When my best friend Elizabeth and my brother Ben landed in New York for their holiday weekend wedding extravaganza, Ben called me from their hotel in Rye, mentioning that Elizabeth’s mother had chosen flute music for their Sunday evening reception.
“Flute music?” I asked.
“For when we walk down the aisle,” Ben explained.
“That’s the only music? The whole night?”
I was already resentful that Elizabeth Mann, the fellow feminist photographer I’d met at Vision magazine, had proclaimed “I’ll never work again a day in my life” when my kid brother proposed only two months after they’d met – while my mensch couldn’t even commit to living in sin. Now I’d have to rent a car to travel from my Manhattan apartment to the Rye Women’s Club, Elizabeth’s mother’s choice, for hours of dancelessness. What would I do after dinner? Listen to the chorus of our Orthodox branch rap about my bare ring finger?
“Can I get you a D.J.?” I asked.
“Let me check with Elizabeth,” Ben said. When he came back to the phone he told me, “Sure, a D.J. would be great. Can you get one on such short notice?”
“No problem,” I said.
I didn’t know what to get them for a gift; hours of dancing suddenly seemed an inspired choice. It would also be a present for my mother, who loved to kick up her heels. But where the hell would I find a music man to schlep to the Westchester burbs last second? Determined to save the semitic Solomons from a WASPy flute-filled fest, I turned to Craigslist and located Wild Bob, who said he’d book our Sunday event for five hundred bucks – if I brought him cash before midnight. I ran to the ATM, emptied my account, and took a cab to his Washington Heights pad. Wild Bob was a friendly Latino guy with a mustache and gold chains around his neck. He handed me a list of most requested wedding songs, promising he’d throw in a Hebrew medley. I gave him cash and we shook on it. Although my parents pretended all was fine, I felt guilty for accidentally introducing the couple, thus causing this intermarriage, the first in our conservative family. I prayed my small music mitzvah might overcompensate, hoping I’d be the hero if I made sure my Yiddish mama could Hora.
Sunday night, mirroring my mood, there was a rainstorm, fallen trees and flooding on the highways. My boyfriend, Matthew, a TV comedy writer, rented a car too small for him; his head kept hitting the roof. He drove like a half-blind old lady. The white brick building looked like a small-town library. On the way in, a gust of wind blew my umbrella inside out. My black velvet dress and hair got damp. The first person I saw was Mom, in the foyer, pacing. The Solomon women were early for everything.
“You look like a drowned rat. Go dry off,” she admonished. “Elizabeth’s not here and it’s five thirty. Ceremony’s at six. I don’t like the looks of the photographer. Will you take pictures too, just in case?”
Although she’d never been crazy about my freelance photography career, she believed it was my job to be on call to document all her Hallmark moments for free.
“My pleasure. I brought my Canon.” I smiled, determined to be a good sport.
“I would have started at seven thirty. But nobody asks me to plan anything,” murmured my mother, a professional party planner. Still, she looked regal in her shiny green satin dress, red hair pouffed even in the rain.
My New Jersey relatives shuffled in, also before schedule.
“Nobody marries Jews anymore,” said Uncle Max, kissing my cheek.
“Your guy seems nice. He’s a Yid, isn’t he?” Aunt Sally asked, as if Matthew weren’t there.
“I can recite the Haftorah from my bar mitzvah as proof,” Matthew offered.
“Is he over his fear of commitment yet?” asked Uncle Melech.
“The Solomons need Jewish grandkids. When are you tying the knot already, Rachela? You’re not getting any younger,” Uncle Izzy reminded me.
I was only twenty-six!
“Rachel, your D.J.’s here,” Matthew called. “Unless another relative just arrived in Wild Bob’s Musical Jungle van.”
I waved to Wild Bob, wearing a cheap white tux. His roadies unloaded equipment in the pouring rain. Then Elizabeth flew by in a running suit and sneakers. Next came Elizabeth’s mother, Pamela, a tall white-haired matron in a knee-length navy dress, a blazer, and gold cross necklace. Pamela was followed by Elizabeth’s sister and two young nieces.
“Sorry. We’re always late,” said Katie, the last, littlest one of the five Mann females dashing through the doorway.
I followed Elizabeth up the staircase. “Need help?” I asked the comrade-in-arms about to become my sister-in-law as she rushed into the changing room in back, undressing behind a screen. Putting together the wedding so quickly, she’d decided against bridesmaids. But I stood right outside, in self-appointed maid-of-honor mode, like a VIP. “ Anything I can do?”
