The Question

How to improvise a marriage proposal

Wednesday morning, May 1, 2013, 6 a.m. My alarm went off, and I thought to myself, “This is it — today I’m going to propose to Janet.” As I hoisted myself out of bed, I thought, “I guess I’d better figure out how I’m going to do that.”

The ring sat snugly in its box in the bedroom closet, a beautiful white gold Claddagh design with a delicate oval-shaped emerald set in the center of the heart. Janet was still sleeping soundly, less than five feet from the small piece of jewelry that had taken me 10 weeks to obtain.

I hadn’t imagined that simply getting the ring would be such a long ordeal, which meant I had told all my friends and family about the impending proposal back in February. So I had spent two and a half months answering the same two questions:

  • “No, I don’t have the ring yet.”
  • “No, I don’t know how I’m going to propose. I figure that the right idea will come to me when I actually have the ring.”

(Like that little dodge at the end there? Spoken like a true procrastinator.)

By the time I picked up that elusive, shiny little something from the jewelry store on April 30, Janet had been living with me for a month. Her lease had expired, and it had made perfect sense to move her into my house — but naturally I’d been hoping to do things in a different order. She’d told me that she wanted to be surprised whenever I did pop the question, and now that we were together under one roof the subterfuge would require a lot more effort on my part. Through white lies and sneaking around, I had already managed to get to the jewelers, hide the ring in the closet, and stash a few bottles of celebratory craft beer in the seldom-used extra fridge. So far, so good.

While I got ready for work Wednesday morning, the plot began to come together in my mind. We’d agreed that whenever the proposal happened, it should be something intimate and low-key. The forecast was clear and pleasant for that night, so maybe I could build a fire in the pit in my back yard, have the beer on ice (neither of us is much for champagne), and … do something related to “The Princess Bride,” which is a bit of an obsession for Janet. I considered spelling out Westley’s iconic “As You Wish” in bright paper letters on the shed, but ultimately I decided to have the phrase written in icing on an ice cream cake, which is much tastier than paper.

The ingenious part of my plan? Janet would be out of the house that evening attending 7 p.m. Mass, so I could make all of my preparations while she was out. This suddenly became less ingenious when the pastor canceled the service — prompting a panicked text message to our friend Robin, who roped Janet into some last-minute babysitting.

It was close to 7:30 when we’d finally finished with dinner and Janet left home. I dashed to Baskin Robbins for the ice cream cake (half chocolate chip, half mint chocolate chip), then to Target for Duraflame logs (sufficiently idiot-proof for even my fire-building abilities).

I returned home and shaved, unable to shake the nervous feeling that Janet would walk in the door at any moment. Outside, I stashed the ice cream cake in my large blue cooler and placed a chilled bottle of Positive Contact ale on top along with a pair of tumblers. It was 8:50 when Janet texted that she was heading back, and suddenly I was back on that barstool before our first date.

I spent the next 15 minutes anxiously pacing from the living room to the dining room, watching for Janet out the front and checking out the back to make sure the yard wasn’t engulfed in flames. There were so many things that could go wrong. Maybe she’d spot the fire out back before we got out there and connect the dots. What if a neighbor interrupted my proposal by taking out the trash? The woman next door has a very vocal chihuahua. How could I possibly have thought a small, fenced-in rowhouse yard was the place to do this?

Janet came through the front door. As I rushed over (too eagerly?) to welcome her home, I told her I felt bad that she got stuck babysitting on short notice, and that I had a surprise out back to make up for it. She followed me out the kitchen door (could she see the box in my back pocket?) and was thrilled to see I’d made a fire — on the ride home, she’d been thinking about doing just that. She didn’t even notice the cooler, bottle, and tumblers.

But she noticed as I dropped to one knee in the grass in front of the fire and pulled the little box from my pocket. I opened the hinged top, making doubly sure I wasn’t holding the box backwards, and revealed the silvery ring and its bright green gem. I looked up and saw her eyes about to brim over with happy tears. And it suddenly occurred to me that the only thing I had failed to plan out was what I would say in this moment.

I improvised: “Janet, I know that we’ve been talking about this for a long time, but … will you spend the rest of your life with me?”

She said yes, and then said it again. And again, and three more times after that just to make sure that I understood. She dropped to her knees along with me, and we wrapped our arms around each other and held on tight.

Article © 2013 by Kevin Brotzman