Iowa Wedding

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April Newman

“What about buttons for favors? Here look at this one, I Heart Science,” Kara said.

“Hmm… my vote’s for I Shotgun Zombies.” I replied.

“Let’s get ‘em all! It’s our wedding!” And we did, adding several other designs like Old School (which depicted the planets inour solar system but still included Pluto) or Go Big or Go Gnome (complete with yard gnome). One of my favorites was a silhouette of an Iowa prairie bursting with a cartoon rainbow. We scattered the button favors on the checkered tables of the reception on my Aunt Joan’s lawn. And they looked perfect, perched next to the vases exploding with wild flowers Martha grew.

It was hot and on the verge of raining that day. But our guests said that the minute we stood on the lawn for the ceremony, the clouds actually parted and dripped us with a ray of sunshine for the vows.  The folks standing on the sidewalk said that two hawks played in the sky above our heads; they dove and spun around one another as we kissed. Of these things I can’t say. Honestly, from my spot on the lawn, I was just trying not to breakdown into a fit of crying buffoonery, and the only way to do that was focus on Kara’s face, her crystalline blue eyes. Beyond that was a colorful blur, faces mixed into the lawn in peach, red, green and yellow. All the best people from my life on a menagerie of blankets, radiating nothing but good vibes to us. Hands down—the best day ever.

I never thought I would marry another woman in my hometown. Growing up in Iowa in the 1980’s, there was only one gay boy at Washington Jr. High School—Calvin Tanning. When Calvin walked down the hall by himself, kids barked at him. He was eleven-years old. Rumor had it that Calvin put peanut butter on his privates and made his German Shepherd, Chance, lick it off. Hence, all the woof, woof, woofing up until high school.  So Iowa certainly wasn’t my first choice of places for Kara and I to link our hands and lives in marriage.


Why even bother getting married? Illinois doesn’t recognize marriages from other states, unless they are heterosexual unions. (And the Domestic Partnerships come with zero rights so skip that.) I can’t file my taxes as a couple in Illinois or with the feds. And isn’t it for the rights that people get married? If you’re a mobster it’s worth it—you can tell all your dirty secrets to your wife—and she has the right not to testify against you. And if you’re married and have a baby, the bonus is that neither of you has to pay to adopt the kid—even if you’re both infertile and bought the eggs from EBay.

But I didn’t think of any of these things when I decided to marry Kara.

I woke up one night dreaming that Kara died. The terror of that idea made me gasp awake. And suddenly my throat didn’t work anymore, my breath was garbled. Even thinking of it now makes me panic, eyes tear over and a world of pain erupts in my chest— sending a numbing chill up my neck. It edges out all thoughts of any human happiness. But that night, Kara simply rolled over, her arm warm as it slung across my belly, and she tucked her chin into the crook of neck, totally sleep. And the moment I felt her arm, snap—I was back, and safe in our room.

It wasn’t for the surplus of rights that I wanted to get married. It was to respect this invisible thing between us, this thing that means she can save my life—with a touch, a nod, even in sleep, something ancient and instinctual that kicks me back into my senses and makes me carry on. Being married in Iowa meant I committed to preserve that connection, to keep us safe from any vultures. My life is her life. My home is her home. And when I die, there will be no distant cousin swooping in to collect our dog, Kona, or drive off in our Hyundai—because they can.

We took four trips back home to Dubuque to make plans for our big wedding day. I tried to do this long distance, find vendors and caterers on the net. Because I was still wary of the town that raised me, and that junior high torment of Calvin fresh in my mind. I clung to the cyber world and the bonus of not having to meet discrimination face-to-face. Send out an email with “Lesbian Wedding” in the subject line, and you sort of wheedle out any homophobes. I cut the awkward moment of having to forcibly toss around female pronouns to get the point across of, you know— bride and bride.

What I learned was something surprising—the dichotomy of city vs. country in our wedding prep was defiantly more of an obstacle than my prediction of the notion of straight people paired against gay people. Iowa, specifically Dubuque, operates on a system of old cultural rules and nuances when it comes to commerce. A shop might have a website, but the owners won’t check the traffic or read the email you sent. You gotta drop on by.

