The Deep End

How I jumped into marriage—literally—by learning to let go.

Would you believe me if I said I was intimidated by my wedding dress? When I put it on for the first time, I only took a cursory glance at my reflection before stepping into the view of my support system and a very honest saleswoman. Their wide eyes and rounded mouths formed every variation of “ooh” and “aah” and confirmed what I already felt—this dress was special.

“It’s perfect,” said Rebekah, my maid of honor. “Look at how it hugs you!”

“This one looks like you, K,” my mom said, holding the arm of my bridesman, Matt, in excitement.

I saw what they saw. The delicate straps rounded my shoulders in a seemingly effortless way. The cut of the crepe satin draped over my silhouette, creating the illusion that the fabric was in constant motion. And the line of buttons cascading down my back accentuated the curves that took me decades to appreciate. But when I stopped appraising the individual sections of the dress and shifted my gaze to fully see myself in it, I felt shaken; I looked away.

Despite my genuine love for the dress and the profound joy of preparing to marry my fiancé, Justin Holbrock, the image in the mirror forced me to confront my uncertainty of whether I could measure up to the ideals of being a bride, imposed by both society and myself.

After I handed over my credit card, the day flew by in a blur of giggles and Champagne—a celebratory toast outside of Love Couture Bridal in Potomac, dinner at Limoncello in Locust Point, late-night karaoke at Rowan Tree in Riverside. Somewhere between the second and third stop, I stared into a bathroom mirror long enough to make a vow. I had one year to reconcile my excitement for marriage with the complex tapestry of emotions woven into my wedding dress.

Like many millennial women in their mid- to late-twenties, my initial exposure to the extravagance and tradition surrounding weddings came from watching wedding reality TV series, namely TLC’s one-two punch of Say Yes to the Dress and Four Weddings. When I was in middle school, I programmed the TiVo in my parents’ bedroom to record both shows, and then wasted many summer afternoons binge-watching episodes until my head swam with visions of tulle.

Here’s what I learned: Your wedding dress will be the most amazing piece of clothing you’ll wear in your lifetime, and it’s the ultimate form of self-expression. Most importantly, the bride must assume many roles on the wedding day: the hostess, the epitome of grace, the architect of an aesthetically pleasing event—and its emotional center. While my 14-year-old self didn’t dwell on those expectations, they emerged from my subconscious after Justin proposed at our first date spot on our college campus, eight years after meeting. While I worked in Baltimore for several years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (including as an associate editor at Baltimore), we began searching for wedding venues in Columbus, Ohio, where we’ve been living for the past four years.

I saw my husband dancing in the deep end, motioning for me to join him and start the next chapter of our lives together.

The start of our wedding planning will sound laughably familiar to married couples: We toured our first location, a dreamy, tree-lined estate that fit our 130-guest count, and fell in love with it. We filled our camera rolls with photos of the creekside altar and fawned over the floor-to-ceiling windows until the tour guide told us the total rental price. While we were lucky enough to receive wedding fund contributions from our families, we intended to finance and plan the majority of it ourselves, and the cost of reserving that venue (and its many, many fees) would sink our budget.

So we reluctantly moved on. We spent a month scrolling through local venues, stuck between places we didn’t like and places we adored but couldn’t afford. I felt the same swirls of anxiety that emerge anytime we host parties or friends from out of town. What if our event doesn’t live up to our guests’ expectations or they don’t have a good time?

Of course, this is the type of spiral that calls for a well-grounded fiancé. During a planning meeting on our couch, with laptops open between us, Justin made a simple suggestion that cut through the questions. “What if we went back to square one?” he asked. “Let’s take a step back, look at our options again and focus on what really matters.”

We agreed to take the weekend to each make a definitive list of our top three spots. After spending a few days dog-sitting for my parents’ pups, I called Justin and said I couldn’t get the beach out of my mind. My family and our oldest friends have vacationed in the Outer Banks together for the past 21 summers, eating at our favorite breakfast spot, huddling around a bonfire, making each other laugh for days. What if we got married there? He chuckled and said OBX was at the top of his list.

With that, our wedding came into focus. We rented an enormous beach house with a picture-perfect backyard leading to the ocean, with room for our wedding party to stay and spend every sun-soaked second together. We scored the final weekend of off-season pricing and, might I add, paid less for five days of beachfront views than an eight-hour rental in Ohio. The smaller space necessitated a smaller wedding—and it was difficult to narrow our guest list down to 75—but it gave us the financial breathing room we needed to see our plans though.

Around the time I chose my wedding dress, we transitioned into planning the stylistic details, like finalizing the color scheme and choosing the flowers. I felt overwhelmed by the aesthetic elements in other people’s wedding posts on Instagram—embossed napkins, elaborate welcome signs, customized furniture. It wasn’t until I vented to my mom about my decision paralysis that the gears clicked back into place.

