Popping the Question

Before we have even made it to the hotel, before the plane has even hit the tarmac in Canberra – shit, before the plane has even left the tarmac in Melbourne – I am as hot and scattered as tumbleweed in a gusty summer wind and so nervous that my every move is neurotically short and sharp and jolting, and if I had to pick my animal totem right now I’d have no choice but to pick the meerkat.

Tania has been the polar opposite – cool, relaxed, turning pages in magazines, collecting luggage, strolling about the airport and taxi rank and hotel lobby in a way that reminds me of the gently lapping waters of a sheltered island cove. Rather than having the ability to calm me, her cool allure only intensifies my nerves, my burning concern, because although I hold the humility of the question and the awe of the ring, she holds the power of the naked finger and maybe the horror of the words ‘I’ll pass’, ‘I’d like to start seeing other people’, or simply ‘no’. As we’re unpacking our belongings I’m wondering when I’ll take the plunge. Today? Tonight? Tomorrow? Fucked if I know, and it all seems too hard when it should be so easy because nine years have passed since her best friend Kylee moved from metro Melbourne to my tiny blip-in-the-country home town of Mortlake and Tania came to visit her.

Tania walked into our Year 11 annex turning heads like a Wiccan Princess who’d cast a spell in advance of her entry. Her broad, sexy smile emphasised her quiet confidence and whipped up a pot of crazy inside me. When she left only half an hour later, I was obsessing over the fact that I’d made her laugh – just a little – after several juvenile attempts at humour, but it was the strong desire I felt to run and paw at the windowpane of the door as it shut behind her that eventually put me on a train to Melbourne and led to our first kiss.

We saw each other only semi-regularly after that, perhaps once every six months. In the past I’ve blamed her other boyfriends or distance for how long it took us to start a relationship, but the truth is we just weren’t quite ready for each other. The attraction was therebut I had some mistakes to make on my way to a tad more maturity, and Tania needed to focus on her academic and career goals.

By the time we stumbled back into each other, during Mortlake’s annual Buskers Festival, I was twenty-one and she was twenty; she was studying physiotherapy in Melbourne and I was studying philosophy in the coastal city of Warrnambool; and we’d both just come out of long-term relationships.

We were still a three-and-a-half hour train ride away from each other but I had my dad’s old Commodore and a contempt for cash, and after sitting on a grassy median strip watching a juggling busker, a fire-eating busker and a busker playing a banjo I said, ‘Next Wednesday, when my Austudy comes in, I’m going to drive to Melbourne and take you to a movie.’ She said, ‘Okay’, as simple as that, but the luring intent in her gaze turned me into a spark on a trail of gunpowder that led to that very day when I pulled up outside her house to find her sitting on the porch waiting for me. When I hopped out and said, ‘Hi’, she walked right over and kissed me. There was a white flash, an explosion, the best moment of my life.

For two years we travelled back and forth to be with each other every weekend, and in between we wrote long love letters and called each other several times a week until we finished our degrees and started work. Tania was offered a job as a physio at the Warrnambool Base Hospital while I was a youth support worker. We lived together in a flat above a dive shop (with our house-trained rabbit Joplin)in work/party mode for the next sixteen months and the funny thing is that through it all we always said we weren’t the marrying types. The tradition was outdated and we were too hip and modern and didn’t need a big marriage and a bunch of presents and a minister and all of that jazzy tinselly stuff, because we knew we were in love and that should be enough . . .

But somehow it’s not enough, and I guess it’s because I’ve always had the need to prove myself to Tania – whatever the hell that means – and I don’t think that will ever change. I’ll always be in pursuit of her approval and passionate about her, and the fact that she can still make me nervous gives me a very big kick.

It’s been six months since she moved back to Melbourne to do her PhD, and we went back to having a long-distance relationship. Though spotting each other in the crowd emerging from the train is a recurring, undiminishing joy, I’m just over the long dry wait between our station kisses. While she’s been studying her way to a doctorate on the nights we’re apart, I’ve been sitting in my one-bedroom flat writing slobbery love poems to her, and just recently I’ve even started scenting them with Brut 33 before popping them in the post. It has to stop.

I know I can be a little erratic, a tiny bit obscure, prone to change my mind and make shit up – her dad even calls me a ‘faddist’ – but I don’t want anyone to associate that part of me with how I feel about her and slowly, as the days and weeks and years have passed, I’ve been hassled and harangued by this constant underlying humming – like the noise a fridge makes – that tells me in buzzing mosquito-like fashion that proving she is the one I love is exactly what I want to do. I want to show everyone that she’s not a fad, she’s not something I’ll grow out of or swap for another hobby, and that’s why I spent a month stealthily concocting the perfect ring with a jeweller and that’s why I feel jumble-headed and nervous and about as confident as a fifteen-year-old boy. This just means so much.

