A contrarian is, “someone who automatically tends to take the opposite point of view from the person to whom they're speaking, or to disagree with society at large out of a sort of knee-jerk reflex.”
I can see how that might annoy some people. But it’s meant to be about balance and going without what other's constantly covet.
I rode to Saint Louis with Steve, my best friend at the time, and he was my best friend at the time because our friendship has never really changed and we were both going to a wedding without dates. Still can’t tell if people are constantly changing or if we’re always the same, but with Steve it doesn’t matter. I’m a Jack and he’s an Ace -- two spades.
“You realize we’ve known each other for thirteen years,” he told me after a short stretch of silence.
“That’s almost half our lives,” I decided.
We went a while without talking, but I occasionally pointed out billboards to see what his reaction would be to each.
"Look at that," I'd say.
"It's a billboard," he'd say.
“Can you believe Bill is getting married?” He asked after another hush.
“Not really,” I shrugged. “But mostly because marriage is stupid.”
"Secular marriage," he agreed, longingly.
I found a little gummy candy in my bag, waited until we stopped for gas, then popped it in my mouth. It tasted a bit like hash and the road seemed to move underneath us a bit faster after that. Soon we were stopped in Columbia for some reason.
“Why are we here?” I asked.
“To visit Luke and get our tuxes,” Steve revealed. “Like I said earlier.”
Luke welcomed us to see his four-day-old newborn. Steve cooed over it while I slunk in the corner with a stupid haircut watching the dog try over and over to lick the baby’s red, sleeping face. The new parents, Luke and his wife, had puffy eyes and big smiles in exchange for their previous night’s effort.
I examined the bookshelf in the freshly vacuumed living room. The Big Book of Baby Names was shoved in next to the Variational Principles for Second-order Differential Equations. Damn. Steve and Luke talked about how small baby hands are and I wrestled with the dog. It felt like we were there for a long time.
“Ugh, I wish we’d gotten the tuxes first,” Steve said as we pulled into the mall parking lot.
“It’ll go quickly,” I assured him, my eyes wild and euphoric.
And it mostly did.
“Are your clothes… like, really big?” Steve asked from the next stall.
We were trying the tuxes on, per his suggestion. I got the pants on and they were fine, but tight and a little short. The shirt was broader than I could ever be, but the vest only went to my bellybutton.
“Kinda,” I conceded.
He popped in through the curtain and handed me a different shirt. I switched him, but kept the vest and tried it again.
“I think this is your vest, too” He said a bit later. “And these might be your pants.”
We came out of our little rooms and looked at each other. His pants were bunched around the ankles and my socks were showing a little. He’d pulled the vest together to show me that it wouldn’t even wrap around him, so we checked the bags. The names were right, but the tuxes were obviously switched.
We paid the lady at the counter and left without making a deal out of it all, because whatever.
Another friend of ours, Lewis, had gotten us all a room at the Quality Inn Florissant, which is in East Saint Louis.
As we entered, Steve leaned toward me and made a comment: we were the only white people in line. I looked around to verify this although it didn’t matter. He was right. And the fact that he even felt the need to point it out explains middle-America completely.
“This is where the wedding party is staying?” I asked with my eyebrows raised.
“Bill said they have a wing blocked off for us,” Lewis shrugged.
“Can Quality Inns’ have wings?” Steve joked. The joke concerns the quality of the inn, in case you’ve never been, they aren’t very nice.
By the time everyone got up to the room and settled themselves, it was time to get dressed and get going to the wedding rehearsal.
The Groomsmen were split down the middle: four from Kansas City and four from Saint Louis. Both sides met for basically the first time at the bachelor party, and we met again in dressy clothes on a plantation outside the city, waiting for the Groom.
“That’s Bill’s car,” pointed Steve.
“There’s no way he beat us here,” said someone.
“Who’s Bill?” said an STL guy.
“He’s the guy who’d be late to his own wedding,” said Lewis.
Someone else made a comment. There were too many of us.
Everyone huddled in the main house until Bill and his fiancée finally arrived. The air exploded with greetings and jokes, handshakes and hellos. People are so cloying and there were too many characters, so I stopped trying to play and paid the wedding planner as much attention as I could. She was red in the face before she even began roll call.
“This isn’t her first wedding,” Brandon guessed.
“Please do not drink before the wedding,” she disclaimed near the beginning of her address. There were scoffs. “I’m serious. We need you cooperative. There won’t be alcohol allowed on the property until after the ceremony.”
I stopped listening to her after that and just watched everyone else. I’d take my cues from what they did.
The rehearsal dinner had an open bar so I had three shots, a beer, two whiskey sours and fell down a lot. Near the end I slipped and fell hard enough for people to laugh and applaud. I did it a second time on purpose before blacking out. There wasn’t laughter that time.
