My parents divorce when I am seven. I have a handful of memories of an intact nuclear family and then: a moving truck in the driveway, a rented beach house in the off-season, a new house and new marriage and new family that never quite has room for me.
So I never imagine my wedding day, the way many girls do. Once I start dating, the question becomes irrelevant, even if I were a daydreamer. I am gay, and gays can’t marry.
Marriage isn’t something I imagine even after it’s opened up to gays. I am too young, too broke, and working too many double shifts to meet a single queer. Only once I leave the restaurant industry do I meet a woman through a mutual friend. We’re friends for a year, then we date for three, then she proposes.
The occasion seems to call for a grand celebration, homage to the queers who came before us and could not have what is within our grasp. So we dive into wedding planning.
Some elements are easy because we have few choices—what rabbi wants to marry an interfaith lesbian couple on Shabbat? Other things take longer, as excitement turns to overwhelm at the options. Will we rent chairs or use the chairs at the venue? Will the caterer provide signs for the appetizers, so the vegan gluten-free lesbians won’t accidentally eat meat, and how much extra will that cost us?
Everything comes with a cost.
The florist assesses which of us is “the bride” and then talks only to my wife, turning her entire body away from me. I’m the one with botanical knowledge, but to her, I’m invisible.
I’ve always been unphotogenic. Grade school photos show a solemn girl with long, dark hair and a center part. Wednesday Addams without the black dress.
I am a shy, bookish kid, so adults are always asking me what’s wrong. “Nothing,” I say, arms clamped across my waist. Nothing is wrong. Why do they keep asking me that?
I figure it out by middle school. There’s something in my body language, or maybe my face, that makes people uneasy. I grow stiff in front of cameras, overthinking the tilt of my head. My bangs shine with grease. I smile with closed lips, so conscious of the gap between my front teeth that I forget to suck in my stomach.
The camera suggests the way other people see me, and I don’t like what it shows. What if I am that ugly, that fat, that messy?
When photography is offered in my high school, I gravitate toward it. If I get behind the lens, maybe everyone will stop asking me to smile. Maybe I can be me when I’m not seen.
The darkroom, with its chemical smell, is a safe place. Tilting the tray of chemicals back and forth, I watch a friend emerge from white space. She looks unselfconscious in baggy overalls and a tank top, squinting at the skater boys across Copley Square. She’s tough, beautiful in a gritty way. Punk and giving-no-fucks.
I don’t know how to illuminate my inner beauty, and I don’t know how to not care.
So I gravitate toward others who blur gender, hoping they’ll help me figure it out. In college, I shoot a photo series on queer identity. I photograph swishy gay guys who wear girls’ jeans because they’re tighter. Cocky butches show up in men’s suits, sporting facial hair made from split ends and spirit glue, and I pose them against silk wallpaper in the Victorian parlor. They show me my option, but I feel like I’m only seen for who I am when I control the field of view.
My fiancé and I don’t want Pinterest-perfect wedding photos. We want candids. Although really what I want is to forget the photographer is there, so I can relax—in front of the lens, in front of the crowds, into the whole ritual.
“I wish we could get that guy,” my fiancé muses, gesturing at our Save-the-Date card, which is stuck inside our wedding binder. The guy took my friend’s wedding photographs, including several great shots of us, but he lives five hours away.
“I could reach out,” I shrug. If he’s interested. If he’ll travel that far—and for a price we can afford.
I get his contact information from my friend, and I email him, and to our surprise, he’s up for the job. He drives down to see the venue and chat about what we want. We meet him at the wedding site and then we drive downtown and slip under the fence at an old train yard that’s being torn down for luxury condos, showing off the graffiti before we end the night at a local brewery.
I know I can trust him to capture the essence of the day, a day that for much of my life I never thought I’d have because gays weren’t allowed to live those dreams.
We get our marriage licensed from Cambridge City Hall, where the first gay marriage license was issued. It’s around the time Kim Davis is refusing to issue marriage licenses to LGBTQ couples in Kentucky. A clerk asks us to swear that we aren’t related, collects our signatures, and hands us a license like it happens every day. We walk outside and reach for one another’s hands.
The day we get married is half sunny, the kind of day that could go either way. We head to the florist to pick up the flowers and puzzle over the blooms waiting on the loading dock. There are roses, the one flower we did not want. My boutonniere has no Star of Bethlehem, the only thing I asked for. We shove the flowers in the trunk of the car. We’re running late and down a member of our wedding party and at the moment this feels like one more thing. Our friend’s in the hospital with a brain bleed she got in response to a Lyme disease test. We pass her a few flowers and smile at her parents. Then we go home to greet friends, arrange our flowers, and dress for the ceremony as the day turns gloomy.
