I didn’t grow up dreaming of my wedding day, the white lace dress I would wear, the flavors for my layer cake, the man standing at the foot of the aisle. Nor did I put a time stamp on that traditional milestone of adulthood. In fact, it was a common refrain with family and friends that if I had any goal before the age of 35, it was not to be married—that is, if I ever got married at all. But somehow, this past summer, at age 32, I ended up in a friend’s living room on Martha’s Vineyard with my partner of five years, a minister, one witness, and a cat wearing a bow tie.
Five days before that, I was simply a woman on a long holiday weekend with her boyfriend in the town where she’d spent every summer since childhood. On July 2, I met my friend and mentor Debbie for a quick breakfast and long catch-up. It was the first time I’d seen her since her husband, Rob, had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and the previous few weeks had left them both discouraged and heartbroken. That morning we cried into our scrambled eggs and talked about how they were preparing for the worst while trying to savor each sweet moment together. Over the course of our conversation, it came up that Rob, a minister, had officiated an intimate wedding ceremony for their goddaughter a few weeks prior—just the four of them in their living room, the same spot where they themselves had been married almost 20 years ago.
You could say a seed was planted at that moment, but really it felt like a tractor arm had suddenly scooped out my insides. For the first time, I knew with such clarity how I wanted to join myself to Charlie. I asked Debbie if Rob might have the strength and willingness to do something similar for us. Her eyes softened, as we both knew the answer. And then, as if reading my mind, she said, “Oh, Phoebe. If not now, when?”
Later that afternoon, like many men before me, I asked Charlie to go for a walk—getting him out of the house, away from the prying ears of family members—and I proposed. He would say I did so in the literal sense of the word. About halfway to the beach, instead of getting down on one knee and telling him all the reasons why he was “the one,” I started explaining what had induced this spontaneity. I talked about Debbie and Rob and how, in five days’ time, with none of our family present, we should formalize our partnership. I told him how meaningful it would be to have our love cemented by two people whose signature traits are optimism and a zest for life—at a time when everyone could use a dose of each.
While I didn’t expect tears or the kind of OMG elation that accompanies traditional proposals, I didn’t envision Charlie being quite so shell-shocked. We sat down on a rock, and, worrying that I had been too roundabout and opaque, I blurted out, “Hello, I’m proposing to you!” To which he replied, with a puzzled smile, “If that’s what you want, okay.”
The confusion wasn’t his fault really. While my traditional-leaning partner might have put a ring on it long ago, during the course of our relationship I had made it very clear that I was not the kind of girl who wanted her finger encircled by a non-edible Ring Pop. Over the years, though, as I tried to articulate why I didn’t want to get married, it became clear that the idea of a forever union wasn’t exactly the problem. Charlie and I already shared a mortgage and a bank account. I’d felt married to him in every way but legally. What I didn’t want was a wedding.
In the past decade, I’ve been to more than 30 of them. Some were modest and homegrown, and others cost half a million dollars. They’ve been in backyards and on African beaches. I’ve seen ceremonies where parents cried all the way down the aisle and one where the mother of the bride cried expletives at an estranged relative in the front row. I’ve also witnessed the preambles to the main events. The family dramas. The Excel spreadsheets. The awkward third-tier, eleventh-hour invites. All the planning to the tune of “Here Compromises the Bride.” The stress that made my friends question whether or not a wedding was worth it solidified for me that it wouldn’t be.
Throughout all of these rituals and festivities, vows and cakes, speeches and horas, I never once thought, This feels like me. I didn’t want to spend months worrying about other people and losing myself. I didn’t want to pour thousands of dollars into a party, just to get friends and family in one room and barely spend any time with them. And I definitely didn’t want to publicly weep at the end of the aisle. But if there’s any aspect of a wedding that I did want, it was for me and Charlie to make a verbal commitment to each other. Not the perfunctory justice-of-the-peace script, but the heart-led, self-written vows that answer the questions “Why me?” and “Why you?”
After I explained all this to Charlie and his initial shock wore off, we jumped into action. We went into town to purchase outfits. We waited on the steps of city hall, alongside the previous evening’s DUI perpetrators, to get a Massachusetts judge to waive the three-day waiting period for a license. We scoured the general store for something to put on each other’s fingers and settled on a pair of tie-dye ceramic rings that may or may not have been meant for toes.
There were moments when my inner bridezilla rose to the surface, when I worried about the fit of my nonwhite dress or the fact that I hadn’t brought an appropriate bra or thong to wear under it. Or that our wedding night would be spent eating at a subpar restaurant and we’d be coming home to my childhood bedroom, avoiding my parents like drunk teenagers. But flashes of anxiety were minimal; a five-day window meant more time had to be spent writing our vows than worrying about the particulars.
On July 7, when we arrived at Rob and Debbie’s, the living room was filled with flowers. I did my hair and makeup upstairs while a barefoot Charlie waited anxiously and placed an elastic bow tie on Wilbur, their white kitty.
At roughly 5 p.m., while my parents were swimming in the Vineyard Sound and Charlie’s mother was celebrating her birthday in San Francisco, we exchanged vows and toe rings. Weeping ensued. Champagne was popped. Cheesy newlywed photos were taken in the smelly alley of a nearby seafood shop.
After that, it was just the two of us. We lay in the sand and feasted on a picnic of bluefish dip, prosciutto, and local paté while the sun dipped in the distance. At last light, we drove to the Outermost Inn, drank Aperol spritzes on the deck, and retired to our marital room feeling full, present, and only slightly tipsy. In the morning, we walked along the beach and steeled our nerves to return to my childhood home and tell my parents. They were shocked and excited and not mad at all—which shocked us.
For someone like me, a recovering perfectionist who always focuses on the logistics and gets caught up in the “right” ways of doing things, our elopement was a lesson—that perfect doesn’t exist and that what matters most will always be our love, not the details. Instead of toasts and dances, the moments I’ll remember could never have been planned. The mysterious phone call Charlie received from the Outermost Inn on the day of the wedding informing us there was a last-minute room available, although neither of us had even tried to book one. The surprise plastic-diamond bangle Rob and Debbie presented us during the ceremony. The deer frolicking in the distance at twilight. The handfuls of organic brown rice my mom hurled at us before we departed for the airport the next morning. And more important than all that, our wedding story ends the way all couples hope theirs will: with ecstatic friends and family, memories of a union that feels special, and a bond solidified with words and love—not a basement full of unwanted vases and candlesticks. Happily ever after.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Marie Claire.