“Will you marry me?” he said. “Yes,” I said. That’s when the trouble started. In agreeing to a marriage, I unwittingly agreed to a wedding. I agreed to be a Bride.
Until I was ten years old, I looked like a little boy. Then, having eaten some of the wrong “Eat Me” cake or drunk the wrong “Drink Me” potion, my body exploded into that of a 30-year-old woman. Life on both sides of the transition was occasionally traumatic. In third grade, I walked into the girls’ bathroom and something righteous with pigtails screamed and pushed me out again. By seventh grade, I was skulking around in my older brother’s over-sized T-shirts to hide the thought-balloon sized breasts that threatened to speak of my behalf.
From puberty on, I felt like my body was writing checks that the rest of me couldn’t cash. Ben, my fiancé, was the first person to make me feel comfortable with my exterior, but even then it and I only struck a cold peace. How could I walk down the aisle as though I were, inside and out, some archetype of femininity? At 24, I was, at best, a capable imposter; often I still felt like the nine-year-old who had been pushed out of that bathroom, albeit one with the boobs of Joan Holloway.
My mother, whose joy in life is throwing parties, happily assumed control of wedding planning. In a twist on the cliché that a mother’s sole responsibility is to show up and wear beige, my job as the Bride was to show up and wear white. Unfortunately, even if there wasn’t much for me to do, there was still quite a lot I had to be.
Let’s do something small, I suggested to my mother, trying to hide the desperation in my voice. Maybe just 40 people in a barn in Vermont? I doubt she heard me over the noise of artillery fire: she and my father were fighting their own battle, and they desperately needed distraction. My father had been diagnosed with cancer. Soon after oncologists removed a coil of his colon and started him on chemo and radiation, other doctors began fussing over the state of my mother’s thyroid. They could not determine whether it was trying to kill her, so, to be safe, they decided to take it out. Thus, in the space of a few months, my father was disemboweled and my mother’s throat was slit. Both lived to tell the tale. They were not, however, unaffected. It took my father—a man whose primary exercise was doing the New York Times crossword puzzle—months and several blood transfusions to begin to get his strength back. My mother was working full time while also taking care of him. She needed something that would bring her joy, and nothing pleased her like spending long evenings with a florist designing incredible tropical centerpieces. The worse my parents’ health situations got, the grander the ceremony and reception became.
At the same time, my fiancé, busy finishing up law school at NYU, confessed to a crush on a friend who looked, and smoked, like something out of film noir. She was Jessica Rabbit to my Raggedy Ann, Madonna to my Melissa Etherege. Was he sure he wanted to be engaged? I asked my fiancé. Yes, he assured me. I could trust him. But faced with the fear of my dad dying and my fiancé doubting, while my mom planned an ever-more-elaborate and expensive wedding around me, I didn’t know what to trust exactly, or how. At night, I slept badly, dreaming of giving birth the morning of the ceremony and being instructed to shake it off. During the day, increasingly, I just shook.
Back when I looked like a boy, I was cheerful and confident, at least when I wasn’t being thrown out of bathrooms. Puberty brought out the crazy in me. As soon as the breasts bubbled out, I shrank back, and I came down with what my parents called “the shakes.” When we traveled, or before summer camp, or some nights for no reason at all, I would go pale, tremble violently, and eventually throw up. Because I was the middle child and the “good” kid, my parents accepted this as a personality quirk. Both of my brothers had tempers that left holes in the walls gaping in astonishment; compared to their volatility, my “shakes” were easy enough for my parents to accept.
The attacks came less frequently as I got older and for a while it even felt like I had grown out of them. During the fifteen months leading up to the wedding, however, what I was finally told were anxiety attacks became a debilitating routine. Ben held my hand, rubbed my back, and murmured reassurance as I twitched on the bathroom floor as often as once a week. Finally, I sought help.
“You’re afraid of growing up,” said the psychiatrist I found through the Internet. “Let’s try putting you on Effexor.”
Was that what fixed Peter Pan? I could not remember. “Um,” I said carefully, “if it’s okay, I don’t think I want something that strong.”
