ALAN SWYER - MEMORABLE
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel 'The Beard' was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
"I've been thinking about the wedding," Clementine said over a dinner of coconut soup, string beans, and duck larb on a chilly February evening at their favorite Thai restaurant in Brooklyn.
"Which means?" asked Geller.
"I'd really like it to be memorable."
"By doing it in the nude? On horseback? In scuba gear?"
"On top of a mountain."
"Vesuvius? The Matterhorn? Kilimanjaro?"
"At my family's ski house."
"In the snow?"
"In July, silly."
"Aren't there bugs?"
"Mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, plus man-eating black flies. A little nature won't kill you."
"Define a little?"
"You make it sound like we're so different."
"Your ancestors arrived at Plymouth Rock, right? Then stayed."
"After searching in vain for a deli would have hightailed it to New York."
"Proudly. But if it's a mountaintop you want, Vermont it is."
That he was soon to marry someone named Clementine, who attended a country day school and Wellesley, had cousins named Francesca and Daniela, plus friends called Patience, Prudence, and Maisie, was a nonstop source of both amusement and amazement for Geller. His often-repeated joke to Clem (as she was known to her family), was that the two of them were not merely from different social and economic strata, but from different species.
Yet their bonds transcended lineage, upbringing, and religion. Despite a patrician sense of moral certitude that was inaccessible to Geller, Clementine had occasional flashes of insecurity – a feeling that she was inarticulate when in truth Geller considered her eloquent, plus a belief that she was unattractive, though Geller found her to be ravishing – that only he could soothe, at times with encouragement, at others with gentle teasing. Clementine, in turn, over time reduced the boulder on Geller's shoulder to a more manageable chip, transforming his Jersey pugnaciousness into a more socially acceptable form of skepticism.
Two-and-a-half years of living with Clementine had given Geller ample time to see the vast differences between her world and his. Old money, he came to understand, had little concern about status, which meant no flaunting. Thus her family's stately old home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, with its inconspicuously displayed Corot landscape, its tasteful Degas sculpture, and its Rauschenberg on a stairway, had an aging Ford and an even older Chevy station wagon parked in front, as opposed to the Corvettes, Escalades, and Lincoln Navigators to which people aspired in Geller's part of the world. Other contrasts were even more striking. At the Hotchkiss dinner table, alcohol was more prominent than edibles, but voices were never raised. Whereas, as Clementine quickly discovered, in the Geller household two things were always in excess: the amount of food and the decibel level.
Naively, Geller assumed that an outdoor wedding in a remote rustic setting would make preparations simple and stress-free. Instead Clementine dove in as if preparing for the invasion of Normandy, or the launch of the Voyager spacecraft.
Nothing, she was determined, would in any way be garish, lavish, or over-the-top. But with the goal being "memorable," everything – from the flowers (on which Geller had no opinion), the music (a Vermont band alternating between Sinatra and swing, rather than the Blues or vintage R&B he would have preferred), and the dinner (locally sourced chicken, plus a vegan option, rather than the short ribs, lasagna, or sushi he would have chosen), to the accommodations and brunch (crepes instead of his beloved dim sum) the morning after – was to be planned, prepped, and produced with native Vermont talent and ingredients.
With the wedding compounding Clementine's workload editing children's books, many of the activities she and Geller customarily shared – searching for new ethnic restaurants, biking on Saturday afternoons, collaborating on the New York Times crossword puzzles on Sunday mornings – wound up on hold.
When asked for opinions, Geller feigned interest as best he could. But in truth, as he acknowledged to an old basketball teammate named Joe Grillo, his responses were mainly "Yes, dear," or "Whatever you think is best."
Nevertheless, there were certain doubts Geller never succeeded in silencing. Could invitees from two totally different worlds peacefully coexist for an entire three-day weekend? Would there be fallout that instead of a minister or rabbi presiding, it would be an interior designer friend of Clementine's, whose marriage license was procured online?
Geller's misgivings were eased somewhat by his belief that precious few were likely to make the trek north on July 4th weekend. To his dismay, however, responses were overwhelmingly affirmative. Nearly everyone, it seemed, would be attending.
The sequence of who was to arrive, and when, was explained to Geller over a dinner in late May at an Ethiopian restaurant. Clementine and her family would be first to reach Vermont, followed two days later by the matron of honor, Clem's college roommate Anastasia, whose British-born husband, Nigel, would help with the heavy lifting while his wife provided sisterhood and moral support.
