I was sitting on my bed at the Paramount Hotel in Manhattan on the night he asked me to marry him. Complicated and addled New York woman sitting in a complicated, addled New York hotel, ice available whenever needed or appropriate, is as usual talking on the phone, Vogue on lap, when his words etched the air.
“Cynthia, if you do not materialize in the next 15 seconds, I am going to have an emotional collapse in front of a man wearing the world's largest toupee."
“Will you marry me?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered without hesitation.
There were clues. The five-hour phone conversations. The crucial and palpable need to call him during a family wedding to say, “You’re not going to believe this, but there are rich people in Scottsdale who don’t like Jews.” The odd coincidences that we won’t go into. The way my insides would puddle when I read anything he wrote.
But it took us so long to meet. I had been looking at my watch, humming and tapping my foot for an entire decade. There were two Mr. Wrongs in quick succession. I had given up. I knew he was the right one, but I didn’t want to meet him because he would be the wrong one. We would look at each other and say, “And who are you?” All that writing, all that talking, and we would look at each other and say, “Heh-heh, gotta go, left the iron on, let’s have lunch maybe never.” But I finally said I would meet him at a bookstore in Long Beach, two pals going book shopping, and I pulled into the parking lot and there he was, one look and I was fucking dead. I was dead fucked. I knew it and I didn’t care.
And it was hours, agonizing hours later when he spilled two quarts of iced coffee on me and I knew, I just knew he wanted to grab me by the hair. And pull.
By the end of the evening we were finishing each other’s sentences. By the end of a week we were on a runaway train slamming blindly through stations at a hundred miles an hour. Then I had to go to New York, and the chic metallic Philippe Starck chairs at the Paramount came to life to try to dash cold water on my heat, my heart. But I said yes to him without hesitation.
Those passengers waiting on the platform for the train, arms akimbo, mouths agape, started yelling, “Wait! Stop! Are you crazy?”
S. said, “I don’t want you to have a boyfriend. I want you to be always available to me.”
L. said, “Oh please, you’re being just so ridiculous. You don’t know what you’re doing.”
B. said, “I am so jealous, what about me? Will I be the last one alone?”
K. said, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!”
I watched their mouths move as I sped past them.
I remembered M., whom N. wanted to marry. But M. was frightened.
“Do you love her?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“What’s stopping you?”
“I’m afraid, it’s such a big step.”
“M.,” I said with the singular conviction of the single, “you have one life. This is the whole deal. You have to jump in it. Go ahead, both feet. Waiting and watching on the sidelines is for suckers and yellow-bellied fools.”
The next day my friend Lily, who had just got a life-changing job, and I ran amok. We bought rings and dresses and ate mashed potatoes at the Royalton and sped through Manhattan with the arrogance of the Chosen. The streets were hot and thick with complicity, urging us on.
I flew home. At the airport he was waiting with a dozen red roses and a blue box from Tiffany. He led me to a chair. I stumbled and stared into my lap. I opened the box and found an engagement ring. He got down on his knees.
“Will you marry me?” he asked again. “Yes,” I answered, and he slipped the ring on my finger.
Later he said, “I want to get married very, very, very soon.”
“Wait at least six months,” said my shrink. “Okay,” I said.
“No, wait at least a year,” said my son. “Okay,” I said.
Then one night, quite suddenly, the love of my life and I got into the car with a Thermos of coffee, a loaf of sourdough bread, and a small dog and headed north on Interstate 15 toward Las Vegas.
Bad Mexican food changed my life. I hadn't gone to Long Beach hoping to fall in love. When we met in the bookstore parking lot, what my wife-to-be had on her hands was a sweat-stained, disheveled, no-longer-young man whose pants were too tight at the waist. I was certain of only one thing: I was aroused by the sound of her voice.
But when I first saw her, watched her hop from her car rosy-cheeked and merry, I thought to myself, “You might very possibly be able to love this woman forever."
And then she started to make me laugh. Laugh hard. Dry quips, witty asides, wry anecdotes about life's little horrors. While we prowled the bookstore, so much humor poured out of her — not all of it gentle, some of it sharp — my heart began to beat differently. I felt a kind of excitement I hadn't known before. Still, I didn't know that she'd ever want me.
I knew I wanted to kiss her. I wanted to kiss her in the bookstore, and I wanted to kiss her after I spilled iced coffee all over her, and I wanted to kiss her in the awful Mexican restaurant where we ate just before it was time for her to leave.
