Twenty years ago today I took a leap of faith and married this fine fella. We stood at the bow of a ship, under the Cincinnati starlight, and agreed to give it a go. Our wedding officiant was ordained the week before by redeeming a coupon from the back of Rolling Stone magazine and mailing $10 to a P.O. box in Modesto. The whole event was a DIY kinda thing and because we elected to forego a photographer (and instead blow our savings on champagne and a two-tiered cheesecake) we don’t have a lot of wedding photos.
But here’s a photo from our honeymoon. It was before cell phones and selfies and to accomplish a snap like this, one had to set up a tripod and hit the timer and run back to her seat and casually take the elbow of her sideburn-sportin’ hottie. A candid so natural, so seamless, that twenty years later children might be fooled into believing we had our own personal paparazzi.
I have a lot of photos that were taken this way. In fact I have a shoebox full that spans at least two decades of my life. Self-timer selfie with family beagle. Self-timer selfie with hamster on porch swing. Self-timer selfie with my kid sister, the two of us on red plastic skateboards. Another with my high school best friend, painting our nails under a wall poster of Prince. I suppose I staged, snapped and developed these photos because I had no idea what normal looked like and I was aching to find out. By memorializing these moments I gave myself an opportunity to study them — to look closely at human interaction, to learn the difference between a forced smile and an unrestrained grin. As a kid I would dump the shoebox onto my bed and spend an afternoon examining the ordinary world, hoping to find that I belonged there.
When I got married twenty years ago I had no idea what marriage looked like. My parents had run their own marriage into the ground before they even had kids and by the early 80s the whole thing was up in flames. I had no relatives nearby, no role models, no grandparents by the time I was 17. I took my cues from 70’s rom-coms and did my research by riding a 10-speed around the neighborhood at sunset, stealing glances through picture windows of happier families at their dinner tables. Real-life shadow boxes.
But here’s the thing. Not knowing normal blows the lid off expectation. When you have no baseline your imagination is free to take the reigns. You right your own ship.
The day after this photo was taken my fella and I came to the realization that the honeymoon we’d planned wasn’t the honeymoon we wanted. We were tired of schlepping around the city, visiting historical monuments, conjugating verbs every time we wanted a beer or a baño. So we altered our course. We hopped a train, arrived at the beach and blew the remainder of our money on a room with a view. The unforeseen expense shortened our trip but it was worth the sacrifice to spend our remaining days on the sand, only budging when we needed another drink or a new book.
Twenty years later and I still don’t know what a normal marriage looks like but I also don’t care. I’ve learned that most of us don’t know what we’re doing and so there’s no sense watching from outside, hoping our neighbors will reveal the secrets to living a perfect life. Marriage is wax and wane. It’s humor and humility, tedium and titillation. It’s losing your keys and losing your cool and having someone there who is happy to help you find everything and pull it together again, day after day.
Our 20-year marriage is simply following through on a magnificent hunch. We go with our gut and we’re mostly winging it. We’re still quick to abandon situations that don’t suit us and recently this list has grown to include careers, homes and relationships with family members. We’re famous for cancelling plans at the last minute and we dodge group outings when we have a change of heart and would rather be alone. But hey, what is it they say? It’s about the process, not the product. And when your process is mainly improv, making memories is a lot more exciting than dumping them out on a bedspread, scrutinizing in search of validation.