At 5:00 a.m. Mark’s pager squeals. It’s a fire call.
In the kindest voice I can muster, I ask, “Can’t you skip it? It’s our wedding day.” I mash my face into the pillow. The real Catharine wants to break his face for leaving that damn radio on to disrupt my sleep. Pregnant, exhausted, awake most of the night because of his snoring, and planning to marry later that day—all are good reasons to let me sleep in just this once, to let another volunteer take the call, to allow the fires to burn. He says he won’t be long.
I can’t go back to sleep, so I get up, eat a Pop-Tart, take a shower, and wait. An hour or two pass. Bored, or maybe suspicious of all these “fire calls” that have occurred almost daily since I moved in, I search his emails—he left the computer unlocked this time—dig through the files and folders in the steel filing cabinet in his office, flip through his baby book and other photo albums on the shelves, and rummage through boxes in the basement. This is my first time alone in his house when I’m not busy unpacking my own boxes, or getting ready for work or a class, or reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, or trying to get back to sleep in the middle of the night after his pager crows and he rushes off. I push through the papers, albums, and files. I ignore the sting of the sunburn on my shoulders and chest and the urgent calls to pee every hour. Unsure of what I’m hunting, I keep digging until I have to leave to get my hair done. He’s been gone seven hours. We’re to be married at 4:00 p.m. Will he make it? Is he actually out fighting a fire? Why hasn’t he called? I get into the dress, the shoes, and drive.
I sit in an off-white wedding dress, size 12, while a woman curls my hair. The salon is loud with hair dryers, chatter, and the roar of my blood. My palms sweat. My back and neck ache. I close my eyes as she twirls my hair around the steaming iron. I don’t want to look at the woman in the mirror—fat, burned, and abandoned.
As soon as I get in the car, my phone rings. Mark says he and his crew just finished fighting a large grass fire on the outskirts of town—two other volunteer fire departments were called in as well. Now he’s coming home. It’s 2:15 p.m. I say I’ll meet him at the house.
I sit in the salon lot, my car running. All those emails to and from former girlfriends—Anne, Sharon, Susan, Linda, Janet, Stacey, Heather. They flip through my head. All those photos on his computer—vacations to Colorado, Las Vegas, Scotland, Arizona, Florida—organized in labeled folders with all those ladies’ names. All those faded Polaroid photos of a naked brunette in a bathtub in a box labeled “1985.” All those tax documents with his ex-wives’ names. All those receipts for rings, earrings, computers, limos, dinners, storage units, and trips. All those documents for apartment rentals, car leases, and purchases. All those credit card statements with balances in the thousands. He never mentioned debt. In his pen holder shaped like a fire hydrant, I found the key to a locked filing cabinet drawer. It held bankruptcy papers from 1997. He never mentioned bankruptcy.
My dad calls to say he and my stepmom are in town and they’ve checked into the hotel. They’ll see me at the ceremony. I keep my voice cheerful. “Yes, see you there!” His call is the toll of a bell—time’s up—I put the car in drive and head to Mark’s. Because of my sunburn, Mark probably will not be able to tell I was crying. My face, neck, and chest burned, my skin peeling and pink. When I enter his door, he doesn’t say anything except how pretty my hair is as he buttons his white shirt. He has his shoes on. He’s ready. First stop: the flower shop to get my bouquet, and then the ceremony.
My mother, with her large black sunglasses and cane, and her boyfriend David, wearing a terrible bright yellow shirt like always, are already at the Gerald Ford Rose Garden. They show up early to everything. Mark’s mother arrives in a bright white pantsuit. I wonder what her angle is. My dad and his wife Becky come up. My dad points at his Winnie the Pooh tie and says, “I know how much you like Winnie the Pooh.” I don’t correct him. If I ever did like that character, it’s been many years ago, so many I don’t recall watching that show like I remember Saturday mornings watching the Smurfs or She-Ra or Sunday nights spent with The Simpsons. I’m not angered by this—how could he know what I like or don’t like? He doesn’t really know me.
My friend Melissa, my maid of honor and only attendant, wears a lovely, flowing black dress. She was the maid of honor for my first wedding as well. This whole scene is a repeat. But this time—instead of the traditional tacky purple bridesmaid dress, rehearsal dinner, bachelorette party, church ceremony, and all the trappings she endured less than two years before—we are in a garden, and I said just wear a black dress, and please read this Pablo Neruda poem before the vows. I wanted everyone to wear black, but few did. I’m grateful Melissa is here. She applies my concealer, foundation, blush, and lipstick in the nearby restroom. Unfortunately, because of my sunburn from the week before, my skin is flaky, and she can’t do much to make me look better. I’m glad she’s willing to participate in this event, though I am not sure whether it is a farce or real. The other bridesmaids I had in 2002 are not there—Gina cut ties because I told her I wasn’t going to raise my unborn child Catholic. At least that’s what she claims. But I know the truth: She watched me cheat on my first husband for over a year and lost all respect for me. Who could blame her? Erin’s stationed out of state and couldn’t take leave on such short notice. Samantha, who had been pregnant at my first wedding with her second child, has her hands full with those two babies. I told her not to worry about coming. She had attended the first wedding. There may be more in the future, I joked with her on the phone. I had been out of Mark’s earshot. This time, instead of two hundred people witnessing my vows, we have maybe 40 guests. I’m surprised that Mark has only a handful of friends to invite. None of the other volunteers from the fire department are invited, which I find strange.
