On a perfect Saturday in December, sometime in the late 1990s, as snowflakes began to form over Long Island Sound, she decided not to marry him.
Two hundred people sat in the church under soaring stained glass windows: family, friends, colleagues, bosses. Several very important people, even a semi-famous guest or two, all waiting for her to walk down the aisle. She stood in the back of the church, and her father looked at her and said, “You know, you don’t have to do this.”
From below the veil she looked up, shocked.
She thought of Ted, her fiancé, standing up on the altar waiting for her, probably joking about her being late. She knew he would poke fun at her for the rest of her life for being late for her own wedding, sharing the story with strangers on the Metro North train platform, and making people laugh about it at cocktail parties. She knew he would repeat it over and over again to the same people, and that they would smile uncomfortably and refuse to make eye contact with her. Embarrassed for her.
“Are you sure?” she said slowly.
Last night her older brother called her at 4 in the morning. She picked up the phone immediately – after living with Ted for a year during their engagement, she had grown hyper vigilant. Always thinking this phone call would mark the time that the sky would fall.
“Is Ted with you?” her brother asked.
“No,” she said, “of course not. It’s the night before the wedding. I thought he was with you.”
There was a long pause. “Okay, we’ll track him down, go back to sleep. Please don’t worry,” her brother told her, and she heard herself laugh oddly. Ted’s frequent and mysterious disappearances had turned her into a wreck. Though he always had an excuse, she knew in her gut that something was very wrong. When she asked too many questions, he got angry.
“Why are you so obsessed with where I am all the time?” he asked her, his voice rising. “Can’t you understand that I’m working my ass off to make more money so that we can buy a house and start a family? Isn’t that what you want?”
Isn’t that what you want?
After these episodes she finds herself apologizing to Ted. She is overreacting. No, of course she trusts him. No, of course she wants to start a family someday.
Now she starts apologizing to her brother, who cuts her off gently. He tells her he will call as soon as they found Ted, and she knows she won’t be hearing from him for a long time.
And indeed she didn’t hear another word, which meant that Ted finally showed up at some very late point, probably an hour or two before the wedding began.
Now, standing in the back of the church with her father, 200 people waiting for her to walk down the aisle, she considers all of this, and all she really wants to do is go back home, to her childhood home, and pull her old paisley comforter over her head and sleep.
“Okay,” she says to her dad.
“Okay, I’m done, I don’t want to get married.” And she starts sobbing.
Her father doesn’t skip a beat. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” he said. “Listen, thank god you didn’t go through with it. Where the hell is your mother?” He peeks into the church, all action now. “You need to talk to her; she’s going to be so relieved.”
And so she realizes that she wasn’t the only one who suspects her husband of terrible things. She wondered what her father knows, and oh my god what her mother was going to tell her, and she feels shame flush through her bridal gown, her dream dress, the dress she used to sketch in notebooks as a child.
“What about all those people?” she asks.
Her dad shrugs his shoulders. “Listen, you made your decision. Never look back. It’s done, and it was the right decision” he tells her, turning already to find the priest. She feels like she’s floating for a moment: she is walking out on her own wedding. Seemingly from out of nowhere, a bridesmaid appears and leads her by the hand back to the car. She is going home.
She often thought of that day, even now, so many years later. When the sky was just right, so crisp and cold and filled with possibility, hours before the first snow of each year, she remembered: The white dress, the tulips, the little twinkling trees she chose for each table at the club. The fear, the walking on eggshells. The denial.
She was so young back then.
Walking away was the beginning of a new life for her. She wrote an essay about it, which a friend suggested she submit to a big magazine. Surprisingly it was accepted, and she began her life as a struggling writer. She went on to publish several modestly successful novels, all with strong feminist slants. She felt proud of them, and occasionally someone recognized her on the street and came up to tell her how much they loved her writing. She taught as an adjunct professor of creative writing at Columbia, and her students seemed to enjoy her classes. Plus it helped pay the bills.
