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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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A harrowing tale

April 1st, 2007

BY ELIZABETH HART

One wickedly warm day in April over twenty five years ago, I swayed dizzily in front of a minister gazing into the eyes of my almost-to-be husband. He returned my gaze with a look of growing suspicion as we stood with our backs to the edge of the lake. The temperature had climbed into the nineties, the humidity close behind. I was trying desperately to control the violent shaking in my knees, which was becoming more uncontrollable by the second, despite the Valium my well-meaning sister-in-law had practically forced down my throat. Whoever invented “foundation” garments and plasticized control-top pantyhose could not possibly have lived anywhere near the sticky Gulf Coast. Good thing my dress covered up the sauna in which I stood, however unsteadily, in the semi-mud by the water’s edge. I balanced on one good high heel —I’d broken the other when I tripped getting out of the car. The train on my dress was trashed, torn by my ragged heel, dragged through the mud, destroyed. No matter, I planned on finding a pair of scissors or a stout safety pin before the dancing began. My dearly beloved was suffering as well, his face and gleaming head purplish-red in the Texas sun. The sweating minister stood facing the water, dark traditional garb gathering up the sun as he ran his finger around the inside of his collar. Daddy dear had a strong grip on me while my knees kept threatening to buckle. I was hugely regretting the tranquilizer threading through my veins, not to mention my lack of breakfast and lunch and the three or four margaritas I’d managed to put away the night before (in between the three beers and who knows how many shots of tequila). My brother stood past the groom’s shoulder glaring at me. He and his wife hadn’t been prepared for the condition in which they’d found me that morning.

“Are you getting up today? I hope you’re not getting cold feet?” (In other words: please don’t tell me I wasted two plane fares from New Jersey!)

“Go away, I’ll be fine.”

“Didn’t anyone tell you not to get drunk the night before your wedding?”

In fact, no one had mentioned it. I met his look, remembering the bachelor/bachelorette festivities the night before his wedding. His little wifey had been swinging from the trees in the campus quad. Maybe he was unaware of that. But, in fairness to all my non-existent advisers, I was twenty-seven years old and possessed of what at the time most assumed to be a reasonable amount of intelligence, even if I was seriously lacking good judgment. The thing really keeping me in bed was I had almost decided not to go through with it. It wasn’t a hangover that was bothering me the most, it was, well, darn near everything: the way we’d met, the things we did when together; the complete lack of sanity and cohesiveness in our relationship.

We’d met on a lark, dated on a shoestring, had lots of well-to-do and totally crazy friends who threw many fine brunch parties, lunch parties, dinner parties, and party parties, and now we were getting married because…? It was the only thing left to do that we hadn’t done? I wanted children? I wanted to be supported? He wanted me under his thumb? What was the reason? Was there a reason? I couldn’t put my finger on it and I kept drifting off into the absurdity of it all. Was this the one-in-a-million guy for me? Where had my life gone?

It was the most special day of that life and I was grappling with a great big Why? I was in the most out-of-kilter Dali painting ever — and I wasn’t dreaming.

* * *

The first night I’d met my fiance I’d thrown him out of a bar. No joke. I was the bartender in charge that night and he’d chucked a glass full of ice cubes at one of the cocktail waitresses. It was a plastic cup, to be sure, but it was the venom with which it was thrown that caused him to get the boot. Becky Boobs (as he referred to her) had determined he’d had enough so she’d cut him off. He didn’t like being cut off and made no attempt to hide the fact, so the other cocktail waitress came to collect me and the three of us got him out the door. Three months later he came to me as I was closing one night, apologized for the glass-throwing incident, and asked me to go out somewhere after work. It was his birthday, his second wife had left him, he was alone and just needed a “friend.”

* * *

The minister was muttering and smiling meaningfully at me. Oh God, here comes the “I do” part; I’m not sure if I’m going to puke or faint or even live through the next few minutes. I can feel my dad and sister-in-law closing ranks. Where is the person who can make me go through with this — or stop me? Is it completely up to me, because I don’t think I have the strength to deal with myself. There’s someone in there I don’t know.

* * *

He’d fixed his brilliant baby blues on me and blinked his thick curly lashes a bit. What was it about me that marked me as a sucker for lonely older men? I’d just gotten out of a disastrous relationship with a semi-married man and was having déjà vu. In Baby Blue’s defense he had played piano beautifully that night in the bar ( he was moonlighting from his day job), and for several weeks he’d been acting the perfect gentleman. I was just mollified enough to accept his apology and his offer of a birthday party for two. He knew the apology would get me. He told me that years later. He was eleven years older than me and counted himself very knowledgeable about women, having been married to two and “engaged” to many others. We’d proceeded to have some strange dates: dining at titty bars, crashing swanky weddings and bar mitzvahs, nearly careening off a mountain in Colorado, getting thrown out of the finest bars in Houston, and sleeping on the floors of some of the best hotels in the country as guests of benevolent friends. For a fairly quiet young lady from a fairly sheltered existence it was over the top, and, well, exciting.

