Dear Emily Etiquette
By Barb Goffman
"Dear Emily Etiquette"
was published in the September/October 2020 issue of
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.
It's won the Agatha Award as well as the 2020 Readers Award given by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. It's also a finalist for the Anthony and Macavity Awards.
You can listen to me read it here (it runs 32 minutes)
or read it for yourself below.
Dear Emily Etiquette,
I recently received an invitation to my cousin’s wedding. It was addressed to me plus a guest, which I thought was lovely, especially since my cousin and I aren’t close anymore and not everyone can afford to offer plus-ones. However, I was completely taken aback by an asterisk (!) on the invitation that said “Black tie. Dates required. Sorry, we can’t accommodate singles at our wedding.”
I’ve seen demands for black-tie attire before, but a date? Seriously?
Not that I can’t get one, but on behalf of singletons everywhere, I’m so steamed about this, I’m tempted to bring a blow-up doll as my plus one just to piss off the happy couple, which I know is not the right attitude for a wedding guest. Thoughts?
Plus-One My Ass
My dear Plus-One,
While I like your style, you are quite right. Aiming to annoy the bride and groom by bringing a blow-up doll as your date would not be proper. You’d likely infuriate the bride and distress her mother, although other people might be amused.
That said, I must note that the date requirement itself is a breach of etiquette. Hosts are supposed to make their guests feel comfortable, and I can’t think of anything more uncomfortable than having to find someone to drag along to a wedding just so you could share in the joyous occasion. Has the time truly passed that the singles table at a wedding is no more? A place where the lovelorn and dateless can mingle amongst themselves and perhaps find true love over chicken or fish? Emily Etiquette certainly doesn’t think so.
So I suggest, my dear Plus-One, that you decline this gracious invitation. I’m sure you and your inflatable friend can find something better to do that evening. Perhaps involving your back massager.
Dear Emily Etiquette,
Thanks for responding to my letter regarding the asterisked wedding invitation. I took your advice, RSVP'd no, and planned a fun evening instead with a back massager and DVD of 50 Shades of Grey.
But it seems it’s not to be. I got an angry call from the bride, demanding to know what I had going on in my life that could possibly be more important than her wedding. Her highness insisted I attend, calling me selfish for wanting to ruin her day. How would it look, she screeched, if her cousin didn’t come?
Long story short, I felt guilty because we were good friends when we were kids—before she became incredibly selfish and materialistic—so I gave in and said I’d go. (And yes, I’ll have to bring a date.) But I’ve found myself so aggravated that I just went online and nearly posted an embarrassing picture of my dear cousin from a sleepover when we were teenagers—can you say bed head, retainer, and a face full of zits?—with the comment, “So happy for Cuz! Who knew she’d grow up to be a beautiful bride?” Knowing that I should be better than this is all that kept me from hitting post.
Any suggestions for how to get through the wedding reception? How early is too early to leave?
I Need Stitches From Biting My Tongue
My dear I Need Stitches,
Your cousin appears to be the model for an obnoxious term that is so popular these days, bridezilla. It’s not a word I like to use, but I also believe in calling ’em like I see ’em. Weddings are supposed to be celebrations of love and commitment. But all too often these days, they are turned into productions, with the bride as the star. Emily Etiquette gives all such shows two thumbs down.
Moreover, while it’s true some people might notice if a cousin of the bride doesn’t attend the festivities, attendance is certainly never mandatory, and guilting anyone to attend one’s wedding is far from mannerly. A wedding should be a joyous occasion, and why a bride would want anyone at her wedding who doesn’t want to be there is beyond me.
I applaud you for holding your tongue on social media. I hope that since you’ve agreed to attend the wedding, you’ll go with an open heart and mind. Make conversation with your date and tablemates and enjoy some dancing. Before you know it, the cake will be served, and you and your date can bow out. I bet that DVD of yours might provide some interesting ideas to tie up the remainder of the night.
