In the early days of our engagement, everyone seemed to have the same first question: “How did he ask?” The answer seemed obvious; he said, “Will you marry me?” What more did people want to know? The inflection in his voice? The precise location of his bended knee on our rug? The asking itself seemed both personal and, well, boring to anyone who wasn’t us. But we quickly realized that what people wanted was a story, our “engagement story,” and so, after repeating it approximately a million times, we got pretty good at telling it:
It was the Fourth of July and we both had the day off from work. Mike’s plan was to take me to our favorite pancake house, and then go for a stroll down by the waterfront, where he’d pop the question with the New York skyline as a backdrop. He had been talking for at least a week about going out for pancakes to celebrate our day off together, but I didn’t really think much of it. We have celebratory pancakes pretty frequently, and while the incessant talking about it seemed a little odd, I’m certainly not one to question a pancake offer.
We woke up to a scorching hot day and news that the captain of our favorite hockey team had signed with a new team. All I really wanted to do was sit in front of the AC unit and grump about a millionaire’s lack of loyalty, but Mike was insistent about the pancakes. Of course, I was completely unaware that these were going to be engagement pancakes, and so I took my sweet time getting ready. By the time we stepped out of our apartment, it was noon and 95 degrees. In the shade. We walked the ten blocks or so to the restaurant, and I complained the whole way. Was this even necessary? Couldn’t we have just made pancakes at home? By the time we got there I was dripping with sweat and fully miserable, and to make matters worse, the restaurant was packed and the air conditioning was broken. I gave Mike a big sigh and an eye roll as we slid into our seats, but he kept his spirits up the whole time, chattering on about the street fair and fireworks that were scheduled for later that day.
A few minutes later another couple sat down at the table next to us and immediately started arguing. About marriage. The girlfriend launched into what was clearly a speech that had been memorized from so much repetition. The boyfriend just leaned back in his seat, hands behind his head, and smirked. At our table—about six inches away—Mike and I desperately tried not to burst into fits of awkward laughter. He stared at his menu, considering the engagement ring burning a hole in his pocket. Should he ask now? Would that girl’s head explode? Would it be funny or bad? There was no way to know for sure. Meanwhile, I had dug out my phone to send him a text across the table: “Man, that girl REEAAALLLY wants to get married huh?” Mike read it and looked up at me, forcing a laugh and shoving the ring deeper into his pocket.
As we left the restaurant, I immediately started complaining about the heat again. Mike knew that I would be suspicious if he suggested a sweaty, heat-stroke inducing walk down by the waterfront just for the fun of it, so he tried inventing errands that would take us in that direction. Didn’t I need to go to the store? Maybe we should hit up the bank, take out some cash so we can go to the street fair later? But I wanted no part of it. I was sweaty and my sandals were already creating new blisters on my heat-swollen feet. Who even goes to a street fair in this kind of weather? I wanted to go home, and eventually Mike agreed.
I fanned myself furiously as we entered our apartment, rushing straight to the AC unit in the bedroom window. I turned it on and stood in front of it, huffing and puffing in aggravation, my arms outstretched like I was trying to drip-dry (which, okay, I sort of was). Behind me, I could hear Mike snickering and mumbling something to himself. Certain that he was making fun of me, I whirled around, ready to give him an earful. And there he was. On one knee. In the middle of our bedroom.
It was a good story. People laughed. They thought it was great that he managed to catch me by surprise, no small feat, considering that we share an eight hundred-square-foot apartment. Some suggested that he should have asked at the restaurant, in the middle of that other couple’s fight. That would have made the story even funnier, they said. We’d laugh and nod. Mike would explain that he ultimately decided not to because it would have been mean, and also because he didn’t want our engagement to be a joke.
But the thing is? It was sort of a joke anyway. My terrible mood, the absurd timing of that couple’s argument, the final just-before moment when I wanted to deck the person who was about to ask me to marry him—everyone thought it was hilarious. And I guess it was, but I hated it.
I’m ashamed to admit that for a time, in the early days of our engagement, I was mad at Mike for this. I mean, I was mad at myself, of course; I wished I hadn’t dragged him home, and wondered if we would have had a more romantic engagement story if I’d agreed to go for the walk he’d wanted to take. But also, I was mad at him. When the original plan didn’t work out, why didn’t he wait until a more romantic moment to ask? Didn’t he know that I would want that? And what did it mean about us—about our impending marriage—that he didn’t?
The problem was that my expectations were unrealistic, which was a surprising revelation, considering that I didn’t think I had any expectations to begin with. But with TV shows and romantic comedies and the outrageous proposal videos that circulate the Internet constantly, it’s easy to forget what real life is actually like. Real-life moments are rarely perfectly timed and orchestrated, and real-life emotions are often raw and unexpected. It doesn’t always make for a great story; or sometimes, it does make for a good story—just not the story you wanted.
During the course of our engagement, I’ve learned to accept this, but I’ve also come to understand something even more important than that: the story of that July 4th is not really our engagement story at all. Our engagement story takes place over a much longer span of time, in a collection of moments that would be impossible to tell in any kind of linear way. It’s in the dozens of talks about the future we’ve had in the four years we’ve been together. It’s in the many decisions—both big and small—that have led to the intertwining of our lives over time. It’s in the new traditions we’ve started together (hello, celebratory pancakes!), and the old traditions we’ve invited each other to be a part of. It’s Mike asking me to marry him in one of my uglier moments, knowing without a doubt that the sweaty, frizzy, snarling person in front of him was already his partner for life. Our engagement story is all of these moments, and it’s also every day since, as we choose each other—day after day—regardless of the plan, or the weather, or the mood.