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What If

by Lori Jakiela

When I was 25, I got married and stayed married for eight weeks to a man with a name like a comb-over. Let’s call him Wallace. Wallace was six feet six inches tall. He had a buzz cut, wore shiny and mysteriously expensive suits, and had a tattoo of a black-widow spider on his arm. I’m afraid of spiders. I think all buzz-cut men in shiny suits are gangsters or car salesmen. I’ve rarely lived in a place where the ceilings could accommodate anyone over six feet tall.

I should have known, but I’m slow like that.

The truth about Wallace was, he looked ferocious, but he was sweet. He was handsome and interesting. He’d been an Army medic. He’d played semi-pro basketball in Germany. He ended up back in North East, Pennsylvania, a small town outside of Erie, after he hurt his knee during a big game in Hamburg. He’d slipped on a wet spot that may or may not have been another player’s spit. The spitter got a technical. Wallace got a severance check and a plane ticket home. He worked at his father’s gas station and played rugby on the weekends.

“Can’t let the knee keep me down,” he said when I asked how he could handle rugby, which is a much rougher sport than basketball. Rugby players tend to headbutt things – kneecaps, each other’s cars, the pig roasting on a spit after a game.

“Anyway,” he said. “We’re too drunk to feel anything.”

Like I said, Wallace wasn’t a bad guy. It was just that we had almost nothing in common. Except for one thing.

Years before I met him, before he’d gone to Germany, Wallace had been in love with someone else. It didn’t work out. They’d had a baby, and, when the woman fell in love again and got married, Wallace signed adoption papers. The little girl grew up a few blocks from Wallace’s parents’ house. She didn’t know about him, but he knew about her. He didn’t want to interfere, but sometimes he’d drive by the house where she lived. Sometimes she’d be playing in the yard. He’d watched her grow up. When he talked about it, he’d get quiet and sad, and in those moments, I loved him very much.

I’d been adopted, and although I didn’t often think about my birth father, I’d hoped he or my birth mother would have cared enough to watch me grow up from a distance. I’d hoped that they would think about me and wonder how I was getting on in the world.

This might have been a good reason for Wallace and me to date or be friends, but it wasn’t much of a reason to get married. Still, Wallace, maybe to replace his lost daughter, maybe for other reasons that weren’t clear, was eager to get on with things. And I was 25 – “a half century” I’d moan to whoever would listen. I felt old.

And so, when Wallace threw a big keg party, when he got down on his good knee and asked me to marry him in front of 25 people who went by nicknames like Balls and Fuzzy, when he slid what may have been his grandmother’s and/or his former fiancée’s ring on my finger, and when the ring almost fit, I said “Well, okay”

I didn’t want to spoil things.

At the time, I figured I’d go along with it. Then later, when Wallace and I were alone, in private, I’d gently back out. But I didn’t back out. Instead, I bought Bride Magazine. I bought Modern Bride. I started planning. Flowers, invitations, a dress that, if you propped it up just right on the hood of a Volkswagen, would make a great parade float.

I wish I hadn’t done this, since it wasn’t fair to Wallace, who deserved better. But I did, and, weeks after a honeymoon in Fort Lauderdale that coincided with a national rugby championship, there were papers to be filled out.

My mother had baked 14 different kinds of cookies for the wedding. She’d overseen the creation of the wedding cake. She’d made sure, for accuracy, that the little plastic bride was scrunched down so that her head hit right around the groom’s waist.

“I never liked that jolly green giant, so good riddance,” my mother said after the divorce was final. “But what the hell were you thinking? Where common sense is concerned, you don’t have two cents to rub together.”

My mother. The master of the hybrid cliche.

It was hard to explain what I’d been thinking, or how it made its own kind of sense. After all, no one I knew, my parents included, was happily married. People settled. Settling, I thought—giving up illusions of bliss and finding a tolerable, if not happy, way through life—was a sign of adulthood.

I also really liked the dress.

The woman at the dress shop showed me how to use a hair dryer and tissue paper to fluff up the sleeves. The train was cathedral length – overkill for a church-gym reception, but still. In the sunlight, the sequins and pearls around the bodice seemed shot through with rainbows.

The day of the wedding, it rained. In pictures, my sleeves are unevenly pouffed. They look dented, like fenders. When I ran off mid-reception, Wallace and his rugby cronies were wrestling on the dance floor. They threw rented chairs and smashed beer cans off their foreheads. My cathedral train got stuck in the door of my new father-in-law’s Cadillac. White silk and taffeta trailed behind as I drove, like toilet paper stuck to a shoe.

I’d keep running for years. “Fear of death,” Freud would say, but he was usually coked up and wrong about many things.

I didn’t think about it then, but something else about that wedding day stands out. The video guy. His name was Herm Stork. That’s his real name. Herm showed up in a station wagon that looked like a hearse. The license plate read “What If.” Herm reminded me of a young Scorcese –- slicked-back hair the color of burnt marshmallows, oversized glasses that made him look like a cartoon car. Herm had an eye for irony – the close-up of a drunk groomsman grabbing his crotch, the montage of barefoot bridesmaids getting down when the DJ played “Shout.” What Herm wanted, he told me after he filmed Wallace and me shoving cake in each other’s faces, was to make movies.

