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  • Jo

Secret Smile



After almost six years into their relationship, Christina and Jeffrey had turned over a new leaf. Together. So, new “leaves?” She’ll have to think about that one.

They’d been together since their sophomore year at an arts college in Savannah, Georgia, and had created a life that couldn’t have been further from their strict and conservative upbringings. As soon as they graduated, they followed the band Phish around the country for a year, living in a camper van and selling grilled cheese sandwiches in the parking lots before the shows. 

They’d hit every festival, attending Burning Man religiously and even taking a trip to Thailand with their fellow Burners. These events were a huge part of their lives. They got to connect with friends who were as deeply in love with music and art as they were. These experiences allowed them to see the world in a way that they would have never thought possible during their sheltered upbringings. It was a life that they only strategically shared with their conservative families. 

See, Christina and Jeffrey grew up in the South. Both of their parents had them quite young and raised their children to follow the rules, stay in their lanes, and finish all the food on their plates. They didn’t want them to make any of the same mistakes that they did and drilled it into their kids to make a life for themselves that was as safe as possible. And, we’re not allowed to judge these parents because they got their kids into a fantastic arts college, both of them on full scholarships. The whole situation, from each of their upbringings, was nothing short of impressive. 

Christina and Jeff had so much in common that the parents started spending every Thanksgiving together, even when their kids didn’t come home for the holiday.  Sending their children to art school was difficult as they would have been much more comfortable with a trade school: you study to become an electrician, then you’re an electrician. You study to be an X-ray technician, you become an X-ray technician. You go to art school and you die in poverty after cutting off your ear. Christina and Jeff’s world was not something that they could comfortably understand. So, the lives that the parents heard about were quite different than the ones that their children were actually living.

Moving to Austin was one of the happiest moves that Jeff and Christina made as a couple. They’d been traveling all over the country since graduation and felt the urge to create a more grounded life for themselves. As smart, charming, fun people with an enormous network of friends, it didn’t take long for this newer, more adult existence to emerge. Jeff became the go-to guy for music posters and found himself surprisingly busy year-round and Christina found her niche as a boudoir photographer. According to both of their parents, they were employed as “Some kind of artists.” 

These “some kind of artists” had been in Austin for two years before they found out that Christina was pregnant.

“We should get married,” she groaned while rolling her eyes and holding the little pink, plastic, stick announcing their growing family.

“We don’t have to,” was Jeff’s immediate response, scratching his beard, “we don’t need a piece of paper telling us to be together. We’re stronger than that.”

And Christina didn’t disagree. Maybe it was the hormones, but she was feeling the need to be more of a peacekeeper than usual.

“We want this baby, whoever he or she is, to have a nice relationship with our parents. And, we both know that we have to get married if we want them to do that.” 

And, this time Jeffrey didn’t disagree. He knew Christina was right. And he also wasn’t opposed to throwing a party.

“Ok, awesome, let’s do it! Let’s get married! Slasher can DJ and Becca can do that vegan food we tried over at the-”

Christina felt awful interrupting her lover’s planning but she didn’t have a choice.

“No, we can’t do any of that. If we’re going to do this wedding for our parents, it needs to be for our parents.” She watched Jeffrey quite literally deflate and roll his eyes. He pulled her into his famous bear hug and didn’t let go.

“You’re right, you’re right. I bet Chico would let us use the lake house. Beautiful yard, we can get a bunch of flowers, only invite our best-behaved friends, make them happy.”

And that’s exactly what they did. The parents were ecstatic to help plan the wedding weekend. It would be soon, since Christina thought that she shouldn’t be showing, still picking out a loose, silk dress from her seamstress friend.

The day of the wedding was beautiful as the lake in Austin often is in June. Christina was walked down the aisle by both her father and Jeffrey’s dad. It was an intimate affair with only thirty or so guests in attendance. It was mostly childhood friends and the friends with spouses and the friends without facial tattoos. That afternoon was the most “normal” that Christina and Jeff had ever looked.

