationships and mine. Luke and Sarah (clients’ names have been changed to protect privacy) hold hands in meetings and always defer to each other in decisions.
“Oh I don’t have a preference if we do soup or salad for the first course. You choose babe!”
“No, it’s up to you! I think you’re more into food than I am.”
“Well, your parents are putting in more money. What would your mom like?”
I want to leap in and say, “You two are so sweet together, but don’t be afraid to voice your opinions to each other. You may end up repressing things and building resentment later! And don’t let your parents make all the decisions for you. You guys are adults, and starting a new family now…”
Instead I say, “Guests really appreciate something refreshing in the summer, so I think the salad would be a great choice. Unless your mom would be opposed.”
Other couples have more obvious cracks in their relationships. Claire and Pete sit snuggled up to each other in our first few meetings, elbows always overlapping. Pete stares at Claire like a star-struck fan. But they don’t agree on much during the planning process. They don’t really agree on anything. As time moves, the space between their chairs grows. By the time we have our last meeting, they are sitting on opposite sides of the table, Claire across from me and Pete to my left, looking more eagerly at his croissant than at his bride-to-be. We’re discussing the grand entrance, and Claire is insistent:
“The MC can introduce the bridal party to music, but no butt-wiggling! I want it to be classy.”
“What, why no wiggling? Don’t we want people to have fun?”
“One can have fun without wiggling, Peter.”
“Oh come on, Claire. It’s a party!”
Claire looks shocked at the misunderstanding, and says in horror,
“It is not a party. It is a performance!”
I want to slide the card of a great couples’ counselor I know between them, but instead I double-check the pronunciation of their bridal party’s names for the MC.
And some couples just seem too young. Alex and Alyssa are not yet twenty-five, and have known each other for less than a year. They are completely adorable, completely in love. And I am so worried for them. After what I’ve experienced, I don’t understand how it can be legal to get married under the age of thirty. The feeling of concern is mutual, as they don’t seem to understand how one can be unmarried and approaching thirty.
“Are you single?” they ask, almost in unison.
“Oh Alex! Don’t you think she’d like Ben? He is so sweet. He’s a firefighter.”
Alex nods with gusto, “He’s a great dude! We’ll introduce you at the wedding.”
Alyssa squeals, “Ahhh! You’ll be planning your own wedding someday! It’s going to be beautiful.”
I don’t have the heart to tell them that this day has come and gone. And yes, despite everything that has since happened, it was beautiful. After we were pronounced husband and wife, we ran so fast up the aisle, we almost missed the soft, clear notes ringing out from the front of the church. We turned to see our friends and family gathered.
Love, love, love…
All you need is love.
All you need is love.
All you need is love, love.
Love is all you need.
We clung to each other and couldn’t stop the tears. My heart was bursting. Our loved ones had put together this surprise straight from “Love Actually” — my favorite scene when Keira Knightley is wed to Chiwetel Ejiofor. This was my happily ever after. In that moment, we truly believed that all we needed was love. Love is all we need.
I don’t relate any of this to Alex & Alyssa of course. I don’t let on anything to any of my clients. Not until Christine.
* * *
I meet Christine for the first time at the Nespresso Boutique in Downtown San Francisco, a café as chic as she. We go through the usual opening questions. When I ask her about her vision for her wedding and how much planning she has done, it’s a blank canvas of an answer.
“Well we can brainstorm together to come up with something amazing! You only get married once…” I say, rather thoughtlessly, just because I’ve heard it so many times.
Christine pauses, and I can tell I’ve misstepped. “Ac—tually,” she stammers, “I did have another wedding. I think that’s part of why I’m feeling so overwhelmed by the planning of this one — I’ve done this before, so I don’t know if I even want a wedding. But I want him to experience it.”
“You haven’t done this before.” the words spill out of my mouth, “A wedding is a celebration of love and commitment between two specific people. Your relationship with him is unique and precious, and it deserves to be celebrated. You deserve to experience this joy just as much as he does. You deserve happiness, and a beautiful new start.” As I say this, I realize these are words I need to hear myself. You only get married once was part of my vernacular because I believed it. I had my chance, and I failed. I didn’t deserve happiness. Or so I subconsciously believed before talking to Christine. Hearing how she felt, I had an overwhelming desire for her to let herself be happy, to let herself feel like she could celebrate love. Upon expressing this to her, my own desire for happiness was reawakened too.
For the first time, I tell a client that I was married before. For the first time in a while, I feel like myself on the job. She hires me, and we plan her wedding together over the next year. It’s during this time that my husband and I finally crawl out of the limbo of separation. We meet at a park — a neutral place with no memories for us.
“So. Are we deciding to get a divorce?” he asks matter-of-factly, masking any emotion.
“Yes, I think so,” I say through tears, no mask at all.
The thing about parks is that they’re full of families. A little boy is playing nearby, galloping with stick in hand, like it’s the best day of his life. We watch him and hold hands one last time, trying to mentally let go of our kids we had already named, the kids whose little faces we had imagined whenever we saw baby pictures of each other. When we hug goodbye in the parking lot, neither of us wants to let go, because we know it might be our last embrace. He places his hand on the back of my head, his fingers in my hair, and I realize how safe it always made me feel. I don’t want to let go. I don’t want to be in this world alone. I don’t want to. We’re both crying, harder than when our families sang “All You Need Is Love.” Now I know that it’s not true. What you need is love and communication and honesty. You need the willingness to work through anything. We don’t have it. So we let go.
* * *
Christine’s wedding is the last of 2014. I always want my clients’ weddings to be perfect, but there is something a little extra to this one. It’s a union that stirs hope inside me once more. The day is gorgeous from start to finish, with the exception of one glitch. During dinner a guest taps me on the shoulder and points behind my head.
“Um, is Christine okay with this?”
I follow her finger to where we are projecting a soundless movie on the wall. Christine chose the film because it’s one of her favorites: “Love Actually.”
I guess we both haven’t seen it in a while, because we forgot that it’s peppered with comically graphic sex scenes. Currently playing is the awkward blowjob simulation scene, and I check in with her to see if we should turn it off. Eyes wide at first, she laughs, then waves her hand and says,
“Meh! It’s okay. If they don’t like it they can look away.”
The woman is my hero. Soft-core porn at her wedding be damned, this bride has some dancing to do. I see her grooving on the dance floor with her groom and guests, naked couple fumbling on the wall behind them. I see love, I see joy, and I see courage: courage to not care about what’s proper, and courage to believe in marriage, even though it has caused pain before. Throughout the past few months of planning together, I have seen Christine’s evolving approach demonstrate a sureness that only comes with knowing: Marriage is going to be hard. It’s also going to be beautiful and meaningful. I am ready.
Christine makes me want to be brave too. The feelings of guilt, concern, and confusion that have been sitting on my shoulders at weddings lately are falling away. I’m left with just this one that I can’t shake: the desire to say yes to life again.
I am a divorced wedding planner. And someday, I will plan my own wedding.
* * *
Danielle Chenette is an artist living in and working in Chicago, IL. More of her work can be found at daniellechenette.tumblr.com