By all accounts it was a picture-perfect wedding.
Bright, sunstruck day. Buoyant, smiling faces. Tables of local salmon and imported champagne. So why in all the photos did I keep my sunglasses on? I seemed to be attending my own wedding incognito. A bride in a long white gown and Vuarnets, furtive as a thief disappearing from the frame.
"A good time was had by all." It's what my father used to say, mouth twisted in irony, after another family outing or vacation. The faces all smile in the wedding pictures. Girls in bright dresses linger on the grass. Handsome groomsmen toast the camera. The bride was on her best behavior, demure.
I waited until I was 32 to get married; Ross was 28. Still I felt rushed, as though the guests were pounding on the door and the roast was not yet in the oven. But there's nothing like a man rock-sure of his feelings to draw you into the ring. Ross was sure he loved me, sure he would be faithful, sure he wanted children, sure we'd live as happily after marriage as we ever had before.
I told myself: I can always have an affair.
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During the ceremony, my father sits in the second row with the woman he married just last weekend, his mouth not twisted at the cliché the rest of us saw: older man, a woman who looks half my mother's age. (Just last night, my brothers and I walked barefoot to a dock on Lake Megunticook and improvised a ritual to clear the air of his wedding and make space for mine.)
My father wears black. I wear the white of amnesia. His new wife wears a black and white sheath, a graphic mix of my father's colors and mine. My mother, Alice, wears something pale and loose and homemade, neither blue nor green -- ignorable. She sits in the front row; the only men near her are her three tall sons.
Ross and I stand in front of the gathering, working our way through the ceremony; and though he's sitting just two rows back, my father will not look at me. He contemplates the hands folded neatly in his lap as if they're a going-away present he doesn't dare open. The minister entreats, the promises continue, and still my father won't meet my eyes. He was afraid to look at me, afraid he wouldn't see me the way a proud father sees his daughter; afraid he would see me the way a desirous man sees a young woman.
"You know I've always been attracted to you." His voice had burned those words into my mind on a walk long before on Lopez Island: There is the father's love that brings a bright wide smile to his daughter's face, that makes her glad to be a girl. Another kind of father's love darkens a daughter's brow in confusion, and brands her with guilt.
By all accounts the bride looks beautiful. Ross looks beautiful, too, with that soft place on his temples I fell in love with, the smooth flesh that pulses with tenderness. When I look at our wedding pictures a year later, I think: See, Ross was happy; he's one of the smiling faces in the photos. He's one of those men who wakes up smiling and here, on our wedding day, his face exploded with grins.
At the ceremony, I am tempted to take both his hands in mine and lean in close and whisper what everyone else keeps telling him: "I'm so happy for you. Congratulations." I wander around my own wedding nibbling white asparagus, feeling not like a new bride but an old friend, someone who's known him a long time. I'm glad he found the girl of his dreams and only wish it weren't me.
By all accounts it is a lovely wedding. It should be: Ross is on the partner track at his Big Eight accounting firm; I am doing well in publishing; and we paid for everything ourselves. Taking in the lushly decorated tables, the champagne-glass towers glinting on crisp linen, the white-coated waiters doctoring the overflowing platters, no one would have guessed that my father hadn't paid for his only daughter's wedding. Years later he explained this, too: He was jealous of Ross, he told me, that Ross got to have me and he did not.
He who giveth, taketh away: The minister in our Presbyterian church had already taught me not to try to hold onto anything you're given. My father gave me the tools of language, he'd taught me to become an editor, but he stole my willingness to use them. Perhaps he trusted that a daughter's loyalty would be complete. I knew, and he knew, even if no one else among these happy, smiling faces could know: Something ancient still bound us together in ways neither his nor my own wedding vows could penetrate. He took away the one thing that, as a father, he should have fought fiercely to protect: My desire to give myself to a man.
At the heart of the ceremony, I perform with Ross a silent ritual: A single candle is passed hand to hand among those gathered; all have been asked to pass into its flame their wisdom on marriage and to seal it into the heat. We stand before them, hip to hip, and watch the flame approach us, gathering warmth. When Claire, one of my oldest friends, holds the taper, she dips her head in prayer and then lifts her eyes to mine and we gaze at each other in a long moment; she's sitting far away in the back row but the heads between us disappear, and a truth is palpable: The flame has the power to reflect a person's heart, to reveal what is there.
The candle is passed to my mother and I hear: I am happy for you, my dear, but I am so terribly lonely myself. She passes it to my brothers. The candle in Avery's hands says: Be happy. In Frank's hands, it says: She's not a bad-looking woman, actually. Garth's candle says: Me next. Single life sucks.
