Mortification and the Pre-Engaged State

Stash of wedding mags discovered, not... engaged... yet.

Long time readers will remember Manya (who now writes at Safari Mama) from her Wedding Graduate post and her super brave post on the wedding she should have called off. Today’s post is in Manya’s usual frank and funny voice, and it’s about the difficulties of knowing you want to marry someone before they are ready to marry you. When she sent me the first draft, I giggled all the way through it. I, too, once had a fake Kn*t account with a fake wedding date and read wedding magazines on the Subway “to relax.” But Manya clearly hadn’t let herself off the hook for the way she’d reacted to the cultural and emotional pressures of the pre-engaged state. So we talked about the ways we redeem ourselves through planning a wedding and building a life together, and she finally let go. So today’s post is not just for the pre-engaged. It’s for all of us who need to forgive ourselves, to finally laugh at ourselves, and get back to the hard work of loving ourselves, crazy behavior and all.

The word mortify has its roots in the word death. Over the ages it has meant “to kill” and “to bring about death,” and now it has been reigned in significantly to mean “to humble or embarrass.” Never have I understood this word better than the moment Brian and I officially entered “The Pre-Engaged State,” a profoundly awkward space that we inhabited for about eleven months.

I remember the exact moment I knew Brian was it. I was nestled in a pit of sand and we were talking about what we like to cook. I gazed up at the sky and felt something inside of my chest click into place, like a lock. Now he tells me that he sensed something had changed, and had thought to himself, “Oh, thank God. She’s crossed over too.”

I started thinking about getting married far too soon for somebody who was not long off of a difficult divorce and who should have been worried about rebound. But my head was no match for my heart, so think I did. And dream. And surf websites. And open a secret file in my computer where I kept pictures of engagement rings. I might have sent one or two to my sister, in case Brian ever sought technical assistance. I might have spun the pantone wedding color wheel once or (a million times) twice. I registered on The Kn*t with a fictional wedding date. I mooned over Snippet & Ink. I made a virtual fool of myself, but no one was there to see. This went on for two years, and as our relationship grew better and better (not to mention older), I felt less foolish about it.

We traveled thousands of miles and had a Christmas together at my parents’, then two. I met his mom and stepdad, father and stepmom. I got to know and love his sons, and them me. Then we were at the beach and talked about whether it would be a nice place for a wedding. I told him about an idea for invitations—for someone who might be getting married. On our third Christmas together, our divorces were behind us, our relationship was thriving and (without ever talking to him), I became convinced he was going to seek my parents’ blessing when we visited them over the holiday. Thus, I gave myself permission to (secretly) unleash my inner Bride, and using the excuse that they don’t have all the good wedding stuff in Kenya, I bought every single bridal magazine I could find. While Christmas shopping, I also sneaked into the local David’s Bridal to try on some dresses—just for fun.

While at David’s Bridal, I felt sheepish, but excited and giddy. I tried on dresses, and juiced it up with the sales girl. I stretched the truth, and said Brian and I were getting engaged over the holidays. But I told the truth about our names, and I signed the guestbook and registered my favorites on a wish list, too happy about that short, cute little affordable dress to think to change a digit in my home phone number. By the time Brian arrived (a few days after I did), I had hidden the magazines under the bed. I didn’t want him to feel pressured, or let on that I had intuited his secret.

Then, two nights after my stealth visit to David’s Bridal, as we all worked in my mom’s fragrant kitchen preparing a huge family meal, the phone rang and Brian answered.

“Hello, this is David’s Bridal. We’re calling to do a customer service follow up with Manya who was here visiting us this week. Would she be available?”

Brian summoned me to the phone with a quizzical look; “Honey? David’s Bridal for you? You were there this week?” Unfortunately, the woman on the other end overheard the endearment and after he said, “She’s coming” gushed, “Oooooh, you must be Brian! Congratulations on your upcoming Nuptials!”

As he handed me the phone, he whispered, “You marrying someone named Brian?” My heart stopped for a minute, but in the bustle of a Christmas kitchen I recovered by saying, “What? God, these telemarketers will say anything to get you on the phone these days!” During dinner my cheeks burned, but the light was dim, and I was wearing a turtleneck. By the time pie rolled around, all seemed forgotten.

He gave me a tiny box for Christmas that contained a beautiful…(!)… pair of diamond earrings; I bravely mustered the enthusiasm that the lavish gift deserved. A few days later, when it was time for Brian and the boys to go, my excitement had chilled like a post-Christmas house. Unless he had dragged my parents into the spidery basement where the water heater lives—and that is not how he rolls—Brian clearly had not asked for my hand. I took comfort in the knowledge that my inner Bridal frenzy was, at least, my secret.

As Brian packed his bags, I sat with him and cried a little and blamed it on the impending separation. I miss you already, I said as I swallowed my tears over the lump of disappointment in my throat. Oh, baby, me too, he said, as a roll of socks slipped out of his hands and rolled under the bed. He bent his 6’6” frame down and rummaged around under the bed, then cackled as he pulled out a glossy pile of magazines, “Oh dude, I think I just found somebody’s stash.”

I froze, eyes wide open, caught in the blinding light of his grin, which was melting from sardonic to confused as he flipped through the pile and realized that they were bridal magazines. All 30 of them. My face prickled as the blood drained out of it and my palms beaded with a cold sweat. My mouth watered like I might vomit. The world narrowed to the pounding of my pulse in my ears and the discomfort on his face.

