The Lesbian Bride’s Handbook

Ariel Levy, right, and Amy Norquist on their wedding day in Bluemont, Virginia.Photo: Thad Russell

What is the right thing to wear to a wedding? Women have been asking themselves this question for generations and, I suppose, coming up with many of the same answers as I have. Black and gray, the colors I usually wear, are obviously too somber. Red is a bad idea: too garish, too iconic—the whore instead of the virgin—and, as a saleswoman at Saks explained to me, one doesn’t want to draw attention away from the bride. But then I am the bride. Sort of.

For several months, admitting that detail filled me with a flickering dread. I knew what would inevitably follow: “Why aren’t you wearing white?” Eventually, I realized that, obviously, I could just tell Katie at Barneys or Jen at Chloé, “Because I prefer color.” But at first, I felt compelled to tell the whole mortifying truth: “Because it’s a gay wedding.” Or, if I couldn’t quite get those words out of my mouth: “Because it’s not a real wedding.”

A real wedding was not something I was raised to want. My parents were bohemians of a sort, and real weddings were like real jobs: square. As my mother has managed to mention on numerous occasions, she would have liked to elope, but to please her parents, there was a modest reception; she told them to do whatever they wanted and that she and my father would show up. When Amy and I announced that we intended to have a wedding—not a real wedding, of course, but something festive, something that expressed the scale of our glee—my mother’s response was less than gushing. “How can you feel okay about spending all that money on one day?” she wanted to know.

Naturally, I yelled at her for saying that, but the truth is I didn’t. By the time things starting getting specific and estimated costs of various things started combining to form enormous estimated sums, money was only one of many things I did not feel okay about. I did not feel okay about the word marriage, for instance, partly because it didn’t describe a legal option for me, and partly because the closer that something quite like it loomed the less it seemed like an attractive condition with which to be afflicted. (This was relatively easy to sidestep, at least in a technical sense: Our invitations promised “a party about love,” and you can’t really argue with that.) I also didn’t feel okay about spending all my free time on the phone with the flower guy and the tent man, or about making little checklists of who was coming, and who was not coming, and who was staying at the Goodstone Inn. And I definitely did not feel okay about telling the sales staff of half the better clothing retailers in New York City that I needed something fetching to wear to my big fat gay wedding.

Now that I know what is involved in throwing such an event, it is difficult to remember exactly how we decided to do so … hard to retrace the steps that led to my standing in front of a three-way mirror in a $3,700 canary-yellow Donna Karan trapeze dress, completely panicked, knowing that soon, very soon, everyone I knew and loved would be joining me for this hell of my own making, this festival of gayness and commitment.

All I can say for sure is that it started on the blackout. When I met Amy on a friend’s balcony that night, I never wanted the lights to come back on. With all the stoplights dead, traffic moved on the streets below to its own ghostly, unpredictable rhythm—everything was different. The idea that we wouldn’t be together from then on seemed unnatural, almost immediately. And so it was unsurprising that despite the considerable obstacles of other relationships and opposite coasts, eventually we had one life. We were pretty pleased with ourselves. “Look!” we wanted to say to everyone. “Look how fun! Look what’s possible! Let’s have a cocktail!” We would celebrate with our friends—our families, even. There should be music and dancing. We’d need hyacinths and shrimps! Let the wild rumpus begin.

I am not a total idiot. I always had the sense to say no wedding cake, no officiant, no first dance, no here comes the bride, no Times announcement, and absolutely no white dress. Who are we kidding? And why? We just wanted a big, awesome party where everyone could meet and go bananas. It’s a special opportunity, you know: The only other time everyone you love will assemble in one place is at your funeral. (At most weddings, some people you don’t actually love will also be in attendance. But the silver lining of my parents’ being irreverent and Amy’s parents’ being in denial is that we didn’t have to invite anyone we didn’t want to.) The thing is, though, you have to serve something, and you can’t very well go naked. You can call it a party about love all you want, but you still have to make all the same decisions that every other bride has to make, and you have to make them very carefully unless you want everyone you know to schlep to some crummy party in the middle of nowhere.

