Authors: Jessi Klein
I knew I had two choices. Choice number one was that I could take Kate up on her offer and go home.
Choice number two was that I could continue on the trip with him, and most likely we'd be having that sad species of vacation couples go on when it's the last one they'll take together, and sometimes one person knows it and sometimes both people know it.
But I knew that if I left, our relationship would definitely be over, right now.
I touched his arm and said, “Let's go.”
We wearily walked to pick up our rental car, and that is where a minor miracle occurred. They were sold out of the model we'd reserved, and so, at no extra cost, they upgraded us to a brand-new Volvo convertible with a leather interior the color of cream. When Mike turned on the engine, he gasped.
“Oh my God,” he said. “The seats are heated.”
The yuppie asshole in each of us was so in awe of the car that we both immediately cheered up and headed to wine country. (I did acknowledge it was only a minor miracle.)
The three days in Napa were a booze-soaked blur. We drank barrels of beautiful liquids and fell in love with our driver Tom, a gravel-voiced Vietnam vet with a passion for grapes. I focused on the pleasure of risotto and cheese, and we went to French Laundry, where I ate marrow. I forgot about being engaged, except for a dip in my heart every morning when I remembered I was on a bittersweet last vacation. I managed to pretend everything was fine.
Until we got to Big Sur and the Post Ranch Inn.
When you arrive at Post Ranch, the concierge hands you a glass of wine, which you will carry with you into the Lexus SUV used to shuttle you to the tree house where you will be staying. It has a fireplace and a hot tub and an outdoor tub and it's fucking nuts. A bellman shows you the location of the two cliff-side hot tubs, which overlook what looks like all of the Pacific Ocean at once. The concierge reminds you that if you want to use one of their Lexus convertibles, all you need to do is call the valet and it will be brought to your door, at any hour of the day or night. Yes, when you stay at Post Ranch you have free use of a Lexus. No one worries about a guest stealing a car, because why would anyone want to leave this place?
And it's only when we sit on one of the many little white stone benches scattered along the bluff that I feel tears coming again. Unlike the baloney that everyone believes about the inevitability of getting engaged in Paris, here it is not bullshit. Getting engaged is the reason this place exists. Who wouldn't think they were with their soul mate, even if it was a mistake, in a place like this? As we realized there were clouds rolling by BENEATH us, I could see Mike starting to feel just a bit sheepish about his decision not to propose here.
Over the next four days, I'd literally stew in the hot tubs; sometimes at dawn, sometimes at midnight. Here I was, a privileged speck soaking in one of the most awe-inspiring vistas in the world, and all I could do was text my friends about my relationship.
“This is what they do,” my friend Tracy texted me. “This is his process.” It was sunset, and I was sitting at the Post Ranch restaurant watching bats throw themselves against the huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows while Mike was in the bathroom.
“Help,” I had written to Tracy, and to my friend Jessica, and to my friend Wendy.
Jessica wrote me back the next morning, as I was looking at a giant redwood tree, one of the most majestic living things in the world. “This is so fucked,” she said. “Fuck him.” Mike was up ahead, fiddling with his camera. “Has this ever happened to anyone else you know?” I thumb-typed.
“Yes,” Jessica answered. “Literally every woman I know who's gotten married has gone through this bullshit before they got engaged.” She went on to lay it down: “You need to not talk to him for a while. Don't be aggressive, he just needs to be scared you're leaving.”
I said I thought this sounded like a game.
“Trust me,” Jessica said.
I couldn't believe that I was suddenly ensnared in the most humiliating relationship clichÃ© of them all: the girlfriend giving an ultimatum. Jeanne Tripplehorn on the big cell phone, yelling at her dumb boyfriend to get his shit together.
Jenny texted me that Jessica was right. “This is just what guys do,” she said.
On our third Post Ranch day, I went for my Reiki appointment. Although I was happy for the hour-long break from Mike, I was not expecting any more enlightenment than I would from a Magic 8 Ball. I was greeted in the waiting room by “Saja,” who led me to the Reiki room, which was dark and filled with red and gold pillows and bronze bells.
