I stood in the foyer of the synagogue in my long white wedding dress, my face covered by a veil, a vintage headpiece of fabric flowers on top of my freshly styled hair. My hands and knees had begun to tremble under the weight of the moment; my body must have sensed instinctively what my mind already knew—this very moment was the before, and after I would be somehow changed by what would transpire during the in between. My senses felt vigilant, my body reactive.
Packed to capacity, an excited buzz emanated from the room, reminiscent of the palpable sense of expectancy in a theater before the curtains come up and actors step onto the stage.
Lou* and I got engaged while I was on a one-year paid sabbatical from my job—as a bride-to-be, I had the gift of time to plan. Every tiny color-coordinated detail of our wedding had been thought through, discussed, debated, and, finally, implemented, right down to the stem of the lily on my fiancé’s jacket (it was wrapped in a navy blue ribbon to match our color scheme).
The care that had been poured into each small decision was evident, from the text I’d written for the wedding program that the guests held in their hands to the soft silk fabric we’d chosen for the personalized yarmulkes the men wore on their heads. My passion for planning mirrored the passion I felt about this new chapter of my life that I was about to embark on with the man I loved.
As the music changed tempo, slowing slightly, people shifted in their seats a little and several turned toward me. This was it. The processional of the bride. Lou was flanked by his parents on either side of him, at the end of this aisle waiting for me. My body was both excited and filled with anticipation. I reminded myself to breathe in and out, in and out, to savor every second.
As I began my slow walk, I passed people I’d never met, and made eye contact with some of them. I’ll never forget the look on one man’s face. He was smiling widely, waving his right hand in an almost furious greeting, iPhone at the ready to photograph me walking toward him. I had absolutely no idea who he was, yet he was waving at me as if I should know. My confusion was likely a result of having a huge guest list, of having plus ones, of inviting so many people.
There was an eight-page minute-by-minute wedding itinerary, but the moments that seared themselves into my memory aren’t on it. I couldn’t have planned for getting so dizzy when circling Lou seven times, that he had to take my hand to steady me. I couldn’t have planned for the comedic intimacy of being in the hotel bathroom after the ceremony, reapplying my makeup with my two bridesmaids, having them hold the train on my dress for me as I moved around the room, us exploding in girly giggles. Or the sweet unexpected speech from our little nephew at our reception. Or the moment after cutting the wedding cake, where the guests shouted, “Kiss! Kiss!” and Lou grabbed me and kissed me with a fervent passion.
Ours was a joyful, celebratory reception, filled with dancing and energy, as well as a disco light up dance floor. Our names flashed from the floor in red and orange; no expense had been spared. We had a DJ and a klezmer dance leader and a videographer and a photographer and a cake maker and a catering team and an open bar… well, our guests went home happy. We landed in the honeymoon suite happy. Zonked, but happy.
A BEFORE AND AN AFTER
There was the before and there was the after, walking back down the aisle with my new husband, hand in hand, grooving our way down the aisle as the band played behind us, our faces lit with the unparalleled joy of being newly married, colored confetti flying.
The first six months of our marriage, I felt utterly content—settling into routines, beginning to learn the ways of marriage. But then, around seven months after our wedding day, Lou came home from work one day and announced that he was leaving our marriage. There was no sense to be made of this, only shock and bewilderment. He said that he’d changed his mind about what he wanted from his life, realized that marriage wasn’t for him. And that was that. Finality came swiftly from him.
My husband had been engaged to three other women in his lifetime, but he’d called off each engagement before making it down the aisle. I’d thought things were different with me, and he’d thought they were, too. He’d actually married this time. He told me he thought he’d changed, but he knew now that he “just couldn’t be married.”
Untangling myself from my husband, from my identity as a new wife, from my love for him was all unfathomable. Yet, I had no choice. A separation and impending divorce from the man you love, after less than a year of marriage, is a peculiar kind of pain.
There are always those unknowns, those wild cards that you can’t plan for, control, or do anything about. These wildcards exist in wedding planning, in marriage, in life. There is always the before and the after.
Because our wedding had been so large, the subsequent disentangling was large too. There were so many witnesses, so many who had come from so far at great personal expense to support us. There were so many people to tell, so many people who weren’t our close family who had borne witness to this moment in our life.
And then there are the more personal little tragedies. My gorgeous young niece and nephew will remember forever that they were a part of a wedding that inexplicably ended after less than a year. How did my sister-in-law tell her children that Uncle Lou and Auntie Amy’s marriage was suddenly over? The rabbi who married us will always remember how he tried to help save our marriage, but how my husband wasn’t interested in the saving.
WHAT’S LEFT BEHIND
A beautiful album of wedding photographs and a guestbook filled with heartfelt wishes, an adorable personalized cake topper (the bride and groom who look just like us), a sterling silver cake knife engraved with our names, a handwritten wedding program… these objects sit in a cardboard box at the top of a closet are useless reminders of hopes, dreams, and love.
While visiting a friend’s apartment recently, I admired her wedding photographs in frames on her mantelpiece and remembered my own, sitting in their new frames in that cardboard box. All the planning in the world, all the love, and all the care didn’t prevent my husband from leaving.
I will never be exactly the same woman I was before—before I got married, before my husband announced his intention to exit the marriage. But there’s a strength I didn’t know I had, a fortitude that has emerged.
One day, I’d like to marry again. I value the institution of marriage, and I believe in it deeply. Yet I understand that the lasting parts of a wedding day are not in the table decorations or the music, not on the light up dance floor, not in the cake. In weddings, as in life, what lasts are simply those moments that sear themselves into your memory, into your body. What lasts are the moments where there’s only a before and an after.
*Name has been changed.