I hope I’m not alone in saying that trying to choose an engagement ring for my soon-to-be-wife felt like graduating from culinary school only to get a job that required the diffusing of a bomb—but maybe I am.
I’d been living with Charlotte in her one-of-a-kind craftsman bungalow for two years when I knew I had a problem. First off, there was Sophie the dog, who’d once been Charlotte’s, but was now coming to see herself as mine, too—a sweet, all-around wonderful Vizsla whose only real drawback was a tendency to eat poop. And then there was the fact that I loved Charlotte and her poop-eating dog more than I knew what to do with. Most of all, though, the problem was me—an anxious, independent perfectionist, who’d sworn off the whole idea of marriage just a few years before. But take some Saturday morning, hungover in front of the TV, Sophie between us, Charlotte yelling at contestants on The Price is Right like someone three times her age with one third her education, and what I could do?
“I want to proposition Charlotte,” I told my mom over the phone.
“You mean propose?”
Mom, anyway, was thrilled. Most of her friends had grandkids by that time, so she was looking to close the deal. “Have you thought about ring options? You can’t lose with a big diamond.”
“I feel like I can.” My status as a self-identified humanitarian is what I meant there. But also the money I didn’t have. And finally, that no, I hadn’t thought about ring options at all.
“Diamonds are durable. They last through the years. All women like diamonds.”
She gave me one of those huffy sighs that flare into static over the phone. I knew what she was thinking. First, that when it came to engagement rings, I was an imbecile. And second, that my deep need to make an optimal decision could cause me to delay this proposition/proposal for so long that Charlotte might eventually find herself far more attracted to a man who did things instead of thinking about them.
“What if you get a stand-in ring? Just something for the proposal, until the two of you can get a ring she likes. For now, you could give her a ring made out of origami.”
“The Japanese art of paper folding.”
I can’t say I was convinced, but I did get a book on origami from the library. Then a couple of days later, Charlotte told me about a friend of hers being proposed to by a guy who’d gotten a “stand-in engagement ring” out of a vending machine, and could I believe what a loser that guy was?
“What if he’d like, you know, made it?”
“If he were a jeweler?”
“No . . . like origami?”
“The Japanese art of paper folding?”
A few weeks later, we went to Southern California to see my parents for Christmas. Mom was promising big things. Antique places she knew with “very unusual items.”
I told Charlotte that my mom and I were doing some Christmas shopping together. At one antique store, I considered a black pearl set in rubies that looked like something a fairy princess might wear. At another, I peered into a sapphire square that looked like it might suit a Viking warrior. I was reasonably sure that Charlotte was not the diamond type. But was she the fairy princess type? The Viking warrior type? Something in between?
I returned to my parents’ house deflated. Then Charlotte and I went out for a drink and got into one of the worst fights we’ve ever had. It started with our differing views on the scientific method, but then somehow moved on to the fact that it was now near Christmas and I still hadn’t delivered on a birthday present I’d promised in June. It went from there to her pet theory that a strong relationship with my current nuclear family made me hesitant to start a family of my own. And how if I had any courage, I’d step up and ask her to marry me already instead of being so indecisive all the time, and what kind of a thirty-five-year-old man goes Christmas shopping with his mom?
I’m not saying she didn’t have a point. I’m just saying that this was probably the best single opportunity I was ever going to have to actually, conclusively win a fight with her, if I just told her what my mom and I had, in fact, been doing. Instead, I hedged and huffed. We both apologized. We had a tremendous Christmas together, and a few weeks later, we were back in Tennessee, no question having been popped.
My big breakthrough came with a local jewelry maker that I knew Charlotte liked. She’d never made an engagement ring before, but said she’d be happy to “give it a try.” She wanted to talk me into a diamond, too, but I held resolute, and we settled instead on a simple, modern design in white gold with an aquamarine that the jeweler said, “ought to hold up.”
