The kneeling man at my feet snapped his jaw shut in surprise, his hands fumbling the black velvet box and folding the lid down. I didn’t even look at the ring. The symbol of slavery.
“Wow. Cut down before I could even pop the question. Is that a new world record? Can someone check?”
His stupid sarcastic smile ratcheted my irritation up fifty degrees. I crossed my arms and jutted my hip out.
“Look at me you idiot. Does this look like the face of a happy dewy-faced virginal teenager swooning over romantic gestures?”
“What did you THINK was going to happen? We’ve discussed this. At length.”
Dark brown eyes surveyed the frown lines between my eye brows and the hard set of my lips before looking away and standing up, dejected. I knew I should have been more sensitive. I knew it took guts to propose to your cranky girlfriend. But if he had been any sort of observant boyfriend, he would have known all this time that I would say no. Without hesitation or doubt. He embarrassed himself thinking I would change my mind when faced with this moment. This was in no way my fault.
“So that’s it then?” he asked, pocketing the box.
“That’s all she wrote,” I agreed, ready to shoot down all his arguments and negotiations and logical factoids.
He snorted and glanced at me, a glimmer of hope still in his eyes. Is this a joke? they asked. No, it’s not. Is she going to burst out laughing and hug me and say ‘just kidding! Of course I’ll spend the rest of my life with you as your devoted wife!’ That’s a Hell No right there buddy. Is she really going to leave it like this? You betcha!
“I got work Stefan. I’ll see you later.”
I whipped my long red hair out of the way and swung my bag onto my shoulder, a practiced move. And I walked away.
“What?! Rory, come on!”
“Byyeeeeeee!” I gave a half hearted wave.
Great. My lunch break was wasted now. I stormed down the walk way, taking long strides back toward the business district. I wanted to take off my four inch heels as they pounded down the cement and stab the eye balls of every male within striking distance who so much as looked at me. I was expecting sub sandwiches on a park bench fifteen minutes ago so I skipped snacking on my break and did a mini work out instead, boosting my metabolism and psyching myself out for the sandwich and a some kisses. So not only was I hangry but now I had the added stress of an ego-bruised boyfriend to deal with at the end of the day. Did the day start out good? I can’t even remember. The haze of crimson dulled my brain functions.
“Miss? Excuse me–”
I turned, my eyes glaring at the young man walking toward me in a hurry. He had on a dark blue suit that brought out the electric shades of blue in his eyes and a gorgeous paisley tie in shades of metallic silver and red. And he was British. Or maybe Aussie. Naturally tan with a more-than-pleasant looking face. I might have appreciated him a little more if the universe wasn’t so hell-bent on me having a shit day.
“What?” I snapped.
Mr. Blue eyes hesitated, not expecting such an unwelcome response. He fumbled in his jacket pocket and held out my work badge. There was the normal me, all smiles and pink glowing cheeks in the thumbnail photograph. What a contrast.
“Ah crap,” I muttered, taking the plastic from his outstretched hand. “Thanks. And sorry.”
I tacked on the last part quickly.
The badge must’ve unclipped from my bag when I whirled around and made my dramatic exit. My face heated in a tomato blush and I turned away, ready to go back to my office and look over photos and fonts and edit articles. Bury myself in work and forget the outside world existed.
“Wait! Miss um–”
I gave him a side ways glare, my red face going redder. We’re all men stupid today?
He did actually look properly sorry.
“My grandmum. She saw the um–she saw what happened. She wanted to talk to you.”
Oh this day just keeps getting better. Mr. Blue eyes winced, clearly uncomfortable facing a vengeful harpy such as myself. Now I had to deal with an elderly woman trying to “talk some common sense into me” by foisting her traditions and wisdom on the younger generation.
“I don’t have time. I’m going to be late for work and I still need to get something to eat.”
“Please.” He held out his hands to me palms up; a gesture of pleading and subservience. “We have a picnic set up in the park. Tea and biscuits and sandwiches. We have more than enough and we’re very happy to accommodate you.”
Damn Brits and their damn tea and suave mannerisms.
