The year my father graduated from medical school, he and my mother bought a house ten minutes from downtown L.A. The house was built at the turn of the century and had survived at least two major earthquakes. Despite several renovations over the years, the house is still tiny, having only a single bathroom for all six of us (parents and four children). But even so, we each had our own bedroom growing up. There is no front yard, whatsoever. In fact, the living room window is no more than four feet from Beauvais Ave, the small street in front of the house.
Even though the house itself is quite small, the backyard is huge by urban standards. A large yard, completely fenced in, wraps around the house and extends for half the block. There is a square lawn on one side that faces the main street. A small white tool shed, built to look like a smaller version of the main house, also overlooks the main street, and was used over the years for everything from wood shed to neighborhood clubhouse. Directly behind the house is a larger rectangular lawn that drops off to a pool area in the back corner of the property, not a built in pool, but one of those four-foot collapsible pools, approximately 20 feet in diameter. Hanging over the pool was a weathered wooden block that read, “Beauvais Beach”, left over from the previous owners.
Directly behind the house, there is an enormous bird of paradise tree that separates the lawn from the pool area. The bird of paradise is actually composed of dozens of individual tree “trunks”, each standing 15 – 20 feet tall.
I sat under the shade of that enormous bird of paradise tree with my parents, a cool breeze blowing on a warm spring day, determined to overcome my earlier cowardice. It was there that I nervously told my mom and dad that Casey was two months pregnant. They appeared neither shocked nor even mildly surprised, but simply disappointed. Again. While I never actually inquired, I imagine their reaction simply reflected the reality that they saw this coming a mile away.
Regardless of their initial response, I do remember the highlights. My father stated in the typical “straight to the point” manner (that we all contribute to his Chicago upbringing) that just because Casey was pregnant, that did NOT mean I had to marry her. That was the take home message. I eagerly affirmed that I completely agreed with him, emphatically nodding my head. What’s more, I stated, without hesitation, and not a doubt in my mind, that I had no intention of doing any such thing.
Two weeks later, I popped the question.
The event is one of my last memories of our tiny apartment on St Andrews. I made dinner at home, something we virtually never did because the kitchen was so small. If I remember correctly, we ate dinner before I gave her my proposal, written on a large piece of poster board. No ring. No “down on one knee”. No Lifeguard Station 25 at Santa Monica, where I originally confessed my love for her. Not even on our rooftop, scene of some of our most treasured pictures of the time and reminiscent of our first kiss atop her apartment in Hollywood.
All I had was some homemade Chinese food and a note on a big poster board, like the absurdly large Valentines’ Day card a guy buys at 7-Eleven en route to pick up his date, because he actually stopped to pick up a bottle of Strawberry Boones’ wine and figured he better show up with a card too.
Casey said yes.
To say he made dinner is an understatement. Mike’s friend who worked with him at the grocery store also had a Chinese restaurant. This friend taught Mike how to make the Chinese food on his menu. So as I came home from work, tired, Mike had a candle lit-dinner on the table. The delicious smell of Chinese food from scratch filled the room. There was a large poster board that read, “Will you marry me?” Below the question were two boxes, one that said yes, the other no. It was basically the plus sized version of a elementary school “do you like me” note. I truly didn’t understand what saying yes meant until much later, but at the moment it was the sweet, thoughtful, romantic moment of every girls’ dreams.
Asking Casey to marry me, Casey saying yes, that was the easy part. The hard part was the logistics. Our early discussions focused on our families. I had already relayed my fathers’ message to Casey so we were both keenly aware of how my parents felt about us getting married in response to the pregnancy. On the other hand, Casey’s mother knew she was pregnant and was very supportive. Casey was, after all, 3 years older then I, and these were not her mothers’ first grandchildren. In fact, her older brother had children of his own for some time.
