“Toast to the Bride,” photograph, by Frank R. Snyder, 1905.

by Mary Ann Cooper

I was six years old when I first realized what sharing meant. On Christmas morning, my siblings and I raced downstairs to find a present wrapped in brown paper nestled under our spindly tree, “To Everyone From Santa” scribbled across the front of it. Tearing it open, we gasped at a shiny xylophone, complete with a bleached wooden mallet. Each of us took a turn, plinking out a few notes before passing it down the line. After tapping the bars back and forth twice, I decided I loved it.

“Pass it to Timmy,” my father said.

“I want it!” I screamed, throwing my skinny body over the brightly colored strips of metal. I held on tight until it was wrestled away from me.

The six of us shared most everything—food, clothing, space, attention—everything. Because that’s how it is when there’s a lot of kids and not a lot of money. It could have been worse—at least we had things to share. However, since that was my norm growing up, I always yearned for that moment when I could point to something and think “Mine.”

*

In August of 1971, I was twenty years old and miserable. All of my friends were away at college while I was still at home with my family. I had recently graduated from community college, and was working as a receptionist at a boring insurance agency to get tuition money for January, when I would leave for the state university and complete my degree.

Every day, perched at my gray metal desk, I greeted co-workers and clients with cheerful “Good Mornings!” while feeling cheated and misplaced. The forced smile on my face belied the wrath that enveloped me. I didn’t want to wear office clothing and be a full-time adult. Not yet. I was supposed to be in jeans and a tee shirt, strolling across a bucolic campus on my way to class. Instead, I was held captive in an airless office with middle-aged people talking about the latest episode of Columbo and what they were cooking for dinner. When my friends came home from school to visit, I sat and greedily listened to their tales of dorm life, new courses, and hot guys with a lump in my throat and an ache in my heart.

During this educational limbo, I didn’t have a boyfriend. In fact, I hadn’t had a date for months. I’d gone steady with the same guy for most of high school and dated randomly at the community college, but had never met anyone I really liked. So while waiting for my new life to begin, I wanted to date. I needed someone to distract me, to help me forget where I was and where I should be. Which is why I went out with Lizzie every Friday night trolling for guys.

Lizzie was my new friend from the office. We didn’t have much in common except that we were both twenty and unattached. Lizzie was short and curvy, with brown curls that jumped when she spoke, which was a lot. Standing side by side we were a vision in extremes, with Lizzie always getting the second look, offering cleavage, miniskirts and boots with icepick heels. I was her faded sidekick, my long angular body wrapped in jeans and a forgettable turtleneck.

Lizzie and I had started our Friday night excursions right after I met her, but it hadn’t been going very well. Every bar we visited was packed with single women just like us, allowing the handful of guys strolling around to pick and choose whomever looked good to them that night. Each week I vowed not to present myself in the desperate lineup, yet each week we were on the prowl again.

The other problem I had was the young men I met seemed to have come from another planet. A perfect example happened at a bar named “The Ponderosa.” Standing alone, sipping my Tequila Sunrise, I spotted someone headed my way. Short and stocky, he had tiny eyes and was dressed in greasy jeans and a black tee shirt that read “No, It’s Not a Banana.” A cigarette hung from his mouth, a spare one lodged behind his ear. In seconds he was next to me, puffing his sour breath into my ear.

“Hey baby,” he said. “Six pack, my car. How ‘bout it?” he nodded with a twisted leer. Disgusted, I shook my head and walked away, the shouts of “six pack” following me across the room.

It was after the depressing night at The Ponderosa that Lizzie and I got an invitation to our friend Margaret’s wedding. Margaret worked with us at the insurance agency and was marrying Jimmy, her college sweetheart just home from Vietnam. She told us there would be a group of single men from her university at the wedding, which was just the bit of dating hope that Lizzie and I needed. For weeks we discussed our outfits, our hair and the mystery men we’d meet. I truly think we might have been more excited about the wedding than Margaret.

The reception was held at a huge venue on Long Island, a glass and chrome nuptial factory where four celebrations were in progress at the same time. Our friend Walter from the office who was thirty and single drove there with us. Entering the velvety room together, Lizzie was on the right, squeezed into a short lavender dress, layers of chiffon fluttering around her as she teetered in her three-inch platform heels, hair piled up soufflé-style. I wore a long black halter dress, my hair pulled to the side and tied with a white ribbon. We were bookends to short, plump Walter, sausaged into a brown suit.

