WHILE IN MADRID, Marián and I spent an entire day in the elegant neighborhood of Salamanca ransacking every chic boutique for shoes and a flower broach to match the lilac organza dress she would wear at the wedding. During the eight-hour shopping marathon, she also picked up a custom-ordered, hand-made monogrammed shirt for her boyfriend Miguel to wear under his tuxedo. Back in Miami, she had informed me of the dress code that was issued like a warning along with the invitation: no one was allowed to wear black or white, lest the bride, groom, maids and groomsmen be upstaged; no one was allowed to wear perfume, lest the bride’s allergic mother should sneeze.
On the much-anticipated day in which Miguel’s brother would tie the knot with a woman from Asturias, such matters hardly concerned me. After all, it wasn’t my wedding. I was truly grateful for the opportunity to be part of such a special occasion, with only one reservation: I refused to buy a new dress. Since I couldn’t bring my favorite black number, I had packed a dark gray sleeveless dress made of a silk polyester blend that was practically wrinkle-free and easy to transport in a suitcase. A short black evening jacket with feathery frill on the collar would keep me warm. I could get away with the jacket because I’d only wear it traveling to and from the wedding and because it also served as accessory to matching clutch purse and shoes. The gray dress, however, was dangerously close to black. I couldn’t play dumb after Marián’s debriefing; I was deliberately taking the risk of being snubbed a wardrobe subversive.
Miguel chauffeured his mother, grandmother, Marián and I from Madrid to Gijón. One hour into the six-hour drive, my ears were already buzzing from all the high-pitched cackling of voices and incessant ringing of mobile phones. Miguel and his mother had to run the family business from the car because we were traveling on a Thursday. Hearing the groom’s mother complain about the wedding date, which was set for a Friday, I worried even more that my choice of dress would cause a scandal in such proper society; the bride’s father had won a hunting lottery that began on Saturday and which the patriarch wouldn’t miss under any circumstances, not even for his daughter’s wedding. Learning that the bride had forbidden everyone from shouting the traditional “que viva los novios!” at the reception and also from showering the newlyweds with the traditional rice and dried garbanzo beans – I imagined the hunting party to be of the genteel variety.
“Pity about the rice and beans,” I told Marián, “throw in a piece of ham and you’d have a tasty cocido madrileño.” Instead, the bride had promised guests rose petals after the ceremony, but as the laws of physics and gravity dictate, a flimsy petal would not be nearly as ballistic as a handful of rice or a few hard garbanzos and would therefore lack the enthusiasm of an earnest congratulatory pelt.
Adding to my concern was the careful planning of the wedding’s fashion police. Some diligent lieutenant of fine grooming had coordinated hairdresser appointments for all the women in the entourage. Back in Miami, Marián had extended the courtesy to me, and at 5 euros for a wash and blow, I happily accepted, even though I knew that I wouldn’t – not even for my own wedding – give up the therapeutic routine of an afternoon nap, which along with yoga is part of my daily practice at home. Plopping my head on a pillow would make a mess of any hairdresser’s meticulous touch, but the effort wouldn’t be in vain; I’d simply repair any damage with a quick mousse and fluff and dash off to the ceremony.
I HAD PLANNED TO SPEND THE WEDDING DAY RATHER LEISURELY, exploring the city by myself, stopping for a light nibble and ending at the hairdresser’s, with just enough time, I calculated, for that compulsory afternoon nap. But Marián caught up with me early in the morning when I was just about to walk out of the hotel lobby. “Por favor,” she begged me, “get me out of here!” She needed to spend the day as far away as possible from the frazzled mother-in-law and tense atmosphere of the hotel, which was riddled with relatives.
Wandering aimlessly near the beach and the wharf, we spent the morning with no greater stress than seeking shelter from the many brief, intense cold spurts of rain that fell on Gijón that day. During one of those spells of rain, we took cover in the Sidrería Ca Pachu. Hungry and soaked, we decided to stay for refreshment and a bite to eat.
Sidra is fermented apple cider, a specialty of this region in Northern Spain, which is covered in green, rolling hills and blessed with fertile soil. The drink must be poured from a distance of about two to three feet from above the glass to encourage natural carbonation. A good cider server is trained in the art, pouring only two or three ounces without spilling a drop. Served any other way, the cider would go flat immediately. A good cider drinker enjoys a few sips at a time while the light brown liquid remains slightly frothy in its temporary effervescence. Soft and dry, pleasant on the palate and redolent of the most earthy, delicious apples, sidra is not only delicious, but also doubles as a soporific.