Then I went home, convinced I’d made all the wrong choices and should have gone with the diamond.
A week later, there was the ring. It was nice. Or looked nice to me. And now, if I could only figure out a way to present the thing to her, then I could get all that over with and move on to the comparatively simple tasks of planning a wedding and living a life together.
One January morning, we awoke to snow, which rarely happens enough in Knoxville, Tennessee that it feels like a minor miracle.
Even before I’d gotten out of bed, Charlotte had put on her white coat, neon green stockings, and puffy snow hat.
“Get up, get up, get up!”
I hadn’t shaved in two weeks and badly needed a haircut. The only sweater I owned warm enough for the weather was moth-eaten, stretched out, and a muddy yellowish-brown. Still, I pulled on my ugly sweater, put my less ugly jacket over it, stuffed the box with the ring into my inside jacket pocket, and hurried to meet Charlotte and Sophie at the front door, both of them vibrating with excitement.
A few seconds later, we were alone on the hill. Clear sky, fresh snow. Charlotte whizzed down on her sled in a screaming, giggling mess, while Sophie—off leash—chased after.
“Let’s go down together,” I said for the next run, while Sophie lingered at the bottom of the hill chewing on snow. Wait, that wasn’t snow. It was poop. Deer poop, probably. I tried to ignore it.
I double-checked my jacket pocket for the ring, got behind Charlotte and pushed off. She screamed. We wobbled hard. I got my arms around her, looked up to get my bearings, and saw Sophie heading right for us. I leaned away, but the sled swerved toward her. I leaned forward, but Charlotte leaned away. “The dog! The dog!” she was yelling.
I put down a hand, jamming two fingers without slowing or turning us. I grabbed the rail with the other hand, yanked up.
We wiped out in a pile, laughing, safe, dusted in snow.
Here, then, was the moment. I got a hand into my pocket, gripped that little box, and turned to Charlotte, my future wife—when a tongue came between us. A sloppy, poop-coated dog tongue, and long enough to get well inside my laughing, open mouth.
In the end, I got Charlotte a bucket of KFC.
I bought some lilies and found a vase for them, set up some candles on the dining room table, and got myself into a suit, dress shirt and tie that she only told me years later didn’t match.
The KFC was a reference to our first date. We were friends then, studying together at her house, and I suggested we get some for a break. We scarfed chicken and drank white wine, and she quoted a poem by Jack Gilbert about a woman smearing fried chicken grease on her breasts, and it occurred to us then—separately and simultaneously—that we were, in fact, on a date.
Now, several years later, I stood waiting in that same magnificent home she had made without me, flipping other houses to get there, buying just the right dining room table and accompanying knick-knacks at estate sales. Suddenly, the lilies I’d bought looked too sparse for the giant crystal vase I’d put them in. The aquamarine in the ring wasn’t catching the light.
Did I need more candles? A different stone? Was she going to get the chicken reference or just think I was cheap? Was I being cheap? Should I kneel to ask? What would I say? I was a planner and a writer. So why didn’t I plan something, write something—instead of telling myself I’d “speak from the heart”? What the hell was I thinking?
Then Charlotte appeared at the front door. High boots and a fitted, linen off-white dress, gloriously beautiful, her eyes cutting skeptical, curious in the candlelight. I walked up to her, trying to squeeze some kind of speech out of this suddenly inarticulate heart. I stood, rather than kneeling, and said, “Charlotte I want you to be my wife.”
I held out the ring.
Charlotte laughed. And hugged me. Pulled away and hugged me again. Then she started a wild, skipping run around the dining room table, sing-songing, “I’ll be your wife. I’ll be your wi-i-i-ife!” like she’d just won the Showcase Showdown.
“Don’t you want to see the ring?” I asked, but she didn’t hear me.
I had to stand in front of her as she made one more loop around the table, and she almost ran me down. “The ring?” I said again.
“Oh, yeah. The ring.”
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