“I’m not exactly good company right now,” I said.
Clearly. He was startling to look frantic now and the part of me that had horns and a pitch fork basked in glee that someone might be having a worse day than me.
“She insisted. I–just–please? It’s incredibly awkward to beg in public to a brassed off stranger but she’ll be disappointed if I couldn’t convince you.”
I gave him my “Yeah right” eye brows and a glib stare. He looked at me dead serious.
“She very stubborn you know. She would come after you herself.”
The eye brow cocked.
“She knows where you work. Well, I do but I would be forced to tell her.”
He pointed at the badge in my hand and I blinked, my inner tirade momentarily silenced. Well Crap. If she wants to talk that badly…
“I have to admit having an elderly stalker is an amusing story but I’d rather not have to pay a hospital bill for a broken hip from her chasing me.”
The relief in his handsome face nudged a tiny bit of the chip off my shoulder. Oh fine. What could it hurt? At least I’ll be fed and I can spend a few minutes enjoying the craptacular afternoon.
I took out my phone and texted my boss, saying I stumbled onto a good story and would be late back in. She wouldn’t care. I was the best employee she had and rarely stepped a toe out of line. When I did, it really was for something good and she grew to trust my instincts.
“I’m Benjamin by the way,” Blue eyes said, holding out his elbow for me to take.
“Really?” I asked, eyeing the appendage offensively.
“Chivalry isn’t dead everywhere you know.”
“Just in America,” I said but took the elbow anyway. “I’m Aurora.”
“How beautiful. It suits you, this name of many colors.”
“Call me Rory.”
He smiled at me, showing perfect white teeth. I ran my tongue self-consciously over my one crooked tooth. Man I really should have gotten braces as a kid.
“It also suits you.”
We started to walk back the way we came. I felt so lame walking in my green pant suit with my hand tucked inside Benjamin’s arm. Weren’t manners like this reserved for fancy galas and High Teas at the palace or something? Or for young couples at Prom?
We crossed onto the grass and I looked out at the meandering groups of park-goers, wondering which way Stefan went. Where was he going to go to lick his wounds? The fitness center? His class room? A hike in the woods? I had no idea. I didn’t want to deal with him sooner than I had to so hopefully he wasn’t still in the park.
“There she is.”
I looked around for an old lady in a wheel chair or sitting in a collapsible chair but the only elderly person I saw was sitting on a thick plaid blanket and she had bright purple hair. Her legs were tucked neatly underneath her in creamy palazzo pants and a soft blue cashmere sweater. When we got closer I noticed her bare toes matched the color of her hair.
“That’s very purple,” I whispered, leaning in close.
“She was going for more of a lavender color but the color took too well to her hair. She’ll give it a couple washes to tone it down.”
“And this is a normal thing with her?”
Benjamin chuckled and the inner girly part of me deep down underneath the irritation sighed appreciatively.
“Oh yes. Last month it was emerald green for St. Patrick’s day.”
“Your granny is sublime,” I said and stopped at the edge of the blanket, releasing Ben’s elbow.
“Why thank you young lady, I appreciate you saying so.”
A barely wrinkled face covered by a large pair of designer sunglasses beamed up at me, showing me a smile that let me know good dental genetics ran strong in Ben’s family. I could feel the calm confidence radiating off this woman and I liked her immediately. Definitely not the lecture-y type and I knew women types.
“Grandmum, this is Aurora.”
I held out my hand and she gripped it firmly for a moment.
“Rory, this is my grandmum Dame Leslie.”
“But you may call me LeeLee. The Dame ages me immensely.”
“Terrific,” I said, trying to edge out the sarcasm in my voice but not succeeding.
“Please sit. We have ham and cucumber sandwiches, a fruit and cheese platter, petite fours, tea…make yourself comfortable. And do take off your heels dear. I know you must’ve struggled crossing the lawn in those gorgeous monstrosities.”
My calves were indeed killing me, standing on tip toe to avoid aerating the lawn and soiling the heels on my $400 Prada.
Ben sat next to me and kicked off his shoes as well, stretching out and grabbing two thermoses.
