When Michael proposed to me, I remember the first words out of my mouth being a panicky refrain of, “What is this?! What is this?! What is this?!” followed by a brief pause before I very hesitantly squeaked out, “Can I see it?” and pointed to the tiny box clutched in Michael’s fist.
It was, possibly, the least romantic reaction I could have mustered for the event. My tone fell somewhere between Jack Skellington discovering Christmas and David After Dentist discovering that this is real life. And then, before I even said yes, I picked up my phone and called my best friend, asking/telling her, “I’m engaged, is that okay?” (Because nothing inspires confidence in your partner like asking for an outside opinion.)
In short, I whiffed my own proposal.
Truth be told, the reality was that I only barely understood how to process the experience of getting engaged (not to mention I wasn’t entirely ready for it to be happening yet), so this combination of incredulousness and wanting to see the shiny thing in the box was frankly the best that I could come up with on short notice.
But still, I felt pretty crummy.
It’s not that I had unrealistic expectations for our proposal. In fact, quite the opposite. You see, Michael and I are not exactly… good at surprises. Actually, scratch that. I am terrific at surprising other people and terrible at being surprised myself. (I watch a lot of Law & Order, what can I say?) Meanwhile Michael, on the other hand, experiences severe physical discomfort at the very thought of lying to me (generally a quality I love about him, except for at Christmas, my birthday, and getting engaged) so his ability to keep a secret for very long is unimpressive at best, nonexistent at worst. So given our predispositions to the art of the surprise, I just assumed we would get engaged nonchalantly, maybe lying in bed one Saturday morning or while making coffee before work.
But when I caught onto the fact that Michael would be proposing one weekend while we were home in Maine, suddenly my expectations shifted and I felt a responsibility to protect all of the hard work he had put into making this experience special for us. And I didn’t know how to do this authentically while also acknowledging that I had sort of figured out the game… (Again, bless him, but he is a terrible liar. And there was no way I was going to believe that he was just going to go to my father’s house “to visit.”) And finally, I didn’t know how to admit to myself that I’d bought into the idea that the proposal set the stage for, well, everything else that would come after it. Because that would mean part of my wanting to do right by Michael was also wanting to do right by myself.
Of course, the obvious answer is that I should have just talked to him about it. Or shit, we both should have been talking to each other about our expectations for the proposal (we’d talked about marriage before, we just never discussed how we were planning on getting there). But somewhere along the line we’d fallen victim to the WIC expectation that talking about things ruins the magic of them. And I didn’t want to be the one responsible for ruining the magic. (Instead, by the way, I opted for the very subtle choice of saying things like, “Boy, I’m glad you’re not proposing to me today, because I really don’t want to have to change my Facebook status,” all weekend long, with the hopes that it might open up a healthy conversation on the subject. I was wrong.)
Plus, the obvious answer isn’t always the sexiest one. Part of the reason our engagement unfolded as it did is because secretly I think I wanted to believe that magical marriage fairies would be standing by waiting to sprinkle us with fairy dust and turn us into the kind of people who can pull off a traditional surprise proposal. I mean, that’s how everyone else does it, right?
Alas, getting engaged can make people do strange things. Michael and I didn’t buy into the expectation that proposals have to be grand gestures, but we did accept the more subtle pressures of the institution, and as a result we went pretty far outside of our normal comfort zones to give each other what we thought we wanted.
Which, no wonder I whiffed it. I didn’t even see what I was swinging at.
Eventually I let myself off the hook for not having a great proposal experience. I was pretty young when we got engaged, and it was easy to believe at the time that the minutia of a single day could radically change the course of our future together. But as the past few years have gone by and the proposal itself moves further into the distance, it becomes clearer to me that even the important days are still just a few among thousands. And we’ve got plenty more to go.