Most proposals take a moment; mine took months.
I got engaged slowly. Like, over the course of months. The process began with a vase of flowers which greeted me when I walked into my Brooklyn Heights studio at 2:00 AM, wearing my glasses and covered with dog hair from having shared the backseat of my friend Erin's car with her terrier all the way back from Kentucky. Ben, my boyfriend, looked as bouncy as a toddler who has just learned to walk. The apartment was as clean as he was: it smelled like springtime distilled into a few hundred square feet.
"I missed you," he explained happily. Since moving in together a year and half before, we had not spent much time apart. He helped me peel off my clothes and we got into bed.
"I met these amazing people," I told Ben, "including this one woman who's been married three times and divorced three times and has a kid from each marriage. She's a professor at IU and guess what she teaches?"
"Marriage and Family!"
He laughed. Then, without even a "Speaking of which," or any kind of segue, he said, "Would you marry me?"
"Seriously?" I said. The only conversation we had had about getting married was that maybe we did not have to wait until we were thirty. I was twenty-three. He was twenty-four. We had, you know, time.
"Yes," he said. "I was sure when you were here but I was even more sure when you were gone."
I felt like the horniest adolescent to walk the earth,
or at least the halls of my Jewish Day School.
For a moment I let the sweetness of that surround me. Then I said, "Of course."
We kissed and squeezed each other. He said, "I don't want kids yet," and I said, "I'm keeping my name," and, having agreed on our terms, we lay there in the dark for a while.
I lost my virginity slowly as well. Like, over the course of years. As a very-unfulfilled sixteen-year old, I felt like the horniest adolescent to walk the earth, or at least the halls of my Jewish Day School. Outwardly, that manifested as cynicism — I wore a lot of black, wrote angsty poetry, growled at my friends. I surfed porn on the family computer, confident that, with two brothers, no one would suspect me even if I did forget to clear the history. Once I simply took off all my clothes and writhed in misery on my bedroom floor. I confused the hell out of my Golden Retriever.
My freshman year of college, I hooked up with several boys, all with such disappointing results that I almost gave up entirely. Then, unexpectedly, the last one hooked me. Ben was a lanky, dark-haired Jewish photographer and English major. Sex was as revelatory as I had hoped: one memorable Saturday night, he went down on me with the conviction of a Jehovah's Witness. Once I could breathe again, he wrapped me in a terrycloth bathrobe and we ate Camembert cheese. We stayed up all night listening to college radio. "If Eve had hair, it would be like yours," he said. And, "Your body is like browsing through the softest, most perfect book."
So of course I was going to do away with my virginity with him. When it happened, though, the pain came out of nowhere. It whipped through me, throwing me off balance.
"Are you okay?" he said. "I'm sorry." We looked down at the carefully spread towels: there was no blood. What could have hurt so much?
There was no blood the next time or the next, but the pain continued. We experimented with different positions, lube, and enough manual and oral stimulation that I was sure we were waking up all of Philadelphia. Still, pain. Finally, I consulted a doctor. She shrugged and said, "You're probably just not ready to have sex."
Ready? I had been ready since I was ten. I should have been a child bride. I had S&M fantasies about my pediatricians. Also, I was having sex, and enjoying it more than anything that had ever happened to me in my life. Why should intercourse be so different?
And yet, maybe her verdict should not have surprised me. At eighteen, I still didn't take pills or use tampons. My body reacted in a deeply distrustful way to foreign objects. If I had been sexually self-sufficient, such physical xenophobia would have made more sense. Instead, my protectionist impulses were all principle and no practicality, like Cuba refusing to accept cars from the U.S.
"That's okay," said Ben. "We can keep doing other things."
By the time a year had passed, he was less patient but still kind. We were in love and rolling around naked at every opportunity. Part of me wanted that to be enough. Some of my queer friends had non-penetrative sex — why couldn't we?
"I feel dysfunctional," I told him. "I'm sorry. I'm broken or something."
"You're beautiful. Don't be ridiculous."
But I worried the pain would mean the end of the relationship. Until the day when we were trying yet again, this time in my childhood bed while my parents were in Australia. Just let go, I told myself. Let go.
