I’ve never found a reason to cry at a wedding, which gives me an advantage when I’m wearing mascara for the occasion. As a wedding guest or as a member of the wedding party, I want to look my best — if not a natural beauty, then “beautified,” an “ill phrase” — even though nobody looks at any woman other than the bride. Nonetheless, the last time I was invited to a wedding, the couple recited their vows as I watched barefaced and barefoot.
I’d been prepped by tuning in to a multitude of wedding programs on TV, on which brides choose gowns and submit to the alternating blandishments and bullying of wedding planners in all aspects of the wedding (except the choice of mate). I’ve delighted in the construction of fondant-covered multi-tiered extravaganzas of cakes adorned with edible pearls and with hand-tinted, gum-paste calla lilies, orchids, and roses. I’ve gawked at over-the-top floral and lighting designs.
I’d had enough frippery. When the invitation arrived for this wedding, I was ready to join the real celebration: a religious ceremony marking the commitment to life together.
I arrived early, stayed through the ceremony and the first two dances, then left as the food was about to be served, without so much as one hurried whisper of well-wishes to bride and groom. I missed the wedding toasts. Rude?
Not at all.
The bride and groom didn’t expect me to stay for drinks (pink martinis) and dinner. I was watching everything on my computer — not a commercial show, but a live video feed. At most, the numbers on my screen showed that 12 of us were watching, and I passed on the live video chat. I wasn’t dressed for it. No mascara.
Actually, I had a great time at the wedding, and the experience of watching it on my computer was uncannily similar to many experiences I’ve had attending weddings where I actually did go through a receiving line but didn’t know many of the people.
Until the wedding ceremony started with the walk down the carpet to the altar, the only sound was recorded music. So the experience of watching people was pure: I couldn’t have a conversation or overhear one. It was like being on a balcony looking down at the people below, just out of earshot. For the first few minutes I watched women in party dresses walk back and forth. They went into a room and checked out the stuff hanging on the wall and on the desk. Did they know that they were on camera?
After a while the camera focused briefly on a man as he helped a woman adjust the back of her dress — fastening a hook into an eye, perhaps? An intimate gesture, but no follow through squeeze of shoulders or kiss. On her part, no pat of the hand — just a grateful smile. Is it rude to stare?
It’s not rude to stare at a cake, and I always like to look at the wedding cake. This day, too, I wanted to see the cake. Yes! Right here: multi-tiered. White with a few dramatic flowers, at a glance, magenta flowers. I couldn’t get close enough to see if the cake was covered in fondant or buttercream icing. And what about those flowers? What sort of lily? Or maybe orchids? Real (not likely) or sugar paste (almost certain)?
At most weddings, if I were to go over to the wedding cake to take a good look at it, someone would probably stand in front of me, or talk to me — or both. Sure enough, the camera moved away from the cake before I’d seen as much as I wanted to.
I watched friends and relatives greet the jovial groom, who looked not one whit nervous, and now the wedding procession was starting. And then the procession was over, and the ceremony began. The groom was beaming, the bride radiant.
Each close-up of the bride and groom as well as the soundtrack’s fading out during the address mimicked the shifting attention I would have experienced had I been sitting in the garden with the other guests.
The effect of watching the wedding on the computer was much closer to the experience of actually being present than watching a typical wedding video, which is a formulaic highlighted treatment of a ritual.
When I left the wedding celebration — and it did feel like leaving rather than turning my attention elsewhere — I had the same emotions as I have whenever I leave a successful party: elated, wishing I could stay just a little bit longer, and glad I know when it’s time to say goodbye.
I’d had a related experience more than twenty years earlier, but with a funeral. Neal had been a friend. A good friend. I’d thought — hoped — he’d be granted another remission.
When his mother said she was coming East from California and asked if she could stay with me for a few days, although we’d never met, I said yes without hesitation.
I’d opened the sofa bed in the living room, and she asked me to sit with her. She showed me the series of photos from Neal’s final hospitalization. She’d taken the last few after his death. When I think of him now, I have those multiple images of him: in good health and in his hospital bed, before and after he died.
She’d also brought an audiotape of his funeral. She explained that because the funeral had taken place so far from his friends, she wanted us all to be able to hear the burial. She’d used a small tape recorder, nothing fancy, to make that possible. She’d carried it in her hand from the time the limousine got close to the cemetery to the return when the talk moved to what would happen next and the machine had been clicked off.
I closed my eyes and listened.
I know there was a service and a graveside eulogy, but what I remember most clearly is wordless: the crunch of gravel underfoot on the path to the waiting grave, the hollow sound as the first trowel of earth landed on the lowered coffin.
Each time I hear that thud of earth I wonder why, for that first moment, does the coffin sound empty — as though the body, too, has been spirited away. • 17 August 2010