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The Rules Of Engagement

By Carla Fielder
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page W24

Unpack your emotional baggage, learn to compromise, prepare to love unconditionally. No holding hands, ring-shopping or getting giddy on romance. And don't even think about sex!

He was supposed to have long dreadlocks and be accustomed to linen and sandals. He'd take photographs like Gordon Parks and be a lover of Langston Hughes. Instead, his haircut resembles that of a soldier fresh from boot camp. He's suited up in black shadow stripes, complete with white shirt and tie, and management consulting gets him all excited.


He's my prospective mate, Stephen. And this April evening in 2003, we're sitting in premarital enrichment class at From the Heart Church in Temple Hills.

I am terrified. I never take my eyes off the Rev. John Cherry II. Because if I look away while he's teaching, the Holy Spirit might blow my cover. The Spirit would say that the girl seated strategically behind the woman with the big hair has no clue about what she's getting herself into. And He'd be right.

I can see that Rev. Cherry is irritated. No smile accompanies his hand gestures. He doesn't open with a funny anecdote of life with Mrs. Cherry. Tonight, he begins class with a line from I Corinthians 7:1. "It is good for a man not to touch a woman . . ." He says he's spent the last six weeks explaining to adults what does and does not constitute a date. "How can you hear the word of God clearly, if you can't get your flesh out of the way?"

He says that if the class doesn't get past this issue of dating, he will start over from lesson one.

Stephen and I are annoyed. We certainly don't want to start over from scratch. We survey the room like innocent siblings praying that the guilty one comes forth so everybody won't have to get the whipping. There are 122 of us in this modest auxiliary sanctuary. Ironically, it is the room in which small weddings are performed. There is plenty of space, however, for 61 couples to spread out. Stephen and I are sitting on the left -- the bride's side.

Rev. Cherry says that if the class has a problem with the rules, we can go elsewhere. "I'm not the only person who marries in town," he says.

"And the reason I keep getting calls on dating," he continues, "is because you've got a fire that you can't control. Who started it? I didn't start it. I'm trying to help you put it out. Why can't you get your flesh out of the way? Because you've touched somebody that you weren't supposed to touch. And now love and lust have gotten all mixed up."

Stephen raises a brow and nods in agreement. I steal a glance at him. Nobody speaks.

This isn't what I expected. When we agreed to begin premarital counseling, I imagined two or three feel-good-about-the-Good News sessions with the pastor, during which he'd deliver the standard lecture on the benefits of good communication and the divvying of household chores. If he'd heard a word from the Lord about how many children we should have, I would've appreciated him passing that along, too.

Don't get me wrong. In a culture that created the drive-thru Las Vegas wedding, Stephen and I are headed in the opposite direction. Our common Christian faith is a big part of the attraction. We really do view marriage as a sacred covenant with God, and we know better than to have sex before marriage.

But premarital counseling in Rev. Cherry's class not only means no dating, but also eight months of no kissing, no touching, no heavy breathing, no one-on-one alone time, longing looks or 1-800-FLOWERS, no browsing bridal magazines, no shopping for rings, no proposals, no wedding planning, no absences, no tardies. We are to discuss class topics over the phone, unless otherwise instructed.

Period. End of discussion.

In October 2002, Stephen had offered to buy me a raspberry tea at Starbucks. We sat near the window on a cloudy Thursday afternoon and talked for two hours. After 30 minutes, I couldn't believe I was still there spilling my guts to man I didn't even know. Initially, it was his eyebrows that drew me in and compelled me to accept his invitation to sit down. He looked like my father (and a little like the Count on "Sesame Street"), and I liked that he clearly expected me to say yes and take a seat. I was nervous. I remember picking at my fingernails and thinking that I should have stopped by the ladies' room before I left the office for a break. Had the wind been kind to my hair? He told me that he was a transplant from Detroit, and immediately the black shadow-stripe suit he was wearing made sense to me. But I didn't hold it against him. He had deep brown eyes and a contagious smile.

