I have a rigid either/or mentality when it comes to expenses. Every time I buy something, I imagine a more appealing way to spend the same amount of money. I’m not sure exactly when or how I developed this principle, but it was fine-tuned during the later years of my painkiller addiction. Toward the end, I measured every expense by its value in Percocet. “There goes a whole week’s worth,” I’d groan while paying my mortgage. A romantic dinner for two might set me back a full day of drugs, while something smaller, like a AAA membership, equaled a single dose.
As such, I only spent money on material things when absolutely necessary. “Guess it’s time for that oil change,” I’d say while coasting along the breakdown lane, smoke billowing from my radiator. My utilities got paid only after the service was disconnected. Home repairs were solved with duct tape, anything from leaky faucets to broken screens to cracked linoleum tiles. I hadn’t bought a new article of clothing since 2001, which explained my closet full of mock turtlenecks, cargo shorts and bootcut jeans.
Unless they served a practical purpose, most household items were frivolous. Did I really need a showerhead? Water is water, and the way I saw it, I was lucky to even have any. I didn’t need multiple spray settings to increase its appeal. In the old days people bathed in creeks or, in later years, lobster pots. And they seemed clean enough, give or take the occasional diagnosis of scurvy.
I felt the same about bed frames. People spend thousands of dollars to frame their beds, as though sleeping is a form of fine art to be showcased in solid maple. It took me ten years to frame my Raiders of the Lost Ark poster, the one that currently hangs above my kitchen table, and now I’m told the bed needs the same kind of royal treatment?
Perhaps the most baffling of all housewares, however, is the oven mitt. Sure, a pair only costs ten or fifteen bucks, but really, will two dishtowels not accomplish the same thing? Or, in my case, a pair of old sweatpants? Any heavy fabric will do, but then, what fun is that? Shape it like a flipper and stamp a cupcake-and-bowtie pattern on it and the simple task of grabbing a hot casserole dish becomes a joyous and classy experience.
When Amanda and I first started dating, I loosened up with money, but once we moved in together I reverted back to that either/or mentality honed during my active addiction. The first signs of this came at the grocery store. “I should have been up front about this, but I’m not a wealthy man,” I said, lifting a bag of frozen shrimp out of the shopping cart.
“That cost four dollars,” Amanda replied. “I thought it would make a nice appetizer.”
Appetizers? I thought. Then what, a luxury box at the Kentucky Derby? “Yeah, but after adding the dipping sauce, then it’s more like eight bucks, and, well, do we want to spend eight bucks on an appetizer with zero nutritional value? Or should we spend that money on, say, a couple boxes of pasta and jars of sauce? That’s two whole dinners for the same price as a single…what did you call it…appetizer.”
“I’ll pay for the groceries,” Amanda said, grasping for the frozen shrimp in my hand.
“It’s really not about the money,” I explained, taking hold of the cart. “It’s about maximum value. It’s about developing sound consumer habits on a small scale so they become intuitive on larger, more consequential purchases.” My lecture continued up and down the remaining aisles, until we arrived at the checkout line, by which time Amanda could only respond with short, embattled nods.
After that, Amanda insisted on buying groceries alone, returning from Whole Foods each week with prime cuts of free-range meat and bundles of exotic vegetables. “Until you start cooking dinner around here, you have no say in what I buy. Is that understood?”
I nodded, then stowed the Peruvian sunchokes in the fridge.
Every week Amanda bought something new for the condo, small household items that seamlessly found their way into my daily life. House keys hung from a row of hooks instead of sprawled across the kitchen table. Pens and loose change resided in small ceramic trays. Bathroom toiletries disappeared from the edge of the sink and were neatly stored in wicker baskets. “I bet you didn’t even notice the silverware tray,” she said, nodding to the spoon resting in my bowl of Captain Crunch. I wiped the trickle of milk from my chin, removed the spoon from the bowl and stared at it, slowly realizing that I didn’t have to rummage through spatulas and turkey basters to find it.
Gradually I warmed up to these domestic touchups, though some purchases still irked me, like the plastic containers Amanda brought home from Ikea. She emptied a box of cereal into one and filled the other from a bag of cat kibble. “You realize that stuff already comes in its own container,” I said. “All you did was transfer one thing to another. Nothing is gained.”
