The first date we went on was a bona fide disaster. Chicago is cold in January, turns out, and I detest the cold. He was sweet and held my hand. I detest sweetness and detest being tied down. He made jokes about art in the art museum and—well, actually I love crass jokes about art in art museums, but for some reason I took it all wrong. The ride home I tried to pretend it had been a fun day and he tried to figure out why the hell I was tense because it had been a fun day.
I cried to my mother that night, declaring it was all a mistake and I wish we’d never started dating, Michael and I, and that I needed to get out of this right. Now. My mother figured out what I was scared of before I did. Married for a couple decades, she already knew that love is too big for a little girl who sees herself as the hero of a yet-unknown story. When Michael asked my parents for their blessing a few months ago, she said something to the effect of, “Thank goodness Elaine didn’t ruin this somehow.”
(She did not actually say that. But she might have thought it.)
(I do too.)
After the first date debacle, I ought to have realized what the engagement would be like sixteen months later. He made me pancakes in the morning—I love pancakes—and took me to the Indianapolis art museum where we made crass jokes together. He proposed at the Indianapolis Public Library, which is the most beautiful building that has ever existed and made a fantastic and not-at-all cheesy analogy between our favorite books and our relationship. We had Giordano’s pizza afterwards.
It was perfect. I detest perfect things.
Relationships should be messy, and there shouldn’t be parallel art museum visits that incorporate my favorite sense of humor, my favorite foods, and books books books and architecture and selfless planning on the part of my partner. In my experience, relationships should be frustrating to the point of giving up. Then, in the mess of the heartbreak that follows I get to reassert my independent and reconnect with God in the simplicity that follows.
Back in youth group—which, if you want to shudder at the ambiance of our relationship with me some more, both Michael and I were a part of—we always joked about “the gift of singleness” that the Apostle Paul talks about. Curse of singleness, more likely, am I right? Maybe to some, but not to me. I have that gift. Singleness has its downsides (the finances!), but it’s a lifestyle I find natural and pleasing. Fulfilling. Fun.
In the end, the engagement wasn’t perfect. The jewelers broke the ring while setting the stone, so he gave me a stand-in that was about two sizes too big for me (I have raccoon-size hands). We finally got the real one a few weeks ago and its setting hovers gargoyle-like on my finger, grinning at me while it slides under my finger to stab my palm. The band is somehow too big after two fittings.
I’m carrying around the symbol of someone’s desire to be with me the rest of his life. That’s awkward, especially since there’s no protocol for me reciprocating the gesture with a symbol of my own: a symbol that admits that I don’t want to be single anymore, but not because I needed someone to save me from loneliness.
It is so weighty. That ring is the culmination of question that terrified me to tears after our first date. Will you admit that marriage doesn’t mean the death of independence? Will you accept that disappointing each other is the beginning of better love and not an excuse to isolate yourself? Will you stay around so that we can grow adorably old together making crass jokes about art in art museums while the world spins on around us?
Our first date was a disaster because I couldn’t answer those questions yet.