When our photographer arrives, he’s got a punk rocker pal in tow—not the trained photographer he said he’d bring. The two of them mug with my gay best friend while the women get to work on the flowers. We fill dozens of antique bottles with blooms, but the effect is more depressing than whimsical. Or maybe it’s the weather, or our friend in the hospital, or the microaggression of being so invisible to the florist that she didn’t get me the only flower I asked for—and didn’t bother letting me know.
Turquoise raffia peels off my boutonniere. I pick it down to the florist wire. What is left resembles a carrot in reverse, a slim green body with fluffy orange foliage. I chuck it aside.
The caterers are setting up the chairs when we get to the wedding venue. Thick, gray clouds blanket the sky. “Stand under these trees, wherever,” we tell our friends. They’re colorfully festooned against a backdrop of grey and brown as the sky threatens rain.
My partner’s parents are nowhere to be found. She calls their cell phone. No answer. They show up, late and flustered, making excuses about taking a nap. We stand in front of trees, the rush making us stiff.
Rain comes halfway through the ceremony. It’s a light rain, but cold. Under the lace chuppah, we talk with our eyes. Can we speed this thing up? The rabbi takes note of the sea of umbrellas and suggests that we’ll all be more comfortable if we make a run for the museum lobby.
We grab hands and dart across the grass. We make it inside, and we have the museum to ourselves for a minute. My heartbeat is loud in my ears, and I want this done. We’re halfway married but not even the ceremony could be simple.
Guests clatter in, pressed in close in the tiny lobby. The rabbi wraps things up. We kiss. Everyone cheers.
The photographer smiles and passes a flask of bourbon as we take celebratory shots. The night takes on its own odd pace, and I quit fighting it. Outside, the rain stops.
The next day, there’s brunch. We’re carefree and the sun glints off the Charles River and the only thing that’s different is that now we don’t have to plan. Now it’s over. After the guests depart, we talk about how weird the whole experience was. We don’t feel happy or particularly in love, just glad it’s done. It was a lot of stress and time and not a great return on investment if the point of a wedding is to celebrate.
We find the humor now in our run through the rain. In her parents’ late arrival. In the rabbi’s awful draft ceremony, which mentioned the Lowell mill girls and their love that dare not speak its name.
We hope the photos might show another story. With photographic proof, we can process what was bad, take what was good, and move forward—for better or for worse.
Instead, the photos confirm my old fears. I look the way I usually do: closed eyes, awkward smile. There’s not a single photo where my wife and I are both in focus and looking at the camera. Eyes are closed. Mouths grimace. Heads are cut off. Clicking through one image after another—and there are over a thousand—I feel leaden.
Yes, I am messy. Fat. Ugly. Unphotogenic. Yes to all of it. Yes, too, to the grind of showing up for a wedding in an industry that doesn’t know what to do with gay couples and gender nonconforming people—because I wasn’t a bride for damn sure. The photos get buried on a hard drive where I will never look at them. I try to move forward by constructing a story in my head: something went wrong. Maybe a memory card crashed and the best pictures of that day will never make it to me.
I don’t care about the money, really. All we wanted were photos where we looked happy, in love, and excited to be together. Photos that showed the hard work we put into organizing a wedding, photos that showed us—that showed me to myself when being seen was an act of vulnerability.
For a while, we talk about doing a re-shoot, just the two of us and some replacement photographer. We can pose in lavish gardens or in crumbling brick alleyways, then get an album made. But we never move ahead with it. We have no good wedding photos, and we never will.
What we do have is thousands of photos from our honeymoon in Southeast Asia. Selfies. With salty hair and sunburned skin, we mug for the camera against a backdrop of sea, temples, palm trees, and Buddha statues. Our clothing is Eddie Bauer travel gear, not fine suits or silk dresses. But we look the way I imagine people want to look in wedding photos—relaxed, in love, and carefree.
When I touched the shutter, I wasn’t thinking about my body, my smile, or my gender. I was present in the moment, and in myself.
We’re clearing space in our living room for those photos.
Lindsey Danis is a writer living in the Hudson Valley. Her work has appeared most recently in Helen, Funds for Writers, and The Establishment. When not writing, she spends her time cooking, hiking, kayaking, and traveling.