My Father-in-Law and My Wedding
The DJ said, “Here’s Chris and Lauren!” and we entered the banquet hall for our summertime reception. We hadn’t wanted our full names announced since neither of us had taken the other’s last name—an expensive process of recreating identification. Everyone invited to our wedding already knew us, and they created a swell of applause behind a wall of camera-phone flashes. I waved from my wrist like a politician at the end of a fundraiser campaign able to calculate the cost of everything.
I led Lauren to the slick, white tiled dance floor. The slow doo-wop rhythm of “Sea of Love” bounced out of the speakers. I listened to and embraced the sound and touch of a thousand-dollar moment bought by Lauren’s mom Sarah. Sarah had cut a check for the DJ’s booth and swiped a card for Lauren’s dress.
I wrapped my hands around Lauren’s waist. Her dress felt tight and springy; her breath pushed it out. She wrapped her arms around my neck and the second tuxedo I’d ever worn in my life. I had rented my tux but wore a corsage included with the bill for the floral arrangements set in blue Mason jars at every table.
There were about 10 guests at each of the 12 or so round tables. Lauren and I had carefully planned who would come. First, we took a family census from parents all the way out to second cousins. Then, we narrowed that several hundred-person list to below one hundred family members. For friends, we limited ourselves to those we had known for longer than five years and who would actually make the trip to Florida. Once we had this master list together we bought just enough invitations and envelopes to send. Still, both our families wanted us to invite friends of theirs who we didn’t know that well. We sent e-mails to those extra people. We were surprised when we received RSVPs from family who had checked the box in front of Regretfully, will not be attending.
The people who came to the wedding applauded Lauren and my first dance. The attention from both close family and near strangers felt great and claustrophobic. I was glad to hand Lauren to Kevin for their father-daughter dance while I took a seat at our head rectangular table.
Kevin wasn’t really Lauren’s father, but he was her dad. Sarah had gotten pregnant at sixteen in West Virginia and kept Lauren, going on bed rest and completing her diploma at home. After a few years, Sarah moved to Florida. Sarah’s sister and several other relatives lived around Orlando. Sarah got to know Kevin at a church and soon they married. Kevin adopted Lauren, giving her his last name. Sarah and Kevin divorced. Still, Kevin kept Lauren as his daughter.
I hadn’t asked Kevin for permission to marry his daughter. Kevin didn’t own Lauren and I wasn’t buying her. I wasn’t going to respect tradition by disrespecting Lauren.
“What would your wife like to drink?” asked a female caterer as she poured orange juice into a glass at my place.
“Who?” I asked.
For several years, I’d called Lauren my girlfriend and then for the year before our wedding my fiancée. I didn’t like either term. Lauren was a woman and not some high school date or French derivative. It felt too possessive to say, “my.” Lauren chose to be with me; I didn’t have control over her. Lauren had asked why vows were man and wife and I said we should change it to husband and wife, because I wasn’t gaining her without change. Both of us were yoking ourselves to each other—losing some individual freedom of movement, while bonding our strength and support to work together. We believed marriage was work—time and money and life.
When I finally realized the caterer was talking about Lauren, I said, “You’ll have to ask her what she wants.”
I picked up the orange juice and my ring tinked against the glass. It felt weird to wear a ring. The plain bit of metal separated my pinkie and middle finger from my ring and pinched the inside of my knuckle.
Lauren’s eyeliner had smeared a bit after she and Kevin teared up at the end of their dance’s song. The caterers brought four servings of plates while all our guests lined up through the buffet catering Kevin had paid for. My brother Joe sat next to me and Lauren’s best friend Chelsey sat next to her. We had chosen the two closest people to us and no more in our wedding party. We all ate quickly because we could only spend ten minutes per table hugging and handshaking as we accepted compliments and congratulations, before Joe and Chelsey pulled us by the elbow as we said thank you and moved on to another table until one of the scheduled breaks.
Joe gave a best man’s speech about being adventuresome brothers that I coached him on that night. Lauren’s teenage cousin Annie played guitar and despite a sore throat, she sang, “Mama’s Song” by Carrie Underwood. Chelsey gave an inspirational speech with the concluding quote from Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” advice column, “The story of human intimacy is one of constantly allowing ourselves to see those we love most deeply in a new, more fractured light. Look hard. Risk that.” Lauren and I cut slices from a plate-sized cake for us and then doled out cupcakes for everyone else.
As much planning as we had put into the event, we hadn’t known the unexpected: one of my male friends wore a halter top over slacks, the lightness and joy of holding my youngest baby cousin who I had not met yet, guests interrupting us while we ate, my grandmother in an amazing nude sheath dress with silver studs sparkling around her eighty-plus-year-old body, the fun of twirling around on the dance floor to the goofy but fun “You Make My Dream Come True” by Hall and Oates, and feeling wound up and spun out after three hours of all that.
The DJ cut the music with 45 minutes to spare before management wanted us to leave. The caterers had already begun to clean up. Most of the guests, except immediate family had cleared out.
My neck was itching from the long sleeve dress shirt’s starched collar. I was ready to change into my T-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops and head over to the beach. My mom had gotten us an overnight condo for free from a friend of a friend.
