Friday, May 25, 2018

alligator

The alligator is getting closer and the pastor is talking about how we never really know each other. Weddings in movies look like this. The water at the edge of the backyard, where a temporary dance floor has been built over a chlorine-blue pool, is the green of secrets and gothic stories about this part of the world, the green of swamps and family resentments, the poisonous green that built a country, staining out into a coastline, the green of wet fields and the damp silence under leaves, the hope of getting there first, before anyone knows. The ocean is maybe a hundred steps away, over the backs of the facing houses. Apparently the alligator was gone for a long time after the hurricanes that flashed through this gated neighborhood on this rich and green-weighted island at the end of last year and turned roads into rivers and driveways into swamps. They thought he’d been lost, died or washed out to sea. We’re glad he’s back but we don’t want him to come any closer. Except that I do, except that I always do. When thunderstorms were predicted for the exact time of the wedding ceremony, part of me wanted them to happen. I wanted the story, the big event. It’s the same part of me that hopes for cancelled flights and emergencies, that wants something to have happened to me, the part of me that hopes the alligator will crawl up on the deck and we’ll all have to run and hide in the house. In predicted crisis I imagine myself into a movie, as though all the worries and obligations of my normal life might be stopped, put on indefinite pause, ceding to the largeness of an out of place event, a thunderstorm, a delayed plane, infinite time, second chances. I guess we hope weddings, and love, might do this same thing. The ceremony is starting; everyone stands. 

The bride and groom are Thomas’ nephew and the nephew’s college girlfriend. They have been dating since they were teenagers, which is to say they haven’t really been dating that long. Thomas’ brother’s kids are- just barely - old enough to do things like drive cars, and not talk about who they voted for, and get married. The person marrying them is a family friend and the same pastor who baptized them. He looks like an actor winning an Oscar for playing a tormented midwestern preacher in a movie, tall and square, white-haired and red-faced. Then again, everything here looks like a movie to me, because everything looks that way when it’s unfamiliar. I get to the thing from categories. The alligator at the wedding is like the South in a movie, but that’s just because I don’t live here; if I lived here, it would just be like life.

The bride and groom stand in front of him, nervous, not looking at each other. They look like kids in high school about to take an important test. I keep calling them kids, and feeling bad about it. I remind myself that plenty of people, more people than not, get married at this age. My assumption of its strangeness is a privilege, and not necessarily correct or objectively true. The bride’s dress is white lace - like a bride in a movie - and too big. It seems to swallow her up, dragging on the ground behind her and picking up pine needles. The train is so long that it won’t stay pinned up during the dancing and finally she puts it around her shoulders like a cape, and everyone laughs and she looks comfortable for the first time all day. I have been to a lot of weddings but all of them have been people older than this, people who have been through other loves and other hopes that failed, people for whom whomever they were standing up with was not the first try or the first draft. It feels like going back in time. Later I talk to the bride’s grandmother, who mentions her first husband, and then quickly explains that she was very young, that it was a different time. You just married the first person who came along, she says, you hoped you got lucky. 

Luck is always a terrifying proposition. It carries the equal or greater possibility of everything going wrong, and reminds us that we have no control over outcomes. Luck is the good things we do not deserve, the blessings we do not earn, the bright days that fall from the sky. I was lucky when I met Thomas. The odds were against us in every way, we met on the internet, he was divorced and older, we lived in different cities, I was a mess of a person. But the odds are always against relationships, against people managing to be proximal to one another, against being happy. All of this is the luck of making it across a collapsing bridge, surviving a car accident without a scratch, waking up into a next day. Luck is ugly, full of casualties. Luck is somebody else’s house falling down instead of yours. The statistic of your joy is made meaningful against the way that other people have failed. The alligator got lucky, survived the storm, came back to the familiar moss green water in the warm weather, floating just beyond the edge of the ceremony like he wants to give a toast. The house got lucky in the same storm; a huge tree branch fell just inches from the roof, just inches from the car, luck the difference between the holiday-feeling of weather events and the reality of disaster. 