I had been ready since I was ten.
I should have been a child bride.
And something shifted. Not far from the spot where I had once belly-flopped on the carpet as a miserable teenager, I crossed some sort of threshold. Though there was no blood to mark the transformation, the pain was gone.
Once we sorted out the sex thing, Ben and I breezed through the next few years. (Sometimes I even worried that maybe we didn't have enough drama.) We moved to New York City together. We made it through his first year of law school and an increasingly vicious housemate and her crazy cats. We moved into a studio that Bin Laden probably would have considered too small. I left one job under duress only to be laid off from the second. Through everything, we were fine. Our relationship was the most stable aspect of my life.
Until, that is, he'd asked me that question.
"Maybe I didn't really think this through," he once said amidst a rising tide of plans, expectations, and congratulations. "I'm freaked out. How can I possibly know how I'll feel when I'm fifty? Maybe we're too young. Maybe this happened too fast."
And there was Angela. Blond-haired, polka-dot-dress-wearing, Henry Miller-reading, bacon-eating, from-Texas-by-way-of-tragedy Angela, who had the hips of Gwen Verdon and the face of a Vermeer.
Months before, Ben and I had spent New Year's Eve in a cabin in the mountains with people from college, including our mutual friend Ross and his new girlfriend Angela. She was more needy than Ross was attentive, and Ben stepped up to make her feel less alone.
It was only on the car ride home that he admitted that he had developed a crush on her. "It's okay, though," he said, as my brain turned to slush. "I'm handling it. We're going to be friends."
Angela called frequently to talk about her and Ross's ups and downs. Ben went on long walks with his cell phone as I sat upstairs in the studio trying not to throw things at the walls.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" I said from time to time, when I could not hold back anymore.
"I promise," he said. "I wouldn't hurt you."
After we started wedding planning, Ben asked Ross to be his best man. "Angela volunteered to do the flowers!" he said.
It became increasingly important to know whether the groom was going to bolt.
But Ross and Angela had a habit of breaking up. Ben went to Philly. Angela came to New York. Sometimes I went along; sometimes I left the two of them alone. I decided I had to trust him, but what if this was crack that would shatter our delicate structure of our mostly official engagement?
As the summer went on, I was painted into a corner just big enough to hold a huppah, a bride, and a groom. There was still no ring, after all; it became increasingly important to know whether the groom was going to bolt. Finally, my mother said it was time to put money down on our chosen site. "Go ahead!" I said, hoping my excitement sounded genuine. I'm not sure she was convinced.
"Why don't you two talk about it and call me back?" she replied.
I clapped the halves of my phone together and took a deep breath before turning to Ben. "Honey," I said, "my mother wants to know whether to make the deposit for the site." The wait for his answer felt excruciating.
"Yes," he said.
That was it? After months of drama-drenched conversations, months of Angela, months of fearing my life was going to be a reenactment of The French Lieutenant's Woman where the boring, middle-class girl is thrown over for the poor, dramatic, beautiful girl, how could he be sound so certain? So cavalier?
"Are you sure?" I said.
"Yes," he said.
"But there's no going back from this," I said. What about his earlier waffling? This was cash now, a substantial chunk of it. This was the moment of no return. I could smell the bouquet.
"It's okay," he said, and I realized, looking at him, that something had shifted. "I'm sure."
One gray Monday morning in November, my fiancé proposed again. He had left to get some studying done at 6:30. I left for work at the more human time of 8:30 but stopped right outside my door because Ben was there. Why was he there? And why was he carrying those flowers?
At first I wondered if I'd forgotten some day of importance. Ben grinned, as bouncy as he had been in May. He handed me the abundant, blue-purple flowers and before I understood what was going on he got down on one knee and pulled a small black box out of his bag.
"Will you marry me?" he said. "It's a sapphire." I was laughing and crying. I didn't know what I was reacting to: the pageantry, the symbolism, the surprise, the relief. We finally stopped kissing so I could go to the subway, and we made plans to meet for a celebratory dinner. I was exactly as happy as I was supposed to be.