When I was 24, I canceled my wedding ten days before it was to happen. For many years, it was hard for me to talk about. Whenever it came up, people would generally express enthusiastic support or sympathy and I’d smile slightly to show appreciation, but internally, I was wincing. It took more than ten years to get over my feelings of shame and guilt. It took me that long to look back on my actions with any amount of objectivity or compassion.
Mark was my first boyfriend. He was adorable, quirky, fun. I fell in love with him when I was a sophomore at Duke. He had just graduated and wasn’t yet sure about which career he wanted to pursue, so he continued working at his former summer job as a big rig driver with a local moving company. I think he’d concur that our shared adventures in that 18-wheeler were probably the highlight of our relationship. (I wrote briefly about that in my story “Truckin'”)
Three years after that, Mark was accepted at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, so we moved to California. At the new student orientation, one of the speakers offered the depressing statistic that most couples at the onset of law school are unlikely to stay together through graduation. We looked at each other; “not us,” we scoffed. A few months later, we were engaged.
While Mark attended law classes during the day, I worked at a children’s theatre company. While he studied diligently every night, I attended rehearsals for roles I landed in local theatre productions. As I re-discovered creative expression through acting, Mark immersed himself in facts, logic, and argument. His quirky humor and adventurous spirit began to give way to a stoic and serious demeanor.
I knew the rigors of law school were tough, so I tried to provide him with support and encouragement. Yet, I felt restless. I yearned to expand and explore. I shared few of my own experiences with Mark, because law school was all-consuming. If he wasn’t in class, he was in the library or with a study group. Weekends were no different. I barely saw him. He’d apologize for his distracted state and his full-throttle focus on the law and I’d tell him that I understood.
I could make excuses about our situation being temporary, but at the same time, I felt like our paths were becoming more and more divergent. I’d been determined to support him, but now I was wondering, what about me? I began to feel like two people: my old, predictable self with Mark, and my new, growing self in his absence. I began thinking about the fact that he was my first and only boyfriend; that we were still young and finding our way. I loved him, but getting married suddenly felt like a bad idea.
Our wedding day was fast approaching. Plans had been made and guests invited. I felt queasy and riddled with fear. He’d been my everything for five solid years. What was I going to do? For the first time since we’d been together, I felt utterly alone, facing the world and my life head on. I felt like I was living in a thick gray fog of foreboding.
Two weeks before the wedding, I called my mother. When she asked me how I was feeling as the wedding approached, I tried to lightly express my feelings of apprehension, as if they were probably normal or not to be taken too seriously. She immediately got to the heart of the matter. She made it simple and practical and real. “This is your life, Johanna,” she said. “You need to do what your heart dictates. It’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. Don’t go through with it if you’re not ready.” Her sympathetic and loving tone touched me deeply. Then, she dared to present the option of a cancellation, as if it wasn’t a big deal. “It’s only money,” she said. “I think I can get deposits back, and if I don’t, it’s okay.” Perhaps this was why I had called her in the first place, a sub-conscious need to get consent.
I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this, but I hadn’t even thought about the deposits. These things were frankly the least of my concerns. The anxiety over possibly canceling our wedding had nothing to do with money or with canceling all the scheduled plans. I barely even thought about the guests. The only thing on my mind was Mark. How was I going to tell Mark. I was about to devastate the person I loved most. He had been my best friend for five years and now . . . what?
Time was ticking. Every time I pushed myself to say something, I felt sick to my stomach and could barely open my mouth to talk. The wedding was now ten days away and the pressure was overwhelming. I was swimming in so much anxiety that I couldn’t eat. No one else was going to do this for me. I had to battle my overwhelming anxiety and speak up.
I pushed myself to speak after dinner one night. “How are you feeling about the wedding?” I asked, while we were washing dishes. My entire body was shaking, but I pretended to be calm. I was hoping he’d give me an easy out. “Fine,” he replied matter-of-factly. He looked at me. “Why?” he asked. I felt woozy. I wanted to take several really deep breaths, but I continued to control my voice and sound calm. “Oh, I guess I’m just having those feelings people talk about.” And from there it went. Second by agonizing second.
“What feelings?” he asked. “You know, second thoughts. Fear. Haven’t you had any?” I tried to ask innocently. “No,” he said. He couldn’t have made it any more difficult. A panicked conviction took over and I realized that I had to pounce right in. NOW OR NEVER. I honestly don’t recall what I said next. It’s like when you’re in an accident and you don’t remember the moment of impact. I remember rambling and mumbling and trying to temper my beating heart until he finally asked me the question: “Do you want to call it off?” This is when my memory kicks back in. Like the moment after the accident, when you come to. “Yeah,” I said, shaking, and now crying, apologetic.
He was calm. He did not get angry or turn inside himself and brood, which was more common for him. Remarkably, his focus was on my own well-being. I guess my agony was palpable.
We stayed up through the entire night. It felt like we were on a hallucinogenic drug or living in a twilight zone. Both of our emotions were raw. We talked, we cried, we chain smoked, we held each other. When I finally fell asleep just before dawn, Mark stayed up. I awoke a few hours later to see him kneeling before me with a breakfast tray holding a five-page letter, a plate of food, and flowers. In the letter, Mark expressed his deep love for me and beckoned for me to give him another chance. It was like beauty and pain blended in a horrible and exhilarating cocktail. The horrible feeling of knowing this man loved me so much, and the awareness that I was still going to call it off, was horrid. And you talk about courage. His letter was an act of love that I will never forget.