Dear Emily Etiquette,
It’s me again, the cousin of the no-singles-allowed bridezilla. I’m sorry to keep imposing on your time, but I need help (etiquette and psychological). Today my aunt called, insisting I throw my cousin a bridal shower. And not just any shower: a kitchen shower, because a plain old generic shower apparently isn’t good enough. Auntie claims it would look bad for Cuz if no family member threw her a shower, and since Cuz doesn’t have any sisters, I have to do it.
I might feel more inclined if no one else was throwing her a shower, but the bride’s two best friends are hosting a lingerie shower and a honeymoon shower. The groom’s sister is throwing a Great Gatsby shower. (When did this become a thing? Guests wear twenties’ attire, and the only permitted gift is alcohol so the happy couple will have enough hooch to survive should Prohibition somehow be reinstated.) You’d think three showers would be enough, but no. One of my cousin’s co-workers is throwing a shoe-themed shower in which people are “highly encouraged” to buy designer shoes that Cuz has registered for. And her college bestie is throwing a New York City getaway shower, which Cuz will evidently need in order to get away from the stress of being honored at all these other parties.
Anyway, I’ve been instructed to host the kitchen shower, not that Cuz needs it. She’s been living on her own since she graduated from college three years ago, and between her and her fiancé, they already have more than enough appliances, plates, and wine glasses to fill the beautiful new house they’ve purchased. I understand that showers are designed to help newlyweds start their married lives on the right foot. But my cousin’s feet are already walking just fine—straight from the Louboutin boutique.
I’m not good at saying no (obviously), but would it be wrong of me to scale back the madness by asking the attendees to each bring a favorite recipe that we can compile into a book for the bride and groom, instead of buying more stuff for their cabinets? And maybe each person could bring a sample of their dish for everyone to try, and we could share funny cooking stories. I have a charming one about Cuz and me back when we were kids, when we each snuck pieces of cake at Thanksgiving and ended up with icing all over our faces and hair, the result of laughing too much while watching the movie Airplane!. The bride was a fun and nice person back then.
Nostalgic for Nicer Days
My dear Nostalgic,
I too long for nicer days, when people threw showers out of the goodness of their hearts, not to satisfy demands of a greedy bride, or in this case, her mother. Insisting someone throw a shower is the height of impropriety. I guess there is some solace in knowing that the bride’s mother isn’t throwing a shower herself, keeping up the pretense that she’s not using the upcoming wedding as a gift grab.
Alas, you and I know better. That is why I think your version of a kitchen shower is a wonderful idea. It centers on the spirit of a shower—giving the bride and groom things they truly need for their kitchen and lives, in this case, recipes, memories, and laughter. It also tweaks your aunt right where she lives, and if some icing were to accidentally get smeared into your aunt’s hair during the shower, well, those things do happen.
Dear Emily Etiquette,
I threw the kitchen shower this afternoon for my cousin. It did not go well.
Since the bride had other showers planned, and since my rental townhouse is not that large, I invited only about fifteen people: the bride, her mom and bridesmaids, my mom, the groom’s sister, and several aging relatives on our side of the family—women who might not appreciate a lingerie shower but who would enjoy sharing their recipes and know-how. I expected maybe a dozen people would attend.
My aunt wasn’t happy with my guest list, so without asking, she invited nearly fifty extra people. I only learned about it when women I hadn’t invited started RSVPing yes! And my aunt was dissatisfied with my bring-a-meal-and-recipe plan. She told everyone their gift should include an appliance needed to make the recipe. (I understand she described my original plan to people outside the family as “quaint,” yet she asked my mother if I recently had been “hit upside the head with a crowbar.”)
The result: Nearly sixty women crowded into my small kitchen and living room for the shower. If the fire marshal had come, we’d all be in jail right now. People were squeezing on top of each other, setting the food they brought and the plates they filled everywhere, including on the narrow mantel above my fireplace. Yep, you know how that played out. There’ll be no security deposit returned to me when I move out. New carpeting is expensive.
