As Kim Kardashian recently reminded us, marriage is no longer the inevitable result of a wedding; the ritual is easily divorced from the institution. This is a source of some comfort to the single person approaching thirty, bombarded by engagement announcements and Facebooked wedding photo albums. Just a few more years of this, you tell yourself, and people will start getting divorced.
So this fall I was tickled to receive an invitation to a fake wedding in New Orleans. With all the phoniness announced up front, there was no need for jealousy (I’ll die alone!), anxiety (She’s making a terrible mistake!), or expensive gifts (But I can’t even afford health insurance!).
The fake wedding was organized by my younger sister and her friends, a group of artists, actors, filmmakers, and writers in their twenties. Most are from the East or West coasts, having migrated to New Orleans in search of low rent and the kind of fun that withers in a climate of high property values. Part of the lost generation that graduated from college just as the economy collapsed, they have not even attempted to pursue traditional careers. In this spirit, the wedding was organized on a shoestring budget, with homemade food and homemade dresses and a pay-as-you-go bar at the usual rock-bottom New Orleans prices. The organizers paid something out of pocket, but it wasn’t much. The fake wedding was, among other things, a reminder that ingenuity is still a valuable asset—that you can still get married on the cheap.
As I flew into Louis Armstrong Airport in early November (first stop: the daiquiri stand), I prepared myself for a sardonic, booze-fueled critique of the bankrupt institution of marriage. But I soon discovered that the fake wedding wasn’t about satire or cynicism. It was a sincere effort to organize the kind of communal joy that’s in such short supply these days. When I asked my sister how they’d come up with the idea, she told me, “We were sitting around and talking about how much fun weddings are, and how much we love love. But none of us are getting married any time soon, so we decided to have a fake wedding.”
The idea caused contempt or bafflement in many of my friends from New York, but in New Orleans a fake wedding seemed perfectly reasonable. At the fake bachelor party, the fake rehearsal dinner, and the fake Jewish ceremony on the waterfront, onlookers were never surprised to hear that we were having a fake wedding. The natives smiled indulgently and the tourists were perplexed (Is this an authentic custom? I didn’t see it in the guidebook), but no one was shocked. This may explain why it was so easy to find people to participate.
At brunch the day before the wedding, Sam and Paul—handsome best friends on the tail end of a postcollegiate cross-country adventure—overheard the following conversation between two well-dressed women with Southern drawls. Paul recounted it to me as follows:
“Uncle Rat is dead,” said the first woman philosophically.
“He put my baby in the washing machine,” the other commented.
“But he didn’t turn it on.”
“It made a great picture.”
“This was his favorite restaurant.”
“He loved the quiche.” Making sure that the waiters weren’t watching, one of the women sprinkled Uncle Rat’s ashes into the flowerpot beside her.
Sam and Paul invited the ladies to join the groom’s family. The ladies, who were quite tipsy, accepted without hesitation; weddings and funerals are a natural pairing. At the fake rehearsal dinner that night they played their parts with gusto, clutching the groom and pretending to sob into their handkerchiefs. Raising their beer cans high, they warned the bride that they’d kick her ass if she broke the heart of their darling boy. Everyone applauded, even the people who weren’t wedding guests and had only come for the restaurant’s Vietnamese po’boys.
That evening marked the bride’s first meeting with her groom. They’d been nominated by the organizers, with the strict requirement that they’d never met and wouldn’t see each other until the night of the rehearsal dinner. I had first met Matt, the groom, the day before, at his fake bachelor party. He was feeling anxious about his first encounter with his intended. We’d been dancing to the brass band at the Hi-Ho Lounge; Matt was soaked with sweat and in an advanced state of intoxication.
“I’m nervous, man!” he said, wiping his brow. “What if she’s the girl of my dreams? What if this is it?” The zipper on his wedding pants had broken and he was holding them up with his hands. From time to time he lost his concentration and the pants fell down around his ankles, revealing the sparkly pink spandex shorts given to him by the wedding’s costume designer. On the sidewalk he struck up a conversation with Calvin, a New Orleans native.
“Calvin, man, I’m getting married!” Matt slurred. He was putting Calvin on, but it didn’t seem that way; he radiated all the euphoric anxiety of a true bridegroom.
“You gettin’ married for real?” Calvin asked, bemused. “Matt, tell me, who decided you were gettin’ married?”
We invited Calvin to the waterfront ceremony. Then somebody saw the bride approaching from across the street and hustled Matt back inside.
“You know, it’s more real than fake, if you think about it,” Matt mused drunkenly as the bachelor party ended.
This observation seemed more and more accurate as the weekend continued. On the second day, some of us went out for an oyster lunch. As the meal ended one friend sighed, “I don’t have to go to the dinner, do I? I mean, I’m not a family member.” He had forgotten that, in fact, no one was a family member. Here it was, classic wedding fatigue—nothing fake about it. I became depressed that I didn’t have a date. Why hadn’t I found a fake boyfriend? It was a failure of imagination. I had another Bloody Mary.
Things picked up that evening at a concert that included rockabilly covers of the Beatles and Roy Orbison and an all-male choir singing sea shanties. When the choir leader cried, “Who’s here for the fake wedding?” the whole room screamed. The bride and groom circled the hall, grinning and drunk on the attention. Whether it’s real or fake, your wedding is your chance to be a star. Some of the nonfake love interests of the giddy new celebrities became offended. Someone started to cry.
Because I had no fake boyfriend, I danced with Paul, who told me that he and Sam were planning to move to New York.
“What will you do there?” I asked.
“Well, Sam plays guitar. He wants me to start a record label so I can release his albums,” Paul said earnestly. With his big eyes and tousled blond hair, Paul looked like the kind of boy who could have made it big in Warhol’s Factory. He was all youthful hubris, so confident that he didn’t even know it. Realizing that I was now old enough to find this charming, I remembered Mayakovsky’s famous lines:
There’s not one gray hair in my soul,
Not a bit of senile tenderness!
Shaking the world with the power of my voice,
Twenty-two years old.
All the margaritas and sea shanties in the world couldn’t make me forget the gray hairs that had already sprouted in my soul. I was tired. The band started to play “Crying.”
“I love this song!” I said to Paul. He looked at me blankly: he didn’t recognize it.
The wedding ceremony was held the next day, on the waterfront at sunset. The zaftig bride wore an elaborate cheetah print and gold lamé confection. With the bridesmaids in matching cheetah-lamé minidresses, the entourage achieved a kind of Flintstones-at-Studio-54 effect. The fake rabbi made obscene jokes and Matt’s vows were drowned out by a medley of New Orleans standards honked out by the cruise ship nearby. A flock of black birds swarmed against the colorless sky.
When it was dark, we second-lined through the French Quarter, dancing to the wedding band’s New Orleans klezmer. Tourists poured out of hotels and bars to film us on their iPhones. Our rabbi danced at the head of our ragtag procession, smiling ecstatically, stopping only to light another cigarette.
At the after-party a beak-nosed boy in a black suit threw his arms around his friends, crying, “I’m not a guy who has fun—but this is the most fun I’ve ever had!” All night people congratulated each other. “You’re all so beautiful!” they yelled. “Isn’t this amazing?” I remembered a melancholic Russian friend who once asked me why Americans were so immoderate in their adjectives. “How can everything in America be so amazing?” she had asked morosely.
The wedding was followed by an amazing hangover, if not by an amazing honeymoon. Scores of pictures were posted, liked, and discussed on Facebook, fond memories of group happiness. Next year’s wedding is already in the works.
Sophie Pinkham is a student of Russian literature who lives in New York City.