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My eyes widened as I watched him lower one knee to the ground.
"Oh, my god..." I whispered, one hand involuntarily covering my mouth. Tears started to prickle the corners of my eyes. He beamed up at me, his face radiating with pride and joy, as he pulled a little black box out of his coat pocket. I shifted in my seat, looking around the restaurant as more and more heads turned our way. I gave them a small smile as my face started to flush with the added attention.
"Sweetie, I love you so much. I know I've waited too long to ask you this question, but - will you marry me?" His eyes were filled with hope, and his face was slightly red. He must have noticed the audience we had too. I took a deep breath. I didn't know what else to say.
" Yes, I'll marry you." He shot up from the ground, kissing me long and hard, as the strangers around us clapped. He fumbled with the ring, before finally slipping it on my fourth finger.
"You've made me the happiest guy alive!" He shouted, more for the crowd's benefit than mine, I assumed. I chuckled nervously at his enthusiam. The waiter rushed over with a bottle of champagne, claiming it was 'on the house'. I'd never heard anyone use that phrase before other than in movies.
My head felt hazy and slow, and my body was numb. I turned to all the couples happily going back to their meals, every now and again sneaking smiling glances at us, apparently glad to have been a witness to love that day. A sparkle caught my eye, and I stared down at my hand, still held out in front of me, suspended midair in the act of acceptance. It was a beautiful diamond ring, and I immediately wondered how much it had cost him. My next thought was, how long had he been planning this? I was overcome with dread. What have I done? I thought. Why didn't I see this coming? That's when I finally looked at him. The man I'd been trying to force myself to love for three years.
He was everything I could have ever asked for. Loyal, compassionate, independent, and funny. He was there for me whenever I needed him, and never pressured me for more than I was willing to give. In another world, I would have considered myself lucky to have found him. But, all I could think, as I watched him joking with the waiter was, "I can't marry you."
I crawled into my own bed that night - alone. Claiming I was exhausted from all the excitement, I had asked if he wouldn't mind sleeping at his place. Although briefly disappointed, he'd kissed me on the forehead, and said good night. That was how understanding he was. But, would he feel the same about this?
I sighed, rolling onto my back, with my hand held up in the air. I kept rotating my wrist, fascinated by the glint of light flashing from my finger. 'Why did he have to do this to me?' I whispered to the diamond, eyes wide and staring, as if this inanimate object knew all. Things were perfect as they were, I thought. We were together, but still held our own lives. We had our own apartments, away from each other. When we wanted to see each other, it was dinner or a movie, followed by a night together. Why did we need to change that?
An image flashed in my mind. It was a common picture because I'd imagined it often as a teenager, and it had never seemed to fade as I grew older. The dream of another life with another person - a life that could have been at one time, but now was no longer possible. Tears welled up in my eyes as disappointment pounded into my heart. I'd envisioned my life at twenty-three many times, and this was never what I'd seen. I clutched my chest, as the emptiness enveloped me. There was a slight scratch against my chin, and I looked down. When I saw the ring, the disgust that dripped through my body felt like sludge coursing through me. Suddenly, I couldn't stand the sight of it on my finger. It seemed to represent everything that had gone wrong. I sat up, wrenching it off clumsily, and threw it across the room. I sat back on my pillows, breathing heavily, on the verge of sobbing. A pang of guilt shot through me as I watched the ring, so tiny in size yet so huge in definition, bounce off the wall, and finally lay to rest on the carpet. I stared at it, pitifully shadowed under the bulk of my dresser, but still seeming to glow. I knew without a doubt, that I shouldn't have accepted it. 'But, what else was I supposed to do?' I anguished, curling into a ball on my side. The trapped and helpless feeling I'd tried to suppress before was suffocating me now. I rubbed my sore, bloodshot eyes, and wondered how I was going to get out of this without hurting him. The few explanations I'd half-formed in my head were useless. The only thing I knew was I couldn't go through with this. I just couldn't.
I paced around my apartment the next day, avoiding the phone, avoiding my life. Shame and guilt seemed to be the only emotions I could feel. The same two thoughts kept running continuously through my head: if I told him I didn't want to get married, I'd lose him, and be alone. And if I didn't tell him, I'd be living a lie.
I found myself in a mental battle. What's so wrong with marrying him? It's just dating with some legality thrown in. You could have kids, a house, maybe a couple dogs. There's some security in that.
But you don't love him, a tiny voice in the back of my mind countered. I stopped where I stood, reminded of the days when I had loved someone, and thought they'd loved me too. A shot of pained electricity ran through my veins. For just a moment, I visualized the face I'd been fighting to forget for years. The smile that never failed to send a creeping warmth throughout my body. My chest was crushed with the overwhelming sensation of pure need, and my breath caught in my throat. The torture seemed to fill a part of me, and yet still leave me so empty. As I'd done for the past thirteen years, I turned to my stereo, turning on the mixed CD that never failed to pierce my heart with every croon. As the music played, my hands buried themselves in my hair, and pulled. The pain was bittersweet - I wanted to feel him, and this was the only way. It just hurt so much.
Stop, I demanded. You've moved on from this. I took a deep breath, clicking off the music, and pushed him from my mind. I picked up my coffee, and realized I was shaking. The unbearable loneliness that always followed was surrounding me. Instinctively, I snatched the cordless phone off the counter and dialed his number. I bit my lip anxiously as it rang. I wasn't nervous about whether or not he'd answer. He always did. That's why I'd been with him for the past three years. He was my safety net. He caught me when I fell. All I needed was to hear the sound of his voice, and I knew I'd be okay. Just as long as I wasn't alone, I'd be perfectly fine.
When I heard him say 'hello', I knew I'd marry him. The waves of relief rolling over my body were too blatant to ignore. There wasn't any way I could survive without him; not with this pain lurking behind every lonely moment. I swallowed the lump in my throat, and resolved to lock that part of my heart away for good. Maybe I didn't love him, but he had saved me. There was a sense of selfishness in accepting, but I'd grow to love him out of companionship, mutual respect, and affection. It wouldn't be the fireworks and passion I craved, and would continue to crave as long as I lived, but it was safe. I would be okay.