On top of that, there wasn’t any room for people to work on the recipe book—not that they wanted to. When I began handing out paper, glue, and fun stickers, the bride stared at me like I’d grown a second head. “You’re not still actually planning on doing that craft project, are you?” my aunt asked. “What is this? Summer camp?” And if you’re wondering why my mom didn’t stand up for me, she has the same problem with confrontation that I do—but worse.
Anyway, then the bride decided it was time to open the presents, telling me it was my job to keep track of who gave what. I would have been happy to do that anyway, but it’s never nice to be treated like the help, especially in your own home. And you can imagine how things went from bad to worse when Cuz and Auntie realized my only gift was the uncompleted recipe book. I’m inclined to finish it now, filling it with full-fat recipes of Cuz’s favorite foods. Maybe she’d gain ten pounds and be unable to fit into her wedding dress.
Daring to Dream
My dear Daring to Dream,
I applaud your intent to still make the book. I even like your high-cal recipe idea. Normally I wouldn’t approve of passive-aggressive tactics. It’s always best to stand up for yourself directly to the source of your grief. However, in extreme circumstances like this, all bets are off.
Accordingly, since the recipe book is, as your aunt so nicely put it, a craft project, I suggest you go all out and add some glitter to it—multi-colored glitter on every page. Lots and lots of glitter that will land on your cousin’s clothes, face, and hair. Glitter that will float throughout her kitchen, settling onto every surface and into cracks and crevices, making the room sparkle for years to come. And every time she notices the glitter, your dear cousin will remember how joyous you made this special time in her life. Really, what more could you want than that?
Dear Emily Etiquette,
What more could I want? Sanity. A little sanity would be nice.
I had to buy Cuz a wedding gift. I figured between the six showers and the two hundred plus wedding guests who RSVP'd yes, she’d be overwhelmed with stuff. So I decided to do something different. Cuz met her fiancé at a sports bar they both frequent, so I splurged and bought them a bunch of tickets to see their favorite team.
You’d think she’d have been delighted when the tickets were delivered in the mail. Alas not. If I understand correctly, my cousin complained to my aunt who complained to my mother who complained to me that dear Cuz only went to that “dumpy bar” to land a man, and now that she had one, she had no intention of wasting any more of her time watching sports. And since Cuz hated my gift, it was “only right” that I get her something else. “Please don’t make trouble,” my mom told me. “Just buy her something off the registry.”
As if that’s not bad enough, the happy couple still intends to keep the tickets! The groom and his best friend will use them, allowing the bride to have “me time” while they’re at the games—as if she didn’t fill every day with me time. Can you believe it?
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
P.S. For my mom’s sake I bought some china off Cuz’s registry. I may have accidentally dropped the box onto the cement parking lot on the way back to the car. A few times. But don’t worry. I’m going to make up for it by covering the box with glitter before I wrap it, so there will be much joy when Cuz opens it.
My dear No Good Deed,
Unfortunately, after all these years in this business, I can believe your story. I thought your tickets gift was extremely thoughtful, and it’s a shame this bride can’t appreciate it. I don’t know where people ever got the idea that they have a right to dictate what presents they receive, nor that any response other than “thank you” is appropriate. (I’m assuming you haven’t received a thank-you note. If one actually comes, please don’t let me know; I don’t want to drop dead from shock.)
As to the china you purchased, I would not worry even if the plates have chipped. This insufferable bride will surely insist that the store exchange them for her, and I expect they will oblige, if only to make her leave as quickly as possible.
P.S. The glitter was a nice touch indeed!
Dear Emily Etiquette,
My bridezilla cousin had her bachelorette party last night. I was thrilled to not be invited. I was less thrilled to get a call this morning from a friend who was at one of the clubs the ladies went to and heard the bride talking sh— sorry, saying rude things about me, including my “small, tacky house,” the “lame” shower I threw for her, and the “mannish” (mannish?) wedding gift I sent. She’s apparently embarrassed to be related to me because I’m a “sad, old-maid cow.” In case I haven’t mentioned it, I’m only twenty-six (a year older than dear sweet Cuz) and in no rush to find Mister Right.
