The kiss that ended my engagement

When my boyfriend proposed, I cried. More like panic tears. But I wasn't certain I should end it -- until I met her

Published August 11, 2014 12:00AM (EDT)

     (<a href=''>marcart</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(marcart via iStock)

Getting married was the next logical step. I’d been with my boyfriend for six years. We met at a small outdoorsy college. Three years after moving to New York City for work, we still had our idealism and many iterations of the same flannel button-down. I hated New York — the treeless streets, the aggressive strangers — but I was proud of the life we’d built together. We had furniture. We took turns making dinner. We recycled.  “We could move somewhere rural together,” he suggested, when I complained about the city: overpriced cereal or the stench of summer garbage. But when he talked about our future, something pulled inside of me, like a rubber band being stretched too tight.

There were other things on which to blame my uneasiness. My job was a nightmare and I had very few friends and the subway was always too cold or too hot and usually reeked of urine, but his snoring was reliable. I figured I should batten down the hatches; cling to the familiar. Flannel is a nice, comforting fabric.

The legitimacy of marriage seemed to make sense. Finding a title had been challenging. Boyfriend or girlfriend didn’t encompass the time commitment we’d made to one another. Significant Other was clunky. Lover was obviously problematic — implying snifters of brandy and bearskin rugs. Partner seemed a little p.c. The official-sounding quality of husband and wife would make our relationship digestible — more adult — and earn us more respect, especially from the older members of our families. Plus, there were the benefits of tax privileges and insurance breaks. Together we looked at rings. I picked one; it was ethically sourced and unobtrusive. We purchased it with the caveat that he’d plan the proposal himself.

“Whatever you do, don’t get on one knee.” I said. And, “Just please don’t do it publicly.”

Everyone I knew was getting engaged or married or impregnated. They flaunted the accouterments of their milestones on various social media — pictures of them gazing into their lovers’ eyes beneath autumn leaves in matching ribbed turtlenecks; of their special occasion hair shrouded in an ivory veil hand-sewn by blind Belgian nuns, their hands pressed dramatically into a brick wall as they waited for their betrothed; selfies of their swollen bellies in bathroom mirrors.

But I couldn’t conjure what seemed to be a universal rapture with the trappings of womanhood, and I figured it must be me. I had always been tomboyish and no-nonsense.  As a kid, I wore athletic clothes to school so I could be ready for track practice afterward. I honed hard skills like knot-tying and fire-building and origami. I was practical above all else: In fifth grade my best girlfriend and I frequently made out so we’d have concrete techniques when the real thing came around.

Plus, I’d taken far too many women’s studies classes to imagine marriage free from its subjugating origins. I’m too cynical for all this, I told myself. Or maybe I was just less self-absorbed: I would never let a nun go blind on my behalf. But I wanted to believe marriage was a thing I could want, just in a different form — something alternative yet still indicative of accumulative maturity.

When my boyfriend finally proposed, I started crying, though not happy tears. They were more like panic tears. I didn’t feel prepared, though I knew it was coming. I wasn’t excited, though I knew I should be.

The impending wedding seemed to count as a personal accomplishment. I’d hear my mother on the phone — she’d list the wedding alongside my other achievements: graduate school, a promotion at work, my impending marriage. She listed these things in a pride-swollen tone, which she apparently reserved for external conversations. It was the feedback I needed. Proof that I was doing adulthood right.

Yet what seemed like a rational decision tinged with the slightest flurry of excitement — cake tasting! open bar! — was, even in the beginning, a source of low-level dread. Rather than acknowledge it, I switched to autopilot.

As soon as I stepped off the train each night, everything became blurry. My fiancé and I vented to each other in long bursts about our days at work. We’d eat dinner on either side of the couch in front of a streaming television show. It was something I never thought I’d do, the kind of thing I’d scoff at back in college, picturing couples in matching slippers, stuffed behind card tables with their microwaveable meals. They’d have nothing to talk about, caught up in the glow of Alex Trebek’s cosmetic dental work. Now we were that couple, sans slippers, and the mundanity of our dinnertime ritual was comforting against the pulse of a slow unraveling, a thrumming sense that I was coming apart.

