The last thing I expected was that the proposal would take me by surprise.
For one thing, Steve and I had already spent an afternoon looking at rings online; he’d waited until he thought I was distracted and tapped the name of the style I liked (not so) surreptitiously into his phone. More importantly, Steve, who teaches GIS mapping in forestry, is a self-described “map guy” and “math man.” While it’s true that stats are less straightforward than they seem and a few rogue numbers can even be irrational, Steve possesses all the qualities you might imagine of someone whose life is guided by algorithms and accuracy adjustments: he is solid and stable, a planner, practical, somewhat predictable. I love these things about him, as they balance out my more, shall we say, whimsical approach to the world. Since he’s also a conventional romantic—opening doors for me, spoiling me with good wine and sweet back rubs, sending flowers “just because”—l expected a traditional proposal. He’d tell me to get dressed up for an evening out at the restaurant where we first met, or suggest we go on a spectacular hike on an anniversary. And I, the storyspinner, would know what to expect, since it’s the rare plot twist I don’t discern before the big reveal, the rare tale where I don’t see the ending coming.
Or, in this case, the beginning.
In May, a few months after our one-year dating anniversary, Steve had a professional meeting in Virginia Beach. Usually I prefer quiet beaches bordered by sand dunes to city shores lined by high-rises, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tag along and soak up some sun. School had just let out for me, and it had been a particularly stressful semester. Both Steve and I had been preoccupied with end-of-year pressures; we weren’t on the outs, but our energies had necessarily been directed elsewhere, away from each other. A short jaunt to the shore would allow us to re-connect, and life always looked much better with my toes submerged in sand.
The weather was cold and blustery the day we arrived, and when Steve returned from his afternoon session, he lamented how inhospitable it was for an evening stroll. The next morning dawned warm and sunny, and we spent a lovely day lounging on the sand, sipping wine beside the rooftop infinity pool, and indulging in a little, ah, afternoon delight. Operation Re-connection was fully underway.
During a dinner of fresh seafood off the strip, Steve suggested a walk on the beach when we got back to the hotel. It’s hard to keep me off the sand when I’m on the coast, so I nodded absently, agreeable.
Back in town, Steve took my hand as we walked from the car to the hotel. “Maybe on our walk, we’ll see some ghost crabs,” he said. He knew I thought them adorable.
“Oh, yes!” I replied, momentarily distracted by the neon wares of a store we were passing. I loved strolling through beach kitsch almost as much as I loved watching googly-eyed crustaceans skitter across the sand, and the shop was right there. Steve followed me patiently down souvenir aisles filled with imported shells and seagull snow-globes, and then bought me a pleated green dress I admired. Later I figured that was his strategy for bringing the spontaneous shopping detour to a fast close.
Back in our room, Steve put on a blue windbreaker, and I changed out of dinner clothes into capris, a button-down, and jean jacket, then tied my hair back with a scarf. Despite the warmer weather, a light breeze had kicked up with nightfall. Outside again, we trekked across the beach to the flat, damp sand at the surf-line. The water was cold, so we kept dancing away from it, laughing when a wave surprised us and lapped our bare feet. We held hands and chatted as we walked. There were no lights on the beach, but we could see well enough from the ambient light emanating from the boardwalk. When we got to the point where the lights on the boardwalk ceased, we stopped.
“Do you want to turn around here and walk back on the beach, or go up to the boardwalk?” I asked Steve, who’d turned to face me.
“We can go up to the boardwalk,” he said, smiling.
“Okay,” I chirped cheerfully, and started up the beach. He caught my hand and folded me into his arms. I leaned into his kiss. When he pulled back, he said, “You know how much I love you, right?”
I smiled and kissed him again. “Yes,” I said, “I love you too.” I glanced out over the waves at the dark horizon. Steve kept holding me close, and when I turned back, he was gazing at me with suspiciously shiny eyes. “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” he continued. “You make me so happy, and I want that happiness all the time, for the rest of my life.”
I blinked. He sounded a little formal, almost like he was making some kind of speech.
“Will you make me happy for the rest of my life?” He was still looking into my eyes. He was—was he proposing?
I panicked a little. I hadn’t expected this: it was a work trip; we’d never been to Virginia Beach. I missed some of what he said, I thought. If he’s proposing, I want to remember everything. “Wait, what?” I said, feeling a bubble of surprised laughter rise up through my chest.
Steve gazed at me with those shiny eyes. “Will you? Will you marry me?”
I stared at him, my mouth moving up and down silently, guppy-like. He was proposing, and he’d gotten almost all the way through it before even I figured out what was happening. I had the sudden, strange thought that maybe the real value of all those sweet rituals like dropping to one knee or presenting a ring wasn’t romance—they’re cues, so people like me knew to pay attention. I’d developed a case of gasping giggles. “Did you plan this?” I eeked out.
Steve grinned. “Of course I planned it. I plan everything,” he said. He looked at me expectantly, both of us a little breathless. I hadn’t answered him. I was still trying to get my head around what was happening.
“Yes,” I gasped, then kissed him. “Yes, I will marry you!” I laughed and kissed him again at the same time. He pulled back for a moment and held my face in his hands. Then he reached into the pocket of his windbreaker and pulled out a small black box.
“And then there’s this,” he said. He lifted it towards me, and paused. “There was a yes in there somewhere, right?”
“Yes!” I said.
“Let’s go up to the light, on the boardwalk,” he said. Later I’d tease him about waiting for me to say yes before offering the ring. He was worried he’d drop it in the sand, or worse, the surf, in the dark. My sweet, practical man.
We found a bench under a light-post and sat down together. He handed me the box, and I opened it. “It’s my twist ring!” I said. I started to pull it from its cushion, then thrust the box back at him instead. “No, wait. You have to do this,” I said.
He took it from me and carefully removed the ring. The solitaire and its halo sparkled in the light of the street-lamp. “You probably would have had me get down on my knee in the wet sand, too,” he teased.
“No, I won’t make you—” I stopped, considering. This was my one and only shot here. “Yes, yes, I will!” I gestured at the boardwalk in front of me. “Get down on one knee!”
Steve laughed and knelt in front of me. He slid the ring onto my finger. “And it fits!” he said. Indeed it did. Clapping and cheers erupted from one of the balconies in the hotel behind us. I kissed Steve once more, this time taking his face into my hands. His eyes still shone, brighter than the stone on my finger, alight with love as my own eyes must have been, looking at my future.