WHEW! JUNE’S OVER. WE MADE IT. Survived another wedding season.

Brides, how are you all doing? That spastic twitch in your colon calming down? That giant stress-induced cold sore that ruined the most perfect day of your life almost cleared up?

Moms, any improvement in those facial tics brought on by having to smile beatifically at your stinking hound of an ex as he introduced “Tiffany” to the extended family?

Dads, did you know that in the Kwakiutl tribe, giving away everything you own is called a potlatch ceremony and brings great prestige to the giver? Enjoying the prestige?

Guests, you were good sports at the bride’s Bed and Bath Shower. You went along with the groom’s Tool and Gadget Shower. But something about the T-bill and Krugerrand Shower stuck in your craw, didn’t it?

Grooms, since you didn’t have to worry about maneuvering a cathedral-length train in seven-inch strappy sandals or which uninvited relatives were never going to speak to you again—or, oh, bankruptcy!—what exactly did you have to stress about?

One runaway bride in Georgia? Why is that news? What’s amazing is that anyone makes it down the aisle alive—ever. I picked up the latest Brides magazine. Okay, that’s a lie; I attempted to haul the mammoth June issue off the shelf. Failing that, I leafed through it and managed to deduce the following: The average American wedding now costs $20,000. That’s a lot of rice, Princess.

There is a better way, and I just might be the only nuptials survivor to tell young lovers how to have a wedding free of stress, guilt, and, not incidentally, cost. Wouldn’t weddings be a heck of a lot less anxiety-producing if the happy couple didn’t know about the ceremony in advance? Imagine not having to choose between the champagne Vera Wang mermaid and the ivory Carolina Herrera cap sleeve. Picture not having to decide whether your deepest personal essence would be best expressed through the colors celadon and peach or apple green and hot pink. Visualize not having to worry about Uncle Mingo getting drunk and singing “Free Bird” with the band.

Toward that blissful end, I give you the Surprise Wedding!

Happy couples, you will have to modify the Surprise Wedding to fit your own circumstances, but here, briefly, were mine. Like most Americans, my major life decisions have been driven by love and the search for decent health insurance. When a bad back hit, I attempted to worm my way onto George’s plan. Unfortunately, Personnel found the coy response we wrote in the blank space for Relation to Employee, “spousal equivalent,” to be unacceptable. Personnel decreed: no ring, no Blue Cross. So I literally dragged myself out of bed, and George helped me crab-walk up the steps of the Travis County courthouse. The bride was wearing sweatpants and hadn’t washed her hair in a week. The groom sported a nifty Members Only jacket. The county clerk slid a Declaration of Informal Marriage form across the counter, and we both signed it. The clerk stamped it and said, “That will be $7.50.” George pulled out his wallet, slapped down $3.75, looked at me, and asked, “Where’s your half?” Then we released the doves.

We were married, but we were grumpy about it. Call us starry-eyed romantics, but George and I thought the decision to plight our troth should be ours, not Personnel’s. So we didn’t tell anyone.

Fast-forward to 1983. Three years into the experiment, we figured it might work and began revealing our dirty secret: We weren’t living in sin; we’d been legal for three years. This was Austin. No one blinked. It was all good.

Now, picture George and me on the hottest day of the year, standing on a friend’s porch, waiting for the door to be answered, suspecting nothing. I’m wearing flip-flops, my hair is still wet from the shower, and I’m carrying a bowl of spinach salad for the potluck dinner we’ve been invited to.

The door opens, and we behold a houseful of friends in suits and cocktail dresses. I experience a moment that I imagine qualifies for descriptors like “hallucinogenic” and “psychedelic.” Apparently my casual “Oh, yeah, George and I have been married for, like, three years” had elicited a unanimous response from our friends Mary Ellen Nudd, her sister Donna Nudd, Nancy Gates, Judy Osborn, and Sherry Grona: You’re not getting off that easy.

Thus was the Surprise Wedding born.

At the door, still blinking, gasping, and fighting infarction, I was relieved of spinach salad and whisked away for bridal adornment. Mary Ellen had the gown picked out: hers. Fortunately, it was made of God’s gift to the disco era, ultrastretchy Qiana, and fit me perfectly. George was shoved into an iridescent midnight-blue tux jacket, and we were hauled in front of the judge. Terry Galloway, one of the founding mothers of the Austin comedy troupe Esther’s Follies, performed the honors. Reading from one of my romance novels, she had George promise to fondle various orbs and made me pledge to cherish certain evidences of male desire and then pronounced us man and wife. Or husband and woman. Or utility outfielder and park ranger. I don’t recall.

The theme chosen by my fairy godmothers was: Your Wedding Cake, Your Flowers, and All the Decorations Came from H-E-B, and They’re All Blue. Far more important, they’d discovered the secret to the Surprise Wedding and had asked every guest to bring a bottle of bubbly. Much of it was pink. All of it was consumed. In the end, aside from that moment of dropping-elevator nausea on the porch, there wasn’t a single second of my wedding that wasn’t absolute and total stress-, worry-, and anxiety-free fun. That bride in Georgia should have been so lucky.

Interesting side note: Last summer, we received an invitation to a colossal party that Donna and Terry were hosting to celebrate having been together for nearly as long as George and I. Their theme? “Twenty-one and Still Not Legal.” That made us consider how cavalier we’d been about getting married and wonder if Terry and Donna might ever have the luxury of our blitheness, if there might not come a time when the country would give them the legal right to obsess about apple green and hot pink, drunk uncles and hurt relatives, cathedral-length trains and cap sleeves. If only the fairy godmothers could sit down with Congress. Maybe plan a little “potluck.”

Now, wouldn’t that be a surprise wedding?