The place billowed an aroma of beer, fresh flowers and garlic bread. At the far end of the room, twelve tables draped in rose colored linen dotted a parquet dance floor, where an eight-piece band played “Brown Eyed Girl.”

“Let’s get a drink, ladies,” Walter said, heading over to one of the portable bars, its faux leather top loaded with lemons, cherries, and “Margaret and Jimmy” cocktail napkins. Lizzie chewed on the straw of her drink and checked out the guests streaming through the double doors.

“Oh, God! Look at all these guys!” she said while bending over and plumping up her breasts. We followed her gaze to a group of young men laughing and slapping each other’s backs.

“I think I’m in love,” Lizzie said.

“Easy girl,” Walter said. I took a peek. They did look interesting, all bright eyes, shiny hair and white teeth.

After a few drinks, the three of us snaked our way back to Table 9, where we found more people from the office. There, along with 95 other guests, we clapped as the bride and groom floated onto the dance floor. Margaret swathed in white, looked like she had been plucked off of the top of a wedding cake. The band warbled “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and I stood captivated, watching Jimmy stare at his bride, dotting her with kisses throughout the song. For a moment, I felt sad and wondered if it was jealousy. Margaret truly had found something that was all hers.

As the starched wait staff shuffled salads onto each table, Margaret came by to welcome us. Pointing to the table next to ours, she mouthed “All single.” Lizzie swiveled her head so fast I felt a breeze. And there it was: the “eight single men from college” table. There was a lot of laughing and hooting going on—it appeared they were having a contest to see who could hold their finger over a lit candle the longest. Walter looked over and shook his head.

“Geniuses,” he said. “C’mon Mare, let’s dance.”

Since Walter’s head only reached my shoulder, it was easy for me to check out the table du jour. And each time I did, I locked eyes with a dark haired guy standing to the side. Tall and handsome, he saw me peeking and smiled at me, an amused look on his face. I was intrigued even if he was a bit full of himself. When the music stopped, I searched the room for Margaret.

“Who’s your friend standing by the table, dark hair, grey suit?”

Margaret shook her head. “He’s not for you, Mare. Not for any of my friends. Scott’s got a bad reputation: moves fast and then he’s on to the next girl. I love him, but wouldn’t recommend him. There’s plenty more choices over there.”

Sitting at my table, I picked at my whirled potatoes while Mr. Reputation stood in the back corner, chatting with another girl while continuing to watch me.

“Where’s Lizzie?” I asked Walter. He took the fork out of his mouth and pointed. I spotted her on the dance floor with one of the eligible eight, her body contorted into what looked like the beginning of foreplay. Shaking my head, I turned back to find Scott next to me in Lizzie’s chair. He whispered in my ear.

“Would you like to dance?” His warm breath circled my neck, making me somewhat dizzy. Flustered, I paused.

“Um sure,” I said, wondering if there was potato on my mouth.

“I’m Scott,” he said.

I wanted to tell him that I knew exactly who he was, but instead pushed my chair back. Walter chewed, watching the drama unfold.

The band was playing “Moondance.” Scott chose to make it a slow dance, his arm snug around my waist, the other holding my hand against his chest. I followed his lead, slightly unnerved yet thrilled I was up there with him.

“So how do you know Margaret?” he asked, studying my face.

“I work with her. Just for the summer, then I’m leaving for Albany in January to finish my degree.” I spoke quickly and tried not to stare at the dark lashes curtaining his blue eyes.

“Albany! Why would you want to go up there? It’s freezing!” he laughed.

“So you met Margaret at college?” I said.

“Yup. She was a freshman when I was a senior. Now I work for Arthur Andersen, in the city. One of the big eight.”

“Oh wow, great,” I said. It all sounded so grown-up and glamorous. I wondered what he’d think of me living at home with mommy and daddy.

“Yeah,” Scott continued. “On weekends, depending on the season, I surf or ski.”

The more I found out about him the more entranced I became, thrilled that this package of delight was attracted to me. Me who hadn’t had a date for months, me who was wearing a three-year-old dress and me, who had shared everything in life.

Scott glided me smoothly, left, right and around. I clung to him, feeling safe in his confident arms. Every time I made a turn, Lizzie gave me two thumbs up, her head bobbing up and down. When the song ended Scott kept his arm around me, taking long strides off the dance floor like he knew exactly where he was going. And I went right along with him while in the center of the room, surrounded by cheering guests, Margaret and Jimmy were cutting their cake. But I didn’t care about any of that anymore; my evening had just changed dramatically.

Scott made his way to a shadowy corner, stopped and kissed me on the cheek. The faint scent of his English Leather was intoxicating.