Marián and I ordered half a platter of artisanal cheeses and cured meats, which was accompanied with a complimentary tapa of fresh, crusty bread smothered in the local queso de cabrales, a rich, creamy cross between goat and blue cheese. The so-called half-portion was so generous, however, that we called Miguel to help us finish the meal. Before we knew it, ten men from the wedding party had walked over from the hotel, except for the groom. They had neither hairdresser appointments nor the need to fuss over clothes. Their eyelids were hanging in boredom, but their mood soon lightened, as each one took turns practicing the art of pouring cider over an empty wooden barrel that was designed specifically for amateurs who invariably miss the edge of the glass tumbler. Whatever wasn’t spilled into the barrel was consumed quickly so that the next self-proclaimed expert could start a new round.
I looked at my watch. We were late for our appointment! Marián ran over to the hairdresser’s, which was located just a few storefronts down the road. “Not to worry,” she told me upon her return. The hairdressers had taken more than two hours to fit the groom’s mother with the traditional flat comb of the madrina. Grandmother was running late, her coiffing a works in progress. Not to worry? Really? The clock was ticking, eating away at the afternoon. I thought about the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room, the soft pillows and the fresh sheets. Damn! What with my gray dress and the black jacket, if I finagled my way out of the appointment, I’d be one step closer to earning the title of a discourteous American.
AS THE HAIRDRESSER WASHED MY HAIR, I questioned why fate was tempting me with everything needed to relax into slumber – a good soaking in rainy weather, a hefty snack, sidra and now this, a scalp massage – when I would, in all likelihood, have to skip my siesta. But I still had hope for a contingency plan. Marían had short hair and even though her hairdresser was in the process of putting a few threads of it in large, wide curlers, I estimated that we would be done at about the same time. In spite of its length, my hair could be swiftly styled in a twenty-minute wash and blow.
But just like fast food, which was a relatively new phenomenon in Spain, a quick wash and blow seemed like another American invention and would simply not do for a stately wedding. How naïve of me to think otherwise! The hairdresser patted my hair with a towel, combed out an unruly knot and then opened a drawer full of medium-sized rollers. I gripped the armrest. My pale, weary face stared back at me from the mirror, begging for help. I was trapped!
With slow, painstaking gestures, she took one roller out of the drawer, then another and yet another, until my all my tresses were wound up, my entire head full of the bright green plastic cylinders. Like a prisoner trudging to the scaffold, shoulders hunched in surrender, I walked over to the heating lamp and sat next to Marián, who was hiding behind a tabloid, breezing through its pages. Plunk went the lamp over my head and soon a steady stream of warm, sleep-inducing air surrounded me. For a moment, I counted my blessings. Finally! An opportunity to snooze!
But I soon discovered that being stuck in an upright, perpendicular position with the lamp pressing on my head like a tight helmet made it impossible for me to dip my neck and nod. And in spite of the lulling heat, the noise produced by the airflow overtook my sense of hearing. Marían, whom I could barely see out of the corner of my eye, addressed me a few times during the eternal spell of my coiffure, but since I couldn’t turn my head or hear a word she was saying, I only managed to reply with a frozen smile.
THE CHURCH WAS SMALL, in spite of the great sartorial anxiety associated with the wedding. As the guests gathered in front of its humble stone façade, the groom’s mother approached me, her madrina comb sticking straight up, forcing her to walk a bit stiffly but with excellent posture. “Please take some photographs of our side of the family,” she begged, “they hired a professional photographer for the ceremony, but no one to shoot the reception!” This request was a blessing in disguise, because it gave me an opportunity to reconnoiter the crowd without being too obvious. I could rate each and every hairdo sported by guests through my camera’s viewfinder.
The fashion police must surely have been pleased. Everyone was groomed to a T. Grandmother looked stunning; the hairdresser had done a great job, even though she didn’t have very much hair. Marián’s style however, was lovely as always, but exactly the same, and as for me – I had never felt so publicly self-conscious of having a bad hair day. Not only was my hair exactly the same, it looked worse than usual.
Scanning for newly arriving guests, I spotted one of the secretaries from the family business. “Brilliant,” I thought, “Why didn’t I think of that?” She was wearing her hair brushed away from the forehead, tied in a bun just behind the crown of her head. The bun, of course! So simple, elegant and low-maintenance; the all-occasion, anti-frivolous, rescue-from-disaster sophisticated up-do! Click went the shutter in admiration of the practical mind behind the pretty brow.
I followed the other guests into the church, meekly resigned to my botched hair, but content at the final possibility of a stolen moment of bliss during the ceremony – a catnap somewhere between the sermon and communion. I tried to sit in one of the pews close to the entrance, but Marián gestured me pleadingly over to a spot near the altar. Then Cayetana put her arm around mine and we walked toward Marián.
