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The Best Man by Peter E. Murphy | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

July 20, 2016      

The Best Man by Peter E. Murphy

I have been a best man three times, but I wasn’t very good at it because all three marriages failed. One of these was my brother’s second marriage…or was it his third? He’s been married four times so it’s hard keeping track. It must be my fault, I thought, that all these marriages ended in divorce, so I tried to figure out what I did wrong. What are the duties of a best man? First, get the groom there reasonably sober. Second, don’t lose the ring. So far, so good. I delivered each guy and his ring to meet his fate in plenty of time. Then I remembered the third and most important job of the best man and realized my mistake. It was the Toast.
      Instead of telling the truth, I wished all three couples happiness. Are you married? Do you know people who are married? Then surely you know that marriage has nothing to do with happiness. I love the Beach Boys, but, “We could be married. And then we’d be happy.” Really? I myself have been happily married fifteen years. Trouble is, I’ve been married more than forty. There were some good years in the 70’s, a few in the 80’s. We were miserable in the 90’s, and the aughts were rough, but the last few years have been okay. Fifteen years out of forty…not bad, especially because my wife and I met because of what I refer to as “The Big Lie.”
      I was flying from New York to Oklahoma with a beautiful woman I’ll call “A.” We were reading our poems to each other during the flight. Sitting across the aisle from me was an even more beautiful woman, “B.” “I love poetry,” B said, and—I am terrible—soon I was reading my poems to her and only her.
      B and I got married exactly one year later.
      B and I were happy, we were in love, and, excuse me for being redundant, we were stupid, at least I was. About three months into this fairy tale, we were supposed to go to a poetry reading. “You’d better get ready,” I said, “or we’ll be late.”
      “I’m not going.”
      “Why not?”
      She smiled and said, “I don’t like poetry.”
      “What!?” I said, holding my chest like a heart attack victim in a bad movie. “But you said you loved poetry.”
      “I lied.”
      “What!?” I repeated. “How could…”
      “I don’t love poetry,” she interrupted, “I don’t even like it, but I love you, and you love poetry. So I’ll never get in the way.”
      Thus, “The Big Lie.”
      However, my bride has kept her promise for more than four decades and has never gotten in the way. I am telling you this from Catalonia in northern Spain. Two weeks ago I was in Puerto Rico. A few weeks before that I was in Wales. When I get home, she’ll be on a business trip half a continent away. By the time she returns, I’ll be gone again. Our marriage has lasted so long because we’re not together very much. And when we are, we actually miss each other and have a lot to talk about. I should write a “How-to” book. Imagine the blurb on the cover: “Want your marriage to outlive your hamster? Stay away from each other as long as you can.”
      Actually, the secret of a successful marriage has little to do with happiness. The secret is learning how to suffer together. In case another fool asks me to be his best man I composed a toast that would tell the truth, a toast that would prepare the naïve lovers for a life of misery and anguish. Then I wondered why I was called the best man? Shouldn’t the guy getting married be the best? When you’re vacationing in Maine you don’t say, “I’ll have your second best lobster.” Hell no. You want the one with claws the size of Rhode Island.
      Yet women don’t marry the best man. They marry the groom. You know where that word comes from, don’t you? Think of a horse trotting around the paddock, sowing his oats, leaving the toilet seat up and his underpants on the floor. When it’s time to get married, they toss a lasso around his neck and drag him into the barn where they groom him. Think about it. He drops a Ben Franklin on a rented tux. Ten minutes after returning it to the shop and getting his deposit back he couldn’t tell you if it was solid or pinstriped. But does she rent her dress? Of course not. She remortgages her parents’ house to buy it, wears it once, vacuum seals it in a plastic pouch, then stores it like a relic in the bedroom closet. What does this say about commitment?
      And what is she called? The bride, a word that also comes from horses. They strap a bridle around the nag’s head so she won’t bite and do what she’s told. Turn left. Turn right. Stop! No wonder these things don’t work. The language is all wrong.
      As I was writing my toast it evolved into a short poem that appeared in a small literary journal. Then the New York Times republished it (What does that say about the decline of newspapers?) and finally, when I included it in a collection of poems, I thought it had retired from public life for good. Wrong again.
      My daughter is one of the smartest people I know, so smart that after working for me for seven years, she switched things around so now I work for her. But despite being so smart she decided to get married. A few weeks before D-Day, her fiancé asked if I would read “The Toast” at their wedding.
      “No way,” I said.
      “I really like that poem.”
      “You actually read it?” I said surprised. A son-in-law who reads poetry?
      It was a lovely wedding, but unfortunately, the marriage withered like the balloons in the reception hall.
      That’s it, I thought. I’ll never have to read “The Toast” again. But then a former student asked me to read it at her wedding. “No,” I pleaded. “No.” She insisted. I gave in. That marriage was shorter than some hangovers I’ve had.
      I decided not only would I never again be anyone’s best man. I would never read “The Toast” at anyone’s wedding no matter how much the poor souls getting married begged me to do it. But, if you’ve hung in this long, you may as well hear it.
      Imagine, it’s the big day and the bride and groom have just done the dirty deed. No, not the one you’re thinking of. They’ve been doing that for a while. What I mean is, they’ve just said, “I do.” We are in the reception hall where you raise your glass of champagne. I raise my glass of ginger ale (That’s another story), and I recite…

The Toast
           Do not throw the soft bodies of rice
at these we love. Instead, pelt them
                        with rocks. Scar their smooth skins

stanza break
           with the sharpest stones.
                        Make the groom bleed and the bride weep.
May they never forget this reception

                        in honor of their lives together.
May they learn that when one wears clothing
           that catches on fire, the other must beat them

to save them from burning.
Stubborn Child (Jane Street Press, 2005)

Peter_Murphy_NYCAbout the author:

Peter E. Murphy was born in Wales and grew up in New York City where he operated heavy equipment, managed a nightclub and drove a cab. He is the author of seven books and chapbooks including Stubborn Child, a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize. His recent essays and poems appear in The Common, Diode, Guernica, The Hawaii Pacific Review, The Lindenwood Review, Mead, The New Welsh Reader, Passager, Rattle and Rhino. He is the founder of Murphy Writing of Stockton University which organizes the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway and other programs for poets, writers and teachers in the U.S. and abroad.

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