15 years ago today, one month shy of my 21st birthday, I was married in a strip mall.
The decision to marry—at age 20—was on par with most decisions one makes at that age, including all the requisite limited forethought, stubborn assuredness and defiant invincibility. I wasn’t old enough to go to Vegas. I wasn’t old enough to toast to a lifetime together. But I was old enough to change my last name and call someone my husband. And I was old enough to make a binding legal and spiritual covenant to a boy-man that whispered forever with the confidence of someone far older than 21.
And so. We exchanged vows at 10 am on a friday morning, having planned the whole event in 9 short days. It made sense to us, as we had lain in our apartment together in early October. We should get married. We should do it now. A few telephone calls, a short drive to the chapel, which was nestled near a flower shop and a Subway restaurant. I had a turkey sub, we paid extra for the Photography Deluxe Package. It was all arranged. All that was missing was the unplanned pregnancy to give it that final air of irony (that would come 8 short months later) but among the 25 guests, there were certain whispers. Does she look heavier, in the middle there? I could swear her face is fatter.
And yet, as far as hastily planned, shopping center weddings go, it was really quite lovely.
And for a little while, the marriage was too.
Until it wasn’t. And then…well.
You knew how the story was going to end before I even began, didn’t you.
I drove by the shopping mall the other night with my teenager in the front seat of my mini-van. The wedding chapel was gone, there’s a yoga studio now. A Starbucks. A store that sells cellular telephones. It looks wholly uninteresting and non-descript.
“Your daddy and I were married there…” I told her, pointing.
“There? Where?” She peered out the window, uncertainly.
“In that shopping center. There was a chapel there. But it’s long gone now.”
That marriage, that husband. That’s long gone too, I think.
“You got married in a strip mall?” She seems incredulous and I wonder what she imagined from the pictures she had seen in the photo albums. She sucks in her breath and sounds a little defiant. “That is incredibly lame.”
Those photo albums are in the back of the closet now. She won’t be looking through them again anytime soon, I know this. I was 20 when I married, 34 when I divorced. As I sit at the light near the strip mall, There’s a grown up husband at home waiting for me at home, standing in the kitchen, putting dishes in the dishwasher. A different husband chosen for different reasons, at a different time in life, one with strong hands and a constant kind of love that keeps me whole and safe. I drive a mini-van and drink red wine. I hear my own voice speaking and it sounds calm and certain. If I am rash, it is a calculated rash, heavy with knowledge and failure.
No one, especially not 20 year old girls, say “I do” with the intention of changing their mind.
And before I judge her too harshly, that child there with the white roses in her hair and that irascible certainty, I have to stand back and admire her just a little.
That girl, was something.
Aren’t we all something at 20?
My daughter will never know very much about the girl who married a boy in a shopping mall.
That girl and I are in different places now. And this makes me sad, all of a sudden. Because I want this almost-grown daughter of mine to know that part of me. I want her to know that I once lived on the edge of things. That I took chances and wore my confidence haughtily.
That I understand how it feels to know everything. To need little. To love desperately.
Divorced, after 13 long years of marriage. After more than a decade of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, pounding away with hopefulness that if I was just a little stronger, a little more pliable, I would make it work.
She was foolish. But happy, for awhile anyway.
Drunk on the curses and the curiosities of being young.
I am not her anymore and I don’t think I would want to be. This makes me sad too.
I blink a little as we roll past the shopping center, squinting at the storefronts. Where did she go?
Where is that girl now?
I stare into the rearview mirror of my car as the shopping mall fades. She’s not there.
Then I look at my daughter, flipping through the radio stations.
Her face is brightly beautiful in the bluish glow of the dashboard dial.
And all is not lost.
Because just then, I see her.
I can see that girl sitting right beside me.