An Engagement Story (Not That Kind)

The other day, while on a walk, my friend asked me something I’d waited my whole life to hear…

“What kind of engagement ring would you want?”

The question was mostly rhetorical, her way of sharing that she and her boyfriend are planning to get engaged. Still, I had no shortage of answers. I have thought a lot about this question — far more than I care to admit.

There are certain personal goalposts we carry within us. Whether it’s going to school or having an apartment with in-unit laundry (something I have yet to experience), they serve as our barometers of adulthood, myths that shape our individual notions of maturity and success. When we get there — wherever there is — we expect that life will look or feel a certain way. That we’ll have “arrived,” perhaps. That things will feel “figured out.” This has never actually been my experience, but it hasn’t stopped me from believing.

For me, no myth has held more weight, or proven more elusive, than the one about getting engaged. Even in the most low-key circumstances, the whole shebang always seemed like nothing short of magic. Romance, promises, optimism, jewelry? Count me very much in. But for years — again, far more than I care to admit — engagement felt like a club everyone was admitted to but me.

All throughout my twenties, while riding the subway to work, I’d gaze subtly-but-longingly at the rings adorning the hands wrapped around the safety pole. Who were their spouses? What were their relationships like? How had it happened? The rings, to me, were glittering symbols that someone had been chosen. I wanted to know how that felt.

All around me, friends and coworkers showed up sporting new, glistening symbols of commitment. My text messages grew overrun with beaming two-headed portraits, one left hand held aloft. I loved how each story matched their personalities, from traditional to unconventional to “let’s-get-a-tattoo-instead.”

In my late twenties, one (overzealous) friend went from store to store, trying on every ring in Manhattan and some in Brooklyn. I accompanied her on these trips, gently explaining over and over to each salesperson that no, I was just a friend, and no, I was not also in the market for a rock that cost many times my rent. She wrote her name, size and preferred styles on the back of each shop’s business card, then left them around her apartment for her now-husband to find.

As the years passed, more and more friends were initiated into the Club of Engagement. I carried a hint of FOMO, a feeling like being the last cheese in the cheese shop. I felt ashamed for feeling this way. My ideal self was independent, aggressively channeling the proverbial fish with a bicycle. I wanted to be completely immune to the siren song of rom-coms and De Beers marketing tactics. But inside, I cared. I cared a lot.

As the years ticked on, my single friends and I banded together, sharing dating stories or life stories or just commiserative company. We texted each other photos of engagement announcements and wedding invitations, not because we were bitter, but because it was our shared myth. Eventually, nearly all of them, too, got engaged.

For one of my dearest friends — a person I would describe, more than anyone I know, as a true romantic — it happened on the same night that I had a terrible breakup. We made plans to meet up the following morning. As we strolled down the street, side-by-side, she kept her left hand firmly planted inside her pocket.

“I want to see it!” I insisted.
“No. I know what this is like,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t want to upset you and I don’t want you to feel left out.”
“I’m happy for you!” I pulled on her arm. “Let me see!”
Then we both stood on the street and cried.

Some months later, someone did offer me a ring. I have chosen those words carefully, since that’s the most accurate description of what happened. An ex-boyfriend showed up at my apartment suddenly, months after we had broken up. “I have a ring!” he said, and nothing more. His eyes held that same shade of panic someone has when they’re about to vomit in a public place and they don’t know where to run. Needless to say, it wasn’t the right decision for either of us.

That was the beginning of the myth’s unraveling, bolstered even more by the years that followed — happy years of living on my own terms. For me, part of what made The Engagement Myth so tantalizing was that it was never a narrative I could control. It assumed that others had cracked some code of human experience, rather than that they were merely facing a different set of challenges. That, of course, is the real story, though it is no less beautiful.

By definition, a myth has two parts. The first: a story that helps explain a social or natural phenomenon. The second: something that is false. A myth is inherently both — something that helps us make sense of our existence yet isn’t the way it seems. At its heart, a myth is a story, written and shared, gaining power over time. This means we have the power to create our own, as well as the power to amend them.

I anticipate that when and if I do get married, it will be a simple, under-the-radar affair, engagement period optional. I anticipate this because I have communicated this preference, out loud. It’s not that I don’t still love a good engagement story — I do! — but more that I found my own narrative, and as it turns out, it looks a bit different.

In the middle of writing this, I took a break and went down the street to the grocery store. On my way out, a woman held the door for me, and I caught a glimpse of her hand. “What a pretty ring!” I thought, reflexively. (Old habits die hard.) But that’s as far as it went.

In recent times, I’ve started wearing whatever the hell I want to on that finger — rings passed down from my family or ones I’ve purchased myself. This is part of a new myth; one I’ve crafted to my own liking. There is a chance someone may notice my hand, holding a door or gripping a subway pole or just going about my day, and assume I’ve got some magical adult existence, infused with love and belonging, the resolve of commitment and the hopeful promise of being a part of something greater than oneself. They would be right.

Have you held onto any personal myths or goalposts in your own life? Did they look or feel the way you expected? Did others work out differently?

P.S. A new way to get engaged and the love story I never thought to tell.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)