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One-Ring Circus
How many hoops will she have to jump through to get the proposal of her fantasies?

By Rachel Beckman
Sunday, September 7, 2008

On Valentine's Day, I couldn't get in touch with my boyfriend for four hours. My calls went straight to his voice mail. Very suspicious. He finally called at 4 p.m. on that Feb. 14, 2007, to tell me that he had left work early and canceled our dinner reservations. He asked me to be home at 7 p.m. -- no sooner, no later.

I spun around and peeked my head over my cubicle wall.

"We're on high alert," I said in a stage whisper to my co-worker Cory. "I think this is it! Eli is going to propose!"

I jumped out of my chair and went from cubicle to cubicle, rounding up Cory and the rest of my Engagement Watch Team, a loose network of work friends who had helped me endure the interminable wait for Eli's marriage proposal. We gathered around the printer, and I presented the evidence: the disappearance from his office, how he hadn't answered his cellphone for four hours, the romantic holiday.

"Well, he could just be cheating on you," someone suggested.

"Great, thanks, guys," I said. "Very comforting."

Two agonizing hours of clock-watching later, the Team wished me luck as I bolted out of the office. At 7 p.m., I opened the door to the Cleveland Park apartment that Eli and I had shared for about three years. A home-cooked candlelit dinner for two greeted me.

Eli had adorned the table with a vase of red carnations, my least-favorite flower. I love pink tulips, then pink roses, then red roses and then about 75 flowers down the list; at the very bottom are red carnations. I've told Eli this before -- maybe a dozen times -- but he always gets mixed up and thinks that red carnations are my favorite.

He popped his head out of the kitchen and smiled at me.

"Surprise!" he said.

"Wow, what did you do?" I went over and gave him a kiss. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No," he said. "You just relax. The first course will be ready in a minute."

My heart was racing, and I couldn't stop smiling. I went into the bedroom and changed into a brand-new black party dress and high heels. I brushed my hair and spritzed on some French perfume. I slicked on a coat of the deep red lipstick that I hadn't worn in three months, since we went to dinner at one of those restaurants where they refold your napkin if you leave the table.

Eli's five-course meal was a delicious departure from our usual repertoire of George Foreman-grilled fare. He served a shrimp appetizer, Caprese salad, and a chicken and pasta dish for the main course. (I later found out that this was the exact meal all his friends served to their girlfriends that Valentine's Day, the recipes e-mailed by one guy who was trying to impress a woman he'd met on MySpace.)

I carefully checked every dish of food for a diamond ring so that I didn't accidentally swallow it and become one of those proposals-gone-bad stories in the bridal magazines.

I don't remember what we talked about, and I don't know how I even got the food down, because my stomach was clenched with excitement. Finally, Eli went into the kitchen to bring out dessert. The possibilities whirled through my mind. I imagined recounting an aww-inspiring proposal to my Engagement Watch Team the next day, flashing my new left-hand bling. Would it be chocolate cake with "Will You Marry Me?" written in frosting with a ring in the center? Or just the ring on a plate with a frosting heart around it? Ooh, maybe he'll just burst through the door, drop to his knee and present a little black box?

He emerged from the kitchen carrying two dishes of berries. I pushed the fruit around looking for a ring. Nothing.

"Presents?" I suggested.

We went to our hiding spots to get our gifts for each other. I gave him a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans and a gift certificate to our favorite coffee shop. He handed me a white envelope with "I love you" written on the outside. And inside? A gift certificate for a hot stone massage at a Dupont Circle spa.

I stared at the paper, reading and rereading the certificate. I looked up at Eli and searched his face for an upcoming ta-da moment. I found none. He looked back at me with an expression of concern and confusion, like a puppy cocking his head to the side.

Then I burst into tears.

My fascination with all things bridal started around 1987, when I was 5. That's when I dressed up as a bride to go to kindergarten one day in my home town of Portland, Ore. I wore a dress, my grandma's costume jewelry, and dryer sheets on my head as a "veil." It wasn't Halloween.