I get that my cousin was plastered when she said these things, but that doesn’t make it right, especially since I’m sure these are her true feelings. What happened to the cousin I played with as a child, the one who giggled with me during sleepovers, long after we were supposed to be dreaming? The one who schemed with me to distract our parents so we could steal extra desserts? She seems to be long gone now, so I’m done being nice to the woman she’s become. I’m done with decorum. I’m done with holding my tongue. And I’m done with being afraid of confrontation. Cuz’s wedding is next weekend, and it’s going to be a night that won’t be forgotten in these parts for a long, long time.
Thank you, Emily Etiquette, for all your support these past few months. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Finally Looking Forward to this Wedding
My dear Finally Looking Forward,
I’m not sure what you have planned for the festivities, but I urge you to reconsider. However horrible your cousin has been, it’s in your best interest to hold your head high. The wedding will be over soon. The memory of your cousin’s rude behavior will fade in time, but the loss of your dignity could last forever.
That said, if my words don’t persuade you, I do hope the videographer will record whatever you have planned. I’m not that adept with technology, but I understand tapes can get released publicly—by accident, of course. And these instances can be for the best. Sometimes drastic measures are necessary to make a dramatic bride understand the lines she’s crossed. And, after all our correspondence, I would like a front-row seat when that happens.
I’m waiting eagerly for your next letter.
Dear Emily Etiquette,
I’m sorry this letter hasn’t arrived quickly. Sending out mail from here isn’t that easy.
You’re eager to hear about the wedding, I know, so here goes. The ceremony was lovely. The groom stood at the front, smiling and dapper. The bridesmaids seemed cheery despite wearing lime-green dresses with puffy sleeves and bows that made them resemble Little Bo Peep. (Shocking that the bride made them look bad, right?) I myself looked pretty good in a long dress covered by a large pale-pink wrap. Then the music swelled, the guests stood, and my cousin, with a smug smile, began walking down the aisle, her beautiful bouquet of flowers held up proudly.
I think God was sending a message of approval, because the sneezing started right as Cuz was passing me. One sneeze, then another and another. She must not have wanted this problem to impede her procession down the aisle, because Cuz kept walking even as she sneezed. Her head bopped up and down with each step, like a dime-store hooker going down on john. Sorry for the language, but I know you wanted video, and since I don’t have access to that, I figured I should paint the picture for you.
It was handy that I know Cuz is allergic to certain perfumes. Being the bigger person, I stopped into the bridal suite shortly before the ceremony to wish my cousin well. While there, I picked up her bouquet from the counter to breathe in its beautiful fragrance—and spritzed perfume on the flowers from a tiny bottle I’d clutched in my palm. By the time Cuz began her vows, her nose was red and runny and she sounded totally congested. When the pastor pronounced them married, Cuz’s new husband looked like he wished he’d said “I don’t.” Talk about for better or worse.
Then it was off to the country club for the reception. I’d asked my date to meet me there after the party started—I’d text him when I was ready for him—because I wanted to save his grand entrance for when it would have the most impact.
In the meanwhile, I headed inside with my other date: a four-foot-tall blow-up doll that resembled Otto the automatic pilot in that old Airplane! movie that Cuz and I had loved as kids. I’d considered bringing an X-rated doll, but my plan required I annoy the bride without going so far out of bounds that she’d ask me to leave, so Otto had to do. He and I hustled inside. People stared, as anticipated.
We made our way to our table—near the kitchen, natch—but at least the room’s setup was picturesque. Each table sported a white linen tablecloth with lime-green linen napkins and a lit candle in the center. I plopped Otto on his seat just as the newlyweds entered the room to applause. When that died down, the salad course was served, and I introduced Otto to everyone at our table. Reactions ranged from confusion to horror to big smiles from a couple who recognized him. I knew I’d chosen the perfect date because the party hadn’t been going on more than ten minutes before the bride and her mother—a twofer!—stormed over, apparently having spotted my guy from across the room.
“What do you think you’re doing with … that thing?” my aunt demanded as she and Bridezilla stood over me.
