the book of love

 

I knew I was going to cry at my dear friend’s wedding. That was a given. I just didn’t know what would bring the first gulp of a tear.

To be honest, I started tearing up long before we even reached Providence. The thought of my friend walking down the aisle with her father, her wonderful father with the giddy smile that makes his face widen, made me start to cry at the airport. I adore my friend. Her happiness — it moves me.

We tried to explain to Lucy why we cry when we’re happy. For her, tears are the immediate consequence of frustration, of tiredness, of hunger so deep that it can’t be named. I understand. I cried those tears for years. But the older I grow, the more my tears spring from a shared experience, a feeling of being here. “A good cry,” as Danny says. Lu’s only four. She’ll know more later.

Lucy had been insisting we play Wedding for weeks. She grabbed the bouquet of yellow daisies Danny had brought home one day when I wasn’t feeling good. She asked me to stand in front of the windows in the living room, waiting with an open book. She marched, with as much slowness as a four-year-old can manage, holding her Daddy’s hand. I recited a nursery rhyme and looked into her eyes, asking if she would love for the rest of her life. She usually giggled and bolted out of the room. “We have a runaway bride!” Danny shouted. And then she wanted to do it all over again, marrying me the next time.

Danny and I made our way down to the wedding, holding our daughter’s hand. She felt elegant in her green taffeta skirt with the velvet top, a grown-up outfit for a big moment she didn’t really understand. Our dear friend Tita stood next to us in the elevator. She had flown across the country for this wedding too. We had all been waiting years to be there, to be part of our friend’s happiness.

Weddings are all the same, aren’t they? There are slight variations: the names, the words of the toasts, the first song played for a slow dance. However, in what happens, there’s no real variation. Maybe that’s why Lucy wanted to play wedding — there’s a familiar ritual, a comforting structure to it, over and over. But when it’s your wedding, or the wedding of one of your dearest friends, every moment is new again.

We gathered in a small meeting room in a hotel, lit up bright with white lights and smiles. There were too many people and not enough chairs. We sat at the back. Lu stood on the little ledge behind us. I worried for a moment she might bump her head on the painting but she stood still. She felt the moment. And I waited to see my friend. I waited for the first tears.

Two young women sat in the corner, playing a cello and violin. There was Vivaldi, something lovely. When they played the third song, however, I tilted my head. That song. So familiar. Not intended for cello and violin, but right somehow. What was that?

That’s when I started sobbing. Before she even walked into the room. That song.

It’s 2001. My friend Meri and I were living in apartments across the hall from each other in an old building in Seattle. We had moved there from New York, the same week, only six weeks before September 11th. Meri had lived in New York all her life, with her parents in Queens. I had lived most of my life with my parents, before I moved to New York and was born. When we met, I had just returned from London, after living with the Crazy Famous People for six months and having my life turned upside down. She walked into my corner office on the first day of my only office job, late in the afternoon, put out her hand and smiled. And we became friends, within seconds. She had been dormant for years, crushed by a heartbreak so devastating that I don’t think she really breathed in deeply for a decade. We met each other when we were both starting to awaken. We helped each other awaken. We ate great food, sat meditation in the same center, walked up and down the streets of New York, laughing. And when I woke up fully and realized I was ready to go home, she woke up fully and realized she was ready to fly.

And so we moved to Seattle. The day I was back there on a scouting mission, I found an apartment, a little run down but homey, the front wall all windows. I took it. As I was signing the lease, the landlord said he had another one opening up across the hall. I called Meri. She trusted my description. We moved in within a week of each other.

We joke now that we were like a sitcom. We were in and out of each other’s apartments nearly every night. When September 11th happened, and we were both so devastated we felt we should fly back to the city we had just left, we sat in my bed, the covers up to our eyes, watching the news on television. We helped each other recover. We cooked meals for each other, trading off nights in each other’s kitchens. We found our favorite restaurants together. We talked and talked and talked.

Thank god we had each other’s friendship. We were both so lonely.

One week my brother told me he had some music for me. My brother is much cooler than I am. He knows obscure bands before they stop being obscure. And he knows my tastes. So he handed me his three-disc set of 69 Love Songs by Magnetic Fields with these words: “If you don’t love this, I’m going to have you deregistered as my sister.” I put it on and fell in love. We were friends, within seconds. I invited Meri over to listen to this music: sly and witty, lugubrious and smart, funny as hell and tenderhearted. She went mad for it too. I bought my own copy of it that day. She came over to listen so often that she bought her own copy for her apartment, in case she couldn’t come into mine. We wore out that cd, listening.

“The book of love is long and boring
No one can lift the damn thing
It’s full of charts and facts and figures
And instructions for dancing

But I, I love it when you read to me
And you, you can read me anything.”

So there I was in a small ballroom in a hotel in Providence, listening to a young woman play the cello, and I understood. They were playing “The Book of Love” from Magnetic Fields. For Meri’s wedding.

