Copyright is held by the author.
ERIN TOOK the day off. Sometimes she needed a break from working with idiots. Her boss believed her when she told her a migraine was starting — fortunately the boss suffered from them too. What she really needed, Erin decided, was to enjoy a big fat breakfast and then do a major purge of places she normally overlooked when cleaning, like cupboards and closets. She needed, she told herself, to enjoy the rare feeling of knowing that spaces usually kept in the dark were neat and orderly.
Breakfast was delicious — the full monty. Eggs, bacon, seven grain toast, blueberries and a giant glass of V-8. She brushed her teeth, clacked the brush against the sink and looked in the mirror. Life was so unfair; why had she inherited so many genes from her father’s side and not her mother’s? Her dad and all of her paternal aunts were at least twenty pounds overweight, had limp blond hair, freckles and pale eyelashes, while her mother was tiny with rich dark hair and eyebrows and glowing skin. No matter what Erin did — workout at the gym, eat low carb, clog her eyelashes up with double strength mascara, she still looked, at least to herself, like a manatee. Was this why she and Kevin had lived together for over two years now with only random and vague allusions to marriage? Was this why two Christmases, two Valentines Days and two of her birthdays had passed with no engagement in sight?
A couple of her friends had lived with guys for years, one of the women, Jenny, having no intention of ever marrying. “What for?” she asked Erin. “I don’t want any kids and if things go south, we can each walk away, no hassle.”
Well, there was that. But Erin was not like Jenny. She did hope to have children, at least one, and she wanted the secure feeling of being married, the feeling that to someone she was the most important person in the world.
After cleaning up the breakfast mess, she set her hands on her hips and looked around. Where to begin? Kevin, who worked for the same company she did, was away on a hunting trip with his father and wouldn’t be back for two days. She might as well start with his closet since he wouldn’t be getting in her way.
The apartment had two bedrooms, the smaller of which they used for an office. If someone stayed over, they opened the futon couch in there or put the visitor on the sofa in the living room. Since the closets were not large, she used the one in their bedroom and he used the one in the office. Let’s start there, she decided.
Kevin wasn’t a neatnik, but he wasn’t a slob either. He tossed his dirty clothes in the hamper or directly into their tiny apartment washer instead of on the floor. He washed the dishes or put them into the dishwasher if eating alone, though he often forgot to put the mayonnaise or bread away. On the whole, he was easy to live with, though occasionally he got in weird non-communicative moods. No wonder though considering his family — there were some real problems there. She loved him, though his taking forever to pop the question was wearing on her.
She opened his closet and looked it over. Pretty much a mess. The hanging clothes weren’t in any kind of order and the floor was heaped with stuff. The shelf on top looked like it might cave in. She decided to start there and pulled all its contents out to set on the futon. Methodically, she went through the pile. A box with Kevin’s high school diploma and college degree along with a pile of photos. She rifled through them and stopped for a long moment to study his former girlfriend, the one who dumped him their sophomore year. Then some girl from high school – she looked about sixteen, if that. Both blondes. He must like blondes, though she herself was not as pretty as these two. Definitely not.
She moved on to a small pile of weird gloves. They looked like they were designed for a specific purpose, some unidentified sport. A few knit, winter hats and one that looked like an Australian Outback hat, though made of leather. He had certainly never worn that before; she kind of liked it. A pile of books, apparently textbooks from college, all on subjects concerning waste cleanup, mining runoff or oil spills. An old computer, old iPad and lastly a carved, wooden box with a lid. She hadn’t known Kevin had anything so fancy hidden away in his closet.
She lifted the lid. Inside were a gold chain, a watch with a brown leather band, a swizzle stick, ear plugs and a little velvet box. She paused. OMG, it looked like a ring box. Dark blue and hump topped. She set the wooden box down and lifted out the blue box. With heart pounding, she opened it and lo and behold, there was what she’d been waiting for! A fabulous diamond engagement ring!