We didn't inquire about significant others. All I wanted to know was if he attended a church and if he was a member. He was. In fact, church membership was his first priority after settling in the city. I didn't have to ask the next question.

"That's my ace," he volunteered, referring to Jesus. "I can't do anything without Him."

Stephen's reference to Jesus gave me a grin that I'd wear all day, because, for 12 years now, my faith has been the most important thing in my life. And, finally, it seemed, I'd met a man who believed as I did.

Stephen must have felt something, too, because right in the middle of our conversation, he confidently touched my hand and asked to see me again. Later I would learn that it wasn't love at first sight for him. "You seemed like good people," he said. "But at that point in time, I had no intention of having a relationship with anybody. I was focused on my business."

I, on the other hand, immediately called my mother. My best friend. My cousin. Any co-worker who would listen. And canceled several dates I had lined up. Something about being really busy for the next couple of months.

We got in a few dates, then Stephen left on a two-month business trip. I wondered if he'd keep in touch. Then he e-mailed me with his itinerary.

I was careful to keep my words platonic. I told him where I'd be and at what time I'd be there. He called me from Memphis and Milwaukee and Seattle and Sioux City, and we covered a lot of ground. I learned that his parents had split up before he was 2. After that, he didn't see his father much.

Our stories were similar. My father and mother were both 17 when she became pregnant. While I was growing up, my father was kind of like the uncle you saw on the weekends. My mother says he was a smooth talker and mighty good-looking. He's pretty even-tempered and friendly, and I am, too. But my mother, a fiercely independent woman, didn't have the patience for his immaturity.

Stephen and I continued dating when he came home in mid-December 2002. I learned later that he was secretly putting me through a battery of tests. On one date, he took me to ESPN Zone at Baltimore's Inner Harbor. He told me a year later that he needed to see if I could let my hair down and break a sweat. I guess he got his answer, because after I beat him at the free-throw line, he told me that he wanted to court me. "Okay," I said, not fully understanding. I'd heard my grandmother use that word as she shooed boys off the porch when I was 13. "Carla's too young to court," she'd say. I asked Stephen for clarification, and he replied that it meant dating with a purpose. And that purpose was marriage.

Stephen didn't know that the idea of marriage was a scary thing for me. In reality, I'm haunted by the fear of some cosmic force that turns once-loving, self-sacrificing spouses into mortal enemies. But in my dreams, my wedding day finds me on my father's arm, draped in a designer gown with a bateau neckline and a 10-foot train. After the wedding, (insert groom here) whisks me off to some exotic hideaway where we make love all day and night, resurfacing only for sips of sparkling white grape juice (neither of us drinks) and nibbles of the occasional chocolate-covered strawberry. After a month, we fly back to our three-story brick home, and, exactly 33 months later, I give birth to a beautiful, healthy baby with (insert groom here)'s soulful eyes and my rich, caramel-colored skin. Two years later, another baby makes four of us. My family assembled, I live happily ever after with my husband, and our two very well-behaved children in one really big house. Of course, I had no clue how I could make a loving marriage last in real life.

Although we both wanted to get married, we didn't see eye to eye on when to start counseling. Stephen thought that the proposal and the ring should come first. I told him that, at my church, which he had just joined, couples take the class before they make up their minds to marry. He resisted at first, but then finally agreed it would be wise to seek guidance sooner rather than later.

At the first class, Rev. Cherry tells us he won't pull any punches. He has no vested interest in our relationship.

"I'm not going to be living with you,'' he says. "From a personal perspective, I don't have any reason to stop you from getting married or any reason to tell you to go ahead and get married. It doesn't benefit me one way or the other."

He says that one of the reasons premarital counseling is necessary is because love is a like a cloud that doesn't lift until you say "I do." "It's very hard to see objectively when you love somebody. It's good to have somebody who's not emotionally involved look at the facts."

His interest is to help us make sure that we get God's best. "These classes are going to be hard-hitting," he says. "Some of them are going to be tough . . . If God gives it to me, I'm going to give it to you."

