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True Stories: Put A Ring On It
The details of my engagement turned out to matter a lot more than I wanted them to.
by Lauren Elkin
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."