“But now it looks much nicer,” she said, stepping back and marveling at the two containers, poised side by side on my laminate countertop.
Soon our home was filled with trinkets for which we had no immediate use, things Amanda bought simply because they were on sale. “We’ll need these eventually,” she said, referring to the glow-in-the-dark badminton net or the family of bronze penguins. Though we ran out of toilet paper every three days, our storage bins teemed with picture frames, cutting boards, cabinet liners, boxes of stationary, packs of assorted magnets, all with the price tags still attached.
One afternoon I got a text from Amanda: “I’m outside. Can you help bring up some stuff from the car?” This is the normal protocol with groceries, so I was surprised when I found the backseat full of Nordstrom’s bags. “Don’t get in a tizzy,” she said preemptively. “We needed all of this, and I only spent two-hundred and eighty dollars.” Only two hundred and eighty dollars? I thought, intuitively calculating how much food or electricity or condo fees that same amount would have yielded.
Upstairs, we unpacked the bags. “We needed shoes from Max Mara?” I said, staring down at the large white shoebox.
“What else am I going to wear to your niece’s graduation next week? Something has to go with this new dress,” Amanda said.
“How about flip-flops?” I said. “It’s not a formal event. We’ll be sitting on high school gymnasium bleachers for three hours.”
“Well, I’m sure there’ll be pictures afterward,” Amanda said.
I was ready to let it go and move on when Amanda pulled two sets of bed linens from the last shopping bag. “Wait a minute,” I said. “We already have a perfectly good set.” Amanda said there was nothing perfectly good about sheets with Yoda and Luke Skywalker printed all over them. She went on to explain that the new sheets were seasonal: light cotton for summer and chamois flannel for cold weather. The current set, she added, would be used strictly as reserves, or torn up into dusting rags.
“I paid fifty bucks for those sheets,” I said. “They’re not even a year old. I really hoped these would cover us in the sheet department for a while.” I asked her to return them to Nordstrom’s but she refused. This led to a heated argument that involved me lying on the bed and rolling around on the existing sheet. “See? Still works like a charm.”
Amanda dropped her face in her hands. “I can’t live like this,” she sobbed.
“Like what?” I fired back. “An impoverished life with only one set of bed linens?” I stormed out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind me.
An hour later I cooled off and apologized. “You don’t have to return the sheets,” I said, standing at the bedroom door while Amanda lay face down on the bed. “The more I think about, we really do need them. They were a good idea. Brilliant, actually.”
“Good. Then it’s settled,” Amanda said, her voice muffled by the pillows.
I reminded myself that Amanda’s intentions were in the right place. This was how civilized people lived. They spent time and money turning their houses into warm and welcoming homes. They put thought and consideration into how they dressed. They treated themselves once in a while to a nice meal or a weekend getaway. This wasn’t materialism, as I had bitterly labeled it throughout fifteen years of drug addiction. This was self-respect, an area in which I had little to no experience.
The next day I had an epiphany. It was time to lighten up and start behaving like a normal member of society. My first step was to dress classier, so I reached under the bed for the storage bin where I kept my nicer, lesser-worn clothes. I removed the lid and saw that my clothes were gone, replaced with the two sets of bed linens. “Honey,” I shouted toward the bathroom, where Amanda brushed her teeth. “Have you seen my cashmere v-neck and gray chinos?”
“I needed room for the new sheets, so I moved your clothes to the front hall,” she said, spitting out toothpaste. “In a trash bag, next to the recycling bin.”
* * * *
That Christmas I asked Amanda to marry me. The engagement ring doubled as my main present, thus I was able to shop for the rest of my gifts at CVS. I gave Amanda those first, watching her eyes narrow with bewilderment as she unwrapped random general store merchandise. “This is scented with green tea,” I said, pointing at the six-pack of bar soap in her lap. She nodded and feigned excitement and then placed the soap in a pile with the rest of her gifts: a travel-size compact mirror, an eyeglass-repair kit and a box of Flonase.