“Thanks for the dance,” he said. “I’d been waiting for that all afternoon. By the way,” he said. “I saw you staring at me.”

“Well, I saw you staring back,” I countered. Flirt, laugh, flirt, laugh. We spoke easily, without hesitation, a frisson of pending excitement swirling around us.

We danced to two more songs, each time chatting a bit and then quietly holding each other. I didn’t want the music to end. Actually, I didn’t want the evening to end. Granted a glimpse into Scott’s world, I knew this funny, exciting man was exactly what I had been seeking. Eventually, I took my purse from Table 9 and settled in at Table 10. There, we talked and giggled for another hour while nibbling at wedding cake and sipping vodka.

“Mare, Walter’s ready to leave.” I turned around to Lizzie, shoes in hand, looking bored and deflated. Pieces of her up-do drooped lifeless around her face. She gave Scott a small wave and a sad smile. Clearly she’d struck out with Margaret’s friends and was done with the wedding. Immediately, I wished I had come alone.

“Give me two minutes,” I said to her. Scott quickly stood and put his hands up.

“Whoa, whoa—I’ve got two minutes to tell you I think you’re gorgeous and want to see you again? That’s a lot of pressure.”

Lizzie sighed and walked away.

“So can I call you?” said Scott. “Maybe go out for a drink, dinner?”

I hesitated, thinking of Margaret’s warning. I didn’t need my heart broken. And, I was leaving in January.

Scott looked amused again. “Hey, we’re not going to Paris, Cooper. It’s a drink. I promise I’ll return you safe and sound.” He stood close enough to me that his suit brushed against my dress, the heat of his body dangerously mixing with mine. My mind raced. What does Margaret know about him? She was a freshman, he was a senior. Aren’t all seniors scary?

Scott took out his wallet and handed me his business card.

“Here. Write your number on this,” he said. I grabbed for a pen in my purse and gave the card back to him. Scott leaned in and kissed me goodbye, this time on my lips, his mouth slightly open. He lingered for a moment, and then slowly pulled away. I stood transfixed, my face flushed, my heart pounding.

“See you soon,” he said over his shoulder as he walked back towards his table.

I turned to Walter and Lizzie waiting by the door. They stared, speechless. I rolled my eyes but couldn’t hide my smile. “It’s just a drink, guys. What’s the big deal?”

It turned out to be an enormous deal. After one date, I fell in love with Scott, my family fell in love with Scott—I think everyone I knew fell in love with Scott. And Scott fell in love with me. My mother was jubilant. Clearly, she had been concerned about my vast wasteland of eligible suitors.

“Handsome, settled and smart—he could be the one!”

Scott and I spent almost every evening and weekend together. Infatuated, we couldn’t get enough of each other. He called me from work, he called me from his apartment, both of us breathy during our steamy exchanges. Opening my world up, he drove me all over the city, up to the mountains and out to the beach. He insisted that I drive his new sports car to work, while he drove my old jalopy to the train station. Flowers arrived at the house, gifts were sent from business trips —all for me.

Ecstatic, I felt myself changing, trying to please Scott, making sure I said the right thing, dressing in a way I knew he’d like. Scott was the same, his passion and ardor nonstop. And as the months went by, I wondered if I was close to having something that was all mine.

One night, intertwined on his couch, I was surprised to learn that I was Scott’s first girlfriend. Ever. High school, college, later—this charming man had never been in any relationships?

“How can that be?” I asked. “I’m sure you’ve had many opportunities.” Margaret’s warning flashed across my mind. Scott shrugged.

“I’ve never liked being tied to one person. I like variety. Until you came along,” he said, kissing me. I felt relieved but mostly flattered that it was me who’d changed his relationship predilections. The old Scott was gone; I had the newer, mature version who’d finally met the right woman.

In November, after dating for three months, Scott begged me not to leave for college in January.

“Please,” he said. “It’ll kill me if you go.”

I thought about my big plans, my education. I wanted it all, but I also wanted Scott. I struggled for days with it, and finally decided that I could do both. He could visit me at school, I would come home some weekends. A lot of people did that—and so could we.

My mother almost lost her mind. “Are you crazy?” she said. “You’ll lose him. There are loads of girls out there looking for a Scott. You’d be making a huge mistake if you left. You can always get a degree, but you can’t always find a good man.” I thought of all the women Scott worked with, and the girls at the bars seeking a partner, their nervous smiles silently screaming “Pick Me!” Yes, I knew them well—I’d been one of them. Torn, I struggled back and forth. I had worked towards college and my career for so long, yet I was thoroughly smitten with Scott.

