We were sitting across the table, my friend and I, in a small New Hampshire town the night before her wedding. We were at one of those chain restaurants going over last minute plans for her wedding. I was co-maid of honor, and the other maid of honor was unable to make the dinner.
Jess and I had been friends since high school. Even before we had met, she had been in an on-again off-again relationship with someone a year older than us. They had met freshman year and despite her issues with his dysfunctional family, they'd always find each other again and pick up where they'd left off. By the time her engagement rolled around, they had been together for the better part of 10 years.
The year leading up to Jess' engagement was a tough one. She had found out her estranged father was dying of cancer and, at the time, was lost in both her career and in the direction in which she wanted to take her life. She had moved from New Hampshire to Lake Tahoe shortly after college with the boyfriend, and for a long time she'd call me every night conflicted as to why she had chosen to leave her beloved East coast. As a New Englander to the core, I couldn't understand it either.
It was after her father's diagnosis that Jess really started contemplating her future. She and her boyfriend had discussed marriage in the past, but since neither one of them was very interested in the idea, the topic was dropped. It was only after Jess found out about her father that she all of a sudden felt the need to get married and do it before he was gone. The boyfriend proposed, Jess accepted, and she was happy for probably all of 24 hours.
When she called to tell me, I squealed the obligatory "Congratulations!" although I knew her stance on the institution of marriage. Jess didn't want a traditional life that involved being someone's wife, nor did she want kids. She wanted the accessibility to move around, only work the summers so she could ski all winter, and be able to come back East at a moment's notice to see her family. In her mind, marriage wasn't just a binding contract, but a physical binding as well; a trapping that she didn't want part of her life. But she felt she owed to not only her boyfriend, but her father to make the next step and walk down the aisle.
Being her maid of honor was the easiest task in the world. She didn't want a wedding shower, she didn't need a bachelorette weekend away, and since there were only two of us in her bridal party, she didn't care what we wore. When she talked about the wedding, she talked about it the way most people talk about their day at work: monotone, indifferent and basically counting the days to retirement; in her case, the "retirement" would be having finally reached her wedding day and it being over.
As we sat there that night sharing an appetizer, each drinking a frou-frou pink drink, she said to me very matter of fact: "I don't want to do this. I don't want to get married." Her father had passed away a few weeks before, and now, to her, it seemed rather pointless to go through with it.
I told her what I assumed one would say in a situation like that and what rom-coms had taught me: "It's just cold feet! It will be fine! It will be fun! I can't wait!" But it didn't matter what I said, her decision to not marry him had been made, but her decision to not back out was also clear. She was going to do it, and she was going to regret it.
"At least there's always divorce," she said trying to laugh it off as she reached for another French fry. "Everyone gets divorced, so it's not like it's the end of the world."
Again, I tried to respond appropriately but was on very unfamiliar ground. I wanted her to know that if she didn't want to go through with it, I'd support her and everyone be damned. And while I said those words out loud, and I meant them, all she could come back with was: "The caterer, though, they were so expensive -- we'll never get that money back." She didn't look me in the eye when the words rolled out of her mouth, but instead out the window of the restaurant. She then immediately changed the subject to how she should do her hair for her wedding the following day.
It was a beautiful wedding, she looked stunning and that caterer definitely held up their end of being over-priced with their delicious selection of food. Jess smiled through it all, made the rounds thanking people and to everyone she looked like a very happy bride. I had no idea she was such a great actress.
Less than a year later she and her husband were already discussing a trial separation; two years later the divorce proceedings began.
When I think back to that night, I wonder what I could have said to have saved her from a marriage she didn't want. I know it was ultimately her choice, but as the only person who knew the truth at that wedding, was it my responsibility to stand up and object? Or would that have betrayed her confidence in me?
All I can say, without being too cliché about hindsight being 20/20, is that if I'm ever put in that situation again, I'm going to handle it differently. Who cares about the caterer, the cake, the dream dress that she may have saved up to buy for months and months. If you feel in your gut that it's not going to work and you say those words out loud, then you have to go with that feeling. You have to walk away. Eventually everyone will forgive you, because eventually they, too, will realize you were right all along.
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