More than two decades ago, I was unaware that the man I had been dating for nine months was going to be the man I would marry.
We hadn't yet spoken of marriage, which suited us both fine. It did me, anyway. 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 dating, as was I. He was an affable enough fellow that I continued to see him. He was employed, respected the practice of personal hygiene, and had no addictions. Given all that, continued dating with no end in sight would 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 home for just a few days. I was anticipating romance, attention, and perhaps a gift from abroad. He was coming to pick me up at 6:30 p.m. As I waited for him, I thought of how I was ready to sit, talk, be wined and dined, celebrated and toasted to.
He arrives, 6:50 p.m., 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 nothing more. He is twenty minutes late, which is not like the punctual man he has been for over a year. 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 to see me. We go in his car, and I promise to not bring up being late unless it happens a second time. If there is a second time.
While he is driving, he looks straight ahead and makes no mention of his trip to Germany, though he was gone for ten days. I attempt conversation, but I feel as if I'm in the car with a coyote; all I hear is "yup. yup. yup." to any question I ask.
Well, perhaps he has jet lag, I think to 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 go to work the next day, and I've got a new dress that I've bought for tonight on. But he doesn't notice that red is my color, nor how the gold button earrings play up my dark hair. I decide I will enjoy this meal, be just as affable back, and celebrate being with someone on my birthday.
We arrive at the restaurant, he parks, and then asks me to wait--sitting in the car. He always hops over to my side of the car and opens the door. Now I know, this is the farewell wrong place, wrong time speech we're leading up to.
I oblige, count to sixty seconds, then step out of the car. I see him in the vestibule of the restaurant, fingers jostling 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 again and we're shown to a table. He keeps his hand in his pocket, I attempt to reach for the one he has resting on the table, and 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. 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. I say it's time for me to get home early, I have to be at work at 7:30, and I saintly offer him an excuse of how he must have jet lag.
He looks at me, his eyes wide with shock. 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 for me too.
We drive there, and I see a white horse and carriage waiting. I am jealous of the couple that will be celebrating their love to the romantic clip clop 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 walks toward the carriage. His other hand 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 white cab, I move to sit closer to him. I make the mistake of having hope and I reach for the dang hand in his pocket. But he's not having any of it and digs it back in deeper.
In one last moment of dreaming out loud, I convince myself his madness is jet lag or traveler's fever. I make up that last one because, how can I explain all that is 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 I will rise.
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 horse cab by now, but it's moving too fast. It's also getting cold outside, dark... and I've got new black T-straps that match this new red dress. And so I sit.
I will finish this night, and I will cherish this buggy ride. I close my eyes, and I relish the sound of the horse's hooves on the quiet street.
And this is where it gets strange.
There is a five star hotel up ahead and the driver is pulling 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 and snap it open it to see what I'm Sorry jewelry looks like. But there is no consolation gift inside.
In the darkness of the cab, with the streetlight hitting it just right from behind, there is a miniature firework of sparkles 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 wait. I say, "pocket petting, scared, worried." I think of all the perverted pocket padding this poor man did to ensure the ring hadn't fallen out, all the up and down and walking ahead so he could check to be sure the ring was still in the 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 I finally held his 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, always, whether you said yes or no, I wanted you to be remember."
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.
And his reason is why the picture above exists, that shows me as a Mrs., when just hours earlier that birthday evening, I thought that he would be returning me home, vowing to stay a Ms.
*I post this annually. Because it's good to remember, and reflect. Happy birthday marriage day proposal to me.
* * *