I stood next to a poster of a tree that we had used as a guest book. People had pressed their thumbs into pink or yellow inkpads and then stamped it on one of the bare branches. Below each print-leaf was a signature as unique as a print. Several stray and extra prints smudged across the poster from our youngest cousins.
Kevin came up to me. His tuxedo vest’s buttons were undone and his tan nose had reddened with trips to the open bar. He was a strong and solid man made from working outside since the day after high school for his father’s pool business that he eventually bought.
Kevin slapped my back, and then gave me a long, tight hug. As he held me, I thought about how he had walked in one day to the reception venue that I had slowly been paying off during the year before our wedding. He had asked for the remaining amount and paid it off. While I was glad that it had been paid, I was also irked that Kevin had done it like a gift I hadn’t asked for but needed.
When Kevin released me from his hug, he said, “Welcome to the family, Son.”
And maybe it was because he had paid for too much already and I didn’t want him buying me, or I didn’t like him calling his new wife’s parents “Mom and Dad,” or I felt I would be disrespecting my father if I allowed another person to claim me as his son, but I said, “You can still call me Chris.”
I knew I had embarrassed him, because Kevin gave a hangdog look and turned away. I didn’t want to disrespect him, but I just didn’t like the feeling of being called “Son.” My father didn’t even call me, “Son.” Would Kevin have expected me to call him Dad? Only my father was Dad.
I went to take off my tux. Lauren had changed, too. We waved to everybody, but it seemed like Kevin’s hand was lower than everyone else.
As I drove us to the beach, Lauren opened envelopes from guests. She tallied the cash and checks and then read aloud the cheerful cards. While I guessed who had given us what, I couldn’t help wondering if Kevin had wanted to give me something more than money.
In the winter, Lauren and I traveled back to Florida for the warmth and to see our families for Christmas. Kevin and his new wife had given us filled stockings, made us dinner, and set us up in their guest room.
Our last night there, we played an epic several-hours-long game of Monopoly. I had bought up lots of singles properties, while Kevin held several doubles. He offered me $500 and some property to trade for one of my singles he needed. I said I wouldn’t budge for less than $1,000 as well as some pairs of property. Kevin balked and said that that was his only offer, and I told him I would buy his property when he had to mortgage it.
First, Lauren went bankrupt. Then, Kevin landed on his wife’s strip with hotels and he didn’t have enough after mortgaging everything. I barely made it a few more moves, but was glad I didn’t have to pay for my words.
After a couple of hours of sleep, I got up and sat in a bar stool at the counter separating the kitchen from the living room. Kevin said good morning, told me to help myself to coffee, and then turned his back to me. He popped bread in the toaster and then cracked two eggs into an oiled frying pan.
As I sipped from a mug, I remembered the first time I sat at Kevin’s counter with him. We were waiting for Lauren to get home from work because she had still lived with him. Kevin wasn’t wearing a T-shirt, and on his shoulder was a tattoo of a heart with Lauren scrawled in the center.
Kevin focused on his takeout from a Styrofoam clamshell container. I was somewhat afraid of him, not because of his burly stature but more because of our mental difference: Kevin was a working man who owned his own business and respected school for the level it took you to next, while I was in my first year out of college and working one of those restaurant gigs prepping, cooking, and running food like what Kevin was having for dinner. The job didn’t require any of my academic experience, just agility and focus—the hustle—to get one order done while overlapping with the next down the line until the end of my shift when I could finally sit at the restaurant’s bar, or go home, with food. I didn’t want to be bothered, but I also wanted Lauren’s company before the next day’s shift.
Kevin and I were sitting apart from each other, hardly knowing each other. I said something along the lines of me loving Lauren despite us kind of being broken up at the time. Maybe I wanted Kevin to talk to her, convince her to be with me, or perhaps I wanted him to be okay with me still going after her. All he said was, “Sometimes you gotta wait.”
What other advice could Kevin have given me? Should he have told me to get out, to look for other fish in the sea, to keep trying, or anything else? Kevin didn’t tell me I could wait, but that I had to wait.
And so I waited. Lauren and I got back together, she moved with me when I went to grad school, a couple years later I got down on one knee, and then soon after we were married. I graduated just before our wedding, and that summer I started to do odd jobs. Labor swapped my earning from my mind to my body. My thinking slipped while my grip—on a shovel, leash, jar, and steering wheel as a gardener, dog walker, market vendor, and bus driver—tightened. Labor was about giving up time for money. Hourly pay came down to a simple fact: you’re paid for work on the clock.
There’s an oppressive freedom with this kind of labor. You don’t have to answer e-mails at home on your phone, but you don’t get the guaranteed benefits and lump sum salary. You do the time, but then you completely leave work. Away from work, you’re at home where you turn your time to family. You make meals, share gifts, play games, and celebrate holidays.
That winter, Kevin slid over-easy eggs on top of toast and then put them on two plates. He handed me one. I looked at the man who wasn’t my dad, but the dad of my wife and my father-in-law. A man as stubborn as me, but as wanting and willing and waiting to risk chances not just bought with money, but with time from life for love, to be part of family.
This story is part of our Wedding Season series.
Chris Wiewiora lives with his wife Lauren in Ames where he earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. His nonfiction has been anthologized in Best Food Writing 2013 and published in Edible Iowa River Valley, Graze, Nerve, and many other magazines. Read more at his site.
Photo: Joe Shlabotnik