Welcome to Wedding Guest Wednesday, an occasional feature in which Solo-ish explores the joys and woes of attending other people’s weddings. Because it’s not all about the happy couple — it’s a big day for guests as well.
“Are you going to the wedding tomorrow?” the groom’s father asked me at the rehearsal dinner.
It was a beautiful June evening at an organic farm on Martha’s Vineyard. It took him a little while to recognize me; the last time we’d seen each other was nine years earlier, when I was his son’s college girlfriend.
It was a good question. In the months leading up to the wedding, lots of people — my friends, my parents, my therapist — asked why I was planning to watch a former love walk down the aisle.
There are plenty of good reasons not to go to an ex’s wedding: unresolved feelings, a bad breakup that still stings or if you’d be going only to prove you could handle it.
But none of those reasons applied here. And I don’t stay home from events because they might be awkward or because I don’t have a date. So yes, the groom was an ex, but he’s also one of my oldest, closest friends. I was going to the wedding.
I just didn’t expect to spend the couple’s first dance crying in a porta-potty.
The groom and I bonded while working on our college newspaper in the early 2000s. We started dating only after our editor demanded to know what was going on between us. (He thought we were carrying on a secret relationship; in reality, we flirted a lot but were too chicken to do anything about it.) After that, we admitted our feelings, became a couple and ended up running the newspaper as editor in chief and managing editor.
Most of the time we were really good to each other and for each other: He tends to be calm and steady where I can be high-strung and stressed out, he’s more visual where I’m verbal, and we have a lot of fun together. By graduation two years later, though, we decided to break up: I was going off to Washington; he was staying out West. It was also clear to me that there had to be better matches out there for each of us.
In the years since college, we found our rhythm as friends. We talk regularly and see each other several times a year. He’s laughed with me over stories of failed relationships; I’ve gotten along with his serious girlfriends and then his fiancee.
He just found that great match sooner than I’ve found mine. Normally I’m secure in my singlehood, but this wedding weekend was hard. It was one of the first where I’ve been one of few single guests (welcome to your 30s, Lisa!), and I got a lot more questions about my relationship status than usual.
When relatives of the groom, who hadn’t seen me in years, asked “Who are you here with?” I responded with what I thought was the truth: “Oh, I’m not here with anyone.”
Until my friend Alana, standing a few feet away, corrected me: “She’s here with us!”
She was right. With lots of college friends at the wedding, I essentially had a plus one plus 10. And they were better than any date would have been. When two friends wanted to sit close to the front for the ceremony, just behind the groom’s family, and I suggested we sit just one row farther back, they got it; I didn’t have to explain. We still sat so close that, when the groom walked up the aisle to meet the bride a little early, that intimate moment happened just inches from my aisle seat. Too close!
The ceremony was harder than I expected. As the bride and groom exchanged vows at a beautiful spot overlooking the water, my eyes welled up. Not for them so much, but for me. I didn’t want to be the one up there with him, and I wasn’t upset about not being married myself. But the love between the two of them reminded me that I haven’t been in love in a really long time. Not since I was with the groom. That time in my life felt so far away.
I know that life isn’t a race, but this moment sure felt like one. And I was way behind, a notion I hid behind sunglasses and a smile. During the cocktail hour, a friend or two said they’d been thinking about me during the ceremony; between our salutes to the happy couple, we quietly toasted my bravery as well. I’d made it through. From here, the night would be a breeze, right?
It was, until the first dance, Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” when even sunglasses weren’t enough. The song is a wedding favorite, of course. But it’s also a favorite of my first love, whom I dated before I met the groom.
Within a few verses, the memories of both my past loves were in that wedding tent. I put down my salad fork and walked, slow and determined, to a nearby porta-potty for a good cry.
That’s the thing about being single for a long time: Most of the time you’re cruising along, viewing your life as full rather than deficient. But every so often, the rush of other people’s lives — weddings, babies, houses purchased with two incomes — makes you feel as if you’re stuck in neutral while everyone else is passing you by.
I may not have found my life partner, but I’ve hit the friend jackpot. When I emerged from the porta-potty, Alana was waiting for me with a glass of bourbon in hand.
Alana also happened to have an adorable six-week-old son, whom I stole as my dance partner as soon as the tears were dry. Quickly, I was smiling again, surrounded by friends, dancing and laughing.
On one of the tables near the dance floor, there was a mini-slideshow of the bride and groom, the years scrolling on repeat. About a week before the wedding, the bride asked me and a few friends for photos of the groom from college. I said I’d look, but I dreaded the search; I didn’t want to wallow in snapshots reminding me just how long it had been since I’d been in love.
But flipping through the group shots in Vegas, vacation snaps at the Grand Canyon and kooky antics from newspaper retreats in Tahoe, what stood out wasn’t what my life was lacking now, but how lucky the groom and I were that we were still close. That other guy, the Van Morrison fan? We don’t speak, nor do I want to. Some relationships end and they’re really over; others become something else.
At one point that night, the groom thanked me for coming. “It means a lot to me that you’re here,” he said. The look on his face also said: I know this is hard for you.
“It means a lot to me, too,” I said.
If there are vows for being friends with an ex, that’s what they sound like.