It had been over seven difficult months since I had been let go from my previous employer, and I was still searching for that elusive job. And it had been that long since we were back in each other's lives. In the middle of an electronic conversation, out of nowhere, came the words that changed everything. They read, "I have received a marriage proposal."
I was speechless, and my heart skipped a beat. In despair, I tried to resign myself that you were fated for another, and composed the only response I could think of. "Congratulations. I am very happy for the both of you." And then you backtracked with a barely believable story. "Not the boyfriend." What?!?
You tried to convince me that it was a nameless friend who out of the blue asked you to marry him. You said "no", but he was persistent and continued to call you, until you finally shut him out, and refused any further communication with him. For my part, I never believed there was a third man, and that you were fishing for my reaction, based on some kind of marital discussion that occurred between you and the boyfriend. Whatever it was, I wanted no part of this, and whatever the truth of this was, I had assumed the worst. As events unfolded, though, the story of this mysterious third man became our story, marking out the path that both of us would follow. It was always there, hidden in plain sight.
The previous year, I initiated many relationship-themed conversations, but all of that ended when you made it clear there was someone else and that I would have to remove myself from the picture. We were out of each other's lives for months, and I was in a vulnerable place when we came back into contact again. Being out of work placed you back in my orbit again, but your relationship choices were something I chose to respect. I bristled at every reference to the boyfriend (which were mercifully few) and tried to focus on finding work and coping with my situation. But by mentioning marriage, you had broken this unwritten arrangement. What on earth possessed you to open this Pandora's box of marriage discussion with me? Did you have any idea what you had unleashed?
A day had past, and I was still emotionally reeling. It was overwhelming and I could barely think, and then I paused and came to a decision. If this discussion was what I thought it was, then I needed to follow through and ask some hard questions. I asked, "What am I to you? Is there any hope that I can become the man in your life?" Your reply, in effect, was "What will happen will happen, and when I decide it will happen." I felt like I was being played, and had one very simple reaction which I have never before shared with you: I am done with this. It was under that environment that I asked the question.
"Will you marry me?" There, I finally got it out. There was a pause that seemed to go on forever, and for a while you had not yet extinguished hope in my heart. And then, finally, the one word response. "No."
We have known of each other along time - you were the older sister of my cousin's best friend, and we had a handful of mutual friends. Two years earlier we met almost by accident. I was visting my cousin and your brother, when you walked through the door. It had been the first time in over a decade that we were in the same room together. I wasn't sure quite what to make of you, but you left quite an impression. We talked for a while, exchanged contact points, and went our separate ways, with you heading back to the big city.
After that first encounter, we communicated for the next few months. There were a handful of pleasant phone calls, such as the weekend you moved out of your apartment into your new house. And then there were the exaggerated and over the top electronic mails, which were endlessly interesting and frequently left me puzzled. The message where you claimed you wanted to retire when you turned 40 later became a running joke between us. It was hard to get a good read on you, and I didn't know who I was dealing with.
And then things took a sobering turn when your dad's health took a turn for the worse. Throughout the summer, I frequently got updates from my cousin. Around the same time, I was let go from my employer after four years. When your father died, I sent off a notes of condolence to both you and your brother, but was out of town for the viewing. And then our contacts stopped for a while. As Christmas approached that year, a job interview came my way, and afterwards we met for about two hours the shopping mall, and just talked.
Towards the end of the evening, we walked into the bookstore and shared one final coffee. You had taken your winter coat off, and were wearing a cream-white sweater. We shared our memories of university, and told me of your past relationships. I have revisited this moment a thousand times in my mind, the memories are still strong. It was if had known each other all our lives, I could have stayed in your presence for hours. I just became very comfortable and at ease, and all my other concerns just melted away. I looked into your eyes and realized what was happening. Oh God, I fell. I fell hard. Could I succeed where others failed? My heart turned, and from that day forward I resolved to be with you as often as I could, and treasured every minute I spent with you.
The next month I was settling in to my new job, and we met again for supper. Right away, you told me of your affection for Shirley Temple drinks as an adult and ordered one, and used the vaccuum of the straw to play with it, as if you were still ten years old. I was utterly charmed. "What's your favourite word?" You banged the table - Bam! - "Onomatopoeia. It sounds like what it is!" "Mine is melancholy, kind of a fancy word for deep sadness." After it was over we walked over to the book store, and came upon some incense candles and wafted your hands over them, directing the scent to your nose.
The Ash Wednesday steak dinner was the first time clue that something had gone awry. It was more difficult to set up, and I could tell you were uncomfortable. It wasn't long after that I learned you were dating someone else. Everything ground to a halt, but I found it hard to let go. In May I organized a party for you, and there was a moment where you were alone at the table that night next to me. You told me that there were times in your life when you were the recipient of acts of great love, and doubted your ability to love them in return. I touched your arm and told you that every one is capable, in their way, of love. You were as yet unwilling to cut me loose, but we had less to do with each other after it was over.
