When the Best Man Was A Drag Queen
Her name was Miss Coco Chanel No. 5.
In five-inch designer shoes, she stood well over six feet tall. She wore an impeccably tailored, tangerine silk suit that was to-die-for. The pixie cut, fringed and sculpted close to her head, deliberately conjured Liza. Her makeup was flawless. Her eyes were framed with inch-long lashes. Her lipstick, a remarkable shade of red, emphasized her brilliantly white teeth. She completed her look with just the right touch of tasteful jewelry.
We watched her from the vantage point of our booth in Darling’s Diner. Admired how smoothly she sashayed up and down the aisle despite those heels. How effortlessly she swung the heavy serving trays to her shoulder. Even though she was one of a bevy of waitress-queens on the floor at Darling’s, she was, quite literally, a stand out.
She was graceful and gorgeous, and a complete stranger. None of us knew it yet, but in three hours, Miss Chanel was going to be our Best Man.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
* * * * * *
I had been quietly suffering from wedding fever for years, but together we had decided to wait to be legally, equally wed.
But that didn’t stop me from planning. Way in the back of the closet I had stashed a shoebox overflowing with fabric samples, brochures from reception venues and pictures torn from magazines. When the time came, I wanted to be ready.
My research included watching hours of TV shows focused around the Big Day. The programs always concluded with a shot of the lucky couple just before they embarked on their happily ever-after. I felt my eyes welling up with theirs when they’d say, bright faces turned to the camera, “It feels so great to be married!”
I cried because I could only imagine that feeling. And because I wanted it, too.
* * * * * *
Years later, my enthusiasm had waned. I thought about throwing the wedding box away. Seeing it made me feel sad and a little foolish.
But then, out of the blue, an email landed on my desktop one chilly April morning.
It announced a public commitment ceremony to take place in three weeks at the annual Equality Forum in the City, on the Piazza in Northern Liberties. It would be officiated by two ministers and a Rabbi. Interested couples were asked to register. Friends and family were welcome to participate.
The message brought back the familiar yearning. That night, TDL and I talked about it and changed our minds. We threw our visions of a wedding cake, a first dance and floral centerpieces out the window. For this event, no planning was needed. The only items required were us.
We registered. The wedding day countdown had begun.
* * * * * *
The closer the ceremony approached, the more nervous we became.
That morning, we woke up cranky from the previous night’s fitful sleep. TDL cracked lame jokes to ease the tension. I saw her hands shaking as she buttoned up her shirt.
It was time to go. But at the last minute she called me back into the bedroom and drew me next to her in front of the full-length mirror. “Let’s practice,” she said. We posed and grinned at our reflections for a few more minutes. Then she turned and faced me.
“Listen, I know this doesn’t count for anything. I know it’s not what we are really waiting for,” she said. “But I want you to know this means everything to me.”
I couldn’t speak so I just nodded. On our way out I grabbed a fistful of tissues to keep the waterworks at bay.
* * * * * *
So we ended up at Darling’s on the fringe of the Piazza that morning. The place was crowded. The main attraction at Darling’s was not the food, but the drag queens on parade. Not only were they the wait staff, serving up bacon, eggs and Bloody Marys with the utmost fabulosity, but also, they lined up to perform in the aisle, every hour on the hour.
The multiple costume changes slowed the service, but nobody seemed to mind.
When the skit was over, to our delight, Miss Chanel came to our table to take our order.
She politely asked what our plans were for the rest of the day. We told her we were participating in the ceremony. Hearing that, she grew grave. Asked had we been certain to register? We told her we had.
She congratulated us and asked how long we had been together.
Next, she asked in a concerned voice, “And who do you have here with you today? Is your family coming later?”
“No, it’s just us,” we replied in unison.
Miss Chanel gasped. She plunked down our water glasses to punctuate her words.
“Girl, that’s just awful. That breaks my heart. After sixteen years – well, that’s just not right.”
She took a deep breath. Then said, “If you don’t mind, I’d be honored to stand up for you, if you’d let me.”
We looked at each other. “Yes! We’d love it!” TDL exclaimed.
At that, Miss Chanel got right down to business.
“OK, honey, then here’s what we’ll do. You want to get a spot right up front near the stage. My shift here doesn’t end until 4. Humm. The ceremony’s at three. Humm.”
She drummed her long, beautifully manicured fingernails on the table while she worked out the problem.
“OK, I’ve got it — they’re going to announce it about five minutes before they start. When I hear that announcement I’ll slip out and meet you at the front. Make sure you look for me.”
So it was settled.
And as promised, a minute before three, Miss Chanel materialized beside us. In the triple-digit heat, she was fresh as a daisy. She had changed into a full length white lace gown that, she explained, befitted the occasion.
The sun was bright overhead as the ceremony began. There were over 100 couples on the Piazza that day.
I looked around at the crowd and saw couples of all ages, black and white and Asian. Some wore shorts and t-shirts, some wore suits. Here and there were a few bridal gowns. Many couples were surrounded by their parents and family. Many had their children in tow.
TV reporters with hand-held cameras wove among the crowd. They focused on the women in bridal gowns and some of the more outlandishly dressed male couples.
I had started to cry already. I wasn’t the only one. It was clear that this moment meant an awful lot to all of us.
The ceremony ended with a blessing. A great cheer went up from the crowd.
Miss Chanel hugged us and borrowed a tissue from me to wipe her own tears away.
We took pictures. We thanked her. She wished us good luck, and then slipped away into the crowd, back to the diner.
We knew it wasn’t “real.” We knew it wouldn’t change anything, legally or otherwise. But there is something about a public profession of your commitment to each other that matters, that makes a difference.
I felt different as we left the Piazza walking hand-in-hand. Like the couples on TV, we had had our moment, too.
They were right. It felt wonderful.
* * * * * *
Outside of the Piazza, a large crowd of people was strung along the road that led to the parking lot. They were singing and shouting. Clumps of them were holding signs. At the far end of the road, a man was yelling into a megaphone. As we drew closer, I could distinguish his words and could read the signs. My heart started beating faster.
Reporters and police were stationed at the fringes of the crowd. I saw a local news anchor doing an interview with an elderly couple. The man did the talking while the woman brandished her sign.
The picketers had arranged themselves on either side of the road, so that anyone headed from the Piazza to the parking lot had to walk through them. Somewhere in the middle of the throng, a table heaped with literature was set up. Several of the protestors were trying to pass out rosaries. Others tried to press pamphlets into the hands of the passersby.
Up ahead of us, I saw one of the demonstrators approach two young men walking together. I recognized them; they had been standing near us during the ceremony. The demonstrator planted himself in front of the couple, blocking their path. He gesticulated with his hands. In trying to step around them, the couple and the man bumped against each other. A brief tussle ensued until a policeman intervened.
TDL held my hand tightly as we walked through the phalanx of people and signs. We didn’t take any of the literature offered to us. When we passed the man with the megaphone, he shouted at our backs, “Repent! God loves you! Save your souls!”
Finally we made it to the parking lot. As I opened the car door, my wedding ring flashed in the sun.
I smiled back at it. I was happy, content. A feeling nothing the picketers could do or say could take away.