Love that lasts is the storm whose damage misses the house, the branch that falls just barely somewhere else, the weather event as a holiday. Most romantic love is a car accident or a hurricane. Most relationships end in wreckage; little lasts and the storm spreads collateral damage, cutting through lives like the sudden scythe of water through a landscape. What we do in collision with one another is dangerous. To try to make a life together is irresponsible. We invent possible hurts that did not exist before we mattered to another person, before this person mattered to us, stringing up new systems of consequences, new ways for our small and thoughtless actions to fall on someone else like knives. Once when I was very young and very stupid, I fell asleep for a split second behind the wheel of my car while going over the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Francisco. I woke up before anything happened, and, terrified, rolled down all the windows and turned up loud music and made it through the rest of the drive without incident. I got lucky. Still, today, when I even think of that, I feel nauseous. I should have died and I didn’t. Thinking of how Thomas and I got together, how we ended up here at this wedding on these white folding chairs in ostentatiously spring-colored outfits, at the family photo call afterwards when the photographer asks to take photos of just the two of us and it’s maybe the most I’ve ever felt like a second wife, like the category, like in a movie, and we are so happy I worry it’s somehow bad-mannered, rude to everyone else around us, feels the same as thinking about that night in the car on the bridge. It shouldn’t have ended up this way. Happy was one out of handfuls of possible endings and every single other one was painful, a tree branch through a house and long months of picking up pieces, rewiring the lights and making emergency plans in the wreckage. Most love is more lessons than happiness, more damage than joy. The thing that lasts, that works, that wakes up one more day and doesn’t break your heart, is the luck just before your car goes off the bridge, sliding under the closing door, cheating the odds. No one deserves anything, but sometimes we get lucky. 

Part of me instinctively rebels at two people this young getting married. They haven’t lived enough life yet to know, they can’t possibly be ready for this, it’s too soon, it’s too much. But the truth is that their marriage lasting or not, being good for them or not, relies on luck no more and no less than mine, than anyone’s, no matter age or experience. Maybe I’m just jealous of it, of how much time they have together. I was at the end of my twenties when I met Thomas. Before that I had a lot of the experiences I worry about the two people standing at this makeshift altar not getting to have. I loved a lot of different people and got my heart broken a lot and let impulsive, unconsidered choices and wildly disparate loves carry me like a pool ball through the world. There were a lot of things I could do because nobody cared whether or not I was coming home. I was incredibly lonely, but I thought that loneliness was just the bargain you make for getting to be young, for getting to have so many unripe possibilities available. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have a partner through those years, even though sometimes I longed toward the relationships that friends who had been together since college had the way you long toward the warm yellow windows of a stranger’s house when you’re walking home on a cold night. I am jealous imagining so much expansive time to build a life together. Thomas and I are not even really that old and yet sometimes I feel like we got to a party an hour before it ended, and despite understanding that all of this is luck and not fairness, it feels massively unfair. How can I have found this person and have so little time with them? Imagine getting to love someone for years before worrying about losing them, before “the rest of my life with you” becomes a reminder of how little time that really means. 

Everyone is a bargain; we get lucky, and we agree to give things up, to have one thing in exchange for not having another. The sermon has a nervous edge of warning: If they don’t make this work, if they find that they do not love the people they turn into, that they were not ready when they made their choice, or even simply that a love that started so early and had so much ground to cover runs out some time before the finish line, then it is the fault of not working hard enough, it seems to imply. Everything is so beautiful here. Even the air feels designed to perfectly fit the scene. Thomas’ brother has done very well, that’s why the house looks like a movie, and is here, in this curated jungle of small private streets, in this moss-hung man-made green world. Wealth is horrifying but it’s also very beautiful. If it wasn’t beautiful it wouldn’t be the thing so many people impale themselves or others on, the thing that cuts a road of pain through so many lives. When my parents were struggling with money a few years ago, my mom, talking about how they had used to live when they had had more money, described what had been lost as “grace.” It gave our lives a sense of grace, she said. Everything here is gracious. Money is another thing that is often described as hard work when it’s really just luck. We get what falls from the sky far more often than we get what we have earned. 

Part of the work - of love, of grace, of anything - is understanding the limits of work, is understanding that the next time the storm may not pass over the house. The alligator is a funny detail because he’s stayed in the water; if he came out of the water and into the party he would be a disaster and maybe a tragedy. The thunderstorm in the middle of the wedding is charming because it didn’t actually happen. The hurricane that misses the house is a story that happened to someone else. These two young, lucky kids might work hard and still fail; lots of us do. The work might be staying with one another, or it might be unbinding themselves from one another, disentangling their families and finances. Love splits lives like a tree. Marriage may be work, but love is also where we confront how little we can control what happens to us. We might grow old together; we might wake up tomorrow no longer in love. We might survive the morning when we do not recognize one another, or we might walk away from it. Part of what love does is to remind us that work and good intentions can guarantee nothing. 

When the bride and groom kiss each other they look like adults to me for the first time, as though something might exist between them illegible to the assembled family here, all of us who are telling our own stories back to ourselves through their two small bodies standing in front of a crowd. Everyone dances badly, there’s cake, the light gets blue and then green-dark. The alligator never gets any closer; by the time I think to look for him it’s too dark to see the water. Thomas and I have an early flight so we go home early, through the green night, in the overhung trees, the thick whispering dinosaur leaves. For a minute at the airport, deliriously tired, he looks like someone I do not know. Then I wake up holding his hand as the plane flies down through turbulence. We land without crashing. We go on one more day into the nausea of luck together. 

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