Not all engagement stories are of bended knee at dawn on a beach. Mine had destiny nervous for a few moments. Today is my birthday, it's also the anniversary of the day my husband asked me to marry him. Here is the true to life story:
I was unaware that the man I had been seeing for close to a year was going to be the man I married. We hadn't yet spoken of marriage, which suited us both fine. He had made no promises nor given any hints regarding a possible future together, so I couldn't claim to be misled or disappointed.
He was content with casual dating, and he was an affable enough fellow that I saw no problem with continuing our friendship. He was employed, respected the practice of personal hygiene, and had no addictions. Given all that, and the fact that I wasn't 40 yet, continued dating with no end in sight fit into my schedule.
It was my birthday and he had called to ask me out to dinner. At the time, he was traveling internationally, and our times, when together, were spent doing nice things at nice places with nice food.
I knew he would have a special dinner planned since he was only going to be home for a few days. I was anticipating romance, attention, and perhaps a gift from abroad. He told me he'd be at my apartment at 6:30 p.m. While I waited for him, I thought of how I was ready to relax, talk, be wined and dined, celebrated, toasted to, with some borderline adoration.
He arrives, 6:50 p.m., 20 minutes late, and his face has a look of grief and concern, as if he's lost something. He is also unusually quiet. I ask if everything is all right, he answers yes, that it is, but adds nothing more. He has always been on time, and tonight's man is not the punctual man I have known since January. But I don't want to start the night off on the wrong foot, so I say nothing. But, things feel odd and tense and he doesn't smile when he sees me. We go in his car, and I promise myself I will not bring up a late arrival, without a phone call, until it happens a second time. If there is a second time.
While he drives, he looks straight ahead and makes no mention of his trip to Germany. He has been gone ten days, surely, he saw something of interest while across the ocean. I know nothing of Germany, but to my credit, I attempt conversation, but I might as well be in the car with a coyote because all I hear is "yup yup yup" to any question I ask.
Well, perhaps he has jet lag, I console myself. We drive along, but I don't know about this night, which is starting to feel like a duty he's fulfilling since it's my birthday. I'm hungry, I have to work the next day, and I've got on a new dress that I've bought for tonight. But he doesn't notice that fire engine red is my color, nor the way that my gold button earrings play up my dark hair. I decide I will enjoy this meal, be equally affable back, and celebrate having someone to be with on my birthday.
We arrive at the restaurant, he parks the car and then asks me to wait--in the car. He always hops over to my side of the car and opens the door. But tonight, it's a grunt to stay put. Now I know, he is working up to the wrong place, wrong time speech with my name in the opening sentence.
I oblige and remain seated, counting to sixty seconds, then I open my own door thank you, and step out of the car. I see him in the vestibule of the restaurant, fingers jostling deep in his front pockets and well, you don't want to know what this looks like to me.
He then steps toward me and I see him, with his lips pressed tight. He walks as stiff as a robot, and together with the furrowed brow leftover from when he first picked me up, I can't read a thing about him. Is it agitation? Is it avoidance? I let him catch up to me and we walk alongside. I slide my arm into his, and he jumps twenty feet in the air.
I withdraw and drop his arm like an electric wire. I take a deep breath. I do not want to bicker in a parking lot on my birthday with a new dress and a growling stomach. I can make it through this dinner, I'll order something light, like whitefish since anything else will sink like a rock. We enter the restaurant, and the hostess seems to know him. She places her mouth inches from his ear and I imagine her whispering, "Tonight. Dump her. Got it?"
His tone back to her is a nodding rushed yes. They are in deep communion. He turns to me and asks me AGAIN to wait a bit, this time in the front hallway. He and the hostess whisper back and forth once more and we're shown to a secluded table away from the main entrance. We sit down but he keeps his hand in his pocket. Trying to warm up to him, I attempt to reach for the hand he has resting on the table, but he pulls back as if I've extended a lobster claw.
Without warning, he stands from his chair and says he needs to check something in the car. And then he goes. I have now entered "whatever" land. I can no longer enjoy my meal, and think, OK. nice guy and all, but I just can't see what is going on between us... I know I should try and read between the lines but there's a lot of lines to read here.
