Clearing the Aisleby Karen Schwartz
They're getting hitched.
When Rachel Silverstein and her longtime boyfriend Dan Gershon decide to get engaged, they hardly expect that planning a wedding will be more difficult than any life changes they've braved in the five years they've been dating. After all, they already live together. But suddenly everyone from parents to friends to cousins to/b>
They're getting hitched.
When Rachel Silverstein and her longtime boyfriend Dan Gershon decide to get engaged, they hardly expect that planning a wedding will be more difficult than any life changes they've braved in the five years they've been dating. After all, they already live together. But suddenly everyone from parents to friends to cousins to caterers seems to be losing their minds completely. Surely it can't all be in Rachel's head. Can it?
She's going insane.
Between her budget-crazed father, her flighty mother, her stepmother, her seemingly perfectly well-meaning in-laws, and a fiancé who's suddenly questioning the very institution of marriage, Rachel's barely holding it together. If the guest-list wars and menu battles don't kill her, the dress-shopping will. And what's it going to take for Dan to step up and realize that his beloved future bride needs his help coping with the madness if she's ever going to make it to the altar?
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Looking back, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I knew that planning the wedding would be hell. We were in Washington, standing in the foyer of the Kosmos Club and talking to Kimmy, the overly blonde, overly perky events booker whose nude stockings and curled bangs had put me off from the moment she'd stuck out her hand and said, "You must be the Bride!" in a way that you could tell meant she dotted her i's with little hearts or smiley faces.
But I'm being a little hard on Kimmy. After all, she thought she was asking an innocent question when she said, "Now, how many guests were you thinking of?" How could she have known that Phyllis and I would answer in unison?
"Between one fifty and two hundred," I said.
"Seventy-five," said Phyllis.
As Kimmy's eyes darted back and forth between me and my stepmother, I turned to Dan, my fiancé, whose left eyebrow, a slightly arched "heh?," told me that he was just as bewildered as I was. (On most people an eyebrow might not exactly express bewilderment, but on Dan, who had been aptly nicknamed Bodhisattva by his college roommates, it did.) My father, Jerry, stood behind Phyllis, who was smiling and nodding her frosted head confidently. I knew that combo. It was vintage Phyllis. It meant, "Something I don't like has just been said, and if I smile and nod hard enough, I can, by sheer force of will and faux-positive facial muscles, make it go away." Having just met Phyllis, Kimmy had no way of knowing this, and therefore assumed that the smile and nod meant that the two dramatically different numbers she had been quoted could somehow be reconciled.
"So, about one seventy-five, then?" Kimmy questioned, looking straight at Phyllis and returning her Stepford grin.
"No," Phyllis replied, the smile never cracking, "just seventy-five. We want to keep it small."
"We?" I asked, turning to face Phyllis directly as the corners of Kimmy's mouth tensed.
"Dad and I," Phyllis answered with a quick double nod and then turned back to beam at Kimmy.
Had she forgotten my father's cousins, the ones who actually flew in from places like Phoenix and Denver for all of the bar mitzvahs and weddings? I couldn't recall a family event without my father's cousin Irwin, a San Diego dermatologist, checking moles in a corner near a buffet table.
"The kids had mentioned wanting to have the ceremony outside," Phyllis continued. "Is that a possibility?"
"Well " Kimmy began.
I couldn't let it slide. "Whether or not we can do it outside, I doubt that keeping this wedding to seventy-five people is a possibility. Dad's family alone is seventy-five people." I tried to say this in an even, nonconfrontational tone, not because I wanted to avoid a confrontation, but because of Phyllis's use of the word "kids." Phyllis was fond of saying things like, "We don't consider this a second marriage," and, "There are no stepchildren in our house, only love." But any time I wanted or needed something from my father, she cast me in the role of Willful, Spoiled Child. If I expressed emotion, I'd be playing the part.
"We'll have another, smaller party for the cousins some other time," Phyllis said. "We'll discuss it later." She turned back to Kimmy. "So, outside space?"