The doctor and I settled on small doses of Xanax as needed. He wrote me the prescription and then started scribbling on a second sheet of paper. Was he giving me the Effexor too, after all? I heard a tearing sound and he handed me what he had written, a satisfied smile on his face. The note said, I am an adult and can handle whatever comes along.
Dumbstruck, I looked up at him. “Well,” I said, “I guess if it’s on letterhead, it must be true?”
He laughed genially, took my $40 co-pay, and ushered me out the door.
The Xanax helped to a degree, as did the fact that Ben, in an attempt to start our engagement afresh, surprised me with a second proposal. (I accepted.) Encouraged, I tried to concentrate on the plusses of a wedding: being able to gather friends and family for a cheerful cause, giving our plethora of grandmothers an occasion to rejoice. I found a dress on sale, an offbeat sage-green gown that made me feel like some kind of wood nymph from ancient Greece. My father was reacting well to radiation, and the nodes on my mother’s thyroid, when examined, proved benign.
Less benign, as it turned out, was the lump in her breast she found a mere three months before the ceremony.
Faced with the news that she had a life-threatening condition, in addition to a full-time job, a seriously ill husband who needed her support, and a wedding to carry off that had assumed the pomp and circumstance of your average Inaugural Ball, my mother waded deep into denial. For two weeks, she continued as if nothing had happened, buying up crates of popsicles for my father, who could stomach little else, and meeting for marathon sessions with Jonathan the florist. As she scheduled her first chemo appointment with one hand, she picked out a ten-piece jazz band for the reception with the other, to complement the string quartet that would play during the ceremony.
“Have you considered Effexor?” suggested Dr. Worthless, the psychiatrist, when I knocked on his door again.
“Um,” I said, as nicely as possible, “like I said last time, I don’t think I want something that strong or addictive, if that’s possible.”
“It is a very effective drug,” he said. “I’ve seen good results.”
Irritation finally overwhelmed my politeness. “I don’t understand. Do they pay you or something?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Worthless, without any trace of shame.
Again he took my forty-dollar co-pay and handed me a prescription for more Xanax. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you’ll be fine.”
“Just out of curiosity,” I said, “what separates you from a drug dealer?”
“Ha ha ha!” he said. “Ha! Seriously, though, drug dealers don’t care about your health.”
My mother got a call from the hospital. Luck had favored her: the biopsy on her breast had been declared a false positive. She thanked the radiologist and then called me.
“I’m planning another party for the night before the wedding, after the rehearsal dinner,” she said.
“But the rehearsal dinner is a party,” I said.
“Not everyone can come to the rehearsal dinner,” she said. “And we’ll do a big Shabbes dinner at the house the night before that, too. That will be nice, won’t it?”
My hand twitched toward my purse, where I kept the pills, as I envisioned the multiplying array of events at which I would be the center of attention (or at least a center, tied with live music and ornate tropical floral arrangements). I knew that my mother needed all of these events to plan to distract her from her own mortality and, even more, my father’s; it seemed selfish, not to mention futile, to beg her to scale back. Shrill, nasty voices raked at me. Sure, Ben had been committed and enthusiastic ever since proposal #2, but what if something changed and he backed out? The bigger weddings are, the harder they fall. What if my mother got diagnosed with cancer #3, and this one meant business? What if my father—well, died? What if I couldn’t handle any of it because deep down I wasn’t an adult, I wasn’t ready to handle any of it: the messy realities of sex and gender, of embarrassment and desertion, of death?
I needed help of a different, more dramatic kind, some way to act as though I had faith so that faith would be given to me. I needed something concrete and manageable to do, something more proactive than popping pills, something to get me into character.
“Have you thought about going to the mikvah?” a friend asked. After thirteen years of Jewish Day School, three summers at Camp Ramah, and four months of living in Israel, I took a well-deserved break from religion when I began college, and that break stretched on into my post-graduate life in New York. I had never been particularly observant, and the mikvah—the traditional ritual bath taken by brides before their weddings—felt like something only Orthodox Jewish women did. No, I hadn’t thought about the mikvah, but my friend urged me on. The idea of a ritual to help me calm down and focus on what I was about to do seemed appealing. Moreover, the existence of a ritual to mark this kind of transformation served to remind me that women are not born Brides, that, indeed, for many of us, it takes a ceremony before the ceremony even to become one.
