"Considering that it's a bridesmaid dress, it could be a lot worse," Alison said gamely.
"I actually sort of like it," I admitted.
"It's the color of Scope," she parried. "Your dress is minty-fresh."
"I think it's a bit more sage," piped in Ellen.
The dressmaker nodded: "Sage."
Just two more weeks until my sister Beth's wedding, and this was the final fitting for my maid-of-honor dress. Beth, as would be expected of her, had picked out a dress that -- while, yes, a bridesmaid dress -- was actually pretty.
"Always a bridesmaid and soon to be a bride," Alison said in sing-song.
"Alison, cut it out," I said.
First of all, I had really had enough of their postulating about when/if Joel and I were going to make it official.
I already felt my own pressure hanging over my head -- I didn't need theirs, too.
I was on edge, as if -- at any moment -- Joel was going to utter four little words that would propel me into my future.
I was on edge, as if -- at any moment -- Joel was going to utter four little words and I would utter a syllable in response, and that syllable would propel me into the future, my future. And, while this was what we had been discussing, and it was what I supposedly wanted -- and all seems clear now that life had settled into a more normal pattern after the accident, and Michal and I were getting along, and Shelley didn't seem to be throwing knives in my direction -- or Joel's for that matter. But, still, I felt a kind of breathlessness, as if that question-and-answer ("Will you?" "Yes…...") was cutting out possibilities, right and left, defining my life.
The weight of it was enormous.
I trust him. I love him. I respect him. I admire him. I want the same things out of life that he does. It's right, right?
Staring at myself in the minty-sage-green dress, I inhaled deeply.
--I don't have to think about this now.
Then Ellen sighed.
I knew she was having a hard time. Over the last few months, since the end of her last relationship, Ellen had become increasingly gloomy about love, and the few spectacularly unsuccessful dates she'd had only had made things worse.
Here, Joel and I were, well, wherever we were, and Alison’s latest fling, Dave, had morphed-to all of our shock (most of all, Alison’s)-into maybe possibly The One. Alison, the jaded party girl, had quietly started using first-person, plural pronouns and made decisions with him in mind – rather than her usual in spite of him.
After Alison ran back to her office, Ellen and I grabbed some sandwiches and plopped down on a secluded patch of grass at the Arizona Center next to my office downtown.
With her usual candor, Ellen let it out.
"I want so much to be happy for you, and happy for Alison," she said, "and the truth is that I am -- but that doesn't stop me from feeling sorry for myself."
I just feel so isolated -- practically all of my friends are married now, and I feel like a spare sock.
"I just feel so isolated -- practically all of my friends are married now, and I feel like a spare sock. There’s nothing wrong with a spare sock, but it's still just an extra piece of laundry lying around..."
She had stopped doing much about trying to date, she said, and even turned down blind dates -- because she just didn't want to deal with the disappointment.
More than anything, she said, she felt lonely. Lonely and hopeless.
"I'm just tired of it. It hurts so much to keep getting my hopes up every time I go out with someone, and then nothing happens," she said plaintively. "I look around, and every shmata manages to find someone to build a life with, and I'm alone. What is wrong with me?"
I wished, for a minute, that she could see herself the way I saw her: Accomplished, beautiful, funny, caring -- a weirdly wonderful combination of soft-heartedness and a really impressive, analytical brain.
Life is a funny thing. A chance encounter with someone at a party led me to a new job -- just when I thought I'd have to leave my new home. I thought I made a mistake when I quit my job at Swank on principle, but something else came along -- something even better. If I hadn't gone through everything I did with Rick, I wouldn't have realized how important a Jewish home is to me, and I wouldn’t be where I am with Joel.
Things that seem like coincidence -- or even, on the face, suffering -- must be part of some grand master plan.
But while you're in the midst of pain, or just the disappointment of feeling that your life isn't where it should be, it's incredibly hard to keep your eyes ahead and trust that what you're going through is part of a process.
