Last night I was showing my daughter our wedding album, and I saw a ghost. There, grinning at me back at me from July 20, 1997, was a face that had once been as familiar to me as my brother's.
"Who's that?" my daughter asked.
"That's Matt M.," I replied.
"Who's Matt M.?" she asked.
Who's Matt M.? Once I had watched in awe as Matt — a polite, slow-talking Westerner — persuaded a furious cop not throw us out of the Bend, Ore., park where we were illegally camping. During the most terrifying hour of my life — a 3 a.m. drive through a Georgia hailstorm in a deathtrap Toyota — Matt sat calmly by my side in the passenger seat, switching up the mix tapes. I had seen him torn up by love, and he had seen me the same. He was the dearest of friends, and 16 years on, he was a stranger.
When you are in the throes of wedding planning — the epic, Iranian-nuke-level negotiations with your fiancée about invitations, the masterful diagramming of every possible seating permutation to maximize hookups and minimize family arguments — it seems inconceivable that somewhere in this group, the group of people that you are closest to in the entire world, the people with whom you will share the most extraordinary moment of your life, are dear friends you will never see again after your wedding day. You don't know who the last-timers are — in fact, you can't know — but they will be there on the dance floor and in photos. And suddenly, one day — two, five, 20 years on — you will think to yourself: I haven't seen her since our wedding. And then: How did that happen?
When I talk about last-timers, I don't mean those old friends of your parents who got invited over your protests. Of course you'll never see them again. I also don't mean the various disposable plus-ones. Any wedding of any size will be populated by boyfriends, girlfriends, and even spouses who will have been dumped or divorced by the next time you see your friend. My brother-in-law's then-fiancée is all over our wedding photos. She was on her last legs as a fiancée, but we didn't know it at the time. Sweet, kind Liane: Where are you now?
No, the last-timers I'm talking about are real friends, but the friendship has entered a slow fade to black that is obscured by the euphoric fog of the wedding. Sometimes, geography is to blame. A decade ago, my wife Hanna attended the wedding of a friend who was marrying a Swede — and moving to Sweden. Hanna hasn't seen her since. The ties that they might have maintained had they lived 200 miles apart frayed and finally split at 3,000 miles.
Another kind of last-timer is the friend that your spouse doesn't really like. One of Hanna's bridesmaids was an old friend I could never abide. As I courted Hanna, this friend and I pretended to tolerate each other. But after the wedding, when Hanna had picked her side (mine), and our social calendar was fully combined, this friend never quite made it on any list, and was never included at our newlywed dinner parties. Hanna discovered she didn't care enough about her to overcome my dislike, and their friendship withered. For 16 years, we've lived and worked in the same city, and have never seen her. A bridesmaid!
But the most poignant last-timers, the ones who really matter, are the people who once were profoundly important — stalwarts in a terrible time, co-adventurers, the dearest of dear — who, not because of geography or profession, but because of the eddying currents of life, are already drifting away from you by the time of the wedding, even if you don't realize it. There is no break, just the conspiracy of inconveniences. You have a little less to talk about: Brian was once a journalist, but now is a businessman, plus he's come out as gay, and is committing his time and energy to the love life he never had before. Matt's living in a slightly far-flung city, and neither of you has the time or money to travel. You invite them to your wedding because — god, how could you NOT invite Matt or Brian to your wedding? The wedding draws them back. In the golden haze of the reception, your friendship feels restored to all that once was, but that's the wedding mirage. The gap begins the next day.
If you had asked me on July 20, 1997: When's the next time you'll hang out with Matt? I would have guessed a year. Instead, it's 16 and counting. Until yesterday, I hadn't even Googled him. I didn't know where he was or what he was doing.
Wedding websites are skeptical of last-timers. The Knot insists that the very first people you should cut from your list are the "college friends you're pretty sure you'll never see again." Another site — with a rather chilly utilitarianism — urges you to consider "who you will be friends with in the future [rather] than trying to include old friends you don't keep in touch with." This is, of course, very sensible advice. Why waste $200 in catering and calligraphy on people who are streaming toward the exit door of your life?
I reject this. For starters, you truly can't be sure who the last-timers really are. The friends I haven't seen since my wedding are not the ones I might have predicted. And even if you knew, as a matter of Euclidean certainty, who the last-timers were, you should still invite them. When, if not your wedding day, is the time for profligate, romantic gestures? What better way to end a friendship than with joy? What better than to have your final memory of each other be of your best, happiest wedding selves?
Plotz is the editor of Slate. He's the author of "The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank" and "Good Book." He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.