Four days after we walked down the aisle for the first time, my wife Antoinette and I cruised off on our honeymoon to Cozumel, Mexico. On our second night, we found ourselves sitting in a theater full of our fellow passengers as contestants on a knockoff version of the ’60s game show, The Newlywed Game.
The first question was easy — “Where was your first date?”— but they devolved quickly: Which in-law would you least like to be stuck on a deserted island with? Which movie best describes your love life? What is your husband’s most annoying habit?
We got every question correct, and every answer was filled with resentment. Our first date was a 1930s diner outing at Quintessence, a Cap City landmark. We both deemed our love life to be akin to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and my wife offered three things she despised about me: how I wiped my nose with my finger, my nail munching, and how I was overall a neurotic nebbish.
We were suffering from the fallout of the past year: everything leading to what would be our first wedding ceremony. I didn’t deal well with change, and a wedding changes everything. It changes your family structure, changes how to organize finances. I was fiercely independent, and I didn’t have faith I could care for anyone else. But Antoinette always believed in me, and, somehow, every time I struggled with moving forward in our relationship, and every time I struggled with moving forward in life, Antoinette pushed me, and together we got through.
“Fill in the blank,” the Drew Carey-looking cruise director said to me. “The ugliest thing about my wife is ____.”
“Her tones,” I said, straight-faced. The host froze up, devoid of one-liners. We won, obviously.
Antoinette and I met in April 2009, after the lead organizer of the mentoring program I volunteered for asked me to pick up the new mentor, a Brooklynite studying Africana studies and communications at SUNY Albany, speeding toward her bachelor’s in three years.
We cruised through the city in my blue Saturn as I fumbled over icebreakers: Where’re you from? What’re you studying?
Luckily for me, Antoinette was more skilled at the conversation thing. She dug through my CDs, pointing out that she also loved Maxwell and Amy Winehouse.
From then on, every week we drove around discussing race and religion and swapping book recommendations. I learned that, right before we met, Antoinette had left her ex-fiancé. To mark a new beginning, she pierced her nose and went in for the big chop, cutting off any chemically treated hair, and rocked an afro puff. I adored her positive energy, so when she mentioned she wanted to get her driver’s license, I volunteered my car for practice.
We spent afternoons circling parking lots and gently bumping cars while parallel parking. When she scored her license, I came up with more excuses to hang out. After six months of being friends, she dropped the bomb, asking me via text: “Do you like me?” My hands shaking, I typed “yes.”
Soon, I introduced her to my small, close-knit Ashkenazi Jewish family, and she welcomed me into her large but distant Nigerian and Jamaican crew. I loved how close she was to her mom, how she planned to have an intergenerational household. She appreciated how I was best friends/nearly twins with my little sister, how my big sister and her husband set my #couplegoals. Together we cooked salt fish latkes.
When Antoinette and I met, I was 28 and three years sober. I had spent most of my early 20s dropping in and out of college, spending time behind the locked double doors of St. Peter’s Hospital detox unit, failing out of their rehab. In the first few years of my sobriety, I spent my days chilling on the stoop outside 12-step meetings on the corner of Lexington, working an entry-level respite position at a local social work agency.
I liked my life in early recovery. I liked the room I rented in a two-bedroom on Morris St. Liked making meetings whenever I wanted. Liked volunteering to make myself feel good. My life felt safe. But four years after we started dating, Antoinette was tired of my inertia. She wanted marriage, a house, and a family (with seven kids, she used to joke).
As terrified of change as I was, I feared losing her more. I stalled for another year, but I finally popped the question over a bucket of seafood in a booth at our favorite Times Square eatery, Bubba Gump’s.
Then I talked her into delaying the ceremony another year.
I knew I loved and adored her, but I didn’t have faith in myself. I had never envisioned a future for me that involved anything more than hitting up meetings and remaining stagnant at the same social work agency. Starting a family felt unfathomable. During my hazy years, I stopped attempting to get sober because I figured I would just relapse. Once sober, I wouldn’t push myself to take any additional risks — whether it be a better job or a marriage — expecting that I’d mess everything up. Proposing was terrifying, but, beneath my distress, I knew a life with Antoinette was what was best for me. I just feared it wasn’t best for her.
I remember reading a study that said the more you spend on your wedding, the more likely it will end in divorce. Every time Antoinette brought up ideas for venues, my mind spiraled. Neither of us made tons of money and neither was great at saving. To me, spending excessively on a wedding made no sense, but to Antoinette, money could always be made and was to be enjoyed. The tradition meant a lot to her so she wanted the perfect wedding ceremony, but, in truth, it probably meant more to me. A wedding made things absolute. I would either succeed at being a good partner forever or destroy her life. The more we spent, the more I felt the pressure mounting. Still, I pushed myself to brave forward with whatever Antoinette wished for.