"What?" I asked, genuinely baffled, looking directly at my father. "Why would we do that?"
rd"We have to stick to a budget here, Rachel." My dad's face was reddening as he spat out his words in the I'm-breaking-my-usual-silence-to-lay-down-the-law tone that my brother Matthew and I unaffectionately called "Jerry-anal." "Now, we've thought about it, and seventy-five is the right amount of people for our price range."
"What?" I asked again, and felt Dan's hand on my shoulder. "Your wedding was seventy-five people, and that's just your guests. That doesn't include any of our friends, not to mention the people that Dan's parents want to invite "
"You said they wouldn't have that many guests." Finally, Phyllis spoke without nodding.
"Right," I answered. "I said not that many. I didn't say none."
"Well, they can have twenty-five, you can have twenty-five, and we'll have twenty-five," Phyllis shot back, as if it were a solution.
Dan let out a little laugh. "Aren't you forgetting someone?" he asked.
My father looked down at the carpet. Dan and I looked at Phyllis.
"We haven't figured out how to handle Joyce yet," she said. We hadn't figured out how to handle her either, but as soon as the specter of my mother had been raised, Phyllis's plastered-on smile had vanished.
"You know, we can hold off on firming up the numbers just now," Kimmy said, pressing her clipboard to her chest as if to bolster her peppiness. "Why don't I just show you our party rooms?"
"That would be wonderful," Phyllis said.
"Right this way," Kimmy said, her relief palpable.
Dan and I had been skeptical about a Washington wedding all along. All things being equal, we would have definitely had our wedding back in New York. Actually, all things really being equal (or in our fantasy world, whichever), we would have had our wedding at the Central Park Boathouse, site of our engagement dinner, steps away from the Central Park Zoo, site of the proposal itself. Central Park, the place where we walked together on weekends people-watching, holding hands, shaking our butts to the beat at the skating circle, sharing the air of contented cosmopolitanism with contented cosmopolitans.
I suppose that Dan, who grew up in Main Line Philadelphia, was a guy who'd gone to Columbia for college, and, once he'd had a taste of New York, stayed. I grew up in suburban D.C., went to Barnard, and stayed, so I guess the same could be said about me. But the difference was that New York was the only place I'd ever really considered home. I was a New Yorker held against her will in suburban Washington for the first seventeen years of her life.
My father likes to tell the story of driving down Broadway with me just after I'd moved into my first-year dorm at Barnard in 1989. My father looked out the window and saw garbage, filth, and "questionable characters," and thought to himself, "Am I leaving my daughter here?" And I turned to him, big smile on my face, and said, "Isn't New York the greatest?"
A few days later (the second day of classes, to be exact), I met Dan. It was at that "are these people going to be my Big Chill?" phase of college where "You like Elvis Costello? I love Elvis Costello!" was a commonly overheard snippet of dialogue. I was making my way through the crowded John Jay cafeteria with my new friend from Art History, when her friend motioned for us to join him at his table. There were other people with him, but the only one I can remember had messy Jew-fro hair and wore a red-checked flannel shirt over a faded Bob Dylan T-shirt and black glasses, which, while not quite fashionable, were funky by suburban standards. He stood up from the table, flashed the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen, and stuck his hand in my direction and said, "Hi. I'm Dan Gershon."
From that moment on, I referred to him as "the love of my life Dan Gershon," as in: "There's a party Friday night? Will the love of my life Dan Gershon be there?"
Eight years later, armed with a wedding date, we went to Washington to see the Kosmos Club. We'd gotten engaged three months before, and had taken the summer to "just enjoy it." But now it was fall and we had a wedding to plan. One morning of phone calls in New York had revealed that having a wedding in the city that never sleeps would cost at least twice as much as one in Washington, and there was no way I could justify the extra expense to my father, let alone myself.
