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The Spirit of My Mother | 2011 | Book Signing


A man in love is incomplete until he is married. Then he's finished.  

-Zsa Zsa Gabor


Ivan the Marriageable

Ivan and Tina  
Ivan and Tina

Weddings have the potential to be uncomfortable even when one knows only half of the happy couple. As a stranger - as a platonic date, no less - the possibility of awkwardness is all the more robust.

Ivan, the groom, is for Jacki the one who got away. In high school, each ached for the other but the "will they, won't they" of Fate fell squarely on the "won't". They dated other people and exchanged reportedly breathy adolescent calls, but went no further. Almost twenty years after their initial meeting (shortly after Kevin left Jacki) and despite a decade of estrangement, they reconnected in time for Ivan to tell Jacki of his amazing relationship and plans to move to Spain to teach. A year later, he told her he was moving back stateside to be married and requested/insisted she be in his wedding party. Apparently, even Ivan's fiancée once asked him if he did not think he perhaps ought to be marrying Jacki instead, given the intensity of their history. This would be a fine set-up for a romantic comedy (Jacki's role would be played by a post-"Pretty Woman" Julia Roberts) but manages to less delightful in practice.

In this sense, I am on a train headed to Grand Central Station because teenagers twenty years ago did not fulfill the demands of their hormones. This thought almost makes up for my wearing a suit jacket in July.

Jacki - wearing entirely normal clothing - sits beside me on the train and says she would like to catch up with my life despite her tiredness, but there is little for me to convey in words that qualifies as news. I mention adoring the stability I find in Amber, joking that I am done with falling in love with crazy. (Though, for the record, I do not believe Melanie is crazy. Even Melanie agrees that she is simply immature, inexperienced, and inclined toward overanalysis. Aside from these things, I think very well of her and consider her a lifelong friend.)

Jacki asks, "So, do you think I'm crazy?"

"Why? Do you think you are?"

"I've been known to slow dance with crazy on occasion," she says.

We talk instead of the more pressing issue of her anxiety at being in Ivan's wedding party.

"Do I have to give a toast?" she wonders aloud.

"That depends, are you the best man?"


I shrug, looking past her at the Hudson River rushing by the window. "I think you can get away without it then. I'm sure someone would have told you if you were expected to speak."

She seems uneasy with this conclusion, but is willing to accept it if it means she will not be burdened by the obligation of speechifying.

After an intentionally circuitous cab ride to bilk us the tourists, we arrive at the venue, Galapagos Art Space, a theater with delusions of grandeur. The reception hall floors are made of metal suspended over water and the speakers play jazz and Edith Piaf. The former means there is a slight tang of chlorine in the air, but the latter more than makes up for my being reminded of a public pool.

To the best of my knowledge, neither Ivan nor his bride-to-be Tina have the least bit to do with this space nor, at that, with NYC. They lived in Spain, are from beyond Albany, and are moving back to Boston. This raises the irresistible question of why I am thus writing this on the Brooklyn waterfront. The answer, I can only assume, involves spite.

Jacki meets up with Ivan and prepares while the groomsmen take staged casual photos. While Jacki puts on her forest green dress and fresh make-up, I am relegated to a cement hallway to guard her modesty from interlopers and because I have no interest in appearing accidentally in a stranger's wedding album, having only met Ivan a minute prior.

Jacki laments that getting ready for this wedding reminds her of preparing for the prom, where Ivan was intended to be her date and was "a jerk", in her words. (I don't doubt my prom dates would have little better to say about teenage me.) She told him after I set up my post in the hall that she would like a do-over of their prom. However, being a member of the wedding party is now the closest she can ever get to replicating the experience, since it involves an attractive but not cheap or cozy outfit, make-up, forced dancing, and incongruous yet celebratory foodstuffs. The only difference is that only one couple knows for certain they have a springy mattress in a posh hotel looming in their immediate future.

There are hours between our arrival and the beginning of the wedding proper. Jacki had insisted I bring my writing gear to occupy myself during this gap, so I find an outlet in a corner on the second floor and become unobtrusive. People passing take no note of me, with the exception of one member of the staff, who turns on every table light but mine.

I get bored after an hour of what Jacki describes as my "homelessness" and opt to snoop around with the planned excuse that I am looking for a bathroom. (I do, quite accidentally, stumble upon the men's room and am amused at a gift basket full of condoms and dentifrice. I sample the latter and pocket one of the former. Are baskets like this de rigueur?). The walls of the venue are decorated with pictures of the bride and groom at various points in their respective and conjoined lives, XKCD strips, and paragraphs about their relationship. One of the latter explained that this location was chosen because the groom's parents got married in the City and the bride's parents honeymooned here... from New Jersey. While NYC may be the greatest city on Earth, it is also just over the bridge or through the tunnel.

When I arrive back to my enclave, the waitstaff is gathered around a table and planning hors d'oeuvres as though this were the Battle of Normandy. They pay no more attention to me and I realize suddenly this is because my outfit (black shirt, pants, and shoes, gray jacket in a failed attempt to match Jacki's dress) is largely what each of the waiters is now wearing.
Not quite the best man

The sheer production value of this wedding is startling. The floor pools slowly come to resemble candlelit ponds, techies wrap the stage in lace and project the couple's initials seven feet high, the staff moves with a clockwork precision. Though I reckon I will marry Amber, I cannot envision our wanting all this, even for a celebration that will only happen once.

