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My stomach popped and gurgled like a freshly opened can of seltzer as my date and I made our way down the receiving line. I recognized the groom.
As my date began to introduce me to him, I reached out for a handshake. No matter how loosely I shook, the electricity swelled between our palms and in the pit of my stomach. Recognition flashed across the groom’s eyes as a small wave of panic spread through his face. For reasons I can’t I articulate it brought me back to a sad, nostalgic place. I held his hand for a moment too long before I mouthed "Congratulations" and moved on to congratulate the bride.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Mike and I dated for the better part of a year while I was in my early twenties. We got along well, but had he not been my first boyfriend, I would have known much sooner that there was no wedding in our future. Whenever I tried to tell him that I loved him, he would remind me not to say things that I would come to regret.
When we broke up, it was over the phone. I remember him telling me that he wanted someone more attractive in his future, someone that he could have better looking children with. To this day, I’m not sure if he meant it or if it was a ploy to force me to accept that it was over. Either way, those words continue to do damage whenever I try to imagine myself with a long-term partner.
Against my better judgment, I spent the next few months trying to prove to Mike that I was attractive. I needed to prove that I was not only attractive enough to take back but attractive enough to keep. I already knew that my personality hadn’t won him over. My hair saw more heat and product in those months than it has in the rest of my 27 years. I purchased and wore more make up than a MAC salesgirl would be comfortable with. We continued a physical relationship until one of my friend’s, sensing my hopelessness, deleted his number from my phone. Then it hit me, Mike never wanted to meet up unless I called him first. After the mourning of his phone number, I was OK to move forward. Not ready, but OK.
Time passed, I dated, I failed at dating. More dating occurred. More time passed. More failure occurred. I found myself on Craigslist one night and came across an ad placed by a guy looking for a wedding date. Jimmy and I met for dinner about a month before the event and hit it off. He had amazing calves and impeccable posture -– two things that really turn me on. We hit it off and saw one another several times before the wedding. I’m grateful that he wasn’t a serial killer. I’m also grateful that on our second date we got to have giant cupcakes.
The day of the wedding, things were going swimmingly until we got to the church. Other guests looked familiar and I got a few odd looks. I brushed it off thinking my dress was askew and spent much of my time fidgeting until the groom walked in. Mike. I must have gasped because my date asked if I was alright. When I explained that I already knew the groom, he laughed.
"You’re the before?" Jimmy went on to explain that the girl Mike had dated before his soon to be wife (me) he referred to as "the before" -– like a magazine make over image before the glam squad. Not by name, never by name just as "the before." I’d met some of Mike’s friends before, but never Jimmy. The strange looks made a lot more sense now.
At the reception, I watched as Mike twirled his new bride around the room. They looked beautiful like a stock photo of a bride and groom. It is amazing to me that one person can be awful to and for you but the perfect gentlemen for someone else. He gave a toast thanking her for being beautiful both inside and out. I fought hard not to laugh at the cliché.
All at once, I was nostalgic, angry, bitter and dying to kiss him. Human emotions are a very strange thing. I excused myself from my date, who was happily mingling with pals and went to get some air. As I sat alone, Mike wandered outside for a celebratory solo smoke.
We eyed each other cautiously before he sat on the bench adjacent to mine and said nothing for a time. As I went to go back inside, the tension coming to a head, he asked me how I met Jimmy. Craigslist. I could have lied but there was no need to save face. He told me that was pathetic. I nodded. It didn’t feel pathetic but I couldn’t bring myself to argue with him on his wedding day. We exchanged pleasantries for a moment. Mike patted my head as he went to rejoin his wedding.
"Even dressed up, you’re still a before." He said it as though I should have expected it, as though I shouldn’t have come here. Trust me, sugar if I’d known whose wedding it was I would have told Jimmy-super-calves no thank you.
I cried when he went back inside. Jimmy came looking for me and without me telling him what happened, he reached in for a hug. His arms lingered around my body as he apologized on Mike’s behalf. Jimmy kissed my forehead and took me home.
Despite the tears, the events of the wedding made me realize something, I was OK to move forward, and the whole thing had taught me a valuable lesson. No more trying to change myself for someone who didn't even deserve it in the first place. In the future, I would only date men who loved me for who I am, and who treated me well. In that way, Mike was the true "before."