“Let me guess: um…probiotics?” she said as I handed her the gift-wrapped ring box.
We made a pact to wait until the New Year before delving into the logistics of a wedding. “I totally agree,” Amanda said, staring at the diamond on her finger. “Let’s just enjoy this before it gets stressful.” Forty minutes later she was on her laptop looking at venues. “Would you rather something elegant, like this,” she said, holding up a picture of young Aryan couple posing against a deck railing, gazing out at Narragansett Bay, a disturbing amount of glee molded on their faces. “Or we could do something more rustic, like this,” she said, clicking over to the interior of a pinewood lodge, where a young couple in matching camouflage exchanged vows beneath a mounted deer head, the camera angle making it seem as though the animal itself performed the nuptials.
I reached for her laptop. “Or we could do something cheaper, like this,” I said, holding up a picture of city hall. “Or we could just elope. Sneak away for a few days, somewhere romantic. I’m thinking Connecticut.”
After some discussion we agreed on a small, intimate ceremony and reception, mostly as a courtesy to our families. “No friends,” I said. “Immediate family only.” I thought of all my high school and college friends who got married over the last ten years, many of whom had invited me to their weddings and never even got an RSVP from me. “This will save us from having to choose who to invite and who gets left out.”
We picked a general timeframe, somewhere around the end of February. This gave us two months to plan the whole thing, which, to our way of thinking, meant less time to agonize over details. Our goal was to keep it simple, as we say in Alcoholics Anonymous. For most people, weddings are huge events that require a cast and crew of hundreds. In fact, most engagements last for years. Take my friend, Victoria, who got engaged last fall and won’t be married until June of 2017. This means her wedding will require more time and energy than the next Star Wars film.
For the venue, Amanda wanted something with relevance, “sentimental value”, as she called it. For me, the obvious choice was Ihop, where we split our first breakfast sampler. A close second was Dave & Buster’s. Amanda dismissed these as tacky, suggesting instead the New England Aquarium or the Roger Williams Park Zoo. “How is that relevant?” I said. “Shouldn’t we at least be among our own species, for starters?”
“It would be so beautiful, though, to be surrounded by wildlife,” Amanda said, her face distant and dreamy. I could tell she pictured something biblical, like the two of us perched atop an altar made of traprock, wearing garlands and loincloths, staring out an audience of snow leopards and baby elephants.
When Amanda told me the price for the zoo, I gasped. “Seriously? Three months of mortgage payments just to get married in a diorama of the Congo?”
Ultimately we decided on an old Governor’s House on the east side of Providence, near the Brown campus. For a few hundred bucks we had limited access to a large room for the ceremony, one bathroom, the front hall and part of the stairwell.
Amanda found a restaurant close to the Governor’s House and began coordinating times, drafting menus and securing deposits. She contacted a florist and, with help from her mother and sister, worked on party favor ideas and other decorations. These were the details I took for granted. Name cards. A guest book. Invitations. Music. Rings. Photographs. A justice of the peace.
“How’s that coming, by the way?” Amanda said, searching the internet for wedding dress inspiration.
“How’s what coming?”
“The justice of the peace. You were supposed to figure that out by now.” She took a deep breath. “The wedding’s in four weeks, Danny. You need to start helping out here.”
Originally I had tweeted Axl Rose, asking if he’d officiate the wedding, but it had been almost a month and I hadn’t got a response. So I went on Angie’s List, the same website where I found my plumber, and searched for someone to marry us. Out of the three names that came back I picked the least expensive, a woman named Joan. I clicked on her website, scrolled past her mission statement and credentials and went straight for the pictures. In each one, Joan was dressed in a white robe with her hands clasped in front of her waist, standing between a newly married couple. While their faces were all smiling and giddy, Joan’s expression was always hauntingly blank. This was made even creepier by her short, Greco-Roman haircut. She seemed to be all business, as though saying to the camera, “Here, master. I brought you another set of humans.”
According to the site, Joan offered her own gospel music for an additional fifty bucks. This was verified by another photo, this one of Joan holding an acoustic guitar, strumming away, her eyes closed and her mouth open in song, revealing a set of enormous horse teeth. I saw no newlyweds or family members in the picture, probably because they were facedown on the ground, dead from cyanide poisoning, while Joan hummed the chorus to “Amazing Grace”.
