The rain falls sporadically in large drops on formal wear and the wind theatrically blows small yellow leaves through the courtyard of the textile museum as we watch the couple in front of us — she in flowing ivory, he in a crisp suit — read their vows. Occasionally she sneaks a glance at the looming clouds, wondering whether they will merely threaten or actually unleash atop her unprepared guests. My husband, on my left, holds my hand and traces the ridges of my knuckles with his thumb, then plays with my engagement ring. I know he is remembering us.
Moments earlier, an unconventional reading takes place, one chosen from Story Corp. It is an interview between a wife and her husband battling an aggressive form of cancer. At the mention of the word I immediately become nauseated. Keep it together, I tell myself, not now. I move my eyes from the two gifted story tellers at the microphone to the small white pebbles that form the aisle to my right, trying to focus on them instead of the emotionally driven story coursing its way through the microphone and into the crowd. My husband clears his throat, shifts subtly in his seat. My right hand clenches my purse while my left, still wrapped safely in his, remains composed. Amazing, I think, that my subconscious will throw all my anxiety and fear into the right side of my body, the solitary part, allowing my husband to believe I am, at least outwardly, unaffected. When the reading is over, I notice I am sweating despite the rapid drop in temperature and cool fall breeze. A deep breath. It’s over.
The couple before us beams at each other as they are pronounced husband and wife, and the crowd collectively beams back. We stand and applaud at the union we’ve just witnessed, iphones poised for the perfect shot. As they exit the ceremony by way of the pebbled garden path, a breeze blows her dress and it billows softly, perfectly, before she is lifted into the air by her new husband. I know she feels weightless in his arms, buoyed by love and the feeling that the world, for this moment, has stopped spinning — just for them.
After a brisk cocktail hour beneath a setting November sun and a canopy of old elm trees, we are ushered into an intimate tent adorned with soft lights, a small dance floor and the cozy feel of family. After several glasses of wine, the couple seated beside us are our new best friends, and the wife my unwitting confidant. The bride graces us with her presence and we swoon, adoring her dress, the wedding, the music. She graciously fawns over us, telling us what amazing women we are, how she knew we’d hit it off. Then, to me, she says, “I am so happy you live here!” and for a second — a split second — I have forgotten the life-changing event that brought us back to DC. “Me too!” I smile back, grabbing her hands in mine. And for that split second I mean it, not because it’s a great place to be if we can’t be in Buenos Aires, not because it’s a great place to receive cancer treatments, but because it’s a place full of people we love. It’s a place brimming with friends we have yet to meet. For a split second, it is simply a wonderful place to live.
But as she leaves, beckoned by the neighboring table, she steals the excitement, and I feel the sincerity draining out of me. I return to my seat, reach for the champagne. I remember now. I turn to my new friend, and her soft brown eyes seem so trustworthy that suddenly I am blurting out our dirty little secret.
“My husband was diagnosed with cancer last year, that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re back in DC and not in Argentina.”
She looks at me without blinking. It seems as though she’s stopped breathing. And just as suddenly as my outburst, the DJ speaks.
“Will the happy couple please come to the dance floor for their first dance?”
The intimate crowd cheers and applauds, encouraging the newlyweds. My new friend continues to stare, and though I shift my gaze back and forth from the dance floor to her, “Look,” my eyes say, “this is what we’re doing now, we’re watching them,” she doesn’t break her gaze. Finally, she begins to nod slowly, then turns her face toward the dance, toward happiness. With her back to me, I chastise myself for my impulsiveness. I question my sanity. I have another drink. The bride is ethereal as she dances with her husband, the first dance of their married life. He accompanies her as every groom should, like the luckiest man on earth, happy to simply bask in the warmth of her smile. A lift straight out of the movies has the crowd emoting and clapping, her dress swirling around and around — a photographer’s dream shot. The iphones come out, blocking the view. The dance is over and they are breathless and weightless, floating back to their table, lost in the crowd.