It was the worst Mexican food we'd ever eaten, but we both pretended it didn't matter. And at one point during our meal, I looked at my wife-to-be and she had a tortilla crumb stuck to her chin. And that small crumb—its sweetness? Her vulnerability? Who knows? These things are essentially mysterious —did something to me. I was in love. I thought, “You will marry this woman."
We walked to her car. We dawdled. We cracked jokes. She turned to leave. I grabbed her wrist. I said aloud, “Come here. I want to kiss you." And I did.
We parted. She seemed distraught. I drove home to San Diego as fast as I could and called her immediately.
“I want to come up and spend a few days with you," I said.
“That sounds like a good idea," she said.
“I'm not looking to get laid," I said.
“Okay," she said.
We both knew I was lying.
I don't remember everything that happened. I do remember waking up at 5:00 a.m. in her bed in Los Angeles, the house around us quiet, and feeling that I was falling very far, very quickly. I grabbed her sleeping body and held tight. I knew I had to marry her. And I knew I had to act fast.
The next morning I drove her to LAX, dropped her off curbside. Cars behind us honked and honked while we kissed good-bye. She was going to New York. I was afraid I would lose her to the Big City.
When I got back to San Diego, I lay on my bed for what seemed like forever. I still smelled of her— my hands, my arms, my clothes. I was miserable. I had to know if she loved me as much as I loved her. I reached for the phone and called her hotel in New York.
Sally sat on my lap, 9.8 pounds of doggie-love concentrate. My future groom drove us to Nevada.
We passed through odd L.A. suburbs — Ontario, Pomona, San Bernardino—and hit the stone strange Mojave. We drove all night, straight for Las Vegas, ignoring the stars while I looked for the glint of coyote eyes.
What would my son think? How would I tell my shrink? My bladder began to chatter. I asked my intended to pull over by an abandoned gas station and got out and peed on a flat rock. Clouds of steam and dust rose up. A big black dog drowsed a few yards away, but just this one time I didn’t say hello.
We hit Nevada at dawn. Right at the border is a piss-fuck ugly hotel-casino called, with charming insouciance, Whiskey Pete’s.
“This is only a harbinger,” I told my dream man.
We pulled into Las Vegas at 6:30 a.m. My bride-to-be was in a fugue state. There were homeless people screaming and darting into traffic for insurance money. There were dog hairs on our coffee cups. My bride-to-be was dressed in black linen, and there were copious dog hairs on her too.
Whenever I asked her why she looked so nervous, she'd scream, “I'm not nervous! Why are you saying that? I am absolutely not one tiny bit nervous!"
My mouth tasted of cigars and cold coffee and I needed to go to the bathroom very badly.
My groom was stunned by Vegas, so I took matters in hand and called my friend Ed, who stays often at the Tam-O’-Shanter motel, which of course has a revolving tam-o’-shanter careening on its roof. Ed told me the only person to marry us should be Charlotte Richards, wedding queen of Vegas. “You’ll know the place,” he said. “It’s the only one with a drive-through chapel.”
At the wedding chapel, a fat New Orleans man was being cagey about Charlotte’s whereabouts. He probably wanted us to slip him a hundred bucks. He did allow that Charlotte would be there at 4:00 p.m. I wanted to wait. My groom-to-be disagreed.
I can definitely locate our personal Hour Farthest from God as being on the AstroTurf patio of the Little Chapel of the Bells. Cynthia had been expressing what I considered an eccentric fascination with the elusive Charlotte Richards. I dragged her out onto the patio for a chat. It was very hot. There were homeless people on the sidewalk screaming and urinating on themselves and pestering us for cigarettes. The dog was panting. I knew I had to act fast.
I sat Cynthia down on a pathetic little bench. There were weird mist-making tubes strung through the tree branches above our heads. The lenses of our glasses were covered with mist. We couldn't see each other too well. The dog was looking sort of peaked.
“Look," I said, “we can wait here until Charlotte Richards either does or does not show up at 4:00 this afternoon. But it's 7:30 and the dog could die of heat stroke. Or we could go right now to the Clark County courthouse, get a license, and be married by 8:30."
I got down onto my knees on the dirty AstroTurf. I spread my arms wide and pled, “Don't do it for me, Cynthia. My God, do it for humanity." Plus I had to go to the bathroom very badly.
At the Clark County courthouse people were checking their guns as they went through the metal detectors. We filled out marriage applications in pencil. I gave myself a new middle initial, what the hell. We didn’t have to show driver’s licenses or anything. At all.
The block walk to the marriage commissioner was a Bataan Death March, Jr. It was 107 degrees. Sally trotted hazily.