Around that time, I started to pump my parents for information about their engagement. It wasn't that inspiring: It was a winter night, and my dad was so nervous that he threw up. But my mom confided that a man had proposed to her once before she met my dad, when she was in her early 20s. For some reason, I always pictured Mom shaking her head "no" and the guy wiping away his tears and racing off on a motorcycle. At sunset.

I am a girlie-girl to the core. I like the stereotypical feminine accoutrements -- the pinker, the sparklier, the lacier, the better. Is this nature or nurture? If I hadn't subscribed to Seventeen, Teen, YM, People and Sassy by the time I was in middle school, would I still be into froufrou dresses and eyebrow-grooming techniques? Did my parents have too-rigid gender roles? Does my DNA dictate my appreciation for a good Faith Hill power ballad?

The feminist side of me begrudgingly coexists with the inner Prissy Prissy Princess. I studied feminism toward the end of college, when, like any good 20-something student, I started rebelling against everything that had made me who I was. This resulted in a very brief Goth period, when I wore a lot of black eyeliner and dyed my hair "plum." I traded in my Vogue magazine for subscriptions to Bust and Bitch magazines, and I volunteered for feminist nonprofit organizations. I wrote nasty letters to people in the fashion industry about how they perpetuated unhealthy body ideals.

Around this time, I hypocritically (or fittingly?) got hooked on a TLC show called "Perfect Proposal." Over two seasons, host Nikki Boyer guided 119 men and one woman through planning elaborate proposals. The show was canceled in 2005, and nobody picked it up, partly because it was so expensive to produce, Boyer says.

"No matter how many episodes I did and how many planes I had to get on, the moment when the guy got down on his knee, it never lost its emotional effect on me," she says. "I always caught my breath and had my hand over my heart. It always had that wow factor."

It had the same effect on me. There was the scavenger hunt through New York City, the proposal at center stage during a concert and the one on a cruise ship. My favorite episode starred an animator who made a short film for his girlfriend. The main character (a cartoon version of himself) proposed at the end. Sure, there were some episodes that crossed the line, particularly the one where a guy proposed on the JumboTron in Times Square. But the more I watched "Perfect Proposal," the more I imagined my own elaborate marriage proposal. And I watched it a lot.

By then, Eli and I were living together. I was careful to flip the channel whenever he came into the room, rightfully presuming that the show would terrify him.

We'd met during our junior year at Syracuse University. I could tell that he liked me when he charged me only $2 admission instead of the standard $3 to drink beer with 70 other people on his sagging third-floor balcony. He knew that I liked him because I programmed myself into his cellphone as "Rach."

He called me a few days after that kegger, and at the end of his message, he said, "Take care," and I thought it was so cute that I made all of my roommates listen to it. He kissed me for the first time a few days later. Ever since, all of my proposal fantasies have starred Eli.

I started to feel ready to get engaged when I was about 23, though I didn't say so out loud for more than a year. I worried that I was too young. I thought about my grandma, who had dropped out of college in the early 1950s to get married and have babies at age 21. Modern, educated women just don't do that anymore, I reminded myself. We graduate from college, get our careers on track and then go about the business of marriage and procreation. Late 20s at the earliest. But my heart didn't seem to be in sync with my head.

Eli and I were already hinting to each other that our relationship was headed for marriage and kids. On his poker nights, I faux-admonished him, "Don't gamble away Eli Jr.'s college fund!" We wore silver rings on our right hands to signify our commitment to each other. One night, he suggested that a sentimental George Strait song on the radio would make a good first dance at our wedding reception.

At this point, we had been playing house for nearly three years. When college ended, he got a job in Washington, and I came along. I don't even remember having a conversation about the pros and cons of moving in together; it was just the obvious step.

Even though we talked about everything else in our lives, I felt like engagement was the one off-limits topic. I didn't want to pressure him or spoil the big, elaborate surprise proposal (that he hadn't even started planning). I was caught in a Catch-22. I could be hands-off and leave it all to him (feminist Rachel says no), or I could be hands-on and get what I want (princess Rachel says no).

