Fools rush in

Wedding chapel bliss

Reno wedding chapels, such as The Silver Bells, play host to hundreds of last-minute, low-budget weddings each year.

Reno wedding chapels, such as The Silver Bells, play host to hundreds of last-minute, low-budget weddings each year.

Photo By Todd Upton

It was cold that day in February 2002. Not cold as in icicles forming slowly one pretty prismatic drop at a time in the glint of the pale-gold winter sun. More like the cold of steel surgical tools kept in a wet bucket of slop in a Soviet-era psychiatric hospital.

My girlfriend, D, was driving me to the Reno airport so I could catch my flight back to New York City. I had come to visit her for Valentine’s Day. We had known each other for about six weeks, and things were going about as well as things could in that amount of time and in that kind of long distance relationship.

Emotions were buoyant, and each brief visit was more intoxicating than the previous, meaning, mostly, that we were drinking heavily. I had asked her to marry me after playing a game of rock, paper, scissors for shots of Wild Turkey 101 while in our whirlpool suite at the Atlantis. To say we actually knew each other and were prepared in any way for marriage would be self-deception of the most cruel and naïve kind.

As we passed the sign indicating the airport exit, D looked over at me, smiled beautifully and said, “We should get married.”

I laughed it off. The word “marriage” was not part of my sober vocabulary. Who got “married” anymore? It was something my parents had done once, and then, well, twice. It was a dead end. An institution built on a foundation of wet particle board. How does anybody know how they’re going to feel in 40 years, and how do you promise them that you’ll still feel that way?

But wait … maybe there was something to it. Maybe that was how successful marriages were built. Running your life with a kind of amusement park spontaneity, the same way you’d put all your chips on the next hand of blackjack just to hurry fate up a bit and see what it has in store for you. Faulty logic, sure. But maybe we were meant to be. Maybe I just really didn’t feel like going back to work yet. I was flying Southwest, which meant I had a long day’s worth of hassles ahead—of rushing for the front of every line, of flying into ISLIP, which meant a long, cold wait for a long, expensive cab ride back to Brooklyn. And I was a little hung-over. All I really wanted to do, honestly, was to go back to bed and take a nap. But marriage? That might work, too.

A few calls were made. D’s younger brother and sister were pulled out of school. Her aunt and grandmother closed their Dayton gift shop and drove down. We rushed to Meadowood Mall to buy rings. I chose a crown ring. D went with something a bit more austere, something silver-colored with a tiny pink stone. A quick trip over to city hall to get our marriage license, and we were all set.

We drove around downtown, looking for the perfect chapel, her family following us in their red Dodge minivan. By sheer lack of D’s parallel parking ability, we ended up at The Silver Bells on North Virginia Street.

The entry room was a wood-paneled relic from the 1960s and had a desk and a glass case full of rings with the odd mannequin head dressed in a wedding tiara. Bouquets and flowers filled the rest of the shelves. A sign posted on the wall warned off bringing food or drink into the chapel, as well as threatening a $25 clean-up fee should someone throw rice, confetti or birdseed at the newlyweds.

The woman in charge rattled off a couple of C-list Hollywood types who had supposedly gotten hitched at the chapel.

In the adjacent ceremony room, a couple was ahead of us—a man and woman in cowboy boots. The woman wore an off-white wedding blouse and sweatpants. She looked to be at least six months pregnant. The man had a fanny pack and tie around a denim shirt. The processional music was a combination of a CD boombox playing the traditional wedding march and the thundering bass bumping from a passing car.

At the rear of the room, a 7-Eleven style security camera filmed the proceedings.

The place hinted at balloons, crepe paper, banners, paper tablecloths, perfectly decorated silk floral arrangements, cherubic framed art. Whether any of these decorations of marital bliss were actually present, I cannot remember.

I started getting very nervous. Despite every appearance to the contrary, this was for real. Certainly they wouldn’t let us get married, I thought. They had to know what a horribly bad idea this was. I had a good job making good money in New York. I had a steal of an apartment. But horribly bad ideas were what paid the mortgage at The Silver Bells and at wedding chapels all over the state.

I walked out onto the porch, thinking about darting across the street and hopping a cab for the airport. But D’s 16-year-old brother followed me out. It was time for “the talk.”

We watched a couple of cars pass.

“You’re not going to,” he said, then paused. “You’re not going to hit my sister, are you?”

Was this kid for real? My head spun.

I pointed inside at his sister. “She’s the one wearing the wife-beater,” I said.

He laughed. But she was wearing a wife-beater. At least it was white.

“Cause, her last boyfriend beat her up,” he said.

“The Mormon kid?” I said.

He nodded.

“I promise I won’t hit your sister,” I said, shaking his hand and giving him a proper masculine half-hug.

My soon-to-be bride strolled out to the porch and sat on one of the benches. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this, at least not this way,” she said. I realized this was some horrible game of chicken we were playing, like a duel in which we were both guaranteed to end up dead. What was a wedding without floral arrangements, a wedding dress, a cake … my family … people I knew. Anybody?

Shouldn’t our families meet? Shouldn’t there be a bridal shower? What about my bachelor party? Where was the social protocol? The invitations? The best man? The copious booze from the open bar? This was not a wedding. There was no frippery. No boutonnieres. No corsages.

We were about to tie the knot, but it felt like the only place the knot was going was around my neck.

I sat down next to D. This was way too easy. In a lot of states, there was a cooling off period, a few days wait before you were allowed to buy a handgun. Marriage was at least as dangerous as a firearm. Especially in a community property state.

She seemed pensive. Was she having second thoughts?

“Hmm” she said finally. “We’re both wearing jeans.”

We were.

I imagined her in some off-the-shoulder Armani gown with an ivory train and lace, adorned with diamonds while some gospel acclamation of “Celtic Alleluia” hummed in the background. Instead, we were about to exchange nondenominational vows and then be serenaded by a tape player in our street clothes.

“You still want to do this?” I asked.

D shrugged a smile.

The chapel had its own fee, but the minister explained that she worked strictly on donations. For a little extra, she’d include a special blessing. Couldn’t hurt. I emptied my wallet graciously. The next moments passed as though I was watching from underwater.

There we were, standing next to each other facing the minister. D stifled a laugh. Something was very funny because I had to do the same. Maybe it was nerves. D burst out laughing, and so did I. Surely, I thought, we are testing the fragile patience of this kind woman. There’s no way she will marry us while we laughed. It was truly the strangest feeling I had ever had. It was a gleeful mix of being out of control and madness, something like having an orgasm in a straightjacket.

We said our vows and then, just like that, our lives were interwoven in the name of God and state, space and time. A brand new family. A heartbreakingly haphazard new family on their way to Claim Jumper for a post-wedding feast.

Too bad they don’t have divorce chapels.