The details of my engagement turned out to matter a lot more than I wanted them to.
I always thought I would refuse to wear an engagement ring. The whole thing put me off — the fact that only the woman wears one, the way it becomes a measure of the woman's worth and the man's virility and success, the politically dubious origins and inflated value of the rock itself. "The diamond ring," wrote Meghan O'Rourke in an essay for Slate, "is the site of retrograde fantasies about gender roles." To wear an engagement ring seemed to say to the world, "Yes! I accept confusing devotion with capitalism and spectacle! I accept the status quo, the patriarchy, vapid movies about wedding dresses and bridesmaids!" I sent O'Rourke's essay to all of my friends.
It almost goes without saying that once I did get engaged, I started clamoring for a ring.
Once upon a time, I was engaged to marry a Frenchman. He was sweet and attentive, with something sad about him. He was smart as they come, a contrarian streak a mile wide, with a knack for stirring up trouble. He was politically conservative, but, I rationalized, a French conservative is like an American centrist. I could work with that.
Two years into our relationship his job offered him a transfer to Tokyo. We talked it over, and I said it wasn't a good time for me; I was in the middle of studying for my Ph.D. exams, and I didn't want to leave the life I'd worked hard to build for myself in Paris. Nevertheless, feeling backed into a corner at work, he took the transfer. I hated that he made the final decision without me, but Tokyo did sound exciting… so I decided to compromise by splitting time between the two cities. He promised he would come back to Paris as soon as he could find a job there.
When he accepted another transfer a year later, this time to Hong Kong, I almost left him. I needed some kind of assurance that he wanted to build a future with me, even though he kept making choices that took him further and further away.
The proposal, on one of my visits to Hong Kong, was a disaster, born of an ultimatum that went something like this: if we're not engaged by the time I go back to Paris, it's over. Make me a priority or let me go, I told him. Show me I'm a priority.
It took him an hour to squeeze out the words, and once they were out in French, I found I needed to hear them again in English. That took another hour. He freaked when I called my parents with the news, and refused to talk to my sister on Skype. I went to bed in tears.
There was of course no ring at the ready. Nor, as the months went by, did one appear. To my family, it was an outrage that he hadn't bought one and was making no attempt to. I explained to them that not only did I not want one, but that French people didn't really do engagement rings, that it was an American custom. "But you're American," they pointed out. Without wanting to admit it, I felt they had a point. My fiancé, who made a decent living in finance, certainly could have afforded something modest. Why wouldn't he buy me a ring? After all, what was so wrong with a ring? I liked non-engagement jewelry. Maybe I could accept something with a different stone. Something antique, something Art Deco. And to get around the unidirectional sign of ownership, I could buy him some kind of jewelry in exchange. What, though? Cufflinks? How lame, how un-matrimonial. I dithered, I doubted, I did not buy him jewelry.
As time wore on, no plans were made for the wedding. He was annoyed when I registered for gifts. (Another concession to my parents: "We've bought wedding gifts for everyone else's kids; now they can buy some for you.") He insisted on a Catholic ceremony and a Catholic pre-marital retreat. As the secular daughter of a confused Jew and a lapsed Catholic, I lobbied hard for a non-religious ceremony, but I eventually gave in to what he wanted. We were getting married in his country, with mostly his family in attendance — how could I deny him a religious ceremony, if it was important to them?
My one condition for agreeing to a church wedding was that he and his mother should pick the church, talk to the priest, and set up this nutty retreat. I pictured myself going to the Pre-Cana wedding preparation meetings with a red pen in hand like Miranda on Sex and the City, ready to edit the script for the ceremony: "I don't want the baby referred to as Catholic. No original sin. No renouncing of Satan. In fact, no mention of Satan…"
He never organized any of it, and the months slipped by. How could I expect him to line up a priest and a church from 6000 miles away? he asked. But he often came to Paris, and his fervently Catholic mother lived in France. I began to wonder if my fiancé was stalling. I asked him point-blank, and he made excuses. His job was unstable, the distance made it difficult, why rush things? "I don't need us to do it soon or anything," I said. I blamed it on my family: "You know how they are. I just need some kind of sign to show them we're serious. Like a ring. Any ring. There needs to be a ring."
A ring is a tricky thing, overburdened with metaphorical significance: a perfect circle, with no beginning and no end, made of strong precious metal; durable; definitive. But also temporary, mutable. With enough heat you can melt it down and make something else, a thing that will bear no trace of ever having been a ring. They're not indestructible. My friend put a dent in her wedding ring after she took a hammer to it last spring. That was before she stopped wearing it altogether.
She talks about leaving her husband, but she doesn't. She might still, but she hasn't yet. You can't just up and leave when you have children, a house, a history. Even without those things, a long-term relationship can be impossible to get out of — you go round, and round, and one more time around, with the same problems, ghosts, bitterness. You react the same way you do every time, trapped in that ring of resentment. Relationships are not as easily destructible as we think. But they dent.
The night before I was going to look at dresses with my mother, he asked me if I thought we should call it off. I realized then that he had never been serious about his proposal. Or rather, he was serious — in the abstract, he did want to marry me — but he couldn't actually bring himself to do it, and my insisting on this commitment was revealing where the fault-lines lay. A fracture was imminent. We were locked in some kind of cycle of need, which made it easier to get engaged than to break up. I had mistaken entrapment for commitment. The ring became a symbol of what I would always want and never get from him.
Things shook down one night in Hong Kong. Sitting in a bar, after having spent a nice day on Stanley Beach, I raised the issue with all the calm and maturity I could muster. Why? I asked him. Just why? Why no ring?
He paused for a long time. "Well," he said, "I talked to my mother, and she said that engagement rings were gauche and American."
It was an excuse, not a real explanation, and it was the wrong excuse: his mother, who spent months on end with him in Asia whenever I was back in Paris. Who'd abandoned and neglected him in his early years, yet who reorganized our apartment every time she came, who slept in our bed with him, on my side of the bed. Who took the books I had left in Hong Kong and put them in cardboard boxes, so they'd be ready to mail back to me at any moment.
I don't remember what else was said. But I remember the flaming anger, the rage that sent me off my bar stool and out into the night, charging toward a taxi. He followed after, complaining that a taxi was too expensive. "I'll pay for it," I spit out. "Just get in the fucking car."
"No," he said, hangdog. "I'll take the bus."
"Get. In. The fucking. Car."
When I got back to Paris, I met someone else. Not a permanent replacement, just someone passing through, who reminded me that there were, as they say, more fish. I told my fiancé it was over. Leaving him, finally, was like stepping off the Metro. Once I was above ground, I couldn't believe how much time I had spent below. His side of the story is different, and he's entitled to it. But for me, it was simple. I had needed to back out, and by focusing on the ring, I had found my way. Had he given me a ring, it would have made it that much harder to leave him. Much as we might wish otherwise, engagement rings do have their own indisputable power.
He showed up at my apartment one night, passing through Paris not long after we broke up, to try to get me to change my mind. "I almost bought a ring on my way over here," he said.
"You almost did?"
"But you didn't."
Always the right intentions. But the follow-through! Where was the follow-through? Is love enough of a reason to spend your life waiting for someone to follow through? I couldn't do it. But he still doesn't understand why I left.