By Caitlin Gibson and Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, September 7, 2008
It starts with a couple of young women talking about weddings.
Only we aren't fawning over centerpieces or debating roses versus lilies or scrutinizing every hemline of the perfect pastel bridesmaid dress. In fact, we are talking about how centerpieces and pastel bridesmaid dresses make us want to puke all over those dyed-to-match satin shoes.
It's personal. We want revenge. We have done multiple tours of bridesmaid duty, and we have witnessed the collateral damage: a relative who sobbed when she dropped lipstick on her wedding gown; the friend who insisted on a last-minute trimming of her bridal bouquet stems; countless women swallowed by the cyberworld of The Knot, a typical bride's No. 1 online source for Everything Wedding.
We are convinced that there is no justification for wedding insanity. We feel qualified to make this judgment as single women who have never been married or engaged, and have never planned an event more complicated than happy hour. But we have seen what happens to some intelligent, strong women when confronted by the multibillion-dollar Wedding Industrial Complex: Those few unattractive tendencies, weaknesses generally kept under control -- bossiness, melodramatic romanticism, obsession with looks, agony over superficial details -- coalesce into a toxic distillate. What chance does anyone have against an industry that seduces the rampaging feminine id? The masses need to be liberated.
What if . . . we become Anti-Wedding Planners? What if we find a couple who shares our opinion and lets us plan their unorthodox, fabulously cheap anti-wedding, located -- we dream -- in a bus depot or a Laundromat? We envision the glorious reversal of typical wedding cliches: the symbolic release of dirty city pigeons in lieu of doves, bouquets of dead leaves, a buffet of peanut butter or grilled-cheese sandwiches. The wedding itself would be a statement, a metaphorical loogie aimed right at the wispy veil of wedding-obsessed America. It must be anti-industry, but pro-romance, because real love means knowing, This is my soul mate, even if (s)he's wearing a garbage bag.
So, we run an ad in Express, the Post-owned commuter freebie, looking for couples. It begins like this:
We hate weddings. Let us plan yours (free).
And couples respond, more than 40 in just five days. We weed out some inquiries simply by clarifying that, yes, an anti-wedding is cheap, but also rebellious, daring, snarky. Then we schedule interviews with couples who seem most promising. The top wedding-haters include 20-somethings as well as 50-somethings; they are Caucasian, African American, Indian, Asian and Hispanic. The winnowing is merciless.
One couple wants motorized toilet-bowl-scooter racing as reception entertainment. Our hearts race, too. But they also want to spend $20,000. They get flushed.
One bride-to-be is proud she has scored a $200 wedding gown. Great! But it's still . . . a gown. Next!
One couple catches our attention with a quirky coincidence: Her name is Jaqi Ross. His name is Chris Rossi. Ross and Rossi live together in . . . Rosslyn. These two, both 34, are open to just about anything, such as getting married in a morgue, Jaqi suggests, or on their living room couch. There will be no lace anywhere near this wedding. Also, she hates flowers.
We are convinced that this is our couple. And then we are rewarded with a glorious bonus: It turns out that Chris is a pathologist, and Jaqi works for the IRS. This will be the union of life's only two certainties . . . death and taxes. A themed anti-wedding.
Chris and Jaqi fell in love after meeting four years ago through Match.com. Chris had moved here from Upstate New York, Jaqi from Oklahoma. He is soft-spoken, sweet, dedicated to his work at Children's Hospital. She is assertive and friendly, a no-nonsense gal with a dry wit.
They arrive at our first meeting brimming with ideas. They want the main focus to be a group activity: a walking-tour wedding or a museum visit. Maybe a cooking class wedding (the guests make their own food)! Community centers and restaurants sometimes offer group cooking classes. So do certain grocery stores, such as some branches of Wegmans.
"Wegmans!" says Chris. Until now, he has allowed Jaqi to represent their half of the discussion. "Wegmans," he repeats, more quietly. There is love in his eyes, a love understood only by those who share his vaguely cultish Wegmans devotion.
Wegmans it shall be. We choose a day eight weeks away and send a "save the date" immediately to the 40 people on the guest list via Evite, because calligraphy on parchment paper with a seasonal color scheme represents everything that's wrong with the American way of life.
Jaqi and Chris do not intend to register for gifts; nor do they expect anyone to give them anything -- an inspiring act of practicality and selflessness that prompts immediate objections. Chris's dad implores them to reconsider. Jaqi's friends and co-workers emphatically warn her of the terrible gifts a bride is doomed to receive when she doesn't specify what she wants. But I don't want anything, Jaqi proclaims, to horrified listeners.
