Photo by Devin Kleu on Unsplash

As I hustled down to the lake in my favorite floor-length dress, backpack strapped to my back, I willed myself not to throw up. I’d scoped out the location the Friday before: a dock at Green Lake at sunset. It had been acceptably emptied of people then, but I knew it might be different tonight. Even during a pandemic, the lake remained a popular place. Now I felt relieved to see no one on the dock, but it didn’t make me any less nervous. I knew my boyfriend’s cousin was luring him down to meet me, and I needed to set up quickly. Inside my backpack: a tapestry, luminary candle bags, orange LED candles, a bottle of red wine, two glasses, and the ring. Unlike the previous week, the end of the dock was damp and covered in duck poop, but I didn’t have time to care. Once my stage was set, I removed my cloth mask, poured myself a glass of wine, and gulped it in between deep breaths.

When Rylan arrived, it took him a moment to realize the woman standing at the end of the dock was me. He lowered his balaclava and walked forward to meet me; I greeted him and immediately began crying. Through suppressed sobs, I offered him his own glass of wine, which he readily accepted. Then I began my heartfelt speech, though I don’t remember what I said, if I said all the things I’d meant to. It was like blacking out.

But I did ask him to marry me, and he said yes. I slid the ring onto his finger.

While the proposal was a surprise, our engagement was not. It honestly horrifies me that anyone asks or agrees to marry another person without thoroughly discussing it first.

Rylan and I had been dating for more than four years and living together for nearly three. Our relationship and its future is a constantly evolving conversation, complete with milestones and goals. For example, our first fight preceded our one-year anniversary, which were both prerequisites for moving in together. Cohabiting for at least one year, we agreed, should be a prerequisite for getting engaged. But one year into living together we had other aspirations besides our eventual wedding: career changes, travel plans, new hobbies. We were already spending our lives together, content to wait for the rest of it.

Two months prior to my proposal, we sat down on our living room couch and picked out our rings together online. When the rings arrived, we tried them on. His fit snug, but mine was too big, and we sent it back to be resized. Instead of getting disappointed, I got excited: Great, I thought. I’ll propose first!

Up until our rings arrived, I think I assumed Rylan would do the asking — not just because he’s a man and traditionally something like 95% of the time in opposite sex relationships men do the asking, but because he’s the more romantic of the two of us. But then I had his ring, and I knew he wouldn’t have mine for however long it took to get resized, and it seemed ridiculous to let that detail delay our formal engagement.

We were both sick of referring to each other as “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.” The labels felt juvenile, inconsistent with the seriousness and longevity of our relationship; they also carried a lot of baggage since we’d both used them in relation to abusive exes. I liked the term “significant other,” but it’s a mouthful in casual conversation. Rylan favored “partner,” but then people would infer queerness and misgender me; and while I enjoyed how “partner” tested people’s heteronormative assumptions, and in a way validated my bisexuality, it wasn’t fully representative of our relationship.

Fiancé, however, had a nice ring to it. Quite literally.

I knew Rylan, as the more romantic partner, wanted to plan his own proposal, but the idea of me waiting around to be asked felt not only passive, but also entitled and entirely unromantic. Sure, I wanted him to propose; it was important to him. We were important to him. We were important to me, too. So why shouldn’t I ask? Why shouldn’t I make a big, romantic gesture? Why should I wait around to be chosen when I could choose?

Fortunately, I’ve spent much of my young adult life “weeding my garden” of toxic friends and family members. Overwhelmingly, the response to our engagement and my proposal was celebratory happiness. But among all of the “Congratulations! Best news of 2020!” and “This is wonderful and amazing!” and “I love that you did the proposing!” there were a few thornier comments. One woman replied, “You got tired of waiting for him to do it, huh?” Several people confusedly wondered, “Are you only half engaged?” which no one would’ve wondered had Rylan done the proposing. By that logic, most couples are only ever half engaged. However, most irksome to me was someone’s suggestion that I had stolen Rylan’s opportunity to propose.

I’ve got news for that person: there are no rules when it comes to engagement! None! Traditions are not mandatory. We’re adults, and we’re allowed to color outside the lines, and, hell, draw new lines if we want to. Which is exactly what we did. And it was perfect.

Nine weeks after Ry and my initial engagement, I went out for a socially distant walk with my friend (and co-worker) Nancy, who I’d used as my alibi the night of my proposal. She stopped us outside the bookstore where we both work, which was closed for the night, saying she needed to grab a book from behind the counter. Upon entering, I noticed a strand of fairy lights strung up in the back. As I went to take a closer look, Rylan appeared, dressed in a jacket and tie, and I realized I’d been lured there for romantic purposes. In the back: more lights, bouquets of roses and wildflowers, a bottle of wine, glasses. Rylan asked me for a “book recommendation” and sent me to the stacks, where I pulled The Great Gatsby (a favorite I reread every year) from the shelf. Inside the hollowed out book was a black velvet inlay and the engagement ring I’d picked out.

My fiancé asked me to marry him, and I said, “Of course!”

I love that we both got to ask and be asked, even if we both already knew the answer.

Seattle-based bookseller. YA writer. Personal essayist. Foster cat mom. INFJ.

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