She started the session by asking me if there was anything going on in my life I thought she might want to know about. I figured she probably didn't really want to know about any of it, so I simply told her I was having a hard week. She said I shouldn't expect to go into a trance or be hypnotized, but that at some point it might feel like I was dreaming. Whatever, Reiki lady. She rang a bell and started touching my back lightly; it wasn't massage, as she was just barely grazing my skin with her fingertips. For five minutes I lay on my stomach with my head in the face cradle, thinking bitterly about what a waste of money this was, and trying not to think about how much this room looked like the set of
, until suddenly I felt like I was falling asleep. Except I knew I wasn't. My eyes were open but I had the sensation that I was watching a film, and that I was not in control of what was being projected in front of me. The movie began with me in the ocean, out in open water, and then I became aware of being born out of my mother's body. I met up with my first boyfriend, Pete, and we cried in each other's arms and I forgave him for hurting me. I had a cat whom I fed by spilling milk out of a teacup directly onto the tile floor, and then I was left standing in my kitchen holding an empty teacup and wondering who would fill it again. Every image seemed like an unsolvable equation that the next image would somehow solve. This series of pictures floated in front of me for what felt like days, although really it was about forty-five minutes.
Then Saja rang another bell, and I “woke up.” I felt peaceful. We spoke about how I might want to try correcting the imbalances she'd felt between my masculine and feminine energy. I didn't know what this meant but it didn't matter, I loved Saja so much. I stumbled down the hallway toward the lobby, dizzy, but with a new understanding of the order of the universe. Everything made emotional sense.
And then I bumped into Rosie O'Donnell.
She was checking in for her massage or her Reiki session or maybe even her drum journey. She was wearing white jeans and a sweatshirt and sunglasses and her hair was a mess. It was like the polar bear from
had ambled into my childhood synagogue. What had, for a few tantalizing seconds, felt like a world in emotional order once again presented itself as unpredictable chaos. How was it possible that Rosie O'Donnell and I had both ended up in the same hippie spa in the middle of nowhere on this particular day? So many infinitesimally small decisions had to fall into place for us to cross paths. As I walked back to my glam tree house, occasionally hugging the side of the road to avoid a passing Lexus, I kept thinking about how the journey by which two people find each other and decide to make a life together must involve an accumulation of so many twists and turns for both. It's a mystery as to how it all gets done.
For instance: How did events align such that when I needed to get away from Mike, my two girlfriends happened to be on Martha's Vineyard in Rose Styron's guesthouse with an extra room available for me? How did these two awesome women happen to be on vacation at the very moment I needed them to get drunk with me till the wee hours and let me cry about how I was now, at thirty-seven, going to be single and starting over again? How was it that when I needed to write the most important letter of my life, telling him how profoundly disappointed I was and that I needed to move on, I was sitting in the same house where William Styron wrote
What I'm really asking is, Why did it take all these things for me to be sitting here now, typing these words with a diamond ring on my left hand?
Because, as Mike later wrote to me, he was terrified. Because he was scared of repeating his parents' decimating divorce. Because he was sublimating lifelong fears of failing the way his father had.
But who knows the real answer? I don't.
I just know that what I learned is that this is often the way men and women decide to get engaged.
Â They're in the middle of a five-day stay in the guesthouse of Rose Styron, William Styron's widow, the result of Jenny winning a charity auction for the
Â His apartment was awesome.
Â Flashback to me finding lube bottle in ex's apartment.
Â In case you're not familiar, Spa Belles is a chain of manicure places in New York City. They are usually pretty clean-ish. The dirtiest I ever saw one was after someone did a number two in the restroom and the toilet clogged, and I guess that someone was embarrassed and just ran off. (I was the someone.)
