To set the scene: it was my worst nightmare. I had packed my bags, dragged them to my new office job and went straight to the airport. Almost four years into our long-distance relationship, I was a self-made pro at this international travel thing: I had taken my dramamine, I was wearing slip-on shoes, I had drained my water bottle and had slipper socks tucked into my coat pocket. I expertly marched straight to the kiosk to print my boarding pass, but after scanning my passport, the screen blinked red:
I blinked. Paused. Scanned my passport again.
FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELLED, SEE SERVICE DESK
I looked up at the growing line ahead of me and swept over, clutching my passport with a fistful of adrenaline. I heard the whispers of the surrounding passengers: “did you get a notification?” “I heard something about a storm in DC.” I checked my emails and text messages, nothing. It must be a mistake, I thought. There probably is something wrong with the system.
Lisa and I had booked this flight a couple months earlier. I had just graduated in December and she was on a study abroad semester in Limerick, Ireland. By that point, we had been dating for three and a half years long-distance, her in Germany and I in between Boston and Ohio. I hadn’t seen her since August (almost seven months earlier), and this was supposed to be a week off for us to celebrate and talk over what was next for us.
I flinched as the man at the counter raised his voice, “I can’t believe this!” but was kept from eavesdropping when my phone vibrated.
“This isn’t good,” I said when I answered the call.
“What do you mean cancelled?” Lisa’s voice appeared to be echoing.
“People are saying there’s a storm in DC, they’re cancelling my flight through there.”
Lisa paused. “Well they have to change your flight.”
“Obviously, but I don’t know if they can get me on a new flight today. What are our plans for this weekend again?” Lisa had been keeping our itinerary under wraps, which was partially a saving grace for me since I had been busy job-hunting and juggling hustles during blizzard season.
“It would . . .” she paused again, “not be great if you’re not here tomorrow.”
“Next!” the service agent announced.
“That’s me, I’ll call you back.” I hung up and wheeled my carry-on to the desk, willing myself to take a deep breath.
“Hello,” the agent said. A word to describe him is stoic. He looked like a young Anderson Cooper and spoke like Tim Gunn.
I gave what I imagined was my best smile but probably looked like the 😜 emoji, my brain shifting through the customer service knowledge I’d gleaned over my last four years in the food industry. “Hi . . .” I read his name tag, “Michael. How are you doing?”
“Fine, howareyou?” he did not smile as he took my passport, I assumed because he didn’t want to make any promises. He nodded gravely at his screen, “As you heard, they are cancelling all flights in and out of Washington DC tonight, they have automatically booked you for a flight tomorrow afternoon at three.”
I swallowed a grimace, but tried to stay upbeat. “What time would that get me there?”
“Saturday morning in Dublin, around noon.”
“That doesn’t work for me,” I said, trying to stand a little taller. “I’m visiting my fiancee in Dublin and we already have limited time together.” I breezed past the lie, we weren’t engaged but it sounded more important than girlfriend. “She’s planned this whole weekend trip and it’s very important that I’m in Dublin by tomorrow night at the latest.” As stoic as he was, I spotted his eyebrow quiver upwards when I mentioned she. “Is there anything that can be done?”
“By tomorrow night?” he asked, his face still carved from stone.
I nodded, “it would mean a lot to me.”
Thus began a few of the five most stressful minutes of my life. He started silently tapping away on the keyboard, trying every permutation of the various airlines that were covered by the Star Alliance at that time. I found myself biting my lower lip, staring at his eyebrows as he searched, and—overcome with nervousness and wanting to give him all the privacy he needed to save the day—I switched my focus elsewhere: the tiled floor, the clock behind the desk, my buzzing phone stowed in my pocket. The man who was near yelling earlier was making a scene with another service agent a few desks over, “y’all can get these metal contraptions to float in the sky but can’t manage to get me another flight to Austin?” Michael kept tapping away, his brow slowly furrowing, until:
“Got it,” he said, finally looking at me.
