For a very private person, weddings feel like a lavish exercise in voyeurism. When else in your relationship will its terms be laid so bare?
He's come a long way from almost falling into Nan's open grave, I thought as I watched my cousin and his new wife, both Ph.D. students in their mid-30s, do the Twist out on the dance floor. I had never met the woman in question before, but as soon as I saw her sensible shoes, vintage dress, and mane of flyaway hair, I couldn't imagine my cousin with anyone else. This made me smile. But it wasn't their wedding I was attending. They were merely guests (or hostages, I came to think, uncharitably, as the night wore on) at this one, just as I was. Neither of them, though, were swaddled in brown bridesmaid taffeta or resplendent with a feather headpiece that was less Kate Middleton and more vaguely depressed saloon girl.
I've always assumed I would get married, but I have never fantasized about my wedding day. Never played "Here comes the bride" with my Barbies. Never thought about flowers, dresses, who I'd have as bridesmaids -- none of it. My mother has steadfastly believed that I will come around on the wedding front. I tell her she won't see me in a wedding gown; she suggests a nice skirt or perhaps a pantsuit. I tell her that I can't bear the idea of standing in front of dozens of people; she proposes limiting the event to immediate family only. I tell her I will never, ever walk down any aisle -- ever. She sighs and begs me to at least spare her the shock of showing up one Christmas with a hitherto unmentioned husband and two small children in tow, and, if I must elope to Vegas, at least opt for one of the classier drive-thru chapels.
There are many reasons to oppose wedding culture -- marriage inequality, the patriarchal undertones of being "given away," the pop cultural Bridezilla meme, the fact that the average cost of one could cover the down payment for a house -- and while I subscribe to all of them, it wasn't until the most recent wedding I attended, that of my sister, that I was finally able to pinpoint what was at the root of my discomfort with this most joyous of occasions. And it had nothing to do with an aversion to lace.
In fact, it's the intimacy of it that I find so unsettling. For a very private person, weddings feel like a lavish exercise in voyeurism. Think about it. When else in your relationship -- unless you're the type of couple to engage in accusatory screaming matches in the cereal aisle of Whole Foods -- will its terms and conditions be laid so bare? Making out on a park bench is nothing compared to promising in front of an audience of people to love, honor, and cherish someone, to be faithful to them, to stick by them even if they get sick or until one of you dies. Weddings publicly codify the private agreements (spoken or otherwise) that underpin your partnership, and they do it in front of your Great Aunt Ruth and your father's boss. And they all know that when the whole event is over, you and the person you promised to forsake all others for will most assuredly be having sex.
The guests don't get off any easier. It's one thing when a wedding involves strangers on the big screen who are, or seem to be, simply going through the exercise for our entertainment, but it's quite another when you see the spectacle scaled down to your own family and friends. You know these people at their Cheeto-eating, hangover-having, awkward adolescence worst and now they appear before you transformed, no longer Emily and Jeff or Katie and Greg. They're the Bride and Groom. This is their Special Day. And you're a part of it. And if you're a part of it, you might as well go all in, right?
And that's where things get interesting. As an amateur Margaret Mead, it's the point at which guests give themselves over to the esprit de wedding that's much more compelling than the whole with-this-ring pomp and circumstance to me. Forget about the bride and groom. All the good stuff happens after the receiving line, when people finally let their hair down.
There's something about public sentimentality, alcohol, and the Chicken Dance that proves to be an irresistibly potent combination for wedding guests. You reach a certain bleary point in the evening, after the heartfelt toasts, after the cake-cutting, after the first dance to that song from Armageddon, when people drop their guards. Requesting the Spice Girls and hitting the floor with the bride's octogenarian uncle seems like a pretty good plan. And really, would it be so bad to catch the bouquet? Wait, is that your father doing shots with the best man?
These vignettes are removed from the formality, from the expectation, from the social prescriptions and cultural tropes that determine what a wedding should be. These moments are not subject to the dictates of a wedding planner, an overzealous mother-in-law or the happy couple themselves. These are the unscripted and spontaneous responses to what happens when we agree to get dressed up, assemble in a specific place at a predetermined time in order to be spectators in a centuries-old tableau, and then expect to be rewarded for our time and attention with free alcohol and a handful of Jordan almonds wrapped in tulle. These are the parts that touch my emotions and spark my own longing more than Canon in D Major ever could.
And this is how I came to be observing my cousin and his wife twisting the night away and stealing a kiss as if no one was watching. Maybe no one other than me was. Maybe no one else cared about small-r romance. Maybe no one else felt uncomfortable with the publification of private sentiment that a traditional wedding represents. Maybe everyone else felt as if they were sharing in my sister and new brother-in-law's happiness and not somehow intruding on it.
Maybe other people don't think so much.
I used to worry that my discomfort at weddings meant that I was a misanthrope or lacking the distinctly feminine gene that makes centerpieces and pew markers appealing. I feel relieved to realize that it's just pre-planned public displays of emotion (funerals excepted) that give me hives. Possibly Jordan almonds, too. I'm as pro-love as the next person; I just prefer to keep the details under wraps. My anthropological dissection of your big day doesn't mean I won't still buy you something nice from your registry, though. And of course, I wish you all the happiness in the world, and, as a bonus, a lifetime of closed doors behind which to celebrate it properly and away from prying eyes.
Image: REUTERS/Natallia Ablazhei.