Sometimes your closest friend from high school doesn't make you a bridesmaid. Politics are involved, too many other plans must be made and other roles need to be filled. Also, your closest friend from high school probably knows you're not really bridesmaid material: not great at picking out dresses and consistently underwhelmed by showers and bachelorette parties and manicures.
When the invitation arrives, you tell a different close friend that, after this, you're done with weddings--except for an extremely short shortlist, probably including hers. She sits quietly on the other end of the phone, finally saying, "I might not even go to yours."
"Fine. I'm not going to yours."
"Fine. I'm not getting married."
"Fine. I'm not either." And you feel bitter and not so great about yourself.
So you do your best to ignore the discomforts of being an unsettled wanderer in her thirties, relax and simply fly to Milwaukee with joy for your good friend Emily, low expectations for your experience, and tremendous hope for the best. You remember how the whole Internet has been talking and asking about weddings for the past month and somehow forget to pack your camera.
I recently did just this, and as a single woman in her thirties who grew up in Milwaukee, I couldn't help thinking--as I drove around Milwaukee's east side, attended parties and rehearsals, sat around with bridesmaids, helped with last-minute planning and eventually took an anxiety pill (as prescribed!) before accidentally drinking too much at the reception--that I was almost a bridesmaid and that I was almost Kristen Wiig's character Annie in Bridesmaids, the 2011 movie that once gave me so much pause and cause to use words like "problematic."
Now I suddenly think Wiig and her co-writer Annie Mumolo got it almost right. Many of their movie's scenes were over-the-top and ridiculous, many of their characters and relationships simplified, and their ending felt far too mainstream and patriarchal, as Annie found happiness only with the help of that sweet cop who became her date.
Audiences regard Bridesmaids as a comedy, and it would be tough to dispute that categorization, but then and now, I found myself much more moved by the loneliness and anxiety in Annie, a not-so-happy woman in her thirties. She baked that beautiful cupcake, and then she ate it herself. She sat alone in coach, while the bride and (other) bridesmaids sat in first class. And she worried about being single and maybe having failed at her professional and personal dreams. Annie felt left behind, as her soulmate got married and joined a world she didn't know.
And that's what they got almost right. These weekends that terrify those of us who worry we're being left behind or failing or not fitting in or losing connections with some of our oldest, closest friends (and Bridesmaids certainly did capture the pleasure and anguish of close female friendship) can often provide some surprising reassurance, sweet nostalgia, terrific conversation and fun. Happiness may not be as permanent and simple as it appears in these Hollywood stories, but it can still emerge unexpectedly and messily.
The welcome-to-Milwaukee dinner at Emily's parents' house, for example, let me showcase my ability to be alone in a crowd, charming an uncle-type who told me he'd wandered in from the street because he'd spotted a party. "Why are you so quiet?"
"Me?" I asked. "Well, I just wandered in because I felt like being alone and anxious for a couple of hours and felt like worrying about whether I was dressed appropriately and feeling slightly uncomfortable in high heels."
That might have been as good as I got, but at least, unlike Bridesmaids' Annie, I didn't have to listen to anyone say to me, "You don't have a husband," and try to respond. And then, over the course of the weekend, I got to reintegrate myself with other close high-school friends, Anna and Sara, both Emily's bridesmaids who'd given Emily the same honor and job years earlier at their weddings, and I remembered how good they could be in almost any situation.
It's been a while since someone's made a Seinfeld reference during conversation in large part for my benefit, but Sara did just that at the rehearsal dinner: tapping her head like Jerry and Elaine had when explaining the routines she and her husband had worked out for parties. I laughed a little harder than I should have, delighted in the moment and felt something different from bitterness and loneliness.
Just before that dinner and after the rehearsal, I'd been sitting with bridesmaids, when Emily ran into the room and grabbed a bridesmaid I didn't know. I looked at Anna and Sara, all three of us sipping seltzer water on comfortable couches with our heels removed, and asked, "Why does Emily make her do everything?"
Without pause, Anna looked at me as though I'd forgotten everything and explained, "Because she's nice." Pointing to herself, Anna said, "Bitch." Then she pointed at Sara and me with equally satisfied looks on her face, declaring, "Bitch. Bitch." And I don't think I've ever felt so pleased.
As the wedding weekend continued, I--unlike Annie in Bridesmaids--realized I hadn't been fearing a split from one close friend, and I watched as no one fought pettily over the honor of being anyone's "best friend." We are, after all, in our thirties. Instead, I'd been fearing not reconnecting with a whole world I haven't known in years, a world of several close friends.
I've never really thought of myself as a protagonist, as Annie functioned in Bridesmaids. This was Emily and Ben's weekend, and sometimes that's the most important thing to learn. Bridesmaid or not, we're not usually the protagonists; often, we're supporting characters, and no one really cares or even notices what shoes we're wearing or if we've brought a date.
As a supporting character, I learned that it could be possible to return to one of the greatest ensemble casts, which continues to grow and change, that I've ever known. Sure, Anna evidently has forgotten extraordinary amounts of high school, and Sara remembers with more empathy than I recall, but we were still able to laugh at old jokes, tell some new ones, and even still kind of read each others' minds.
So I enjoyed a beautiful ceremony and reception. I took pride in greeting guests with programs, showing Anna's and Sara's daughters how to find their moms' names in the little booklets, and even translating one of the seven blessings in the ceremony. Later, I hugged the bride and told her I loved her, I chatted with Emily's brothers and parents and Sara's family and Anna's family, and I even got to sit next to the charming songwriter who'd performed during the ceremony.
Happiness isn't like Annie's in Bridesmaids. Often, there's no real resolution or suggestion of permanence. Some of us have to fly out of Milwaukee (which really is a great place on a Great Lake, rather than some kind of small town a tiny-highway-ride north of Chicago) the day after the wedding, rather than heading back to the underrated city. Some of us return home and rethink the tiny shortlist of weddings we're still willing to attend. And then we call one of those friends, along with the one who just got married--simply to thank her for the weekend.