In all honesty, Joan frightened me. Her face had an evangelical sheen, like Piper Laurie in Carrie, or Jason’s mother in Friday the 13th. But her fee was nominal compared to the competition, so I sent her a query email and checked that off my list.
The wedding was three weeks away, and things were somehow falling into place. Amanda’s dad found us a pianist and a photographer, both friends of his from college. They signed on at a discounted rate, so long as we paid in advance, and in cash. We gave them both some basic direction over the phone. “Let’s keep it modern,” I said to the pianist. “Like Elton John, David Bowie, none of that ‘Here Comes the Bride’ shit.”
I took the same approach with the photographer. “I don’t want any phony wedding poses,” I said on a conference call, Amanda next to me on the couch. “I want it to look raw, gritty, editorial-style. Behind-the-scenes. I’m seeing a lot of blurry black and white stuff, me with my tie undone, maybe a cigarette in my mouth, sitting in an old convertible. I look haggard and worn out.”
Amanda released the mute button. “Just do your normal thing,” she said into the speakerphone. “As long as we get a few family shots and something nice for the mantle.”
For superstition’s sake I was left out of the dress-hunting process, a relief considering how torturous it seemed. Amanda ordered three to four dresses a week, had them shipped to her, tried them on at home and then sent them all back, frustrated to tears. “Just get something simple and white,” I said, my mouth full of potato chips. “What’s the big deal?” Amanda said nothing, then calmly picked up a J.Crew box and threw it at my head.
Eventually she found a dress, and as soon as we dropped it off with the seamstress we felt like two refugees who’d just made it through customs. We weren’t free and clear quite yet, but the unnerving part was over. All that stood in the way was a trip to Rhode Island for the marriage license.
The night before the wedding, Amanda and her sister stayed in a hotel in Providence. This was to ensure a short drive to the ceremony, and also to accommodate the seven hundred-dollar hair and makeup crew. My preparation had less fanfare. I drove down to Providence the morning of the wedding, in sweatpants, my Men’s Wearhouse suit in the back seat of my Jeep Wrangler. Once I got into Providence I pulled into a Best Western, walked into the lobby’s restroom, changed into my suit, then walked out. From there I took an Uber to the Governor’s House and waited. It was ten-thirty, and the place didn’t open until eleven. I sat on the front steps and waited for the guests to arrive. In my hand was a brown paper bag containing our wedding rings.
* * * *
In the days leading up to our wedding, the most common advice I’d gotten was “pay attention, because it goes by fast”. This proved to be true, especially since we only had the venue for forty-five minutes. Factor in Amanda’s late arrival, and that left us with thirty-five. As soon as we were presented as “Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Pellegrini” the house’s event coordinator began ushering people out. “Thank you, congratulations, have a wonderful life together,” she said to the guests as she held open the door. Amanda and I waited for everyone to leave, then snuck into the backyard, with the photographer, to steal a few portraits against the house’s exterior. On a few of them the event coordinator can be seen in the background, behind a first floor window, scowling at us.
Afterward, we spent a few nights in Newport. Amanda called this a “mini-moon”, which, like the term “stay-cation”, is a euphemism, intended to help cheapskates like myself feel better about their stinginess and boring sense of adventure. Telling someone you’re taking a “stay-cation” implies it was a choice, that all you wanted to do was relax in your EZ chair for a week, or “run some errands”, or take a series of little day trips to local diners and antique shops. Tell someone you’re taking a “mini-moon”, and the implication is that a bigger moon lies ahead, at a more opportune time.
I thought about this as I sat on the edge of the ocean cliffs with my new wife, looking out at the Atlantic on a sunny, sixty-degree February day. Sure, the money we spent on our wedding could have gone elsewhere, maybe a home renovation or a lingering debt or a trip to some remote island. Or I could have bought a thousand painkillers and sat on a park bench for three months, dreaming of a bigger moon, wondering if I’d ever meet someone and live happily ever after.
The Greater Fool