Last night, musing about the experience I would be having today, I asked Melanie if she ever imagines she will marry. To be frank, I expected something a trifle cynical, such as that she cannot imagine ever wanting to be tied to one person for the rest of her life, that her kind is rarely allowed to legally conjoin in this great land of ours, or that marriage was a patriarchal tradition that had lost its meaning around the time that women ceased to be on level with cattle. Instead, she said that she did not know, but that she still thinks of marrying me sometimes (despite her orientation) and is a bit sad to know she won't be. I stuttered a bit, but appreciated the honesty of it.

More guests arrive, so I stash my writing kit in a dim corner. As I am returning to seek out nourishment, a man I have never seen before stops me, shaking my hand. “Hey, man, how have you been?”

“Well,” I say, assuming it is for the best that I play out this interaction as though I am who he thinks I am. “Things have been going pretty well. Can't complain.”

“Man, that's great,” he says, seeming to honestly mean it. Perhaps I had fallen on hard times.

“I am going to get a drink,” I tell him.

He grins crookedly. Whoever I am supposed to be likes getting drinks, I gather. I laugh as though I can share the joke and dodge around him.

While wrangling a drink from a bartender who swears - despite my arguing I am about fifteen years too young - I am Trey Anastasio from Phish, I run into Jacki, who expresses worry that Ivan's sister holds a grudge. When Ivan was sixteen, his lectured him against getting too serious with Jacki (despite that they never dated). Given the two decades that have passed since, I believe Jacki will be granted absolution for whatever sin inspired these words of caution. Yes, she wore many safety pins on her clothes then and some pictures of Teenage Jacki feature disproportionately large hair, but I cannot see anyone putting decades of effort toward guarding against her.

Since I decline the signature cocktail made of cucumber and vodka, Jacki orders a glass of red wine for me, which is absolutely vile but which I quaff out of anxiety before being ushered back upstairs. As I am neither family nor friend, I am not to be on the bottom floor when the ceremony is in progress or my skin is liable to melt off. From my perch on the balcony, I sip the remainder of my wine, surprised to find it actually inebriating me enough that my pinkies feel detached and I now remember all the polysyllabic words I am not to use in mixed company.

Ivan seems beyond nervous as he reiterates his vows. In any other circumstance, I would think he mocked the words he mouthed, but know that the stilted reading has more to do with containing the overwhelming emotions fighting for their escape. Tina does better but seems near to crying a few times. A wedding is a terrible time to try to suss out the tenor of any relationship, since no one can manage to be who they really are. It is one exceptional day in every sense.

Thankfully, no one requires Jacki to give a speech on behalf of the couple, all those having been planned out well in advance. All she needs to do is stand on stage, look pretty, and not tumble into the lagoon during the recessional.

Later in the night, fairly stuffed by the constant stream of hors d'oeuvres served to us in lieu of a proper sit down dinner (a convention I rather like and had intended to do for my own wedding years before) and perhaps emotionally lubricated by a few drinks, Jacki calls me to task for having once called her hard to love.

“I did? When did I do this?” I ask, as this is not simply the sort of thing one says apropos of nothing and I cannot quite contrive why I would have said this at all. Through several more questions, I realize that I had said this shortly after my breakup and subsequent lack of success with dating, asking if I were hard to love (having found Amber, I will have to assume I am rather easy to love if the right person is doing the loving). Jacki asked the question back and internalized my answer (that she is probably easy to fall in love with, but that her hard earned barriers, defenses, and trust issues may make it difficult to let someone in - though I granted that she would be worth the fight) far more than I did hers, whatever it might have been. Even if one is properly coupled, it is the nature of the occasion to inspire such lonely questions. I have heard it said that one cries at weddings not because one is overjoyed but profoundly sad to not be at the altar instead, though I have never considered that the likeliest conclusion.

I ask Jacki why I am here instead of John, who has tried with occasional success to date her, and gather from her answer that he did not see a welcome place at this event. I cannot say that I don't see a point in this. She is going through rather enough without that added layer and I, at least, do not mind if I am left to my own devices for three hours while she catches up with a very old friend.

As the hour is growing late, I text my parents to ask when the next three trains out of the City are. They text that there seems to be only one train, leaving in an hour. The thought of being trapped in the City with no accommodations until morning fills me with dread. Though Jacki is skeptical about the information and despite that this is her first time seeing Ivan in possibly over a decade, I am able to convince her we should make haste in the direction of finding a cab. A wedding, for obvious reasons, is just about the worst place to reconnect with the groom anyway, so my guilt is not great. Thankfully, the cab we chase down knows the City and gets us to Grand Central Station with minutes to spare.

On the train, Jacki seems distant - whether from the champagne she enjoyed, the tiredness she complained of when we first met up, the trauma of enduring a wedding, or something at which I dare not guess - and I leave her be, to lose herself in quiet contemplation and nap on my bag.

Soon in Xenology: Amber. Hull.

last watched: Doctor Who
reading: A Walk in the Woods
listening: Edith Piaf

The Spirit of My Mother | 2011 | Book Signing

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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