Mortification, taken in slow motion, has phases: First you think you are going to die. Then when you realize that you are not, you wish somebody would kill you.

I went to the window and fiddled around with the shades as Brian came over and tried to hug me, tried to make it somehow ok. “Oh, Sweet… of all the things you could be hiding from me, this is the best… I love you so much… don’t be embarrassed… you don’t have to hide, bring the magazines out.” I was inconsolable. I muttered that the magazines really were like porn. I didn’t really want any of those dresses or those parties (just like he doesn’t really want those perfect-bodied-doe-eyed women with the shiny hair—right?). I just liked fantasizing and escaping into that world to release stress…. I finally took him downstairs and scraped him off on my mom, “Uh, you guys, Middle East: Discuss,” and I slinked back upstairs to let the floodgates loose in silent, gut-turning sobs.

A few minutes later Brian knocked softly on the door; “Sugarpie? Are you hiding from me?” I nodded, and stared down at the limp wet Kleenex my hands wouldn’t stop wringing. He came in. Said all the right things. He was thinking about it. Not quite ready. Could. Not. Survive. Another divorce. Had ideas, but no plans, and definitely no spreadsheets—yet. He spoke of tradition, surprises, romance. He knew I wanted all of that (and I did). Could I wait for him? Did I feel secure in the relationship? Was he doing enough to show how much he loves me, how committed he is? We hugged and kissed, and I said yes, yes, yes. It was the first time ever we weren’t on the same page about us. It wasn’t a rejection at all—we were still reading the same book—but it hurt nonetheless.

The next ten months were awkward. Pressure lurked between us. I was worried I had ruined it all. We stopped talking about marriage altogether. We watched The Sopranos, and when Christopher and Adriana got engaged we sat in tortured silence. Once Brian stopped the car and threw on the parking brake. Thinking he was reaching over to grab my hand we smacked knuckles. “Ow!” I said,  “Here I am thinking you’re taking my hand, and you’re putting on the brakes!” The irony of the phrase rang loud between the raindrops hitting the windshield. He took my hand and smiled at me, and I loved him more than ever. We took a couple of vacations, and I yearned and wondered, and ruined them a little bit for myself. He planned a trip to Egypt for my birthday and that was when I got myself together. I was going to ruin a trip of a lifetime because of this?

Sure, I hated calling him my “boyfriend,” but I wasn’t going to throw down ultimatums—I wasn’t going anywhere! So, before we went to Egypt I put some energy into letting go. I can’t tell you how I let go, I just got more scared that I was ruining the present than worried about having a married future together.

And the present was awesome, so I tried to apply some Zen to the situation and turned my thoughts to enjoying our relationship fully now and releasing expectations of how it should be.

Unbeknownst to me, there were spreadsheets: my ring was already in his 2010 budget (under “car repairs”). He was getting ready in his own quiet way. He bought it a mere three months after the Bridal Porn Debacle. He kept it at the jeweler’s then planned an amazingly romantic trip to Cairo for “my birthday” in October. He hid the ring in his cargo pants for days, awaiting the right moment. He secretly worried that he had waited too long—that I would be more relieved than thrilled—and he wanted me to be thrilled to the core. He wanted to make my dreams come true.

The morning that he proposed I was getting up my courage to ask him at dinner that night if he thought he would ever feel ready to get married again. The very moment he was sneaking the ring out of the safe and into his cargo pants, I (from the bathroom) asked him if he thought we would grow old together and have grand adventures. Three hours later, on a hill overlooking the pyramids, he was down on one knee. Once I had satisfied myself that he was asking because he wanted to, and not because I had pressured him into it, we were finally released from the Pre-Engaged State.

The next day we went to the National Museum in Cairo, and ended up sitting on a bench amid the huge sarcophagi, holding hands, and scheming about the delicious lifetime of adventures we would have together. And from that platform of excitement about our future, I redeemed myself by planning a gorgeous, affordable, meaningful, and (mostly) sane wedding.

When I think back on what was driving all of that crazy, the answer is quite simple. It was about Love. I loved Brian so much, but I felt it wasn’t safe to unleash the full force of it on him until I knew for sure he was there, too. I needed an outlet for all of that energy. I’m a closet designer/foodie/travel buff and so I unleashed my love on a fantasy wedding. It was culturally sanctioned and it was emotionally safer than pouring it into a future I wasn’t a hundred percent sure he wanted.

So if any of you reading are currently suspended in the Pre-Engaged State, there are a couple of things you need to know:

  1. It’s OK to want—really, really, badly—to marry Your Person, and to not know what to do with yourself if they aren’t quite there yet.
  2. It’s also OK to enjoy and dream about beautiful things—buying and arranging stuff is a fundamental expression of humanity, culture and self. Choosing treasured artifacts to surround and adorn us during significant life rituals is profoundly human (dude, I bet half the stuff in the National Museum in Cairo was somebody’s wedding shit).
  3. If you tell anyone stories like these, they will retell them during toast-time, and everyone will laugh, fondly, knowingly, and hard.
  4. And finally, most importantly: You are not crazy. What you are is crazy in love. And there’s nothing shameful about that.
Photos: Manya’s Personal Collection

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