Chunks of ice rode the whitecaps as the Nantucket ferry steamed out of the harbor in Woods Hole and into the Atlantic. The March wind had driven Isabel into the warmth of the cabin, while I remained perched on the ship's bow, my eyes watering from the cold, as I stared into the gray murk that I imagined to be our future. It was March 10, 1984, and Isabel and I were going to Nantucket to get married.
For some years afterward, Isabel claimed I hadn't really wanted to get married; I had only done it to provide her with a green card. A Chilean citizen, she had arrived in Boston with her daughter on Valentine's Day, which seemed appropriate.
But it wasn't true about not wanting to get married. I just didn't want to do it in the Watertown Town Hall in the presence of chirping clerks. We had loved each other deeply since first meeting in Iowa City more than five years earlier, but our intimacy had the complexity of any love that is deeply felt. At times it was like shared music, at times like a skin graft or a root canal, but we seemed unable to live without it, and that remains true to this day. So it wasn't correct about marrying her to get her a green card, or not quite. Anyway, this isn't about love, it's about a wedding, and tucked in my backpack, as I stared into the gray sky and gray Atlantic, were two long-stemmed glasses and a bottle of champagne.
Nantucket as a destination, when one has hardly 30 hours away from work, seemed potentially memorable. Buried in snow and 15 degrees, it would be blessedly free of the tourists who clogged its streets in summer. "An elbow of sand," it had been called by the Quaker whalers. Captain Ahab's hometown, Ishmael's departure point, and ours too, after a fashion. The only people I knew who had ever lived there were the writer Frank Conroy and his wife Maggie. So I had called them and Maggie gave me the name of Edward Anderson, minister of Nantucket's Unitarian Universalist Church, a high-spired white wooden building built in 1809.
I didn't remain outside for much of our two-hour journey, but the wind's confrontational nature was as purifying as a sweat lodge. Inside, Isabel was either reading or taking a nap, wearing, as she said later, "an awful red coat." I wore a thick, dark-gray overcoat my grandfather had bought in Utica around 1940. I was 43 and she was 34. Both of us had been married before. The ferry was nearly empty, and Isabel's plastic coffee cup slid back and forth on the table as the ship rolled from side to side.By the time the ferry docked that Saturday morning, the sun had come out. We found our bed-and-breakfast and then made our way to the church on Orange Street. Having been born in Orange, New Jersey, I found that significant. When you are getting married, even the tiniest things seem significant. The red brick buildings shone in the bright light, and the glare from the snow made my eyes ache. I imagined Captain Ahab negotiating these slippery slate sidewalks with his peg leg.
We had no guests at our wedding and no one to throw confetti. The Reverend Anderson was our only witness. He wasn't quite skeptical, but mildly interested. Isabel told him she was a biologist at Harvard Medical School, and I said I was a writer. Anderson asked what kind of writer. Instead of saying I wrote poetry, I said I had written some mystery novels. It seemed, I guess, more socially acceptable than poetry.
"I don't read mystery novels," said the Reverend Anderson.
The church was unheated in the winter, and Anderson said, if we preferred, we could be married in his office. We chose the church with its huge golden chandelier, 1837 Winchester pipe organ, and central interior dome. The rose-upholstered pews and rose carpet, the Steinway grand piano and Corinthian half-columns, the dark wood of the pulpit were all sufficiently remarkable to stick in our memory. Even the fact that it was freezing would stick in our memory. Sunlight streamed in from the tall, narrow windows. A photograph shows the two of us with red cheeks and red noses, our scarves nearly hiding our chins. I have absolutely no memory of what the minister said, except that his voice echoed in the great empty space. I held Isabel's hand. Her hand was cold. I kissed her. Her lips were cold, but only for a nanosecond.
Afterward Anderson asked if we would like to see the view from the tower, so we climbed up and up the wood stairs until we were higher than all the town. There was hardly room for three people. The space was a hexagon with six open windows through which the wind blew. We could see the ocean in all directions and beneath us this collection of antique buildings where the rich now lived. The elbow of sand seemed to rest upon the ocean like a single bubble in a glass of champagne, so fragile as to make all human endeavor, and proceedings as perilous as marriage, seem like the wildest hubris.
When I showed Isabel what I had written, she said, "You forgot the most important thing. He asked if we wanted to ring the bell. I was so embarrassed. It seemed an inappropriate time to ring a bell. We had to pull a heavy rope. You rang it and I rang it and you rang it again and again. I can't believe that you forgot about it."
"You're supposed to say if you liked it," I said.
"I liked the part about Captain Ahab," she said.
Leaving the church, we hurried back to the warmth of our bed-and-breakfast. We took off our clothes, got under the covers, and drank our champagne, trying not to spill. The bed had a thick down comforter. Isabel said it was the first time all day that she had been warm. Almost exactly nine months later our daughter Clio was born.