I enlisted my friend Kiley to coach me through this dilemma. She's 30 and has been married for five years. Kiley has a master's degree in sociology with a specialty in women's studies. But, like me, she still veers toward the prissy. The first time I looked at her wedding album, I turned to her husband, Matt, in awe and said, "You let her have a pink wedding?" Everything was pink -- the bridesmaid dresses, the invitations, the china. It was glorious.

During long afternoon talks on her couch, Kiley told me about the year she bawled every time that she heard about one of her friends getting engaged because she was so frustrated waiting for Matt to ask. She went so far as to circle diamond rings in Tiffany catalogues and place them around the house. She insisted that I do the same and sighed with disapproval when I told her that it seemed too blunt.

"Well, how is he supposed to know what you want?" she snapped.

At work, I kvetched to Cory, who sat just one cubicle away from me, about Eli's cluelessness; he listened like a champ, though it was hard to ignore the bored look in his eyes. Out of pity for Cory, I spread the misery to three or four other members of my department. After months of chatter and numerous proposal false alarms, I dubbed them the Engagement Watch Team. Eli had no idea that I'd enlisted a support group to help me scrutinize his every move.

After a year of waiting and with that Valentine's Day fast approaching, my impatience won out over my desire to keep the proposal "pure." So, I brought up the subject one night while we were sprawled on the living room couch. Eli, who works one floor up from me, was eating a bowl of cereal like he does every night at 10, and we were in the middle of watching an episode of "The Office" on DVD. I paused the show.

"I need to talk to you about something."

Eli froze mid-chew and stopped breathing.

"No, I don't want to break up."

"Oh, thank God." He exhaled and swallowed his cereal. "What's up?"

"I feel funny bringing this up, and I don't want to freak you out, but lately I've been feeling ready to get, um, engaged? Is that something you've been thinking about at all?"

"To be honest, not yet, really," he said. "But that's something I want, you know, down the road."

"Like, how far down the road?" I asked.

"I was thinking more like two years?"

"Oh." I twirled my ponytail around in my fingers and looked down at my lap.

"But that's negotiable, if it's something that's important to you," he said.

"Well, we know this is it, you know?" I said. "So, it seems silly to wait. I feel ready." I paused. "I feel like I'm not supposed to talk to you about this, like I'm ruining something."

"No, you haven't ruined anything. It's better that we talk about it."

"So, can we go sooner than 26?" I asked.

"Sure," he said.

"How much sooner? This year?"

He considered it for a moment.

"Yeah, how about this summer," he said. "That sounds doable."

I squealed with excitement and threw my arms around him. He told me not to tell anyone, so I only told my mom, my sister, the Engagement Watch Team and a dozen of my girlfriends.

I know he said summer. But when Eli started acting strangely on Valentine's Day, I was suddenly seized by the hope that he was about to deliver a ring and the proposal of my dreams. On Feb. 15, when I had to walk into work with a bare left ring finger and see the looks of pity on the faces of my Team, I regretted being such a big mouth on Valentine's Day. I would have rather wallowed alone.

I knew Eli was intimidated by the ring aspect of the proposal, so I thought it would help if I had a specific idea of what I wanted. One day on my lunch break, I scoped out the goods at a jewelry store near my office. I had a ball trying on different rings, learning the four c's (cut, color, clarity and carat weight) and figuring out what I liked. The saleswoman at the shop gave me two business cards -- one for me and one for Eli. The jeweler would design the ring with my help. I was supposed to send Eli in to see her and buy it.

"And the surprise will be the cut and the size!" she said.

I wasn't quite as chipper about the situation, which felt a lot like me buying the ring and sending Eli an invoice. It was another Catch-22: To get what I wanted, I had to tell Eli and spoil the surprise. To be surprised, I risked getting a ring that wasn't my style.

I jotted down my ring size and sketched out the kind of stones I liked. That night at home, I gave Eli a handout about diamond clarity, the jeweler's business card and my sketches. It felt icky.