It went without saying that a D.C. wedding meant Phyllis, whose life in the seven years since she'd moved from Long Island to first live with, then marry, my father consisted of near-constant redecoration of their Arlington condominium and a never-ending cycle of buying and returning things to the "fabulous" Pentagon City Nordstrom's. With the amount of time she had on her hands and the amount of money my father would have to shell out, Dan and I had known way before Kosmos Club D-Day that there was no way Phyllis was going to take a laissez-faire approach to this wedding.
But I had come to D.C. with hope. The mere fact that someone's your stepmother doesn't mean she's a stepmother.
"This is different," I had told a skeptical Dan on the train ride down. "This is our wedding. Phyllis knows that. And even if she doesn't, my dad does. He knows it's our day."
Of course, in reality, I had my doubts too.
"Anyway," I'd said, "we'll be lucky if our biggest problem with this wedding is Phyllis."
Dan and I wanted a wedding that felt like a cleaned-up version of us, a wedding more about warmth and joy than catered food and centerpieces. We were all about sacrificing formality for the sake of festivity, which is why, as I'd mentioned to Phyllis on the phone, we were hoping to have the wedding outside. I had also mentioned that we had a great potential place the Audubon Society, better known to us as the site of the Levy-Wu wedding.
The Levy-Wu wedding was the wedding of Debra Levy, daughter of Dan's parents' oldest friends (better known as "the Levys"), and Zhang-Yuen Wu, her sweetheart from Brown. Dan and I called it "the Levy-Wu wedding" instead of Debra and Zhang's wedding, because, since they hyphenated their names, Debra and Zhang were now officially the Levy-Wus definitely the best hyphenated name in the politically correct practice's short history. Like their name, the Levy-Wus' wedding was a sort of ode to multiculturalism. Their huppah was held by attendants one African-American, one Indian, one Dutch, one Korean all wearing their native garb; their Reform Jewish ceremony was supplemented with readings from Lao Tze; their hora was danced around red paper lanterns. The event itself, which could have come off somewhere between an intellectual "It's a Small World" ride and a computer commercial trying to evoke "the future," was actually the nicest wedding we'd ever been to.
The bridal magazines I had recently acquired emphasized the wedding as a coming-out party where you show the world your tastes as a couple. This seemed dopey until I realized that the sites of weddings Dan and I had attended had indeed said a lot about the couples who held them. There'd been my high school friend Jonathan and his wife, Leora, whose black-tie wedding at the Teaneck Hilton presaged their move from the West Eighties to a four-bedroom colonial in Englewood six months later. Then there was my cousin Lynn and her husband Mark, whose elaborate wedding at the Plaza foreshadowed their every-time-you-see-them recommendations for restaurants on Park Avenue South. And there was my stepbrother Gregory and his partner Thomas's self-described "wedding of sorts," poolside at an Art Deco hotel in South Beach, with synchronized swimmer "bridesmaids" walking down the diving board to begin their routine to a song from the Funny Girl soundtrack.
A wedding at the Audubon Society would have said that Dan and I were relaxed enough to brave the elements for an outdoor wedding, and maybe that we supported enriching hobbies like bird-watching in some vague sense, the type who'd have you over for a brunch of bagels and smoked salmon and serve you coffee in public television pledge gift mugs a pretty accurate picture, actually.
We knew the Audubon Society fit our bill, but we weren't set on it. Which is why we'd agreed to look at other places.
In the wedding of our fantasies, we could see ourselves and our family and friends milling about a nice but not stuffily manicured lawn, drinking champagne as the sounds of the jazz quartet playing and the birds chirping filled the June afternoon air. In the words of Martha Stewart, we were after "relaxed elegance."
Those were not the words that sprang to mind when Kimmy unlocked the French double doors that led into the Kosmos Club ballroom. The words that sprang to Kimmy's mind, or at least to her mouth, were "Louis the Fourteenth." The words that sprang to mine were "no way, Jose."
This wasn't smoked salmon and PBS mugs; it was cucumber sandwiches and Wedgwood.
"Most of our brides make their entrance through those doors," Kimmy motioned to the back of the room toward one of the many sets of gold-paned windows, "and proceed down the length of the room and then up the stairs and onto the stage."
