It was a rainy Saturday afternoon, and Jake and I were walking east on 9th Street. At Second Avenue, the light was changing to red, so he ran across with his long gazelle-like legs while I took in the stream of rushing taxis and opted to wait. When he got across, he gave me that “Why didn’t you run for it?” face. I shrugged and walked north to 10th, and he did, too, on his side. When I crossed back over, I found him stooped over the sidewalk, studying the walk of the Yiddish stars in front of the Second Avenue Deli, looking for an actor he liked named Pesach Burstein. I spotted it in two seconds flat, then led him down the street. After a few steps, he stopped, said “C’mere,” and pulled me back toward the deli.
“What?” I said.
Under the awning, he put my head in both of his hands, looked down, and said, “Will ya marry me?” I cried and said, “Ye-es,” and we kissed as people bustled by. Then I said, “Will you marry me?” and he nodded back.
And that was it. Just like that, it happened, sort of by surprise, but not really, since we’d been talking about it on and off almost since we’d met. Though my hands were trembling, mainly it made sense, the way it does when you open a present from a friend and it’s a book you were already going to get for yourself.
To celebrate, we went to Silver Spurs on Broadway and I ordered a veggie burger. The waitress took a long time with it, and I wanted to say, “We just got engaged; could you hurry up with my veggie burger?” but Jake said he didn’t think it was a good idea.
That night, after he called his parents (we decided to wait till the next day to tell mine, since we were going there for dinner), he dialed a few of his friends and I watched him exuberantly tell the story. When he got off, the phone rang. It was my friend Joan. “What’s new?” she asked.
“This new restaurant opened down the street from me,” I said, “and they have the best seafood curry. You should come over soon so we can go.”
When I hung up a little while later, Jake was staring at me. “Why didn’t you tell her?” “B-because I don’t want to tell anyone till I tell my parents,” I said.
He kneaded his eyebrow and let out a long sigh. “I thought you’d be excited to tell your friends. You’re supposed to be happy. Maybe this was a bad idea.”
My heart started thumping like crazy, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
“You can’t un-ask me,” I said. “It’s too late.”
“I only want to do this once,” he said. With that, he rolled over onto his pillow and went to sleep. He always goes to sleep when I’m in the middle of my deepest, most existential dilemmas.
I got out of bed and lay on the floor in the living room. What was my problem? I knew I loved him and wanted to be with him, so why couldn’t I be like all the other girls and immediately rush to the phone to tell my friends “I am so having you as a bridesmaid!”?
I went back to bed but didn’t drift off till it was light. I woke up groggy to find Jake already awake. “I think you should take a few days to think,” he said. “Why? I know how I feel.”
“I don’t think you do.”
I spent the afternoon reading a Buddhist-psychology book, thinking it might help me focus. It talked about relaxing the grip of your ego and emptying your mind. I closed my eyes and tried to figure out what my ego was clinging to. I felt like Katharine Ross driving out of the city to Stepford, wishing she could turn the car around.
Why wasn’t there some changing lane between “together” and engaged, one to coast in for a while before you switched completely? It wasn’t Jake I was nervous about; it was the finality. There would be no more getting dressed up for a party with a feeling of breathless expectation, no more staying out as late as I wanted without a check-in call, no more eating takeout in front of the TV and leaving it out to congeal.
But there would also be no more wailing on the bedspread while waiting for the phone to ring, no more mixed signals, no more waking up next to a stranger. Someone loved me and wanted to stay. I got a picture of Jake in my head and remembered the night I smashed my forehead really hard into the glass door of Cucina and he iced it till the swelling was gone, and then I pictured him with a baby in a sling bag, and then I saw us as two old people eating the early-bird special in an IHOP and still not running out of things to talk about.
I picked up the phone and said, “I’m sure.”
At six, we went over to my parents’. We sat down in the living room, and my dad launched into a windy description of Spellbound, the spelling-bee documentary he’d just seen. Jake and I kept waiting for a chance to interrupt, and when my dad finally paused after describing the climactic moment when some kid spelled viand, I said it: “We decided to get married.”
My mother squealed and rushed across the room to hug us, which was totally out of character. My father, with whom I have a very intense bond, was less effusive, but then he smiled and said, “I had a feeling this was going to happen tonight, so I went out to buy wine,” and brought out two bottles.
A few days later, Jake came over. Because I had been preoccupied with other things, my sink was piled high with dishes, the garbage was beginning to stink, and there was an ice tray I’d left out that was melting all over the counter. “The kitchen’s a mess,” Jake said. I started to say something defensive, but instead I released the grip of my ego and turned on the water.