Lady In Red (Or rather, lady in a regrettably old, pilled, black sweater)
The way HE tells the story, I nearly broke his heart. I left him hanging. There Chris was down on what was then a strong appendage, but what is now the bum knee our family calls “Old Betsy,” and all I had to offer was a blank stare and a curt response.
But that isn’t how I remember it at all. What I said that nearly crushed his dreams was, “One day, when the time is right and you ask me properly.” What I meant was, “Why heck did you let me go out looking like this if your intention was to pop the question?”
Seriously. I ask again, “Why?”
But he didn’t get it. Twenty-seven years later, he still doesn’t understand why a girl might want to be dressed up for what has the potential to be one of the most romantic moments of her life. He says it is yet another sign that he loves me just the way I am. I like to think that I am more than I was at that now pivotal night. More attractive. More together. More alluring. Less self-absorbed.
In this journey back in time, it is December 1994. We decide that our Christmas presents to each other will be his and her watches. We are 28. We are not wealthy. These are not Rolexes. We are about to purchase Seikos, and they feel extravagant. We head to Fashion Square across from our condo. The parking garage at this mall collapsed during the Northridge Earthquake earlier that year. Many of the buildings across the street from mine were red-tagged. We were lucky. I was renting at the time of the quake. Several pieces of the IKEA furniture I’d proudly built myself did not stand the force of the temblor, including the cabinet that supported my fish-tank which crashed to the floor ending the lives of my poor goldfish Tuna Turner and Tank-erbell. Maybe the screws and bolts I had leftover actually did have a purpose?
As soon as the shaking stopped, I had the odd presence of mind to change my answering machine message, knowing that family members were likely to call once they woke up on the east coast and heard about this one. It was clear that this earthquake was big enough to make the news. I rolled over in bed and popped an ACDC cassette into my bedside boombox and played You Shook Me All Night Long while recording a quick message about being ok. Then went downstairs to assess the damage. The kitchen was a wreck, the refrigerator stood open with broken condiment bottles and shattered wine glasses and plates on the linoleum floor. The carpet was soaked with fish tank water and my dead pets. There were a few visible cracks in the walls.
The owner foreclosed on the unit and Chris, who’d recently started his own real estate company, realized he could get a great deal on the place where he was already spending a lot of time. So, in an odd turn of events, my boyfriend became my landlord. We’d made a deal when he bought the unit that summer: We’d live together for six months and decide if this relationship was for keeps.
Christmas happened to fall at the six-month mark. Things were going well. We had a future, I figured. I thought he thought so too. But when we were in that jewelry store seizing up the Seikos, I figured it might be worth showing Chris the kind of rings that most intrigued me. But as I began leading him to that part of the store, he turned ashen. He actually looked like he might get sick. I decided maybe I was rushing things. Maybe I needed to give this guy I loved a few more months to come to terms with next steps. I backed off. We bought our watches and left the store.
What I didn’t know is that he already had a ring. He wanted to throw me off the scent. If he looked ashen it was because he thought maybe I was on to his masterplan.
So, the evening before I was heading to North Carolina to spend Christmas with my family, I came home from jogging around Lake Balboa and Chris casually said, “Get ready, I’m taking you out to dinner so we can celebrate our Christmas a little early.”
“Do I have time to shower?” I asked.
“It’s up to you,” he said.
I figured we were just going to one of our regular local haunts, Casa Vega or Pineapple Hill. He thought he was throwing me further off the scent by encouraging me to go out wearing my own sweet scent of sweat.
I pulled on a pair of black leggings and grabbed a pilled long black sweater off the closet shelf. “This will be its last wearing before Goodwill,” I declared as I put it on. I pulled my scrunchie off my pony-tailed hair fluffed it up a bit with the hairdryer and tied it back with a barrette. I might have put on a little mascara. We were just grabbing dinner. No biggie.
When we jumped on the freeway and headed to hippie Topanga, I wasn’t onto him at all. When we pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant I’d long wanted to go to, I still didn’t see what was to come, though I do recall wishing I had dressed a little nicer.
The Inn of the Seventh Ray is buried among Topanga Canyon’s ancient oak trees twinkling with little white lights. The food is farm to table. Not much meat. Too fru-fru for Chris. He chose it because of me. And I’d certainly not expected to find myself here, in this place that seemed so magical when we’d regularly pass it on the way home from the beach. If I’d realized I was going here, I’d be in a dress. With heels. I’d have clean hair. Earrings. Even if I’d not known what was coming.
So, when Chris came back from the restroom, and tears came to his eyes as he spoke about our relationship, I thought it was because I was leaving to spend Christmas without him the next day. And when the conversation turned to something about “I want to spend the rest of my life with you…” I just didn’t get it.
I didn’t know he’d been in the restroom trying to build up his courage. For all I knew he was eating a hidden stash of beef jerky, not fully satisfied by pureed cauliflower or truffle risotto.
That poor man. So, as he held my hand and professed his love and said something about getting married, I thought, “This can’t be happening! I’m not ready. This has to be a rehearsal he isn’t down on his knee. There’s still time for me to change.” And by that I didn’t mean to become less superficial, I mean I wanted to be wearing something sexy. And I said, “Well one day when you ask me properly.”
At which point he said, “Suzanne, this is that day.”
And he walked around the table and got down on young Betsy and opened up the box with the ring and my mind was swirling with the surprise and the disbelief and I guess I hesitated before I said “Yes!”
Of course I said yes. And it was sweet and romantic and the twinkle lights were sparking as everyone around us clapped and it was a moment I’ll never forget.
But twenty-seven years later, I still want a do-over because I had this red dress that would have been perfect for the occasion.
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(As told at Story Salon's Virtual Show on April 28, 2021 where the theme was "I knew I would remember this night.")
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