For a year I didn’t wash dishes more than a handful of times. I didn’t do laundry, or grocery shop or hold my fiancé’s hand. What I did do: go to work. Occasionally pile the heap of sweaters and flannel shirts that would slip from the top of my closet back up where they belonged. Water the plants.

We’re just comfortable, I told myself. This is what it’s supposed to feel like. I was 26, which seemed old to me. By my age, my mom had a house and a husband of four years. She’d have me a year later. The detachment I felt must be the sleepy part, the settling-in part that muffles all relationships eventually. I could settle into it. I’d make the bed and tend to our enormous aloe plant, its succulent leaves fat with the ample sunlight that filtered through the window in our first home that wasn’t a dorm room or a commune but a real adult place.

Then I got a crush. On a woman.

It was my first memorable crush since maybe ninth grade, a thing so foreign to me it was hard to comprehend at first. Something seethed beneath what seemed like an intense friendship. There was an element of meanness to it, the way kids harass each other in second or fourth grade when they feel things they can’t name. She’d make plans with me then never call, or text me constantly and then just stop. I didn’t know why I cared so much.

Maybe it was hard to recognize, because I thought I was incapable of romantic feelings.  Or because she was a girl. But mostly, it was because I couldn’t make a sensible flow chart of why I liked her. She didn’t wear flannel. She wasn’t always nice. She definitely wasn’t patient. But when she held my hand, my nerve endings felt electrified. Alive.

I told my fiancé about the crush. I wanted to be honest. Also, he was my best friend. I didn’t know whom else to tell. “What if we had an open relationship?” I asked, one night, quietly in the dark. I had a friend who did it, and she seemed pretty happy. She and her partner weren’t always what the other wanted, so sometimes they slept with other people. Probably this was true for my fiancé and me, too. I knew he wasn’t always what I wanted. In college, most of our friends were in sexually complex situations with multiple partners. I gently reminded him of this history as I made my case. We had been these people, had this life. Hesitantly, he agreed. He loved me, he said. He wanted me to have what I needed.

The crush never materialized into anything more, but I was comforted by the knowledge that it could have, and that would have been OK, theoretically. When my fiancé had a good day at work or a particularly delicious sandwich, he would pet my hair and tell me things were fine, that he totally understood the new circumstances of our relationship. But when he had a bad day or if we’d had a fight, about anything, really, he became furious with the situation. In his eyes, everyone I encountered, and everyone we encountered together, was hitting on me. The guy at the frozen yogurt shop became my ice cream boyfriend, filling my sample cup with extra peanut butter fudge. The woman who sold us a book on open relationships was surely waiting to meet me after her shift to explore the text in further detail. Our aging neighbors, their yappy Chihuahua and I were probably part of some weird foursome that involved light biting and choke collars.

My fiancé and I fought about the wedding the night after a friend asked what our plans were and I said I didn’t know. We had a place, a tentative date — a converted warehouse-turned-restaurant with lots of exposed brick, thick paneled glass and plants spilling from cracks in the walls. It was all very close to being formalized, in fact.

The days went by. I justified. He’ll be a good dad, I’d think. Or his job is stable, or sometimes, if I was feeling particularly sentimental, He loves me. But the time between the bickering, arguing, full-on fighting diminished by the day. We’d hurl awful things at each other. I’d tell him he was anxious, crazy, indolent. He’d tell me I was flighty, selfish, inconsiderate.

“You’re a lesbian,” he’d say, biting the end of the word as he spit it at me. He’d tell me I didn’t want to be with him. That he was just waiting for me to walk away.

“Of course this is a thing I want,” I’d say, as he told me, over and over again, how much I didn’t. And then one day, instead of saying how I did want to be there, how much I wanted him, I said it was too late to change my mind.

He didn’t argue. Instead he transitioned into all the details we had left to figure out, all the things I had to choose. A color scheme. A dress. A band.

My mother took me dress shopping, ready to nod noncommittally so as not to taint my choice. I’d tried on a number of poufy confections — my favorite being a gold strapless number that looked nothing like a wedding dress and minimized my breasts so much as to make them invisible.