"Of course, we have a lovely red velvet carpet that we lay out for the aisle, and we set up chairs like these," Kimmy pointed to a white-cushioned, gold-backed chair that sat forlornly in a corner, "on either side of the aisle for the audience."
"Just try and visualize it," Kimmy said. "The audience " her hand swept along in front of her for effect. "The flowers we usually set up two large displays on either side of the staircase. The music the accompanists usually sit right there, to the left of the staircase. Just take it in and get a picture in your head. Close your eyes if you want to."
"You know," I said, "I can really picture it. What about you, Dan?"
"Mmmm-hmmm," he said, nodding. I had to bite my lip to suppress a laugh.
Kimmy turned away and I cast a glance toward Dan, whose pained look back told me that he was every bit as uninterested in getting married in this room as I was. Phyllis and Kimmy chatted as they made their way down the hall to the room where the reception would theoretically take place. My father hung back with us.
"Pretty nice place, huh?" he asked, looking up at the chandelier.
"Sure," said Dan the diplomat. This was the general tone of all of their conversations my dad asking a banal but leading question, Dan being politely agreeable. "Pretty good movie, huh?" "Not bad."
"So you think you might want to do it here?" my father continued, his eyebrows raised in hopeful expectation.
"Maybe," Dan said, though it sounded more like two separate words: may be.
"I think it's pretty nice."
"Yeah," I said. "It is."
My father really could have been thinking, not just hoping, that Dan and I would want to have our wedding in the stuffy opulence of the Kosmos Club ballroom. As an electrical engineer and designer of communication satellites, it wasn't so much that my father was out of touch with our taste, it was more that he was just out of touch. It never surprised me to hear his closest friends, the friends he'd grown up with in Scranton, Pennsylvania ("a great place to be from," elbow to the ribs, yuk-yuk-yuk), one of whom was Henry Kissinger's doctor, another of whom was a Connecticut State Supreme Court judge, say, "Jerry Silverstein is the smartest guy I know." My dad sat around all day thinking thoughts and solving equations that 99 percent of the world couldn't even fathom existed.
Communication satellites my father could master, but human communication was another thing entirely. When I was a child and he and my mother were still married, he would come home from work, head to the family room, turn on MacNeil Lehrer, sit cross-legged on the seventies shag rug, and start dealing out his solitaire hand. And there he would sit, all night, flipping the cards and thinking. I'd sit down right in front of him, cross-legged, watching. By the time I was four, I was going to the closet and getting my own deck of free airline cards so we could play side by side. Every so often, my father would glance over his shoulder at my hand and offer strategic advice. As those glances yielded fewer and fewer pointers, he taught me to play speed solitaire and I'd sit facing him again, going head-to-head. We soon moved on to gin.
"We'd really like to do the wedding here," my dad went on as Kimmy and his wife walked down the hall ahead of us and out of earshot.
"Well, we'll have to see about it," I replied in a slow tone that I hoped conveyed a sense of letting down easily.
My father pursed his lips and let out a short breath. "We'd like for the two of you to have something that you want," he began in fully Jerry-anal mode, "but it's very important that this wedding stay within our budget. The Kosmos Club is very reasonable for members. The fee for the room rental is very low, and they only charge you what you'd pay in the restaurant for dinner, which is a lot less than a caterer."
I'd seen Father of the Bride both the original and the remake. The father of the bride freaks out about money. I could handle that.
"You know, Dad," I said, our pace now slowing to near-molasses, "even if we don't have it here, we don't want some over-the-top wedding. I'm sure we can find a place we like and keep the costs down, too."
"You know, one of the main reasons we joined here is that it's a very reasonable place to hold a wedding." The Jerry-anal face was its telltale red.
No wonder Phyllis had been vague about the other places we'd be touring; there wouldn't be any.
"Well, you should have taken us on the tour then, Dad," I said. "We would have told you that if you were joining this place to have our wedding in it, you might as well have canceled your application."
