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Margaret Wheeler Johnson Headshot

The Barbecue

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"Is that what I think it is?"

This wasn't the way I intended to begin our engagement. Ali put so much into the proposal. Hours planning the trip to Mexico that she'd surprised me with that morning. The stress of bringing a concealed diamond through two airports (no one has ever watched the TSA so closely). She had booked a hotel on the coast, and after we'd eaten fish tacos by the ocean and gone back to a room that had its own hammock, she gave me a ring she'd designed herself that couldn't have been more perfect for me.

And all I could come up with in a moment I had looked forward to for months was a response about as grateful and enthusiastic as, "Cool. Did you bring sunscreen?"

Ali thinks, wrongly, that I was unimpressed. The truth is that I didn't know what to do in a situation that felt so scripted by romantic comedies and YouTube proposal videos that it was hard to summon a response that felt authentic but also good enough. TV writer Sarah Heyward recently tweeted, "I won't say yes unless Nancy Meyers writes and directs my future marriage proposal." Because Nancy hadn't written mine, I didn't know what to say.

My underwhelming answer didn't set us back too much. Ali passed out almost immediately in exhaustion, we spent the rest of that late January weekend drinking margaritas on the beach, and we were getting married, which was the point.

We hurtled forward into an engagement that we decided only needed to be five months long. We wanted It to happen in June, didn't like the idea of waiting a year and a half, and, in true type-A fashion, saw no reason this wedding-planning thing everyone gets so worked up about couldn't be executed efficiently and without fanfare.

Very soon I realized that an engagement was not what I thought it was.

Ali and I are very different. I worry about things I can control, she worries about things she can't. I am loud when I am happy, she yells when she is mad. Ali has always been cool. I got only one detention ever and asked permission to use the hour to get ahead on homework. I am given to grand gestures and swooping affection, Ali to dry humor, skillful negotiation and quietly slipping her hand into mine.

These differences serve us well when it comes time to face the world each day. They were not so useful when it came to planning how we would get hitched.

Unsurprisingly, Ali would have preferred to elope. Her appetite for social tableaux is about a minute long. For the first month of our engagement, she referred to our wedding as The Barbecue, and she planned to wear jeans.

I didn't want a cathedral train or a reception at the Pierre -- once upon a time I was a New Orleans debutante, and five white ball gowns, weighed down with everything they represented, were enough to last me a lifetime.

But I wanted a something. An intimate, beautiful something. We have a lot to celebrate. Ali says she thought she'd never like anyone enough to marry them. I thought I might marry someone but possibly wouldn't like them much.

The only recurring childhood dream I can recall is one I had when I was 7 or 8. In the nightmare it was always 10 minutes before my wedding, and I knew I was marrying the wrong guy, but everything was already paid for so I felt I had to go through with it.

I think we can all tell what that dream was about.

Our real wedding is, for me, in part, a celebration of that dream not in any way coming true. I am marrying a woman I adore in front of the people who know me best, and it all feels deeply right.

So Ali granted me a "something." Figuring out what exactly was the challenge.

Yes, a few decisions were easy. No bouquets, no wedding party, no band, very few guests. Her parents' backyard on the Long Island Sound. One of Ali's best friends as the officiant.

The rest was hard, at least at first. Why did I cry on the subway over the Sunday brunch we're not having? I have never understood the logic of seeing everyone all over again the next morning when you're hungover and look considerably less attractive than you did the night before. And why did I insist for several weeks that Ali shouldn't see my dress -- or me -- before the wedding? Weddings, I discovered, are excellent at temporarily suspending your ability to think for yourself.

In a moment of unprecedented cultural acceptance of gay marriage, I also failed to realize that certain customs are just trickier for two girls to execute. How would we walk into the ceremony? How could we do our first dance in a non-awkward way? What would Ali wear that wasn't a dress -- not her thing -- but didn't make her look like a dude, which is also not her thing? What would I wear?

Which brings me to the dress.

A lot of the things we didn't agree on I could handle. Sure, it's a startling moment when you realize that because you are marrying your equal, you cannot foist your tastes upon her. It was a surprise when we didn't gravitate toward the same china pattern, and when she thought the flowers I liked were fussy, except for peonies, my favorite, which she admitted she finds boring. I think I took all of that remarkably in stride.

But nothing prepared me for the moment when the woman I love said to me, "Don't you think you should wear a short dress?"