“Iced Jasmine green or hot Darjeeling?”
This isn’t weird, having tea out of a thermos. No fine china for a High Tea at the park with a Dame and her grandson?
Benny boy busied himself pouring out drinks and the purple haired LeeLee took it upon herself to make me a plate of snacks while I looked on curiously. I took a dainty sandwich and put the whole thing in my mouth. Not exactly the sub sandwich I was hoping for but food was food.
“This is good. Thank you.”
I tried to make nice. It came out a little stagnant but manners were manners. I tucked my hair behind my ears and ate another sandwich.
“It’s our pleasure,” LeeLee said generously. “Now Rory, why did you turn down that young man’s proposal? It’s very unusual to see a young woman turn down a man on his knees.”
I choked on a piece of unchewed cucumber and set down my plate, taking a gulp of the tea Ben handed me in a glass.
“How did you even see that from all the way over here?”
“We witnessed it as we were crossing the green,” Ben replied in a low embarrassed voice.
Right to the point. Don’t Brits usually sugar coat things? Perhaps not purple haired grannies. Maybe they learn not to waste time as they near the end of life.
“I’m merely curious Benjamin.” LeeLee defended herself in a voice tinged with amusement. “She doesn’t have to answer if she doesn’t want to.”
Her tone and her words didn’t match at all. Her words were polite but her tone said ‘I am the purple-haired woman who sent my grandson to prostrate before you to have lunch with us to satisfy my curiosity.’ Yikes. I answered her frank question with a frank response.
“Because I don’t believe in legal slavery.”
There was a moment of shocked silence and then gales of laughter from both of my lunch hosts.
“Marriage isn’t slavery–” “Oh how right you are my dear!”
Now grandmum and grandson faced off, one aghast and the other grinning and patting my knee.
“How can you say that grandmum? You were married for 48 years!”
“And now I’m free, my boy. Free to be whomever I wish without having to compromise or apologize.”
Ben looked down at his hands and I felt that a little corner of his world shifted irrevocably. His shoulders hunched forward and he bowed his head low, trying to absorb the blow.
“I take it for 48 years your hair was never any other color than natural?” I asked, popping a grape into my mouth.
We took a moment to reflect and drink some tea, waiting for Ben to recuperate a little.
“I think we’ve shocked him,” LeeLee said quietly to me. “Why don’t you go ahead and explain while he recovers his wits.”
I took another swallow of tea and cleared my throat.
“There’s one thing I want to say before I explain,” I said. “And that is that I do love Stefan. He is one of the reasons my heart beats every day and I would give my life up in a second for him.”
Ben looked at me, disbelief and relief warring on his face. He looked at his grandmum and she nodded, agreeing with his silent question.
“But I won’t marry him.”
LeeLee picked up a piece of watermelon with a small fork and smiled gently before she ate it.
“Why is that my dear?”
“The tradition is antiquated and irrelevant for one,” I explained, settling into the rant like a well worn couch that had my butt print permanently embedded in it. “Marriages were contracts between political and royal families to broker alliances and gain land and trade rights. It was also a religious commandment that man and wife should join in holy matrimony and breed like bunnies to continue humanity and the all-important royal genetics. Clearly. You Brits should know this intimately.”
“Long live the Queen,” LeeLee chuckled at this and I kept going, ignoring Ben’s scoffs.
“There’s also a difference between a wedding and a marriage. Weddings are lavish parties to celebrate the union of two people, two lands, two houses, two families. The reception was used to mingle the guests and show unity and provide entertainment and drink so people would forget they hated each other or whatever the case may be.”
“Not that much difference between now and then,” Ben muttered, biting into a sandwich forcefully.
“Marriage though; marriage is what comes AFTER the wedding.”
I stretched out my legs and took a sip of tea. I needed to repaint my toes.
“Most people don’t really think about after the honey moon. They get this fluffed up version of marriage from books and tv shows. They see these perfectly happy, perfectly in love couples that lovingly divide up the chores and go to work and come home to a horny partner that wants to shag them into the early hours of the morning and then make them breakfast afterward.”
