I just couldn’t imagine being with anyone else other than Lauren and I wanted only her, always.
Lauren had her back turned to me as she set her backpack on our kitchen table. I shut and locked our backdoor. I took the sandwich bag from my jacket and fingered the ring out of the plastic, pinching it and then hiding it in the palm of my hand.
Lauren turned around.
“I love you,” I said.
She said it back, questioningly.
I knelt on the linoleum. Our kitchen floor felt as smooth as Grandma’s kitchen floor. She had been a cleaning lady in Chicago until she retired and even as a widow she continued to keep her house immaculate by sweeping, vacuuming, and then mopping her floors to a glisten of shine and lemon scent.
Lauren and I had driven to Grandma’s for a weekend visit over my spring break. The only time I had alone with Grandma was in that morning while Lauren took a shower in the basement. I couldn’t find a way to transition the conversation as Grandma kept trying to get me to eat more, so I interrupted her.
“Eggs are not enough,” Grandma said. “You want cereal, too, maybe?”
“Do you have a ring?” I asked.
“You know, when you and Grandpa got engaged. A family ring, that maybe I could have.”
I glanced at the door leading to the basement shower. I wasn’t sure how much Lauren could hear above her. I hoped the shower’s spray washed out the question.
Lauren and I had been together for several years since moving from Florida to Iowa for me to go to graduate school. When I’d told my mom I had asked Lauren to come with me to the Midwest, Mom asked me, “Via the courthouse?”
Lauren and I didn’t want to get married just because we would be moving in together. As we lived together over the years, I thought about getting married. I didn’t have a specific reason. I just couldn’t imagine being with anyone else other than Lauren and I wanted only her, always.
In Iowa, I wasn’t making a lot of money since I received about a one thousand dollar stipend for teaching every month of the school year, which didn’t include the three months of summer. I didn’t know how I could afford an engagement ring. I wondered if I could get a ring that meant something more than it cost.
Grandma waved me to her. She shuffled her slippers along the linoleum over to the laminate in the hallway with the bedrooms. My bare feet would usually stick to the floor, but my skin’s dryness started to slick with sweat.
Inside the top drawer of a white-painted bureau, inside a simple box, lay several rings. Grandma showed me the thick gold bands with a cross engraved on each rubber band-thick band. These were her wedding rings bought after she was married, because they didn’t have enough at first for both of them.
Then Grandma took out another, polished, nearly paperclip-thin silver ring. Vine-like engravings swirled around the outside. A small clasp held a slightly larger diamond.
“It’s not much,” Grandma said.
Grandpa must have saved for months at his elevator-operator job. Perhaps he put the ring on layaway at Marshall Fields or maybe he just went in there one day with his socked away cash for his sweetheart and set it all on the jewelry department’s countertop, pointing through the glass to the ring that cost him a lot, because he gave Grandma as much as he could. The ring that he gave to Grandma was the ring that I offered up to Lauren, both of us men asking the women that we loved the same question.
At home, in our kitchen, Lauren sobbed. My bent, shaky leg wriggled my kneecap on the floor. I wondered if Lauren felt marriage was the wrong way, like our return from Chicago.
On our drive back from Grandma’s house, I had pushed on the pocket covering my heart. The diamond stud poked me through the jacket’s puffy insulation. I needed to be careful not to crinkle the plastic sandwich baggie Grandma had put the ring in so Lauren wouldn’t hear it.
The car was low on gas. I flicked the blinker on for the next exit. The off ramp curled from the Interstate.
After filling the tank, I tapped the pocket again before driving out of the station. The sign for the re-entry to the Interstate pointed to the same ramp I had used to exit.
“This is it,” Lauren said.
“Didn’t that say Wrong Way?” I asked, passing the ramp and going beyond the overpass.
“That was the right way.”
“No it’s not, that can’t be it.”
I slowed down too much and a car behind me honked. I U-turned on the two-lane road. The tires lipped onto the shoulder’s gravel.
Another sign for the Interstate pointed to the same ramp. Traffic rumbled on the overpass. The road didn’t have a concrete median, only a worn solid yellow line I could just see when I drove onto the ramp.
“Yes,” Lauren said. She held our kitchen table for support with one hand. Then, she wiped her cheeks and put her other hand in mine.
I slid the ring perfectly on her tear-wetted finger.
“It fits,” she said.
I hadn’t thought that the ring might not fit. I was more concerned about how the ring seemed too small. It felt like it didn’t represent how the decision was big.
“It’s not much—”
“It’s amazing,” Lauren said. She stretched out her fingers. The diamond, despite being tiny, flashed brilliantly.
After Lauren said she would marry me, before either of us told anyone, we went on a walk through our neighborhood. I reached for Lauren’s hand. The castle-clasp tweezering the diamond pinched the webbing between my fingers. I let go and Lauren adjusted the ring and held my hand securely.
Back at home, Lauren and I called our families. I phoned my parents’ house and my father picked up. When I told him I had asked Lauren to marry me, Dad asked me, “What did she say?”
I almost hung up immediately. I wanted Dad to be excited. It felt insulting that he would think that she wouldn’t say anything other than yes. But hadn’t I had a flicker of doubt about her answer?
After I told Dad that, of course, Lauren had said yes I remembered the story of him asking my mother to marry him. He and Mom hadn’t really dated. They just knew each other after college. And it’s so farfetched but it’s true, but Dad asked Mom—twice—on the phone, without any ring, to marry him and she, at first, said no; she wasn’t sure. Somehow, he still had a desire for her after being rejected once, and when he asked again she said yes.
So, maybe Dad didn’t want to assume the answer, because more than thirty years ago he hadn’t gotten the answer at first. Dad might have been readying to encourage me. He might have given me this advice: With a ring from the department store or from family—it doesn’t matter the size or even if you’ve got nothing at all—get down on one knee or pick up the phone and ask the question as many times as it takes.
You never know what your beloved will say, but give it everything.