Here’s an example. My email subject line, “Lesbian Wedding in Need of Pie,” and had gone unanswered from three bakeries in the area. I decided I needed to take to the phones.

“Hi. I’m getting married in Dubuque this summer I wanted to know about placing an order for some pecan and cherry pies.” I said.

“Oh? Well where are you from?” Came the voice on the line.

“Well. I’m from Dubuque, but I live in Chicago.”

The voice was instantly springtime. “Really? What’s your name then?”

“It’s Newman—but my mom was a Bodnar.” Being native, I know the rules. You list all the names of your family and if that doesn’t work, then the Catholic parish.

“A Bodnar girl you say? I knew your grandfather then, Andrew, used to see him mass at the Cathedral on Wednesdays. Your grandfather was such a good man.” I could hear her sigh.

“Ya, he was good people… So could I make an appointment about those—”

“Oh no, dear, you just come on by.” She said with a hush.

But I was not going to be derailed. I live in the Chi-town—got me some big shoulders! “Ok. So is there a date when I can be sure to catch you, in case you’re not there?”

She laughed. “You know where we’re at then? Just up the street from the cemetery on Winthrop. You just drop on by whenever, dear.” Click.

That’s Iowa— folks casual, but personal and stubborn as all get out. It’s annoying if you have a deadline or a budget. But reassuring if you think about it this way—you’re always welcome to come ‘round. (Which leads to the sort off flotsam and jetsam dinners my family hosts.) Dealing with the ramifications of pricing, or how to buy things without relying on the net was the unexpected part. The other part, the part I feared—treatment in response to our marriage, eye rolls, dirty looks, or infamous dyke jokes didn’t come to play the way I anticipated.

I was nervous when Kara and I walked hand-in-hand into the courthouse to get the marriage license. But holding hands was what I needed just to get out the car and through the old doors of gold-domed building. When I was a kid, I regularly stopped by the courthouse, scurrying inside under the bronze statue of the woman, Justice, perched the building’s crown. My Aunt Joan worked in the offices, and we would occasionally drop by for lunch or she’d give us an insider tour, the best secret places like the break room or the hidden balcony where the employees smoked. I expected that because Dubuque still felt culturally the same in my absence—that the layout of the courthouse would have remained as untouched as a ship in a jar.

The first conflict with that view was the monstrous metal detector and country sheriff stationed inside the glass ready to do pat downs. It was a Wednesday morning, and the only peeps coming at that time were us lesbians. Down with messenger bags and off with the coats and into the belly of the detector. The cop giving the pat down was immediately recognizable. Mr. Shipley, the dad of my sister’s elementary school friend. His face was tugged down with age, hair now all gray, and he didn’t pay any attention to my face. Which made me nervous. Were we going to have to throw down to get that marriage license? I decided to chat him up and neutralize the threat, “Metal detectors? Last time I was here they didn’t have any.” My voice was chipper.

“We’ve had incidents of people bringing in knives and such. Step this way.”

And he patted me down.

“Really? Knives?” The Dubuque County Courthouse had gotten so serious since I grew up. And yet I couldn’t help but compare it to my recollections of Court in Chicago, lines down the friggin’ block in the underbelly of Daley Plaza. You’re ten people deep behind every walk of life and can hear enough noise that it’s like a train station, sans the homeless people. Then there are the blue coat cops marching around, and I’d never dream of saying something witty to the CPD because of all the press about brutality. I think going to court in Chicago would make Mr. Shipley wet his pants.

He ignored me and went on to pat down Kara. And so I smiled. Because there is something ridiculous about your partner getting a pat down from a government employee in latex gloves. Something scary and 1984 about the fear that institutes such policy. But also something wickedly funny, as you see someone bent over in a breezeway at 11:00am.

Inside the doors, Kara was boiling with excitement, skipping as she crossed the lobby with the stone fountain. I was especially calm. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I expected second hand treatment, some barking in the hall. We walked up the marble stairs to the fourth floor where Aunt Joan works. Although a tiny lady, maybe 5’5, she nearly leapt over the desk to give us hugs and spent the next ten minutes introducing us to all her co-workers and bosses. Telling them about our upcoming wedding, proud as any aunt should be. And all of these strangers looked into our eyes and touched our hands, pleased as punch.