It was either a groan or a fart that roused our room. And after we were awake there was a lot of both from everyone. The air was as think as a snore and you can’t open the windows to most hotel rooms, so we accepted the pollution. Steve was really the only one to move about painlessly, but he still added to the din.
“Get up and let’s get breakfast,” Steve commanded.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” I told him, and I lagged behind to show him how important it was for me to be an individual. A contrarian without a cause.
hen I got down to the lobby, the waffle machine was shut down, so I went outside and sat by a tree to write this terrible speech (skip this part if you are not Bill):
“Hey, I’m Stephan. (Clear throat)”
That’s actually how it started.
“Bill and I have known each other for about thirteen years. And we’ve been friends for the past twelve. (Nervous laugh). One of the first things we ever bonded over was the Marvel Comics Event known as the Civil War, even though we were both on opposite sides.
“Apparently, before high school he was called Will. By everyone. And after high school, too, in college and now. Either way, we all know the same guy: unserious yet supportive and honest once he’s done pulling your leg.
“It’s very hard for me – a friend who has been there for the immaturities and shenanigans of both high school and college; a spectrum that goes from lightsaber battles in K-Mart to destroying bathrooms on the hill – it’s hard for me to believe that Bill is taking that ultimate step into adulthood, until I see him and Kara together. Then it’s just unbelievable that he got so lucky.
“That they both did, actually.
“It’s obvious why Kara is good for Bill, just look at how well he’s behaved today. But he’s also great teammate to have no matter what the game is, and I think you both are going to make this marriage thing look easy. You’ve done a great job so far, and I know it doesn’t mean a lot coming from a peer, but I’m proud of you guys.
“Here’s to the Bride and Groom. (Drink beverage and sink back into the crowd).”
It took me an hour to write all of that and to practice it a few times, then I walked inside. Everyone was still huddled in the breakfast area, where the news was on all the televisions. A police officer had been shot that morning in Saint Louis and five were killed in Dallas. Everyone debated on how best to stop such madness and who’s lives were most in danger, or most valuable, or something.
“Even if guns aren’t one hundred percent contingent in all this… can’t we admit that less of them wouldn’t hurt?” I tried.
“What did guns ever do?” Steve asked.
Well, when you phrase it like that, “Nothing.” But we’ve outlawed murder, and we can’t go so far as to outlaw people, so it seems like guns are a good middle ground to at least apply further regulation. In the end, I don't have the answers so I'm without an opinion.
“It’s easier to regulate guns, though.” Lewis said. “People are unpredictable.”
And that’s exactly my difficulty with marriage. Both people must give themselves to this thing which is greater than them both – like society. And not fifty/fifty, either. Both people need to put in it one hundred percent and that’s impossible to measure or regulate or guarantee. People are transient and fickle. How could anyone trust another human with their life?
“Where were you?” Lew asked me.
“Writing my speech, just in case.”
“Bill already told me that we don’t have to,” he put his hands up. “I told you that last night.”
“Oh,” I blinked. “That’s okay because I really wanted to know how I felt about it all anyway, you know? Like, what would I say in support of them when I don’t really agree? – with marriage in general, I mean. The only way I can do that is by writing it down, so it’s good.”
There wasn’t anything left to discuss. We all agreed that there was much for us to do, so we tossed our plates of unfinished food and found the elevator to our room.
The news stayed on the televisions even after we left.
Someone passed around Tennessee Honey while we got ready for the wedding. At the plantation a STL guy passed some Fireball in the women’s restroom. These drinks combined were not enough to phase anyone, but somehow the ceremony was more emotional than I had expected. Bill didn’t look weird or nervous, and he didn’t mess up, either.
The priest said some things about how loving each other wasn’t enough without God in there, too. There was a glazed look in the eyes of the crowd.
He also compared the antiquated, arranged marriages in his homeland to our modern, secular bullshit.
Then he said this: “A young man asked his elder how he’d become so successful, and the elder said, ‘two words: right decisions.’ And when the young man asked, ‘how do you know what the right decisions are?’ the elder said, ‘one word: experience.’”
The crowd was pretty silent, not understanding the connection to marriage at this point.
“And when the young man asked, ‘how does one gain experience?’ the elder replied, ‘two words: wrong decisions.”
This parable tied into the homily same as the other seemingly unrelated stories: that humans aren’t perfect and to expect perfection out of a marriage is a false start. He really hammered this home and at the end he even said to the bride and groom: “Please stay together.”
Everyone laughed it off, including the Bride’s divorced parents.