She slipped it onto her finger, and it fit perfectly. He must have sneaked out one of her other rings to take along to the jeweler. It was white gold (or platinum?), not her favourite — if she had picked it out herself, she would have opted for yellow gold — but white was okay, it would go with her silver Native American rings. The diamond, cushion cut (her favourite) was larger than she would have expected, over a carat. How on earth did Kevin afford it? She knew what his income was (it was slightly less than she made) and he needed a new car. What had he been thinking? But she smiled. After all, it was a once in a lifetime thing, or supposedly. Not like they’d be spending that kind of money on a regular basis and she would not demand a big expensive wedding. For all she cared, they could elope and later have a regular party somewhere. She walked to the window and flashed the ring in the light. Wow. Would she ever be proud to wear that!
But she had to put it back, of course. Gotta wipe that shit eating grin off her face now and go about her business like everything was normal. Put the closet back together like it was so he’d never know she was in there. But wow, she was so happy! Should she call Jenna, her best friend who lived in Pittsburgh, to tell her the news? But if she did, would feel that she’d betrayed Kevin? No, she had better just keep it to herself, as difficult as that would be. But maybe she wouldn’t have to wait all that long. Christmas was only three weeks away. Obviously, that was when he planned to give her the ring.
Erin was a happy camper for the next weeks, baking cookies and making candy, wrapping presents and sending out Ecards, even getting herself waxed and having gold streaks put into her hair.
“What’s with you?” Kevin asked with his mouth full of cookie.
“Oh, nothing,” she said breezily. “Just enjoying the holiday!”
She spent more than she’d planned to for Kevin’s presents. A good leather jacket, a new iPad. Waaaaay over budget, but what the hell, this was a special time.
And then Christmas eve arrived – they were opening their presents then because Christmas day they’d leave early to spend the day with their parents. She poured eggnog and handed Kevin his two fancily wrapped boxes, and he handed her one shaped not like a ring box but a five-inch cube.
Well, she said cheerily to herself, he must be trying to trick me and it’s one of those Russian doll things where the smaller box is inside, but no. There was no smaller box. It was simply one box which contained a silver coloured watch with a flexible band that looked like something a nurse would wear. What?
She silently pulled it out and looked at it. “Ummm . . .” she mumbled.
“You said you needed a new watch,” Kevin said. “You said you were sick of your old one running down all the time.”
“Um, yeah, I did,” she managed to get out.
“If you don’t like it, you can take it back,” he said. “I just figured you’d want silver to go with your Indian rings and I thought the flexible band is easier to put on and off.”
She could see that he was looking rather desperate and normally would have felt sorry for him and immediately done her best to make him feel better, but instead she felt like throwing the damn watch in his stupid face. Then the idea popped into her head that maybe this was a buildup and he was going to bring the ring out as a surprise, like haha, you thought that stupid watch was all there was!
“No, really, it’s very nice and practical, very practical. It’ll be good for work. I like it! Very nice, Kevin.” She would be on her best behaviour. He might pop the ring out any time now; it wouldn’t do to get all bitchy, so she kept her face cheerful and they had more eggnog and watched a movie on Prime, but after a while the smile died on her face. And when Kevin yawned and said it was time to hit the hay, she felt such deep disappointment that she had to stifle a sob.
“You go ahead,” she said in a strangled voice, “I have some things to do.”
“Are you all right?” he said. “Your voice sounds funny.”
She turned her face away. “I’m just tired,” she said.
He stood there looking confused. “I love my jacket,” he said. “And the iPad. Geesh, you went way overboard. I should have gotten you something else.”
She said nothing and he turned to go to the bedroom, then returned. “Pumpkin, if you need a new coat, we’ll go get one the day after Christmas.”
“No,” she said in a tiny voice. “My coat is fine.
It was pretty clear now that no ring was coming. She cleaned up the kitchen and after an hour or more, joined him in bed. He was snoring away like he had no worries in the world.
The next morning, he wanted to have sex, but she jerked away and got out of bed. “I think my period is starting,” she told him. An hour later they drove to Pennsylvania where they had brunch with his parents and Christmas dinner with hers.