I decided to go for it, hoping that maybe three dunks and a prayer would do what a loving groom, fistfuls of Xanax, and a doctor’s handwritten mantra had not.
My maid-of-honor, Charrow, and one of my bridesmaids, Jamille, both of whom had known me almost all my life, accompanied me to the synagogue where, in more carefree times, I had attended pre-school. Of my companions, Charrow, less than thrilled with binary gender options, went by her last name and would be wearing a suit to my wedding; Jamille had recently discarded her childhood nickname (“Jamie”) for the full, feminine version and would be wearing a tomato-red dress. Closing the door of the mikvah on their encouraging smiles, I realized that I could locate myself somewhere between them on the femininity spectrum. Even remembering there was a spectrum was reassuring.
They waited outside the room while a kind woman from the synagogue explained the procedure, that the so-called “living waters” of the mikvah are intended to enclose the body as though it were returning to the womb. Once I was as God had made me, with no barriers between my most elemental self and the water, I would enter the pool, recite a prayer, and submerge myself three times. With the ceremony complete, I would be as born again as a Jewish girl could get.
After the mikvah lady smiled one last time and left me alone, I floated for a moment, reveling in the weirdness of my own private spa. Then I got down to business. I read the Hebrew prayer off the laminated sheet the lady had left me. The words echoed gently around me as down I went into the water, disappearing beneath the surface, eyes squeezed shut and holding my hair down so that no curl would float up. Once, twice, three times.
When I burst through the water headfirst after the final dunk, I didn’t know which of the three immersions had had an effect, or whether the magic was cumulative, but naked then in the sustained silence of the room, with the high-pitched voice of panic muffled by the water, I felt peaceful for the first time in months. Alone with myself, I took stock: head, shoulders, knees, and toes, and Joan Holloway boobs, all there, exactly where they should be, everything visible and nothing to be ashamed of. I didn’t think about whether I was an adult, or a Woman, or a Bride. I didn’t think about Ben and crushes, or my parents and cancer. I didn’t think at all. I floated in the warm, tiled pool, savoring being naked, buoyant, and alive, and when I emerged I felt like I wasn’t quite the same person I had been. I was a person who could go skinny-dipping with the lord in the very building where I had once attended pre-school and in only two days I would marry a guy who loved me inside and out. Was I an adult? Could I handle whatever came along? Maybe. Enough. The quiet of the mikvah lingered with me like a blessing, allowing me to smile without satire at everyone’s frenzied efforts to turn me into a Bride. Over the course of the weekend, I was massaged, buffed, and painted, like Dorothy in the Emerald City. The capstone event came on the day of the wedding, when my hair was meticulously arranged so as to become one with a relative’s 1960’s pearl-and-wire headdress. “I dreamt about this,” the hairdresser said when he was done, with a satisfied look at my up-do.
As I sat on the bench outside the salon on the morning of the wedding, waiting to be picked up, I didn’t know whether the transformation would satisfy my audience. I didn’t know how proud and thrilled my mother would look, or that my father would make it down the aisle and later even onto the dance floor for the hora. I didn’t know that my groom, in a borrowed tux and a brilliant smile, would dance with me all night and then, in the bathtub in our honeymoon suite, undo my elaborate hair-and-headdress swirl pin by pin and finally finish disassembling what a team of professionals had so painstakingly put together by guiding me under water for a fourth and final time.
I knew none of that and still, I tried to be as calm on the bench as I had been in the mikvah. I did not pray, Lord, send me a sign. But I received one anyway. A well-turned-out older woman walking by stopped at the sight of me as though her reins had been pulled. “My gawd,” she said, slapping her hand over her heart. “Sweetheart, you look amazing! You look just like I did before my first wedding!”
-- Ester Bloom’s writing has appeared in Bite: An Anthology of Flash Fiction, Salon.com, Creative Non-Fiction, the Hairpin, the Awl, the Morning News, Nerve, PANK, Bluestem, Phoebe, Zone 3, and numerous other venues. She blogs on culture for the Huffington Post and is a columnist for Trachodon Magazine and the Billfold.