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A Tale of Two Weddings

Attending a Ukrainian wedding with my now-sober husband was a sedate affair—and we loved every minute of it.

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By Malina Saval

01/03/14

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My husband’s First Sober Wedding in three-and-a-half years was in a city soaked in Vodka.

Well, at least the tables inside the restaurant function hall were covered in bottles of it. Assorted local Ukrainian labels and in different sizes, all warm, without an ice cube in site. Also on the table: plates of mashed-up white fish garnished with dill, trays of fish with the head still on it, cans of lukewarm Coke, bowls of sliced cucumbers and radishes, and cold borscht in little porcelain tea cups. The lead singer of the band looked like Anthony Hopkins and crooned Elvis songs in a thick Ukrainian accent while swinging my mother and her sisters around the dance floor. Our two kids were jetlagged beyond recognition and fast asleep on two chairs I’d pushed together—their expensive outfits from J. Crew and Nordstrom had been a complete waste of money. And my husband and I sat around stuffing our face with apple strudel, sipping bottles of mineral water. So far as weddings go—and I hate to say it because it was my brother’s—it was all pretty boring.

The last wedding my husband and I had been to we were smashed out of our minds. I forget exactly what we were drinking (champagne for me, Jack and Diet Cokes for him?) but I do remember him jerking me around the dance floor while the DJ played “Brick House” by the Commodores and running around barefoot because my ridiculously expensive high heels that I put on my Saks credit card were hurting my feet. And I remember the trimmed green lawn of the Calistoga resort hotel where the ceremony was being held, and the paper fans and parasols that guests twirled overhead to cut the glare of the late afternoon sun. And I (barely) remember the messy sex we had in the bathroom stall of the reception area and the plates of vegetarian risotto (me) and the steak (him) and checking my watch to see when I needed to run back to our hotel room and nurse our daughter (I’m a cheap drunk; I’d only had two glasses and I was sober by then), who was ten months old, and put our three year-old son to bed. Pretty stellar night, you know, if bad sex, a champagne headache and foot blisters are your thing.

While I was back at the hotel, my husband drank and danced until last call, stumbling home bleary-eyed through the lush vineyards blooming with grapes, kicking open the hotel room door and diving headfirst into bed. The next morning he popped a bunch of Advil and flew into a paranoid rage, accusing me of hating his cousins and conspiring to tear them apart. As we drove past the blinking neon lights of a liquor store and he stopped short in the middle of the street just to stare, I told him that he had a drinking problem. He told me that he wanted a divorce.

One month later—after a staged intervention in Boston where we were visiting family; worst trip home ever—he was on a plane bound for a drug rehab center in central Pennsylvania.

Between that flight and my brother’s wedding to his Ukrainian fiancée a lot of things happened. My husband got sober and started going to AA, I started going to Al-Anon meetings and (by sheer coincidence) we didn’t get invited to a single wedding. Maybe it was because everybody we knew was either married or getting divorced, or maybe it was our Higher Power stepping in to say we all needed a break, but for whatever reason, the first wedding invitation we got after my husband’s sobriety was to my brother’s nuptials in a country primarily known for two things: mail order brides (sorry, ugly American moment) and booze.

Before we even got to Ukraine, my husband was nervous about the potential for falling off the wagon. In the weeks leading up to our trip he trawled the Internet for AA meetings in Lviv (there was one, but we never found it) and spent a lot of time in pep talks with his sponsor. If we’d been going to a wedding in, say, Omaha, then it probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal—“I always want to drink, so it doesn’t matter where I am,” he’s always saying — but we were traveling thousands of miles away to a country with spotty Internet access and a phone plan where a five minute call back home would cost about the same as dinner at Spago.

There were signs of trouble before we even landed. My husband and I are both terrified of flying (that we’ve flown around the world doesn’t seem to help any) and there were moments of extreme turbulence when my husband wanted nothing more than to order a stiff drink from our pretty Lufthansa flight attendant. Somehow—a little bit of prayer and our kids distracting us just enough—we made it through, landed safely and hopped a taxi (relic 1968 van without seat belts or doors that shut properly) to our rental apartment. Our driver swerved like a maniac trying to avoid potholes and the scenery was grim and severe. I’m not an alcoholic but I’m now convinced that nothing makes you want to drink like Soviet era eyesores and octogenarian female street sweepers in neon green vests.

Not to say that there aren’t parts of Lviv that are beautiful—the city center is magical, the buildings like little pastel castles—but I think when you’re in an alcoholic marriage and you’re far, far from home, the tendency is to feel untethered. And my husband feared that at any second our safety harness could come loose.

And yet, somehow, it all worked out. At the rehearsal dinner my mom was the one who drank too much wine and fell off her chair and cut her wrist, and at the wedding reception it was my aunt who swiped two small bottles of vodka and hid them in her giant purse to take home as souvenirs. (God, how ridiculous everybody looks when they’re drunk and you’re sober.) And while I could have easily done shots with my little brother, I just didn’t feel like it (it’s just no fun drinking, at least not for me, when your husband is in recovery). And so my husband and I sat there, watching others drunkenly dance and sing traditional Ukrainian wedding songs, not exactly having the most raucous night of our lives, but feeling pretty stable, feeling pretty solid and feeling pretty lucky that we were both in this together.

The next morning, there were no headaches, no hangovers, and no heated arguments. The kids—jetlagged as they were—had been awake since midnight, watching the same Russian language kids video over and over again until 6 am when they jumped on top of us and dragged us out of bed. My husband brewed Ukrainian espresso, made scrambled eggs and poured the kids orange juice while I sat on the sofa and yawned. We sat down at the table, ate breakfast and basked in the sublime boredom of it all.

Malina Saval is a regular contributor to The Fix and an editor at Variety. She last wrote about Lois Wilson.

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