Â To be clear: I am not comparing the letter I wrote to the novel
. I'm just saying I was able to channel some Streep energy being in that room.
few days ago, Mike and I were eating key lime pie and watching
Say Yes to the Dress
. A bride-to-be was standing on a pedestal in an overly sequined dress, griping about a lack of “bling” and demanding to see another gown. We both chuckled about how silly she looked and how dumb it is to freak out over this trivial bullshit. But suddenly I remembered, mid-pie-bite, as some twenty-one-year-old from Atlanta was agreeing to be “jacked up” (this is
speak for allowing yourself to be accessorizedâveil, jewelry, etc.âin order to prove to your skeptical mom that your dress makes you look like a classy bride and not a cheap common slutty slut), that just a few months ago
I was one of these ladies
Actually, that's not even true. I was, in fact, much worse.
The sad truth is: Over the spring and summer of 2013, I tried on over a hundred wedding dresses.
Immediately after we got engaged, friends and family started asking me what I was thinking about vis-Ã -vis a wedding dress. I gave everyone the same answer: “Oh, I'm not going to wear a wedding dress.” And then, as I watched their eyes widen and their minds explode, I would feel this incredibly warm wave of self-satisfaction wash over me. It's very similar to the feeling I get when I tell people that while I understand that he may appeal to others, I do not personally find Brad Pitt attractive. No thanks, not for me!
We all enjoy the little moments when we can quietly announce to the world how special and unique we are; but the thing is, I genuinely didn't want to wear a wedding dress. I've simply never related to them. The poofiness, the taffeta-ness, the overall Cinderella-nessânone of it ever interested me. I've attended many weddings where I've watched a friend, someone I thought I knew well, walk down the aisle in an ensemble that rendered her essence somehow unrecognizable, like seeing your beloved pet Chihuahua in a neon Speedo. It's as if these dresses are designed to erase your individuality, leveling you into a universal symbol of femaleness, like that faceless woman wearing a triangle dress on the door of every ladies' restroom in America.
I didn't want to do that. My plan (as I elaborated to anyone who asked) was simply to spend “a little more than I normally would” on a festive but gorgeous but non-bridal dress. Maybe a Catherine Malandrino. A Zac Posen. I'd identified a few designers I liked, but the common factor in all of my dress fantasies was how incredibly easy it would be for me, a humble feminist with almost no material needs, to accomplish this simple task.
What I wasn't expecting was the number of people who came out of the woodwork and actually volunteered to take me wedding dress shopping. A casual acquaintance, a woman I occasionally work with, lit up when I told her I was engaged. “Oooh,” she said. “Are you going to go to Kleinfeld? If you are, could I go with you? I've always wanted to go.” She lives in Chicago, but was willing to fly to New York to fulfill this lifelong dream.
Closer friends wanted to take me shopping as well. One friend, whom I had accompanied to a boutique to buy her wedding dress two years earlier, was quite eager to return the favor. “I'll make the appointment!” she offered. I didn't know you had to make an appointment to go dress shopping. I thought you could just waltz in and jack yourself up.
But since she was willing to deal with it, I agreed.
, I thought to myself. I'd have this shopping-for-a-wedding-dress experience and then file it away along with other things I'd tried just so I could say I had done them, like the time I had sex with someone who owned a motorcycle (he told me only afterward that he had borrowed it from a friend aghhhhhhâ¦). Then I'd go spend a few hundred bucks on something at Bloomingdale's.
In the spirit of going full-tilt on the girliness of this excursion, I rounded up an extra friend and the three of us met at Cafe Cluny for a pre-shop champagne toast. I chugged it, got slightly more buzzed than I'd planned, and we crossed the street and entered Lovely.
Lovely is a quaint bridal boutique in the West Village, located on two floors of an old brownstone. Everyone on the sales staff is adorable and has impeccable yet approachable style. They all look like your big sister's best friend from Marin County. It is a place that has a reputation for attracting a more “low-key” (mid-thirties yuppie lady) bride and offering a more “curated” (less stuff) selection of dresses than big bridal warehouses like Kleinfeld. It's chockablock with the kinds of twee touches that make it catnip for girls: gilded antique mirrors, shabby chic chandeliers, and glass doorknobs. Little silver trays are filled with sparkling accessories: bracelets, rhinestone hairpins, and evenâsadlyâa tiara. A TIARA. But I'm not immune to catnip. I walked in and wanted a taste. I wanted to belong.