Next would be Geller himself, who would team with Nigel whenever and wherever manpower was required, plus his family, who would remain inconspicuous until Friday evening, which would also bring the arrival of others invited to the rehearsal dinner. As Geller understood it, on his side that meant his parents, his sister and brother, plus two sets of aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as Jack, his only living grandparent. On Clementine's, there would be two sets of aunts, uncles, and cousins, plus her grandfather Gavin, and of course Anastasia, and Nigel. Others arriving that day would be expected to fend for themselves when it came to meals.
After a seemingly endless stretch of scurrying, fretting, and sleepless nights for Clementine, during which Geller wrestled with a mixture of anticipation and foreboding, winter yielded to spring, then spring to summer. Hoping and praying that all her time and effort would forestall any bumps, hiccups, or woes, Clementine finally bade a tearful farewell to Geller, who assured her that because she was wonderful, so, too, would be the wedding. Then north she went with her family.
Alone, Geller spent non-working hours gorging on pizza while alternating between TV sports and a medley of Solomon Burke, Slim Harpo, and Nina Simone with the volume up, all the while resisting the impulse to intrude on Clementine by phone.
He did not have to wait long, however, for her to call him. "She's being impossible!" Clem stated the moment Geller answered.
"My mother. Mitzi."
"In what way?"
"Every way! She's trying to make it her wedding, not yours and mine."
"Want me to come up now?"
"And do what?"
"Drug her? Kidnap her? What's your father doing?"
"I'll come if you want."
"Actually, Anastasia left a message that she'll be here a day earlier than expected."
"Hopefully that'll help."
Any such hope was dashed the next afternoon when Geller got a call from an even more despondent Clementine. "You'll never believe this!" she said in an anguished whisper.
"Anastasia arrived in tears."
"Nigel dumped her."
"Give me that in English."
"Left her for a waiter from a Moroccan restaurant."
"Why are you speaking so softly?"
"Because she's in the next room crying."
"I'm coming up now."
"It might make her feel even worse. But there's one thing you can do."
"Tell me something to make me feel better."
"Well," said Geller, "it's hard to see how things can go further downhill."
"I hope and pray you're right!"
That evening, seeing Clementine's name come up again on caller ID, Geller immediately answered. "Any better?"
"It's absolutely cuckoo. While I'm trying to persuade her it's okay to be unattached, she's doing her best to convince me that marriage isn't a total nightmare."
"And your mother?"
"I'm doing everything I can to ignore her."
"I'm there if you want me."
"Of course I want you. But let's keep to the schedule."
On Friday, with ever-increasing trepidation at what awaited him in Vermont, Geller spent the entire trip north at the wheel, while around him his family argued about the air conditioning, the music, and the incessant demand for pee breaks.
His nerves jangled, his back stiff, and his head throbbing, Geller managed to get his passengers to the motel on the outskirts of Waterbury, Vermont, without committing murder, however justified. Then, after dutifully lugging suitcases belonging to his mother, sister, and grandfather, he carried in his own.
"Now what?" asked his mother once the family was checked in.
"I'm going to take a long walk on my lonesome before I kill someone," Geller replied.
No confrontation between the Israelis and the Palestinians was ever frostier than what took place when the Gellers arrived at the rehearsal dinner. While gazing at those assembled, which caused her blood to boil, Flo Geller was approached by Mitzi Hotchkiss.
Sensing trouble, Clementine pulled Geller aside. "What's going on?" she whispered.
"Ever heard the word parity?"
"Go on –"
"This was supposed to be close family."
"I begged my mother not to invite so many friends –"
"While also excluding my mother's –"
Before Clementine could utter another word, toward them stormed the mother in question. "We're leaving!" Flo Geller informed her son.
"Don't Mom me. Give me the keys."
Geller thought for a moment, then faced Clementine. "Let me drive 'em to the motel."
"Can I come?"
"The only room is on the roof. I'll be back in no time."
The moment Geller returned to the gathering, he was accosted by Clementine's mother. "Thank you for coming back."
"Mrs. Hotchkiss –"
"Mitzi. Look, I know things got off on the wrong foot –"
"You've got a keen eye for detail."
Before Mrs. Hotchkiss could reply, over scurried Clementine. "Mom, you need to start by apologizing."
"I've got this, darling," said her mother before turning again to Geller. "I need your help."
"There's only one problem," he replied.
"I'm a sportswriter, not a magician."
Taking Clementine's hand, Geller turned and started toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Mrs. Hotchkiss asked plaintively.
"Anywhere but here," said Clementine.