No bitterness there. Nope. I shrugged a shoulder.
“It might be true for a couple of months. Maybe a year if you’re lucky. And then something happens. The car breaks down, there’s a pregnancy scare, a parent dies, a partner starts to snore at night, the sex starts to get boring but no one wants to say so out of fear. Suddenly the rose-colored glasses crack and the glass starts falling away to reveal what marriage truly is.”
I paused for dramatic effect and he couldn’t help but take the bait.
“And what’s that?” Ben asked, an edge to his voice. He’d been drinking his tea sullenly, all jovial humor gone from him now.
I know that’s not what he expected me to say and I could see the clouds of arguments wafting off of him. He was struggling to hold it in, his strict Brit manners binding him into civility.
“What if the work is worth it?” he finally got out, biting back the words he really wanted to say.
“How would you know?” I shot back.
He faltered. “Well I don’t have first hand experience but I imagine we’d talk about it of course.”
I smiled, predicting his answer. Like cocking the gun back to set up the kill shot.
“You’d talk about it? When?When is a good time to talk about if marriage is worth it? When are you going to sit down with your partner and really ask them what marriage means to them and what you’re hoping to achieve by legally binding yourself to another person? Before you say ‘I Do’? After your first fight? After your first kid?”
Ben and LeeLee were both silent, one dreading and one expectant.
“The answer is, you don’t know. How old are you Ben?”
“I’m turning twenty-two in June.”
The pride he had in his voice ticked me off. So proud of being ‘a man” now eh? College graduate and ready to take on anything. My god how I wanted to knock him into the real world.
“I take it you look so angry because you already have a marriage proposal in the works, am I right?
His silence and glare was enough of an answer and I gave a cruel smile. I wanted to save his innocent soul from the jaws of holy matrimony but I knew in his current state I wouldn’t be able to reach him. In a moment of brilliance I understand now why I was here. I looked for confirmation at LeeLee and she nodded over her tea and flicked a pinky at her naive progeny as if to say “Break him. Be my guest.”
“Ben, I know you really don’t like what I have to say because you want to cling to the rose-colored glasses. I get it. You want the fantasy, the dream, the white doves and the rose petals. You deserve it. But can I ask you one question?”
I was his least favorite person in the world right now, second only to his grandmum, who had just revealed a life-altering lie. As much as I wanted to force him to see the truth of the thing and hear me out, there was no way a lecture was going to move him. My ire drained out of me and my fighting muscles relaxed. My voice grew gentler as I threw the ball in his court.
“Can you do all that without a marriage contract?”
I don’t know if he expected that question but he blinked down at his tea cup and then looked up at me, cocking his head to the side. His eyes burned into me, lightning blue. He’s rallying, I thought. He’s turning his anger into logic and fighting back.
“You want me to say the obvious answer and I’m not inclined to because it’s unfair. You’re basing your question on the larger picture and you can’t do that. You have to take into consideration many factors like religious preferences, parental input, moral beliefs and modern stigma. Many couples get married solely on the fact their faith says they must.”
I leaned back on the blanket, supporting my body against my outstretched arms, my belly somewhat satisfied now. The raging redhead temper was quenched at least on one front.
He pursed his lips and I felt a flicker of satisfaction at his answer.
He was annoyed at giving me that small win.
“Does hers?” I asked. “Or his?” I tacked on delicately.
“She is not affiliated with any church organized religion.”
I nodded once, acknowledging.
“Do your parental units vehemently disagree with you loving and living with a woman without a marriage first?”
LeeLee waved a hand at us and chimed in.
“This parental unit has no qualms.” She turned to me and explained. “Both his parents were killed in Iraq when he was younger. His grand pappy and I raised him since.”
“I’m sorry for your loss Ben.”
He gave a sad heartless smile. “Thanks. Grand Pappy would have insisted on a marriage Grandmum and you know it.”
Poor cornered Ben. Trying to garner support from the dead.
“And you would have used him as vindication to be right rather than listen to reason and experience? Shame on you for being so narrow-minded. Like a little boy pointing and yelling ‘see I told you!’ just for the sake of being right.”
