I’m driving in circles around the park just past dusk. It’s dark outside, but I can make out the familiar figure in the distance. He is waiting, and he is waiting for me.
It’s unseasonably cold tonight. If I open my car door, perhaps the bitter air will cripple me or jolt me back to my senses before I can make my way down into the park, where he is waiting in anticipation. I don’t want to go, but I feel like I have to. All signs have been leading toward this.
This is what you wanted, right? A voice in my head taunts me. Isn’t this what you are supposed to want?
I don’t know. But right now, I’m panicking, and I feel like I have to see this through. If I don’t, we’ll break up, and I don’t think I want that either. All I have to do is walk down there and let him propose to me, and say yes.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Let me back up. We had been dating for a little more than a year. Much of it had been a mess, but I figured all relationships were, to some extent. We’d both become adept at walking on eggshells to avoid unearthing red-flag issues like the undeniable rift in our beliefs, or contradictory plans for the future. I could learn to tolerate his jealousy and suspicion of my friends and exes, and he could learn to tolerate my temper and my intense need for space.
He was kind, and he seemed to genuinely care about me — and even want to take care of me. Which is what I thought every single girl was searching for.
I’d be crazy to give that up, right?
I was in my late 20s, and it seemed like everyone else around me was shacking up and tying knots and taking pregnancy tests. I’m sure the majority of them genuinely wanted to do those things, but surely was I wasn’t the only one who suspected that settling down sometimes equaled settling.
Mostly, I kept my concerns to myself, worried that I’d be labeled a miscreant for wanting to travel the world instead of the aisles of Macy’s, robotically tagging items for a wedding registry. I had no use for a butter dish, anyway.
But back to the engagement ambush. Yes, I can call it an ambush, because I do feel like I was kind of tricked into it, even though I hold the blame for answering “yes.”
It was a few days before my birthday, and he had arranged this cute little scavenger hunt for me. At each stop, I’d find a note with instructions that would lead me to the next destination. With the close proximity to my birthday, I naively assumed a surprise party would await me at the end.
When I arrived at the park, the final stop on the scavenger hunt, I realized that instead of balloons, friends, cake and presents, it was just him. He was waiting under a tree with a diamond ring.
I don’t even remember saying yes. I vaguely remember the subsequent “celebration” at a friend’s house. In the photos from the evening, I’m smiling gamely, but if you look closely, my lobotomized eyes reveal all. Months later, in our wedding photos, our first kiss as husband and wife should have exposed the truth, as I’m clearly recoiling.
Didn’t anyone else notice? Why didn’t I stop it from happening? Would being labeled a runaway bride have been worse than years of being trapped, by my own devices, in a prison of a relationship? Years of hiding everything from my family and friends, shunning the ones he didn’t approve of and lying to the ones who dared to ask if we were really happy?
Naturally, the poison spread quickly throughout the marriage. I realized that what I had mistaken as his desire to take care of me was, in actuality, a desire to control me. Like anything that’s held against its will, I retreated further away, strengthening my ability to mask all emotion until I was existing on a solitary plane where he couldn’t touch me, figuratively or literally. When both of us acknowledged the reality we had tried to suppress — that neither of us was what the other one wanted in a partner — we should have called it quits.
But we didn’t. Instead, we went through the motions, trying to ignore the fact that no amount of new pets or new jewelry or new cars could strengthen the shaky foundation we had pretended to build a home upon. Soon, that home was occupied by two roommates who didn’t even like — let alone love — each other, but who remained legally bound. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right?
You can pile a bunch of things on a shaky foundation for a while, but it will eventually crumble. Finally, nearly four years into our marriage, I could lie to myself no more. The unknown, uncertain future sounded preferable, even exciting, and less scary than the path I was on. When I filed for divorce, I felt like myself again, and I wondered why I had been living with this total stranger for so long, or why he chose to stay with me. I hate that we both wasted each other’s time, but I felt hopeful for the first time in years. I honestly hope he feels the same way.
The reality is, when it comes to engagements, marriages or other major life-altering decisions, you’re likely going to have some misgivings. Anyone who has gone through these events will probably tell you that’s completely normal, and to quell those butterflies in your stomach or ignore your cold feet.
But I can tell you that some types of cold feet eventually yield cold, resentful hearts. While it’s pretty unlikely that one person is going to fulfill all your needs or mirror the childhood fantasy of your personal Prince Charming, if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. I had every opportunity to change course, but I didn’t trust myself.
I’ll never make that mistake again. And I’m guessing he won’t, either.