Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 5.8]

That summer I passed my quals and got engaged, both with little fanfare. Passing my quals was simply a huge relief and getting engaged seemed like the natural thing to do. Chris had moved in to save on rent and he’d become a part of my “every day.” Chris and I shared a passion for music, for sure, but honestly not for each other. I rationalized that this was probably precisely the type of person I should marry—someone reliable, stable, loyal, calm, ego-less, sane—someone who would never hurt me. Someone anti-dramatic. I wanted to break my pattern, the one that kept leaving me heartbroken in the end.

I can’t remember exactly how the marriage proposal went down. I may have mentioned I wanted to begin job hunting soon while I was still working on my dissertation. If we were going to have a future, it felt only fair that Chris had some say in the matter. He was one year behind me, and it seemed sensible that we should bind ourselves together in marriage before I left to ensure we made it through the next year or two apart. He agreed that sounded reasonable. We planned to get married in the courthouse before the summer was up and I thought it would be a good idea to travel abroad one more time while we both had the chance.

I planned a month long back-packing trip for the both of us through Western Europe. Our route took us from Paris, through Brussels, Amsterdam, Cinque Terre, Salzburg, and Barcelona. It was quickly apparent that Chris and I were not good travelling companions. I didn’t have a lot of the logistical details worked out in advance, which really stressed Chris out. And in fairness, at times it was stressful to be lost and unable to communicate for food or figure out the train schedule. I think Chris wanted to take control but didn’t know how, so he sat there helpless and left it all up to me. I began to feel frustrated having to carry the entire load. We had a thousand mini-fights what seemed like every step of the way. I never once felt that dreaminess or elation I’d felt when I travelled alone.

And, about mid-way through our trip, I broke down and told Chris that I didn’t think we were right for each other and shouldn’t get married. I really tried to get him to see we should end it. For a few moments, I felt so close to freedom and knew I needed it or I’d die, but then Chris so innocently and uncomplicatedly professed his love for me and stated with such certainty that he knew we belonged together, that I questioned my own certainty and went back to the thought that our only problem, as usual, was in my own overly-complicated head. I re-convinced myself that Chris was good for me and that I would be a fool to turn down someone willing to love me unconditionally. I also realized that I didn’t have the strength to end it myself; I couldn’t fathom breaking his heart. So, the conversation ended in the same place it started, although we both agreed to cut our vacation short and return to America a week early.

When we returned and my mom found out we were planning to get married in the courthouse, she asked if we would consider letting her plan a small wedding with family and close friends in my home town. Not having any close friends from high school, I knew my mom really meant her close friends. I tried to nicely tell her we didn’t want any attention over this, but I could tell something deeper was driving her. It clearly meant more to her than to me, so I reluctantly told her she could plan something and insisted on a budget of $2,000 or less. She promised, so I left all the details up to her—all of them.

Almost every day, she’d call with her ideas and I would agree to them affably. She chose lavender and cream for the colors. She decided to rent a banquet hall at a military base nearby; she had beers regularly with the guy who managed it, and he gave her the place and his catering services for a steal. Mom picked the menu. My stepdad had a friend who agreed to DJ the reception for free. Mom contacted Aunt Ellen, who now worked in a Christian flower shop, to make my bouquet. My cousin Toby’s wife was known for baking elaborate cakes shaped like Elmo or vehicles for kid’s birthday parties, so she agreed to make the wedding cake at cost. Another good friend of Mom’s was a judge, so he would perform the ceremony. My step-grandma played the organ for her church, so Mom asked her to play the wedding march. Another aunt was pretty good with a camera, so she took pictures for us. A good friend of my mom’s from the bar said she would bartend pro bono.

Since Mom owned her own trophy-engraving business and did the all the designing and specialized engraving herself, she came up with an idea to cut up pieces of cream plastic into the size of a small card, then engrave the invitation right on it in purple ink. She stuck a magnet on the back of each one so people could “stick it right on their refrigerators.”

I was very impressed with Mom’s ability to pull this all together so frugally. She was beyond excited about it, too. One day she called in a little frenzy and said she had a really big surprise for me.

