The Big White Dress – But At What Price?
The phone was ringing. That’s odd, I thought, trying to clear away that cotton candy that inhabits your brain when you’ve just fallen asleep.
Only minutes earlier I’d turned off the light after struggling to stay awake while reading my latest self-help book, “The Road Less Traveled.”
“It has to be late”. I mumbled, rolling on my side to get a look at the time on the digital clock radio next to the bed. It was half past eleven.
Now it is my experience that good news is never on the other end of a phone that rings after eleven. Ever.
Either that person is drunk and dialing, picking a fight about something that happened a week ago, someone is sick or there’s been an accident.
This call ended up trumping all those things.
“Janet, sorry, are you awake? I know it’s late.” It was my friend Rita (not her real name).
Rita is one of the “herd”, as we were called, because of the level of noise that entered a room wherever we showed up, and because there were always seven of us.
Seven teenage girls attached at the hip through all four years of Catholic high school.
I’m sure you can imagine.
We shared everything teenage girls share, all the firsts.
First periods, first cigarettes, first joint, first drunk/sick night, first loves, and all the trouble, chaos and complications that boyfriends bring to a young girl’s life.
Now we were in our late twenties. Everyone was pairing up, I was the first, already married and divorced, Rita, the smart, choosy one, was the last. Several of us had left LA, but the following weekend there would be a reunion of sorts – Rita was getting married.
“Yeah, sure, no problem, I’m awake…what’s up?” I sat up in bed.
“I think Marco’s cheating on me” she started to cry.
“What? Noooooo.” I said, lighting a cigarette. I was up now, sitting on the edge of the bed; this was in the days before mobile phones, although I did have a fifteen foot cord on my yellow push button telephone – so I could wander.
She was crying harder now, rustling papers in the background.
Still groggy, the cigarette was getting me high, had I heard correctly? “What are you talking about? What happened?” I asked. The rustling stopped.
“A woman called me yesterday; she claims she and Marco are in love – that they have been for a long time…she knew my name.” she spit out that last part, I could hear in her voice she was getting mad.
“Oh. My. God.” I was frantically searching my drawers for an ashtray, but had to settle on a plant.
“That’s bullshit, he loves YOU, you’re getting married in less than a week…” She interrupted, her voice agitated, almost yelling, “She told me to check the phone bill for her number; Janet, it’s on here over sixty times just this month, the same with last month and as far back as I…”
“Hold on a second, where is Marco?” They’d been living together since the engagement, but he had a job that took him out-of-town two weeks of every month, so us girls didn’t really know him all that well.
“He’s in Atlanta until tomorrow night.”
“Did you call him? What did he say?” This I had to hear.
“Of course, the minute I hung up with her.”
“And?…” I was dying to hear his explanation.
“Well he denied it, said she’s a girl from work, that she’s super needy, really insecure and kinda crazy. He explained that her number’s on the bill because they have to talk about work problems – he’s her supervisor. I know things have been super stressful at the office lately, with all the layoffs and personnel changes.” She was quiet for a minute.
“He started accusing ME of having cold feet.”
That didn’t sound right, but I stayed on script. “Okay, well see – she’s just a kook from work; he’ll set her straight honey.” I lit a cigarette with a cigarette, something I never did, but this situation called for it.
“That’s what I thought, but she called again tonight – I just got off the phone with her… and called you.” Her voice took on a desperate edge.
“Shit” I suddenly went ice-cold.
There was a sweater in a pile of folded laundry that was waiting patiently on the chair to be put away; I pulled it on, switching the receiver from hand to hand, turned on the light, and started pacing – wandering the room.
“She’s been here – they’ve been here together, she described the condo and she described me! She’s seen me, she waits for me to leave! Get this – she says that I’m the girl he marries and has children with – but she’s the girl he loves. Fucking bitch!” That sent a jolt through my body. Rita NEVER used the “F-word.”
He was feeding that girl a crapsandwich. He was dishing out crap all over the place. It sounded like this guy was wading waist deep in crap.