People's lives change in an instant. You have to have trust in that master plan, and you have to keep trying.
"I don't know why," I said honestly. "But I have a feeling that what you want is just around the corner. But you have to go get it."
The next day, Shelley had a doctor's appointment, so I was supposed to pick up Michal from her gymnastics class. But when I called Rina to ask her something during the day, she said something about taking Michal home for a play-date with Ari.
"You are?" I asked. "But I thought I was supposed to pick her up..."
"Joel asked me to take her," she said. "Oh, no..."
Apparently, Joel was trying to surprise me.
Sure enough, when I went out to my car, Joel was waiting there with a big bouquet of flowers: sweet peas and tiny stalks of delphinium, and little baby daisies.
I felt a little numb as he steered me around to the passenger side. There was a cooler in the back by Michal's car seat, I noticed.
--"How did you get that in there?" I asked.
"I stole your spare car keys," he said happily, obviously quite proud of himself.
He wouldn't tell me where we were going, but I recognized the route to an overlook I had once shown him on the Ahwatukee side of South Mountain. He drove up far enough that we didn't need to hike much to get up there, and once we were there -- of course -- there was a table and chairs set up.
"I imagined someone might have stolen it already," he said. "That's why I kept the food in the cooler. I figured we could always sit on a blanket..."
I couldn't help but smile at how ‘Joel’ this was: To make sure everything is ideal, perfect for me.
Still rather numb, I couldn't help but smile at how "Joel" this was: To make sure everything is ideal, perfect for me. He had even factored in that I would be wearing business clothes and would not want to get them dirty by hiking. "I considered stealing a change of clothes, too," he said.
He had made sushi (my favorite) and spread it out on the table as the glorious Phoenix sunset began playing like distant music in the west.
Around that time, the panic began.
--This is what I want. I've seen it up close. I've seen him under pressure. I know him.
This is what I want.
But what, whispered a raspy voice in my head, what if he's like a dress that you see in a catalogue and love -- but then it arrives and only then you realize just how sallow it makes your skin look, once you put it on, safe in the confines of your house?
-- I hate looking sallow.
And then, the voice hissed, with the crumpled packaging on the floor beside you, in a panic you hope, you hope, that the catalogue company has a good returns policy.
"Joel," I said uneasily, imaging myself staring in a mirror, and seeing a yellow visage looking back at me. "Joel, um, what is this all about?"
"Jess, you've been so amazing since everything happened... I just want to thank you. You have been so good to me, and to Michal..."
-- Uh-huh. And?
No more. He just wanted to do something special to show how much he appreciates me.
Okay, NOW I was mad. First, he was going to have the audacity to propose to me, and now he has the audacity NOT to propose to me.
"And all the romance? The sunset? The bottle of champagne?"
I started rooting around in his bag for the bottle I'd seen chilling.
"Champagne?" he said, confused.
I got the bottle -- oh. It was Diet Dr. Pepper. My latest favorite.
"You said you wanted me to be more romantic, so..."
Oh. I had said that, during one of our conversations -- that I wished he would be a little more cheesy and smarmy when it came to us.
Oh good grief.
I smiled weakly and cracked open the Dr. Pepper...
"Jessica, did you think that I was going to..." he probed, gently trailing off... "Oh, ooooh!"
I raised my eyebrows meaningfully...
"Oh, I am so dumb..." he said. "I mean, we're flying to your sister’s wedding in a few days, and, uh, oh... it didn't occur to me that this would look like... Oh man, am I dumb..."
"Just pass the sushi, Kemosabe," I said.
Later that night, I thought about the strangeness of the situation: I am in a totally passive role, waiting to absorb his proposal. I am just waiting for the question to be asked; my answer is my only action, and the power I have to say yea or nay is in some ways driving me crazy.
The truth was, I was a little relieved.
I realized that I was going to miss Michal during the two weeks I'd be in Philadelphia for the wedding. Joel was coming with me for the weekend festivities, but I would be staying on after him.
