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Bride, Unhinged

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Reader, I'll start with the happy ending: I married him. Nine years later, through thick (my waistline) and thin (his hair), we are still married, still in love. In hindsight ... well, of course things worked out! But in fact, his proposal had unleashed an emotional maelstrom within me. Nine summers ago, my written musings were anything but sanguine. Three weeks before my wedding, this is what I wrote in an essay on the site Indiebride.com:

In three weeks, I will be a bride. This is the plan, assuming I have not melted down into a tiny, white, bridal nugget. Three weeks to go, and instead of savoring the moment, I find myself devolving into weepy, grouchy, clingy, sleepless, panicky, and all the other dwarves.

This wasn't supposed to happen. I never doodled pictures of wedding dresses in my school notebook, nor did I grow into a woman who dreams of nothing but the big day. Okay, I dreamt of nothing but getting a date. But once the uncertainty passed, and I had gotten the date, and the subsequent dates, and the proposal, I relaxed into the deepest and happiest sense of calm I had ever known. Compared with the Single Era -- a long stretch of distressing romances, most of which were both completely meaningless and deeply scarring -- engagement was heaven. The wedding would be, so to speak, a piece of cake. I have always loved throwing parties and bringing friends and family together; what could be more gratifying than this particular fete?

Not only was I excited, I was prepared, so I thought, for wedding-related tribulations. I had heard the stories: groom refuses to learn "Lindy" in dance class, bride collapses in tears. Temperamental caterer walks off the job. Guests behave egregiously. Familial relations escalate to level of Greek tragedy. Jittery bride wonders, last-minute, whether she is making the biggest mistake of her life.

Frankly, I'm not worried. My fiancé and I dispensed with dance classes, trusting in our clumsy footwork to get us through the first dance. If the hors d'oeuvres are less than scrumptious, let the pita chips fall where they may. I will use the mighty power of the seating chart to keep my close friends (e.g. transgender writer and his anarchist girlfriend) from crossing paths with my parents' close friends (e.g. Bush Cabinet adviser wife and conservative commentator husband), but if the couples meet, I will hope for at the least (or most) an interesting conversation. Both sets of in-laws have welcomed us into the fold. Most important, I know I have made the right choice. The occasional spat aside, my fiancé and I are a loving pair, and I have no doubt he is the man for me. Not to mention that I never, ever want to go on another date.

So what's the problem? My theory, developed during the past few weeks of wide-eyed, sleepless nights, is that I beat myself at my own game. I swore I wouldn't sweat the details, but in sweeping my psychic space free of the small stuff, I have cleared room for other, bigger fears to flood in. I forgot that nature abhors a vacuum. Not that I'm worried I'm worrying -- I'm Jewish, after all -- but I have to say I'm dismayed at the potency and immediacy of some of my fantasies. My hypochondria is flaring up nicely; is that stomach pain simply that chocolate I ate, or a sign of uterine cancer that will leave me infertile down the line? I watch my fiancé lay a piece of cheese on his sandwich, and my mind races -- what if, 100 pieces of cheese into our marriage, the cholesterol fells him and he keels over? Will he recover fully? Do I possess the fortitude, the inner resources, to care for him if he doesn't? What will I tell our (as yet unconceived) children? At this point, my fiancé gently asks why I have started to cry onto the sandwich bread, and I have to take myself out for a walk.

Fears of physical decrepitude are exacerbated by previously unknown, or unacknowledged, fears of emotional loss. Who's to say that we won't add our own numbers to the dark divorce tally somewhere down the line? What if my fiancé meets that sultry art chick he's always secretly wanted to marry? For that matter, what if that boy in my music class bats his lashes and asks me out for a drink? What if, 20 years down the line, we change our minds, waking up one morning to find ourselves inexplicably out of love? These scenarios keep my mind merrily churning at night, even as I look over at my sleeping mate, certain that I have never loved anyone so profoundly.

Fueled by sugar and lack of sleep, I am going a little crazy. All of a sudden, I am having difficulty accepting the reality that even in this time of supposed intimacy and bliss, he and I are still alone, still separate creatures having separate experiences. Our ability to sit on the sofa, each reading our own book, is suddenly a source of distress rather than strength. I'm hung up on the fact that we're not gazing into each other's eyes at every moment; he, oblivious to my alarm, is in the study, deep into his Italian tapes in preparation for our honeymoon. A romance language, no less. I panic at every disagreement; in my altered (altared?) state of mind, every tension, no matter how subtle, becomes a litmus test, the ultimate I-do-or-die assessment of our relationship. All of a sudden, I need answers, guarantees. "What kinds of rituals do we want to incorporate into our marriage? What does marriage symbolize for you? What are your fears? Your hopes?" These are valid questions that we have discussed and will presumably revisit for the rest of our lives together. There's just no need -- or way -- to answer them NOW. And yet I can't stop asking. In response to my incessant questioning, my fiancé predictably retracts into his shell. Detailed discussions of obscure CDs are followed by exegeses of the books he is reading. We are turning into a parody of Male and Female, and it's infuriating.

In desperation, I send up a flare to several married girlfriends, a quick email asking whether any of them had a nervous breakdown before their wedding, and if so, which tranquilizers would they recommend? Xanax seems to be the drug of choice -- I feel validated pharmaceutically -- but more important, my friends remind me of what I already know in my heart. Laurie assures me that the weeks before the wedding are "unbelievably stressful and not at all romantic or fun... It will be okay. He is the right guy and you will still be able to grow and change and still love each other after the wedding." This is comforting. I had forgotten that we would continue to evolve after the wedding, rather than being frozen, forever, like the tiny bride and groom on the cake. Susannah writes, "Unlike you, I channeled my stress into the details, but I am sure it was about the real stuff. I remember crying when the caterer asked me if I was planning to serve 'cordials.' What the f--k is a cordial?" Even hip, nose-ringed Marjorie cops to a major pre-wedding freak-out, and reassures me that despite any enlightenment I might possess, I am "still reacting to all the cultural coding from the beginning of Barbie-and-Ken pink girly time." And her comparison of the bridal industry to the military-industrial complex will stay with me forever.

As I reread these wise words, my stomach starts to unclench. There's no way around it: I'm making the biggest leap of faith I have ever made. This is an exhilarating and profoundly moving act, but "fun" it is not. Once the transition is made, I will have a lifetime to settle into couplehood, to absorb and enjoy the reality of the union my partner and I have forged; until then, I simply have to accept that this choice I'm making has stirred up some inner demons. But in truth, we've been proving our steadiness as a couple for two years. And all the plagues -- frogs, boils, even a wedding -- aren't going to tear us apart.

Now, nine years later, I watch our two young daughters racing around the perimeter of our local park. Unleashed by spring, they are gorgeous, kinetic proof of how right I was all along.

Juliet Eastland is a writer in Brookline, Mass.