Stephen and I are glad that Rev. Cherry, who is the assistant pastor, is teaching the class. He is one of us -- in his early thirties and cool people. He is also honest about himself and unafraid to share his own experiences. He's been married for nine years, has three kids and has taken this class himself -- from his father, Pastor John Cherry.

"He didn't waste time explaining to the couples why they couldn't date," Rev. Cherry tells us of his father.

Later, he launches into the three principles of success in marriage, the first of which is unconditional love.

"When you were born, Momma stroked your hair because she loved you, gave you a bottle because she loved you, changed you, and, when you cried, she responded to your cry because she loved you. You grew up thinking that love is all of those things that you get."

It occurs to me, while he's talking, that my blueprint for marriage doesn't include service. I have imagined all of the perks. Someone to make love to me. Someone to talk to me. Someone to hang out with me. Someone to make the big bucks and put me in my big house. Someone to move the big, heavy stuff, take out the garbage, kill the bugs, fight for my honor, hold my purse while I shop, and tell me that I've never looked thinner. But I haven't dwelled on my responsibilities.

Rev. Cherry says that I will have to love Stephen through not only misunderstandings, disappointments and bad attitudes, but possibly through cancer, layoffs, miscarriages and impotence, too. We make vows to God that we will take care of an imperfect person for life. The focus should not be on self, he says.

Principle Two: Do not be anxious.

Outside of salvation, marriage is the single greatest decision we will ever make, Rev. Cherry says. We will be judged and our lives will be measured by this relationship.

"Bill and Hillary," he says, illustrating the impact the choice of a mate will have on the rest of our lives.

The last principle is purpose. Why are we getting married? Anything without a purpose will fall apart, he says.

Now I think I'm really in trouble. I can't articulate why I want to get married. I can take care of myself. I have a good job. Good friends. Oh God, maybe I didn't think this one through. The best I can do is say that I love him.

I love that he wasn't afraid to tell me that he loved me, or concerned that I hadn't said it first. I love that he is an old-fashioned man who flew to meet my mother and share his intentions. I love that they excused me from the room and, to this day, I have no idea what they said. All I know is that she loves him, too. I love that he sees the Bible as I do -- words to live by, not bedtime fables. He reminds me daily of my beauty and worth but never asks me to compromise myself. I believe that he is 100 percent turned on, but he has never, and I mean never, tried to convince me that God would be cool with a little sneak preview. Stephen loves me in spite of all of my mistakes. He forces me to grow, and the closer I get to him, the more I am exposed. Rev. Cherry says in marriage you have to allow yourself to be so close to another person that that other person can destroy your life.

I love him and I'm willing to risk it. Is that enough?

It's been a month, and so far I've had a pretty good grasp of the issues we've discussed in class. But the episode tonight, appropriately dubbed "The Trashmasher," has got my number. The trash- masher is the place where people store their past hurts, bitterness and disappointments. This is where I am undone.

I remember watching TV with Stephen one Sunday evening in his living room. His phone rang. He answered and, after a few minutes, he walked into another room. By the time he got off the phone, I was thoroughly annoyed. He asked me what was wrong, and I said, "Nothing." Translation: I was trying to decide if I wanted to talk about it then or make him ask me over and over again until I had no choice but to tell him, loudly. I decided not to talk about it and left. A few days later, I called Stephen and apologized for my attitude.

I didn't understand why I had reacted that way until this particular class. When I saw him walk into the other room that Sunday evening, I had been immediately transported to my childhood home, where my stepfather would rush to the phone, then head for another room. It would be his girlfriend. An hour or so later, he'd be out the door, cologne reeking.

My stepfather's behavior had apparently followed me into this relationship. It wasn't until I was an adult that my mother talked about his unfaithfulness and the choices she had made with men in the past. She said she realized that, in her relationships, she somehow positioned herself as the better catch, subconsciously choosing men who didn't have as good a job or weren't as stable as she was. "I guess I liked that feeling," she said. As we talked, I realized that I had done that as well. Maybe, in my mind, I was making it impossible for any guy to consider leaving.