All of this seemed to happen around the Bride and Groom, who stared at each other throughout it all and performed the rest of the ceremony with a quickness, go us all into the reception hall with little showmanship and the best man was making his toast before I had my first drink. He nearly forgot to raise his glass at the end, shaking a bit from the strain of being so real in front of a crowd, but it was a better speech than I had written or even could write, which was a relief. The entire wedding would have gone just fine without me there.
The room with the buffet sported a healthy, open bar.
Room 432 rubbed its crusty eyes and slowly came to life, groaning and sore. Four of us shared the two beds and one slept on the floor. Lewis farted loudly to no laughter or comment, and eventually everyone began moving busily to the beat. Something by John Williams played. People used the restroom to various effect. I popped a red and white pill out of the CVS “extra strength pain relief tablet” travel-cylinder I’d brought, inspected it for no reason, and dropped it into my mouth after brushing out the vomit taste. Steve put his tux in its bag one piece at a time, cufflinks in the jacket pocket, shoes in the plastic baggie. Lewis was somehow constantly getting dressed, and I don’t remember seeing him pack anything, but in a wordless and aimless team effort toward the common goal of getting home, we all managed to have our things packed and were ready to leave at check-out time – a sharp and bright eleven o’clock.
“Hug me better than that,” Lewis urged me in the parking lot. The sun was out and it was hot, so I did as he said for the sake of expedience (and he’s a good hugger).
We were all clustered awkwardly and without anything to say under the only shade available, not angry or jaded, just tired and spent. I wondered how Steve knew to park here the previous night to avoid the morning sun, or if he’d done it on purpose, or if he’d even driven.
“What have we learned?” I asked.
“Nothing,” said someone.
We all trudged toward car doors and I felt the medicine take effect, activating an aftershock maybe with the leftover alcohol, or just because of the surreal and shocking wedding weekend, I felt weird and incapable of expressing myself. It had been a beautiful and, frankly, humbling experience because I’m so susceptible to drugs, and I don’t mean just weed and alcohol, love and lust, tobacco, caffeine, sugar, or video games. I mean, all of it. I really like to do a lot of something, then drop it.
“What do you think Steve?” I asked.
“All of it…?” I asked.
He paused to think of something random and said, “Everything.” Then he put his hand on mine as a joke and I pulled away, but felt better.
Bill called us an hour into our drive back toward Kansas City and Steve answered.
The earth fell out beneath me and I pitched my seat back to get some distance from the red orb closing around my head, but it was too late. The memory engulfed me and I hadn’t blacked out the night before until just after a red club scene. I bumbled around because drinking lots of alcohol is hilarious and popular. I’d just bought way too many shots for people who weren’t feeling it anyway and Bill asked me to recite the speech I’d written but hadn’t read at his wedding reception.
There hadn’t been space or time for it, I reasoned, and I’d never been properly notified except by Lewis who had phoned me and tried and persisted to get me to write a skit with him and I said I would and I never did because I’m running around so fast all the time on my own volition and it’s no one else’s fault – but it’s not something I’m adding to my list of quits, because it persists into things like this, and if I went too slow I’d never write, I’d only have time for a house and wife, a job and a grave.
So anyway, Bill prodded me about the speech and it hurt more than he meant it to if he meant it at all. My prankster friend actually felt more mature than me come the wedding day, and it helped me strut up the aisle without stumbling. He’s an adept who pretends to be average, just like all of my friends. At the end of the night, after several failed attempts at reciting the speech and finishing off the shots, I stood in the street by myself and nothing else happened.
A phone appeared from the left, in Steve’s hand.
Bill’s voice came on and he didn’t sound peevish or bitter, just a bit new and distant. I don’t remember anything I said to him because I didn’t say anything memorable. He told me to take it easy or something.
I didn’t drink or smoke in high school – none of us really did except for once or twice, but I know my reasoning was the most absurd:
It was popular. Everyone was doing it.
And that seemed like enough people to be doing a certain thing, regardless of its moral or legal ramifications. I had a weird high-horsed, non-interest in being like other people even if I had to go out of my way – but only about specific things. I still followed the buzz on all media, and couldn’t keep myself from embracing the mass migration to the internet of things. But I’ve always been on the lookout for agreements to opt out of and I learned what they were just as fast and hard in St. Louis, Missouri as I did in California and Australia.
I'm not saying I'm done with drinking, but I'm certainly bored of it and so many other things. There's no point in talking down on it all, though. I'll just do without it.
Negative space truly helps you arrange the pieces you’re given properly on the page. All year I’ve been beaten over the head with the idea of letting go, cutting back, less is more – and that it being a cliché doesn’t make it incorrect.
But mostly, it’s just another opportunity for me to be contrary.