Fools of engagement

Why awkward proposals are so much better than storybook ones.

I love a fascinating engagement story, the good, the bad, and the ugly – especially the ugly. My friend Shirley calls it proposal schadenfreude. But that’s not quite right. I don’t take pleasure from other people’s fumbled engagements. Not . . . really. What I like is the surprise of the dropped ball, the dramatic dash to the end zone.

Like my friend Julie, who was so jittery in the dimly lit restaurant where Tony was trying to propose that she poured herself what she thought was a cup of hot mulled cider to calm her nerves – except that it was steaming potpourri. Pine flavored, she noted mid-swallow. She fought off the urge to vomit, but coughed up enough pine mist to scent the entire restaurant.


Or my college friend Diane, who was chatting with her longtime boyfriend when he knelt in front of her and began telling her how much he loved her. They were on the lawn of their favorite inn on the Maine coast. Diane looked around, confused. “Oh . . . are we kneeling?” she asked Rob and knelt down in front him. “Diane, stand up!” he said, trying to remember where he’d left off.


My own engagement was a weekend-long sloppy affair of question and answer, point-counterpoint. Two logical corporate types dueling, hoping for a coup de grace so the Marriage Issue would be resolved once and for all. Andy and I were in our late twenties by then, in love and satisfied after three years together that the obvious obstacles to marriage were surmountable. The Catholic-Jewish Chasm, the Cuban Girl-Connecticut Boy Crevasse, and even the Carly Simon-Led Zeppelin Void. I was ready, but where was he on this last stretch to the summit?


Apparently at Vacillation Point, where, as his mother told me one night while we sliced cucumbers for the salad, the men in his family often foundered. My future mother-in-law looked me in the eye, handed me the salad tongs, and said, “Do not rule out an ultimatum.” Oy vey. My own mother offered this recollection, “Ay,Ana, I just said to your father, ‘Is it going to be March or April?’ He picked April because it was later.”


On that fateful ski weekend, as Andy and I drove from Boston to Vermont, we discussed the Issue in the car, at breakfast, shivering on the chairlift, and over dinner at a nice restaurant by a stone fireplace. The meal was magnificent, but the unuttered proposal hung over us, heavy. After the waiter cleared our chocolate mousse cups, I asked Andy, softly, so he wouldn’t startle, “So . . . any news on the Marriage Issue?” He mumbled something about a hooked fish flapping around at the bottom of a boat. I’d spooked him, all right. He was talking in parables now.


After our last day of skiing, we shuffled back to the condo and flopped down in front of an old episode of Star Trek, exhausted. I was half asleep as the credits rolled, and I heard my own voice: “So are you going to marry me or what?” He bent his face down to me: “Yes.” I bolted up, fully awake. He kissed me, smiled. But . . . what was this? An army of red splotches was crawling up his neck, threatening his jaw line. Hives! Alarmed, I pulled him into the bathroom to show him why I was panicking. One look at our stricken expressions in the mirror and we fell over each other laughing.


Some people might think hives are a bad omen during a betrothal. And at first I was embarrassed to think the prospect of a life with me could cause such a reaction. But today I see Andy’s urticaria as an emblem of the respect for marriage we both had at that moment. Those splotches symbolized the messiness of marriage and, of course, the beautiful recoveries we hoped would follow – the fights and make-ups, the deaths and births, the leaky roofs and pay raises, the surgeries and clean bills of health we’ve survived and celebrated these last 22 years.


For those of you who got moonbeams and lovers on bended knees, may blessings rain softly upon you. But for those of us who got Star Trek and hives, I say, fear not. Helping each other see beauty in the ugliest moments may be what a good marriage is all about.