Jeff shaved for the event (at the suffocating insistence from both his mother and Christina’s) and dressed in a blazer for the first time in his adult life. Much to his surprise, he found himself wiping away a tear as Christina walked towards the makeshift altar, adorned with copious amounts of wildflowers. They even had a ‘priest’ officiate. It wasn’t anyone’s business that the priest was named Goliath and had started his own religion for Burning Man devotees. He still had the collar and the parents were impressed.

The ceremony went off without a hitch. The bride was thrilled, the groom was in a very bear-huggy mood but, most importantly to the couple, their parents could not have been more pleased with the whole event.

“This was definitely the right thing to do,” Jeffrey whispered in Christina’s ear as they danced on the grass overlooking the lake, “I haven't seen my mom this happy since I lied about loving polo shirts.”

Their friends seemed to be enjoying themselves as well. Christina had, well, sort of briefed everyone on their situation prior to the wedding. She’d basically told them everything that we’ve told you here: their parents were honestly good people who didn’t have the context to fully understand their children’s lives. And, also, that this wedding was really for them. They would have a party to celebrate in a year or so where Slasher would DJ and everyone could eat vegan food. She didn’t tell anyone about the pregnancy. She also didn’t tell anyone to make a speech. But, well, Goliath must have been in the mood after the successful (and hopefully legal) marriage ceremony. 

Now, Goliath was a sensitive soul. He’d known Christina and Jeff since their first Phish show. He’d helped them out all over the country and had been an absolute rock of a friend. It had been a no-brainer asking him to officiate. He had a calm and gentle presence and each of their mothers seemed to be fighting over who got to dance with the dashing, young ‘priest.’ But, the ‘priest’ had some other ideas.

Who knew if it was the wine or something else that Goliath brought in his official-looking briefcase, but he was really feeling the love on that warm, Saturday evening. He politely borrowed the microphone from the small band once they’d finished the obligatory Billy Joel song that Jeffrey’s dad was rocking out hard to. He tapped the mic a few times to get everyone’s attention. A very sober Christina turned to face him. And, who knows, maybe it was a mother’s intuition, but she felt her stomach tighten immediately. She reached for Jeffrey’s hand and gripped it so tightly that it made him fear for her going into labor.

“Is this thing on? It is? Oh good. Hello, hello, can you hear me in the back?” Since the “back” was only thirty feet from the small sound stage, yes, everyone could hear him. Both mothers looked at him with faces that bordered on romantic love. Christina’s stomach tightened even more.

“It is such an honor to be here today and witness the love between these two beautiful souls,” he began. Both mothers sighed. 

“I have witnessed this love firsthand on so many occasions,” Christina stole a look at Jeffrey and whispered, “Did you ask him to say this?” Jeffrey just shook his head, a look of fear creeping into his shining eyes. Goliath continued,

“The first time I truly understood how pure and true their devotion was to one another was at the Phish show in 2000 at Darien Lake. The band was jamming out to the beat of the rainstorm and Christina and Jeffrey managed to stay dry and warm by zipping their coats together. It was beautiful.”

Christina turned to her now-husband, raising her eyebrows and shrugging her shoulders as she felt the grip on her stomach lessen. Maybe this was going to be ok. Goliath’s voice commanded her attention back to the wooden platform that was posing as a stage.

“The second time I found myself a testimony to their love was at the Phish show of ‘03, when that Ghost Glowstick War hit with some really unbelievable Lucy and I could see their spirits enmeshed in a cloud hovering over their heads.”

Christina’s mother squeezed Jeffrey’s mother’s arm, “Oh, this Lucy sounds like such a sweet girl,” Jeffrey tried his best to simultaneously not snort and to shoot daggers from his eyes to Goliath.

“And the third time,” Goliath’s eyes misted over with emotion, “I got to actually witness their lovemaking in the communal den after the show of ‘05. It was a beautiful night, just, really, limbs everywhere- you couldn’t tell where one person ended and the other one began-”

Christina pushed Jeffrey towards their priest, “Stop him, NOW,” she whisper- yelled, but, alas, it was too late. The substance of the words had caught up with the very confused mothers and the utterly disgusted fathers. Goliath had no idea why he was bum-rushed and alleviated of his microphone duties. The other guests were split. Some were in tears over the beauty of his speech, others had parents just like Jeff and Christina’s and knew exactly what this kind of fallout could look like.

