- Get married. It’s a prerequisite for a couple of other bucket list items. And I get to kiss somebody’s grown daughter in front of everybody.
So I’ve been back from my honeymoon in Bermuda for a week and I now fully understand what the late great Mahatma Gandhi meant when he wrote “where there is love, there is life”. Exactly 2 weeks ago, I got married. It was the completion of a very long, gut-wrenching, emotionally draining, and sometimes tumultuous journey. I joined the love of my life in holy matrimony before family and friends and I feel as if I’ve been given a new lease on life. I can’t remember a time where I’ve felt so happy, so energized. Looking back on everything that I went through—all of the hurts, all of the disappointments—makes the moment (and more importantly, the feeling) worth it.
Way back in November, I shared the story of me completing Item 40 on my bucket list, which was to “propose in stunning fashion”. I certainly did that no doubt. Today, I’m sharing the story of getting married.
Almost immediately after I proposed to her on the Chūō Special Rapid, Mercedes went into wedding planning mode. I’m serious. The very next morning, she was on my notebook computer looking up possible wedding venues and asking me about prospective wedding dates. I tried to deflect as long as I could because I simply just wanted to enjoy the moment of being newly engaged. It seemed like she wanted to get to the finish line as soon as possible…and it kinda turned me off initially. It turns out, according to all of my guy friends and acquaintances that are married, that this is the norm. It didn’t make it any less nerve-racking though. After some early conflict on wedding dates—I preferred an October or November wedding, she preferred a summer wedding—we agreed to a summer wedding. Maybe more of me conceding than actual agreeing but whatever. After all, a wise person once told me “the engagement is about you, the wedding is about her”.
With a summer wedding confirmed, we went about looking for venues. We considered a destination wedding but that would’ve been much more hassle than it was worth…and it would’ve likely meant that people important to us wouldn’t get a chance to share in the moment. So we decided to go with a traditional ceremony and reception. We chose the Atlanta metropolitan area because it was an easy area to get to for all of our guests…her New York-based family, her friends around the country, my Birmingham-based family and my friends from major international points. We looked at 5 venues as possible locations: Ashton Gardens in Gwinnett County, Hazlehurst House in McDonough, the Conservatory at Waterstone in Acworth, the Emory Conference Center Hotel in the Druid Hills neighborhood of Atlanta, and Glendalough Manor in Tyrone. All of the venues were actually pretty nice places and they all offered wonderful amenities that would’ve made the ceremony and reception enjoyable but we ultimately decided on Hazlehurst House because they were more flexible in terms of the customization options Mercedes wanted and because their contingency plan (in the event of rain) was better than the others. It also didn’t hurt that the price point wasn’t bad for what they included in their packages. We decided on a Sunday evening ceremony and reception, choosing June 26th as the date of significance.
For the most part, I let Mercedes do all of the wedding planning. I contributed to some of the planning such as the intricate details of video and photography, invitation designs, and some of the other stuff that needed a man’s touch but I was largely hands off throughout the process. Of course, I kept a close eye on the budget to ensure she wasn’t getting out of control. I guess for me, the actual wedding wasn’t as important as the marriage at-large so my interest in the planning process wasn’t high. Part of the stuff that needed a man’s touch was me coordinating my side of the wedding party. My best man was set in stone way back before I left for the Tokyo assignment in the Air Force…maybe even as far back as Honors US History 10 in 2001. The rest of my groomsmen included my good friends Adrian, Alonzo, Jamarvis, and Justin. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that was the quartet whom I shared my marriage vision with on the train ride to Makuhari Messe several years ago. Unfortunately, Justin had to withdraw because he wasn’t granted leave from his military assignment in South Korea to participate. Of course, my mother and father were in the party. The final person in my party was the officiant: an elder from my church in Tokyo. With Mercedes selecting blush and gold as our wedding colors, it took black and navy blue off the table for me as an option for the groom’s party attire. The blush, in particular, was the reason because it was very light—sort of like lavender blush, if I had to put an exact name on it—and I felt the color contrast was too extreme. I’ve long written in Triumphs & Tribulations that I’d never wear a white suit or tuxedo at my wedding and I’ve never entertained the thought of wearing any of the traditional pastel colors in formal dress. Realistically, for me, that left dark gray and tan as the only viable options after I also eliminated red for being too difficult for all of my groomsmen to acquire. When I visited Men’s Wearhouse and saw their options, I quickly came to the conclusion that I was going with tan after seeing this arrangement. I decided that my groomsmen would wear pink neckties and I would complement with an old gold necktie. Aside from that, everything else was the same for us. Mercedes was probably a bit more thorough with her side but this is the Book of Juan so you’ll have to ask her about her side.
