The morning after I met J, I told my best friend Gail “I met the man I’m going to marry.” I believed this but – as the above entry makes clear – J hadn’t reached the same conclusion. Because it was a done deal in my own mind, I needed J and Gail to get along.
It’s a problem when your best friend loathes your significant other. Usually, I’m the one who detests my friend’s beloved. The friendship suffers when my friend chooses the love of her life over me, her jealous, bitchy buddy. Go figure.
I didn’t want to choose. Choosing means giving up an option, possibly forever. I avoid it when I can. Luckily, J and Gail clicked. Despite many miles and years since that night, we remain close today.
For the record, I did not get more aggressive and gregarious around Law House although J did get more irritable (and irritating) as finals approached. It didn’t matter. My premonition was correct. I’d met the man I would marry.
After such a rocky start, the last thing I expected was a magical wedding – but then, all of my expectations were wrong. I figured spotty attendance, at best. Aside from John, how many lunatics would brave freezing roads and icy wives to witness nuptials?
A whole lot, it turned out. When two people as well-loved as Phil and Sharon wed, their collective iPhone contacts show up en masse. When Sharon walked down the aisle in a gorgeous traditional white gown, I was moved to tears. There was something so unique and poignant about two people (in my own demographic yet!) who got lucky and found love again.
And how about the Tenaya Lodge, dusted with snow as the sun flickered toward twilight? I can’t imagine a more stunning site for a winter wedding. Surrounded by so much beauty, I felt compelled to snap a selfie or two while waiting for the reception to start.
The hits kept on coming. The bride and groom’s adult children were all ecstatic about the union because it made their parents so happy. The DJ played music I loved and and adorable grandchildren danced in wedding attire. John and I were seated at a table packed with fascinating people and lively conversation. Even the food was good!
Last but not least, in a rare moment of clarity I conceded most likely I wouldn’t have finished the great American novel if I’d stayed home instead of attending the wedding. John refrained from saying “I told you so” in words.
I met Mary Bennett my first quarter at UCLA, when we both snuck into an encounter group for depressed Sproul Hall residents. (Neither of us were depressed enough, according to their survey – we must have hidden it well.)
Ten minutes into group, we cured our depression by deciding to be roommates. I did take the precaution of checking out her LP collection first. When I discovered that – like me – she owned Mason Williams’ obscure first album, it was a done deal. I’ve never regretted it.
Mary met future husband Jack Denove before I met John but they married five years later. Apparently they weren’t quite as impulsive. Since Mary and Jack went to Loyola Law School and J was in law school at USC, they were one of the first couples we socialized with. Mary and I served as bridesmaids in each other’s weddings and John eventually joined their law firm – now Bennett, Cheong, Denove and Rowell.
I didn’t know Karen Stuart well but I liked her. John worked for her husband, Tony Stuart, before joining Mary and Jack. In this instance, my first instinct was correct. I shouldn’t have let Karen read my book without doing a rewrite. Since writers generally get only one shot – one read – I should have made sure it was as good as it could be. This is Not My Beautiful Wife, the novel in question (title taken from the Talking Heads song Once in a Lifetime) wasn’t ready. Karen was kind and gave me useful notes, but this once in a lifetime opportunity was over.
Maybe one of these days I’ll pick it up and try again.
I served as a bridesmaid six times – all after being a bride myself – and this was by far the best dress. I was far crueler to the five women who participated in my wedding (below). The lace overlay, garden party hats, puffed sleeves – any one of these might be an unpardonable fashion sin – put them all together and this is what you get.
In my defense, the year was 1975 and I’d go with five different colors again today. I doubt my bridesmaids wore their dresses again aside from the occasional costume party.
While it’s an honor to be asked to serve as a bridesmaid – and I don’t mind admitting I was miffed on a few occasions when I thought I’d be an integral part of the wedding party only to find myself seated on the brides’s side with the rest of her friends who didn’t rate – it’s not all fun and games.