The planners, meantime, fondly daydream about a Wegmans wedding. Vows exchanged in the cereal aisle! Shoppers mingling with guests! Oh, how wonderfully possible it all seems. It takes three whole days for the plan to implode.
The Dulles Wegmans and the company headquarters say no. If we let you do it, they explain, everyone will want to. (Everyone?) Still, we refuse to give up -- this is our location -- and stubbornly pursue a weeklong negotiation. We appeal with logic, charm, persuasion and, ultimately, begging. No use. Back at square one. Actually, square zero, a week of our fleeting timeline wasted.
Jaqi sends us a list of alternative locations, suggesting, among other places: the National Building Museum; the Georgetown Public Library, which she has never even visited; the National Arboretum.
Just one week, and our anti-bride is bailing on us. The flower-hater suddenly wants botanical gardens. The anti-wedding planners are sputtering, frustrated with her for going all wussy-princess on them, and with Wegmans for being unreasonable, and with each other for not having better ideas. Time is wasting! And that's when we realize something -- something bad.
The anxiety. The frustration. The frayed nerves. This feels dangerously like . . . a wedding.
The anti-wedding planners pause to wipe the wedding Kool-Aid from their lips and soldier on.
Lucky for us, the beautiful and traditional spots will be booked already for mid-June. We ponder anti-alternatives. Would Jaqi get married at work? Yes, but the IRS -- like Wegmans -- fears that it would be bombarded with wedding requests if it approves ours. It seems more likely that the IRS would be bombarded with rotten vegetables hurled by disgruntled taxpayers, but we keep this thought to ourselves.
How about Ford's Theatre? Lincoln inspired the IRS and was shot at Ford's, making it a darkly romantic nexus of death and taxes. Alas, it's closed for renovation. The nearby house where Lincoln died? Even less tasteful, which, in the anti-wedding industry, is rather a plus. At this point, we are informed by the Department of the Interior that, though the house is open, we're not permitted to have a wedding there. We insist that we won't have any regulation wedding gear; we will be indistinguishable from a tour group. Sorry, no, Interior says. So we ask about outdoor weddings in D.C., and Interior informs us that there are only two approved sites for outdoor weddings on National Mall and Memorial Parks property: the Tidal Basin and the WWI Memorial. This is because weddings have setup, says one National Park Service guy. Chairs for guests. Napkins that blow away. The flowered altar, red carpet, all that. We deny we will have any of it, but no one believes us.
Clearly, the only difference between 40 people visiting a site for 15 minutes and 40 people visiting a site for a 15-minute wedding is the weight of the word "wedding"; it carries assumptions of crystal chandeliers and heart-shaped carriages drawn by swans. All weddings are tarred by Modern Bride's brush, inseparable from all the stuff presumed to go along with them, and therefore confined to places where they can be controlled.
The anti-wedding planners gnash their teeth. What exactly could be done to us if we show up someplace public -- no froufrou dress, no props -- and say the words that get Jaqi and Chris married? Surely, we wouldn't be arrested, right? And if we were, it would be ridiculous and unjust, wouldn't it? We are sure Thoreau and Gandhi would agree that if a law is unjust, the responsible thing to do is peacefully disobey in some flagrant manner.
For example, a sneak-attack wedding during a White House tour. Who could stop us? A brief huddle, a 30-second, carefully choreographed ceremony, and Jaqi Ross and Chris Rossi of Rosslyn would be the 10th couple ever to get married in the White House. Perfect! Jaqi has only one question: Could the anti-wedding planners please guarantee that she wouldn't get hustled away in handcuffs and/or lose her job?
Our heads hit our desks. Suddenly, it seems possible that we can't do this, that there is no way to pull off the sane, stuff-free wedding of our couple's dreams. We are stymied by the twin conformist monsters of The Knot and The Man.
All we want to do is gather 40 people on public property, say some words and have a ceremony. This is an issue of freedom of speech, religion and assembly. And this is America.
That's when it hits us. It might be the anger; it might be despair; it might be the head injury, but we start hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in our minds.
It's a protest, right? Then let's protest this wanton abridgement of basic human rights, the industry and the government that make it near impossible to be sensible and get married. The wedding itself will be a demonstration. Signs. Chanting. Burning effigies.
Best of all: Where permits are concerned, the "demonstration" label liberates us. We are free to station ourselves at protest headquarters U.S.A., proudly beside the other indignant visionaries with lost causes but inextinguishable hopes. The protest and wedding will be in Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House.
