Here For The Present
For years my concept of marriage was a man in a suit on his knee somewhere. I had no idea how he came to be in that position, or what might come after. He’d be holding a ring, and looking up into the eyes of a woman. I never got to see the woman.
The scene bore no resemblance to the real thing. Not my real thing, at least. There was no ring. I did not end up on one knee anywhere, and I was never alone in a room with a father asking for his daughter’s hand. Or any other body part. Rather, it kind of dawned on me over a period of weeks that I would be marrying Christine, along with the sense that her family would want to come to the wedding.
At the time the Timms were living on a boat anchored in the Long Island Sound, and spitting out children like spent ammunition. Back in the 1840s Henry Christian Timm had founded and conducted the New York Philharmonic, and the subsequent generations had devoted their energies to splashing around in the gene pool looking for new talent. When space on the boat ran out they simply left the water and moved onto the land. A more personal evolution, and one compressed into the space of a week. The result was a family that ran at the earth like a sword.
I wanted a small wedding. I understood the need for someone to conduct the service, but I preferred the presence of the bride or bridegroom to be optional. The thing was I’d seen the Timms in action. They had a penchant for Long Island catering halls that looked like they’d been built by Boeing. I pictured a building the size of a small country full of aunts and uncles I’d never met, all lined up to tell me how they’d known my wife since she was an amoeba.
On the surface the solution seemed fairly straightforward. Invite everyone, but in such a way that only half would show up. Christine was studying her family tree. The previous week’s births took up one wall of the living room. We would need a mortgage to cover postage. She added Bonnie Margaret to one of her brothers’ lines. “We’ll use our assets,” she said.
I didn’t know much about assets, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have any. Six months earlier I’d been living in a car.
The plan was that since I was from England and we weren’t going to be living there, it was only right we should get married there. This alone would reduce the number of guests by half. Any other family and reducing it by half would have made the event manageable. With the whoop I was marrying into it barely made a dent. We decided to elaborate on the venue.
Scarlet Fever had just wiped out a small village in Mogadishu, a place I wasn’t at all familiar with, but which suddenly seemed like a perfect spot for a wedding. And a recent coup in Bolivia, making it impossible to land aircraft, pushed that country right up there among our list of wedding hotspots, along with any other destination where there was a chance of terminal disease, or a denied visa application.
By the time we were done, the guest list had been reduced to a small gathering, the kind you might find huddled under a storefront window out of the rain, and I was beginning to see the downside. Especially when Christine suggested to those who were coming that they shouldn’t bother with a gift. Their presence alone, she told them, would be worth more than any gift.
There were some very practical reasons I didn’t care for this idea. The main one was that we needed shit. So far as I was concerned getting free stuff was the one good reason to be getting married. We’d already erased two thirds of the guests, now we were encouraging the rest not to bother with a present. The whole thing was costing the equivalent of a shuttle launch, and now we wouldn’t be seeing any return on our investment.
Throughout the whole wedding preparation ordeal I’d been imagining our apartment re-decorated with the anticipated haul. The living room decked out in chocolate leather from Pottery Barn, African slate in the bathroom, hand-crafted window blinds from the Venezuelan rain forests. This turn of events was like coming home to find the place ransacked. I knew then how a potential transplant recipient must feel after months of promise, only to be told at the last moment there would be no heart available. Only this wasn’t just a heart, this was wall to wall carpeting, a bathroom lined with freshly scented cashmere towels, Calphalon cookware, pool tables and linen sets.
Christine waved away my concerns. I was new to the country. I didn’t understand. Unlike her, I was not in bed with America. While I found this thought less than comforting, it was, nevertheless, clear to her that none of the guests would take us up on our offer. How would I know? My knowledge of America was the equivalent of a one night stand. When it came to American culture, I had barely copped a feel. She couldn’t see why I didn’t get it. “If someone told you not to bring a gift, wouldn’t you still bring one?”
Apparently, I’d still bring a gift because it would be the thing to do.
“But you just told me not to.”
This is difficult for non-Americans to understand. Allow me to illustrate: If you ask for a cheese sandwich in England, you will get a cheese sandwich. That is, you will get a piece of cheese between two slices of bread. Ask for a cheese sandwich in America and you’ll be handed four inches of bread with the contents of a dairy farm stuffed into it. The American sandwich is why American wedding guests will still bring you a gift after you’ve expressly told them not to. Americans cannot do anything by anything less than total, unadulterated, ridiculous commitment. It’s also why they shoot their presidents.
By the time we got to England I was more concerned with the ceremony than with the presents. This was because for some reason we had asked Christine’s oldest brother to lead the congregation during the hymns. Greg had apparently qualified himself for this honor by virtue of his role as the lead singer with Molten Rebel. I don’t know when this seemed like a good idea, or why it was that no one tried to stop us. Greg’s fondness for heavy metal proved to be literal. His wedding outfit looked like it had been found in the gardening section at Home Depot. Not only was he wearing what appeared to be a chain link fence, but his hair was longer than my wife. From the back we might have been filming a scene from Clan of the Cave Bear. Somehow at the church he managed to get hold of a different copy of Jerusalem from everyone else, and halfway through was singing a verse only he had. Consequently, he was singing it on his own.
After the ceremony my focus reverted to the gifts. Exactly what kind of horde would we be coming away with? We’d got dinner out of the way, along with the cake cutting and the first dance, and I was keen to see what we’d bagged. The preamble to the wedding had been so consumed with the dispatch of Timm relatives to remote areas of the world that we hadn’t given our English guests a thought. Even if we had, we’d never have considered this. Left to their own devices, they had put their wholehearted attention into the baggage allowance at Delta Airlines, and shopped accordingly. On no account were any of them going to be responsible for excess fees we might incur on our return flight.
Comparing the two sets of presents would be like pointing out the differences between Buckingham Palace and a mud hut. But I’ll do it anyway. Richard gave us a Chet Baker cd. I do like Chet Baker, but next to the Whirlpool fridge with its solid state temperature management system given to us by Christine’s neighbor, Chet’s flugelhorn seemed to be missing something. An ice maker for one thing. Michael, an old school friend, gave us a brick wrapped in some sort of see-through material. It was the sort of gift where you’d expect to find a hundred dollar bill hidden. I looked for about an hour, but eventually gave up. Donald and Martin didn’t bother giving anything. In retrospect I can see their point. Beside the Waterford crystal and the Noritake dinner set given to us by the dog, what would have been the point? Mary and Russell gave us a box of candy. I ate it while waiting for the car that took us to our hotel. And on it went. With every Tiffany gift card from the Americans came a hand-written note on hotel stationery from the English. With every set of Le Creuset cookware came an accompanying Tupperware set.
A lesser man might have been dismayed. Instead, I found it quaint. To America quaint is a thing out of date, something to croon over in a state of sad amusement. Alright for other countries but not for us, thanks very much. England is thick with quaint. Up to its neck in the stuff. Thatched roofs, policemen on bicycles, stores closing for lunch. When it comes to quaint England is ahead of its time.
There is nothing quaint in America. This is hardly surprising when the only measure that matters is that you keep time with the beat of consumerism. It’s virtually impossible when the smaller human gestures, like a man on his knee, holding a ring and looking up into the eyes of the woman he loves are swept away in the exchange of major domestic appliances.