In August, there was a surreal meeting with myself and your boyfriend that was nearly impossible to set up. Heading towards the meeting, my engine and head gasket had actually melted on the highway, and I arrived at the Mall in my father's car, afraid I was going to be late. There was a moment outside of his earshot where you told me your neighbour thought you were good with children. You were the "single chick" who was unsure about the idea of having children, yet conflicted about being both single and motherless by choice. Deep down, I think the concept of bearing and taking care of children terrified you.
It was an uncomfortable meeting for everybody involved. Clearly you couldn't keep both of us in your life, one of us would have to be let go and it was going to be me. Not long after that, by mutual consent, we went our separate ways. By the end of the roller-coaster year, the number of contacts that we had with each other could be counted on one hand. It was dead, and then... the unthinkable happened.
After nearly a year with my new job, I was now unemployed again, and visiting my parents for Christmas in my old home town. One night, I was waiting in a lineup outside Joe's bar when fate intervened, and there I met Heidi, a pretty girl who caught my eye. This was one of my favourite watering holes there, and every now and then, I would come across old school friends. In my conversation with Heidi, I mentioned one of them, a girl named Lisa. She then asked me if I knew of Lisa's old boyfriend Scott, and a bunch of other people in their crowd. Within moments, I am conversing with Scott on his cell-phone and was belatedly invited over to his house for a Christmas party. To my delight, Heidi showed up later that evening. I mentioned Lisa's name to Scott and he told me that he broke up with her years ago because he thought she was crazy. Many of the people I met that night were mutual friends of ours, and when I returned to Toronto, I chose to share this story with you, and also broke the news of my joblessness. And thus our lives became intertwined again.
When I look back at the wreckage that later followed, it's hard to forget that during the most desperate moments of that period, you were actually there for me. They were hard times - you listened, and let me vent, and gave me advice and were patient with me. Circumstances forced me to set aside my romantic ambitions, but it was here that I valued you most as a friend. And from there I fell very hard for you a second time. That is why what happened in July was such an unexpected shock.
After an unwelcome discussion of a marriage proposal from another man, I handed you a loaded weapon, and you fired. "Will you marry me." "No." Perhaps it should have ended here, but it didn't. I followed this with an emotional torrent of very hard things and deeply confessional notes. "I love you, I believe in us." I confessed everything, and believed in my heart that I lost you, but not before burdening you with the depth of it all. And then I took you back to the time we shared coffee.
There was a moment in that meeting where you told me of a good friend of yours at university who proposed marriage to you. As you told me the details, it was clear you still had an emotional connection with him. After you turned him down, he pressed to see you a few times, but with the failed proposal, the friendship had broken down. The theme of a friendship dissolved by a marriage proposal had always haunted me, going back to that fateful first encounter, and always was there in the back of my head, an undercurrent that never went away. You naively wondered once why he never got back in touch with you, failing to make a connection with your having turned him down. As I prepared to end things, I reminded you of the repercussions of that "no." Deep down, I wondered if you had ever really been in love before. Your reply to all of this was silence.
It is now July 4 and I'm with my friend Mike, heading out to a rock concert by my favourite band. All throughout the night I was distracted with the events from earlier. The guitarist played the Star Spangled Banner, and their set list, including their signature hit "Separate Ways", was filled with songs of broken hearts, severed relationships, and the love that remained long after it was over. The next day I was able to clear my head, and passed along a short note that I enjoyed the previous night's concert, and over the next few weeks we both pretended that these conversations never happened. But it was too late, the Rubicon was crossed.
In mid-July I joined a two-week career consultation and skills assessment course sponsored by the City of Toronto. There I met Samantha, an energetic talkative ADD-type girl in her early 20s with a string of McJobs and at least 40 different residences in her lifetime. She was good with her hands and with arts and crafts, and she made necklaces and other jewelry for various clients. And that was when I decided to make a real marriage proposal. This time I would bring something and do this in person, in a moment of my choosing.
When a man pledges his love to a woman, he does this in her presence. He will offer a concrete token of his pledge - usually a ring - and express his love. And in that vulnerable setting, he hopefully receives an answer to the call of his heart. Being out of work, the ring was out of the question, but with Sammy's help, I had the idea of offering a deeply personal and meaningful substitute that would accompany the question. And so she fashioned for me a necklace with a dragon as a centerpiece (your favourite mythological creature) and with the bead colours as close as possible to cobalt blue (your favourite colour).
When I said I was going to offer you a gift necklace, you were reluctant. "You don't have to do this for me." "I want to do this. This means a great deal to me. Please accept this." You relented. Surely you must have known what I was planning when you consented. About a week after the course was over, Sammy told me it was ready. Money was exchanged, I returned to the apartment and informed you the item was ready. We would meet the next day.
