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On an August morning in 1986, I stepped down the aisle to “Here Comes the Bride” and walked the plank. Instead of a sword against my back, prodding me to take the plunge, it was my father at my side, gripping my elbow as I clutched a bouquet of white roses, rouged cheeks pulled taut, a perma-smile tacked across my face.
A few hours earlier, I had performed cunnilingus on one of my bridesmaids, Cathy. On the eve of my wedding, she and I had spent the night in Great Neck, in the house where I’d grown up, sharing my girlhood bedroom decorated with 1970s yellow plastic furniture, A Chorus Line posters, and hand-painted ceramic cats. While Cathy was in a sleeping bag on the cherry-red shag carpeting, I tossed and turned in my bed. At dawn, I stripped naked, slid beside her, and parted the strawberry-blond-haired lips of her vagina. Lifting her head from her pillow, she looked at me lynx-eyed. “Better get it out of your system now,” she said, grinning.
That was my last gasp of freedom before taking my vows. I wasn’t a lesbian or bisexual—I preferred cock to cooch. I was simply experimenting. I didn’t know who I was, only that, as a twenty-five-year-old woman, I was just beginning to develop a taste for adventure. Trying out new opportunities and testing my limits. Now, with the arrival of The Big Day, I was supposed to gladly put that research and curiosity behind me. Instead, it felt like the start of a very long long prison sentence.
My mother stood at the end of the aisle under a white lattice canopy woven with pink gerberas and spider lilies. I could always count on her to save me, but not now. Today she was acting the Jewish ur-mother, eyes brimming, hand patting her fluttering heart. My two younger brothers, Warren, twenty-three, and Andrew, twenty-two, flanked her, looking uncomfortable, their rented black-and-gray morning suits stiff like plaster body casts. I had one more year of graduate school to go, not a bit too young to get married. My mother had told me the best time to find a man was in college. After that, a girl’s chances dried up. It didn’t matter that my mother also confessed she wished she hadn’t married so young, at twenty-three. A greater loss would be to pass up a young man like Charlie.
“We’re all smitten with him,” she said. “He’s real and he treats you well, better than all the others we’ve seen.”
My friends were more understanding about my reluctance. Andee, my best friend from Great Neck, was a photographer’s stylist who had gotten married two months before me and moved into a West Broadway loft with her new husband. All my life I envied her. We were the same age and had grown up a mile apart. While I had always been on the puny side, my grandmother called her “a tall drink of water.” By the time Andee was thirteen, she had nearly reached her full height of five foot ten, with legs so long they came up to my waist and a rack to rival a Playmate of the Year’s. After five minutes in the sun, her skin was as brown as a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic Oil. Honey blond and coy, she attracted a flock of boys who circled her like vultures. I, on the other hand—flat, freckled, and brunette—was told I talked too much.
Andee’s husband, Paul, was now in business school. At her bridal shower, she and I had sneaked into the bathroom so she could smoke a Marlboro Light. She plunked down on the edge of the bathtub, her head in her hands.
“I don’t want to get married,” she confessed. “That’s why I’ve been engaged for a year and a half. I’m, like, not ready. I was content with my life the way it was, working freelance, going from boyfriend to boyfriend, living in my own apartment on Grove Street. In my heart, I don’t want to do this, but I think I’m supposed to. My mother is, like, encouraging it. Paul is the most substantial guy I’ve met, and he loves me.”
Now I, too, was about to marry a decent Jewish guy with a promising future who also loved me. My mother was filled with pride, and, in anticipation of her day of glory as the mother-of-the-bride, had undergone a face-lift. She had also been on a starvation diet so she would fit into her new, size 6, Emanuel Ungaro raspberry silk dress, which revealed not only her nipped waistline but plenty of cleavage as well. I barely recognized her. Normally she dressed like a rumpled artist in a paint-splattered work shirt.
The groom’s parents stood glumly on the opposite side of the canopy. Charlie’s father was a Westchester accountant renowned for his ability to concoct tax shelters. He had socked away enough money to afford a new car every two years and provide his wife with a fur wardrobe—minks, foxes, and a spectacular chinchilla—as well as enough jewelry to make the windows of Fortunoff look as if they’d been looted. But the finery was just for show. At heart, Charlie’s parents were budget-minded and simple. Nothing made them happier than receiving a greeting card on Groundhog Day.
I got the sense that Charlie’s parents didn’t like me. Perhaps they thought I would pressure their son to provide me with a lifestyle beyond his means. His mother would look me up and down and I would imagine her thinking: Pretty fancy girl wearing Kenzo and not even out of grad school. It felt like a dig every time they ticked off their other daughter-in-law’s achievements: Law degree! Master’s in international relations! In-house counsel at a national shipping company! Stock options!
A wedding was supposed to be the happiest moment of a girl’s life, the day she dreams of since her first bridal Barbie. But that August morning, nothing was turning out right. The sky was a noxious shade of gray-green, and the clouds rumbled with thunder as an electrical storm brewed. A makeup artist caked my face with alabaster foundation, painted my lips crimson, and applied a thick coat of black liquid liner to my lids. I looked like a geisha.
In preparation for taking my vows, I had taken a squirt of Binaca peppermint breath spray but, because my hand was jittery, missed my mouth and instead spritzed my eyeball. My eye felt as if it had been doused with lighter fluid and started watering uncontrollably. My geisha face was now running down my neck. A blushing bride I was not.