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The End of an Era
What “The Wedding Incident” was really about.
By Rachel Solar-Tuttle.

 

I knew it was bound to happen. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was waiting to get the news. Still, you can never be truly prepared.
   The phone rang one Sunday morning. Liz, my best friend from Penn (and my best friend still, besides my husband) spoke with the hushed, conspiratorial tones of someone in high-level espionage. “I think you’ll want to buy today’s Times,” she said, “and check the Weddings section.” Clearly, it was no time for pleasantries. In five minutes flat I was dressed and standing in line at the Thai convenience store down the street, clutching the newspaper in two trembling hands, knowing exactly what it would contain. He was married.
   He married someone else. It’s a moment that’s become part of our pop culture lexicon, with references as current as last season’s Sex and the City (Mr. Big’s marriage to the grammatically challenged Natasha) and at least as far back as When Harry Met Sally (Meg Ryan weeping, “It wasn’t that he didn’t want to get married. He just didn’t want to marry me!”).
   The he, in my case, was the Penn boy also known as “the Sophomore.” We saw each other on and off—the ratio of on to off standing at about 2/98—starting when I was a senior and he was a sophomore, and continuing while I was at Penn Law. I intermittently thought he had potential; he was a gem in the rough that I could never quite polish. When I knew him, I thought he was unambitious and lacked follow-through, but, scanning the wedding notice beside my sweet, unsuspecting husband, I soon discovered that he had (gasp!) graduated from an Ivy League business school (though not Wharton caliber) and would soon be working at a major Manhattan brokerage house. I had no clue what kind of person he had become, but clearly some polishing had occurred. To some extent, at least, the Sophomore had gotten his act together.
   Had he been secretly polishing himself, right under my nose? Come to think of it, how well had I really known the guy? You couldn’t even call it a relationship, really. It sticks in my mind more for its duration and sheer number of false starts than anything else. We shared a love of campus bars, good comebacks and sarcasm. I turned to my journal for answers, but didn’t find much, mostly listings of the bars where the Sophomore and I would meet, snippets of our banter, commentary on his inability to commit. So why, all these years later, was I poring over the details of his wedding and the clues about his current life? I had married someone fun, witty, smart and kind, a dimple-faced stand-up litigator, an excellent third-baseman, a returner of phone calls. So why did I care?
   Was it a Harry Met Sally thing, just a blow to my ego that he wouldn’t commit to me, but ultimately did commit to somebody? (Was she bright? She didn’t even go to Penn!) My journals did reveal that over the course of my years at Penn I had grown pretty comfortable with myself. I developed a world view; I said what was on my mind; and, flaws and all, I began to think of myself as a pretty decent person. Given that logic, it made sense to me that if I revealed myself to this guy in a true, forthright way, he should like me! Maybe it was the fact that I’d taken comfort in thinking that there was some poetic justice, that because he didn’t fall for me, a good and worthy person, he’d remain unsuccessful and unfulfilled.
   On the other hand, I had dated plenty of good, real, well-intentioned guys who were probably very nice to their sisters, who had liked me but who I hadn’t liked back. I had no problem ending a long list of fledgling relationships for lack of “chemistry,” so why couldn’t I get over the Sophomore’s giving me a taste of my own medicine more than five years ago? And anyway, who said he was fulfilled? It was shallow to assume that marriage + business school + brokerage-house job = meaningful life.
   Maybe—and this thought scared me a little—it was some perverse wistfulness for his arguable bad-boy charm after three years of marriage to a man who, while undeniably appealing, could only be described as a good guy through and through. Could it be that my seventh-grade desire for the unattainable (then manifested in a profession to be “saving myself” for Ricky Schroeder) had never really left me? Was there some part of me that missed chasing after something that I knew would never work out? Did I secretly fear the calm realness of a relationship between equals?
   God, I hoped not. As luck would have it, I’d soon have the opportunity to take my probing analysis of what I’d dubbed “The Wedding Incident” to a new level. My fifth-year Law School reunion was fast approaching, and I decided to return to the scene of the crime. So while the good husband golfed in Myrtle Beach, blissfully unaware, my surrogate date Liz and I made the pilgrimage back to dear old Penn. With the reunion festivities under our belts, we hightailed it to (where else?) Smokey Joe’s.
   As I said my name and date of birth into the microphone—that they would ask me to do this at my age with a straight face attests to the graciousness of that fine institution—I instantly flashed back to a montage of Smokes moments with the Sophomore. He held my hand in a booth and told me he hadn’t called because he had a stomach virus. He explained that she wasn’t really his girlfriend. We made plans to go to Pat’s for a cheesesteak that he never followed through on. As I sipped a too-strong greyhound from a plastic cup, nostalgia—and a major buzz, thanks to my now-low tolerance for alcohol—crept up on me, but brought me no closer to my answer. All of the Smokes memories revealed only what I already knew: We had a few good moments and a whole lot of melodrama. Nothing to be wistful about.
   Excusing myself, I went to the women’s room, where, miraculously, there was toilet paper at 1:00 a.m. (some things do change). A few seniors in flared jeans were standing around fixing makeup and talking about Senior Week. “Are you an alum?” one of them asked, not unkindly.
   I nodded.
   “I have a question,” she said. “When do you get over Penn?”
   What could I say? I was an almost-30 year-old in the poorly lit bathroom at Smokes close to closing time. I didn’t have a leg to stand on. Good marriage, good job, yadda, yadda, yadda. I had to tell the truth. “Never,” I said. “You never get over it.”
   “That’s what I figured,” she said.
   And then it hit me. Of course the other stuff played into it, but maybe the main reason I cared about The Wedding wasn’t wistfulness about the Sophomore or resentment of his accomplishments or an ego thing or a love of bad boys after all. It was wistfulness about Penn and everything it represented to me—the friendships, the leisure, the late-night talks, the discussion of ideas, the carefree world of possibilities, pre-mortgage, pre-commuting, pre-in-laws. When I was with the Sophomore, more Penn always lay ahead. Like discovering a first gray hair—a milestone I am admittedly familiar with—The Wedding was just another in-my-face marker of the passage of time—a time heavy with options and opportunities and light on responsibilities. It’s not that I’d want to go back and relive those years now, or that other things since haven’t lived up to the experience. It is just, quite simply, the end of an era. A good one.
   I clipped the announcement, but it got mixed in with my magazines, and my husband put it out with the recycling. It’s probably for the best, and symbolic too—my partner in this new era giving me that push to move on. And anyway, if I feel that need to plunge back into the past again, I don’t need a newspaper clipping to take me there. There’s always 2002—my 10th-year undergraduate reunion. I’ve asked my husband to clear his calendar.

Rachel Solar-Tuttle C’92 L’95 is a writer and editorial consultant. Her first novel, Number Six Fumbles, a coming-of-age story that takes place over just a few days at Penn, is scheduled to be published by Pocket/MTV Books in February 2002.



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