I was sitting next to Danny, our hands on the legs of our darling daughter. And we were waiting for our friend (because she is Danny’s friend now too) to walk down the aisle with her parents on either side of her, the same way we had each walked down the aisle with our parents on either side of us. The day of our wedding, Meri stood near the altar, one of my bridesmaids. Here we were, waiting for her.

Of course I burst into tears when she appeared.

“The book of love has music in it
In fact, that’s where music comes from
Some of it is just transcendental
Some of it is just really dumb

But I, I love it when you sing to me
And you, you can sing me anything”

We moved to a bigger ballroom, still too small. There were passed appetizers I had to turn down for the gluten. I didn’t care. There were hugs from friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. We were all a little sweaty from the crush of people around us. Nobody minded. We waited for Meri and her husband Pat.

When Tita finally had the chance to hug Meri, she sobbed. I understood.

We moved to the biggest ballroom and sat down. Our dear friend Cindy, her husband Ben, and their little boy were seated at our table. There was much joy, especially from the two four-year-olds, who proceeded to chase each other around the table, then the dance floor, then the entire room, an ever-widening circle of delight and silly play all evening long. I didn’t know that Cindy, one of my other bridesmaids and dearest friends, would be there. The gratitude. Gratitude makes tears too.

The details of the wedding? Not important here. It was a wedding. There was food, good food, and the hotel made sure I had everything gluten-free. But today, I’m not really interested in the food. I could describe this wedding in elaborate detail and it would just read like every other wedding you have attended.

Except this.

After the first dance for our friends, the DJ asked for people to join them on the dance floor. And every single person in that ballroom, all 100 or so of them, crowded onto the dance floor. Every single one of them. As Meri later said, “That’s when I knew this was going to be a good wedding.”

There was kick-ass music. The DJ played Buddy Holly, Great Balls of Fire, Elvis ballads, and all the couples in their 60s tore it up on the floor. The rest of us stepped away to watch. There were couples in their 70s, a little bow-backed, still twisting the night away. Pat’s parents never seemed to stop dancing. I want to be them when I grow up.

Late in the evening, after all the formality ended, Danny and Ben took the kids up to their hotel room to play. Cindy and I looked at each other and ran to the dance floor, grabbing Tita on the way. It was “We are Family” by Sister Sledge and we were moving. Meri joined us, swaying in her beautiful gown. “I’ve got all my sisters and me.” And this thing happened that happens when I really dance. This shaking, glorious sense of presence, my feet on the floor, my hips moving, my hair sweaty from all the movement and I don’t care. My girls were around me, women who once had been lonely, some of us for decades, and we were dancing with each other. We tilted our heads to the ceiling and sang, loudly, suddenly not caring about decorum. We gathered together, the music connecting us, our feet twisting, our smiles widening. And we danced, the four of us, to Sly and the Family Stone and Aretha Franklin and James Brown and every song we knew by heart but even better through our feet. The music, the music. The joy. All that joy.

I don’t think that a wedding is the pinnacle experience of life. I don’t think that people have to be married in order to be happy. I know that marriage itself can be a recipe for disaster — I’ve seen that dream of a state become the reality of hatred too many times. But I do know that love, when you find it, when you battle your way through so many lonely days and wondering who you are, when you start to despair that you’ll ever meet that person, and he (or she) arrives, both different than you imagined and exactly who you needed, that love can be a force of nature bigger than any two people.

All that love in the room. There was palpable love in that space and time, wonderful energy, such a celebration. I felt so utterly blessed to have been there.

“The book of love is long and boring
And written very long ago
It’s full of flowers and heart shaped boxes
And things we’re all too young to know

But I, I love it when you give me things
And you, you ought to give me wedding rings
I, I love it when you give me things
And you, you ought to give me wedding rings”

It was a night of joy, of laughter, of sweaty dancing, of yes. I’m still dancing in my seat as I write this. It was a night of love.

And it was a chosen love, a conscious happiness. In that room were dozens and dozens of heartbreaks, lifted by the love and the dancing. There were children who had died at birth, betrayals at the altar, bankruptcies, divorces, loved ones lost to cancer after years of battling, disappointments too great to bear at times, parents slipping into a sea of unknowing living, and long paths of lonliness. They all danced with us. Love means more when you wait for it, whether it’s the friends you find in your 30s who will dance with you forever. Or the love of your life who stood within your sight for decades, not knowing.

All I know is that I love my friend. We both once were so terribly lonely. And now we are both married to men we adore. Maybe it’s as simple as that. And infinitely complex.

This really has nothing to do with food. Or gluten. Or anything I write here, normally. But I had to write it. I’ve been changed by that evening. I find myself, in my late 40s, drifting into a new period of my life.

I want my only anchor now to be love.