THE GUEST LIST POLITICS. Initially, we had plans for a huge wedding…like 120-150 guests. I mean, I know at least 60-75 people I would’ve wanted see me say “I do”. But then, the reality of wedding costs set in and we decided to go much smaller…like 60-75 people smaller. We eventually agreed to 65—33 guests for her, 32 for me. My wedding party (and their plus-ones) ate up just over ⅓ of my spots. The remaining spots went to select family members, my female co-best friends that could make it, and a few others who served as crucial influences in my life. When the initial invitations went out, there were some people who were unable to make it, which afforded me the opportunity to extend invites to others. But still, there were some people I just wasn’t able to accommodate with the limited number I was working with. There were a few people that were upset with me because of this. I believe they call it the politics of the wedding guest list. In particular, there was one of my aunts on my father’s side who was very pissed off that I invited one of my aunts and not her. She went as far as to actually call my father and tell him to demand that I extend her an invite. I laughed at it but I did call her and explain why she didn’t get the invite. She wasn’t happy and countered that I should invite all family before anybody else. I suppose she thought it was one of those old school weddings where you get married at your neighborhood church and have a potluck-style reception at somebody’s house or in a community center gym. Yeah, in that scenario, you can invite the whole damn neighborhood if you want. That wasn’t the case for my wedding. I had numbers to keep in terms of attendees and overall financial costs. The really crazy thing is I actually extended her an invite after I got a cancellation about a week before the wedding and she declined. All of that fuss told me it wasn’t about her wanting to come to the actual wedding…it was about me sending that invite to her sister and not her. Once I navigated through the wedding guest list politics, I was free and clear to late June.
In terms of pre-wedding festivities, it was pretty standard. We had a wedding rehearsal and dinner, a bridal shower for the bride, a day of select activities for the groom.
REHEARSAL. We had the wedding rehearsal on the Friday before the wedding. I thought the walkthroughs were pretty clean. For me, I actually had a couple of options regarding my entrance: from the side via the venue’s courtyard or down the aisle from the street. I tried both and I felt more comfortable coming in from the side. My mission was to get to be at the altar as quickly and efficiently as possible. Besides, me walking down the aisle with Jeremie and the officiant flanking me wasn’t something I was feeling. The rehearsal gave me a chance to get a grasp for the officiant’s flow and how exactly he was going to govern the ceremony. Afterwards, we met at one of the meeting spaces in the hotel for the post-rehearsal dinner. This is where I met almost all of Mercedes’ family for the first time. Up until that point, I had only met her mother. It was a fun time. Plenty of food (Olive Garden catered for us), fellowship, and laughs.
THE BRIDAL SHOWER GIFTS. The next day—Saturday—was the date for Mercedes’ bridal shower as well as my Bachelor Day activities. While Mercedes was out and about doing her last-minute Bridezilla thing before her bridal shower, I met with one of the bridesmaids and handed her two gifts with very specific instructions on how they were to be presented. One of the gifts was a sayonara doll that I copped in Narita Nakamise at Narita International Airport way back on May 3, 2010 as I was leaving Japan for the final time to return home to the United States. It was literally the last thing I purchased during my residency on the island nation. When I moved to the Maryland suburbs of DC a couple of weeks later, the doll had a permanent place on the top of my IKEA Expedit unit, where it was largely untouched next to my Airman of the Year trophy. As a matter of fact, I only moved it from its perch 3 times in the last 6 years before presenting it a couple of weeks ago: (1) the move from Maryland to South Korea in June 2012, (2) the move from South Korea to Opelika in May 2013, and (3) the 10 minutes I took it off in September 2014 to write on the scroll. On the scroll was a poem I wrote for Mercedes just minutes after getting home from our first in-person meeting. Originally slated to be her Christmas gift in 2014, I decided against it just a couple of days before Christmas and got her a Keurig, which I believe there may be some regret about that somewhere down the line. I wrote in Triumphs & Tribulations XV that I would present it to her either as a bridal shower gift or a 1st anniversary gift, since it represented paper. Dozens of times Mercedes has been in my home and she’s no doubt seen the sayonara doll but never knew it was her doll. The other gift was a wood-burned portrait that I had commissioned in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. It was to feature a portrait of Mercedes burned into the wood alongside a line of text that read “worth more than rubies” – Proverbs 31:10, which I took from the New Century Version of the Holy Bible. For Mercedes, I would’ve absolutely ended my Delta boycott by taking a 15-hour nonstop from Atlanta to Seoul to set it up…and again to pick it up. Fortunately for me, one of my co-best friends was in her final months of a military assignment at Osan Air Base. I asked her if she could set it up for me. She was happy to do so. It took a month but it was well worth the wait as the artist delivered a wonderful product to Lisandra, who noticed that he didn’t burn the text as I requested. Instead of the aforementioned “worth more than rubies” – Proverbs 31:10, it read Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above rubies. – Proverbs 31:10. Lisandra said that she could get him to re-do it but I very quickly realized that the artist used the New King James Version of that verse. To me, that was a sign from God not to shortchange what I was doing. It also meant that the artist was a Christian. I told Lisandra to just send it as is and she got it to me within 5 days. I had it gift-wrapped and I placed it in my safe deposit box at the bank for 2 months until the bridal shower. That brings me back to the presentation. The instructions I gave the bridesmaid, though simple, had to be followed precisely…a point I emphasized. The first gift to be presented was the wood-burned portrait. The instructions called for the matron of honor to present by saying “Some tokens of love require a trip to the other side of the world…” after which Mercedes would unwrap the gift and be introduced to her wood-burned likeness. The second gift—the sayonara doll—would be presented by Mercedes’ mom with her saying “…while others are here all along hiding in plain sight”. Mercedes would then reach into the gift bag and discover the doll that she’s seen on divers occasions in my home. Apparently, it went down exactly like that as many of the attendees to the bridal shower were effusive in praise of that move by me the next day during the wedding reception. Mercedes, herself, was actually overcome with tears as she called me after the event.