Needless to say, the wedding wrapped up rather quickly. Both of their parents left without a word. 

That night, in their bedroom, Christina couldn’t stop her emotions which ping-ponged between crying and hysterical laughter. The irony was not lost on either of them: the whole point of the whole event; the idea of the wedding and the execution of the wedding, was to please their parents, to put them in a good place to welcome their first grandchild.

Jeff and Christina knew that their parents suspected a few aspects of their slightly unconventional life but that they were the most comfortable with a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ approach which, for the time being, worked out just fine for everyone involved. And now, even though they hadn’t asked, they’d been told. And that telling had been done in a very public way in a very private circumstance. 

Should they call them? Send a note? Show up on their doorstep and beg for forgiveness? 

“Let’s just give it some time,” was Jeffrey’s sobering suggestion. And, give it time, they did. They told a few cousins that they were pregnant, rightfully assuming that the news would travel to the rest of the family. And, it did.

The next few months made Christina and Jeffrey feel like one of those old-fashioned masks where one side depicts comedy and the other, tragedy.  They were ecstatic about the countdown until they could meet their little one. Christina’s creativity took control of her nesting instincts and she spent her time off creating a nursery that was an almost exact replica of the bedroom in Goodnight Moon. They were both busy with work and feeling almost famous in their circle of artists. A local magazine had even picked up on Christina’s renovation and published a few photos of her completed project. But the silence between them and their parents was loud. It was the elephant in the room if an elephant were an ecstasy-induced threesome that had happened years earlier in what they both considered, a different life. 

Whenever they were enjoying themselves, there was always this constant reminder of their wedding night and the look on their parent’s faces when Goliath confessed his love for them as a couple. This thought would creep into their heads multiple times a day until their attention was briskly called to something else around midnight on a Tuesday, eight and a half months after they first decided to plan the wedding. 

Christina’s water broke at a live art installation foam party. Jeffrey whisked her to the hospital with the assumption that the foam was disinfecting and it wasn’t important for them to take the time to clean up the floor.

The delivery went off without a hitch. The next day, as Christina lay fast asleep in her hospital bed with Baby Tela in her arms and Jeffrey snoozing on the recliner chair next to her, they were both startled awake by a knock at the door.

Both sets of parents rushed in as if they’d had a perfectly close and sweet relationship for the past six months. The moms took turns holding Tela and the dads shook Jeffrey’s hand over and over and over. The three couples shared a bottle of champagne, snuck in by Christina’s mother.

“Congratulations to the happy couple!” Jeffrey’s dad declared, raising his glass, “Baby Tela, you are one lucky little girl.”

And just like that, the silent pact to never speak of the wedding night again was solidified. And they didn’t. Every single one of them kept up that unspoken bargain. Is that healthy? Is that the way families should deal with issues? Was that the right decision to make? Sure, why not? It meant for the past two decades that everyone could get along just fine. 

This was almost twenty years ago.

You would think that the everyone lived happily ever after ending is the perfect place for this story to end. But it was not meant to be.

Becuase that’s not when the story ended.  You see, six months ago when Christina and Jeff finally, feeling quite grown-up and responsible about this albeit a decade or so late,  got down to business and did their wills with a lawyer. That’s when they discovered that Goliath the Priest had done zero paperwork, was only a “priest” because he’d ingested more of something than he should have at Burning man 2011, and that they’d never been legally married. 

“I guess we could have another wedding?” Christina looked at Jeff with a half-smile. He had no idea whether or not she was joking. 

Then she shifted a bit in her chair, assumed a kind of  Rodin’s Thinker pose, and said, “ Think we should we invite our parents?”

The bad news is, this was a terrible idea. The good news is that they didn’t follow through with it. They popped down to City Hall before work on a Tuesday and lived happily ever after - more or less - but just the two of them.

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