She flung her jeans out and said, “My Mom doesn’t want music.” She threw out her shirt, bra, socks. “Cancel it.”
“You’re kidding, aren’t you? It’s too late.”
“Get rid of the D.J.,” she called.
“I paid Wild Bob in cash from my own pocket and it’s not refundable. He drove an hour in this storm. It’s a miracle he made it. My mother wants music.”
For strong, independent women who’d both left home for college and never looked back, our maternal figures were suddenly looming large, everywhere. I handed her the zippered bag that held her gown. “Elizabeth, you’re a little emotional now, and….”
“You’re ruining my wedding!” she yelled, snatching the garment bag from my hand.
Ruining her wedding? I was her matchmaker, dress maid, music booker, free backup shutterbug, and psychiatrist-on-call running a group seminar for my crazy mishpocheh on how to cope with her intermarrying. I was saving her wedding, which wouldn’t be happening if not for me!
But it was Elizabeth’s day, I told myself. I was merely sister of the groom. She was the bride. The bride got everything the way she wanted, those were the rules. Then again, this particular Protestant bride was barging into MY big loud tribe of Jews, who – she didn’t even know - had a history of plotzing if they couldn’t Hora. She’d agreed to the music in advance; I’d asked my brother permission before I spent all of my money on Wild Bob. Anyway, since when was I obligated to be tactful with Elizabeth Mann, my big-city mentor in incivility.
She could get herself into her own damn dress. I marched downstairs.
“You look handsome,” I told my brother, then breathlessly blurted out my side of the dilemma. “….Now that Wild Bob miraculously fought the storm from the city… “
“Don’t worry, Sis,” Ben said, jovially, the big doctorman saving the day. “Elizabeth’s nervous. Everything’s fine. Thanks for getting Wild Bob. What a great present.”
At that moment I wanted to marry him.
When I told Mom that Elizabeth’s mother didn’t want the D.J., she looked at me in disbelief. Abandoning all protocol herself, Mom threw down the gauntlet, declaring: “The music stays.”
For the ceremony, as two female flutists played a lovely wedding processional, I was shocked to see Elizabeth walk down the aisle in my mother’s antique wedding dress. It had been in storage all these years, so I’d never laid eyes on the gown itself. I recognized it from my parents’ worn framed wedding photograph. I felt betrayed and heartbroken.
“I can’t believe you didn’t save your wedding dress for me,” I whispered to my mother, choking back tears.
“You said you’d rather die than don that disgusting symbol of sexist white patriarchal society,” Mom whispered back. “And that if you ever got married – which you weren’t going to - you’d only do it wearing black.”
Oh, yeah. That sounded like me.
“We are gathered here today to unite Dr. Benjamin Solomon and Miss Elizabeth Mann in holy matrimony,” said Judge Cohen (whom my parents picked, as if a Jewish clergy almost made it kosher.) “Their union is a case of opposites attract. Especially since Benjamin majored in beer pong at Northwestern while Elizabeth was a Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard.”
Don’t tell me that Elizabeth told the judge about Ben’s underwhelming undergraduate career! She’d quit her job while my brother had stopped partying, gone to medical school and became a surgeon, saving lives daily. He was living the American dream, enhancing the Solomon legacy, which I (the leftwing family rebel who’d eternally cursed the Jewish Doctor God syndrome) was all of a sudden proud of. When had that transformation happened?
I kept muttering to myself during the secular vow exchange. Afterwards, Ben stomped on a glass and everyone from our side yelled “Mazel tov!” Then we were led to a quiet room filled with pictures of white-haired Westchester ladies. Wild Bob tested the microphone, which screeched. Elizabeth rushed up to me in the long white dress. She looked stunning, the most beautiful she’d ever looked, as she hissed, “No music during dinner.”
“Music during dessert,” I countered.
She stormed away in a huff, mumbling she’d never speak to me again, forgetting she’d seated me next to her at the head table.
The choice of entrée was salmon or steak. I picked salmon, though I had no appetite. Elizabeth proclaimed: “I’ll have both.” he was the only bride I’d ever seen eat at her own wedding – attacking her double dinners with gusto. No frail, frilly anorexic for Ben. It made me remember what I liked about her in the first place. I took a picture of Elizabeth all glamorous in that gorgeous gown, fork and knife drawn, eating from two plates.