I was speechless. She continued. “She said he’s Latin and that it’s a cultural thing.” She was crying again. “They laugh at me, she says they laugh about how unsuspecting I am, that I think I’m going to get married and ride off into the sunset…they laugh at me Janet.”
As I listened to her sob, the tears filled my eyes and I started to sniffle, so I put the receiver to my chest so she couldn’t hear me.
After a long time I thought of something to say, “What does she want from you?”
Rita cleared her throat, her exhausted voice was a whisper
“She wants me to walk away, to break things off, otherwise at the wedding, when they ask who objects – she’s going to be there and tell everyone the truth.”
“That’s bullshit! That only happens on soap operas!” my voice was so loud it actually startled me.
“Janet, what should I do? He’s just going to deny it. So what if she IS just a crazy girl from work, she’s still going to ruin my wedding!”
“Maybe when Marco comes home, you guys have a heart to heart; he has to figure this mess out… I don’t know, maybe postpone things…” Rita jumped in. “I can’t call off the wedding! I just wrote the balance check for the hall! This morning was the final fitting on my dress!” She was bordering on hysterical.
“Okay, I know, listen.” My tone was firm.
“If he’s cheating on you, you sure as hell are NOT going through with this wedding! I don’t care how much money is lost and how embarrassing it is. People will just have to get over themselves.”
“You know I’m right. I’ll help you. I can call people and…” She interrupted me. “I’m tired, I have to go; I’m sure when Marco comes home, this will all get settled.”
Her voice turned Stepford.
“I’m sorry I called you so late, you’re right; it’s probably nothing.”
What was happening? I never said that. I never said it was nothing.
“Goodnight” The line went dead.
I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night, and I struggled with whether I should share it with anyone else. The rest of the herd would be in town by the end of the week – if this whole thing didn’t blow up before then. I decided it was best to zip it.
The next time I saw Rita was at the rehearsal. I was singing Ave Maria and One Hand One Heart from West Side Story at the ceremony, so we did a run through.
She looked beautiful and happy, all smiles. Even when I searched her eyes while saying goodbye after the rehearsal dinner, there was no hint that anything was amiss. Marco sat surrounded by relatives from out-of-town – beaming.
So okay. They’d worked it out. It was one of those late night calls that you just chalk up to nerves and you forget it ever happened.
The next morning, up in the choir loft, after Rita’s entrance in her big, flowing, white gown, I watched from above, scanning the crowd. Marco’s family and friends on the right, and Rita’s giant Irish Catholic family on the left – and a mystery woman, in a huge hat, all in black, standing in the back.
Who was that? I bent waaaay over the ledge to try to catch a glimpse of her face, but short of doing a half gainer with a twist off that balcony – it wasn’t going to happen.
All black. To a wedding? Really bitch? My heart was pounding. Was this the “other woman” all set to ruin Rita’s special day?
I was helpless to do anything. It was time for the Ave Maria. The minute the song was over, the last note still reverberating, riding those incredible church acoustics, I ran back to the ledge, searching for the stranger in black – but she was gone.
I wish this story had a fairy tale ending…
As it turns out Marco did have another woman. Several actually. He let it be known right after Rita told him he was going to have a son. They tried to play happy family for a while, but I think the whole marriage lasted all of three years.
It’s been about thirty years and Rita hasn’t had a serious relationship since. She’s never been able to let herself trust a man again.
She got the big white dress – but at what price?
The thing that Rita really lost was the trust of her own internal navigation system. She stopped trusting herself. She’d known in her gut what was going on, even when he denied it, but she thought she was too far in to get out. She wanted to save face, to be married – only to be divorced a few years later, as a single mother.
We all do things we know in our hearts are doomed to fail.
We stay in situations that we know aren’t right, because we’re deeply invested.
But there can be a way out, there’s always way out.
Gut check – intuition – rumors – lies – denials.
If it feels bad – it probably is.
Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? It’s not just about weddings. Did you get out? How did you do it?