Her glasses hid her eyes but I could tell her eyebrows would be down cast and her eyes filled with disappointment. Ben looked properly scolded. I felt the shadow of being a guest over-staying her welcome creeping up on me so I hurried through the rest of my questioning to get to the point.
“Do her parents need her to be married before she lives with you?” I asked, breaking up the tense silence.
He opened his mouth and then clicked it shut. I could tell he was running through the rolodex of facts in his brain, trying to remember if they did or didn’t care.
“Do your moral beliefs or hers say you need a big fancy wedding at this point in the relationship just to prove to everyone you belong together and are happy?”
Fed up, Ben threw up his arms.
“No, okay? No to everything!”
“Wait now,” I said, leaning forward again and putting a hand on his, getting his attention. “One last question and this one is easy.”
“When was the last time you truly enjoyed yourself at a wedding?”
I heard LeeLee hum lightly and pick up a grape to hide her smile.
“I—well—There was Brad’s…no. Maybe Amelia’s? That one was okay but the food–maybe not. Definitely not Tom’s. Gawd–”
Ben physically shuddered and grimaced.
“Weddings are expensive Ben. To throw a really nice party, you gotta have the money. Young people are always in a rush to get married because they thing it’s romantic and will somehow enhance the quality of life together but really, all you end up with is debt. Who wants to start their lives as a married unit in debt? Why don’t you guys save up and throw a really nice party that everyone will remember as the one to beat? Or buy a house and have a beautiful back yard reception, celebrating your accomplishments as a couple and how strong you’ve become?”
It was a speech I had said probably a thousand times to eager friends and clients who wanted a shot gun wedding. Most of them didn’t hear me with tulle and rose petals dancing in front of their eyes but I never stopped trying. Ben looked like he would be one of the hopeful few that might take my advice into consideration, once he got over his need for tradition and the romantic fluff he was spoon fed since childhood.
I shifted to the edge of the blanket and grabbed up my shoes, preparing to rise and take my leave. I glanced over my shoulder and looked once more at Ben, who looked haggard.
“It is my staunch belief that if a couple decides to be together, dedicating their lives to enhancing themselves in order to be a better partner and person, that it is infinitely harder and more commendable than doing it because of a contract. To choose that person over and over, every day by a conscious and willing decision says so much more than a piece of paper.”
I struggled to my feet and picked up my purse, throwing my hair back to settle it on my shoulder. Ben, ever the gentleman, rose as well.
“I love Stefan today and although he pissed me off, I’ll forgive him and love him tomorrow too. We’ll come to a compromise on the whole wedding thing eventually and if that takes a year or five years or twenty, that’s okay. There also may come a day where one or both of us decide we don’t want to choose the other any more and that’s okay too. A least less expensive than a divorce. Marriage is work forged from a contract. A partnership is work forged from your own choices and desire.”
“But the only thing separating the two is a piece of paper and thousands of dollars,” LeeLee said, finishing the monologue gracefully. “Rory, it was a pleasure to have you for lunch. It was very insightful.”
She took my hand and rubbed it between hers.
“I hope that your Bridal Magazine does well this quarter.”
“Thank you. I hope you can find the perfect shade of lavender.”
I turned to Ben and offered my hand, unsure if he would be willing to take it after ripping his beliefs apart at the seams.
“You know, you would be a decent divorce lawyer. I may have an opening for a partner for you if you’re willing to take the Barr exam.”
I threw my head back and laughed loudly, genuinely amused.
“Is that what you’re training to be? Oh Ben, I may have a job for YOU if you flunk out of divorce court. You’re a romantic at heart. You know where I work. Look me up.”
“See you then Rory.”
“Thank you for lunch Ben. Take care and think carefully.”
I didn’t put my shoes back on as I walked through the park back toward my building. Maybe after work I’ll pick up some Pho and some potted flowers from the nursery down the street. I DID make my beloved boyfriend look like an epic fool in public. He was still an idiot for hoping but I loved him. My last thought before switching into work mode was “I wonder if I would be invited to Ben’s wedding?”