For two weeks Scott persisted and eventually, I gave in. In love with my man, I decided to stay at the insurance company and enroll in night classes at a college nearby. Leaving home and squeezing my life into a dorm room now felt overrated and childish. I was willing to modify my narrative for something that would be all mine. Loved and in love, I knew I’d made the right choice.

On Christmas Eve, almost four months after I’d met him, Scott proposed to me. Sitting in his car after midnight Mass, he took a diamond ring out of his suit jacket and asked me to be his wife, telling me I was the best thing that had ever happened to him. Stunned, I was speechless; I had just met him. Yet I was ecstatic with the prospect of marrying this wonderful man.

“Yes, yes,” I said.

But later that week when Scott insisted on a June wedding six months away, I worried about the swiftness of it all. Momentarily, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

“It’s all happening so quickly,” I said to him. “Shouldn’t we wait? We’ve just met each other, really. I want to get to know you more, enjoy this engagement time.”

“Nope,” Scott said. “I really want June. It’s traditional. And what are we waiting for? You’re 20, I’m 25—it’s the perfect time.”

“It just seems so rushed. I haven’t even met your parents!”

“You will. You’ll see, this is the way to go,” Scott insisted.

“Maybe,” I said, staring at my ring.

And so, for the next six months in between working and taking night classes, I planned our wedding along with my mother, who hadn’t stopped grinning since the engagement. At each of my bridal fittings, I looked into the mirror and hardly recognized the happy woman looking back at me. But inside, my emotions still churned. Elated to have found Scott, I was still apprehensive about getting married so soon to someone I barely knew. At times, I saw a change in Scott also.

As we approached the wedding date, there were days when he was quiet, moody, perhaps questioning his decision. I assumed it was what every soon-to-be married couple experienced, the push/pull of relinquishing the single life, grappling with the idea of spending the rest of your life with the same person. But we never spoke about it, and kept moving forward towards June.

*

Our wedding was on a Saturday afternoon at our parish church. Overjoyed, arm in arm, Scott and I walked outside with rice raining on us, cheering family and friends surrounding us. I turned and looked at my handsome, kind husband and realized that after all the waiting, it had happened—I finally had something that was absolutely all mine. I wanted to scream it out loud, to point to Scott and let the world know. But instead I just held on, beaming. I passed Margaret outside.

“Thank you for delivering my husband to me!” I whispered. She gave me a hug and a wistful smile.

Scott and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment close to the city where we slowly treaded the uncertain waters of a new marriage. Living together felt weird at first; we seemed to stumble around each other, not knowing what to do next. I figured it was because Scott had never been in a long-term relationship, and I had only lived with my parents. Eventually we figured it out, creating our own marriage routine.

Shortly after the wedding, Scott left the accounting firm and became Vice President of Finance for a company he would eventually run. I continued working at the agency while taking classes a few nights each week, always racing home to cook dinner for my new husband. I poured my love into stuffed peppers and lasagna, while decorating our new apartment with checked curtains and Tupperware.

“Ta da!” I’d announce placing his dinner before him, our tiny kitchen littered with pans and effort.

We spent our weekends that first summer lying on the beach, talking houses, babies and our future. I was content, continuing to ride the thrill of someone coming home to me every night. Scott appeared happy, but his ardor was nothing like when he courted me, those days when he couldn’t get enough of me. I didn’t understand it; I was used to his attention, his passion, his delight at my very existence.

“Is everything ok?” I asked more than once, really wanting to ask “Do you still love me?”

“Of course. Everything is fine,” Scott always said. I worried that he had set a goal with me, reached it and was done, the excitement of the chase now fading into the past. Occasionally, he went out after work and called me late from a bar, drunk and with people from his office, women and men laughing in the background. Seething, I ranted for days.

“It’s just business,” Scott insisted. “Nothing else. You’re my girl, you know that.” Lying in bed with his arms around me, I believed him.

Life was new and different, but it was mostly good.

Five months into our marriage, Scott met a woman at a bar and slept with her. And I was back to sharing.

carriage.2

Mary Ann Cooper is a writer concentrating on memoir and personal essays. She has recently been published in Hippocampus, Easy Street, Brain Child Magazine, Literary Brushstrokes, Empty Sink Publishing and others. She is presently at work on her memoir, The Hollis Ten, a group of stories about growing up in a family of eight children in Queens, New York. Mary Ann resides in Charleston, SC.