Tania’s seen all of me, everything ­­­­– my highest points and my lowest points – so potentially making a fool of myself in front of her should be a piece of cake, but there she is perusing the hotel welcome folder, telling me about the local restaurants, and I’m feeling a little breathless, sneaking glances at her, wondering how strange it is that after all this time I chose Canberra as the place to propose, thanks to nothing more than the chance purchase of some cheap plane tickets and a discounted hotel.

We take to the streets hand in hand with our sights set on the AIS, the Australian War Memorial and Parliament House and on the way I consider every nook and cranny – every restaurant and café, taxi rank and tourist attraction, toilet stop and roundabout – as the place to pop the question. Fear holds me back. The ring sits in my pocket and seems to hold an incredible weight. Although the day is sunny and cool and perfect, the potential is there for it to become thunderously dark, and this is what stops me retrieving the ring to claim her under this old shadypineor by this park bench in the grassy clearing and even though my hand dives for it again and again, it keeps emerging from my pocket, in cowardly fashion, ring-less.

When Tania reaches for my other hand to lace our fingers together and tuck my arm under hers, I laugh suddenly, erratically, as if trying to hide the fact that I had fallen asleep during a comic’s routine at a comedy festival and she looks at me quizzically. I’m acting all freaky-weird and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I get a moment’s reprieve, lost in thoughtless awe, when the puzzlement in her expression is replaced by a smile that draws me into her dark brown eyes. When she bumps me with her shoulder playfully, I’m aware of her hand in mine and the way she looks up at me, in possession of all my secrets, her long dark hair blowing sexy-sweetas we walk the path through shade and sunshine. I just never expected to get this close to being so lucky.

As the evening begins to settle in we find ourselves heading back to the hotel, and when Tania suddenly desires a dip in the pool my mind ching-chings like a cash register because she’s a crazy water-lover and I hate pools and oceans and any water that isn’t controlled by pipes, taps or bottles, and this may just be the silly, unusual place to lay it on the line and prove that I’ll do just about anything – even swim in a pool – to show that my love is boundless.

We change into bathers and she waits at the door for me, but I need to get the ring downstairs and I have no pockets. I need time, so I pretend to have misplaced my mobile phone and tell her to go ahead. When she offers to wait and help with the search I finally break and yell, ‘Just go down to the pool! I think I know how to find a lost phone when I lose one,’ and I’m relieved when she whistles and rolls her eyes and says, ‘Righto psycho’ and heads on out. Within seconds I have the ring wrapped in my beach towel and after a few deep breaths, seventy-six push-ups and some uppercuts to the starchy hotel pillows, I go down to meet her.

She’s swimming, so I sit down warily and dip my toes in the water. When I lift my vision from the pale skin on my legs, which is recoiling at the sensation of wetness, she’s there in stark contrast, her sun-assisted Italian-Aussie skin fully submerged, traversing the length of the pool. She starts dipping and diving and floating on her back, pulling faces at me and making really strange sounds that I finally realise, when I see she’s doing the frog-stroke, are imitation ribbits.

‘I’m a frog,’ she says. ‘Ribbit.’

‘Yes,’ I reply, barking ha-ha like a robot trying to act all human and casual. ‘That’s very humorous.’

She dives under the water and swims to the side of the pool, and as she appears between my legs with a mouthful of pool water, looping  a stream of it onto my bare chest, I say, ‘Close, your eyes. I’ve got a present for you.’

She says, ‘Oooh, chocolate,’ and when she opens her eyes again I’m holding the ring in a hand that’s shaking like a shaved meerkat wearing an ice vest, and she reaches for it immediately, anticipating the taste of Flake but stops when she notices the white gold and small but significant diamond. ‘Will you marry me?’ I say.

She swims backwards, away from me, which I would find very impressive if I wasn’t close to shitting myself in suspense.Her eyes are wide open, focussedon the ring, and when she finally looks back at me she appears confused, scared, horrified, and as she says, ‘Are you serious?’ I feel an implosion and wonder how many meals that ring might have bought for the homeless, and for some strange reason I regress to my childhood. For a flash of time I’m with Mum and Dad watching Dr Hook singing ‘When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman’, mesmerised by the frantic shaking of a massive pair of maracas. 

I look around desperately for a way to convince her that marrying me is a good idea and just as I’m about to scream, ‘I’ll swim for you . . . I’ll do it . . . I’ll swim in water,’ she sidestrokes up to me and she’s emotional – in a good way – and says yes and we hug, wetly, and kiss, wetly, and I think, What the fuck . . . as she says, ‘What the hell . . .’ and we’re laughing at how crazy this is, and the more we laugh and swear and rub against each other the more I think about the long night ahead and, sure, there’ll be a lot of tonight lost to ringing people and being amazed at what happened and asking each other questions like, ‘How did you pick the ring?’ and ‘Did you have any clue about what I was planning?’ and ‘Did you pack my toothbrush?’ and we’ll take the time we need to wonder out loud in random, semi-connected exclamations about engagement parties and wedding dates and maybe even buying a house and having kids and searching for couple-friendly retirement villages until the thrill finally settles just enough for us to take a breath and reconnect and make the night our bubble.