I had met Cayetana the night before at dinner and was instantly attracted to her thick castizo accent and self-confident style of conversation, as if every word she spoke was gospel, the world according to Cayetana. She seemed younger than her sixty-something years, in spite of laugh lines banking eyes that had seen more than enough to justify her zest for life. And even though she was impeccably dressed, when she opened her mouth a liberated, worldly spirit spoke through the trappings of appearance. “I’ve never been married,” she admitted, extending her arm out and flicking a cigarette held between two fingers. “I lived in Madrid and my boyfriend lived in Barcelona. We were together for 35 years until he had a heart attack. It was the perfect relationship!”
Soon the priest’s monotone drone, punctuated with interludes of a soprano’s angelic voice, began to affect me. But I couldn’t doze off until that part of the service where we would have at least 15 minutes to warm up the pews with our backsides; the first part of the ceremony required standing and kneeling at intervals. After the first kneeling, Cayetana leaned over and whispered in my ear: “We’re in for it! God damn it, a full catholic service! I’m not kneeling. You know, arthritis. Besides, it’ll wrinkle my outfit.” Unfortunately the polyester threads in my dress and my younger skeletal frame prevented me from using the same excuse. Looking straight ahead at the altar, my eyes widened in the sudden realization that Cayetana’s amusing irreverence would actually prevent me from sleeping. I prayed sincerely that God would not only bless the couple, but also keep Cayetana’s mouth shut until after the ceremony. Otherwise, yes, I’d definitely be in for it.
Finally the priest started his sermon on the virtues of married life. I placed my palms upright on my lap in meditation position and sought some point on which to focus my attention in the sparsely decorated nave -- a statue of a saint or a candle perhaps -- until my eyes finally rested on a plaster cherub winking at me from above. Lulled by the priest’s monotone, I started to fade into the delicious realm of half-sleep, eyelids closing discreetly.
Suddenly a sharp thwack on my right ribcage jolted me out of my reverie. “Maria!” exclaimed Marián as her elbow retracted under her shawl. “What?” I whispered, “I’m doing yoga!” Turning my head, I could see she was biting her lips, withholding a smile. “Oh no,” I thought silently, “please, please don’t start laughing.” Then Cayetana leaned over and congratulated me. “Cariño, you really pulled it off, you looked enthralled. I can’t blame you, I’m also bored to high heaven.” I bowed my head and chuckled softly. Then a stern “shh!” came out of Marián’s mouth, which was enough to turn my chuckling into an uncontrollable desire to laugh out loud, a desire heightened because it was all the more contained. Before I could burst, my shoulders started to jitter, making my personal comedy hour visibly evident to the guests sitting behind me. I considered leaving the premises, but the exit was too distant and even the slightest stirring during the most solemn part of the mass would’ve been truly disgraceful. I foresaw the headline in the paper: hysterical American storms out of socialite’s wedding.
I questioned Marián, my eyebrows knotted in vexation. “You see? Now I really have to practice yoga,” I managed to whisper in between giggles. Marián fixed her gaze on the altar, not daring even for a moment to look at me. Cayetana was avoiding my eyes as well, smiling ear to ear. I was trapped in this provincial church, alone in what had the potential to be the ceremony’s finest moment of public embarrassment. Leaning my face into the palm of my hand, I started inhaling deeply and silently repeating the mantra “breathe, breathe, breathe.” Gradually, the spasms of this much-needed comic relief subsided and the last tears of joy flowed down my cheeks.
NO SOONER DID I ARRIVE AT THE RECEPTION, one of Miguel's aunts walked up to me with an enormous platter of thinly-sliced jamón serrano, imploring me to try this Spanish staple as if I had just stepped off the airplane. “But, this afternoon …” I tried to say while a rolled up piece of cured ham went into my mouth. Then the madrina pulled me over to the elegant staircase of the grand plantation house. “How about a group shot?” And there they all stood – each member of the wedding party still neatly put together. Blooming pink and blue hydrangeas framed the shot; tall French windows and the superbly decorated ballroom served as background.
After cake and cava, the madrina ripped off her comb and everyone’s hair was beginning to look human. Even grandmother looked slightly disheveled after a few minutes of dancing. Not only did guests holler “long live the newlyweds,” the bride herself burst into traditional Asturian songs with many of the older guests in a heartwarming show of camaraderie among three generations. So joyful was their singing, that I borrowed Miguel’s cell phone to share the inspired moment with my parents, who were just finishing breakfast across the Atlantic.
My long yearned-for sleep would have to wait. This was part of the wedding I wouldn’t miss, not even for a siesta.