She did go on to marry, but too late in life to have children. No little freckled bundles of joy for her. But she was a newlywed at 42 and married to a solid, decent man, a midwestern transplant to Manhattan who loved reading and cooking and routines. He was a professor of economics, and he liked to make numbers add up – it was his way of making sense of the world.
They rarely left the city except for vacations. It had everything they needed. No Volvo SUVs for them. No car at all, in fact. They walked everywhere, hand in hand, through the city in the mornings to get their lattes, and in the evenings after dinner in their favorite Italian restaurant in NoHo. Groceries were delivered; when she needed a skirt or scarf or whatever, it was always just a few blocks away. In the greatest city of the world, you could be part of anything you wanted at virtually any given time, but you could also insulate yourself and just be together as if you were on a desert island. It suited them both, and they were happy.
She was the only one of her high school friends who didn’t marry by 30 and have children. After a few glasses of wine one night, a bridesmaid from her almost-wedding once asked her if she ever felt selfish. “I mean, everything you do is for yourselves,” she slurred. “You never have to sit through those endless Little League baseball games, never have to stay up all night helping a vomiting kid – I mean you don’t even have to cook dinner for anyone but yourselves.” When she got no response, the old friend said, “But of course, you never get all the rewards and love of children. I wouldn’t give that up for the world.”
They lost track of each other after that, except for the big, bright Christmas cards, covered with photos of the bridesmaid’s four children, that arrived annually from Greenwich, CT.
Occasionally she heard updates about the man she almost married. He had a bright and shining career, marrying an heiress from Rye, New York. Two gorgeous children, but the marriage lasted only four years. She heard from her parents that he later lost a job. And perhaps another one. One of her sisters ran into him and his second wife one day on the Metroliner to Washington, DC. He told her that he had his own start-up; it just received millions and millions from angel investors. He was excited and very loud, looking around to see if anyone was listening to his story. His wife, plain and hostile, ignored him and sat silently, looking out the window at the walls of the Penn Station tunnel as the train picked up speed and her husband talked louder and faster.
She had forgiven him through the years, and she never did figure out his secrets. She was encouraged a long time ago by a series of therapists to stop focusing on him, and she finally did. But we live in a small world, and it was inevitable that she would eventually run into him again. It happened in Manhattan, in one of her favorite places: Battery Park in the early morning. She sits on a bench, while her husband goes for a jog. She watches the Hudson River whitecaps, takes notes for her latest novel, and wonders if she smells the possibility of snow in the air. And then she spots something familiar in the distance.
She studies him coming closer. His gait, so distinctive. He has thickened through the years. He’s overweight, she realizes in surprise. And balding. Disheveled, even. In her head, he has always remained 28, handsome, charming, cocky.
“Ted,” she calls out. He looks and then hesitates. He comes closer, and she suddenly knows that something is wrong. And then she smells the alcohol even though it’s 9 a.m.
“Well,” he says, grinning, and she sees his teeth, yellow and crooked. Where they always like that? “Well, it’s you. After so many years.”
“I’m getting married,” he says. “To wife number three. We’re getting married in Turkey – pretty cool, huh? I’m doing a lot of international work these days.”
“That sounds exciting,” she tells him. He sits down and begins to talk.
She learns that things didn’t work out with his first wife because she was spoiled, and that his second wife became a radically different person after marriage. He mentions meetings with presidents and heads of state, and drinking with Secret Service agents, and going on vacations with famous CEOs. He does not ask her about herself. It is a relief. As he talks, the river suddenly gets choppier, the sky whitens over New York Harbor.
When she finally sees her husband jogging towards her in the distance, nerdy and reliable, she nearly jumps up in relief.
“I have to go now,” she says.
He laughs. “You were always an odd duck.”
“Yes, I suppose I am,” she replies. She walks away from him again, towards the good man jogging along the water battering the edge of Manhattan. And the snow begins to fall.
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