The marriage commissioner was a fat man who was enveloped in a cloud of Aqua Velva. His toupee was as big as the Ritz. “Wait right here,” he said to us, and went to round up a witness.
I left the office, and Sally and I went to the ladies’ room. I wanted to wash my face, have a drink. I wanted to think.
I stood in the ladies’ room with the faucet running, splashing my face while Sally danced around my ankles. I thought of the Mudd Club. I thought of doing so many drugs one night that a friend wanted to drink my urine. I thought of the smell of Lester Bangs’s coat the last time I hugged him. I thought of Saban and Musto and Peacock and the Odeon and a specific anxiety attack I call the blancmange. I thought of exactly where you can get a cab in Chelsea at 5:30 p.m.
I don’t know what my betrothed was thinking.
I definitely wasn't thinking about urine. I was thinking, “WARNING! DO NOT TIP MARRIAGE COMMISSIONER! IT IS AGAINST NEVADA STATE LAW NUMBER 1007923 TO TIP THE MARRIAGE COMMISSIONER!" because there were dozens of biohazard yellow signs emblazoned with those approximate words all over the marriage commissioner's office.
I was also thinking that the marriage commissioner's toupee was a new and very real threat to my potential marriage because the marriage commissioner's toupee was so large that it seemed to be levitating three inches above his scalp, and a levitating toupee seemed like just the sort of thing that could jolt a skittish and fashion-conscious bride-to-be into a neurological seizure And speaking of neurological seizures, I was also thinking “Why the hell is Cynthia taking so long? And just what did she mean by 'freshen up,' anyway? Is freshen up some kind of code for 'Sorry, fruitcake. I'm dashing back to the parking garage for my car. I mean, seriously. Me? Married?'"
I plucked white dog hair off my black linen shirt as I lost myself in memories of sitting in countless coffee shops on countless Manhattan corners drinking endless cups of coffee with girlfriends endlessly discussing men and how fucked up they were and what did it mean when they said, “I’ll call you Thursday.” And how we reassured each other that of course it was the men, of course there was nothing wrong with us, but inside the voice of sabotage was keening, “You are so fat and you are stupid and you’re not supposed to smell like that and who are you kidding with that hair and those neurotic thoughts and that hellish neediness and that desperation and that huge butt? Do you really think black lipstick is going to help?”
But we were stouthearted with each other, bolstering each other against disappointment and confusion, drinking coffee, drinking more coffee, discussing, discussing. Never realizing that there was nothing wrong with us, that it was, more often than not, the men.
And I thought, “Me, married?"
And I, her bathed-in-nervous-sweat intended, thought, “Cynthia, if you do not materialize in the next 15 seconds, I am going to have an emotional collapse in front of a man wearing the world's largest toupee. And that would be too much even for me, someone who never had a good intuitive feel for grooming or style.
“Besides, I love you. I love you more than I've ever loved anyone. And while I cannot undo the past and make up for all the miserable schmucks you've known, I can be as good to you as I can. And you must not hate me for being good to you. And while I do love you and will be capable of forgiving you many things, I don't know that I would ever be able to forgive you for leaving me here with a broken heart in front of a man with funny-looking hair."
Well, of course I married him. I’m not crazy. The ceremony was oddly well written and we became madly emotional, even though immediately beforehand toupee-man pointed to all signs proclaiming “Do Not Tip Marriage Commissioner” and said, “Perhaps you’ve noticed these signs. Our last marriage commissioner was a bad man. He wouldn’t give couples back their change. But don’t worry, you can tip me.”
We tipped him, what the hell. The groom collapsed from heat stroke as foe walked back to the car. I revived him at the 7-Eleven with Gatorade and boiled eggs. Our wedding breakfast.
A week later we were outside my Coronado apartment packing the last of my belongings into a moving van. I dashed upstairs to take one last look around to see if we'd forgotten anything.
The apartment was barren and quiet, as quiet as it was all those nights I lay sleepless on my bed and stared at the ceiling and made peace, again and again, with the fact that I might always be alone.
A little more than a month before, I had lost sleep trying to achieve a grim certainty.
“Are you ready to go?" my wife whispered behind me.
The sun was setting as we climbed higher on the Coronado Bridge. The sky was clear. We could see the mountains in the east. Beneath us the bay shimmered.
“Don't you want to lean out the window and take one last look at your old home?" asked my wife.
The sunset, I knew, was spectacular, like all the spectacular sunsets I had seen while walking alone down Coronado's long, clean beach.
“No," I said. “It was never my home in the first place."