I smiled demurely. “Is there a problem, Auntie? The invitation said I needed a date. It didn’t say he couldn’t be plastic.”
“She’s ruining my wedding, Mother,” Cuz shrieked.
“Don’t make a scene,” Auntie told her.
“But she’s ruining my wedding,” Cuz pouted in a lower voice.
Lord, she hadn’t seen anything yet. I had quite the show planned. Pushing back my chair, I stood and grinned as I flipped my pink wrap off my shoulders, revealing my snug, low-cut satin sheath dress. The bride wasn’t the only one wearing white, and I wore it better.
“I don’t understand the problem,” I said. “You said you couldn’t accommodate singles. So I brought a date to fill the chair. He’s even wearing a suit. You remember Otto, don’t you, Cuz?”
A tiny part of me hoped Cuz’s eyes would twinkle even for a moment, that she’d recognize Otto and remember how much fun we had as kids when she wasn’t so uptight. I hoped my old friend was still in there somewhere. If she were, I might have called off the rest of my plans. But her eyes were an icy blue, as cold as her heart had become.
She pointed, first at me, then the doll, then back at me. Then she stamped her foot. “You can’t wear that white dress here. I’m the only one who gets to wear white. And you can’t have that”—she pointed at Otto—“here. You just can’t.”
Talk about discrimination. Just because Otto was plastic. Tsk tsk. As Auntie gave me a dirty look, I sighed loudly. “Well, all right. If you want me to get a real-life date, I guess I can do that. Let me make a call.” I turned to my tablemates, picked up the doll, and waved his hand. “Say bye to my date, everybody. I’ll be back soon with another one.”
“Make sure this one’s breathing,” Cuz hissed as I walked away.
Okay, Cuz. You asked for it. I texted Johnny, my alternate date. He met me by my car as I stuffed Otto back in the trunk.
“Va va va voom!” Johnny whistled. “Let me get a look at you.” I twirled for him. I don’t usually wear such tight outfits, but when circumstances require … And I must say, Johnny cleaned up well. With his brown hair and goatee both trimmed, he reminded me of a young Matt Dillon. He even wore a tux. I think the chance to annoy my cousin was all he’d needed to agree to accompany me—that and the promise of an open bar. You see, Cuz and Johnny dated right after college, and Cuz told everyone who’d listen that Johnny was “the one” until he dumped her in a spectacularly public fashion because she was “a bossy bitch.” I’d felt sorry for her then. But not now.
To my disappointment, nobody noticed us as we walked inside. We ate our dinner peacefully. (I had the chicken; he had the fish.) Meanwhile Cuz and her hubby started going around to every table with their money bag, putting people on the spot for cash gifts on top of whatever other gift they’d already brought or sent. I know. You’re dying. But not me. This was something I’d anticipated. I’d seen this tackiness at another wedding maybe a decade ago and recalled Cuz calling it “genius.” I pulled Johnny away to the bar and encouraged him to partake—all part of my little plan—and I waited, at one point actually rubbing my hands together in anticipation.
Johnny was all liquored up when the first dance began. Would you believe the song Cuz chose was … wait for it … “Linger” by the Cranberries. Apparently after all these years, Cuz still doesn’t pay attention to the lyrics of a song. So here she was, dancing with her brand-new husband to a song about being unable to get over an old love, and here I was leaning against the bar, right next to Johnny.
That’s when I sent out a tweet letting folks know how delighted I was to be at Cuz’s wedding. It ended with, “Who would’ve imagined she’d grow up to be such a beautiful bride?” But instead of attaching a picture of Cuz in her wedding dress, I accidentally—I assure you—attached that old photo I previously mentioned. You remember? Bed head. Retainer. Zits. Even before “Linger” ended, the retweets began.
As soon as we could, Johnny and I took to the dance floor, and I made sure he twirled me past the happy couple a few times. I feared Cuz hadn’t spotted him, though, because I hadn’t heard any screaming. So when the next song came on, Johnny and I cut in on them. Cuz looked apoplectic as Johnny grabbed her waist, and I decided to kick things up a notch more by planting a big wet kiss on my new cousin-in-law to welcome him to the family. I might have welcomed him with a little tongue.