But with Stephen, at least on paper, I don't hold the title of Better Catch. He'd been accepted at three Ivy League universities but chose to attend the University of Michigan on a full scholarship to earn two bachelor's degrees, in psychology and sociology. By 24, he also had gotten two master's degrees and had gone on to a career consulting for nonprofits. Spiritually, well, he is as grounded as, if not more grounded than, I am, and his character goes without saying. What does he need from me?

I realized all this and called Stephen a few days later and tried to explain my behavior. He understood. And just in case I wanted to know, he said, he had left the room that Sunday evening so that I could hear the TV.

Thanks to the class and a whole lot of prayer, I have been able to forgive my father. I called him up and told him that I want him to walk me down the aisle. He's having a very hard time accepting my forgiveness. He feels too guilty. I don't care. I have his eyes, his eyebrows, his nose, his lips, his disposition. Now I want his arm.

Stephen is reaching out to his father, too. His father called him in 2001. At first, Stephen was hesitant to talk with him. Then, he said, something clicked, and he realized that his father was doing the best that he knew how. "You take people as they are," Stephen said. "I finally wasn't scared about being disappointed anymore. Whatever he could do had to be good enough." Stephen won't hold it against his father that he learned to tie a tie by reading a Cub Scout book.

In counseling, Rev. Cherry tells us not to try to erase our pasts, because they make us who we are. Stephen, for instance, easily adapts to changing circumstances. I now understand that this is because he's one of five children and had to be flexible to survive. I, on the other hand, am an only child. It is far more difficult for me to switch gears. But Stephen believes that there's not good and bad -- there's what he can live with and what he can't. And he realizes that if he can't deal with my difficulty being flexible, I'm not the woman he should marry.

At one point, Rev. Cherry tells us that marriage is mostly a business partnership and only "about 3 percent romance." If we disagree on something, we shouldn't mouth off but rather call a meeting to discuss the problem. His description deflates me a little -- I like the idea of being swept away -- but I also feel relieved. I trust my mind much more than I do my heart.

It's the final class. Of the 61 couples at the beginning, 44 remain, and we've moved to an even smaller room. We give ourselves a hand, and prepare to stand up and announce the decisions we've made. Some couples acknowledge that they need more time. Some want to clean up their finances or finish school before marrying. Some have resolved to be friends and not marry. Most of us don't plan to marry until 2005 -- at least 15 months from this moment. Rev. Cherry says that he will counsel couples as long as it takes if they are determined to be married.

It's our turn, so Stephen and I stand. All I can think about is why I shouldn't have worn jeans tonight. I should have worn a suit, something that says, "I'm mature now and equipped to move forward." Stephen says that we want to get married in the spring of 2005. I nod in agreement. Rev. Cherry says he will let us know much closer to our date when private one-on-one sessions with him will begin. He gives us the okay to begin our wedding planning, which was forbidden until this moment. But I realize that, even though we're settling on a date, Stephen won't formally propose to me until he has bought the ring. And he pays cash for everything, so who knows how long that will take?

Anyway, Rev. Cherry cautions the men to take their time and do it right: "Don't propose in the parking lot. How you treat something is what it becomes.''

After class, we stroll into Bible study hand-in-hand. I feel like I've just finished a workout -- a little bit sore, but satisfied.

I recognize a couple from our class seated behind us at a Tuesday night Bible study. She has a ring on. At second glance, I see that she has two rings on. They're already married?! I look at my finger. It's been two months since that final group class. I've felt engaged ever since Rev. Cherry gave us the thumbs up, but everybody keeps asking about the ring. When am I going to get my ring?

I'm so excited the class is over that I suggest we start shopping for furniture for our future digs. We drive to Storehouse Furniture in Arlington, and I point out a gorgeous chocolate armoire. It's $1,700. A decent price to pay for quality, I think. I've made my decision. I turn to Stephen, who's not signaling for a salesperson.

"When are you planning to buy it?" I ask.

"Not right now," he says.

"Well, I can get it" for us.

"No."

"When will I be able to help?"

"It's not the time."

"You're just like those other people who won't take me seriously because I'm not wearing a ring." And we're off. "I don't understand why I can't contribute to the household I'm going to live in."