My new friend turns back to me. “I’m so sorry,” I stammer, “I had no business doing that to you. You didn’t need to know that,” though I know it can never be unsaid. I feel my husband at my back but don’t turn around; I’ve betrayed him, his secret. Tonight, seated among strangers, he was healthy. No one knew. No one needed to.
“I work with survivors of trauma,” she starts, “I understand your need to share your story. Trust me, you are not the first person to say something like that.” Her words fight against the eighties music montage thumping over the dance floor. I smile at her, wondering how to get out of the conversation that I began, and scan the crowd, hoping to find a way out. My eyes catch on the hanging mobile over the dance floor — a thousand origami paper cranes. All different colors, they twirl softly in the whisps of night air that manage to crash the party. A nod to the groom’s Chinese heritage, the cranes swaying over the dancing wedding guests symbolize good fortune, happiness and prosperity, a proper wedding wish. But Japanese culture celebrates the legend of senbazuru, where folding a thousand paper cranes grants one recovery from an illness and a lifetime of health. Though I doubt the bride included the cranes for us, I can’t help but hope someone is wishing for my husband’s lifetime of health.
A familiar song comes on. “Let’s go!” I rise and the guests at our table follow my lead, and we dance in a circle around the newlyweds under the promise of a thousand paper cranes.
A few hours later, the couple dashes out of the Textile Museum’s front steps through a sparkling send off on to their next destination. They leave in a bubble of joy and pleasure and we bask in their wake as they climb into their getaway car. Once they’re gone, our sparklers fizzle out and the guests hold nothing but metal sticks. We throw them into ash trays, say our goodbyes, and my husband and I depart for home. My new friend waves goodbye and promises we’ll see them again soon. And in spite of my penchant for over-sharing, I believe her.
In bed that night, my body still drowning in champagne, my husband holds me. He pushes a piece of hair from my forehead, then leans down to kiss me. “Do you think they know what those vows meant?” he asks as he settles back against his pillows, covering us both up with the warm comforter.
“The only thing that matters is us,” I hear them both say, staring into each others eyes and forgetting their guests, and I am amazed that they have both unknowingly written the same line in their vows. And I am equally amazed by the accuracy of the sentence, especially coming from a couple on the precipice of their union. They already have marriage all figured out.
“No,” I answer my husband, “I don’t think they know what their vows actually mean. But,” I tilt my face up to his, “neither did we.”
My mind slips back to a few evenings before, where my husband, afraid for so long, finally let go…
“I read that email, did you read it?” he asks me in the basement where we spend our evenings side by side on the couch once the boys are in bed. I know immediately he is referring to the email from a friend who emailed with research about the longest study of Ipi. An optimistic note, an email to show that his drug has been shown to prolong life — prolong life — for ten years.
“No,” I answer, looking anywhere but his face, “I just couldn’t.”
“Well, I did, and it scared the shit out of me,” he drops his head so I can’t see his tears, but his voice catches and his body, so strong for so long, yields to the fear he has buried deep down. I wrap him in my arms, trying to protect him from studies with ten to fifteen years of life extension as their probable outcomes. I cushion his weight and he drapes himself over me, his head buried deep in my shoulder, his hands gripping my back in anguish, in fear. It’s not enough. Ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, it will not be enough.
A lifetime. Great grand babies. One hundred years. Maybe that would be enough.
No, I think, our vows did not prepare me for this.
The champagne is manifesting now in thirst and the memory fades, replaced by the beginnings of a headache. I reach over my husband to the nightstand for a sip of water. I settle back in by his side, remembering the cranes dangling like a wish over the wedded couple. As I curl myself up into him, just under his arm, one leg draped over his, I hope they never know the full weight of their wedding vows. I close my eyes and feel sleep wash over me, slowly drowning wedding vows and breakdowns and the need to share my traumatic secrets. And right before the last wave of sleep covers me completely, I wish for them a lifetime of health.
And one thousand cranes.