This is not how the weekend was supposed to go. In my green and white polka dot bikini, I strain through chest-deep salt water toward the beach where people are gathering, screaming and waving their arms. I am close enough to decipher their frantic cries.
“Shark! Shark! Get out of the water!”
My pulse ricochets in my throat as I force myself forward, simultaneously cursing and praying, expecting any moment to be grabbed from behind. It’s the Fourth of July in West Palm Beach, Florida. My fickle wedding date and I are the only two people in the ocean. And there is a shark somewhere behind us. This disastrous weekend has managed, astonishingly, to get worse.
Beside me, my date, Scott, falls back a few paces. “If it attacks, I’ll handle it.” With his compact wrestler’s build and cocky confidence, he looks like a young Tom Cruise. As the crowd screams and cheers us on, we slog through the water with excruciating slowness. I’m panicked, babbling.
“Of course I’m afraid of sharks,” I gasp, “but in an abstract way, like being afraid of abduction by space aliens. It’s not actually supposed to happen to people!”
I glance behind me. Scott looks grimly focused, ready. I almost hope the shark bites him, at least one testicle, after what he did to me at the wedding.
What Was Supposed to Happen
A fresh start. That’s what this weekend was supposed to be. I’m a newly minted college graduate, still reeling after my fiancé paused our wedding plans as I was picking out my dress. He then spent our entire senior year vacillating about marrying me. In the disorienting aftermath of our breakup, Scott, a long-time college friend, is a constant, comforting presence. We talk books and bucket lists of travel destinations. He helps me pack up my apartment. At 2am, we walk through the botanical gardens, petals from the cherry trees swirling around us like pink snow. He cups my cheek and tells me I am remarkable. I want to believe him.
Five weeks after our graduation Scott picks me up in his beloved black 1978 Chrysler Le Baron, a car that straddles a thin line between tough-guy classic and pimp mobile. He is my plus-one to a friend’s wedding in Florida. The road trip from Ohio is laden with flirtation posing as intellectual conversation. I relish the frisson of attraction between us, the bright electric spark of possibility, but as we pass the Georgia/Florida line, I muster my courage to say, “I really like you, but I’m not ready yet. I still need a little time.”
I want him to nod, to say he’ll wait. To affirm I’m worth waiting for. He rests one arm on the steering wheel, glances at me through his aviators, and just says okay.
What Actually Happens
The wedding reception is an opulent disaster. There’s marble on the walls and duck breast on the salad. Scott has apparently taken my request for more time as a rejection and spends the entire reception flirting with other women. He’s instantly captivated by Laura, my former housemate, a feminist theologian with deep dimples and a misandrist streak. I watch miserably as she strings him along, baiting him. He never once glances at me.
The live band plays Rat Pack hits as Scott dances with one girl after another. As the reception winds down, Laura and I are standing along the edge of the dance floor when he walks up and holds out his hand.
“It’s the last song,” he announces with a self-deprecating smile, “I’ve danced with every girl here except you.”
I start to step forward, relieved and pleased to finally be chosen, then realize he’s not talking to me. Laura dimples, rolls her eyes at me, and lets him lead her onto the dance floor. Like a scene in a bad teen movie, I am left standing alone in my kitten heels.
A Narrow Escape
“He was chasing a school of fish and doubled back, came right for you,” an onlooker tells us as we recover on the beach after our narrow escape. “You’re lucky.”
As we watch the 6-foot bull shark slice through the waves, I feel giddy with relief. The onlookers disperse and Scott goes to get his car. We’re heading north this afternoon.
Standing in the boiling sun in my spurned woman revenge bikini, I realize with crystalline certainty that Scott and I are through. Suddenly, I am so tired of waiting for men.
Raised in a conservative home in the Midwest, I was taught from a young age that a woman’s role when it came to love, sex, and romance was to wait—to be picked, pursued, wooed, won. Women were to respond, not initiate. Passivity was extolled as a virtue.
But I am starting to resent this passivity, the role I’ve learned to play as a woman. I’ve been waiting for so long to be noticed, chosen, rescued like a damsel in distress. And I’m sick of it. It has gotten me nothing but confusion and heartbreak. I want something better. I am no damsel. I am a strong, fierce woman. I can be my own white knight.
I wrap a towel around myself and go book a plane ticket home.
That is the beginning. It takes years, a wise counselor, a good dose of faith. Slowly, I learn to respect myself. Slowly, I take the power back.
When I finally meet an irresistibly warm and adventurous man in graduate school, I don’t wait to see if he pursues me. I make the first move. We fall head over heels in love. In May, we celebrated 11 years together.
So this is what I learned during the worst wedding weekend of my life: Love is not worth waiting for. It is worth pursuing—with self-respect and honesty, with confidence and courage, with my head held high.
Rachel Linden is a novelist and international aid worker whose adventures in over fifty countries around the world provide excellent grist for her writing. She is the author of the new release The Enlightenment of Bees, as well as Ascension of Larks and Becoming the Talbot Sisters. Visit her online at rachellinden.com; Instagram: rachellinden_writer; Facebook: authorRachellinden.
Images: Nikola Jovanovic / Unsplash