Kind of an Island
You are excited about the wedding and you are dreading the wedding and you gird yourself accordingly.
You are thirty-seven years old and you are the oldest girl in a sprawling Irish Catholic family. Today you will watch your youngest sister, who is ten years younger than you, take her vows in front of nearly two hundred people. She is the last of all of your eight siblings to be married, apart from you.
“You Campbells always have the best weddings,” your dad’s cousin’s husband tells you, and you have to agree. That you can throw down with the best of them is a point of pride for your tribe.
You have never even been engaged, but you have been to all of these weddings, and you have been in most of them as a bridesmaid.
You are a cliché.
You get to the venue early that day. It is a Saturday, and you think that if you had to conjure a spring day for your own Big Southern Wedding, this is the day you would have conjured. Golden sunlight and no humidity, dogwoods and azaleas in full flower, seventy-five degrees and the bluest of blue skies. In fact, it feels like the weather most days in Los Angeles, which is where you’ve chosen to live your life, which gives you a small feeling of superiority that you push down because you don’t want to be petty, even in your own mind.
The wedding is set on a college campus, but the room where you, the bride, your mom, the groom’s mom, and the eight other bridesmaids will get ready feels more like an office. There is a long conference table alongside a wall of windows that overlooks a brick patio, and the landscape outside is a lush, rolling green.
You will sit in that room for the next seven hours, during which time you will hear all about the bridesmaids and their boyfriends and husbands and fiancés. You will observe that the other two girls who are single are already feeling like they’ve been left behind. You will remember that when you were in your late 20s and your first friends were getting married, you were already starting to feel left behind too.
You reflect on the fact that ten more years have passed since then, and here you are still wondering not so much when it will happen to you, but if.
You wish you could just accept being single, but you can’t. You’ve tried embracing it, reframing it as not a problem but an opportunity, but that only takes you so far. Obviously you crave love, but on a more mundane level, you’re just bored of the single phase of life, the way you’re still confronting the same singledom-related issues you were at fifteen and twenty and twenty-five and thirty and thirty-five. Being single is the problem of a young person, and it has come to feel unseemly to you. You want to move on to other problems.
You remember going to an ex-boyfriend’s wedding when you were twenty-seven. It was one of the lovelier ones you’ve been to — a small outdoor ceremony near the beach, amidst sand dunes and cattails. After the reception, you split a cab back to the rental house with one of your friends from college who’d already been married for five years at that point.
“You shouldn’t be here alone,” he said, in a way that was not condescending but full of kindness and genuine concern. “You should have someone to look out for you.”
You put every bit of strength you had at that moment, which was not that much because you were pretty drunk on vodka sodas, into making sure you didn’t cry.
You adore your sister, who, due to the age difference between you, is kind of like your daughter, too. You changed her diapers, bathed her, dressed her, took her to school and soccer practice, read to her, told her stories.
You wonder how she turned out so much more well-adjusted than you, and you think that maybe it is because you helped to raise her. Your mother, laboring as she did under the crushing weight of keeping a household of eleven afloat for all those years, did not have much in the way of free time.
You resent having been asked to be the maid of honor. It is an ugly thing to admit, and there is no possible way you could tell anyone that this is the case, least of all your sister, but it is nonetheless true. This is your tenth time being a bridesmaid, and the third time you have been maid of honor in the last two years alone.
Being the maid of honor in a big wedding is an endless parade of parties, showers, gifts, dress try-ons, planning, emotional upheavals, and decisions, both important and inane, and your job is to be the cheerleader.
You tried out twice for the cheerleading squad in junior high and did not make it either time.
Your sister has always had boyfriends. She is lovely and light and fun to be around. She latches onto people easily. People latch onto her. You think about how being able to attach easily is key to finding a relationship.
Your default position has always been one of detachment. You think this is at least partially owing to genetic makeup, but you also think it is because you were the only girl among six brothers for a large part of your childhood. You compensated for your differences by retreating into your own world. Among your brothers, it was always a competition of a kind you couldn’t win, so you didn’t try. You were an island. You’re still kind of an island.
Your mother married your father when she was twenty-two and he was twenty-three. She was a virgin, but she’d had many boyfriends, while your dad had never had a girlfriend before her.
Your mother was sloe-eyed and charming and came from a good family. Your dad was high-strung and socially awkward and came from the working class. You once asked your mom what it was about your dad that made her pick him and not any of the others. She listed many reasons, but “I kind of felt sorry for him” was the one that stuck with you.
When you think back on it, there were at least four boyfriends you could have married, before the idea of there being any one perfect person out there for you began to lose credibility. Because they would have married you if you had indicated that was what you wanted, and because they would have made good husbands, and currently are good husbands to their wives. Or at least appear to be.
Of course the term “good” is highly subjective, but at your advanced single age, when such men are harder to come by, you have a simpler definition of what good is, and you mostly think of it as present, committed, and into it.