However, moments after we arrived, things started to go south. While we waited for the saleswoman who'd be helping us, I thought I'd get started and check out what was on the racks. No sooner had I taken a step away from the waiting area than one of the impeccable yet approachable women reprimanded me that I should not look at any dresses until I was accompanied by my attendant. “You can, like, look at the jewelry and hairpins that are where you're sitting,” she said, in a tone that made it clear she was friendly, but not fucking around. This would be the deal at pretty much every bridal shop I visited. For some reason that I never figured out, they do
like you to look at the stuff you will be looking at. Dresses are brought out from back rooms with somber reverence, like the Torah being revealed from the ark. Also, every appointment is exactly an hour, and then Cinderella time is over and it's time to get back to your stupid pumpkin life.
My saleswoman was “Maya,” a pretty redhead with Amy Winehouse eyeliner. She was nice enough, but it was already four in the afternoon and she also seemed vaguely over it. Which made me insecure. Which was probably why she was over it. Who wants to deal with a bunch of insecure and needy girls all day? Maya followed me around the forbidden racks as I touched dress after dress, each of them covered in plastic, and tried to imagine myself as a bride. But for someone who normally wears jeans and an old sweater I'm trying to pretend I didn't buy at J.Crew in 2005, it was a tough road.
And it only got worse from there. I have a tremendous amount of inherent body shame but Maya made it clear, as she stepped behind the dressing room curtain with me, that she would not be granting me any privacy. As I fumbled around in front of this stranger in my raggy old Gap underwear and ill-fitting high heels, I waved good-bye to my dignity.
And I hadn't been familiar with the system for trying on the dresses, with the samples being either three sizes too big or (horror of horrors) four sizes too small. The ones that were too small I'd try to shimmy past my hips, then realize I had to give up. Under Maya's dead-eyed gaze I'd feel the pressure to make a self-deprecating joke, which would somehow make her eyes even deader.
The dresses that were too large, Maya would fasten to me with four or five construction-grade metal clips, so that I kind of looked like the old Victorian paper dolls I used to fasten paper dresses on top of until I got bored and waited for video games to be invented.
When we were able to get a dress vaguely on me, or even adjacent to me, I would shuffle out toward my friends and present myself on a little pedestal. From there we would engage in a verbal tennis match, wherein they would tell me I looked like the most beautiful angel ever to alight upon this earth, and I would tell them that I looked like a fat piece of shit, and they would tell me I was being insane, and then I would tell them they had to admit that my boobs were falling out of this dress that was clearly meant for a waifish mouse, and they would begrudgingly tell me that maybe perhaps the dress wasn't as gorgeous and special as I am, and then we'd settle there and I'd shuffle back into my dress cave.
Toward the end of my hour with Maya, who I could tell was really starting to fantasize about getting drunk at home by herself, I picked up one last dress that, once on, felt different. It was a strapless art deco column with sequins all over, and a blouson top.
I shuffled toward my friends and looked in the mirror. It was a beautiful dressâa wedding dress, yes, but with a boho-rock-star edge, a dress I could picture Kate Moss doing coke in before passing out on a huge messy bed at the Ritz. I took a moment to consider whether I wanted to look like a coked-up Kate Moss at my wedding, and realized the answer was yes. My friends told me I looked like the prettiest bride in the history of female creation. I thought my ass looked like a beanbag chair.
But now I'd seen myself in a wedding dress, and for the first time, saw a sliver of my potential to look like something besides myself for a day. Not even a day, I reasoned. Really, just a few hours. Maybe I could wear a wedding dress. Shouldn't I try to be feminine for just a few hours out of my entire fucking life?
And so the search began. I started looking online at wedding blogs, making lists. It was March. My wedding was in November. This seemed like a ton of time, although as Maya had warned me, before she went home to get stoned in the bathtub, for a November wedding I'd really want to order a dress by May. June at the latest. This seemed like an excessive amount of time for what I wanted, especially considering that I was going to get a very modest dress, nothing fancy, nothing expensive, most likely off the rack, basically rags.