In a hurried succession of phrases, I try to explain that it makes perfect sense for me to start paying for things because he needs to save for the ring. He doesn't hear me, mostly because I'm walking behind him and he's got nearly a foot on me. Still I continue on my rant, questioning the legitimacy of our relationship.

Later that night, he prepares my favorite seafood feast. His kindness is heaping hot coals on my head, and I apologize for my earlier impatience. He tells me that he wants to make sure we can live on his salary alone, in case I decide someday that I want to stay home.

I love him, and I'm glad he's not eager to use my money.

It's now a year before our wedding day, April 30, 2005, and I'm betting that he will formally propose. A few days ago, I made an appointment with my magician, Tonya. I specifically asked for light brown highlights in my hair. Stephen likes highlights. I am going to wear his favorite blue dress. A while back, after some prodding, he obliquely volunteered that I would know when the day was because he "would send someone" to get me. But there was no message in a bottle today requesting that I meet him. Just another day. He calls me late in the afternoon. I disguise my disappointment by saying I'm sick. He doesn't suspect a thing.

Then one evening, on my way home from work, I stop at CVS, and the guy in the car next to me in the parking lot is grinning. Inside, he pursues me down the allergy medicine aisle. He wants to know my name. Gertrude, I lie. He says I'm a very attractive woman. I say thank you and make my way down another aisle. He follows. He asks me if he can call me. I say no. I tell him that I am getting married. He says that there's no ring on my finger. I say not yet. He keeps talking, insisting that that means he still has a chance. For a moment, I think: "Maybe you're right. Maybe it does mean that you still have a chance." Then I recall Rev. Cherry's voice urging the women in the class to try to avoid the distraction of diamond rings, wedding dresses and gift registries. I flash my I've-had-enough smile, pay for my drugs and go home.

But it really kills me when one of my closest friends asks me whether Stephen has asked me to marry him yet. She has been there through the entire process. I thought she knew that Stephen had already demonstrated his commitment to me.

Later, about four months later, when I am not so angry, I ask her why she asked that question. She tells me she thought that she had missed the formal proposal and didn't want to be left out. I tell her that I was reacting to months of questions from other people and that I am sorry.

The wedding is now just seven months away, and I'm both nervous and excited about our first private meeting with Rev. Cherry. Thankfully, Rev. Cherry is, as he always is, jovial and down-to-earth. He wants to know how we ended up in the class and what we believe the other's purpose is in our lives. He notes that we didn't seem to be eager to speed through the process, and I tell him that I'm now realizing that eight months is no time at all. He encourages us to stay on track -- holy, as in untouched, and Christ-centered -- and gives us homework for our next session. Rev. Cherry and Stephen share a moment of kinship when they discover that they share a birthday. Oh Lord, I'm thinking, now I'll never win a fight.

In my infinite wisdom, I want to find out what Stephen thinks of the way I dress. Translation: I need a way to tell him that there is one item in his closet I could live without. The diva in me is dealt a crushing blow when Stephen discloses that the pink and red rose pins I have carefully incorporated into my wardrobe are his least favorite of my fashion statements. I counter by revealing my fantasies of burning that black shadow-stripe suit. "You're not in Motown anymore," I want to say, but I don't. It's really quite strange, though; I love how he is when he's in the suit. Very cool and confident, but I hate the suit.

While watching television at Stephen's house, I feel inspired by something on the news to ask him a question. Would he ever donate an organ?

"I would if a friend needed it," he answers.

"Sounds like you've already made up your mind about it," I say. "How can you make a life-threatening decision without discussing it with me?"

I ramble on about the dangers of anesthesia, and my frustration at his disregarding me, his wife. (Most of my inquisitions take place in the context of marriage now.) But I'm not that great at getting him to play my game of what-if. A little voice tells me that my time is up and I should let this one go. I can reserve my argument if it actually comes to pass. I'm showing maturity now. A year and a half ago, I would have run this subject into the ground. These days that little voice asks two very important questions: One, is this a matter of life or death? And, two, do I have to bring this up right now?