“Maybe he’s planning to give it to you for Valentine’s Day,” said Jenna when Erin called her a couple of days later. “That’s a more romantic holiday than Christmas. Picture the two of you out for dinner at some high-end place and he has it all arranged with the waiter to deliver the ring to you in a champagne glass or something.”
“Yeah,” said Erin half-heartedly.
“Christmas always has so much going on,” Jenna went on. “Too many people around.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Erin. “I think his dad asked his mother to marry him on Valentine’s Day, if I remember right. I think I overheard her telling his sister that once.”
“So, see?” said Jenna. “That’s probably it. Maybe it’s a family tradition or something.”
As Valentine’s Day approached, Erin was wary. No bouncy mood like she’d been in before Christmas. In fact, she bought Kevin a slightly less affectionate card than she usually did and instead of a big box of his favourite chocolates, she got him a small one. The red bow on it was almost as big as the box itself.
“Where do you want to go for Valentine’s Day?” he asked her at breakfast two days ahead.
He looked all puffy to her and she wondered if he was drinking too much beer. He must have gained ten pounds in the last year, she thought, and that definitely didn’t add to his attractiveness.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Seafood would be nice.”
“Or a steak?” he said. “Maybe Chateaubriand?”
Didn’t she just say she wanted seafood? Was he deaf? She realized that she had felt bitchy ever since Christmas and tried to disguise it. The last thing she wanted was to discourage him from presenting her with the ring on Valentine’s Day, so she caved and said nicely, “That does sound good, yes.”
“Okay then,” he said, smiling rather smugly and her spirits lifted. He must be planning something, this was it. He had the look of a parent on Christmas eve.
She got herself a sexy outfit for the occasion, a red V-neck jersey top and a flirty black skirt with a wide belt. For once her hair fluffed out just right and gave her a just out-of-bed look. She sprayed herself with his favourite cologne and added red hot lipstick.
“You look great!” Kevin said as he helped her on with her coat.
During the 20-minute ride to the restaurant, he complimented her three times. This is definitely it, she said to herself.
He had ordered the Chateaubriand ahead of time and sure enough, champagne. She was so excited, she almost bounced in her seat and had to go pee before they even started. The waiter poured the champagne and she downed two glasses and already had a buzz on. Though she knew the food was excellent, she hardly tasted it, so concentrated was she on what was to come, probably with dessert.
“They have Crème Brule,” said Kevin happily. “But then you might want something chocolate, right?”
He was looking his best in his collarless black shirt and gray sports jacket, his thick brown hair hanging in his eyes and just the beginning of a beard. She felt thrilled; this was so romantic. “I think I’ll have the flourless chocolate cake. I’m sure it’s maniacally fudgy.”
They ordered and she watched him carefully for any signals or winks to the waiter, but she didn’t notice anything.
The cake arrived (he didn’t order dessert, just a coffee) but it turned out to be just cake, nothing else. She ate half of it and ask him if he wanted the rest and by then she felt like throwing up. He paid the bill and they got up to leave. The waiter was not in on anything and there was no ring.
“Happy Valentine’s Day,” Kevin said as he dipped to kiss her cheek on the way out.
She wanted to hire a hitman and have him killed. All the way home in the car, she was silent while harbouring this fantasy. “Did I say something wrong?” he asked, obviously confused.
She wouldn’t answer.
“Really, what’s wrong?” he said. “You didn’t like the dinner?”
“It was good,” she managed to mumble.
“If I did something, just say it out loud. I hate it when you’re mad and won’t say what it is.”
She was silent for a long moment and then said, “Sometimes what it is just can’t be said.”
“I don’t know what to say to that,” he replied. They made the rest of the drive home in silence and there was no sex that night, Valentine’s Day or not. They ate breakfast in silence the next morning and left for work without even a peck on the cheek.
Jenna, fortunately, was available to talk when Erin called her from the toilet at work. “Your theory was wrong,” she said.