* * *

His blue eyes are fixed on mine. There is an implied threat there. I know that look. Pull it together, dear, or suffer the consequences. I look desperately at my brother. Same expression. My sisters all give me a smile. What do they know? Time to exchange rings. Oh, what am I thinking? We’re not doing that; he’s just sticking one on me. A ring that’s old and borrowed.

When I’d broached the subject of exchanging rings, he’d opened his cuff-link box, pointed at three rings and said, “Which one would you like me to wear?” Three — where had the third come from?

Panic began to set in, there at the lakefront three years and eleven months after our first date. We’d had several ups and downs already. Spent months apart while he worked overseas. Endured the encroachment of several women and one of my old beaux. A girl calling from France saying they’d been engaged in Puerto Vallarta. Lived together, lived apart, lived in L.A. A year before our wedding he’d stormed out of my home after breaking everything on my dresser, slamming the door, and telling me to “grow up.” My childish behavior had consisted of telling him I didn’t think he needed to be dating other women anymore. When had I become sure this was the marriage of my dreams? What were those gentle magic words he had spoken?

“Let’s give it a shot and see if it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t — no harm done.”

Yes, those were the very words, the sentimental slop that had brought me to this passage in my life. So much for romance.

As he shoves the ring on my finger it hangs up on my knuckle. He shoves again and gives me an exasperated look. It’s my Aunt Helen’s ring. I swear it fit the day before. My mother had insisted I wear it when I’d told her the ceremony would be ring-less. She never did explain why Aunt Helen had a gold wedding ring when she’d never married. My knees are feeling very weak, and I’m paralyzed in both arms. I’m taking no comfort in being surrounded by my nearest and dearest. Just then, a ripple passes through the crowd. The minister begins to giggle and then our guests are laughing out loud. The minister leans forward and whispers to us both, “We’ve just been mooned. By some guy on a boat.”

Oh purrrrrfect, I’m thinking as I look out over the crowd. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, where are you when I need you? My sisters the bridesmaids are doubled over. Two of the male guests are laughing much too hard and slapping each others’ backs — my guess was that they’d put one of their friends up to it. Why would it surprise me that some people will do anything for a six-pack? My father has abandoned me to take his seat next to my mother, who is making no attempt to hide her mirth. I’m quite sure that’s practically pure Jack Daniels in her glass. Not that she’s alone in that; I know that at least half of the crowd has been partaking also. The bar’s been open for over an hour because the band and the minister were late arriving. The photographer’s having a major fit because he has another wedding to do this evening and he’s badly in need of a cigarette. My four-year-old niece, the flower girl, is about to erupt because her mom won’t let her eat the candy bar I put at the bottom of her basket of petals, and she suddenly dumps the entire basket out and yanks out the bar in defiance. My stone cold sober brother seems to be growing openly hostile, especially towards the photographer and all my husband’s silly friends. I have the pictures to prove it. He got married at Princeton, after all, in a proper cathedral, and does not enjoy being part of this childishness. At this point I’m doing my best to convince myself that a life full of levity is endlessly preferable to days filled with boring correctness.

What had been my response to his proposal? A little on the jaded, acidic, side I’d retorted:
“I’ll believe it when I see the ring.”

Well he’d come through, admirably, on Christmas morning.

“Thought I’d kill two birds with one stone, eh?” Always the thrifty one.

Was it me, or had the wedding and everything leading up to it been just plain weird? When my mom took me dress shopping she told me I couldn’t wear white but that off-white would be okay. That made me so mad I’d said the hell with the dress and ordered a hippy-style muslin number (unbleached) out of a catalog. It arrived two days before the wedding, which had everyone but me biting their nails.

Dad didn’t think we needed a big fancy affair; he confessed that he viewed us as technically married already and was frankly hoping we’d quietly elope. Both of my parents said we couldn’t get married in a church because — well, you can guess. It didn’t matter that my brother had been sleeping with his fiancee for four years prior to their marriage; they didn’t live together, therefore their church wedding and her white dress were totally appropriate.