That’s when the screaming started. Cuz wrenched me away from her hubby, and just when it seemed like we were about to rumble, the groom jumped in between us and danced my cousin away—but not before winking at me first.
There was a little more dancing. Then came the toasts. Cuz probably didn’t want me to make one, but when the opportunity presented itself, I zoomed to the microphone.
“Hi,” I said. “For those of you who don’t know me, I’m the bride’s cousin. I’m thrilled to be here today to share in the happiness of the loving couple. And that wedding gown? So lovely. I mean not everyone can rock a white dress like I can”—some people laughed—“but my cousin looks pretty good in hers, especially considering the happy news that … well, I’m sure you all can see that the seams are straining and she’s become a little puffy around the middle. And in her face. But—”
“Shut up you stupid cow!” Cuz stormed toward me. “I am not pregnant.”
Please note that she’s the one who started name-calling. Not me.
“Are you sure?” I said into the mic, tilting my head, looking questioningly at her stomach. “Because I’m sure your mom must be thrilled, I mean after you tried lesbianism in college, we all wondered if there’d ever be any children.” Not that Cuz had actually done that. And I wouldn’t have cared if she had—actually, I’d have been impressed—but I knew my saying so would mortify her.
“What?” she screamed. And as mouths dropped open around the room, Cuz tried to yank the mic from me. The champagne in my glass flew through the air, drenching her face. I know I shouldn’t have laughed. But I did. I roared.
That’s when she came after me. Her hands were around my throat when her hubby and Johnny both tried to pull her off, grabbing her by the torso and lifting her horizontally. Then somehow they each had one leg, like a wishbone, and Cuz’s dress swung up high enough to show off the garter (and way too much else).
“Let go of me,” Cuz screamed, kicking backward with both of her legs, and hitting each of them in the nuts. She always was pretty dexterous. They both dropped her at the same time, and Cuz hit the floor like the worst mic drop ever. Meanwhile Johnny moaned, stumbling backward into a table, knocking over some glasses, and causing folks to jump from their chairs.
“Johnny,” Cuz cried and ran to him. Yep, she didn’t check on her brand-new husband. She went to care for my date. Maybe Cuz had listened to those “Linger” lyrics after all.
Anyway, that didn’t sit well with Hubby, who ran at Johnny and took a swing. Johnny was drunk by this point, but he still had some fight in him. Good thing, because before you knew it, the groomsmen and bridesmaids had joined the melee. Folks were shrieking. Tables were being overturned. Plates and glasses shattered. Someone slammed into the cart that the wedding cake sat on, and its top tier flew, landing in dear Auntie’s hair. Prayer works! People were brawling, others were screaming, and the elderly relatives were inching away for their lives.
Meanwhile, with all eyes off me, I hurried over to the bridal table and snatched the money bag. Last I saw as I made my way to the exit, candles on several of the tables had toppled over, the linen tablecloths had caught fire, and Cuz, Johnny, and her brand-new hubby were in a three-way slap fight.
The end result: everyone made it out alive, but the country club sustained major damage. I’m sorry I didn’t get video for you, but I understand the riot—that’s what they’re calling it, the Bo Peep Wedding Riot—made all the papers and went viral on every social-media platform, so hopefully you’ve already seen the pictures of Cuz, Auntie, and a few others sopping wet and covered in fire-extinguisher foam. The whole wedding party was arrested, and they’re all now awaiting trial on charges ranging from assault to destruction of property to rioting. (Johnny too. I’ll have to make it up to him.) And I’m sitting on a beach in a foreign country, sipping a mai tai. Overall, I think things worked out pretty well. Sure, no one in my family’s going to talk to me anymore, but I don’t think that’s a big loss.
Thanks for all the good advice, Emily Etiquette. I owe you one. And if you’re ever in my new neck of the woods, please call on me. You have an open invitation to dinner at my house. No date required.
Single and Loving It