Still, I secretly decide that I am going to bring the issue up with Rev. Cherry so that he can tell Stephen directly that, after he's married, he can't just go around giving away vital organs.

As I look back through homework and handouts and notes in my journal, something bec0mes clear to me.

My biggest fear is not the day-to-day of marriage: having to check in with Stephen, considering his opinions and his feelings, talking to him before making major purchases, making sure his mother and his five siblings feel at home, enduring reruns of his favorite stories and corny jokes, cleaning up after him, washing a sink full of dishes after one of his gourmet meals, bearing our children, serving him when I am tired, battling medical emergencies, surviving economic downturns, or forgiving lapses in judgment. It is the possibility that one day, after all of that, he might leave me to fend for myself. Because when I do the math, it adds up like this: Thirty-two years ago, I was perfection. The perfect smile. The perfect disposition. The perfect weight. Beautiful and blameless. Yet, one man -- the first man in my life -- was never there for me. Now, this woman, this stubborn, opinionated, card-carrying member of Weight Watchers with a furry upper lip and chin whiskers, will stand before a man -- a stranger just three years ago -- as he vows never to walk away.

My bag is packed for a day trip to Ocean City, just as Stephen has asked. Ocean City? In November? I don't ask questions. He planned the trip, and I am just happy to have some time together.

At 9:30 a.m., Stephen and I walk down M Street NW, where, I am told, a guy will be waiting to give us a key to his property on the beach. On our way, Stephen suggests that I drop by the Paris Alexander day spa on 18th Street. Earlier in the week I mentioned to him that I wanted to check out prices there. When I see a woman at the front desk, I inquire about spa packages. I look over a brochure she's given me. Before I'm done, Stephen leans in. "We have a little time, why don't you get a manicure or something?"

"Naw, baby, we don't have time for that. We have to get moving to beat traffic."

"We have some time," he says.

The woman behind the desk jumps in. "Carla," she says, like a keeper of secrets, "you have been booked for a day of pampering."

"What? But what about Ocean City?"

"We'll get there," Stephen says.

I grab him and give him the bearest of bearhugs before he leaves. "Oh, baby, thank you!"

After my massage and facial, I am ushered into a quiet waiting area and handed a sealed envelope and disposable camera. "Stephen wants you to take pictures of your day," my spa attendant says. I open the envelope. In it there's a letter from the staff members at the Daily Grill, where we had our first date. They're taking care of lunch today. It will be delivered to the spa. I shake my head. I can't believe he has done all of this.

At about 2:45, I'm on the chaise longue, gingerly turning the pages of Elle magazine with my nails freshly polished, when my cell phone rings. It's Stephen.

"Hey, sweets, I'm stuck in traffic and won't be able to get you. So, my friend Loretta is going to pick you up."

"Who's Loretta?" I don't know any Loretta.

"She's a friend of mine."

"But."

"Just be downstairs at 3:30. She'll be waiting."

Click.

Stuck in traffic? Where was he? I get myself together and rush down the stairs, but no one's at the door waiting. I peer down the street. I see a limo a few feet away. Hey, there's a woman driver. You don't see that too often. I continue to scan the block for this Loretta person.

"Carla?" calls the woman near the limo, who is wearing a cap and chauffeur uniform.

"Yes." I say cautiously. "Loretta?"

"Yes. Stephen has sent for you."

I walk slowly to the limousine and climb in. Loretta looks amused.

"What is going on? Where are we going?"

"Just sit back and relax," she says.

Ten minutes later, Loretta pulls up in front of our Starbucks. She opens the door for me, and I step out. She motions for me to go in. It's almost 4. There's a good crowd. To the left, out of the corner of my eye, I see Stephen -- at the table where we talked for two hours more than two years before. Wearing that suit.

I know what today is now. I begin to sob uncontrollably. He stands up and asks me to come over. He tries to console me. He wipes my tears and tells me it will be all right. I can't stop crying. I know what today is.

Carla Fielder is the Magazine's assistant art director. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.


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