BACHELOR DAY. For the most part, I keep it mellow. I made it a point during my Match.com days to let women know this upfront. I made it clear that I wasn’t the type to be in nightclubs poppin’ bottles nor am I going to that guy in the local gentlemen’s club getting motorboated by Tits McGee in a G-string while making it rain. It just wasn’t my style. My groomsmen are pretty much cut from the same cloth. So when the thought of my bachelor party came up for discussion, going to a nightclub for strong drinks or going to a strip club to get lap dances wasn’t even a consideration. We decided to (1) visit the College Football Hall of Fame in Downtown Atlanta, (2) have a go-kart competition—the Just Juan Bachelor Day Grand Prix—at K1 Speed in Duluth, and (3) dinner and games at Dave & Busters, also in Duluth. The trip to College Football Hall of Fame was actually my 2nd visit to the venue having been there last year as a birthday gift from Mercedes. The groomsmen and I all thoroughly enjoyed the museum. We all took turns as mock analysts on the ESPN College GameDay booth and took pictures with various trophies, mementos, and other minutiae from the college football world. We also took our turns in the Chick-fil-A Fan Experience, where I wasn’t as sharp in hauling in a pass. I also missed an extra point wide right. Afterwards, we threw down a few chicken sandwiches from the adjacent Chick-fil-A and made our way out to Duluth for the go-kart racing. From the moment we got into K1 Speed, you could feel the competition in the air. This wasn’t a surprise to me as Alonzo, Adrian, Jamarvis, and I had many competitive battles in just about everything during our time in Japan. Furthermore, me and Jeremie have raged some very competitive battles in fantasy football and in pickup basketball. We did a 12-lap practice run to get comfortable with the go-karts and to make necessary adjustments for qualifying and the final run. During qualifying, which was a 14-lap run, I spun out on Lap 3 while I was leading and I never made up the ground, finishing 6th out of 7 drivers. That’s where I started for the 16-lap final run, where I drove a really good race. I literally had the fastest car on the track but because I started so far back from the pole position, I ended up finishing 4th. I was pretty much battling Jamarvis for 3rd for the last 10 laps of the race before he pulled that Cole Trickle slingshot maneuver from Days of Thunder and took 3rd for good on the last lap. The officiant ended up winning the Grand Prix from the pole position, having led the race wire-to-wire. Adrian finished 2nd, followed by Jamarvis, myself, Jeremie, Alonzo, and a family friend. After taking pictures on the podium and giving our own individual takes on what happened in the final run, we all went to eat at Dave & Buster’s. We ate good there and talked about how we all came to that particular point in life. Each of the guys told me what I meant to them and the officiant shared with me an observation he had made from back in our Tokyo days. The entire day was enough for me and I didn’t have to down hard liquor or have some chick’s tits and ass in my face.