I chose something more appropriate. I stood in front of the mirror in the dress. It was the only one that was almost my size, and looked exactly the same as the one My Size Barbie wore: ivory, sweetheart neckline, tulle skirt. The ultimate representation of what I was supposed to want, according to my kindergarten mind.

“This is it,” I said. I found tears behind my eyes. I was doing it, maybe successfully. The dress’s delivery date seemed very far away, and that was comforting. Similar to the feeling one might get when using a credit card to purchase things one can’t afford.

I began having stress dreams about my impending wedding. Taffeta flamenco dress, school auditorium. Something with a detachable bustle, catering hall.  In every dream, for the duration of the event, I chased minor details I didn’t remember planning in the first place. When I woke up, I felt indescribably angry, overwhelmingly alone.

I spent much of my time thinking about how I’d undo it eventually; how I’d run away, maybe with some lady named Bernice and have a life that felt good to me, when I was around 60 or so.

In the meantime, I was desperately searching for reasons to get married. Him casually resting a hand on my thigh or ordering dinner when I worked late. How much I was enjoying the seltzer-maker he’d bought.

The invitations came, and they were perfect. Cream-colored sustainably harvested bamboo, die-cut, olive edge painting, rose-gold flourishes. An envelope liner decorated with vintage drawings of soft-hued chrysanthemums. Old-school, slightly masculine lettering. A Mad-Lib style response card. If I wanted a wedding, a marriage or this person, there would have been no better way to announce it. They were exactly as I’d imagined. But instead of feeling joyful, I felt as if I’d swallowed the 30-pound box of paper products itself. This was real, and it sat heavy below my belly button.

“Someone got us a salad bowl off the registry!” he said one Tuesday, three months before our wedding date. I was miserable. That salad bowl was enormous. A pony could comfortably drink from that salad bowl. It was a bowl meant to hold years of salad. To darken with age and dressings laced with exotic oils.

“I love salad!” I mustered. We were running out of time. There were so many things to do. My sister wanted to throw me a bachelorette party, something I wouldn’t hate — cooking or a drawing class or a quiet dinner somewhere in suburbia. She threatened me with the bounty of penis-shaped products she planned to purchase if I didn’t tell her what I wanted to do. She’d call me and just name things: penis straws, penis lollypops, a penis cake pan, a game involving pinning something to a penis.

I didn’t want to make people travel too far or pay exorbitant prices. I didn’t want it to feel like a bachelorette party. We’d have dinner at my mom’s house, something simple. I would not wear a sash or a tiara made of condoms or a sparkly tank top.

My sister sent me potential wording for the invitations: “Join us for a party in honor of Ariel’s upcoming wedding!” or “A bachelorette bash for Ariel” or something about the last days of singledom. I vetoed each one.

“How about we just say ‘Celebrate Ariel’?” I asked. We did. There was no inkling of the purpose for the event when the email went out. No pink, no rings, no clinking champagne glasses, absolutely no penises. I can do this, I told myself.

Then, one day, three months before the wedding, I couldn’t pick any more things. I couldn’t choose a song to get married to. I couldn’t write the ceremony. I couldn’t picture myself wearing this poufy dress that belonged on a plastic lady whose very existence is widely recognized as a physical impossibility. No song, no words, no floral arrangement could fit inside the cramped attic of my heart, the floorboards creaking with my growing discomfort.

Each day I would look at the list of things left to do and I’d stall. I’m really tired, I’d think. Or This weekend. But the invitations were there, waiting to go out, to cement the reality of a date and a time and a place to everyone I knew. I told myself I’d do it, it was a thing I had to do. A choice, a commitment, a promise.

Then I met this girl.

It snuck up on me, the way the last crush had, but this time it materialized. We kissed in a beer garden one Thursday, after a pitcher and a plate of soggy onion rings. It was a thing I didn’t want to stop. I thought about her constantly, about what I would do if I had to choose.

