My girlfriend pulled her car into an open parking spot and I pulled in beside her. I turned off the Christmas Carols that had been playing on a local radio station, turned my car off, and stepped outside and into her car. We had been visiting with my brother and she needed to get back to Alexandria, Virginia, and I had to get back home, where I lived with my parents, to get ready for work on Monday.
The outside of the diner, dusty from the tractor trailer trucks in the parking lot and the traffic that raced by on the highway, looked busy for a Sunday afternoon. The glass door with the name of the diner spelled out in big red letters kept opening and shutting with people entering and leaving the restaurant. I thought of the diner’s hot roast beef sandwich splashed with gravy and crusty french fries that I used to order when my parents would take us out to eat as kids. I thought too of the little tabletop jukeboxes that my brothers and I used to fight over. I wondered if the diner still had them or if I was thinking of another diner.
I hadn’t actually eaten in the restaurant in years and it wasn’t the best spot to kiss and say goodbye, it lacked an air of romance, but we wouldn’t be in the car long. We just needed to plan when I would be visiting her next and to say goodbye. We reached out and held hands and we both looked down. The goodbyes were always the hardest, we never wanted our weekends together to end.
In fact, we had been doing the long-distance dating thing for much of the year. She was college friends with my middle brother and we had met when she called my parents asking about him deploying to Kuwait at the height of the Persian Gulf War. We had started slow with a few letters and calls back and forth and before you knew it we had become close friends. A few months more and love blossomed between the two of us.
But it still didn’t make saying goodbye any easier.
Let’s make this permanent
The minutes ticked off. Finally, I broke the ice. I thanked her for driving to my parent’s house to visit and asked about her week. She told me about the creative lesson plans she had planned for her classroom of autistic students and I told her about the stories I was working on for the local newspaper. We chatted about the weekend and the movie that we had gone to see on Saturday.
I told her that I didn’t want to let her go. In my head, I scolded myself for not moving quicker to ask her to marry me. Unbeknownst to her, I had put a deposit on an engagement ring and was paying it off bit-by-bit each week. The cashier behind the counter of the local jewelry store the previous Friday had asked if I wanted to pay off the entire amount. I considered what the woman had said and the amount for a brief second. I even looked closely at the ring, if it might somehow speak or give me an answer, but told her that I wasn’t ready yet. I would wait until my next pay day. Sitting with my girlfriend now outside the diner, feeling this ripping pain inside, I regretted my decision. It wouldn’t have been the perfect spot to propose . . . okay, it probably would’ve been the worst possible place in the world, but, on the plus side, we would be starting the rest of our lives together.
No, no, I told myself, my plan was a good one. I would wait a few weeks after Christmas and the New Year and propose then. I would ask her dad for his permission and I would do it right. I would make it memorable.
Yea, that’s right, that’s the ticket
My girlfriend and I had briefly chatted about other couples getting engaged. We would window shop at the jewelry store at the Northern Virginia mall we liked to visit and, of course, she would ooh and ahh at the engagement rings. In addition, it seemed like every other weekend, we were escorting each other to a college friend’s wedding. Of course, marriage came up on those trips. We had talked about what it would be like to create a life together, but we had kept the conversation at a high level. We didn’t want to scare the other one off.
Sitting in the diner parking lot now, however, my girlfriend must have been reading my thoughts. She saw the look of regret on my face and saw me digging in my pocket. Of course, I was digging for my keys. She took it that I was reaching for a ring. “You’re proposing? Here? Now?,” she said and started crying.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” I said. I wanted it to be clear. My love for her was growing, but I wasn’t proposing. “I’m just getting my keys out. I’m not ready,” I lied.
“I can do better than propose in front of a diner.”
“Okay, okay,” she said wiping a tear away from her eyes.
All I remember is thinking, “What have I done now? I’ve messed up my surprise!”
This time for real
A few minutes later, we kissed goodbye and went on our way. All these years later, close to thirty to be exact, and I still laugh at the memory. Sitting outside of a dusty diner, my wife guessed what was coming. Yes, a few weeks later, I took her out to a nice restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. and went back to her apartment. I got down on my hands and knees and proposed for real this time.
And this time, she said yes. And yes, we’re still together.
Finding love. A few more related stories:
—Learning new things during Covid-19
—In the middle of a pandemic: Grateful for the little things
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