I thought I was against marriage, until he gave her the ring that was meant for me.
Nearly ten years ago, I got engaged, over spaghetti at a cheesy Italian place inside a casino on the Vegas Strip. Patrick locked his huge blue eyes onto mine, leaned over his garlic bread, and asked, “Will you marry me…someday?”
I was leaving soon to go live in Japan; Patrick was still in college in Chicago. We had not discussed engagement in any serious sense. “Someday” could have meant two years or ten. He was nineteen; I was twenty-two. We’d been dating a total of five months.
I wasn’t sure it was a real proposal until he pulled the diamond ring from his shirt pocket. It fit perfectly. The band was white gold because he’d once heard me say I didn’t like yellow. I put the thing on. It sparkled like it had life inside. I didn’t recognize my hand. Whose finger was that with the bitten cuticles and chipped green nail-polish and the big expensive-looking disco party below her knuckle? Someone much older, a real adult at least, a lady I would one day be. Maybe. I was still figuring myself out. I knew that while I did want to get married — eventually — I’d never do it in a church, take my husband’s last name, or wear a frothy strapless dress.
He paid and we walked into the Nevada heat. I kept staring at the ring. I hadn’t answered yet. A heaviness grew in my stomach. I had been handed a script, and twenty-two years of Disney movies and TV shows and Sweet Valley High books rose up in my throat. Yes, I told him. Yes, I will marry you. Someday.
It was the “someday” that eased my panicked subconscious. We were too young to go through with a wedding anytime soon. I was moving across the ocean with no plans to return; he was still a year away from graduation, with plans to travel and do journalism internships and take photographs.
Perhaps that heavy feeling was doubt. Not because I didn’t love Patrick, or enjoy his company or sense of humor. Just because. I’d taken the script, accepted the diamond, and there I was: not excited. I fought against my apathy — it felt, somehow, like failure.
Patrick got married last weekend, just a few months short of the ten-year anniversary of his proposal to me. It was a wonderful event, held at a Dallas rock club, with tiki torches and a karaoke reception where the bride’s father got wasted and led everyone in “Margaritaville.” I know this because Patrick married a writer, and she’s been doing a column on the engagement and wedding planning process from a feminist perspective, with lots of swearing. I feel like this woman is my friend. She’s hilarious. She tells it like it is. She drinks in the daytime. She shuns the wedding industry but also makes no secret of the fact that she loves sparkly things and is excited to be married.
Patrick's wife (her name is Andrea) says things about me in her columns. Or rather, about the idea of me, Patrick’s first fiancée. A couple of people in the comments section tell her to be grateful to me for making Patrick the man he is today, and she supposes she is. But in general, she doesn’t think about me, or care that I was engaged to Patrick — who doesn’t talk about me.
It hurts that someone I’ve never met doesn’t care about me. Or rather, doesn’t care about the idea of me, which I realize is a different thing. When Facebook told me Patrick was engaged months ago, I immediately clicked on their professionally-done riverside shots. I Googled Andrea, my mind racing — what’s she look like? What does she do? Do they seem like a match? — and, after sending Patrick a short congratulatory note, I forgot about the whole thing. I didn’t find Andrea’s column until last week, when I followed a link Patrick had tweeted.
I learned that Patrick and Andrea got engaged while drunk on whiskey at a lake. There was no ring or big-deal planned-out proposal; they just decided. But she wanted a ring. Probably not a diamond, but some symbol of commitment. She bought one for Patrick and he began wearing it, but she didn’t have one yet. Then Patrick mentioned this other ring. It had a quality diamond and was sitting unused in his mother’s house in San Francisco.
And that is how this woman, who I’ve never met, is today wearing what was temporarily my engagement diamond. They took the stone out and had it re-set. I was excited to find a photo of the new ring in the comments section of her column. Surprisingly (to me), I recognized the diamond right away. It was, at one point, something I'd spent hours, weeks, months staring at and worrying about, before I ultimately gave it back to Patrick at an IHOP in central Florida.
It’s a pretty, tasteful ring. The diamond sits between two peridots. It looks like it belongs on her finger.
Is it hypocritical that this woman, who claimed she wouldn’t have chosen a diamond engagement herself, is now wearing one? Is it ironic or somehow a blow to feminism that a woman who didn’t want a diamond now has one only because another woman didn’t want one?
When I mention that I was once engaged forever ago, people always ask what became of the ring. I told a couple of my old girlfriends, women who knew Patrick while we were engaged, about this my-old-ring-is-now-her-new-ring development. One expressed shock that a woman could wear even part of a ring that had been meant for another girl. This woman, a scientist and die-hard atheist, argued with me, saying, "Isn’t that just so unlucky?"
Things are, and will remain, just things. They're passive. But forging a meaning for something isn't passive. It's active; a creative process. That's why I think it’s exciting that someone found a happy use for that lonely stone. We all owe it to ourselves to make our own decisions, forge our own meanings.
I’m thirty-two years old and have never felt the marriage itch. My years as a serial monogamist have suited me just fine. And with divorce, blended families, and same-sex partnerships so common, I’ve often wondered if our society has outgrown traditional matrimony. I used to think that maybe I should just avoid it at all costs. That seemed like the smartest thing to do.
Then I read something Andrea pointed out in a column: this is actually an exciting time for the institution of marriage. A lot of married people she knows, she says, “really are figuring out something new.” Our generation gets “to be part of a new vanguard of couples redefining what it means to be husband and wife (or husband and husband, or wife and wife), building partnerships that are founded on romantic love, equality, and shared goals instead of politics, convenience, or obligation.”
When I read that, I smacked my desk so hard I spilled some wine. Andrea had nailed it: marriage as an institution is just another thing, and while it can be passive, the process of finding meaning in it, and what we ultimately get from it, isn't. I’m embarrassed to report that I felt a weird pride in her accomplishment, as if by dating Patrick ten years ago, I’d had some tiny, butterfly-flaps-its-wings-in-Madagascar effect on this cool lady’s life.
So, Andrea: thank you for your perspective, and congratulations on your wedding. I’ve never thought of myself as a feminist — just as an independent person who thinks for herself. But because of you, I’ve realized that those things are one and the same. I don’t need to burn my bras or eschew sparkles. Reading your work has brought me closer to who I am.
P.S. I should add that in the month since I began writing this piece (prompted by the discovery of your column), my boyfriend proposed to me. I said yes. And we moved, of all places, to your city.
I’d like to buy you a whiskey.