When I told him, he nodded. “OK,” he said. He patted my hair. He held my hand. For an hour I thought I could have both things. Maybe I wanted both things. My fiancé and the corresponding stability, the external approval, the actual physical objects — the salad bowl and the mixer; and this other person, who made me feel stuff I couldn’t really list. Then we went to dinner, he and I. He got drunk and spat out a barrage of comments about my lack of commitment, the fact that I never did the dishes or the laundry, lesbianism in general and the unpleasant ways in which it applied to me in particular.

The next morning we took the train to my mom’s house, 30-pound box of invitations in tow. We’d stamp and send them all out together. She was making salmon for dinner. On the way there, I hovered just beneath my skin, attempting to feel something.

After we arrived, he laid out the envelopes and various cards and stamps on the big kitchen table. He put on headphones and began folding and stamping. My mom needed to pick up couscous and the fish. “I’ll come,” I said.

In the car, my sense of detachment turned to dismay as she rambled on about dyeable shoes and various other logistics — this woman who is so disinclined to ramble.

“Can I talk to you about something?” I asked, surprising myself.

“Sure,” she said. It was raining in hard sheets. The wipers swished loudly, back and forth, as I tried to think of what to say. I hadn’t said any of it before, so it was hard to know where to start, how to put it, while quashing enough doubts so that I could say it and still get married. I started to cry. This is like a bad episode of “My So Called Life” I thought (though really, there were no bad episodes of “My So Called Life.” I took comfort in that).

I told her everything. All the ways I was doing a bad job at being a grown-up: about my doubts, my lack of feelings, how I hated all the things we were acquiring, even the salad bowl. I told her about the girl I liked. She was silent. The wipers were so loud.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “You sat there and picked out a typeface for the invitations. You have a dress. People made travel plans. What are you going to tell them?”

Feeling my admission take up space, souring the air inside the car, ruining everything, I yelled, “I take it back! I’m doing it. I’m getting married. I take it back. I’m fine.”

“You can’t take it back,” she said, but nothing else. We bought the fish and the couscous. When we got home, I knew my face was red and puffy.

My fiancé glared at me. “We ran out of stamps,” he said.

We ate quietly. In the morning my mom drove us to the train. “Why don’t you leave the invitations here?” she asked. “I’ll get more stamps and bring them to the post office tomorrow.”

That night she called me four times as I made my way home from the subway station. Each time I let it ring. She sent me a text. “Call me. It’s urgent.” By the fifth attempt, I was worried someone had died. My mother wasn’t prone to contacting her children — she preferred to have us reach out to her as needed — let alone making repeat attempts.

“What happened?” I asked. I sat on the curb outside my apartment building, braced for bad news.

“If you don’t want to do it, you can’t do it,” she said. “I won’t let you do that to yourself.” It was the first time she’d ever given me a definitive answer for anything.

I let her.

Inside the apartment, I dropped my keys and changed into sweats.  My fiancé had ordered takeout. I spooned some into a bowl and sat on my side of the couch. “What’s going on?” he said, without looking up.

“I just. I don’t know how to do this anymore.”

He sighed. “Do you want to get married or not?”

I shrugged, staring into my bowl.

Undoing a wedding is surprisingly easy. First, you start by telling your partner. He’ll tell you he’s not sad, just very, very angry. It’s a thing you’ll know before he says it. You’ll have showered already, and put on a sports bra beneath your pajamas, so when he tells you to go, you’ll be ready. The things you’ll need for the next few weeks will fit in a canvas duffel bag, and you’ll feel good about that. The vendors will express their sympathy but keep your deposit. You won’t regret it, but you’ll feel like you should. Your friends and family will still love you, and that will surprise you too. You’ll hate yourself a little bit, but not enough — not nearly enough — to take it back.

For a month after calling off the wedding, I consumed mostly coffee and Halloween candy. I slept on couches and cots and on the hard bed of someone new, which made it difficult to sleep. But I didn’t care. I was happy.

I rented a single room in a shared apartment. There wasn’t space for a seltzer maker, but I bought a big bed to fill it and made it higher with stilts. I painted a stepstool baby blue and used it to climb onto the big bed, which feels best when I lie across it diagonally.

I still like that girl.

Occasionally, she wears flannel.

By Ariel Garfinkel

Ariel Garfinkel is a youth worker by day and a writer by other parts of the day (and night). She is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia University.

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