Thirty-three years ago today, my girlfriend called me early in the morning and suggested: “Today is a good day to get married, right?” Regarding some things in life, you just don’t need any time to think.
“Of course, I’ll be over in an hour.”
We already had the license and blood test, so we drove to City Hall and requested a ceremony. The smiling clerk took our papers and then pointed to an equally smiling elderly man sitting behind us on the bench of a squared fountain.
“Just go with the Bishop, and he’ll do the rest.”
The Bishop looked to be 80-ish, his former white suit a bit crumpled and worse for some unnameable kind of wear. I wasn’t sure what his eyes reflected in their redness and fever, but when he said “Just follow me,” we obeyed.
We had our witnesses — my soon-to-be-wife’s sister and cousin — but the Bishop thought we needed more, so he took us outside the courthouse to a pre-fab maintenance shed behind, where the foreman of some crew appeared to be waiting just for us, kicked back in a swivel chair, his work boots propped comfortably on what I supposed was his own desk. His own domain.
“He’s going to be a witness, too,” the Bishop stated as if no one could ever have any choice in this matter. We accepted the offering, and as I looked about the office, noticing one poster showing a kitten hanging by its forepaws on some branch or tabletop with the legend “Just hang in there” proclaimed from on high, and then a mimeographed page near it depicting Sylvester the Cat pointing to his left, further suggesting that all surrounding him should “Take your silly-ass problems that way,” the service began.
The Bishop muddled through his Bible, and I watched his string bow tie moving in its own rhythm. He did well enough, though, until he reached my almost-wife’s name: Azadeh Kheirkhah. Admittedly, it’s a tough one to pronounce cold, which I had attempted that day nine months earlier when she appeared in my film discussion section.
“Just call me Nilly,” she said then.
“Can’t we just skip to the ‘I do’s’” she said now.
The Bishop seemed more than happy to grant her wish, and before we knew it, he pronounced us husband and wife and then suggested that I could “kiss the bride and then give [him] whatever I wanted to give him.”
I assumed he meant money, though as I leaned in to kiss my wife, I thought I could have likely saved us some confusion had I just brought a bottle of Rebel Yell with me.
I gave him half of what I had — five dollars.
“They usually give me ten,” the Bishop said. And he never quit smiling, though I had to say, “Five is all I can give you.”
Isn’t it funny that you never know who will enter your life and hang with you for 33 years? My wife, her family, the Bishop. Though we never saw him again, he lingers, and I can’t help but wonder who, if anyone, remembers him now. Besides my wife and me.
I forgive his not pronouncing my wife’s name, though I’ll never understand why he had to perform our marriage service in a maintenance shed. I know he didn’t know the truth about us. That we knew so little about what we were doing. That I hadn’t told my parents about our marriage plans.
That my wife was from Iran.
I knew one other Iranian before I met my wife. His name was Firhooz, and he was married to my office-mate, Carolyn. She and I were earning doctorates in English, taking Melville seminars and conspiring in all sorts of leftist political groups. Carolyn cooked my first Persian meal — Bogoli Polo, which translates to chicken, lima beans, and rice. It might sound bland; actually it was bland, but warm and soothing. Firhooz was shy, and they both supported the new Islamic Republic, despite the American hostage crisis. I didn’t know how to feel about that, but I listened. They never threatened me or made me feel small. I also listened when Carolyn told me that some of her students saw her with Firhooz once and asked her, shouted at her actually, “What are you doing with that camel jockey?”
“It wasn’t personal,” she said. “After all, they didn’t really know us.”
I could only wonder, “What if they had?”
This slur came back to me a few months after Nilly and I were married, when, after finally confessing our marriage to my parents, I was visiting two old Alabama friends. Over Budweiser, they smiled and asked,
“So what’s it like to be married to one of those sand-niggers?”
Since they knew me, I concluded that this one was personal.
Friendships don’t recover from such moments; neither do marriages, it turns out, for I heard that five years later, that couple was done.
But this is a celebratory story, and all is well with us.
This morning, my wife gave me the card above. The funny thing isn’t that she actually does have a convertible, but that the card she picked, the image of that woman reminds me of my Aunt Carole. Of course, the more romantic story is that in our earliest days together, when we had no money to speak of, we used to go riding in my yellow Firebird, the car I inherited from my Aunt Carole after she was stricken with multiple sclerosis.
Tonight we’re going riding. We have some money now, so our ride will be to downtown Greenville, to the newest restaurant there, a Thai place, celebrating with my wife’s sister and her husband, my wife’s best friend Fariba — the Persian friend she longed for and whom she met at a Greenville Toys-R-Us — and our good friend Owen whom we met when we joined the Greenville Amnesty International group thirty years ago.
I can’t say that I’ve never made mistakes or never judged anyone. I can’t say I have never hurt someone else’s feelings, and I’m sure there are people out there who quit speaking to me long ago.
I knew, however, 33 years ago, that I was in love, and it didn’t matter to me what part of the world the woman I loved was from. I thank my parents for helping me, whether they knew they were doing it or not, to see the world and not just my own front or back yard.
My mother, straight talker that she is, told me when I was fourteen not to date Baptists — I got a great book title out of that one. I always assumed she was kidding anyway.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I had no strictures about the beliefs and background of my love.
And I’m so thankful that 33 years ago on that first day of summer, the woman I loved called, and that I was bright enough to listen and say “Yes.”