“I ran into Larry at the bar Saturday night and told him about your wedding and get this—he has a prom-decorating business on the side and is going to loan us one of his twelve-foot wire hearts, covered in lights and red balloons…and it blinks! Won’t that make the perfect backdrop?”

For the first time in the wedding planning process, I was speechless. There was no way I could squash her enthusiasm, but I visualized myself and Chris standing in front of it, completely mortified. I had to reconcile this tacky heart thing quietly to myself, and very quickly. I knew we would have to use the heart, but maybe we could modify it somehow. My left brain kicked in and said, “Mom, that’s so great. You know what would be even cooler? If we could paint it cream and decorate it with purple and white balloons!” At least it could be played down a little.

At some point during all this, I realized Chris and I should probably get some wedding rings. We hit the mall and I was instantly overwhelmed. I had no idea how many variations there were on the diamond ring. They looked bizarre on my hand and seemed either over-the-top and cruise-shippy or like cheap tin. We were about to give up when a beautiful ring—not in the diamond case—caught my eye. It was split down the middle by a little gold bar and had a red garnet on the left and a yellow topaz on the right. Chris saw it at the same time and I said, “I wish they made one of those with both our birthstones in it.” I didn’t know what Chris’ birthstone was, and he didn’t know mine.

We were both surprised to discover that HIS birthstone was garnet and MINE was yellow topaz. The lady behind the counter said that the ring company made this ring style only once a year and that each year they combined two different stones. This year’s combo happened to be ours together. I thought this was a marvelous coincidence and told Chris it was perfect. We bought the ring for $385.

The traditions of weddings had completely escaped me growing up, and fussing over such details now seemed a tad silly to me, a little superstitious, and trivial. Some seemed altogether unnecessary. It was all I could do to get myself to look for a wedding dress. I had no clue what would look good on me or what the latest wedding styles were. I found a used dress shop near campus and quickly picked out a cute, plain, white, traditional-looking silk dress with some beading around the bodice. The shop owner told me it had never been worn. A girl’s mom made it for her and then the wedding was called off. It fit almost perfectly; it just needed to be let out a bit around the top. I bought it for $200, along with a simple veil the store owner recommended. I needed shoes, but I still had time for those. I fully intended to skip the “something borrowed, something blue” requirement until my grandmother found out at the rehearsal dinner that I didn’t have either.

Mom was my maid of honor and Chris’ dad, Greg, flew in from Arizona to be his best man. I’d never met Greg, but I noticed his overbearing nature right away. His energy dwarfed everyone else’s in the room. The first night, the night of the rehearsal, Greg came off very entertaining and gracious. But by the day of the wedding, I noticed Greg always placed himself at the center of everything. He directly questioned why we weren’t getting married in a church, and when I told him I was agnostic, he scoffed his disapproval, collected himself, and said pointedly, “You’re at least having a prayer at the wedding, right?”

“Well, no. Actually, we hadn’t planned on it,” I said.

I hadn’t said a prayer in twenty years, nor attended a church. Even if there was a god, what right did I have to ask him to bless our wedding now? It felt very hypocritical to me. But, the truth was, like the other details of the wedding, I hadn’t even thought of it. A judge was marrying us and I had no idea what the vows would be like. I’d just told him to keep them as simple—and as minimalistic—as legally possible.

Not wanting to completely ruin the experience for Chris’ dad, I convened with my mom and had her check with the judge about a prayer. I told her to have him throw in a small one, if there wasn’t one in there already. It really didn’t mean a thing to me. I figured if I could embrace the purple flashing balloon heart for my mother, I might as well embrace a prayer for Chris’ father.

Despite my self-consciousness about being the center of attention, I tried to get Zen about the whole thing. After the five-minute ceremony, the DJ cornered me and asked me what song we wanted for our first dance as a married couple. Aw hell—I had no idea. “What are you playing at other weddings these days?” I asked. He said the name of something by Brandy. I cringed and said, “Go back about ten years. What were you playing then?” He mentioned something by Lionel Ritchie. That had to be better, right? So, that’s what he played. After the first dance, someone handed me a carafe of frozen Blue Curacao margaritas, my favorite, which I finished out on the dance floor.

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