To afford the wedding, I focused on our day-to-day bills — rent, car insurance, internet, groceries — while Antoinette saved for the ceremony. We quickly put a deposit down on the fourth floor of the New York State Museum, claiming Antoinette’s dream location. The setting included a sick view of the Empire State Plaza and Capitol building. It was the perfect Albany landmark for a romance that bloomed across its streets.
The wedding was scheduled for a Sunday because we kinda-sorta kept Shabbat, and I used the odd day as leverage to haggle down prices. We locked in Mallozzi’s, one of the capital’s ritziest caterers, as well as DJ Trumastr, Albany’s hottest DJ, who prepped a setlist consisting of Paul Simon, Lynxxx, and Beres Hammond, representing our diverse backgrounds. The affair came out to $26,112.86.
To be clear, we didn’t pay it all ourselves. Her dad handled the photographer and the balance for the venue, and her mom took care of the honeymoon and wedding dress, and she financed transportation for nearly her entire extended family (after the wedding, my parents gifted us a $10,000 check, to start our life together — that promptly went toward debt). The more our family invested in our stock, the more I panicked it would all go belly up.
Four months before our scheduled wedding date, my fears of failure turned catastrophic as my family fell into disarray.
Just weeks before my youngest sister’s wedding — which I already struggled with because it felt like our relationship was changing — my brother-in-law walked out on my older sister. He had been my role model, my biggest male influence. He gave me my first beer, taught me all his comedy routines. I told myself that if my big sister’s marriage went sour, my relationship with Antoinette would, too.
I was unable to send the wedding invites. Every time I postponed, Antoinette grew more frustrated, to the point where we were sleeping in separate rooms. I broke up with her, three times, assuring myself she’d be better off without me, but she continued to talk me into staying. Two months before the ceremony, I dropped the invites into the mailbox, but the stabbing thoughts intensified. I had dreams of her happy with someone else, starting a family with a guy who wasn’t as mentally ill as I was. I had nightmares of us getting married, having kids, then me turning into my brother-in-law, leaving the family I loved to suffer the repercussions. A week before the ceremony, I broke up with her for the final time, promising myself I wouldn’t budge.
Tears dampening her face, Antoinette smooshed her cheek into mine and whispered, “Just be with me for one day. Not all the future. Just a day.”
At that moment, I decided to stay. To give it my best shot, just for that day. I tried to tell myself that I wasn’t my family, that I wasn’t the person I used to be. I decided I didn’t like myself at that moment, but I wanted to get better. I wanted to be the best person I could be, and the best person I could be was beside Antoinette, supporting her and celebrating her and growing with her.
The day of the wedding, Antoinette half-expected I wouldn’t show. Even though we did the I-dos, she despised me for what I put her through, and I was frustrated with her for not having empathy during my crash. We threw the greatest party most of our guests had ever been to — impressing even my Nigerian ambassador father-in-law — but every kiss was strained. We posed for pictures, smiling before the carousel, but the emotions were staged. When we cruised off on our Newlywed Game-knockoff honeymoon, we were barely speaking.
In the months that followed, we dedicated ourselves to couples therapy, determined to make our relationship work. We both realized that we struggled with communicating: Antoinette often shut down, while I turned overly emotional. We had to learn new ways to speak to each other. We focused on each other’s strengths, recognizing that we each brought something special to the table that the other lacked. I took responsibility for spiraling out of control, nearly ruining our wedding, and she worked to be empathetic to my anxiety. I realized how desperately I wanted her to attain her every dream and how blessed I was that she chose me to be her partner in achieving them; she believed in me, and I began to believe in me, too.
For over a year, Antoinette had been meeting with our rabbi, taking classes, attending shul, moving toward converting to Judaism. We had always planned to have a second, intimate religious wedding after she formally converted. And so six months after the first wedding, my wife dunked herself into the mikvah, a ritual bath, completing the process, and we held a small ceremony in our Albany temple, costing $2,618: enough to rent the social hall, hire a klezmer band, contract a videographer, borrow a chuppah, and buy a crap ton of lox, bagels, and kugel.
The first wedding, we were trying to impress people, but this second wedding, we weren’t trying to show off — we just wanted to feed friends and family yummy food and spin in circles of joy. We didn’t even send invites. Instead, we handed out flyers and plastered them online, keeping the ceremony open to anyone who wanted to join.
I took pride in planning and paying for the second ceremony myself. Though the event was much cheaper, I didn’t settle for anything. The food was on point. So were our outfits. It felt like victory that every dollar spent was my own — I was investing in our future.
Under the chuppah, I crunched the glass and we jumped the broom. When we leaped, we did it together. The community lifted us aloft in chairs, and, as we floated above the crowd, each grasping the napkin connecting us, I realized I could do it. I could handle life’s changes. I could grow. My wife had been with me when I was at my lowest. I knew I’d do the same for her. We’d survived one of our toughest hurdles, and I had faith we could get through more. I was ready. Ready to create a home, ready to start a family, with faith, with Antoinette.