So back downstairs to the Clerk’s Office where we would do the deed and complete our state application. Now that certainly wasn’t going to be as easy, right? With all this hullabaloo and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and gay bashing across the board, that was going to be a tribulation, right?

I stepped into the narrow corridor and looked over to see a sunny, blond woman named Andrea Hartman, whom I once knew as Andrea Kuhle (when we had yearbook together in high school). Andrea was unchanged; a sweet smile crept across her face. Aunt Joan shepherded us up to the counter readjusting her glasses, and we pulled out our ID’s. Andrea glanced at mine and laughed, “Oh, I don’t need to see that, April,” she beamed. And we spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands and introducing Kara. My smile was so big it stung my cheeks.

I watched Andrea write our names on the forms and it was surreal, because I remembered how her handwriting looked in school, so clear, like it rolled out of her fingers in San Serif. And here it was again, unfolding across the paper that would mean I could marry not just the love of my life, but Kara. The girl with a big grin, bigger voice and the best eyes on the plant. (Always has them buried in the covers of books like Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl or World War Z.) I’m sure she had on a taxi driver cap and probably gaudy, stripped socks.

“You know, this job seems like a strangely good fit for you,” I mused to Andrea, flashing back to high school. It made me remember her, always with a camera pulled across her neck, and how she took the best pictures. We were assigned the duty of photographing a wrestling meet once, and I was in a hurry to snap off a few rolls and get the hell out to hang with my friends. All my shots were predictable— two dudes struggling on the mat, trying to get a shot of the takedown. The coach yelling. I glanced at Andrea, who was watching the crowd. She took her time, picking across the scene, then crouching and firing off a series of shots. When we went back to the darkroom to develop the pictures, the faces in Andrea’s shots bloomed from the developer and told a story.

First shot: a couple seated next to each other cheering in the bleachers. He has on a football jersey and she is wearing a high school sweater. They are in hyper focus while the faces of the crowd jammed around them are blurred. The next shot: the guy stuffs a lollipop into his mouth while the girl cheers. The middle shot: they hand off the sucker, grey and shining in the black and white matte finish, touching soft hands. The last shot: the lollipop is swallowed by the girl’s mouth. What’s great about these pictures is that none of the subjects are looking at each other, the photographer, or even that lollipop. All their attention is focused out and onto the wrestlers. Which shows us the story of really living, being lost in a moment, the power of attention. And I knew Andrea could see the these intimate stories in people, how love just creeps out in gestures, even when surrounded by defining noise, the squeals of a gymnasium. Andrea just saw people. And when I saw her pictures dripping on the line, I wished I had taken them.

Now we were fast-forwarded over a decade, back standing on brown carpet with a massive desk in between us (that felt like it rose up to my neck). Here is this person from my memory all grown up and doing something unexpected, but fitting. Signing the pages of our application, paying attention to all the little details— making sure our love story got told in some small way.

Thinking about it was overwhelming, my cheeks twitched like I might cry. Kara hooked her elbow in mine as she sensed the quaking of my face. That’s when Aunt Joan quizzed Andrea about whether or not she was planning the holiday party that year, and then told Andrea all about the wedding and reception at her place, and won’t that be nice, and why not stop by? And we waved, and nodded. I managed to walk out of the lobby past the gushing fountain to grab Kara’s hand outright, and not cry until we were back in the car. It was a different kind of devastation, the best kind—feeling so accepted in place I just knew wouldn’t love us, really love us, for who we were. And suddenly it was like all these tombstones of fear and shame cracked on top of my chest. I was so grateful to show myself to the people of my childhood—it was a big, happy sort of cry, and then I laughed at myself, catching a glimpse of my red eyes in the rearview mirror. Kara shook her head, maybe a little frightened by my wild emotions and unsure what to say next. She might have quoted Gertrude Stein if she read Everybody’s Biography, “You are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa and really strange and you live as you live and you are always well taken care of if you come from Iowa.”

Photos courtesy of Julie Sadowski at Grayscale Photography.  To see more of Julie’s photos, go to

About the author…

April Newman is a freelance writer and professor.  Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Mindful Metropolis and various spots online.  She lives happily ever after in Chicago with her wife Kara.

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