I went to a wedding on July 23 for my best friend from college. All of my memories of her are good ones. We were study abroad roommates and OK friends and then better friends stateside once everyone else disappeared and it was just us and the streets of Pittsburgh and Primantis at 1 AM.
We always said yes to things. That’s what I remember most. Yes to pizza and cocktails at The Porch after Hindi class. Yes to porch hangs and boxes of Franzia. Yes to queer parties and outdoors club parties and a throwback party we threw ourselves which had a fascinating playlist composed of both Missy Elliot and Yellowcard. In my head, I’ve always romanticized a bff Broad City existence, and in retrospect, that’s the closest I ever came. We did things and talked shit about people and drank an ungodly amount of PBR.
And now she’s married. So here’s a bit about that.
It is cocktail hour after the ceremony. The sky is blue and we are all pink with sun. Paddleboarders pass by the now empty venue while we gather beneath a sprawling tree, herding around the charcuterie setup like a watering hole while people are called in small groups to take pictures with the brides. I slip crackers and wedges of cheese into my mouth cupping a beer in my hand. I chat with strangers, some of whom I met at the rehearsal dinner. The numbers work out—there are the right number of strangers and non-strangers, meaning I have people to talk with. Everyone has a plus one, but it doesn’t extend beyond that. At some weddings, entire friend groups are in attendance and if you’re not a part of them, you’re always on the outside, no matter how kind the people are. This is my third wedding I am attending solo in the past two years, and the second where I really don’t know anyone else besides the bride.
Should we go up? Someone asks. The reception is taking place up the hill, a short bus ride or walk away. No one is quite sure when we should be migrating that direction.
I’m going to stay here, I say. Food, you know. And beer. And we’re outside!
Hell yeah, says the red-haired girl next to me. She is young, despite what her fake ID says. We chatted the night prior at the rehearsal dinner. I mock cheers her with my beer.
The best things happen outside, I say.
You know, I’ve heard that. Nothing good ever happens inside.
Bold statement, says another bridesmaid whom I adore. What bad things happen inside?
OK, hear me out, this is kinda an inside-outside thing, says the redhead.
I’m with you, I say.
My first thought, she says and then dramatically pauses, is 9/11.
The other bridesmaid and I erupt into laughter.
It is the rehearsal dinner. I’ve met both families and the close friends and have been hand-delivered an Impossible burger since I am the only vegetarian in attendance. The dinner is at a well-manicured beach-side house, the tables set up on the patio that overlooks the ocean. You can glimpse mountains in the distance. Everyone is shyly on the lookout for dolphins.
We’ve had dinner and drinks and pound cake all the way from Philly, and now is the time in the evening when the sun dips below the mountains and everyone begins to scatter. Some are inside helping with clean up and some have said goodbye already and some are around the gigantic bonfire burning on the beach. I am at the latter. It’s been so long since I’ve been at a campfire and despite how many I’ve been to, I still feel that there is something vaguely magical about them, about what can unfold in their presence.
As we are standing around the bonfire, one of the brides’ fathers distributes sparklers. And just like that, I am gone. There is no music, but I sing my a song under my breath, and on the darkened beach, I spin and twirl and dance, my sparklers a pair of wands before me. They extinguish and more are placed in my hands. Keep going! People watch. Someone cheers. One of the bridesmaids’ boyfriends joins me. You’re living, he says. Everyone else is at a 7 and you, you’re at an 11.
It is one of those strange moments where you’re acutely aware of being watched, of being someone that people admire and maybe even envy. A woman alone spinning with sparklers. Sometimes, even when the moment clings present, you have those feelings that are outside yourself, that you are both a woman alone spinning with sparklers and also a woman thinking about the type of women who spin around with sparklers, and those feelings and selves coexist simultaneously, and you are once again thinking about what it means to be your authentic self, if such a thing is possible without influence, without shaping yourself to be viewed from different vantage points, like when you scroll Instagram and do the mental somersault of trying to view your pixelated existence from another person’s perspective. What does this say about me? Who am I to people, and does it match what I feel?
Eventually the sparklers run out. I leave shortly after.
Channing, someone whispers.
It is the middle of the wedding ceremony. The entire bridal party is still standing by the brides, who are radiant and lovely and loving. It is a bridesmaid several people away who has whispered my name. I turn my head slightly so she knows I am listening but not enough to look distracted (or so I hope).
Should we sit down? she whispers, eyeing me anxiously.