Two weeks later, I noticed that the papers hadn't moved from their spot on the desk. I asked Eli how "the ring stuff" was going, and he told me that his aunt had given him a ring that belonged to his grandmother.

"What does it look like?" I asked.

Eli started to answer, and I cut him off. "No, don't tell me."

We stared at each other in silence. I broke first.

"Is it white gold or yellow gold?" I asked.

"I can just show you," he said, gesturing toward the next room.

"No, no, don't do that. Is it a solitaire?"

"What does that mean?"

"It means there's one central stone," I said.

"Yes, it's a solitaire, then."

"And is it white gold?" Eli stared back with a blank look on his face. "The band, is it yellow or white?"

"I don't remember."

"Okay, that's fine, I shouldn't even be asking. Let's not talk about it anymore."

I tried to hang tight until June 21, the start of summer, but the weeks were passing so slowly. As soon as the weather warmed up in May, I got restless and reopened negotiations.

We went to dinner at Heritage India in Dupont Circle one Saturday night, and I asked him if we could "speed up the process."

"I'll need to stick to our timeline to get things in order," he said.

I figured out that "get things in order" meant he was stuck on the ring. He had the ring from Aunt Ellen, which he had no idea if I'd like or not. But he felt overwhelmed by the thought of going to a jewelry store by himself and getting it reset.

Dessert came, and I secretly hoped that the ring would be perched atop the shahi tukra. It would be so perfect! After all the back and forth, all the confusion, it would be so wonderful for him to just do it. I stayed quiet because I had promised not to expect anything before summer. But I wanted to say, "Man up, and drop to your knee already!"

"Well, what if we went with Ellen's ring?" I asked. "Would that speed things up?"

"That would speed things up," he said. "But is that what you want?"

I thought about it, and, though I feared what kind of ring would be in that velvet box (a quarter-carat, heart-shaped diamond set in yellow gold? Ick!), I said yes. Go with Ellen's ring. Let's seal the deal.

Eli looked tense.

"Is this stressing you out?" I asked.

"It feels," he said, "like a 500-pound brick on my shoulders."

Once again, I put my Engagement Watch Team on red alert, on Friday, June 15. Eli and I had planned a weekend getaway to Virginia Beach. I figured, with the vacation plus the negotiations at the Indian restaurant, I had a shot.

I called Kiley. She sounded even more militant than before.

"Call me the second you get that ring on your finger," she declared.

That night, I got home from work around 6:30. As I started down the hallway to Apartment 122, I noticed a trail of red flowers leading to our door. My stomach flip-flopped, and I ran/walked/skipped down the hallway so fast that I barely even noticed that the flowers were red carnations. I walked in our apartment to find a candlelit dinner for two, complete with little menus detailing the impending four-course meal and a plastic juice jug filled with a dozen red roses. I gave Eli a hug and a kiss and noticed he was a little sweaty.

He asked me to sit down at the table, and he poured me a glass of wine.

"I was going to do this during dessert, but I couldn't wait," he said. Then, he got down on one knee and proposed.

I said, "Yes, of course!" Hugs, kisses, presentation of the ring that was rattling in its box because Eli was so nervous.

I spent the rest of the night on the phone with friends and family. I even made Eli go with me to our apartment's lobby so the security guard could take our picture. The photo is hilarious. I'm squeezing him around his waist and wearing a white University of Oregon hooded sweat shirt (no black lace or red lipstick in sight). He's wearing his Cross Canadian Ragweed hat and has his arm around my shoulder. We both look giddy.

His aunt's ring turned out to be a diamond solitaire set on a yellow gold band that was about three sizes too big for me. I loved it anyway. I wore it for a week until I reluctantly gave it to the jeweler to be reset.

So, that's our proposal story. It's not tidy or easily told at dinner parties, but we both did the best we could. My favorite part was his wording, which was completely wrong and yet exactly right:

"I love you so much," he said. "And I was just wondering if maybe you might want to marry me?"

Rachel Beckman works for The Post's Style section. Her wedding was in May. She can be reached at beckmanr@washpost.com.

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