After they cut the cake, Elizabeth nixed a first slow dance. So I signaled Wild Bob to go straight to the fast stuff. As everyone got down to Lil’ Kim’s version of Lady Marmalade, Elizabeth’s mother stood up, threw her hands over her head and ran outside.
“She’s going to faint,” Matthew said.
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “There’s doctors in the room.”
The Solomon friends and relatives rocked out to Usher, Jay-Z, J-Lo, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige. I joined the dancers barefoot. When Ludacris’s What’s Your Fantasy played, Uncle Izzy led his 350-pound bride, my aunt Ida, in the Twist.
“Is this the guy who can’t commit after sleeping with you for a year?” Izzy asked.
Wild Bob spun Madonna’s remix of Like a Virgin and Elizabeth and Ben trotted onto the dance floor. I’d won the music round! Yet Elizabeth still wouldn’t look at me, as if she couldn’t be emotionally connected to me and Ben at the same time.
When Wild Bob launched into Hava Nagila, my mother leapt to attention. She led my father by both hands. All sitting Solomons took to their feet. “Can’t wait to dance at your wedding. Hurry up already,” Uncle Melech said, breezing by. Uncle Izzy and Aunt Ida jumped up and were soon kicking and singing. They all held hands and went around, forming circles within circles. I caught Pamela Mann peering in at us, then running out again.
“What if she doesn’t hate music as much as she hates Jews?” I asked.
“It’s almost over. You look beautiful.” Matthew patted my knee.
Wild Bob continued our tribal medley. Ben’s friends lifted the bride and groom up on chairs. Aunt Sally handed Elizabeth a white scarf, showing her the custom of waving the shmate in the air. They bounced up and down in their raised chairs, bonded by the silky white fabric, which Ben caught hold of. Everyone gathered, applauding. Elizabeth looked delighted by the attention. Try doing that to flute music, honey.
“I hope she doesn’t fall,” said Elizabeth’s niece Katie, an eight-year-old cutie I’d met at the rehearsal dinner the night before as she sidled up to me on the edge of the dance floor.
“What an idiotic custom,” I said, wondering if any brides or grooms had ever died that way. Or broken bones, or fractured anything. “Pretty dress you have on.”
“We got it at the mall yesterday. I wanted a black dress like yours, but Mom said black was too morbid for a wedding.”
“I hate weddings,” I admitted.
“’Cause you never had one?” Katie asked.
“Is it that obvious?” I laughed. “Probably just sour grapes.”
“You’re funny.” Katie stared at me like she’d just discovered a fascinating alien. “Where are you from, anyway?”
“I was born in Illinois,” I said. “But now I live in New York.”
“My aunt Lizzie lived in New York; now she’s moving to Illinois,” she said.
I recalled that Aunt Lizzie was Katie’s nickname for Elizabeth, the not-so-blushing bride. “Yeah, I know. Ben’s my brother. I introduced them.”
Katie glanced at the Canon in my hands, and at the flash hanging around my neck. “Lizzie used to take pictures,” she added.
I nodded, pointing my camera at Elizabeth, laughing in mid air, regal and triumphant as Queen Esther, my loud kooky clan clapping and swirling around her. The flash went off three times.
Then Katie turned to me and said, “Hey, like Freaky Friday, you guys just switched lives.”
Wow. She was right; we had. I was Elizabeth’s replacement as an up-and-coming shutterbug on the Manhattan photography scene. Now she’d be filling my former role with the Midwestern Solomons. I stared up at my friend, her face lit with joy. I wanted her to be happy. How wonderful something I’d done made such a difference. “You’re one of those magic people,” she’d once told me.
I grabbed more champagnes from the passing waiter’s tray and downed it. With the Moet seeping through my bloodstream, our switching lives story became more mystical as it wound around my mind. Tonight was changing the course of everything. Elizabeth Mann was moving west to marry a doctor like my dad while I was following in her father’s footsteps back East. I couldn’t help but wonder who’d gotten the better deal as I aimed my lens one last time at the woman of the hour.
Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing teacher, is the author of six books. This is adapted from her comic novel, Overexposed, coming out from St. Martin’s Press on August 3.
This story "Excerpt: Susan Shapiro's 'Overexposed'" was written by Susan Shapiro.