This is his third wedding and my second, so we don’t register for gifts, and we don’t bother to invite distant cousins and aunts and uncles. I assume people who are no-shows don’t come because this is just a rerun. My extended family from Minnesota, Chicago, and Washington all attended my first wedding—I couldn’t bear to face them again so soon and did not invite them. It was bad enough this was my dad’s first time meeting Mark. They shook hands. I wonder what my dad thinks of him, of me.
This time instead of a black limo, we ride in Mark’s Dodge. This time instead of not seeing my future husband before the ceremony, we shared a bed the night before and drove together to the site. This time instead of a priest who has known me since third grade, we have a judge. He is a short man, maybe 5 foot—cartoon-like with a handlebar mustache and waiting there by the rose bushes in an awkward stance. We emailed our script to him the week before. Having never met him in person prior to the ceremony, we have no idea how well his delivery will go.
This time instead of music, we have silence as people stand around and wait. Holding the bouquet, I face this small group. My mom’s boyfriend is taking photos. The photographer is off to the side snapping away as well. I asked that we skip the family group shots.
I am two women. Part of me wants to keep this baby, have this wedding, quit my job, stay at home, and raise our son well. I’d be better than my mother who only ever gifted me terror. She once screamed, “Pack your shit and get the fuck out!” and tossed my little red “Going to Grandma’s” suitcase at my head. I was seven. I’d be better than my father who took off (who could blame him?) and left me with the beast that still stalks my nightmares.
I’d give my son everything I had wanted: two parents, a house—not that trailer—nice clothes, family time, game time that didn’t end with a mother throwing the board or the cards in the trash, a place to land after a hard day at school, the embrace of a mother who listens to his stories when he’s young and keeps tabs on him when he’s a teenager. I won’t allow my son to run the streets with no curfew and no supervision. I won’t supply the wine coolers in our fridge, stay home if you’re going to drink. I won’t be the mother who’s at her boyfriend’s place every night of the week. Instead, I’ll be home playing the role of mother. Although I’ve never acted on a stage, never memorized lines, I would figure it out.
The other part of me wants to run from this rushed wedding and give the baby away. The open road, the open notebook, the open door all call, and I want to go. This could be my fire call. I must act now. The pager can’t be stopped—it’s screaming and screaming—I must leave. I could jump in his car, flip the lights and siren on, and take off. This baby would do better with a mother not as bruised, not as cursed, not as abused. How can I offer anything good when all that was poured into me was poison? I’m a deep well. First, tainted by my mother. Then, as a 16-year-old rebel, I’d sought out others who offered me cans, bottles, and glasses filled with something, and I drank and drank and drank—hoping to finally feel my thirst quenched. I drank until I blacked out, and I stayed that way until I woke at this rose garden, pregnant and confused. It isn’t the kiss of a prince that awakens me; it’s the pinch of the dress on my growing belly, the clatter of the cameras’ shutters, the sprinklers suddenly dousing the rose bushes. The bouquet falls from my shaking hands. Mark hands it back to me.
It’s amazing what the years take away. I’m sure I looked into his eyes. I’m sure I said something when the judge asked for a response, but I can’t recall. All I have left are the photos and the script the judge read, which was from The Simpsons episode “A Milhouse Divided.” In it, after Milhouse’s parents announce they’re divorcing, Marge and Homer are worried about their own marriage. Homer feels bad that he couldn’t give Marge a nice wedding all those years ago because they were young and strapped. The episode struck a chord with us since we were marrying because of a surprise pregnancy too.
The judge read, “Do you, Catharine, take Mark, in richness and in poorness—poorness is underlined—in impotence and in potence, in quiet solitude or blasting across the alkali flats in a jet-powered, monkey-navigated … and it goes on like this.”
There was a note that the judge should shuffle his notecards before he said, “it goes on like this,” but I remember he didn’t do that. My only memory of the actual ceremony is my disappointment in the judge. He didn’t perform the piece like we had imagined.