“This is just for now,” Herm said as he plucked icing out of my eyebrow. “Me, I’m going places.”

Herm had it planned – a map of LA on his bedroom wall, phone numbers to major studios, a demo tape featuring his long-suffering girlfriend in a dramatic monologue about pizza delivery.

“You can’t wait for your life to turn out,” he said. “You have to make it happen.”

For Herm, life was strung between possibility and control, between “what if” and “what will.”

It was like that for me, too. This was the problem.

My wedding was a disaster, of course, but, I thought back then, a necessary one.

“I was thinking,” I told my mother when she asked. “It was about time.”

Like Herm, I had a life plan with deadlines and timetables, and at 25, I was determined to stick to it.

I stumbled upon this plan when I was 15. My friend Sheila and I used to smoke oregano and banana peels and pretend to be stoned. We’d decode Led Zeppelin lyrics. We’d read Kahil Gibran and believe in the prophecy of our angst-ridden hearts.

One day, I came home and found my mother hunched over in her closet, sorting her shoes by heel heights, and broke the news.

“I’m going to die young,” I said. “I just want you to know. You might as well get used to it.”

“You’d better clean your room before you go,” she said, and didn’t bother to turn around. “It’s a pig sty. You wouldn’t want people to remember you that way.”

“I refuse to get all down about this,” I told Sheila. “I mean, these things happen.”

“You want to go skating?” Sheila said.

Hardly anyone other than me cared about my imminent demise. I spent a lot of time alone in my room, studying my lifeline. It was one long swoop, like a parenthesis, but shallow. If I rubbed hard enough, it seemed like the line and my life could just disappear.

I’m not sure how I calculated, but I decided I would die at 30. It wasn’t much time, and so I put myself on a schedule. I wrote it in a spiral notebook. I labeled the notebook “My Life Plan.” At 18, I’d lose my virginity in a field of sunflowers. A year later, I’d hop a train to New York and be famous at 23. I’d marry at 25. I’d have kids at 27. I’d die in my sleep at 30, my hair in ringlets and my makeup on, with a soundtrack by Cat Stevens. I’d be mourned by many old and might-have-been lovers. People would post my obituary on their refrigerators. My children would visit my grave every weekend. My headstone would be covered with graffiti, which is what people do to the tombstones of all tragic and famous people.

It was perfect, in that made-for-TV movie kind of way. Very little worked out the way I’d planned.

The only thing I’d done on schedule was get married. I hadn’t factored in divorce. I was 21 before I lost my virginity at the Cloverleaf Motel. There were no sunflowers. I was 30 before I made it to New York.  I was a flight attendant. No one noticed me much, not even during the safety demo when I gestured toward emergency exits like they were prizes on “The Price is Right.” By my 31st birthday, I was no longer married. I was not a mother. My hair and makeup were never perfect. Cat Stevens wanted to kill Salman Rushdie and believed “Peace Train” was a load of crap.

But I was, if not content, mostly happy. I’d been to Paris. I’d seen Jim Morrison’s grave. The graffiti was the same stuff that covered bathroom stalls at home. The grave had been cordoned off to keep tourists from peeing on it. Oscar Wilde’s grave, white marble spotted red with painted kisses, was better, but still. It wasn’t much compared to coconut crepes and wine, books at Shakespeare and Company, rooftop pigeons, and, back in New York, the man at the deli who would say “Hey, beautiful. Where you been?” and hand me coffee—light with extra sugar, the way I like it.

That year, I knew I’d be alone forever. I was o.k. with that. It wouldn’t be true, of course.

By then, Wallace had gotten remarried. He and his wife played rugby in his-and-her tournaments on the weekends. They had two little girls, and Wallace named one of them after the daughter he’d lost. Wallace and the wife were regulars at Stacks, where Wallace was famous for downing three dozen atomic hot wings during a wing-eating contest. Herm still had his wedding business. He’d branched out into video memorials for funerals. He bought a boat, got married to his girlfriend, and turned in his vanity plate for a standard issue one that read “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania.”

“I’ll be happy here and happy there, full of tea and tears.” That’s the poet Frank O’Hara. A beautiful man who once sold postcards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He lived a while, then was killed in a dune buggy accident on Fire Island. I like to think he would have planned it that way. 

“Well, sweetheart,” my mother said when she called long-distance to serenade me with an off-key rendition of Happy Birthday. “31 years. I guess we’re not dying young now, are we?”



Lori Jakiela' photo

Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir Miss New York Has Everything (Warner/Hatchette 2006) and a poetry collection, The Regulars (Liquid Paper Press 2001). Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Tears in the Fence (U.K.) and elsewhere. She lives in Trafford, Pa., the birthplace of the chocolate-covered pickle.