The "bride" in her Carolina Herrera dress.Photo: Thad Russell

And I do not believe in crummy parties. I believe in glamour. I believe that when you are on your deathbed clinging to the murk of your memories, some will stay with you purely on the power of atmosphere: the way a punch bowl looked surrounded by daisies at your 5th-birthday party, the feel of a certain set of blue sheets the first time you traveled alone. There was no way I was going to let this thing be shoddy—some pathetic hers-and-hers imitation of the real thing or some vaguely patchouli-scented ceremony. If I was going to have a party about love, it was going to be the classiest party about love ever. I did not experience this imperative as relaxing.

This was not the first large, square, optional ceremony I’d insisted on having despite my mother’s warnings. As a 10-year-old, I decided that I wanted to have a bat mitzvah. I was the only kid in the history of Westchester County who demanded Hebrew school. And as I stood in front of the racks of red at Bergdorf Goodman, I recalled the feeling I’d had at some point in my preteen Jewish odyssey when I looked down at the sacred ancient letters on the scroll: What have I done?

But in both cases, by the time the magnitude of my folly revealed itself to me, it was way, way too late to undo. As my stepmother put it with terrifying accuracy when we went to see how many cocktail tables would fit on the porch of the house where she and my dad live in the Blue Ridge Mountains, “This horse is out of the gate.” It was too late to cancel those lovely and meticulously worded invitations. Too late to tell Amy’s 80-year-old father, a man who served in MacArthur’s honor guard after World War II, that the vibratingly tense dinner at which we’d declared our intention to faux wed was a waste of a good steak and two hours of his remaining time on planet Earth. It was too late to do anything but find a dress.

Normally, I love clothes. Really love them. I feel about clothes the way I feel about flowers: They sing to me. But I understand tulips and boots; I understand little jackets. I am a stranger to formalwear. The first dress I brought home was a kind of Grecian muumuu in a cheery shade of coral. It looked like something Mrs. Robinson would have worn to a pool party in The Graduate. “Chic, right?” I said to Amy. “Perky and festive.”

She appeared confused. “You want to wear a nightgown to our wedding?”

“It’s not a wedding!” I shrieked. “It’s a party about love!”

Amy rolled her eyes. “I didn’t realize it was a pajama party about love.”

Back it went. A few days later, I modeled a low-cut pale-gold dress with spaghetti straps and a gauzy skirt from Missoni. “Nice!” said Amy. “You look like a fancy hooker. In Capri.” This was not the look I wanted.

Then one day, I went to a doctor’s appointment uptown. It was a sunny spring morning and I wore sneakers and track pants so I could walk home to the East Village when it was over. Amy was at Jussara Lee, the custom shop on Little West 12th Street where she was having her suit made for the big event, the P.A.L. As I made my way down Madison Avenue, I envied her. (And by envied I mean, obviously, resented.) Of course Amy would wear a suit; Amy always wears a suit. Everything about this situation seemed simpler for her—she was neither ambivalent nor insane, while I was rapidly flipping my lid. She didn’t care about how uncool it was that we were doing this; Amy has always been cool. While I obsessed about how lame it was to seek public acceptance, to crave ritual, and grew queasy at the mention of marriage, Amy was excited.

Then something in a shop window caught my eye. A dress the color of grass, the shape of a mermaid. A dress that would flash before your eyes on your deathbed and in your dreams. I could no longer think about being cool or being mortified or being heteronormative. I could no longer think. The doorman looked at my sneakers skeptically as I shuffled past him into the Carolina Herrera boutique.

“Hello,” I said to the salesgirl, a water lily of a woman. “I need a dress to wear to my wedding. I do not want to wear white. I want to wear that one.”

“A gown,” she told me. “That one is a gown.”

I stood still in my sneakers. “Great.”

If you are unfamiliar with the price points at Carolina Herrera, here’s a good way to get a sense of them: Think of the absolute most you can imagine an article of clothing costing. Now triple that. I must have tried on a hundred-thousand dollars’ worth of fabric that day. But every dress was exquisite, astounding. Each one made me look thinner and more expensive. And then the saleswoman brought me something I would never have even looked twice at: It was made of pale-blue oxford cloth with ribbons for straps and a corseted bodice. The skirt was tight at the top and then exploded with volume and hand-painted floral appliqués. When I put it on, I appeared to be in full bloom. “There’s your bouquet,” she said.