"Rachel," my father's tone was stern, "the Kosmos Club is a very good deal. The amount they charge for the food is very reasonable."
There is only so much Jerry-anal I can take, and I had reached my limit. "First of all, Dad, I am twenty-six years old, so stop speaking to me as if I were twelve. Second, we did not like that room and we do not want to get married there. Besides, that room was huge and you only want there to be seventy-five people in 'the audience.'"
"If you have the wedding someplace less expensive, like this, we may be able to have more people."
I rolled my eyes. "Do you seriously expect to have a wedding and not invite the cousins?"
"I expect to have a wedding that I can afford."
"And you're willing to blow off your family?"
"If need be."
I could imagine him dragging his feet, Jerry-anally sticking to whatever budget he had pulled out from who knows where, until my aunt Natalie, his sister, called him up and told him in no uncertain terms that there was no way that he could hold a wedding for his only daughter and not invite the cousins. And I knew that at that moment, it would be back to the drawing board.
"Why don't you just save us all a lot of trouble and admit that this wedding is going to be one hundred and fifty people, and let us work from there," I said.
"Because I'm not sure this wedding is going to be one hundred and fifty people. What I am sure of is that this wedding is going to be in line with the budget."
"Okay, that's fine," Dan said, turning the heated tone a notch down. "But can I ask what the budget is based on?"
"It's based on what Phyllis and I have decided we can spend," Jerry-anal, Jerry-anal, Jerry-anal.
"And how much is that?" Dan asked.
"Ten thousand dollars," my father replied firmly.
"Ten thousand dollars?" I repeated in astonishment.
I know that ten thousand dollars is a lot of money. But ten thousand dollars was about what Phyllis had spent on the customized wall unit in their den. Ten thousand dollars was one-eighth what my father had spent on the new Lexus we'd driven to the Kosmos Club. Ten thousand dollars was probably the flower budget at most of the weddings that my father had been to in the past few years, weddings thrown by his Scranton friends and business associates. In the world of weddings, ten thousand dollars does not go very far, even for the kind of low-key event that Dan and I were hoping to have.
Which is what I was about to say, when Kimmy and Phyllis returned with their ever-present smiles.
"We wondered what was keeping you slowpokes," Kimmy said. "Come and take a look at the reception room."
"The Kosmos Club does all of the catering, right?" I asked. When Kimmy nodded yes, I continued, "So, is there any way to have a kosher reception?"
The confusion registered on Kimmy's face. "I don't see how," she said. "We don't allow any outside caterers."
I turned to my father, knowing he could tell, even before I put the card facedown, that I had gin. Grandpa Sol, my mother's father, was seriously Orthodox, which meant that in addition to putting on t'fillin and davening every morning, he only ate kosher food. How could his granddaughter's wedding not be kosher?
"That rules it out," I said, shrugging my shoulders and putting an end to whatever speck of a Kimmy-friendly façade I had left.
"We can't be bound to your grandfather, Rachel," Phyllis said.
"Excuse me?" I felt Dan's hand on my back.
"We can't be held hostage by one person's beliefs," Phyllis reiterated.
Kosmos Club aside, this was not a negotiable point. "It's not a matter of holding you hostage, it's a matter of showing my one living grandparent respect. I know he's not related to you, but you can't just ignore Grandpa Sol. Not at my wedding."
"We'll talk about this later," Phyllis said, returning again to Kimmy. "Now tell me, what about outside space?"
"Well, we don't really do affairs outside here," Kimmy explained, as if this were the stickiest point we'd touched on. "If you'd like, we could see about using the parking lot, but I think that may be a little awkward."
"That's okay," I told her. "I think we've seen enough."
Copyright © 2004 by Karen Schwartz
Meet the Author
Karen Schwartz is a columnist for the New York Sun. She has written for magazines, including Glamour, Self, Marie Claire, Mademoiselle, Redbook, and Spy. This is her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Visit her website at www.clearingtheaisle.com.
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