THE CEREMONY. The next morning, I woke up early. I literally didn’t sleep well. It was nothing bad or anything…just anticipation of a moment I had been long anticipating for years. I looked out of the hotel window and saw the sun rise. I met with my best man shortly after breakfast to address an issue with the socks…not everybody was able to get the same color. I just ended up getting new socks for the entire crew: it was an addition to the gifts I gave each of them as my groomsmen. The day was beautiful early…it was partly cloudy and not too hot. But it didn’t last long as a thunderstorm rolled through the area around midday. It cleared out around 3pm…with plenty of time for things to dry for a 6pm ceremony. It was pretty steamy outside though, which made it all the better that we had those hand fans available for the attendees to the outdoors portion. After I got banished from my hotel suite as the bride and her team went about getting themselves ready, I spent some time with my father before I departed for the venue. The way Hazlehurst House is set up for weddings, the groom’s party occupies the basement level and the bride’s party occupies the top level. All of us guys were down in the basement getting ourselves all GQ and just enjoying the moment. It was a really plush suite. If I had thought better of it, I would’ve brought my PlayStation 4 and we could’ve had some runs on NBA 2K16 while we prepped. The photographer came in and got some pictures of us getting ready before running us through the gamut outside. After posing for pictures with all of the groomsmen and my father, I had the customary blindfolded kiss photo with the bride before the videographer mic’d me up. From there, it was showtime. Me, Jeremie, and the officiant walked out from the side through the courtyard to Stan Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” just like I dreamed it up. My mother and father had already made their walks down the aisle before I came out. Seeing all of the guests in their seats looking at me was kinda intimidating as I’ve never been comfortable with being the center of attention. The bridesmaids and their groomsmen escorts made their way down the aisle, followed by the matron of honor. And then, it happened. My bride and her escort—her mother—came walking down the aisle. It was in that instant of seeing her in the wedding dress walking towards me that something that very rarely happens to me happened: I lost my composure. I started crying. I tried to fight back the tears initially but the moment was just too much for me. My best man gave me a pat on the shoulder and the officiant told me it was OK. For a lot of people in attendance—and watching around the world as the ceremony was broadcast live on YouTube via a Google Hangouts hack I figured out—it was the first time they had ever saw me cry. My normally stone-face, stoic, and nonchalant demeanor—essentially trademarks of who I am—gave way to a man in his most vulnerable moment. When Mercedes got to me, she saw that I was crying and made an attempt to wipe the tears from my face. The officiant proceeded with the ceremony. He explained why the occasion was important and gave biblical examples to back it up. Then came our vows. Mercedes went first and pulled out her notes. She recounted the story of me literally laying on the floor of her apartment waiting to tend to her as she was suffering from flu-like symptoms. For her, that was the moment she knew. I had my vows memorized from nearly 2 weeks of practice. However, my emotional state had me discombobulated so I ended up fumbling through some of it but I was able to get the central message across. We both said “I do” and did the rings. The officiant followed up with Mercedes and I doing a small communion before we assembled our unity cross. And just like that, we were Mr. & Mrs. AnJuan Thomas. I kissed my bride and walked back down the aisle and into the married life.
THE RECEPTION. After maybe 45 minutes or so of pictures, Mercedes and I made our grand entrance into the reception area of Hazlehurst House. We had our first dance before we convened to the sweetheart table. The food was prayed over and we all ate. Many of the guests made their way over to congratulate us. One of those people was my spiritual mother and we both shared an incredibly emotional moment that brought us both to tears. The best man and the matron of honor gave their toasts…two very well-presented speeches. Mercedes and I cut the cake. During the dinner phase of the reception, I didn’t do too much eating…only a couple of bites, actually. I made my way around to every table and spoke with every guest in attendance. Everyone was very pleasant and congratulatory of my moment…and of the food, which apparently drew rave reviews. Afterwards, we all convened to the outdoors patio for dancing and socializing. Then, it was time for the bouquet and garter tosses. For Mercedes, the bouquet toss was pretty simple. All of the single ladies—and there weren’t many in attendance—lined up and she threw the bouquet over her shoulder. Her cousin caught the bouquet but she was overridden by her aunt, who seemed to really want that bouquet. Next up was me and the garter toss but first, I had to get the garter. A couple of days before the wedding, I had worked out some details with the DJ to set up a garter gag. Mercedes was seated at a chair in which her dress would cover the following items underneath the chair: (1) a GPS, (2) a mouse trap, (3) a firework, and (4) a doll. I went head first under Mercedes’ dress and pulled out each item with the DJ stopping the music each time to explain each item. Finally, I got to the garter. I tossed it behind me and to my surprise, my first Air Force supervisor caught it…or as he would say, “it just landed in [his] hand”. That’s when we had the highlight moment of the reception. Lairent moved in to put the garter on Mercedes’ aunt’s leg according to the custom but he put his own spin on it that had everybody talking about it the rest of the night. We all danced for about an hour longer and then it was time for our send off. Mercedes and I made our way back to the front of Hazlehurst House, where we had been married 5 hours earlier, and attendees were standing on both sides of the aisle, blowing bubbles at us and congratulating us on our special occasion. And that was the end of me getting married.