There were signs that would have made a more superstitious bride nervous. My engagement ring gave me a rash. It was not just a slight shade of pink. This was a crimson mother of an itch with screaming white bumps that pulsed with each fidget.
My fiancé Mateo* had borrowed money from his parents to buy the sliver of a white gold band with diamond chips. When my friends asked to see the ring, there wasn’t much to inspect.
“That’s nice,” they’d say, sizing up my hand in the same way I reacted when my grandma gave me clothes from Sears for Christmas.
I understood he couldn’t afford much. We were in our early twenties.
After dropping out of art school to pursue lifeguarding, Mateo had worked as a poker dealer on a floating casino in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he was from. We met there while I was studying abroad. It's where we fell in love.
He knew struggle, which was attractive to me as a middle-class young woman who grew up without it. His thumb carried a scar from when he had shoved away a thief's knife after the thief demanded his watch. He made art. I liked art. Also, he was hot. He had the profile of a superhero and the ponytail of a villain.
When I returned to the U.S., he wrote me long letters in cursive, professing that I had showed him how to love.
I read them without smirking. Upon moving to this country on a visa to marry me, he settled with me in South Florida. He found a job as a barista and, in his spare time, obsessed over comic books.
The second ominous detail was the drizzle that fell as I walked into the church in my small hometown where we would marry. Bridal lore is split on whether rain is bad luck, but any bride with hair will tell you it sucks.
The third omen came at the reception. Mateo wore a cardboard crown from Burger King as we nibbled filet mignon before a hundred of my relatives and friends, who were forming their first impressions of him. He slugged wine, vodka, beer, and Jagermeister, obliterating his promise not to get wasted. The hair that he had professionally-straightened now stuck together like hunks on an old mare. By the time he mounted a table, detached the cummerbund from his rented tux, and twirled it above his head, I knew this day would look better in photos than reality.
Shortly thereafter, it turned worse.
We walked with friends from our reception to a crappy bar at my groom's urging. After that, his memory is spotty. Jager shots tend to do that. We must rely on my recollections, which are pathetic and sad because, of course, I had already decided I was the damsel; he was the villain.
Once I noticed how my ballet slippers stuck to the floor, I fled outside in tears. Mateo followed me, drunk and angry. Because it was November, winter had begun to bully out fall. My molars chattered, which set off my incisors until my clenched jaw and rouged cheeks shook. He fell to the ground and curled around his tuxedo jacket like a security blanket. Mateo cried about how he was alone and I had everyone. None of his family had made the trip.
I felt sorry for him, but more sorry for me. I tried to be invisible, an impossible feat while standing outside a dive bar in your hometown wearing a wedding dress and tiara.
Later at the Hampton Inn near the interstate where we spent our wedding night, he collapsed into bed. I asked him for help with the platoon of buttons that marched up the back of my dress. He shook his head, eyes just slits.
“No,” he mumbled. “I want a divorce.”
I stared at this passed-out man. This was my husband. I sent a plea to the universe that went something like, Can I get some help? I thought about my options. I could sleep in my dress, but I would never actually fall asleep. Or, I could call my mother, who lived a 15-minute drive away. I dialed home around 3 a.m.
“I can’t get my dress off.”
“Ask him to help you," she said.
“He won’t," I cried. "This was a mistake.”
“Oh, honey. I’m on my way.”
My mother soon arrived at the hotel. Makeup scrubbed clean, the skin around her eyes glistened with Vaseline, her frugal alternative to wrinkle cream. She wore my middle-school jean jacket over flannel pajamas. She opened her arms and I wished I could disappear inside. I sobbed.
She unhooked the buttons, undid the hooks on the bustier. Slipping on a T-shirt, I switched out of the lacy white thong and into comfy cotton underwear. Mateo would have complained about the switch had he been conscious.
My mother leaned against the wall. I clung to the edge of the bed, opposite Mateo as if he carried the strain of cooties that runs fervent in second-grade boys.
"I’d be more upset about not…"
"What?" I snapped.
"Consummating your marriage," she said.
She began to ramble about how so-and-so told her they loved the candlelit ceremony. And could I believe so-and-so wore jeans? And did I notice how Grandpa disappeared? Was I angry the DJ played the chicken dance?
My eyelids drooped the longer she spoke, and maybe that was her strategy, because I don’t remember responding to anything she said. I rolled to face my snoring husband and closed my eyes. I couldn’t bear to look at him. She drew loops with her fingertips, tickling my back as she had done since I was a kid. My breathing slowed.
“Things will look better in the morning,” my mother said.
This was her refrain after every bad day and it was always true.
Though things did look better in the morning, I dreaded what spending our wedding night with my mother meant for our marriage. I filled my groom in on most of the details.
"I’ve earned the title of the worst husband in the world," he apologized. I didn't disagree. Downstairs in the hotel's breakfast room, as guests noshed on donut holes, my grandfather came over to hug me. I don’t remember what he said to Mateo, but I imagine he told him to take good care of me.
Years later, through my family, I would learn why my grandfather had stormed out of the reception. He doubted Mateo and perhaps believed a green card was behind his proposal. It bothered him enough that he reached out for advice. He wrote to Dr. Joyce Brothers. My father found the letter after my grandfather's death.
As a grandfather I am greatly disturbed that my introverted, attractive and well educated granddaughter will be making the biggest mistake of her life as she gets married to a young good looking native of Argentina...
This is hurting me. What do you and your readers advise?
I felt a rush of love from my grandfather. I don’t know if he even sent it, but the letter brought back that wedding night. He was right. Mateo and I split within three years of our ceremony.
I had never believed Mateo married me for a green card but over the years, when I told people the story of our marriage that was usually their conclusion. He had refused to sign our divorce papers for several months. I messaged him on Facebook after discovering the Dr. Joyce letter. I had found an unemotional vehicle to question his actions: journalism.
"C'mon, that's not how our story was," he said, when we talked, which we have done rarely since our divorce more than 10 years ago.
"Why didn't you sign the papers?"
"I didn’t know if you were trying to kick me out. More than anything, I wanted to do something to piss you off because I was mad," he said.
I had been mad too, but as we compared notes on our wedding night and the subsequent nights during our short marriage, we both laughed. We talked about the dirty dishes he left, the fact I was so miserable I couldn't sleep and my constant griping about little things, like crumbs on the counter.
"You complained a lot about a lot of things," he reminded me.
He had become a U.S. citizen and a retail manager.
"My comic book collection is bad ass," he boasted. I congratulated him.
He married a woman who likes to cook and wash the dishes, he told me. Really? I said, silently deciding he was lying. (He wants me to be clear that's not why he married her.) I too married someone who likes to cook, I told him. He has no interest in comic books.
"You changed my life for the better," he said.
I'm not sure I will ever be able to say that in return. His deal was sweet. It ended with citizenship, which will extend to his new wife from Mexico. I, on the other hand, got stuck with our wedding photos that tell the fairytale of a day that didn't happen. I've left them in the garage where I hope they will one day disintegrate because I still can't throw them away.