Proposing Forever (a Short Story)

“I’m sorry, but I can’t marry you.”

The words were whispered with a certain sadness and guilt. Sadness because she knew once they were released, there was no turning back. Guilt because she wasn’t convinced sadness lived in this ending. Her mind raced between emotions, struggling to choose just one. So she closed her eyes and decided to accept them all.

“Wh-what do you mean? Don’t you love me?” He looked at her with hope that was quickly giving way to fear. His heart and mind were caught in an internal jousting match and he couldn’t quite decide on the winner. Everything had happened as planned. The flowers, stargazer lilies, were arranged throughout the house. Candles were lit in every room and he’d written the little love notes and poems weeks ago to ensure perfection. He thought of the chilled champagne and chocolate covered strawberries, both waiting to be their celebratory meal. This was not how he pictured this moment. Those were not the words he envisioned falling from her lips once he descended to one knee. This was not the promised start to his happily ever after.

The cell phone in his jacket pocket buzzed as he realized, with horror, what was happening. His parents or her sister were on the other end of the line poised to congratulate him on finding his soul’s mate. Everyone knew how much this meant to him—how much she meant to him. He could barely understand this himself and therefore, felt no rush to explain it to someone else. He angrily silenced the phone and shoved it back into his pocket.

She didn’t know what else to say. No words could erase the ones she’d spoken and no apology would suffice. She slowly separated the ring from her finger and placed it squarely in his hand. In that instant, her mind stopped racing and her heart settled. She blinked, insistent on not crying because her tears would confuse them both. Now was not the time to unload the truth filling space within her mind. This moment was not about replaying every minute where she’d allowed his will to win or put her desires on a backburner. She thought about how much of her had been lost in this world—opinions, objections, feelings, and preferences—all so he could own prime real estate in her heart.  She was afraid the woman she had become would be the woman she’d have to remain being. That was no longer an option.

He pulled all 6’2, 190 pounds off the floor and looked at her. She seemed… happy. Could she really be happy about hurting him? He walked to the opposite end of the living room to create a physical distance that matched their emotional one. He thought of bottling his confusion and simply leaving. There was no need to listen to anything she said, as it would never make sense to his ears or heart. Besides, she couldn’t possibly have a logical reason for saying no. Didn’t she want to make a home and raise a family with him? They’d discussed this many times over the course of their two-year relationship. Not once did she give him reason to believe her answer would be anything short of a joyous and confident Yes. He lowered himself to the edge of the sofa and put his head in both hands.

She wanted to feel something other than elated but she couldn’t. She was experiencing a freedom that had been mismanaged for two years and there was no way she’d lose it again. Out of respect for his feelings, she tried to shield her excitement. She’d never want him to mistake her actions as heartless. It wasn’t that she was simply saying no to him. It was much deeper. She’d tried for months to have both his wants and her needs coexist but the ideal balance was never found. She’d finally reached a crossroads in her life where she needed to say yes to herself.  This was about loving herself enough to fight for something that meant everything–her spirit.

In the beginning, she simply wanted to please him. She always wore her hair in an up-do because that’s how it was styled the first time he professed his love. She dressed in skirts because he preferred the look of her legs. She rarely allowed anything other than the Mikimoto pearls he’d given her as a 28th birthday present to adorn her neck. She wanted to be his graceful, feminine ideal. She wanted to be his mind’s view of perfection but trying to be so much for him had left little room for her. She was starring in a dream she’d authored, produced, and directed and somehow it was transforming into a nightmare.

When she turned and walked out, everything would fall into place. She’d focus on her needs and dreams, which would lead her to launch a new Consulting firm with an old friend from graduate school. She’d know herself and not allow her dreams to be silenced so that a man’s desires could soar. She’d spent years diluting her successes so as not to spotlight his struggles and imperfections. She would reconnect with old friends and start exploring the organic things that summed to the whole of her. She’d volunteer more and give back to her community. She would go to museums and jazz lounges on Fridays, take midday strolls on Saturdays, and have brunch with friends on Sundays. She would finally start to enjoy just Being.

When the door is opened, he will not stand. He will not call after her. He won’t look at the face he’d planned to wake up to every future morning. Instead, he’ll cry. Albeit in his own way and without a stream of tears adorning of his face. He will grieve for the happiness that will never return. His heart will harden as she leaves because she represents everything that was good and pure in his life. Her goodbye means the exit of his fairytale.

But, life isn’t that simple. There are norms and pressures that force us to make decisions we aren’t suited to make because no one has taught us how to make them. Women grow up yearning to dance in the white dress and toss an overpriced bouquet to those still chasing their Prince Charming. We want to open joint accounts and receive mail with Mr. & Mrs. on the cover. We chase the external appeal of a marriage because it has been bottled and sold as a natural next step. Life isn’t simple because it introduces us to people that constantly offer personal opinions based on their frame of reference, neither of which is perfectly aligned with who we are and what we need.

That was her reality and therefore she couldn’t utter those initial words. She couldn’t put the ring in his hand or disappoint the growing excitement in his eyes. She couldn’t leave to greet her fairytale ending. So instead of saying no and experiencing the fullness of her power, she bowed her head and whispered a simple yes. She said yes for all single women that will never be asked the question. She accepted for every woman that envisions a man loving her unconditionally. She represented all little girls that dream of weddings but never grasp the concept of marriage. She accepted his proposal because she appreciated the hints of thoughtfulness in his preparation. The symbolism of him arranging her favorite flowers and lighting candles sent emotional waves over her that parted her lips and melted her heart. This moment was the best of him and she always wanted the best of him. So she smiled as he hugged and kissed her and called their family and friends. She laughed while retelling every detail of the proposal to her eager listeners.

But when she closed her eyes that night, in a bed he’d chosen although it bothered her lower back, under inexpensive sheets because he thinks no one can really tell the difference, with the television on because he likes to fall asleep that way, she cried. She shed tears for the woman that liked 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets but would never sleep under them again because she didn’t want to debate the topic. She sobbed for the young girl that had allowed her place in this world to be overshadowed by a man’s needs and opinions. She apologized to herself for not being strong enough to fight more. And lastly, she forgave herself because deep down she knew no one had ever taught her how to balance connecting with someone while still maintaining some semblance of self. She had become a product of her environment and no matter how much she wanted to grasp that freedom and blaze her own trail, the thought of being alone made her grasp his hand instead and accept the good and the bad of the life he proposed.

©Renita Bryant

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