I never expected to see Emma again, but there she was in the USPS package on my doorstep in suburban Los Angeles, postmarked from New Jersey. “I know that you admired this pattern,” my friend Suzie wrote about the unusual step of returning the exact wedding present that I had sent her 18 years ago. “Now that I’m moving to a new place, I’ve decided not to bring the past with me. Why shouldn’t you enjoy what’s left of the set? “
“Emma” was the name of the casual, chic everyday porcelain that Suzie – a college friend of mine – had chosen for her wedding.
I remember buying Emma from Pottery Barn, where Suzie was registered. I married my then boyfriend Matt two years ago. Our first date was at a Westwood cafe. We found that we were both born at UCLA Medical Center and loved red meat (even if you should pretend otherwise in healthy LA). It has worked since then. On Suzie’s big day, Matt and I had settled in a 1,000-square-foot house not far from the homeware store.
With a limited mortgage budget, I could afford to buy Suzie’s coffee mugs, mugs with delicate pearl rims in yellow, white, and green. It was a vivid reminder of an exciting time in my life. Her wedding ceremony at the Los Angeles River Center & Gardens was stunning, as befits a white lace clad Suzie and her tuxedo-wearing partner. Everything went together for my boyfriend as well as for Matt and me, I thought as I sipped champagne.
But life got complicated. I had a miscarriage and tests showed fertility problems, which got worse with every new Santa Monica specialist I was sent to. Matt and I weren’t the loose young people hanging out in coffee shops anymore. Suzie now lived in Marina del Rey. But when she saw boats coming in and out from her balcony, it seemed as if she was not permanently anchored either.
I had babies and I defied predictions. Suzie and I worked on scripts at night. Then her spouse announced that they were moving back to New Jersey to get serious about “real” careers. I think Suzie and I would actually have made it in Hollywood if we insisted, but she didn’t have much to say. Their eventual divorce wasn’t surprising, but at least she’d kept contact from a different time zone.
It was strange, but when I heard Emma was being sent back to me, it caused melancholy.
Perhaps because the announcement came at the time of my 20th wedding anniversary, which was being spent in a pandemic, and included a robotic round of congratulations from my kids who were so bored with Zoom School that they didn’t care about anything.
Maybe it was because if you had asked me in the early days of my marriage, I would have told you I was 20 years old.
Maybe it was because I didn’t know when Emma was new that most of our friends in LA would be leaving for Portland, Oregon, or North Carolina, or anywhere with viable schools and homes to buy. Little did I know Matt and I would end up being the last idiots in our hometown, apparently the only people shaking their heads over a $ 6 cup of joe.
Maybe it was knowing that Matt and I were still together and Emma’s original owners weren’t, but it came at a price – financial and relationship difficulties and a feeling of trudging through life apart instead of enjoying it together. The younger you at Pottery Barn would have told you that life is about thriving, not surviving. What happened between the first and the second?
The truth was, that piece of the past had every trigger in it. The years between then and now have been more challenging than I expected.
When I was out of college and couldn’t think of anything more than weddings, job titles, and babies, I thought that choosing a like-minded spouse would result in a smooth, straightforward path through life.
Little did I know then that I would experience romantic disillusionment and incredible loneliness in a working partnership, or that my husband worked weekends for several years when I was essentially a single parent and angrily wondered if I was even fit for such an overwhelming job . Little did I know there would be a whole decade in which the same argument would repeat itself over whose genes were responsible for three-phase orthodontics – for each of our three children. You cannot understand these things when you are young.
But then I took Emma out of the brown shipping box and once again admired the mixture of light yellow, sage green and white in the original color scheme of the collection.
The cups were still pretty, I thought, looking at them in the Southern California sunlight of my kitchen. They’d been through a lot, traveling between LA and the East Coast – twice. They didn’t look new and shiny, but they were surprisingly sturdy.
Matt and I were like her, I thought, intact and ready for new adventures – hopefully one we can afford and that will take us out of Los Angeles every now and then when the kids grow up. We still love Southland, but it would be nice to compare cheeseburgers elsewhere one day.
I decided to make coffee to enjoy in the garden. When I grabbed a yellow Emma, I noticed a tiny, almost imperceptible chip. I smiled a little. None of life’s unexpected hardships had shaken me or my chaotically imperfect partnership with Matt. Emma’s first home may have been broken, but Matt and I didn’t want anywhere. With luck, Emma and I would have a long time to enjoy each other’s company.
The author is doing an MFA at UC Riverside and is working on a memoir about life as a home mom. She’s on Twitter @RFSpalding.
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