"I'm sorry," he said, pointing to the sea of essays, "I know I'm interrupting." His hands were red from the cold.
Let's just get it over with, she thought, anger and humiliation prickling her throat. Her mind felt calm, detached, but her heart had another engine altogether and thudded painfully.
"I just had this . . . I was planning to . . . but it just made me so crazy, all the . . ." He walked the length of the kitchen, away from her, the bulky parka sleeves squealing as his arms flailed about. She wondered if he'd stitched it himself, this awful coat.
She wished she'd never said she loved him. She was just being polite, returning the compliment late one evening. But now it turned out he'd been mistaken. Of course it had been too soon. His wife had only been dead a short while. She wished he'd just spit it out and go home.
He reached the far counter, spun around, and with three long strides he was there before her, hovering over her and her work.
He smelled of something familiar. Maple syrup, maybe. His eyes finally settled on hers. "I love you, Vida. I do. But it's not enough for me. It's not enough to simply love you. I wish for everyone's sake it were but it's not. I want to marry you." A laugh or a sob, Vida couldn't tell which, pushed its way out of his chest. "I want to marry you."
Out of the parka came a ring, no box, that clinked as it landed in her teacup. "Damn," he said, fishing it out with thick shaking fingers. "I'm sure you've had better proposals than this. I'm just not that type."
It was, in fact, her first proposal. Another woman, a better woman, might have confessed this. She never would. She had let him believe, along with everyone else up here, that she'd been married to Peter's father.
The ring hovered now, too, caught in the tips of his fingers. Suddenly she understood the true role of the ring. It forced, as T. S. Eliot would say, the moment to its crisis. Without it, a proposal was just a question, a query, and the response could be the beginning of a conversation that might last weeks, or years. But the ring demanded the final answer within a few seconds. You either reached up and took it, or you kept your hand on top of Hank Fish's essay on Emerson. And once you took it, you'd have an awkward time of giving it back. But to not take the ring, to leave it untouched, to watch it go back into the parka pocket, the proposal marked with a fat Fwho could deliver that blow? She heard Peter upstairs, crossing the landing to the bathroom. She'd always imagined these moments filled with ecstatic conviction, but this moment was about ending the embarrassment, stopping the shallow breaths through Tom's nostrils and the little laugh-sobs he was trying to suppress. It was about Peter upstairs and her terror of the mornings and all the years they'd been alone together in this house.
Whether she spoke or simply nodded she'd never know. All she knew was that the ring, several sizes too big, was slipped on her finger and Tom was kissing her, then burying his face in her hair, then kissing her again. Everything felt rubbery. She had the sense, despite his enthusiasm, that it wasn't really happening this way, that they were rehearsing, hypothesizing, and that the real moment would happen later, would happen differently.
Tom called up to Peter, who launched himself down the stairs immediately, his lack of athleticism embarrassing to her in Tom's presence. His face was bright red. He already knew. Even before Tom made the announcement, clutching her at the shoulders, she saw that Peter already knew.
"I am so psyched," he said, pumping Tom's hand, then raising both fists in the air as if it were the successful end of a soccer game.
From The English Teacher by Lily King. Copyright Lily King 2005. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press.
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