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  • Writer's pictureAmy Stephenson

A Toast to 2006

pure innocent babies in Fairbanks, Alaska, 2006

My book launch party happened to fall on the day of my ten year wedding anniversary, so I made 300 friends and strangers toast us. This is the story I told at the top of the show. [I'm just moving this over from Medium, which I no longer use.]

Ten years ago, around this time, I found myself in Anchorage, Alaska visiting a long (loooooong) distance friend and occasional hookup there who was stationed at the nearby army base.

We stayed in a cabin right on a lake that had no heat, electricity, or running water. Every night, we lit fires outside and swatted mosquitoes until the sun finished its excruciatingly slow descent behind the mountains after 14 hours of weirdly thin daylight. After a few days, we got restless. We were consumed by an overwhelming sense of momentum neither of us could explain or ignore. So we went with it, and decided impulsively to drive to Fairbanks.

Fairbanks, by the way, is 7 hours away by car, and we only knew two people there. The Driers. Alan, my hook-up, knew them, because, a few years earlier, he arrived in Anchorage with three days until he had to report to base and no plan whatsoever. So, he did what any normal person would do. He walked into a Barnes and Noble and talked to the nearest person he saw. Cathy Drier was that person, she technically did not even work at that Barnes and Noble, but fortunately for Alan she invited him to stay with her and her husband until he had to report to base. Alan accepted, she didn’t kill him and wear his skin, and the rest was history. The Driers, a working class couple in their fifties, later moved to Fairbanks. Only problem: we had no phone number for them. But we did have a home address thanks to a care package they’d sent him earlier.

So, we drove to their house using a map made of paper and hoped that they would be as hospitable as they’d been to Alan a few years earlier. On the way, I remember sitting in the passenger seat, looking out at mountains, and having no idea whether they were big mountains or small mountains, whether they were close or far away, because there were no trees, houses, or other roads or cars to use as a reference point. There’s no context in Alaska, I realized, to judge the scale of anything.

After it got dark, at some point, Alan abruptly pulled the the shoulder. “Look!” he whispered, and pointed through the windshield to the northern lights. They, like the mountains, at once looked close enough to touch, and too far away to comprehend. I was so disoriented and so overwhelmed that I remember laying down on the highway to watch, on my back, and I realized, I can’t hear traffic. I can’t hear anything. So I rolled onto my side and pressed my ear to the asphalt of the only road between the two biggest cities in the entire state. And I heard nothing. It was the aural equivalent of not being able to see your hand in front of your face. And I remember thinking, there is only me and this person. It’s just us. (And probably bears.)

Luckily, the Driers not only let us stay with them, but the next day, they loaded us into trucks and drove yet still more hours north, into the mountains. That day I rode a 4-wheeler for the first time, digging my fingers into Alan’s rib-cage. The Driers gave each of us a gun, in case of aforementioned bears. We drove around all day, stopping to eat the wild blueberries that grow like weeds up there and gawk at the rusting remains of oil rigs, as tall as the dinosaurs that everyone thinks fossil fuels come from. In Anchorage, the leaves had still been green. Up there, 150 miles from the arctic circle, they were postcard oranges and yellows.

i might not believe it really happened if i didn't have photos

Later, over dinner, windburned and exhausted, we helped the Driers set up their first-ever flip phone while they casually nagged us to get married before Alan shipped out to Iraq. “You’ll double your salary, children, don’t wait. And don’t you want to be the first person to get information about where he’ll be?”

“But that’s crazy,” we said.

“No, honey, it’s clerical. He’s going to war. Sign the paperwork. You can figure out the rest later.”

On the one hand, if you’d asked me 24 hours before if I ever planned to get married, I would have said, “No thanks, hard pass.” On the other hand, the man I could no longer deny that I loved was about to head off to Iraq. Like the mountains, like the northern lights, the scale of everything had shifted. The context evaporated. There was only me and him and this terrible thing we realized we’d been running from all week.

We started whispering about it after we went to bed that night. What if we really did get married? What if we get divorced? What if we’re only compatible long distance? What if our families hate us? (Spoiler alert, only mine would.) In the end, we couldn’t come up with a single reason compelling enough to override the madness and euphoria of a week with unfettered access to each other, even if we spent that week shivering by a fire and pissing in a nearby stream. Imagine how good it could be with indoor plumbing!

I had a social security card and two forms of ID, and I was over age 14, which, in the state of Alaska, meant I didn’t need parental consent. So, three days before Alan shipped out to Iraq, we ate pancakes, and then raced to the courthouse to sign paperwork before 4pm. My luggage had been lost, sent to Nome, so I was wearing a tee shirt I’d bought in the boys’ section of WalMart that said “GIRLS LOVE ME” on it. An army buddy of Alan’s was our witness, and he insisted on marrying anything and everything with his 24 hours of state-sanctioned nuptial power. “I now pronounce you man and wife,” he said to the salt and pepper shaker at the sports bar where we went to celebrate. And the three of us died laughing in that way when you’re in your twenties and you’re impossibly happy and everyone in the restaurant hates you.

Finally, his friend insisted on performing our ceremony. I had a chicken wing in my hand when it was my turn to say I DO. Alan wasn’t 21 yet, so he had to drink my beer during the toast. “We hope to see you at the divorce party next year,” we joked to his friend.

That night, that chicken wing, that sports bar, was ten years ago today. We always said that we would have a proper ceremony after ten years, but, you guys, this is way fucking better. Alan and I both come from broken, fucked-up, terrible environments, and the fact that we get to stand here today after a decade of hustling, with all these friends and people who love and support us, means EVERYTHING. So do me a favor and raise a glass.

Here’s what I want to drink to. Always trust yourself. You know what you need — nobody else does. Sláinte.

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