Jaqi and Chris are enthusiastic about the protest ceremony idea, but want it to be legit so as to avoid possible federal career suicide. We must file for a demonstration permit but be clear about the wedding element.
We also make arrangements for a reception at Bertucci's Restaurant in Arlington. This is bittersweet for the planners. Bertucci's is definitely a step up from PB&J, and the dinner will account for the vast majority of our under-$3,000 budget (roughly one-tenth of the average American wedding budget). But we're pleased that there will be no champagne, no canapes, no marinated salmon on a bed of fresh whatever. There will be pizza, spaghetti and beer. There will be readings of hilariously terrible love poetry presented by the bride's ex-boyfriend. There will be no wedding cake.
And so, it finally comes time to find: The Dress.
The Dress must be perfect. Bridal magazines warn that it often requires weeks or months of determined searching. The Dress is even worthy of physical injury, if it happens to be located at Filene's Basement during the annual Running of the Brides, a dignity-obliterating stampede of crazed she-beasts who brawl like rugby players over discounted princess gowns.
On her first try at Lord & Taylor, Jaqi does not find The Dress. She finds two dresses. In one hour. The first of the tea-length dresses is green; the second is red, white and black. Jaqi doesn't care which one she wears on the big day; she'd wear both again, anyway. Together they cost $242. Then she's done, which is good, because she has other errands to run.
Meanwhile, to save the couple the $300-to-$800 cost of a hired officiant, Chris's stepmom, Mardie Rossi, becomes a minister through the Universal Life Church Monastery -- an online church that sells a "Ministry-in-a-Box"package for $139.99 and will ordain anyone it believes to be alive.
Now we have it all. We have conquered the odds, triumphed over adversity, proven our mission possible. With a spring in our step, we visit the regional office of the National Park Service -- a bureau of the aforementioned Department of the Interior -- where we file our protest application and stride boldly into the sweet morning sunshine. Then we stride back, because we are told to by the person holding our paperwork.
You have to remove the wedding, she says. The protest is fine, but you can't have a wedding in Lafayette Square.
Why not? we ask. It's a part of the protest; the group will stand and watch. They are still protesting.
It is not a freedom-of-speech issue, she says. You need a special-event permit, which the department would reject. Too much stuff.
We won't have any stuff, we reply. We just want to say words. It will be much quieter than the protest you're going to approve.
If we let you do this, we will have to let other people do this, she says.
Well, then, we say, why isn't a wedding a freedom-of-speech issue?
It's all in here, she says, and hands us a thick packet of Park Service regulations. We look at the packet, full of tiny type and sections called §7.96 (g) (2) (ii) (E). We scratch the wedding part off our application, hand it back and stride out into the hateful day.
We consider our options. We could respectfully appeal by letter or phone. We could shrug it off and find another location. We could be nonconfrontational, reasonable, compromising citizens, understanding of our nation's laws.
Or we could be ourselves. Belligerent, stubborn and self-righteous, we pick up the phone and call the American Civil Liberties Union.
We speak to someone named Fred who informs us that we are Absolutely Right and that Interior is Absolutely Wrong and that we have a Major Lawsuit we can file that, with luck, might be resolved by July 2011 or . . .
The ACLU is thinking. We are on tenterhooks.
. . . we can beat The Man at his own petty little game.
Fred notes that while Lafayette Square is National Park property, Pennsylvania Avenue -- a mere 20 feet away -- is not, and requires no permit to assemble. So, if the protest just oozed a few feet before the exchanging of vows . . .
Jaqi and Chris are immediately on board. And with the wedding element removed from our demonstration permit application, it is promptly approved.
We have a park protest. We have a middle-of-the-street ceremony. We have a Bertucci's reception. And Jaqi and Chris have created an introductory activity to get the guests pumped up before the demonstration: a themed scavenger hunt in downtown Washington. The theme, of course, being "Death and Taxes." Perfect!
Except that Jaqi receives incredulous reactions when she instructs guests to dress comfortably. Shorts and sneakers? Worse, a guest learns of the scavenger hunt and declines his invitation. We wonder: Is bucking tradition, even for the couple's sake, causing actual harm? Are we ruining everything? Might we -- should we -- get cold feet?
The day before the wedding, we are answered by the cosmos. Newspapers report that a D.C.-area couple is charged with running a foreclosure rescue scam, plundering $35 million from homeowners, $800,000 of which was spent on their wedding. At the reception, a deejay encouraged guests to throw their own money at the bride, to be immediately put in a sack by the groom (the money). In the interest of balanced journalism, we search the day's news for an $800,000 wedding not perpetrated by alleged moral scum, but nothing turns up.