Furthermore, Casey was from a very close Hispanic family that loved the idea of large weddings. Because of her older brothers’ elopement at the age of 18 to a high school sweetheart, the family was denied the opportunity to plan a large wedding (aka a circus). In fact, there had not been such a wedding in the family since Casey was 15 and her aunt was married in one of the oldest theaters on Wilshire Blvd. A public engagement was an open invitation to plan the first large wedding of the next generation. It would have been a spectacle, and an expensive one at that. What’s more, a large wedding would further alienate my parents and I.
With all this in mind, we decided to keep our engagement a secret for the time being. This was easy given the circumstances. We had no money so there were no evidentiary engagement rings to hide. Our intent was to use the covert engagement as a time to discuss our options.
We were intent on getting married. There was no discussion on that front. But, we also had some real issues to consider. On the one hand, Casey was pregnant. There was a baby on board no matter what we decided. On the other hand, neither one of us were crazy about having a baby out of wedlock. We knew this even from our earliest talks. But, we struggled to understand why the idea of having a baby out of wedlock was so troubling. On the surface, we understood the influence our parents had on such an event. My parents are devout Catholics and Casey’s family, while not necessarily practicing Catholics, upheld many Catholic traditions and beliefs. Yet, we were conflicted. Neither one of us, at our core, believed that parental influence was our motivation to marry before the baby was born.
Too many discussions brought us back to the same realization: we detested the idea of making any decision because of what we thought either family might think. A decision to get married satisfied Casey’s parents and a decision to remain unwed satisfied mine…neither choice was acceptable.
Eventually, during one of our seemingly circuitous discussions, we came to understand our motivation: our decision to have a baby and not be married implied an “out” that neither of us wanted. We were committed to being together, till death do us part. And while a baby at that age was not what we considered well timed, our desire to be together all the time superseded all else. We wanted to be married because we wanted to be married, not because we were having a baby that was driving our decision. And most importantly, we came to understand that any such decision, or motivations for such decisions, was between just the two of us. With these realizations, we decided to get married immediately. Our solution to the family conflict: tell no one!
Our “wedding party” would take place in Las Vegas and consist only of my brother, Norman, and his girlfriend at the time, both sworn to secrecy. We told one other person, Casey’s father. I cannot remember exactly why we chose to tell him above all others. Most likely it stemmed from the fact that he and Casey’s mother were recently divorced so we were assured of his complete discretion. Throughout our courtship and the pregnancy announcement, he alone was able to consistently spend time with us without pushing his own agenda. He was both accepting and nonjudgmental, regardless of our decisions.
Even our trip to Vegas was kept “under the wraps” because we knew friends and family would suspect our underlying motives. Telling Casey’s father provided a much-needed safety net in the event of some calamity. (Looking back, it is ironic that we charged headfirst into marriage, but on some level, we weren’t quite comfortable travelling to Vegas without someone knowing in the event of an emergency.) He assured us he would guard our secret about the wedding, wished us luck, and sent us off with a gift of $200 to get us started and a suggestion that we get the oil checked before we drove the 265 miles to Las Vegas.
We dropped the car off at the Jiffy Lube before leaving town where I happened to leave the $200 gift in the glove compartment. When we picked up the car, the money was gone. Dumbass. We gathered up our remaining resources and left, half-hoping that the incident was not some sign of our fiscal future together. Oh well, we figured, “through richer and poorer” only half jokingly.
And so it was that we found ourselves in Las Vegas on the eighth of June 1991. We left for Vegas with only a vague outline of a plan: 1) Drive to Vegas. 2) Get married. We filled the monotonous 5-hour drive with considerations of the particulars. The obvious plan was to find some rather inexpensive chapel in which to have the ceremony performed. We had limited funds (no thanks to me) and decided that we would avoid the overly cheesy Vegas wedding cliché. Instead, we would get married at the Las Vegas Justice of the Peace. Total cost: $5.