“I’ll take it.”

If my mother knew how much money I paid for that dress, I do believe she would disown me. But I wasn’t thinking about my mother when the seamstress started pinning me in. I was thinking about Amy’s.

Like me, Mrs. Norquist was a journalist before she got married. Like me, she is a chatterbox and a gardener. And like me, she is a clotheshorse. But that’s it. Mrs. Norquist is a staunch conservative and a churchgoer, as are two of the three sons she raised. (Her oldest, Bruce, is an Evangelical minister, and her youngest, Todd, works for the creationist movement.) When Amy came out in college (two decades ago), Mrs. Norquist didn’t speak to her for a year. In fact, as much as she likes to gab, Mrs. Norquist does not talk about anything that really bothers her, except to say the words “Oh, honestly.” She likes to talk about who’s had a baby and who’s been on a trip, and she likes to talk about weddings, a lot. She talks about weddings as much as my mother talks about shiatsu. Where my family is freaky and loose, foulmouthed and freewheeling, Mrs. Norquist is nurturing and restrained, a woman who makes toasted cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. I fell for her immediately.

When we go to visit Amy’s parents, generally Amy and her dad watch sports, and Mrs. Norquist and I drink tea and look at fashion magazines together. This is not something I find boring. It is a shared passion and a neutral territory—we avoid discussing politics, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion (except once, when I let loose an “oy vey’’ and she said, “What?” And I said, “That’s what my people say when we mean ‘Oh, honestly.’”). Fashion is what we agree upon, the thing we share besides Amy (who does not look at fashion magazines, unless maybe there were a special issue on man- tailored suits). “That’s a darling heel!” Mrs. Norquist will say. “It would be good in a dark suede,” I reply. It’s honest communication. We are both ourselves when we talk about clothes, telling each other, for once, the whole truth.

When I saw myself in the mirror in that blue gown with its graceful silhouette and giddy flowers, I could hear Mrs. Norquist gasping and saying, “Isn’t that gorgeous!” It was my secret wish that she would look at it and see in our lives sparkle instead of shame. It was my secret wish that if my party about love was as flawless as the gowns in that store, it would subsume the humiliation of its own existence … subsume the horror of my homosexuality.

“What do you care what other people think?” is what my own mother would say, of course—has said, many times over the course of my life. And that is the difference between us. My mother is a woman who moved to Cape Cod on a whim. Who has giant green marbles stuck in the plaster of her walls for decoration and an extensive collection of Buddha-like objects she has amassed in her travels through China, Tibet, and the gift shops of the lower cape. She wears pajamas to work and is nicknamed Rocky and was, in her day, a pretty serious practitioner of non-monogamy. My mother is (still) a bad-ass, because she just doesn’t give a shit what anybody else thinks. I care what everybody thinks. So does Mrs. Norquist. I am not sure which one of them I find more mysterious.

I’m not going to lie to you: My gay wedding rocked. My oldest friend, Jesse, played “Crimson and Clover” on his electric guitar when we walked down the mountain, and I can still feel the sound of that song reverberating in my chest. My mother wore high heels and makeup for the first time I can remember and danced until one in the morning. There were these amazing pink margaritas everyone kept drinking. Mrs. Norquist gave Amy the handkerchief her mother gave her on her wedding day: “Something blue,” she said, and that’s all she said on the subject. That and “Isn’t that gorgeous!” when she saw my gown. She still can’t quite bring herself to call what happened in September a wedding. But then, for a long time, neither could I.

The dress is still hanging in my closet, which has less to do with my being sentimental than it does with eBay’s being really complicated. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever wear it again, partly because mine is not a black-tie life, and also because I doubt very much that I could get back into it. (When conservatives discuss the perils of gay marriage, they fail to mention its most pernicious consequence: Gay marriage, like all marriage, is extremely fattening.) One of these days I’ll sell it, though: That thing cost a fortune, and who could feel okay about keeping something so expensive hanging in a garment bag? Amy I’m keeping.

The Lesbian Bride’s Handbook