“I think we should still go to Durham,” Mark said about the location where we were to wed. “The flight cancellation fee will be ridiculous. We might as well go. We can visit with my family. It’ll be good.” I couldn’t believe that he thought this would be a good idea. The last thing I wanted to do was bring myself that close to the plans I’d canceled, to be around his family at such a vulnerable time. How could Mark consider it? I even wondered if I felt worse as the canceller than he did as the cancellee.
He was determined to keep his itinerary and fly to Durham, with or without me. I understood that he needed to be with his family, but I couldn’t bear the pain of going along. My friend’s dad, a doctor, kindly offered to write a medical note to the airline (I don’t recall what he wrote, something about an infection and not being able to fly), so I could avoid the cancellation fee for my ticket.
The flight was a red-eye. I drove Mark to the airport and parked in the lot, wanting to be by his side until the last possible minute. He took his small bag of clothes from the trunk and half-smiled as I closed it. “There should be two of these,” he said. I had been forcing the tears back, forcing the tears back, forcing the tears back through the drive there, but now, with those words uttered, I could do it no longer. He laughed a little when he realized how raw we both were, how difficult it was to find a way through this emotional process. We held hands and walked to the airline counter, where he presented both of our tickets and I presented my letter from the doctor. As the airline attendant read the letter, Mark looked at me. “You can still go,” he whispered. I shook my head, not wanting the attendant to realize it was really an option.
The doctor’s letter served its purpose and I got a voucher. Mark got a boarding pass. With fifteen minutes to spare before he had to board, we walked outside and leaned on a railing watching the planes in the dark beyond. He gave it one more shot. “Come,” he said. “It’ll be fine. Come.” I kept nodding my head no. I began to cry again and the valves wouldn’t close this time. We hugged our goodbyes and he turned to go inside and board the plane.
Alone, detached, I walked back to my car, acutely aware that this moment marked the start of a new chapter in my life. I started the engine, crying so hard now that I was gulping for air. I hoped that I could compose myself after a few minutes, but it wasn’t happening, so I drove very slowly down the freeway. An airplane engine sounded in the black expanse above me and I looked out the window to see a blinking light in the sky. Maybe it was his plane, or maybe another. I was now bawling so heavily that I couldn’t see the road in front of me. I was in no shape to drive, so I immediately pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway. It was 11:00pm on a weeknight and there were barely any cars on the road, but I felt safer there. I remained there for ten more minutes before I was able to get a hold of myself and start driving again.
A few weeks after that fateful night, I moved into my own apartment, and several months later, we officially broke up. I moved to Los Angeles to study acting, and he graduated from law school and began working as an attorney. We dated other people, but we stayed in touch. We both came to realize how much we missed each other and how rare it is to find the kind of connection we’d had. We began talking on the phone more often. Then, we began to visit each other on the weekends. Another year later, over the phone one night, he joked about becoming engaged again, and in a careless moment, I agreed. When I landed the role of Catherine in “A View from the Bridge” at Palm Springs Playhouse, we decided I’d move in with him, since he was now an attorney in Palm Springs and his place was just 20 minutes away.
It took no time to recognize that there we were again; him in his world of fact, proof and precedent, away during the days; and me in my world of emotion, creativity and catharsis, away during the evenings. It occurred to me finally that what we had most in common now was the connection from our past. It was a very special and rare kind of connection, which I realized after dating other people, but those magical days in college and that particular time in our lives was the reason it took hold. Years and experiences had taken us in other directions. We’d each changed and grown; were no longer as in synch. Without any hesitation, I initiated the conversation about canceling our second engagement, and Mark again was calm in his response, though this time, he agreed.
We broke up for good then. I moved back to L.A. where I proceeded to make a living as an actor, and Mark eventually opened his own law practice. We remained in touch and occasionally talked on the phone. Once, when he was in L.A. on business, we met for lunch. I didn’t feel comfortable telling him about my own love life, but he shared stories about the woman he was dating. He’d been seeing her for a while and I liked hearing that. I wanted him to be happy.
About a year after that, I got word from a mutual friend that Mark had eloped. Just hearing that news felt like heavy sandbags of shame toppling off of my shoulders. Within mere seconds, I was breathing easier and standing taller. It was as if I’d been holding my breath all that time. (Mark later told me how it happened: one sunny afternoon while they working on their garden, his girlfriend dared him to get married, and he took the dare, driving her straight to the courthouse. This happened on October 16, he told me. My birthday.)
People tend to respond to my canceled wedding story with a congratulatory tone. A surprising number of married people have also added, “I wish I’d done that.” It’s shocking to hear that said so plainly and so often. Talk about a reality check; evidence that my act of canceling had served as a powerful, pre-emptive strike.
Canceling a wedding so close to the date is nothing I will ever care to congratulate myself for doing, but I did learn a very difficult lesson: to thine own self be true; even if it’s excruciatingly painful.