A few minutes pass and he returns, his hand still in the front pocket. We eat a silent dinner. He does more of a stare into his plate what's life all about look. I finally decide to ask to go home early. Let's get on with this broken heart. I have to be at work at 7:30, and I saintly offer him the out of how he must have jet lag.
He looks up for the first time. His eyes wide with panic. I think, This can't be good. I can't believe he is HAVING A GOOD TIME??? You're kidding, right? This is SOOOOOO not a good sign. All I can see is red flags. Red flags all over the place.
He tells me he wants to take a drive to the lakefront. I agree, thinking maybe we'll talk and he can come clean about the hostess taking my place. And it's the least I can do, because I already know this is the last time I'll see him too.
We drive there, and I see a white horse and carriage sitting in the marina's parking lot. I am jealous of the couple that will be celebrating their love to the romantic background of horse's hooves, because I know it won't be us. Then, turning his body in an awkward broken movement, he takes my hand and leads us toward the carriage. I feel like a coerced Cinderella. His other hand still won't leave the front pants pocket. Now I'm the one with the furrowed brow, but mine is out of confusion. We climb into the waiting white cab, I move to sit closer to him. I make the mistake of having hope and I reach for the dang hand again. But he's not having any of it and digs it back in, deeper.
In one last clutch at a dream, I convince myself his madness is jet lag or traveler's fever. I make up that last one because how can I explain all this going on like a poorly written screenplay? No continuity of thought! I want to shout.
But if he was protective of the hidden hand before, he's grown thrice that level now. I mentally steel myself for the coming weekend of me and two quarts of Ben & Jerry's Death by Chocolate. It's not like I haven't had practice with those kinds of weekends before. I know I'll be sad, but as always, like a phoenix my heart will rise to beat again.
We're sitting in a beautiful red velvet interior of a fairy tale carriage, and I can't immerse myself in any of it because he continues with his pocket patting fetish. I am ready to jump out of the cab by now, but it's moving too fast. It's also getting cold outside, dark... and I've got new black patent T-straps that match this new red dress. And so I sit.
I will finish this evening, and I will cherish this buggy ride. I close my eyes, and I relish the sound of the horse's hooves on a quiet fall night.
And this is where it gets strange.
There is a five star hotel up ahead and the driver begins to pull the horse to enter the circle drive. My date jerks his hand out of his pocket, I check it to see if he's been hiding a bandaged injury all night but instead of gauze and stay clips, I see a small, white box.
My date's face is set like stone, locked and looking straight ahead with a determination for what, I don't know. He licks his lips and I wonder why he feels he needs to give me a goodbye present as he leaves me for the hostess. I take the little white box he offers in his open palm and snap it open. I'm in a hurry to see what I'm Sorry jewelry looks like. But there is no consolation prize inside.
In the soft dark of the cab, with the streetlight hitting us right from behind, there is a miniature explosion of firework sitting inside black velvet. A breathtaking diamond solitaire shoots light from the middle of a gold band. It is an engagement ring, where a pair of modestly priced gold earrings should be.
My mouth crowns open as everything begins to make sense. I begin to laugh, then cry, then I apologize for the way I was never going to see him again but he asks me to not talk, to wait. I can't stop and have to get the words out, "pocket petting, scared, worried." I think of all the perverted front pocket padding this poor man did to ensure the ring hadn't fallen out, all the up and down and walking ahead and back, so he could check to be sure the ring was still in his pocket. The poor sweet man.
The rest of the evening splits into a surreal memory. I remember staring at the ring in the moonlight (really... it was a full moonlit night) and being so very surprised. I marvel at the planning he did from abroad and the secrecy of the night and the chance that he took. We had never discussed marriage, I could have said no.
Later that night, as we sat in the expensive hotel's bar, I finally held the long sought after hand. I asked him to tell me the reason he had decided to propose in that way, with me not suspecting a thing. He answered, "If you knew it was coming, where's the romance in that? I wanted you to remember tonight, always, whether you said yes or no, I wanted you to be remember me asking you to marry me."
Which I do, in more than just receiving the ring, but in him, and who he was, and how he made this plan of marriage more than a proposal, but a gesture of showing what I meant to him.
My response, through grateful tears of relief, "Oh thank God I thought you were crazy." Which translates into, Yes.
* * *