So many of the men you’ve dated were not into it that it has come to feel suspect when you meet someone who is, or wants to be.
Recently you’ve been seeing a lawyer, and on the day of the wedding, you are in between dates three and four. You know deep down that it will never work, but he embodies some of the qualities you want in a man, so you try to focus on them.
The lawyer is:
· Gainfully employed
· A grown-up
The lawyer is also:
· A cigar smoker
· Kind of an asshole
But at least he is someone, and someone — or just the idea of someone — is what you need right now.
You agonize over your toast for weeks. You feel that because you’ve been in so many weddings, and you are a sometime writer, you have no excuse for not saying something memorable.
And yet your mind goes blank every time you try to think of what to say. Public speaking has never been a fear of yours; you just seem to have run out of generosity.
You wonder if your sister has considered the emotional toll of having to speak in a magnanimous way about two people so much younger than you who’ve stumbled upon what you’ve been searching for unsuccessfully for years. It is all you can do to not be bitter.
Bitterness is pointless unless you’ve truly given up and can wallow in its sour pleasures. You wonder how long you can hold out before it infects your very cells. If you keep having to be the aging single bridesmaid in weddings, not long.
When it is your turn to speak, you have to struggle to be heard.
“Listen up, everyone,” you say.
Standing in front of this room of people, some you’ve known your whole life, and some you’ll never see again, you wonder what they think of you. Do they know that you are pretty sure you are the last person who should be giving advice on love? All those eyes seem kind enough, but you wonder.
The bridesmaid’s dress is a filmy silk chiffon that comes down to your knees, which is as short as you will wear a skirt. It is ill-fitting in the bodice, displaying a bit more cleavage than is probably appropriate (something you could have avoided by visiting a tailor, had you made more of an effort), but as far as bridesmaid’s dresses go, it is not that bad. The dress is green, which seems fitting.
There is only one man you have loved without reservation, who you would have married without a moment’s hesitation: the ex whose beach wedding you attended.
Two years after his wedding, you and that ex are lying in bed together, and he tells you that when he saw you on his wedding day, his first thought was “I never should have broken up with her.”
When your ex and his wife have their first child five years later, you are on Tinder, a dating app that presents prospective mates to you in a game format, in which you swipe right to indicate you’re interested or swipe left to indicate you’re not.
The vast majority of the time, you swipe left.
You are on your best behavior throughout your sister’s wedding. You chat with relatives. You dance with your father. You eat a slice of cake and make small talk with friends of your parents’. Your only slip comes when you get in the photo booth. Someone hands you a wooden mustache, and you wave it away and pose instead with your middle fingers extended on both sides of your body.
Your sister and her husband see this picture after the honeymoon, and they laugh and laugh.
On your second date with the lawyer, he gave you a fist bump because neither of you has “settled.” On your fourth date he told you that one of his favorite jokes is:
“Q: Do you know why divorce is so expensive?
A: Because it’s worth it.”
You decline a fifth date.
After the ceremony, the photographer pulls you aside for family pictures with the bride and groom. Your sister invites everyone to use the opportunity to get a photo of their own little broods and/or spouses, and they do. Your brother tells you you should get a solo portrait in some ridiculous pose, but you demur.
You find that your biggest problem with dating is that you rarely feel genuinely attracted to anyone. This worries you to no end, because the implications — that your standards are impossibly high, that you will always be alone, and that it will be your fault — fill you with despair. And so you try to work against this problem by going out with men you’re not especially drawn to in the hopes that they will grow on you, because that can happen, and has before, as it did with the ex who married someone else.
Though usually it doesn’t.
You are chatting with the newish girlfriend of an older family member, and she tells you you remind her of her sister, because “she is also very career driven.”
You are bewildered at first because you have never given this woman any indication that you are “career driven,” but once you’ve had time to think about it, you realize that this is just something people assume about unmarried women with decent jobs.
You have never even known a woman to consciously choose work over love, at least not on a long-term basis. The unfairness of the assumption strikes you, because it implies that caring about your work means you have deprioritized relationships. As though women should abandon work if it seems like it could possibly impinge on finding a mate. As though you have somehow failed at love by being successful in another context. As though it’s impossible to be successful in both places, never mind that millions of people are.
At the rehearsal dinner, the groom’s cousin gives a speech about how the groom reminds him of their grandfather, and it’s succinct and moving and sweet. He makes an impression, and you realize he’d been flirting with you earlier in the evening. He is tall and earnest, the kind of guy you’ve never actually dated because he lacks an “edge.”
Later on, you go to a bar around the corner, where you drink two Manhattans after the three (actually it was probably more like four or maybe even five?) glasses of wine you had at dinner. You flirt shamelessly with the cousin, who is also ten years younger than you, in front of everyone. You ask him to walk you back to the hotel. He obliges, and you go back to his room and fool around for a while, but not that long, because you are old and wearing Spanx and you don’t really find him especially attractive either. You go back to your room and pass out.