He found a flight with two airlines that would take me through London Heathrow and get me into Dublin only an hour later than I had planned. I thanked him profusely as he printed out my boarding passes and pointed to the direction of the gate.
“Oh, one more thing,” he said. “Congrats.”
I smiled, my cheeks reddening at my white lie. Lisa wasn’t my fiancee yet. But I figured she was about to be.
It was 2015, and Lisa and I hadn’t really talked about marriage. We were getting tired of the long-distance shenanigans but were only talking abstractly about eventually moving to the same timezone. She still had a year or so left of her degree, and I had just landed an entry-level job at a publishing house. If anything, the years of our relationship had chipped away at that young high school love we started with before I went off to college. It didn’t feel strange to say fiancee because girlfriend just didn’t seem to be the right word for her anymore, she was more than that.
With that said, I did NOT think a proposal was around the next corner. Maybe down the road, over a bridge, or two—through a windy tunnel perhaps! I joked about it with my friends as I packed for this trip, but was sure this week was just about spending time together. Lisa was focused on getting the most out of her time in Ireland, had paused her part-time work at her main campus in eastern Germany. As much as I knew we both felt about our relationship, I figured a proposal was somewhere along the line that year, maybe in the summer, or early fall.
Besides, the proposal thing was on her. She had already called dibs on being the one to do it, which was fine with me. Making decisions? Not my thing. Choosing a ring for her to wear for the rest of her life? Definitely one of my least favorite activities.
I would know, because in my other coat pocket, zippered away as I went through security at Boston Logan, I had a small ring box.
Don’t get too excited, it was small, a simple band. And it wasn’t an engagement ring. I had bought it after frequenting several jewelry stores in the Greater Boston Area (and dragging my best friend along, because I’m bad at making decisions), finally landing on a simple band with a twist of tiny diamonds. Something simple that I could pull out during dinner that wouldn’t scream, “MARRY ME?” but instead, “I’m ready when you are.” It was a silly idea, a pre-proposal ring, but I was excited about it. I kept patting the pocket to make sure it was still there, choosing to keep it on my person instead of my bags. Once I got to Lisa’s apartment, I left it in her room, thinking I would have no use for it over the weekend.
The weekend Lisa had planned was, in a word, adventurous. Lisa is notoriously terrible at surprises, because she loves sharing things with me. Twenty minutes after boarding the bus on Saturday morning, she was already teeming with excitement—“can I just tell you where we’re going now?!”
She outlined her plan to take the bus to the Cliffs of Moher and walk from there to a small BnB town, and explore the area. It sounded relaxing, but I had no idea about any of the places she was talking about. Cliffs? Hiking? Those words were familiar, but I was not prepared for the scale of was to come. It was windy and rainy that day, the mossy cliffs dove into churning ocean. Once we hiked past the crowded areas in the first kilometer, it was just us and the occasional hiker walking across the gray, green, and pale blue landscape.
Around the fifth kilometer I asked, “so how far is this place?” I was jet-lagged, tired from carrying my bag, and there was no civilization in sight.
“It shouldn’t be much longer . . .” she coaxed me onwards. Over those two days, we walked over 24 kilometers. From the entrance to the Cliffs, to Doolin, to our BnB, to a pub, to a cave the next day, and back to town. I often walked slightly behind her, letting her lead the way, and having no idea how far we were going or how long it would take. At some point, all the walking felt like some kind of test, like she was pushing me—us—to the limit.
By the time we finally made it to the BnB, the owner looked at our muddy boots and asked, “did you trek out here?” When we explained that we had walked all the way from the Cliffs, she gasped, “but it’s so windy out, no one should be walking out there right now.” Whoops.
Overall, it was an easy weekend, enjoying the pubs, walking around the town, even going to a nearby cave. She had planned to take the ferry out to the islands, but the wind kept them ashore. At the end, because we are productive travelers after all, we had an hour or so to kill as we waited for the bus back home. The clouds had disappeared, but the wind was still whirling along the shore. It was a test I think I passed, when I encouraged us to walk a little more, back to the Cliffs. I wanted to take a few more picture of the Cliffs, now that the weather had changed, so we walked a little ways up the path we had taken the morning before and off towards the crest of the cliff itself.
