She sipped, saw the ring, and dipped it from the glass. She smiled softly.
"It's inscribed," he said.
She turned the gold-mounted emerald solitaire in her long fingers. Her smile grew larger. She raised from her chair and kissed him, her teeth nipping and pulling at his lips.
"So . . . ah, so very cliché," she said, "and so farm-boy honest." She shook her head gently, and then slipped the ring into the pocket of his red silk shirt. "But I still may love almost everything about you."
They drank the rest of the champagne, and she drove him home, pulled him by both hands out of his car, laughing, and then pushed him up the stairs, across the veranda, and into the bedroom—and then, then like a dozen times before, she pushed him onto the bed and made love to him, all flesh and heat. When she left at sunrise—"I'll be back in a couple of hours, and we'll spend the day down on the bayou, okay?"—he remembered the shirt, now under the bed, and the ring still in its pocket, and the inscription still reading "Marry me."
She came from old Louisiana money, whether rightly earned or from blood-touched rice and sugarcane land, he never knew. By the time she was a sophomore, she'd found a different life at the university, been published in the right little magazines before she graduated, and had a MFA and a PhD and a novel in print before she was thirty. Someone told him her grandfather's name was on a research wing of the medical center, and the law library was named for her maternal grandfather.
Two days after he graduated from high school, he had left his aunt's house, with a kiss and a blessing, and enlisted in the Navy. The summer his second tour ended, he hired on as deck crew on a fishing boat running out of Wilmington, North Carolina. When the weather turned cold, he drove south, ended up in New Orleans and signed on to work the oil rigs. Then it was four years in Dubai, and a year or two on rigs in the North Sea, and finally back to the Gulf of Mexico.
She had a cat, a 3-series BMW, and no mortgage. He had Ford pick-up and enough money that he worked only because he didn't need to work.
She was impressed he knew the difference between Norman Mailer and Norman Maclean, between Norman Rockwell and the Norman Bayeux Tapestry, liked Mozart but not Mahler, could cook and wasn't intimidated by a menu in French, and could sustain a discussion of politics or religion without descending into a diatribe.
After a coffee date, after a dinner-and-a-concert date, after dates and overnights and weekends together, she asked him to escort her to a faculty cocktail party.
He knocked on her door wearing faded jeans over cowboy boots, a near-black sports coat tailored in London, and a dark gray cashmere turtle neck. His fingernails were trimmed and clean. When he draped her shawl over her shoulders, he kissed her lightly atop her head, and she caught the faint scent of the sea and noticed for the first time a tiny representation of the sign for infinity tattooed beneath where his watch would rest on his wrist. "It's hard not to love a man with a sense of irony," she said.
The affair continued. She never mentioned the proposal. The red silk shirt remained under the bed on which they often made love. The ring remained in the pocket of the shirt, the place where she had dropped it still glistening wet with champagne. Sometimes he felt the ring cutting into his back and digging toward his heart as she danced above him, cascades of auburn hair shadowing her face, murmuring "Mine, mine. You're mine. Mine."
He signed up for a thirty stint on a rig off Scotland. She took her parents to Hawaii for Thanksgiving. He thought about the ring and proposal each time he saw her; each time she spoke to him; each time they touched one another; each time they went away for the weekend. He thought about it when she asked him to help host a dinner at her house. He thought about it when she said, "You'll need formal wear when we take my parents to the Christmas party at the club."
Late in March, she called and said, "Come for dinner. Just you and me."
They ate from a glass table at the edge of her garden, and he watched as she crossed and recrossed her bare feet and nibbled at her pasta. When she brought him fruit and cheese for dessert, she leaned down, caressed his face, and pulled him between her breasts. "We need to get married," she said, and he could feel the words come and go atop his head. "I'm pregnant."
So very cliché, he thought, but he did not pull away.
Gary Presley has written for assorted publications about assorted things, including talking about marriage in the New York Times and eating ants in Salon. He is the author of a memoir, Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio. He once dined at Arnaud's in New Orleans, and he enjoyed it immensely.
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