On August 6, I came to your office and you invited me inside. I didn't know quite how to start, the words just spilled out of me. "... The question I asked you... I can't believe you didn't say no. Thank you. Thank you so very much." The mind plays tricks - I clearly remembered the confession and the silence but not what triggered it. As all these thoughts and feelings were flowing, there were tears in my eyes. You never corrected me, you only looked at me and smiled. And then I looked straight into your eyes and asked, "Will you marry me?" Again, an ineffable, knowing, wordless smile. "Will you?"
I then pulled out the necklace, and explained its various elements. More than anything I remember your beaming, beautiful smile as you put it on. There are times when you can look into a woman's eyes and see forever. I never saw more clearly than that day. Whatever it is you thought of this moment, its symbolism was never lost on me.
And with that over with, we talked about what was going on in our lives, my skills course and ongoing job search, and your upcoming vacation in Aruba with your best friend from university. I gave you a book to give to your brother which you said you would give him. This unfinished moment was one of the brightest memories of one of the bleakest periods of my life.
Over the next few weeks the contacts continued. At one point, after a bitterly disappointing failed job interview, you let me forward you my resume and wondered if there was a way for you to help me on that front. My employment insurance finally ran out, I had trouble keeping up car payments on my "lemon" of a car, and then, finally began a week-long stint working for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. Then, finally, there was an interview that led to my return to work in early September for a contract position in North York.
The first week on the new job, I let you know I was back at work and you wanted details of the nature of my position. I never assumed you answered my Dragon Necklace proposal, but now that I was in a secure place I wanted one, and wouldn't stop until I got it. And that's when things got a bit strange. I obliquely asked, "Do you remember a certain question I asked last month?" You feigned ignorance and then I spelled it out. "The question was: Will you marry me?"
You ducked it and started a separate line of questioning. "How would you feel about working for me?" That confused me but I played along and joked that "I'm not sure I'd like the boss." There was some additional back and forth before I said I'd be fine with it. And then I returned to the subject, commenting "This doesn't really answer the question I asked. Will you marry me?" Your reply: "Would you be happy to know that you succeeded?"
The answer stunned me. "That's wonderful! How are we going to follow through with this?" There were a number of things I wanted to do, including the purchase of a real engagement ring. But then you replied, "If you had any idea what I was planning, you would never stop asking questions."
And so, I put everything on hold and made an act of faith. "I have confidence in you. I am putting everything in your capable hands." But I was not yet done and wanted to get one more thing out. "What I went through was incredibly difficult for me. I want you to know how hard this has been. Why did you put me through with this?" You replied that "I was rooting for the underdog" and "I wanted to see how far you would go." Wow. We exchanged a few other pleasantries and I sent my best wishes for your upcoming vacation. And from there, unexpectedly, everything unravelled.
You went away for a week, and upon your return, there were months of silence and unanswered electronic inquiries. At the beginning of that period, a number of electronic post cards were sent, embedded with words like "I love you". These were the kind that let the sender know when the messages are read by the recipient. You picked up these up for a week, then eventually stopped reading them. By December I managed to get through to you, to ask the question, "What the hell happened?", along with a Christmas greeting. You never answered the question, although your reply to the greeting was warm, along with "No hard feelings."
Ultimately the seeming success of the Dragon necklace proposal was as ephemeral as the earlier no - in effect, the virtual exchanges cancelled each other out, leaving the wordless smile on your face as I left your presence in August as the only answer to the question "will you marry me?"
The following May, some nine months later, I was invited to Scott's house for a party. I met Scott, and once again mentioned Lisa, whose name had essentially brought me to his door a year and a half earlier. Scott told me that the previous September, his former girlfriend Lisa, a Grade 4 elementary school teacher, had committed suicide. I don't know why she did it, or why anybody does it, but it's a sobering reminder that it was the name of someone no longer with us effectively brought you back into my life. And that she parted this world, just as you parted mine. At the party, I also met a friend of yours. There I told her of the previous year I was driven nearly mad from the out of work experience, and how you anchored me and were one of the key people that I relied upon, and how during that period, I fell in love with you.
And that was when the second bomb dropped. What she told me came from a completely unexpected place. My heart was shattered in a thousand pieces. At the end of the night I broke down and let out a long wail.
There is an obstacle near your heart - it was there long before I met you, and it was there when I became consumed by the Dragon. I know what you remember and can only imagine what you have forgotten. But the best cure for your amnesia is to forget even what you remember. It is written that understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth. If there is any truth to all of this, it is this - we became strangers. As for me, there is only the burden of memory and the wound that would not heal.
Years have passed, and my life has become a remarkably stable place since you removed yourself from it. I wouldn't exchange it for anything, yet I have become restless and hungry again.
A friend of mine asked me what I learned from this experience. I told her, "I never felt more alive. The path of my heart was never more sure." That memory fills me with hope. But for this heart to love again, as it will, it needs to be whole again. And that is why I returned to the moment I gave it away, the day you put on the dragon necklace.