"So not a wedding dress," one of my best friends said when I reported this development.

"Right," I said.

"Oh, I don't think so," said my friend, bless her.

I wanted long. I knew that, somehow, feeling beautiful on that day depended on it. Beyond that, though, I couldn't see it.

I modeled wedding gowns for my friends on several pedestals across New York City, including one dress that I swear was the most flattering thing I will ever put on my body. They oohed and aahed and were generally wonderful, but I just couldn't get into it.

I felt like I'd seen all of those dresses before on other brides at other weddings, and also that most of them made too much of a statement. I hated the idea of The Bride as the star of the show. Not only was I one of two brides, I wanted whatever I wore to fit not a teenager making a curtsey but an adult making a vow.

I found my dress by accident, I think in March. We were in a department store. Ali was trying on the pair of white scuba pants she is wearing down the aisle, and I was meandering in the racks. The dress I happened upon wasn't a wedding gown, but it was white and it was ... interesting. It looked like something I could wear on a Saturday night near the water in June.

As I was trying it on, Ali texted me asking for my opinion on a top she'd found. I texted back that I wanted her thoughts on a dress. She came around barefoot from the other fitting room in a garment since known as "The Pocahontas Shirt," opened the door and said, "Oh. Wow." I bought it.

So not all of this engagement's surprises were distressing. Some were actually funny, at least in retrospect. April was hilarious. I didn't expect it to take me three hair appointments to realize that The Taylor Swift wasn't me. I didn't expect the makeup artist to ask me in front of my fiancée and future mother-in-law what I plan to do about my eyebrow "situation." (I'll say it again: I am blond and own tweezers. I have no situation.) I didn't expect that when our parents met for the first time in New Orleans, the water pressure would go out in my entire hometown right before everyone needed to get ready for lunch.

The more challenging surprises were tough in part because I took their difficulty to mean that I was a defective engaged person. When finding secular wedding readings that aren't maudlin proved nearly impossible, I decided I was a fraudulent and failed English major. When we moved into a new apartment a month before the wedding -- it was May, and we are now confirmed masochists -- I thought I should have been more organized. In spite of an Internet full of articles on the money issues, family issues, body-image issues and general stress weddings bring up for everyone, I was convinced that I should be doing it all better.

The hard parts also caught me off guard because the most important part of all of this felt so impossibly easy. My unromantic answer to Ali's proposal reflected most of all how unreasonably certain I have been since I met her that this was it.

That unreasonable certainty is evident in an article I published soon after we met, in which I outlined what a good relationship entails. I wrote it quickly, almost urgently, with a sense of authority that a veteran of not too many relationships had no business having, much less expressing, exactly one month into this one. And yet, weeks into dating Ali, I wrote, "You just know."

The certainty, which Ali evidently shared, carried us through our early aisle-or-no-aisle discussion, the fun but also delicate process of becoming part of one another's families and my recent seating-chart meltdown. It also got us through some significant curveballs that our life outside the wedding -- we did somehow manage to maintain one -- threw at us along the way. As a result, when one of our guests asked me two weeks ago if I'm nervous, I realized I'm not. Not even a little.

Being so certain has a couple of significant hazards, though. In addition to making me think everything was going to go more smoothly than it possibly could, it threatened to obscure one of the best parts of being engaged.

I realized this last weekend when we were in the car on the way home from Ali's parents' house. I was thinking about how we're almost there. My dress is ready. I finally figured out my hair. (I should have known The Naomi Watts was it all along.) I've purchased what I believe to be the appropriate underwear, and my top-secret, possibly misguided wedding-gift plan for Ali is under way. Flowers are ordered, menu tasted, Ali's meticulously curated playlist complete. My family descends on New York next week.

I looked at her driving, at that profile I now know so well, and suddenly felt all over again how intensely I wanted to keep her. That's when I realized that I've been so certain of this, of us, and so focused on the event that will legally bind us that I haven't spent enough time letting myself be reasonably giddy about what is happening.

I found a person whose integrity and intelligence floor me just about every day, who works hard, makes superior friends, tells me the truth, lets me know where she is and cares where I am, who makes me laugh and hears me out and IMs me things like, "I'm extra into you today," who agreed to our Intimate, Beautiful Something Barbecue. I fell hard for a woman who will always be slightly better than me, and she loves me back.

Ali, what I meant to say is "Yes."