Jenna, when she heard the story didn’t have much to say. “Your birthday is coming up?” she offered weakly.
“In two months,” said Erin in a low growl.
“Have you checked to see if the ring is still there?”
“No, I haven’t, but that is an excellent idea. I have to see a client of ours right after lunch, so I think I’ll leave early, run back to the apartment and check.”
The ring was still there. This is so odd, Erin thought. Maybe it is for my birthday. She decided to force herself to wait it out. She made an effort to ask normal, though two months of pretending to like sex with someone she wanted to scream at was difficult. But she managed. And then her birthday passed without the ring. He gave her a new laptop. How romantic.
She so depressed, she was eating too much. “I gained four pounds,” she complained to Jenna. Kevin was out buying a suit for a wedding they had to go to since his old one was too tight. “And now his stupid college roommate is getting married and I have to endure wedding number five zillion, on top of everything else looking like a fat pig.”
“Listen, just do that intermittent fasting thing. Eat everything in a 10-hour window and then nothing till the next day. They say it’s really good for you too.”
“Okay, whatever,” said Erin listlessly. “What difference does it make how I look? Clearly, no matter what I do, I’m not worthy of The Ring. I’m nothing compared to his old girlfriends. Maybe he’s secretly in touch with one of them and got the damn thing for her.”
“Listen,” said Jenna in her firmest tone, “you are a real catch. You have your master’s degree, you earn a good salary, you have good professional prospects and every chance of advancing quickly. You have a wonderful sense of humor, you’re financially savvy, you’re good to your friends and you have excellent, long legs. Your eyes are green and you have muscular arms without doing anything to earn them. You have excellent genes to pass on to your children, assuming you want any — don’t all your relatives live to 90? Stop putting yourself down. I don’t want to hear any more of it. If he doesn’t give you the damn ring, so what? You get along as a couple, you have fun, cozy times, what more do you want? Look at me, divorced at twenty-nine, working two jobs and barely making it. You’re doing good, girl. So, shut the fuck up.”
Jenna was right. Erin saw it in a flash. She thought of her coworkers — Emily who’d just gotten dumped by her player boyfriend, Mark who was always looking for a serious partner at gay bars but never finding one, Rita who lived her life in constant frustration because she couldn’t get pregnant, Caitlin whose parents wouldn’t speak to her because she lived with an Indonesian guy, and the list went on.
“You’re right,” she told Jenna. She sighed. “No one’s life is perfect. At least he likes a lot of the movies I do and doesn’t force me to watch football. He kind of hates football.”
Jenna laughed. “That alone makes him a treasure.”
“Thank you, friend,” said Erin. She hung up and poured herself a glass of Chablis.
She heard Kevin outside the door jingling his keys and making shuffling noises, probably grappling with a bunch of packages. Let him struggle, she thought to herself, but then she got up and let him in.
“Thank God, I almost dropped all this stuff on the stairs,” he said, letting some of the packages slip to the floor and handing her a pizza box. “Figured you wouldn’t feel like cooking,” he said. “It’s your favourite — well, half of it. Anchovies and spinach.”
“Thanks,” she said. “You’re right, I don’t feel like cooking. I just want to be in my jammies on the couch and watch Netflix.”
“I found a suit,” he said, “but I’ll show it to you later. I’m starving.”
He got himself a beer and they ate the pizza cozily while watching and bitching at the news. She did love this, being cozy with him.
He wiped his mouth and said, “I got you something. Well, I got it a while ago, but I wanted to pay off most of it first.”
Her heart leapt out of her chest. “You did?” she said, her voice trembly.
“Yeah, wait a minute.” He jumped up and darted down the hall.
Her heart thumped madly.
He had pizza grease on his sweatshirt and the side of his mouth, and his hair was standing up wildly, but he brushed some crumbs to the floor, sat back down and handed her the little blue box.
She had to take the time to open it and look surprised and then she kissed him so hard it’s a wonder she didn’t break a tooth. “Yes,” she whispered, “oh yes,” immediately forgetting everything that had come before. Everything.