An Optimist Proposal
by Nina Coomes
The ring stared him in the face. It glinted, gaudy now.
The silver band had seemed so tasteful, so elegant in the store, the dour salesman holding it at an angle in a green silk cushion. It had shone out at him, projecting visions of frantic, happy weekdays and lazy weekends spent together. A lifetime, clicking through the projector of his mind, hypnotizing him. He had been overjoyed at the purchase, plunking down the tarnished purple credit card he still had from his college days. It was neither the biggest, nor the smallest purchase he’d ever made money-wise, but as he left the store, the collar of his jacket standing up against the Boston chill, he felt taller somehow, more grown.
He had mentioned over the phone earlier in the week that he had a surprise for her—a Big Surprise. She hadn’t said anything to him then, only laughed into the phone after a long pause he thought might be pregnant excitement. He had marveled at his luck an hour earlier as she strode out of the Logan Airport Arrivals Gate, her camel colored coat flying, her heels clicking, still wearing the tailored suit she opted to fly in for business trips. She had looked blazing, purposeful, a woman with direction. When she saw him, her mouth turned taught, flipping up at the edges in a coy smile. On the car ride over to the restaurant, it seemed she was almost speaking past him, such was the force of her cheeriness. She’s nervous, he had realized, his own palms growing sweatier on the steering wheel as he struggled to parallel park on a crooked Somerville street. In his jeans pocket, the ring, now free of its velveteen box, seemed to vibrate a hole into his thigh.
Over dinner, he sipped at an Old Fashioned while she sucked down her white wine, the pear-colored liquid creating a silvery trail down the side of the bell-like glass. She ate ravenously, her fork and knife clinking against the plate. Bread was swished through an additional oyster stew, ordered after the first was consumed with alarming gusto. He felt the same wonderment from the airport lodged in his gullet, warm as a live coal, overjoyed at her vitality. The Old Fashioned further warmed him, making everything seem amber-colored and jovial. Across the room, a chorus of Happy Birthday!’s rung out from a table seated with well wishers. At the bar, two sisters sat across from each other, talking animatedly about their respective employments. Behind them sat an older couple, perhaps in their 50’s, sipping wine pairings and remarking upon different flavors coming through the bouquet of each beverage. Perhaps, one day that’ll be us! he wished, suddenly fervent.
Emboldened by this jollity, he wordlessly reached into his jean pocket, fished out the silver band and placed it on the table cloth between them. He had intended this to be a simple, profound gesture but instead fumbled the ring, causing it to spin slightly, wobble, and fall to one side.
She froze, her knife and fork poised predator-like over a piece of medium rare filet. The color stalled in her face, leaving her mottled and curdled looking. Her eyebrows hugged the bottom of her brow bone, dense in concentration.
Incongruously, he was reminded of the way they’d met; in college, at a Model UN conference. She went to a different, better university and had somehow decided to attend as the mock-delegate for North Korea. He’d watched this same intensely focused look cross her face as the towheaded blonde boy speaking on behalf of the United States went on a long diatribe about the supremacy of democracy. To him, her expression had seemed to be one of acute annoyance, surveying an obstacle she knew she would have to somehow circumvent. After the blonde US boy had finished his soliloquy, she’d gone on to rip him apart, her rapid fire speech mismatched with the look of easy elation crossing her face, victory so surely in her grasp. Later that night at the annual Model UN wrap party, she had crossed the room toward him looking like a different person, her face flushed with cheap boxed wine, the buttons on her crisp blue shirt undone to her collar. He had no idea why she was talking to him, this phenomenal, star-like, pitbull of a girl, and yet there she was, laughing, and throwing her hair over her shoulder. He was rooted to the spot, in awe of her smile, the ivory of her teeth glinting in the dim light.
Now, seven years later, he felt the same thrill of awe and confusion crest over him. He studied her posture, the fork and knife still clutched in her hands. She seemed almost to be holding her breath. A vein jumped in her neck. The merriment of the evening still swirled in the restaurant, but a pocket of stagnant quiet seem to mushroom over them. Her eyes rolled upward, studying him.
He cleared his throat.
I’ll take this back to the store then.”
He placed his palm flat over the ring, as if to cover it from view. Suddenly the thought of their empty shared apartment overtook him; how cold it must be, the unfed cats making testy, ampersand shadows in the living room, the unforgiving blue light slanting in from the alley way. After the entree, after dessert, they would drive back to that silent one-bed home. The thought filled him with a staticky desperation. He placed the ring back into his pocket.
The bubble of silence around them seemed then to pop. She put her fork and knife back down toward her steak, attacking it with enthusiastic alacrity. Her eyebrows soared back into her hairline, the warmth of the room traveling back into her cheeks. There was a new case at work, she told him. Something about a complication in international tax law and an estate left behind by a well-traveled millionaire. A fleck of béarnaise sauce decorated the corner of her sleeve. Behind them, the older couple remarked on their next wine course, a dry cider tasting of pleasantly of rosemary and peppercorn. The birthday well wishers were well into their third and fourth drinks, their laughter buoyant and elastic. At the bar, the sisters argued happily over who would pay the check, ultimately settling for the promise of another dinner to even the score.
Slowly, the static in his chest eased. Warmth crept back into his extremities. The ring dislodged itself from its place clamped to his thigh, dropping unnoticed into the depth of his pants pocket. Perhaps some other time, he thought to himself, admiring her across the table, her eyelashes skimming her cheeks, her lips pursed in a thin line of pleasure. Yes, I’ll try again.