Settling into a booth at one of the rare Chinese restaurants in the area, the two escapees sighed.
"So other than that, Mrs. Lincoln," said Geller, "what did you think of the play?"
"And other than that, Mrs. Custer, how'd you like the West?"
When Clementine responded with a shrug, Geller continued. "Should we have brought Anastasia?"
"To further darken our evening with tears? I must have been delusional."
"But it is memorable."
"How can I go back to my parents' house tonight?"
"Going to the motel with your family won't exactly be peachy."
"Then let's elope."
"We can't do that to the people making the trip."
"So we'll shack up somewhere."
"On a holiday weekend? Everything's been booked for ages."
"If we call around, maybe we'll get lucky."
An hour-and-a-half later, Geller and Clementine pulled up at a charming bed & breakfast, where they were greeted at the door by an elderly woman who introduced herself as Gwen Adams.
"Out of curiosity," asked Clementine, "how do you happen to have a vacancy?"
"A couple from Philadelphia were afraid of the deluge."
"There's been no rain predicted for ages," said Clementine.
"Not according to the latest forecast. There's a storm due in from Canada. So is this a last minute vacation?"
"Not exactly," answered Geller.
"So what do we do?" Clementine asked once she and Geller were alone in their room.
"About the wedding? The storm? Or life itself?"
"All of the above."
"I'll hope, and you can pray."
"Next time I want something to be memorable?"
At dawn, with Clementine asleep beside him, Geller was lying awake in bed, listening to the ever-increasing rain outside, when his iPhone rang.
"Problems," said Joe Grillo once Geller grabbed it. "With what they're saying about the roads, Jenny says we're nuts to make the drive."
"I get it."
"But if it starts to clear –"
"How bad?" asked Clementine drowsily.
"Know how you were wondering if we'd have enough food?"
"I'd say that's no longer an issue."
Before Clementine could respond, Geller's phone rang again, and so did hers.
By the time Geller and Clementine reached the Hotchkiss ski house, there was no time for recriminations or revisiting the events of the previous evening – not with so many invitees calling in to report unforeseen detours and hazardous road conditions.
At first Clementine managed to remain stalwart. But once she heard that the photographer's house had flooded, and that the band was stranded in an area where the roads had washed out, she ducked into the room where Anastasia was camped out, joining her in tears.
Alternating between the TV, the radio, and the internet, Geller and Clementine's father tracked the progress of the storm, plus the devastation it was causing.
Then came an announcement that rendered everyone speechless: the governor had declared a state of emergency.
Entering the room where Clementine and Anastasia were weeping, Mitzi, too, curled up in a ball and cried, while in the living room Dub Hotchkiss opened a bottle of Glenlivet.
Spurning the offer of a glass of Scotch, Geller walked toward a picture window where, instead of a magnificent view of Vermont greenery, all he could see was rain, rain, and more rain.
1:30 that afternoon brought a glimmer of hope with a few rays of sunshine. Ever so slowly, the downpour diminished, yielding more and more sun.
By 2:45, with spirits rising, Clementine approached Geller. "Since it looks like we've got a chance –"
"Mind if we take a drive?"
"A little store in Stowe that sells novelty items."
"Sure they're open?"
Clementine nodded. "I just called."
As 5 o'clock neared, with the Vermont skies taking on a golden hue, it became clear that all was far from lost. Though some invitees had given up, and others had been turned away because of flooding, a surprising number were showing up.
Through it all, mishaps continued. Clementine's grandfather somehow convinced the people charged with driving him to ignore their GPS and follow his directions, which meant a search party was needed when they got hopelessly lost. Next it was discovered that Geller's grandfather had somehow been left behind in his motel room, necessitating a rescue.
But once all those who had made it to Vermont reached the mountaintop, the fact that the wedding was finally taking place superseded all obstacles and hurt feelings. That meant no one balked that it was Clementine's friend Reggie performing the service, and few recognized that Anastasia's tears were of sorrow as well as joy.
For all of Clementine's preparation, it was improvisation that ultimately carried the day. Photos and footage were taken by iPhones and Androids rather than by the missing photographer. In lieu of the no-show band, "Here Comes The Bride" was played, thanks to the trip to the novelty store, by a chorus of kazoos.
Late that evening, as he and Clementine headed north for a short honeymoon in Montreal, Geller found himself chuckling.
"What's so funny?" Clementine asked.
"Well, at least it was –"
"Don't!" interrupted Clementine.
"Don't you dare say memorable!"
Both of them laughed heartily as toward the border they drove.