What does a $5 wedding look like? We stood in line in a long hallway, reminiscent of an empty hospital hallway with cold, white linoleum floors and industrial fluorescent lighting that hung low from the ceilings, giving the impression that the ceilings were darker then the floor even though they were probably the same shade of white. We waited our turn to purchase our wedding license, which accounted for the entire wedding cost.
It was late at night and I remember only one other couple in the line, standing in front of us with an older woman. When their turn came to purchase the license, the clerk requested their identification upon which they both produced their high school IDs. The groom was 16, the bride, 15. The accompanying woman, the brides’ mother, was there to sign the “permission slip”. Casey and I were both disturbed by the scene, afraid it was some dark metaphor for our own marriage.
The two teens reminded me of my brother. He was 18 when he married a friend of mine who dropped out of school at 15 and got pregnant by a different boy. I often babysat the beautiful baby girl, but when my brother came home one day and confessed he was dating my friend, I was pissed! Although I admired her commitment to having the child, I certainly didn’t want my brother to be an instant dad at age 18. I remember the intervention where all my brother’s friends came over, the dining room table surrounded by worried faces pleading that he wait to marry this girl. My parents negotiated that if he waited a year they would pay for the wedding of their dreams. The interesting thing about being part of a very dedicated Hispanic family, that worships family, is that when someone outside the family has influence, the balance of power goes into a tailspin. Days later my brother went to Vegas with the ex-friend. Her mother was present and signed her her consent, not unlike the mother I stood behind in line.
After purchasing our license, we waited our turn to be married by the Justice of the Peace. A short time passed and we were ushered into a second room. My brother and his girlfriend, Casey and I, and the Justice of the Peace stood in a room that was only slightly less bland then the hallway, probably due to the addition of the beige carpet.
The Justice of the Peace was an elderly gentleman, so old, in fact, that he wore a suit that reminded me of the evil preacher from the Poltergeist movies, minus the creepy hat. He was also almost completely blind. So close to being completely blind that in order to sign on the correct line on our marriage license, he used a wooden block. The block was about an inch and a half thick and precisely the same length and width as the marriage license. Cut into the block were several rectangles of various sizes such that when he placed the block precisely over the license, the cutouts revealed the lines that required his signature. To complete the document, he felt the different sizes of the rectangles with his fingers before inserting his pen into the lower left corner of the cutout as a reference point, and only then beginning to sign his name. The edges of the hole keeping his signature confined to the allotted space. We fought back the urge to snicker out loud and proceeded. (Another omen? Were we entering into this blind?)
The ceremony was rather short, but I have a distinct memory even now, not of the vows we exchanged, but that Casey trembled the entire time. I managed to repeat the vows with as much confidence as I could muster, given the environment. But when Casey’s turn came, she stumbled over the words, and kept asking for them to be repeated before responding.
As I watched the Justice of the Peace prepare his little “blocks”, I kept thinking, “what am I doing? I’m getting married and no one knows.” I couldn’t help being swayed by how handsome Mike looked and wondered if I was just being stupid. I kept fighting in my head as the Justice recited the vows. I can vividly remember his mouth moving but heard no words come out. I tried to pay attention but my heart and mind were racing a million miles a minute. A full-fledge panic attack was about to make an appearance in this “I Love Lucy” type scene. As my knees went weak, I felt Mike’s hand around my waist, he strongly pulled me close, looked into my eyes and I said the words “I do.” Mike was home to me and in that second I knew.
In the moment, I registered Casey’s reaction as a natural response to the series of events that unfolded leading up to the ceremony. The coldness of the government building, the impending marriage of the two teenagers in front of us in line, even the cartoon-like interaction with the Justice of the Peace were unnerving. I gently placed my hand on the small of her back to help her settle, to comfort her. We finished our vows, I kissed the bride, and it was over. We were married. Casey was 23 and I was 20.
It occurred to me later, several years later, that Casey understood the magnitude of the moment better then I, and that was why she was nervous.