The Big Day.
We rise and check the weather forecast, which yesterday promised a mere 20 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms. Now it's saying 60 percent chance of "strong" storms. With high wind. And "sizable" hail.
Well, we tell ourselves, there are few things more "anti" than people saying vows in a street while chunks of ice the size of Ping-Pong balls plummet from the heavens.
Jaqi and Chris are watching TV in T-shirts and sweat pants when we arrive at 9 a.m. to pick up a few reception items to take to Bertucci's. With no hair or nail or make-up appointments, no tux pickups or boutonniere deliveries, they have plenty of time to relax. The couple mentions that they invited friends and family -- many of whom traveled from out of town -- to join them for breakfast, but everyone declined. Jaqi concludes that no one believes that it's truly possible for a bride to cease fretting or willingly consume carbohydrates on the morning of her wedding.
Bride and groom are showered and put together (Jaqi chose the red, white and black dress and wore her hair loose) when we return to the apartment at 1:30 p.m. Family and friends begin to arrive in waves soon after. Once everyone is assembled, Jaqi explains the scavenger hunt, handing out lists and assigning guests to Team Taxes, led by Jaqi, and Team Death, led by Chris. Guests look at the items on the list: "Taxation Without Representation" license plates, real and fake skeletons, a tax-foreclosed house sign. They plot. They laugh. They are wedding-goers in charge of their own entertainment, and -- unleashed downtown -- they chase ambulances and pose with statues of dead presidents and have a fabulous, fiercely competitive time.
Then, as the hour of the protest approaches, we all take Metro toward Lafayette Square. When we emerge from underground, the sky is suddenly very, very dark.
"Hey, that doesn't look good!" says Chris. "What's Plan B?" And we laugh, to disguise the fact that we are secretly freaking out. Rain is one thing, but this sky looks really serious. It actually looks sort of green. How could this be happening?
The planners send both wedding teams to the McPherson Square Metro station, where guests wait under the overhang while we trek through the incoming storm to the car to retrieve the multitude of protest signs. Just as we return to the square with signs in hand, the rain starts falling in earnest. The wedding planners look at each other. Many unprintable phrases are exchanged.
Of course, we have a plan for this eventuality, as any planner must. In our earliest conversations, we had discussed what would happen if it rained. "If it rains," Jaqi said, "then they get rained on." This plan works perfectly.
When the guests arrive in the square, damp and huddled, Jaqi makes the announcement: Thank you all. We meant it when we said anti-wedding. We hope you will join us in a protest against the wedding industry. The anti-wedding planners cross their fingers as Jaqi hoists a sign that says "Kill Frill."
The guests follow, grabbing "Til Debt Do Us Part" and "Money Can't Buy Me Love" and other signs. And where there had been a wedding crowd -- the people who care for Jaqi and Chris the most coming together for the sake of love -- there is now a chanting, disgruntled mob shaking their angry signs in steady rain, united in shouts of anti-wedding rage, drawing stares from passers-by.
It is beautiful.
And then there is a wedding. We walk 20 feet to Pennsylvania Avenue, and Mardie speaks for 10 minutes about love and marriage, and what you know about love and marriage just by looking at Jaqi and Chris. The couple stands together under an umbrella, flanked by no attendants, facing their guests. They kiss, once in the beginning, once in the middle and once at the end. They elbow each other, like kids with a secret. They respond conversationally to Mardie's questions. They announce that they tried to figure out something to say in the way of vows and decided not to. And they are married. There are no dirty pigeons or burning effigies, no bride in a garbage bag. But there is a canopy of umbrellas in the middle of a street and clusters of protest signs turned horizontal. The rain drips the washable-marker lettering off the signs; those multicolored streaks are the only tears shed. And so it is done. Beer and pizza await.
In the aftermath of the anti-wedding, we mainly feel exhausted. Also relieved. And confused. The wedding, in the end, was a compromise between the utter sedition we planned and the realistic needs of two people who just want to get married coolly. Had we really accomplished what we set out to do?
We simmer in uncertainty for several days. Then, someone asks us a question about a particular detail of the ceremony, and everything changes.
Suddenly, we know: It worked.
For quite possibly the first time in the history of the Western world, it is not until four days after the wedding that anyone, including the bride and groom and both wedding planners, realizes that everyone forgot the rings.
Caitlin Gibson, legal administrator for The Post, is a writer who lives in Bethesda. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rachel Manteuffel is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner. She can be reached at email@example.com.