My inner brakes screech and my eyes bug out. What did he just say?
Michael continues, completely unaware that I’m beginning to panic. He is as somber as the guy on the commercials about erectile dysfunction.
“I’ve already spoken to your parents, and they’ve given me their full approval.” Michael reaches into his pocket and pulls out a box and sets it on the table.
I begin to choke. No, really, I lose all breath and cannot get it back. Michael’s loving expression turns into fear as he realizes that my gagging is not stopping. He stands up and pounds on my back. I’ve heard that pounding on the back is not really what you’re supposed to do when someone is choking, but it seems to knock some sense into me and I heave a breath that finally works.
“Are you all right?” Michael stands beside me and grabs my water glass. He looks so concerned; I want to cry.
I take a sip of water and concentrate on breathing.
Michael returns to his seat and tentatively takes my hands again.
“We’ll have quite a story to tell our children,” he attempts to joke, but it hangs in the air, flat.
“What do you say, Sparrow? Will you marry me?”
He has guts; I’ll give him that. Apparently, I was wrong about the patience.
He opens the ring box, and I stare at the gorgeous solitaire. I open my mouth to speak, but nothing comes out. I’m in shock.
A scene flashes through my head of me at eighty, mouth still hanging open and the nurse at the nursing home talking about me like I’m not there— “She hasn’t spoken for over sixty years!”
Going silent would certainly help keep me out of trouble. I wonder if my brain would keep functioning fully, though, if I went that long without speaking … that would be really hard.
After we sit there, looking at each other for an eternity, Michael finally says, “I’ve freaked you out, haven’t I.”
Uh yeah, I think. But the words still don’t come out. I also think, What the hell? But my mama taught me to not think things like that. So I’m conflicted, you see.
“Say something, Ro. Anything,” Michael urges.
I take another drink of water and finally put my head in my hands. Michael is saying something, but I’m not even hearing him. I just want to go home. This day needs to be done. It’s too much.
He clutches my arms and I lift my eyes to meet his.
“Michael…” I croak.
“Sparrow, just think about it…”
“Michael, what? I’m eighteen!” I shake my head at him.
“You’ll be nineteen before too long. Both our parents were married at nineteen. Look how they’ve made it. My parents only dated for six weeks and they just knew. I feel that way about you … we just fit.” His voice fades at the end.
He looks at me and wills me to say something.
“I did not see this coming, Michael. I don’t even know what to say. I’m going to NYU in a few weeks. I want to be able to concentrate on school and…”
“You can still do all of that. We’d just be engaged while you do that. Maybe get married in the summer? You’ll be going on twenty by then. And you could transfer to Stanford or Berkeley next year…” He gives his most charming smile, the one that usually wins me over.
“Michael,” I say sadly. “If I wanted to go to Stanford or Berkeley, I would have. I don’t want to go to New York thinking about how soon I can get out of there.” I cannot believe he is doing this right now. “Four months. We’ve dated four months. That’s not enough time to know. Besides, you knew about New York before we started dating.”
“It is for me.”
I try to keep from glaring at him. “What is for you?”
“Four months is enough time for me to know.”
“I like how we are now. We have fun. It’s good. Simple. Let’s just keep it like this,” I plead.
“Why won’t you tell me you love me?” He asks.
“You know how I feel about that.”
It’s not something I can say lightly, not with boyfriends anyway. I don’t plan to tell a guy I love him until I’m sure.
“Do you love me?”
“Michael, please. You know I love you. You’re wonderful, and I care about you so much.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it. Do you love me?”
I take a deep breath and can’t look at him. “I love you, but … I’m not sure I’m in love with you.”
That stuns him.
“I know you haven’t said it back, but I thought you were feeling it,” he whispers.
He puts the box back in his pocket, loosens his tie and looks out the window for a long time. When the waitress comes around, Michael pays the bill and tosses me a peppermint.
I feel terrible for hurting him. I try to think of a way to make the mood lighter, but it’s just not happening.
Finally, he looks at me and tries to give me a reassuring smile. “I can wait. We’re going to be all right, aren’t we? You don’t want to marry me … yet. But someday?”
“I … don’t know.” I answer.
But inside I’m afraid I really do know. And even though I’m mortified with the direction my thoughts have taken me, I am almost fully certain that I would have said the exact same thing even if I hadn’t met Ian Sterling. But since I did meet him, it is suddenly as clear as that massive sign down the street from LAX airport that used to say, “LIVE LIVE NUDE NUDES!” There was no questioning what was inside; you knew exactly what you were getting if you went in the building by the sign with those humongous letters.
I stare at Michael and see the life he has planned for us. We would marry young, work in my dad’s church together, be financially stable, have two kids by the time I’m twenty-four and be our parents made over. I know it’s what my parents want for me too, and I wish like everything that I could want it. I just … don’t. And as much as I wish I could change my mind, the writing is on the sign.
I cannot marry Michael.
The next few days are rough. My parents seem disappointed that I turned Michael down, but they don’t push it much. Still, I’m frustrated with them for even considering it as an option right now. They don’t understand why I can’t be sure about Michael. He’s “perfect for me” and it’s obvious to them that we’re supposed to be together. They feel it’s only a matter of time before I see it and that if I can’t say yes to him now, I shouldn’t make any decisions at all. In other words, leave him hanging.