The Proposal


by Victoria Bushnell


"American Women Series, Marilyn Sanders (1990)" by Marilyn Sanders

I am standing in front of Richard, a man I am dating, and he is holding out a wedding ring. It is a half-carat, circle-cut diamond in a platinum setting with tiny diamonds trailing along the band. He tells me it used to belong to his grandmother, who was happily married for thirty-two years until she died of a heart attack. The ring sits in the middle of Richardís palm, in the middle of a paint-smeared hand with overgrown cuticles and calluses on the thumbs. Richard is bald, slightly overweight, and seems to perpetually wear baggy jeans and old sweatshirts. He is not somebody I ever thought I would be attracted to; he is not particularly handsome, and he is difficult, obstinate, ridiculously moody. But I have loved him for nearly six years.

I stand there looking at the ring, and remember a time when I was fifteen years old and got on someoneís motorcycle. On a dare I turned the handle, not realizing it was the accelerator, and I took off across the street, straight towards a brand-new Porsche, its owner standing next to it with a chamois in his hand, his mouth hanging open. All I could think was Good God What Have I Done Iím on this motorcycle heading towards this car and I canít make it stop I canít make it do anything I canít Iím going to hit it. It was one of those moments in time that last forever, a moment when things change, lives permanently altered. In that split-second, I envisioned the rest of my teenage life spent working at a part-time job, maybe at a 7-11 or the Val Surf shop, to pay off the damage I was about to do to this guyís Porsche. I was screwed. But at the last second, I turned the handlebars, a fluke, some weird luck, and veered off in the other direction before I released the accelerator of the motorcycle and came to a stop.

And here I am thinking once again, Good God What Have I Done there is a man standing in front of me proposing marriage, proposing marriage, and I am suddenly panicked and in despair. This is the man who, when harassed by friends about his pack-a-day cigarette habit, proclaimed that "people who quit smoking are afraid to die." This is the man who, when his painting studio was broken into, was furious the robbers didnít find his paintings worthy enough to steal. This is the man who dragged me up to Lake Hollywood at seven a.m. on a Sunday morning and sketched me standing in front of a chain link fence in the backless dress I was wearing at a party the night before, refusing to let me shower, and I stood against the fence wearing the dress and high heels, no stockings, mascara smudged beneath my eyes, my hair a mass of tangles, mortified amidst the mass of joggers who ran around the lake, healthy morning people who kept glancing at me disapprovingly as though I were a prostitute. As he became preoccupied with sketching me as though I were not part of the experience, giving me some distance, giving me time and space to think without being swallowed up by another, I started to enjoy the sound of the pencil on the paper, its seemingly idle scratchings, its long pauses, his steady eye on me. I began to feel pleased that I was wearing a backless dress at seven in the morning and not running around a lake in circles. I had to laugh aloud and Richard got cross with me for changing my expression.

The concept of Richard being Richard is completely acceptable to me and I consider it a divine blessing to have met and fallen in love with somebody who actually seems to like being in his own head, who does not require something outside himself to feel justified in the world. But to find him proposing marriage is so completely incongruous with our entire relationship that yes, I am in despair. This is a catastrophe, really. I look at the ring and hope it is all a joke. I wait for him to laugh.

But he is serious. Here it is, that moment in time made eternal again and I am really sure the clock has stopped because it is so quiet, I am dying to check, and then I hear the tiny second hand of the kitchen clock go back into motion, a heavy thump as it resumes its way around its circle of time. My first reaction to Richardís proposal is that I can say yes, I can grant him that, if only to flow smoothly and easily into the next phase of my life, if only to get past this awkward moment without difficulty. It then occurs to me that no one has ever asked me to marry before. I am half-expecting Richard to get down on one knee, to say something sweet and meaningful and I almost want that, if only to help sway me in the direction of marriage, if only to have a story to tell people later. An anecdote to let the rest of our lives sway on.

When I do finally ask the inevitable question, "Why, why get married?" he says that he is ready. Ready for what, I ask, and his mouth suddenly looks wrong to me, his head is a really funny shape I hadnít noticed before, he has these wrinkles on top of his ears that he never used to have, and I wonder briefly where Richard went and who has replaced him.

Later, after I have blown it, after I have laughed too much and Richard has stomped away, incensed that I refused him, my friend Christine says to me, youíre acting like a man, as if that is some type of accusation. Youíre afraid of commitment, thatís what it is, whatís wrong with getting married?

But I don't want to get married.

Word of our break-up circulates. I become known as the woman who broke up with the man whoís had two shows at MOCA. His parents own the second largest car dealership in North America. He offered me his grandmotherís wedding ring. My girlfriends clack their tongues and say youíve blown it, sister, youíve blown it.

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