When he said they were getting married, I told him it was a mistake and that something was bound to happen. It was true she was very beautiful and talented. But she did not particularly like me–which I thought did not reflect well on her character. She asked me about my trips to East Germany. I had gone there several times. The excuse was to attend workshops in East German culture and literature.
The real reason was to be inside a Communist country and see what made it tick. It was also the only place I could go where I could talk to the enemy: Russians and North Vietnamese–all of them, like me, speakers and professors of German.
At some point, I mentioned to her that I liked most of the people I met, with the exception of a few controlling East German party hacks, and a few political watchers among the Soviets. I told her that the professor from Vietnam had been a colonel in the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army, during the time they called the American War.
As I said this, a small frown formed on her perfect brow. Sure of eventual approval, I continued sharing my confidences: how, on seeing the colonel in front of me for the first time, I had said him, “I am so sorry for what my people did to yours.” With a tremor in my voice, I told her how he had reached out and hugged me, and I, him. And how we held each other, there, in the Party clubhouse, in front of the tables of the whole Eastern Block delegation. And how, then, for the first time, the Russian professors had cast aside their suspicion of me and had pulled at my sleeves, as I walked back between their tables, and told me to sit down with them and be their friend.
My friend’s bride, Constance, looked down at the ground and said nothing. I could feel her disapproval, her poorly hidden suspicion that I was, well, a fool. And this looking down and then away happened each time thereafter, when I tried to mention the paradox of good people having developed their goodness in the midst of a repressive political or social structure.
I love my friend dearly, and wished him well, of course, and went so far as to offer my home as a sight for the wedding ceremony. And so, on a sunny warm day, after a night of unexpected August rain, the guests arrived, and the couple, dressed in expensive, flowing white, clothes of the latest fashion, stood under the old arching cypress trees at the top of the hill and began to exchange their vows–she in her pretty white flat-heeled shoes just at the edge of the wet clay, his white coat taking a drop or two of condensed fog from the still dripping cypress.
I had mentioned to them earlier, the place might not work. Close by the wedding spot was a small, now slick, clay gully that descended quickly to a high, loose stone wall and, behind it, a small–but deep–farm pond. I had emphasized that they should not stand too close to this slippery ravine. And, when they took their places, at the very last moment, and to the annoyance of Constance, I motioned that they should move a half-step toward me, and away from the clay behind them.
But now, as the sun slanted down through the dark limbs, women’s eyes moistened, men tried out various poses to show solemnity, children twitched and looked the wrong way, and the minister—a publicly comfortable, balding man from Big Sur and, summers, Montpellier, France—asked if there were rings.
My friend said there were and brought them out of his right trouser pocket, dropped one, his or hers–we still don’t know, stepped back away from the firm cypress needle floor where we stood, reached down to pick up the wayward ring, and placed his weight on the slick clay.
His bride probably had been right about me, because, when she caught the tail of his expensive jacket, to hang on to him, my only thought had been that the jacket had probably been woven in some third world country by a woman too poor to return home at noon and see that her seven-year old had a proper meal.
Constances’s high fashion wedding shoes–slippers really–did nothing to hold the couple back, and they glided with increasing speed down the clay ravine, as she held his coat tails, he out ahead of her, he waving his arms, seeking his balance, still holding the rings, and both mute in the crisis of their descent–while the wedding party cheered, thinking it was grand fun, perhaps even rehearsed, a new twist on an old ceremony, something different and Californian.
Then they hit the loose stonewall, which rose between them and the pond. I confess I had sited these stone with a lack of expertise. They did not interlock. The were not keyed and laced and overlapping, and they fell now all at once, like bowling pins in a strike, as the bride and groom passed through them and hit the brown pond water–where they were pinned, as it were, to the bottom, she in her flat white slippers, he still clutching the rings, and the rest of us–me, albeit, with a slight frown–still applauding from the hilltop, most of us still firmly convinced this had been the most extraordinary California wedding we had ever attended.