"I think we should get married instead." I gawked down to where he stood unsteadily on the rock below mine, a much shinier stone cradled in his palm. It glistened in the final rays of the sun struggling to stay afloat as night dragged the light beneath the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean forming the horizon. The evening had brought with it a chill to the California air, and it now dawned on me why he had not offered his bulky Marine Corps sweatshirt earlier, while I shivered in my skirt. The maroon box protecting the symbolic ring had been hidden in the front pocket of the hoodie.
A girl dreams and schemes her proposal from the moment she realizes what the fourth finger on her left hand is designed to hold. She repeatedly imagines her prince – his identity changing multiple times over the years, the speech he has carefully worded to win her heart, the romantic surroundings singing a soft love song, the diamond of her dreams being slid over her trembling knuckle. When this moment breaks through its cocoon of fantasy to reality, it looks as foreign as a butterfly to a caterpillar. Yet a bug-eyed girl staring at a diamond realizes that the wings this proposal came on are much better than the legs she planned on.
The added weight to my left hand feels like a ton as I heft it up to subtly scratch my nose every three minutes, hoping the sparkle will catch someone’s eye. The blinded passer-by politely asks, "So how’d he do it?" And in a jumble of excitement the bride-to-be recalls the event every girl dreams of.
Just moments before I stood weak-kneed before an open ring box in the closing day, I had been sitting on the same mossy rock, listening to him rattle off the reasons a relationship while in the military was unwise. He put an end to his rambling "and the hope in my heart" with an abrupt, "I don’t think we should date anymore."
I rose to my feet in a confused stupor, watching the gentle waves, dyed red by the last rays of the sun stretching across the water, rhythmically wearing smooth the last step of the steep stone staircase we had descended to reach our destination. Two hours earlier at the hotel I had rummaged through my suitcase until I found my skirt and strappy black sandals. I wanted to dress up our last evening together, before I returned to South Dakota in the morning. I hadn’t planned on a trek down Sunset Cliffs’ steep stairway.
We had gotten lost finding the hotel that day. Although I didn’t mind just riding beside him, watching the morphing colors of his stereo and absorbing our last few hours together, he seemed as agitated and edgy as the afternoon before. That day we had again been in the car, stuck on the freeway between the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base and the city of San Diego. The number five freeway, California’s commuter calamity. As we saw the sun sink low from our stationary car, he kept muttering about the stupid people who got themselves into an accident, causing our delay. I thought he was being a bit harsh, having no idea that this was the primary day he planned to propose, at sunset. As darkness swallowed the natural light – along with his intentions to ask for my hand – the city of San Diego emerged ahead of us in its artificial neon glow.
The night before, my first evening in San Diego, those lights had mesmerized me. At heart I am a small town South Dakota girl – the tallest building in my home of Huron is Dakota Plaza (twelve whole stories). The magnificent skyline was magical. We strolled along the pier, the lights of the city reflected in the dark water below. We did the usual "couple" stuff. We held hands, paused at every corner to kiss, sat on a railing and shared an oatmeal raisin cookie and a cup of bad coffee. We did the things that the 1,820 mile distance hindered us from doing regularly.
Just ten hours earlier, I had been east those 1,800 miles, crumpling my economy-seat boarding pass in my fist, clenched with excitement. As I bid my best friend – and ride to the Sioux Falls airport au revoir, she gave me a mischievous smile and predicted, "You’ll be coming home with a ring."
She was right.
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