In April, I had to go to LA for work, so I took the opportunity to meet with my friend Jenny (another person who was excited to take me wedding dress shopping) and go to Barneys. I tried on every iteration of white, champagne, and ivory party dress and I managed to look like a plump flamingo in all of them. I started to see a pattern, which is that my large boobs and hips, in combination with my stick arms and legs, made a lot of things that fit in one place not fit in another. Dresses that I thought looked good on me in the mirror would reveal themselves to be horribly unflattering when seen in the cold hard light of the photos Jenny was taking on her iPhone.
When Jenny had to leave for work, I Ubered my way over to the LA outpost of Lovely to see if they had “curated” any stock that wasn't in the New York store. This time the saleschick was a little bit sweeter, and, body shame a distant memory, we had a relatively pleasant time clipping me into a series of dresses that, like last time, all made me look like a large raccoon that had tipped over a garbage can searching for food, found a wedding dress instead, and then decided to take a nap in it.
Before leaving, I decided to take one final spin around to see if there was anything I'd missed, and in the corner rack I noticed a strapless dress with a multi-tiered bottom. It looked odd on the rack, falling in a weird shape from the hanger. It was the Charlie Brown Christmas tree of dresses. But once it was on, I felt something, a lightness. It had a bohemian whimsy. It looked like a cross between the costume of a bawdy nineteenth-century saloon owner and something Frida Kahlo would have worn to paint herself bleeding to death. I looked like a bride who didn't take being a bride too seriously, not like one of those women on the cover of
magazine who looks like her facial expression is being held in place with toothpicks.
The saleschick jacked me up with a sparkly sash, and looking in the mirror, I felt good. I looked like me, but more female-er. I immediately sent photos to four or five friends to get their blessings so I could end this ridiculous process.
One friend texted “pretty,” but then there was a pause, and then those three little iPhone dots that mean someone is writing you back appeared again, and this continued for a while before the message was finally SENT and she said, “I've never really liked ruffles?â¦”
All the texts I got back were decidedly tepid. No one else LOVED it.
A seed of doubt was planted, but I still felt pretty confident I'd found my dress. Maybe I'd just go to a few places to see if I could find something better. But in a week or two, if I couldn't, I'd just buy it. After all, who gives a shit? I made an appointment at Saks in New York.
Saks New York's bridal salon had glass doors separating the bridal parlor from the rest of the upscale shopper riffraff. My saleswoman, Barbara, was an older lady from New Jersey who told me she'd been at this for twenty-five years. She was a familiar type to me, maternal ambiguous Jew-Italian, and she seemed kind. I trusted her. Ten minutes into the appointment she came back into my dressing room dragging behind her several large plastic garment bags, which looked as heavy as if they contained corpses, but were filled instead with glittering sheaths.
They were all beautiful, but there was one small problem. Just a month earlier, Baz Luhrmann's
The Great Gatsby
had premiered and every fashion magazine was filled with
-inspired dresses, all of which looked like these, and I felt like some Zelda Fitzgeraldâwannabe asshole.
The one nice thing was how encouraging Barbara was about my body. “You don't have anything to worry about, you're like a model, you'll look good in anything,” she said. But midway through my hour, I started telling her about the tiered dress from Lovely and how I was looking for something with that same whimsical vibe. “Show me,” she said. I showed her the photo on my phone and she scowled. “No,” she said, her voice dripping with disgust. “It's like a maternity dress. You look pregnant.”
My heart sank. Even Barbara had turned on me.
This was the first moment I started to realize that some larger problem was boiling to the surface, that this wasn't just about the dress, but rather a deep cauldron of self-doubt in my own tasteâand not just my own taste, but my entire self. It was one thing to be a sartorial mess in my everyday life, but it felt like quite another to show up at my own wedding in something that everyone would silently think was an embarrassment. I'd spent my whole life walking around with a certain relief that when I entered a room I wasn't one of those girls everyone stared at. But in this case, as the bride, by definition I was the one everyone was supposed to gawk at. This was terrifying. To fail at finding a wedding dress felt like failing at femininity. What if I COULDN'T pull it together for a few measly hours? What would that say about me as a woman? And how disappointing would it be for Mike, who looks impeccable every day?