You never fantasized about your wedding. Not even as a little girl, and not because you lack imagination. You don’t like being the center of attention, and anyway, you find it impossible to imagine a wedding that doesn’t factor in the personality and wishes of the other person. The closest you have come is to try to picture what kind of dress you would wear if you found yourself in such a situation, and it is not a satisfying exercise because you can’t land on anything white and bride-y that you feel would be flattering and fun to wear. But still, you can’t deny the pull of getting everyone you love into one place as a measure of respect for you, to bear witness to an important life passage. What breaks your heart is that in the absence of such a life passage, you miss yet another chance to know that you are loved, and that you are worthy.
There are only two references to your being single during the whole event. One is from a family friend who complains about how his thirty-one-year-old daughter is still not married. “Whoa,” you tell him, “look who you’re talking to here.” The other is from your cousin, who is thirty-four and also there alone. “Don’t worry,” he tells you. “You’re beautiful.” You think for a second that someone acknowledging that this whole affair must be hard on you might be what finally sets you off, but you remain composed. Still, it’s nice to be recognized, even if it’s just by one person who’s in the same predicament.
When you think about it, that’s all you want out of a relationship. To be seen. And not in a superficial way, but to be known deeply, and to know the other person deeply in turn. Over the years, you’ve gotten advice from every stripe of married person, from newlyweds to couples who’ve been married for decades, and it’s all been variations on the same theme: that you don’t necessarily need a “soulmate,” just a partner with whom you will move through life.
While you can certainly see the appeal of having someone like that around, you know that it can’t be all there is, especially this late in the game, when you’ve learned to do just about everything for yourself, and who you can count on when you can’t. How ironic it is that the older you get, the harder it is to rationalize settling.
And yet the marriages you envy are the ones where the couple seems to really be that to each other: “soulmates.” You feel like you could use another twenty years of observation before you come to a conclusion on this, but the view you continue to harbor and defend is that for you, going into a marriage without romance is a recipe for catastrophe and needless suffering. You don’t need to do that. You do not want to be alone, but you know you could survive it.
So why, then, does being single bother you so much?
As an avid reader, you devour stories about finding love. How did they meet? How did they know they were right for each other? How much of their becoming a couple was a choice and how much of it was inevitable? (You’ve had and seen it happen both ways.) As much as you like reading these tales, you wish you knew something more about their lives before they found each other. Did they date people they didn’t especially like? Did they make mental catalogs of all the character traits that contributed to their always being single? Did they sometimes drink a bottle of wine to get through the night alone? But you have noticed that when people write about love, it is usually from the other side of the chasm: the safety of a long-term relationship. They are happy to describe to you in infinite detail all their past unhappiness and dating struggles with the promise that if you just hang in there, you’ll make it too.
But where were those people when they were in the midst of the search? There seem to be precious few writers who are willing to be open about this one thing while they’re going through it, and you suspect that’s because it’s tough to adopt that pose without implying some kind of commitment to it. You’re guilty of it too–even though no one asks, you drop that you’re “seeing someone” a few times over the weekend because you need people to know that. You realize that what’s actually happening is that you need yourself to know that. Because to brand yourself as a lonely heart or unlucky in love is to brand yourself kind of a sad sack, and sad sacks are just not attractive. That is human nature.
You think about the trajectory of your life, and how you crave adventure and experiences and challenges, and you don’t know how to reconcile that with a promise to come home to the same person night after night, forever. It is for that reason that you’ve been so selective about a mate — knowing yourself, how can you go into such an arrangement half-assed? And so the spot in your mind where you do want to get married lives alongside a spot in your mind where you’re really not sure that kind of thing is for you.
You give what you believe is a heartfelt, if not exactly show-stopping, speech. You talk about your sister’s exceptional qualities, her zeal for life, her fearlessness, her big heart, and her ability to know her own mind, which has always amazed you. You talk about the groom’s quiet goodness, his doggedness, his sense of humor and his ability to recognize a good thing when he saw it. You don’t talk about how, unlike on certain other occasions when you’ve had to make wedding speeches, you believe these people really do belong together.
You wish them well and tell everyone that you are grateful to play a part in their lives. You are.
The day after the wedding, you feel immense gratitude that you had the good sense to book your flight home for that afternoon. While you do feel a slight pang at missing the chance to rehash all the highlights in person, you are unbelievably relieved at the thought that you will sleep in your own bed that night. That you will board an aircraft that will whisk you 3,000 miles west, back to a place where you are not alone in your aloneness, where you will continue your search in relative peace.
Thank you to Chris Daley, Karen Lentz, Stephanie Ross, Joyce Salter, Christie Ellis, Jennifer Alise Drew, Megan Stephan, Rajat Mittal, Caryn Tan, Steven Ovadia, and Jude Klinger for their generous feedback and edits to this essay.