It started because of a weekend marathon of "Say Yes To The Dress."
I was visiting my friend Julia in Pasadena, and while window shopping, we'd lusted over the designer dresses in a boutique we weren't allowed to enter without an appointment. So when we got home and "Say Yes To The Dress" was still on, Julia suggested we make one.
I'd like to say that I hesitated at the thought of fraudulently impersonating a bride, but I was on board immediately. My only question was which of us was going to be fake engaged. I was willing to let Julia do it, as long as I could be along for the wedding dress feminine bonding experience, but Julia pointed out that we both wanted to try on dresses, so we might as well say we were engaged to each other. (Here's the part where I add that Julia and I are both queer, so we weren't appropriating anyone's struggle.)
We looked up the boutique's number, and I made the call. They asked for some information, including when our wedding was. I fumbled and came up with "in seven months." Apparently that was absurdly late to be finding dresses, because the lady on the phone was horrified and insisted on fitting us in the next day.
After the wedding date mishap, we needed to get our stories straight. If our wedding was in seven months, we would know the date. We would know the venue. We would know the color story. We counted out seven months on a calendar, and chose a nice Saturday (June 2nd).
Gay marriage was still illegal in California at the time, so we gave ourselves a destination wedding in Montreal. ("Do they have a botanical garden? I think it'd be nice to have a June wedding in a botanical garden." They did!)
We also solidified our story. In real life, Julia and I met at college, and after she graduated she moved to California to be with her boyfriend, who was at Caltech. We nixed the boyfriend and gave Julia a spot at Caltech, earning a Master's degree in physics. We decided this was my last year at college in Ohio (although it wasn't), and we were planning our wedding for the summer because after I graduated, I would be moving to California to be with Julia.
As a finishing touch, we asked Julia's landlady to come along and be her "aunt." We offered the role of supportive gay best friend to Julia's boyfriend, but he politely declined.
The next day, we went to the boutique and told them our budget per dress: $5,000. They assigned us both personal attendants, and we got started.
My only request was a dress with sleeves or wide straps. I am a woman of a certain chest size, and I can't go braless or strapless. This was the one thing I was determined to be strong about, but my attendant—let's call her Beth—wheedled me down within minutes. She was very good at her job, and I am not strong in the face of wedding dresses.
What I didn't know was that high-end wedding dresses have some kind of highly-engineered corsetry wizard magic built in. Beth put me in a dress that was the opposite of what I thought I wanted. It was extremely traditional, with a fitted torso and a ballooning skirt made of a trillion layers of tulle. It was pure white and virginal. I felt like I belonged on top of a wedding cake, not in front of one. Then she led me to the softly lit three-way mirror, and helped me up onto the podium.
I looked amazing. The corsetry magic pulled in my waist and held up my boobs so well it was like they were resting on a display podium. I definitely didn't need a bra. The dress looked soft and delicate, but inside it was practically bionic. I was pretty sure if someone touched my stomach, it would feel like a mannequin's, but I didn't care. The dress was so beautiful it beautified the rest of me. My hair looked silkier, and my cheeks looked rosier. I was a freaking princess.
"It's nice," Beth said, "but do you think it's The One?"
"No," I conceded. "Let's keep trying."
The next dress was dripping with crystals, with a hem that draped like a tablecloth. Both attendants and Julia pronounced it "not my style," even though I was ready to live in this dress for the rest of my natural life. As we pulled and fitted me into thousands of dollars of fabric, Beth and I chatted. I was glad Julia and I had worked out our details, because she asked me about every one of them.
She was charmed by our wedding venue.
"I've heard Montreal is beautiful!"
She was impressed by my fiancée's social position.
"Caltech? Girl, she is going to make you a lot of money. You've got yourself a good one!"
I lied with ease, encouraged by her enthusiasm for my fake relationship. The only moment that gave me pause was when she asked how many people would be at our wedding.
"Oh, you know," I stalled. "We're not totally sure of the headcount yet, but we're trying to keep it small. We don't really have a solid number right now."
There was a confused pause, and then she said, "You know, I can tell you're not from LA. These LA brides that come in here, they're so type-A! They know every detail of their wedding down to the last second. I can really tell you're from Ohio, you're so much more relaxed. You're, like, this fresh-faced Midwest farm girl, I LOVE it."
I breathed a sigh of relief. At least, as much as I could breathe with what felt like solid steel beams holding in my stomach.
The breakthrough came when our attendants collaborated, and brought Julia and I two dresses from the same collection. Mine was cream, with soft rumpled satin across the torso, and an explosion of cream gauze roses forming the skirt. It was possibly the most ridiculous dress yet, but it looked amazing. And despite the flowery skirt, it was simpler and more "me" than the dresses I'd tried so far.
Julia's was a pale, dusty pink. It had more of a mermaid silhouette, but with a splash of the same gauze roses at the bottom. They coordinated without matching. Neither was white, so they didn't clash. Both attendants were positive: We'd found The Ones.
Beth draped us in sample veils, and handed us bouquets of plastic flowers. "There," she gushed. "I can just see you at the altar. God, I can't believe a beautiful couple like you can't get married in California! It's not fair." She fanned her eyes, close to tears.
Even Julia's fake landlady aunt had to agree. "You two look like you could get married right now."
"Call the minister!" one of the attendants joked.
"If only it were that easy!" I joked back, rolling my eyes at the burden of wedding planning.
Everything was warmth, soft lighting and compliments, until the hammer dropped.
"So those are four thousand each," one of the attendants said. "You can put down half today, and then we can put in your order."
We tried to back off, saying we weren't sure about the dresses, but we had kind of already locked ourselves into the whole "The One" thing.
"You are not going to find a better dress," Beth insisted. "I know it. I can feel it."
I tried to pull the exit strategy Julia and I had planned. "The thing is, I promised my mom we wouldn't buy anything without discussing it with her first."
"You should call her right now!" Beth said. "I can talk to her. I can tell her how great you look!"
"I think she would be very surprised to hear that I found a dress today," I said desperately.
Finally, they talked us into a follow-up appointment the following Wednesday. Julia and I left our information, both knowing we would cancel that appointment. I subtly added the boutique's phone number to my contacts, so I'd know not to answer if they called.
It was a beautiful sunny Pasadena day, but I couldn't help feeling a little sad as we left. The flattery and fantasy had gotten to me. For a solid hour, I'd had an amazing life. I was all set for a June wedding to my hot physics major fiancée.
In the real world, I was single and halfway through a stressful semester. I wasn't even really a Midwest farm girl. Also, two bridal attendants were not going to get their commissions on those $4,000 dresses. It left me with a flat, day-after-Christmas feeling.
Julia and I were back to just being friends. But if engagement was just about trying on gorgeous dresses, I would have committed to her that second.