“You’re putting too much pressure on it,” she said. “The backdrop of the beach will do the work for you.” So, I stopped scrolling for inspiration and let the push and pull of the ocean and its surroundings encourage our design choices. We continued finalizing details in harmony until we reached the 90-day countdown, at which point we realized the wedding was swiftly transitioning from theory to reality.

After nine months apart, I tried on my wedding dress again, this time alone in a seamstress’ studio. She zipped me up and instructed me to twirl, both of us scanning my reflection for imperfections. I tried to picture this dress, this person in the scenes we created, like walking barefoot down the aisle and swaying on the dance floor. The dress was perfect, it was meant to be the star of those scenes, but was I the right person to wear it?

“What do you think?” the seamstress mumbled, with pins tucked between her lips.

“It looks amazing,” I replied, “but I don’t think I feel like a bride yet.”

“These girls said the same,” she remarked while gesturing to the wedding photos of past customers lining the walls. “You are the bride.”

I know this may seem hard to believe because I’ve been talking about myself for a while now, but Justin and I usually prefer to shift the spotlight onto others rather than ourselves. Luckily, our friends and family gave us plenty of opportunities to practice. Justin’s family hosted a lovely wedding shower in Ohio, and the following weekend, we celebrated with our East Coast family and friends at Union Craft Brewing.

Months away turned into weeks into days until suddenly we were packing the car with the contents of our year-long checklist. I felt strangely calm that day, confident in the weekend’s arrangements, until we loaded the final item into the backseat—my dress. Packing the dress meant it was really time to be the bride, time to find out whether the wedding, and I, could live up to expectations.

The next day, we opened the door of the house, which also doubled as our venue, and entered the beach weekend of our dreams. Our best friends filled every corner of the 20-person home, creating a constant hum of pool balls knocking, drinks clinking, and laughter ringing. On the day before the wedding, we seized the sliver of April sun, spending hours on the sand, uniting family and friends from different eras of our lives with games of cornhole and beer pong. As dusk fell, my dad and a team of family friends lit a beach bonfire, inviting our guests to gather around, chat, and sway to the music, just as we do every summer. As we walked back to the house, Justin and I paused at the dune’s summit to take in the view of everyone below—a scene that felt familiar yet fleeting.

“I can’t imagine what tomorrow is going to be like after a day like this,” Justin said, wrapping his arms around me.

We woke up smiling. The morning stretched on in a way I hoped would never end, as each passing hour brought more exhilaration (and anxiety) than the last. I kept reminding myself to stay present as my bridal party and I giggled through hair and makeup and exchanged tearful words over mimosas. But I couldn’t help it; I heard every doubt from the past year ringing in the back of my mind.

The final hour before the ceremony was a flash and my mom and Rebekah helped me into my dress. For the first time in days, I was alone, holding my bouquet and measuring my breaths. I picked up my train, tiptoed into the bathroom, and looked in the mirror. There she was—my bridal self. I held my gaze in the mirror long enough to make another vow. From that moment on, I would surrender to my emotions, allowing my love for Justin to guide me.

I know it’s terribly cliché to say my nerves vanished when I saw him, his eyes mirroring the shade of the waves behind him, but it’s true. With my toes planted in the sand, I could feel everything—the swells of emotion surging between us, my grandmother pressing her heart in the front row, the wind traveling from miles down the shore to dry our eyes.

As soon as we kissed as husband and wife, the energy around us quickened, and one moment ran into the next. The cheers of our guests ushered us into the backyard, which a local event team transformed with a clear-top tent and countless strings of twinkling lights. The transition into host mode came naturally, as we couldn’t wait to embrace each guest and gush over the ceremony with them. When we sat for dinner, Justin and I breathlessly pointed out every detail so we wouldn’t forget anything. Our wedding aesthetic wasn’t magazine-worthy, but it felt like us.

Dinner flew by and soon it was time for the heartfelt speeches, followed by the first dances, until we motioned for everyone to join us on the dance floor and without hesitation they followed, throwing arms and hips into the air.

The crowd migrated off the dance floor and my throat grew raw from emotion, because the wedding was over, and I didn’t want to say goodbye. Suddenly, cheering started rippling through the high-spirited group as Justin and three of his groomsmen took off their shoes and threw them into the yard. One after another, they jumped into the pool, their splashes and the cheering from the onlookers echoing through the night. I ran to the top of the stairs where Rebekah was videotaping, and she gave me a look.

“Quick, give me your earrings!” she said.

“Why?” I yelled.

And then I heard them. The people I love most in the world lined the pool, chanting my name. I let out a scream, pressing my palms onto my dress, feeling everything it symbolized beneath my fingertips. I saw my husband dancing in the deep end, motioning for me to join him and start the next chapter of our lives together.

I sprinted down the steps and started running toward the pool’s edge, then let my feet and the hem of my dress leave the concrete. As I flew through the air, the dress billowing up around me, the realization struck: I didn’t need to be anything other than myself to be a bride.


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