Now I read those words and realize we’d selected them because they were ridiculous. We weren’t being serious. We were two people who happened to like the same cartoon show. Two people who liked to drink. Two people who liked sex. That’s why we were gathered there—and we couldn’t compose real vows because there was nothing connecting us but an unborn baby who neither of us had known or wanted just a few months before.
The judge announced us married and everyone clapped.
The day after the wedding, I ask about the bankruptcy. No point in hiding that I snooped—I left the emails up, the filing cabinet drawers open, and paperwork sprawled across floor. He knew I knew as soon as he returned home from the fire call, but he didn’t bring it up when I got back from the salon. He met me at the door, finished buttoning up his shirt, grabbed his tux jacket, and we drove off to get married.
He tells me he married his second wife Amy in 1996. She was only 21 years old and he was 28. After knowing each other only a few weeks, they hopped a plane to Vegas, got married, then returned to Omaha to his shabby one-bedroom apartment. She started racking up debt almost immediately. He says Amy came from money. Her father was a rich lawyer, and she wouldn’t work, but expected a new place to live, fashionable clothes, a brand new convertible.
One night, several months after they wed, they had a nasty fight. She was drunk and threatened to take the fancy car and leave, but he didn’t want her driving drunk and he didn’t want to lose her and face another divorce, so he grabbed her, maybe too hard, and she called her father and the police. Mark spent the night in jail.
Some of the details he gave me are now cloudy, but eventually they filed for divorce, and he was loaded down with her debt. At the time, he worked as a manager at Wendy’s and couldn’t afford the mountains of credit card debt, so he filed for bankruptcy. He had no choice. Amy, he said, got away without consequence, except a sprained wrist.
I ask about the new credit card debt. Perhaps it’s strange for a 23-year-old to be so wound up about debt. But I’d been lucky—my college had been paid for by a family friend, and I have no debt besides a car loan that’s almost paid off. I was hired at a debt collection agency full-time when I was 18—before credit card offers made their way to my mailbox. After five years of listening to so many people cry, beg, and scream on the phone, I know what debt does to a life. I’d worked at the agency and attended college full-time, juggling 40-hour weeks and homework, losing friends because I was too busy, missing out on campus poetry readings and writing groups—all so I didn’t live outside my means.
Mark says he now has about $20,000 in credit card debt and $5,000 left on his student loans. This doesn’t include the car lease or the mortgage. We order a pizza, drink sodas, and talk late into the night.
I tell him about the cutting, the drinking, and the years of verbal and emotional abuse from my mother. He doesn’t seem disgusted or dismayed. He listens. He shares more. He paints a picture of a little boy sitting at the dinner table alone, playing by himself in his room, ignored by his father. Mark, first as a child, then as an adult, witnessed praise and gifts and money showered on his siblings—blood children of his father—while he was left to do it himself because he was adopted. That’s what he tells me and that’s what I believe.
The judge announced us married and everyone clapped.
After he tells me that his second wife Amy left him holding such heavy debt, after he tells me about years working at grocery stores and fast food places, after he tells me it took over a decade to earn his bachelor’s degree, after he tells me that he built this house for Anne—an ex-girlfriend whose name came up in those emails I found—and then, that Anne broke up with him just months before the house was finished because she didn’t want to be saddled with his debt, after he says how he’s been a stranger in his own family his entire life—a blond-haired blue-eyed freak surrounded by the much loved black-haired children of his father—after he tells me about the time his father punched him, breaking his nose out in the driveway when he was 16, after hours and hours of talking, his eyes sparkling with unshed tears, I say, “I have a $20,000 CD. It just expired and now it’s in a regular savings account. I can pay off your credit card debt.”
I know I must give this to him, though he’s hesitant to accept. He’s had a good job as a software engineer for only a few years, this new house was just finished in October, and now I’ve moved in with all my clutter and clothes and this baby I carry, and I can’t give him anything in return. I won’t even take his last name. He’s married me, and I must offer him something—a consolation prize, a thank you gift.
I do not consider all the free hours of housekeeping and childcare he will receive in the coming years. I do not consider myself having anything of worth to offer besides this measly sum of money. I do not consider why he has racked up this new debt—where did the money go? Would he continue to spend so carelessly in the future?—I am a sack of tears and scars and now stretch marks, and all I want is a place to call home. I give him the $20,000 as if to say, You’re stuck with Catharine, but here, take this check.
Cat Dixon (she/her) is the author of Eva and Too Heavy to Carry (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2016 and 2014), and The Book of Levinson and Our End Has Brought the Spring (Finishing Line Press, 2017 and 2015), and Table for Two (Poet’s Haven, 2019). Her new poetry collection, What Happens in Nebraska, will come out this fall. She works as an adjunct creative writing instructor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.
Header photograph and artwork by Jordan Keller-Wilson