Standing up for your friend as she/he exchanges vows with the person they plan to spend their lives with becomes uncomfortable when you’ve got a strong intuition this union won’t survive the sniffles, forget until death do us part. I’ve been there and I’m usually right.
Not always, though. No outsider can fully grasp another couple’s relationship because we don’t know what goes on behind closed doors. One of my cynical writing professors told me not to bother justifying why two mismatched people stay together in misery all their lives. “The same reason most relationships stick together. Inertia and fear of change.” Dramatically, he’s probably right. Realistically, he’s probably right about a lot of couples – but not all. I’ll never give up on the romantic ideal of people who promise “till death do us part” and mean it with their whole heart.
Three days before she died, I received a letter from Natalie. Uncharacteristically, I wrote back immediately. I don’t remember what I said but at least I wrote back. Her brother found my letter, unopened, on the kitchen counter, when he arrived in Ukiah after she was dead. My name was on the return address. That’s how he knew where to contact me and let me know she was gone.
Fall, 1961. “A family with a daughter your age is joining our church,” my father says. Natalie is short and round with blue eyes and blonde hair in a Prince Valiant cut. I’m the fourth grade giraffe, tall and skinny with wavy brown hair. She’s an outdoor-oriented extrovert, a born entertainer. I’m a sullen sedentary introvert longing for center stage despite my lack of talent.
Obviously, we’re destined to be best friends.
January, 1967. Natalie and I are sophomores at different high schools. We claim to be cousins and people believe us despite how little we have in common. Natalie’s in Choir and Pep Squad. She’s secretary of the Future Teacher’s Club and wins a speaking role in the school play. The Beatles reign on my stereo while she remains loyal to the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.We graduate from our respective high schools in 1969. She and her future first husband Bobby are voted Cutest Couple and featured on a full page in Fremont’s yearbook. I leave Wilcox as anonymously as I served my time. She goes north to college, first Pacific Lutheran in Washington and then Chico State. I head south to UCLA. Natalie majors in PE and Education, I choose Film Writing. We get together briefly every summer but during the school year we forge new friendships.
Natalie and Bobby divorce. The next time I hear from her, she’s engaged to the man of her dreams. She doesn’t ask me to be a bridesmaid in either of her weddings. The outdoor ceremony takes place on a blistering August day at the Ukiah ranch where they live
Summer, 1988. Natalie, her husband and their daughter spend two days with my family on their way home from Disneyland. Natalie’s jumpy, a restless bundle of uneven edges and darting eyes, nothing like the laughing Natalie I remember from childhood. She smells the same, a summer collage of rose-scented soap, saltwater or tears, sunblock, healthy sweat and new mown grass. She tries to hide the small scaly patches engraved on the skin on back of her hands and elbows. She isn’t any smaller, but in some profound way she is fading before my eyes.
Not long after, she gets divorced again. In the spring of 1994, Natalie’s mother – in many ways her anchor – dies. Natalie spirals down, then goes into freefall.
While at work as a kindergarten teacher, she passes out, drunk, in the ladies room. She’s fired from her dream job. Next, she loses her driver’s license. After that she loses custody of her daughter.
Fall, 1995. I hate it when she calls late at night. She rambles, repeats herself and slurs her words. I make excuses to get off the phone.
March 26, 1996. I open Natalie’s last letter. She never learned to type so it’s handwritten like all the others. The round, precise cursive lines of blue ink on the first page remind me of the tight, controlled perfection of her record acts.
Her writing deteriorated with every line, crazily sloping out of control by the time she signed her name. I wanted to believe her but I didn’t. Even so, I never thought alcohol would kill her at 44.
I hope she knew I loved her. I know you can’t save people who don’t want to be saved but I wish I’d tried harder. Whenever her name is mentioned, I still tell people she was my cousin. She’s buried next to her mother in Massachusetts instead of Ukiah. I’ve never been to Massachusetts but one of these days I’ll go.