Rina drove us to the airport for our morning flight, a good two and a half hours early, to allow for the grandmother from Des Moines who was carrying cuticle clippers and thus needed to be strip-searched. Both half-asleep, we got our boarding passes and headed to the security checkpoint.
I had been filling Joel in on the final-round tussles that Beth was having with the caterers, but I noticed he was getting a little antsy as we got toward the front of the line.
Naturally, they made me take off my shoes to X-ray them.
A large, somewhat dull-looking fellow approached Joel and told him that they were going to have to go through his carry-on bag.
"Do you have to?" I was surprised to hear Joel say softly. He looked anxiously toward me, standing barefoot on the little square by the X-ray machine.
--Oh good grief, I thought. What is he doing? Now they're going to do a body cavity search or something.
"Sir, please come over here," the man said, carrying the bag to a table next to where I was standing.
"Uh, Jess, why don't you go ahead and meet me at the gate?" Joel said.
--I am not stepping off this square onto that dirty carpet in bare feet, I thought.
"Uh, okay... when I get my shoes..."
"Sir, what is this?" said the security guy, holding up Joel's toiletries bag.
"It's my dob kit," Joel said, smiling brightly. "Feel free to open it."
"And what's this?"
-- "Look, Jessica, isn't that your friend, um, Stephanie?" Joel said, pointing behind me. I turned to look.
"Ooooh..." I heard the security guard hiss softly.
I turned and saw a small box: a beautiful pear-shaped diamond on a platinum band, with little baguettes on the side.
I turned back -- but not before the security guard could snap shut a small box. I saw it: a beautiful pear-shaped diamond on a platinum band, with little baguettes on the side.
How did he know that was the ring I wanted?
The voices started in my head:
Another man doesn’t have a daughter, and an ex-wife. But another man doesn’t have a daughter you like as much, or an ex-wife you can live with. Someone else is less complicated, less dark. Someone else won't have the depth of character he has. But someone else won't have the baggage. You know he has a temper. But he seems to control it. You can count on him.
"This was not the way I planned it," he muttered.
All the security guards were staring now, and the passengers in line, too.
Joel took in the stares and, blushing deeply but smiling at me, dropped to one knee.
Oh this was humiliating.
"Jessica, will you marry me?" he asked simply, still smiling.
Suddenly the voices went silent: There is one thing you know: You love and respect this man, and know that you will take care of each other, and that both you and he are committed to all the work keeping the commitment entails.
I nodded, also blushing fiercely, and everyone around us burst into applause and a loud, annoying chorus of "aaaaaawwwwws."
I turned back to the female security guard: "Can I have my shoes back now?"
To my delight, someone told the gate agent and we were upgraded to first class.
To my delight, someone told the gate agent and we were upgraded to first class. I just kept staring at the ring.
Once ensconced in our seats, I asked him how he knew what ring I wanted, even though he’d never asked.
"Beth told me."
"Beth knows about this?"
Apparently, my whole family knew. He had asked my father's permission (how charmingly Neanderthal) two weeks before, and spoken to Beth about the ring. The day before he was to leave back to Phoenix, he planned to take me out in a canoe by the boathouses on the Schuykill. Then we'd announce it to my family at the post-nuptial meal that night. That way, the whole family could celebrate, but it wouldn't steal attention from Beth's wedding.
"It was all going to be perfect."
"It was perfect," I said. "Just not what you expected."
We agreed that we would keep it quiet until after the wedding, to preserve the spotlight for Beth. I felt strangely calm.
The flight attendant came over to offer us something to drink before takeoff.
"Oh, you're the happy couple!" she cooed. "And now you're flying off into the sunset!"
I smiled indulgently. But, really, the sunrise had just begun.
Jessica thanks her loyal readers for sharing her two years of dating distress. "Mazel Tov" wishes can be sent to: Jessica@aish.com