I took out my camera and wandered around the vista. We wandered a little, and she was acting strange, fidgety, distracted, looking at me hopelessly, hopefully. At one point she was rustling around in her bag, “something is poking me,” she said. At another point we were watching the waves, and I leaned into her to kiss her, and she gently pushed me away.
I focused on the composition of the images I was taking, eying the emerald ocean (it’s not just a metaphoric cliche, it looks like that). I took pictures of the grass, the rock walls, the pebbly path, and of course, pictures of her. I had been doing this for years, since before we were dating. I have probably a hundred pictures of her yawning while I switched the settings, or her giving me a look that says “are you done yet?” I directed her of where to stand, holding my camera up to my eye.
She stood a few meters from the top of the hill that descended into the waters. From my angle, standing a little beneath her, it was just her and the bright blue sky. I snapped a few photos and frowned. “All I’m getting is you and the sky, can you crouch lower?” I fluttered my hand, as if trying to squash her head from where I was standing. Her face changed, from slightly irritated to calm. She crouched down and I took the picture. I looked approvingly at the image in the LED screen on the back of my camera, and froze, playing back the last seconds in my head—the mischief in her eyes when I told her to crouch, when her hand reached into her pocket.
I looked at her, and at the image, and at her again—on one knee.
My mind went into overdrive. A lot of people may plan this moment that they ask, or are asked. In some ways, a proposal in marriage felt a lot like the experience of coming out. It’s nearly impossible to plan, it is a vulnerable, genuine place you have to put yourself in, and the outcomes are far from certain. You might plan what you’re going to say, what you are going to feel, murmuring the words in the mirror or in the dark after a night of heartsickness. You think of frames of reference—the movies you’ve watched, the stories you’ve read online—but this moment’s uncertainties cannot be researched and prepared for. Even those with the most sound of resolves, that had rehearsed their answers in the bathroom mirror and have made their pros and cons lists, who have been spoiled the surprise, I dare you to find one whose heart kept steady time when they saw this awaited milestone appear, when they realize this is a moment that can never be replicated, that this relationship, this world, regardless of the outcome, is forever changed.
In my case. All I could manage to say was, “oh shit.”
Lisa, having pulled a small box out of her pocket, started to say, “This isn’t the adventure I had planned . . .”
“Oh shit,” I said again, grinning with tears overpowering my eyes. the ocean that once glittered morphed into a blog of white and green, the same ocean we’ve stared at from opposite sides of the world, willing the shores to edge closer to each other, for the water to shrink, for our toes to touch, our eyes to meet, as if we could move continents.
The rest of whatever she had prepared was drowned out by my tears.
After ten minutes or so of me crying in her arms, she got up the nerve to repeat the question, “is that yes?”
I was gasping for air, ugly crying, finally looking past her eyes at the ring she was holding, a small diamond embedded in a twisted band.
“Yes,” I laughed. “Whatever, yes.”
Once I regained my composure, we started making our way back to the bus stop. We popped into the bakery, where we had been hours earlier as girlfriends, and I felt like I glass of champagne, bubbling with the news.
On the bus back, we talked about her planning, how she was afraid I would find the ring she had kept in her pocket, how nervous she had been. The ring wasn’t 100% the right size, so we put it back in our bag. We recounted the events of the weekend, and she mentioned offhandedly, “well if you want to get me a ring, you can, but you don’t have to.”
Back at her apartment that night, she started fielding calls from the few friends that knew about her plan. “We should send your mom a picture!” I said, handing Lisa her phone as I dove into our luggage. My heart beating, I quickly fished the ring box I had brought from the US out of my bag and returned to where Lisa was sitting.
“Ready?” I asked, she had her phone already posed to take the picture. I opened the box.
She looked at the image on her phone, she looked at the box, her brow furrowed—then she looked at me as it dawned on her.