I never expected to see Emma again, but there she was, inside the USPS package on my suburban Los Angeles doorstep, postmarked from New Jersey. “I know you admired this pattern,” my friend Suzie had texted regarding the unusual move of returning the very wedding gift I’d sent her 18 years ago. “Now that I’m moving to a new place, I’ve decided not to bring the past with me. Why shouldn’t you enjoy what’s left of the set?”
“Emma” was the name of the casual-yet-chic everyday china Suzie — a friend of mine from college — had chosen for her wedding.
I remember purchasing Emma at Pottery Barn, where Suzie was registered. I’d gotten married to my then-boyfriend, Matt, two years earlier. Our first date was at a coffee shop in Westwood. We discovered we were both born at UCLA Medical Center and that we both loved red meat (even though you were supposed to pretend otherwise in healthy L.A.). It had been a fit ever since. By the time of Suzie’s big day, Matt and I had swung out on a 900-square-foot house not far from the housewares store.
On a mortgage-restricted budget, I could afford to get Suzie’s coffee mugs, cups with delicately beaded rims in yellow, white and green. It was a vivid memory from an exciting time in my life. Her wedding ceremony, at the Los Angeles River Center & Gardens, was dazzling, as befit a white-lace-clad Suzie and her tux-wearing partner. Everything was coming together, both for my friend and for Matt and me, I thought as I sipped champagne.
But life got complicated. I had a miscarriage, and tests revealed fertility problems that worsened with each new Santa Monica specialist to whom I was sent. Matt and I were no longer the footloose young people who hung out at coffee shops. Meanwhile, Suzie was living in Marina del Rey. But as she watched boats come and go from her balcony, it seemed like she too wasn’t permanently moored.
I had babies, defying predictions. Suzie and I toiled at night on screenplays. Then her spouse announced they were moving back to New Jersey to get serious about “real” careers. I believe Suzie and I would actually have made it in Hollywood had we persisted, but she didn’t have much say in the matter. Her eventual divorce wasn’t surprising, but at least she’d kept in touch from another time zone.
It was odd, but when I heard Emma was being sent back to me, it provoked melancholy.
Maybe because the announcement came around the time of my 20th wedding anniversary, which was spent in a pandemic and featured a robotic round of congratulations from my children, who were so bored with Zoom school they didn’t care about much of anything anymore.
Maybe it was because if you asked me during the early days of my marriage, I would have told you my 20th anniversary would be spent at the Eiffel Tower with baguettes and romance, not quarantining in my dining room with takeout and bickering.
Maybe it was because back when Emma was new, I didn’t know that most of our friends in L.A. would leave for Portland, Ore., or North Carolina or anywhere with workable schools and buyable homes. I didn’t know Matt and I would end up the last schmucks left in our hometown, seemingly the only people shaking our heads at the advent of a $6 cup of joe.
Maybe it was because of the knowledge that while Matt and I were still together and Emma’s original owners weren’t, it had come at a cost — financial difficulties and relationship difficulties and a feeling of trudging through life separately rather than enjoying it together. The younger me back at Pottery Barn would have told you life would be about thriving, not surviving. What had happened in between the first me and the second?
The truth was, this slice of the past had every trigger in it. The years between then and now had been a bigger challenge than I expected.
When I was out of college and couldn’t imagine beyond weddings, job titles and babies, I thought that picking a like-minded spouse would lead to a smooth, straight path through life.
Back then, I didn’t know I would come to feel romantic disillusionment and incredible loneliness within a functioning partnership or that there would be multiple years when my husband worked weekends, when I was essentially a single parent, resentfully wondering whether I was even fit for such an overwhelming job. I didn’t know there’d be a full decade in which the same fight would recur over whose genes were responsible for three-phase orthodontia — for each of our three children. You can’t comprehend these things when you are young.
But then I took Emma out of the brown shipping box, once again admiring the mix of light yellow, sage green and white in the collection’s original color scheme.
The cups were still pretty, I thought, eyeing them in my kitchen’s Southern California sunlight. They had been through a lot, traveling between L.A. and the East Coast — twice. They didn’t exactly look new and shiny, but they’d been built surprisingly sturdy.
Matt and I were like them, I thought, intact and ready for new adventures — hopefully ones we can afford that will take us out of Los Angeles once in a while when the kids are grown. We still love the Southland, but it would be nice someday to compare cheeseburgers somewhere else.
I decided to brew some coffee to enjoy in the yard. When I grabbed a yellow Emma, I noticed a teeny, almost imperceptible chip. I smiled a little. None of life’s unexpected hardships had shattered me or my messily imperfect partnership with Matt. Emma’s first home may have been broken, but Matt and I weren’t going anywhere. With any luck, Emma and I would have a long time to enjoy each other’s company.
The author is completing an MFA at UC Riverside, working on a memoir about life as an L.A. stay-at-home mom. She is on Twitter @RFSpalding.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.