Happy weddings are all alike; every unhappy wedding is unhappy in its own way.
I've been married three times. My first and third were both happy, and startlingly alike. Both took place within a few miles of each other, on the same stretch of shoreline on Lake Champlain in Vermont. Both took place in summer, both had wonderful food, live music, strange in-laws, good friends. My second wedding was unhappy in its own way.
It took place in a small, dark house, possibly the smallest house in Burlington, in 1987. I was 34, give or take a month. The bride -- I'll call her Sarah -- was 37. I had been married once before; Sarah had been married twice. It must have been May or June, shortly after Sarah had the first of her psychotic episodes, when I came home to find her cowering naked in the corner of the kitchen, hyperventilating. I managed to persuade her to blow into a brown paper bag and then to take a warm shower.
No attendants. No maid of honor or flower girls or best man. No organist. The justice of the peace was a friend of mine. He came over with his copy of the statutory wedding vows and a video camera. "I'm a full-service operation," he said dryly. It's the only thing I can remember anyone saying.
Also present: our daughter Zoe, then about six months old. She was the reason Sarah and I were living together. We had dated briefly as my first marriage was ending and then had broken up. A few days later she came to visit me, unexpectedly, saying that she was pregnant, that I was the father, and that she was going ahead with the pregnancy. I could be involved or not, but she was going through with it.
I thought that showed great courage on her part, and besides, I couldn't imagine being the kind of heel who got a woman pregnant and then abandoned her. So I said I was in, determined to make the best of things. It wasn't until later that I discovered how much I loved being a father -- so much, that even with everything I went through over the next five years (the divorce was almost as long as the marriage), I still wouldn't change a thing.
No family. Sarah was ashamed, I think. We had never planned to get married, but once Zoe was born, Sarah had a change of heart. If word got out that Zoe had been born out of wedlock, she said, she would be ostracized and called a bastard for the rest of her life. I thought this was extreme, even bizarre, but I went along with it. This was what being married involved, I thought: taking whatever came along and trying to make the best of it.
I can't remember saying "I do." I can't remember what I was feeling or what was going through my mind. That was how I got through the wedding: by not paying attention to anything that passed through my mind. In fact, when I think about the previous year, and the next three years, it seems as if at some point I sucked my breath in and spent the rest of my marriage holding it.
Afterward, there was a small amount of food, I think -- a plate or two of something. A Ben & Jerry's ice cream cake comes to mind, but the very fact that I remember it makes me think I must be thinking of some other occasion.
There must have been music, probably from a tape recorder, because I think I remember Sarah and myself dancing around the small living room in the space between the wood stove and the dining table, with Michael filming us. If that videotape still exists, I hope I never see it.
After that, we moved to a slightly larger house, also in Burlington. My mother came over from England to visit and later told me, "It was very strange. I couldn't see the slightest trace of you anywhere in that house."
Two and a half years later, Sarah took to saying, "Why don't you just leave me? If you're so unhappy, why don't you just leave?"
That was my weakness, and my source of strength: I went along with things and tried to make the best of them.