When the candle is passed to my father, the flame reflects nothing. He will not raise his eyes to mine. He sits holding the candle in his lap, gripping it with both hands, his new wife beside him stiffening. He squeezes his eyes shut. He bows his head lower. After a few moments, his shoulders seem to soften. Whatever had risen in him has just been released, I hope not into the flame. Still he will not look at me, and passes the candle on.
Finally, the candle comes to us, and Ross and I can barely hold it between us; its vibrations tremble our hands, making it hard to guide the flame to light the unlit candle of our marriage.
By all accounts the music is perfect for dancing. I dance with my grinning new husband; I dance with all my brothers; we slip off our party shoes so we can slide on the newly waxed floor. But even inside, my shades stay firmly in place.
But how did we get past the first dance, the one where the father of the bride dances with the apple of his eye?
The first song started, Natalie Cole singing a duet dubbed over her father's voice: "Unforgettable." Ross came over, took my hand, and we began to dance, just the two of us, out on the open dance floor. He crooned into my ear: unforgettable you. He pulled me close, to have and to hold. At the edges of my peripheral vision I see my friends, women I've known since we were pigtailed girls in sixth grade, and their husbands and babies and parents, and the friends of my parents here in Maine, standing in a smiling ring. I kiss that soft place on Ross's temple, and close my eyes, and for a sweet moment feel a deep peace.
Then I am standing alone on the dance floor, and it's time for my father to come take my hand. No one else dances: My friends weren't raised in a barn; they know the etiquette here, the groom asks the mother-in-law once the father asks the bride. It's the ritual of saying goodbye. People are shifting on their heels, waiting in a circle. They yearn for the bittersweet moment. They want to see the first dance, which is also the last, a father and daughter dancing goodbye to the old order of things.
And I'm standing out on the empty floor, scanning the room for my father. The lovely voice croons on: unforgettable, in every way. Somehow, when we chose the song, months earlier, I hadn't heard its loud clang of irony.
When I finally see him, my father's back is against the far wall. Woodson looks handsome in his dark suit but stooped, pulled down by something weighty. As soon as I see him, I look down, too. A bride on her wedding day wants to be asked, wants not to do the asking. The unforgettable music moves on and I blink down at my white silk shoes, not moving, holding my breath, and no one comes to take my hand. The bride is a white wallflower pressed to dry between the cover of family and a page of shame.
And then I look directly at him, asking with my eyes. Today of all days, do the right thing.
He looks up at me briefly, lowers his head, and the song plays on.
I go to him, then, and take his hand. It's an offering, only he and I can know, much larger than its gesture: a thimble of amnesia.
I lead you, then, onto the empty dance floor. We have only a few moments together, the song nearly over; it took us so long to get here. I put one hand on your shoulder. You smile and look worried at the same time. You put one hand on my waist. I try not to flinch. You say, "You look beautiful." I say, "Thank you."
You don't dance particularly well. I don't care. You shift our weight from side to side as if we're sixth graders at cotillion, and I follow, holding you at arms' length.
I say, "You were supposed to ask me to dance." Your face crumples a bit. "I wanted to dance with you." I feel your hot hand, through the heavy silk of my gown, on the curve of my hip. "I didn't know if you'd want to dance with me."
"You're my father," I say, as if that explains everything. And in a way it does. It's a lot more than we've said to each other in a long time.
The music stops. We stand, still holding each other a moment. Your shy eyes are now wet. The wrinkles there are deepening. I've never danced with you before this first dance and most likely won't again. Not for us the little girl swaying, standing on her father's shoes.
We look into each other's eyes and something forms in my throat, a word maybe, a bubble of champagne, a bubble of ambiguity, filled with possibility and impossibility both. Possible that because you are my father, you're the only man I'll have to learn to love. Possible that after today, I won't speak to you again for a very long time. Impossible that the blue-eyed man dancing with my mother, the man with the shit-eating grin, is my husband. Possible that if I kiss Ross long and hard enough, his lightheartedness might smear off on me.
Your hand rests on my forearm. Your glasses need cleaning. Behind us your new wife stands waiting, and Ross is scanning the faces, looking for mine. Unforgettable you.
The bubble does not break but stays held in my throat, delicate and sheer. We say nothing more. I turn and walk away from you, and into the arms of my husband.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
By all accounts, the bride and her father had a lovely dance on her wedding day. It was a picture-perfect wedding.