My fiance was totally unperturbed about it. He absolutely refused any involvement in the preparations other than splitting the tab with my father. He told me to please ask for useful things like Tupperware and ice cube trays and said to leave most of it in boxes so we could re-gift. The week before the wedding my in-laws arrived to camp out at my house. As my fiance drove the fifty miles to retrieve them from the airport, a black man had shown up bloody and beaten and near death on our front doorstep. I’d brought him in, dealt with the ambulance and paramedics and police and the considerable amount of blood, and then greeted an irate fiance with his parents in tow, who wanted to know why I hadn’t put sheets on all the beds yet and where the hell was dinner? The very next day I received flowers from my old beau — and holy hell broke loose. I had already known I wasn’t perfect, but I was certainly beginning to understand just how far I was from perfection.

Now I’m standing deathly still and ill as he attempts again to jam a gold band on my finger, wishing for all the world I could figure out if my husband wil ever take anything seriously or value things like kindness, humility, honesty, and generosity, things that were important to me. Life was not always going to be funny. Why hadn’t I figured this out yesterday? Two months ago? Why did I just let the margaritas and the swirl of activity take me away? Hadn’t I known I was not in a state of happy anticipation the evening before my first and only wedding? Where was my brain last night? I’d known then, just as I’d known every day since I’d first met him, that something was not right.

Suddenly the “I do’s” are over, the minister says the final words, and I find myself being kissed with the ring still stuck between the first and second knuckle on my left hand. Then the minister grabs me and kisses me and at least six other men embrace me as I extract myself and try not to drop Aunt Helen’s ring or puke in front of everyone. The photographer takes my elbow and leads me forcibly away. Music begins, the room spins, my bridegroom deserts and heads straight to the bar. Before he even gets there, friends hand him a beer and a glass of champagne. I take complete leave of my senses for the next two hours as I greet people I barely know. “I’m so glad you came (would you mind if I threw up?).” “Thank you for your lovely gift (what was it again?).” “Yes, the dress is somewhat unusual.” “Would someone please give the photographer a cigarette? And a drink?”

The wedding over, we returned to our little love nest, full of drunken friends and his very drunk parents, all of whom were spending the night and needed to be fed a few more times before they left. I wasn’t sure I’d have enough food (or toilet paper). A “wedding night” was out of the question. Two of his buddies were sleeping on the floor of our room.

Honeymoon? That was a day trip around Galveston and Clear Lake on a friend’s yacht — with, I might add, at least eight people who had been to his other two weddings, one who had been to his “engagement” in Puerto Vallarta, one whom I’d dated previously, and his second wife’s maid of honor, who cried every time she looked at me. That still haunts me. Was she just overly emotional, or did she know something I didn’t?

* * *

I’ve been to other weddings that were similar to mine; the Seventies were full of them. Some were far stranger, and many of the marriages have not survived. Somehow we’ve hung on, through bouts of alcoholism, volatility, reunification, promises to do better, etc. Wealth and poverty, sickness and health. Laughter and lots of tears. Infidelity. Sincere emotion from me, sincerely temporary apologies from him. Weight gain, family tragedies, physical injuries, loss of self-confidence. He does most of the drinking but I’m the one who’s always getting sick or injured. We can have only friends who include heavy drinking in their daily lives. We can go to only restaurants that serve alcohol. Our child’s friends’ parents are not invited to our home.

I know the definition of “enabling.” I could write the book. Long ago I learned that I couldn’t keep up with his kind of drinking, that to have even one glass of wine was to give him permission to put away four or five. “Someone who drinks” is not allowed to call “someone who abuses alcohol” an “alcoholic.” There’s never been any point in arguing or fighting, because he has no memory of the specifics the next day. Two years ago I moved out (with our daughter), telling him I didn’t want him to spoil the little time I had remaining with her. It was a decision I’d been working on for a few years. Then my resolve wavered, my conscience told me I was a jerk for taking away from him the only person he truly loved and for taking her away from all the comforts of home. He said all the right things — made all the right promises — and so we moved back in, figuring I’d sort it all out in a couple of years. What kind of life has it been for our daughter? Most times I can only guess. She doesn’t drink and hates it when people do, but she is very affectionate toward me as a rule (and him on a good day), so I’m thankful that maybe we did something right.

After all these years I cannot say what’s been right about our union, other than creating and raising our child and attempting to stay out of each others’ way. We’ve built nice houses, acquired nice things, enjoyed friends and the good life, but will there be anything left of marriage after our daughter’s gone? A marriage that has never been a partnership? That has never been based on common values and mutual goals? A marriage likely to be forgotten if /when he enters the realm of dementia (as his parents have)? He still has his work, for now, and I have art and music and gardening and lots of friends, but I don’t have a clue who “we” are anymore — or if there ever even was a “we.” With great sadness I am forced to acknowledge that I know no more about marriage and what makes it work than I did twenty-six years ago. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Marriage Issue, Hart | Link to this Entry

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