In rehearsal, we were told we’d sit down at some point. The officiant had been delayed for the practice run, so we were never told when exactly that would be. I do a quick calculation in my head. Worst case scenario if we stay, we stand the entire ceremony. Not bad. Worst case scenario if we sit, we awkwardly go to our chairs one by one and the whole thing looks strange and messy and unprofessional. Bad. Quite bad.
I shake my head quickly and we both turn our attentions back to the wedding arch.
I am not quite sure why she asks me and not someone else, like, I don’t know, the groomsman in between us. I wonder what it is about people that make us act a certain way. Why we see them as a source of authority or not. Or why, in a different context entirely, there are certain people who we catch glimpses of and immediately crave their acknowledgment, their validation. It is all just a game of optics. My fear of whispering at the alter. My entire existence. What does it mean that I care?
The officiant dismisses us to our seats. We sit.
I’ve been camping for the entire wedding weekend, which has turned out remarkably well. One afternoon I spend lounging in the sun drinking jun kombucha, eating blueberries, and napping on my backpacking mattress, mastering the balance between the cutesy and grungy outdoor aesthetic. I hear a man yelling at his girlfriend in their campervan and I bristle like a cat, waiting for it to escalate so I can intervene. My nerves already tense at the idea of knocking on their van door and saying Is everyone OK? They quiet down and I do nothing.
This afternoon of sunshine is different, though. It’s different because I am a bridesmaid and I need to do things and be places and I would rather be dead than be late on a day like today. My job pre-ceremony is to set up the appropriate signs to help people get to the wedding spot, but one of the groomsman messages me and tells me that he’s already done it. I tell him I’ll take the signs down after the reception (spoiler: I never do).
I walk along the pebbled beach and glance at my watch approximately every 15 minutes. I give myself a firm leave time, enough time to drive back to my campsite, get dressed and put on makeup at the campground bathroom, and drive to the venue, which is at another state park 10 minutes away.
As I walk the beach, I am looking for one thing: a lion’s mane jelly. I found my first one the previous week and I was blown away by their dinner-plate size. But they get bigger, apparently. Huge. Kiddie-pool, 1800’s hoopskirt size. I am desperate to find the largest lion’s mane jelly I can. I walk and I search and I check my watch. I find eight jellies but none of monumental proportions. I poke them with rocks to feel their goopiness. I check my watch. I walk. Eventually I sharp turn back. I am nervous about being late and about people staring at me as I don formal wear and apply mascara in the campground bathroom (spoiler: neither of these happens). I forget to apply deodorant, which I don’t remember until I am sitting at the picnic table waiting for others to arrive, and at which point I can’t leave, even if I’m slightly early, because I have to be present in case help is needed, and if not, then for appearances’ sake. I refuse to be late in any capacity for my best friend’s wedding.
The reception is winding down. I am sweaty and contemplating eating more cake, but it is hard to leave the dancefloor. My best friend’s younger cousins have been sweetly bothering me all evening. They are in their young teens and desperate for attention, which I grant them in small, broken slivers. We are mean to each other in appropriate and funny ways. One of them just broke up with her boyfriend, and after making sure she is OK and reaffirming her worth, I give her the perfunctory “men are rarely worth it, the best is yet to come” talk. I am enamored with teens because they feel so deeply and every time is their first time even if it isn’t and I respect and love the messiness of being young and not knowing any better.
The DJ has been interspersing the contemporary music with some classic oldies, and I’m waiting for one of those to come on so I can make my exit and nab more cake.
But the next song that comes on is What’s Going On? by the 4 Non Blondes and immediately I am rooted.
Ohhhh this is a good one! I say to the newly-single teen cousin.
I don’t know it, she says.
It’s easy. You’ll pick it up. Here, let’s dance.
She agrees and we sway to the slow beginning and break apart when the chorus really hits so we can belt it out. She doesn’t know the words, but she’s trying, mouthing it along, figuring out the chorus the second time around. The whole dancefloor looks just like us. Mostly women, belting out this 90s banger, dredging up the lyrics from deep in their wombs, their souls, a cavernous maybe wounded place.
And again, optics. I am here in this moment, dancing with this girl, and I am having fun and feeling radiant, and I am also outside myself, peering through the 4th wall, hoping that this is a memory for this small heartbroken girl, that the moment of dancing to this unknown song with this unknown woman is somehow freeing, that the hue of my existence is something she remembers, something positive. Maybe she forgets in the morning. Maybe by the end of the night it was already relegated to the past. But what is the point of being a human in the aching world if you’re not constantly trying to be someone for the people around you, an invitation to brightness and wonder and kindness even in the unknown? Isn’t dancing with strangers at your best friend’s wedding the entire point of it all? Isn’t it?