Things have a very "Ken" way of happening in my life. Anyone who's known me for a goodly amount of time know this; things are just a bit... different when they happen to me. Like the time I went to the Grand Canyon to kill myself and stopped at the entrance to take pictures after driving through a typhoon. Or the time I hitchhiked out to apologize to Rob... when he was in school in Claremont. Or my entire marriage to Rosa. Things are just a bit different; they are very "Ken".
And so it was on Saturday, when Vicky and I drove out to Lancaster to visit her family. Now, I knew what was going to happen; I'd been planning it for weeks! Oh, sure. I hadn't been planning exactly this but other opportunities kept slipping away and I wanted it to be perfect. I have this thing about making things perfect - or as close as I can get - probably because I didn't when I was with Rosa. Look, she and I eloped, my proposal was informal (non-chalant), and I was stand-offish with her family. Not only does Vicky deserve more, I refuse to do any less than my best this time around! So... perfect. Perfection is tough. What is perfect? Well, in this case, it couldn't be too big and it couldn't been too little.
Once I figured it out, I ran around getting everything ready. I bought the champagne. I got the ring. (Vicky and I had picked it out together.) I even made sure her dad knew. I wanted him to be in on it - as I told someone, "The best way to make someone your friend is to let them in on a secret." (This probably won't work if they're holding a gun to your head.) But, when I told him, he said, "Well, that's very nice of you but you don't have to ask for our approval. Vicky's smart and you seem like a nice guy. So, of course, you have our blessings."
... I just went with it.
Saturday morning started as most of our days do. ("Our days" because Vicky will start seeing more "Ken" days now.) I woke up at 7am, drove home, got ready, and drove back to Vicky's. My cats muttered, "Who was that masked man," as I left.
The drive to Lancaster took us out, on the Angeles Crest Highway (SR2), to Billie's house. (Billie is one of Vicky's best friends.) As we drove there, I felt myself slip into "hiker's mode". I started telling Vicky about the hikes I'd gone on and the camping I love to do and how I'd love to do more. She said, "You'll never get me out there." What? Excuse me? I told her how I'd do her "parking lot camping" (which is the misnomer so many people think of as "roughing it"). I told her how I've done things for her that I don't like... as we drove in her SUV... But she kept refusing, saying, "I'd hate it. My back would hurt. I can't do that." On and on. A friend of hers, upon hearing about how my marriage with Rosa had ended, had recently referred to me as a "doormat"... well, things were beginning to feel very familiar. And I just stopped talking. I was getting nowhere but downhill and nothing but a headache.
And I had an engagement ring in my pocket.
But we arrived at Billie's and put on our happy faces for her benefit. Billie is a cop and to say she was suspicious (of any man being good enough for Vicky) would be a bit of an understatement. This visit was what several people had already referred to as "the interview". She quizzed me on everything from the subjects of my books to what I wanted to be when I grew up... when I was five! In the end, I guess I did all right... and her dog, Chleo (not Chloe, but Chleo... or Cleo... or Kleo... anyway...), who barks at everyone, didn't bark at me. I checked out. I was clean.
We got back in the car and started talking. By the time we were in Lancaster, I thought we had worked things out.
But then, she made a remark at my expense and I was mad again. Twice in the same day, I thought, "And I'm going to ask her to marry me???"
And so the day went, fighting, visiting family, making up, fighting, visiting family, making up...
And the time for popping corks and questions was slowly approaching...
Towards mid-afternoon, we visited her grandfather. Her uncle and aunt live just across the way, an old biker and a Skandinavian ex-nurse... sitting with all four of them was like a "Ken" day all its own! As most old people do, he started pulling out pictures from his last trip. I did what any reasonable person would do, I lapsed into a coma. Vicky thought my sudden exhaustion must have been because of the long day but, no, it was the pictures. Those boring, boring pictures. I didn't take much to wake me, though. Her aunt said, "Oh, you're going to the restaurant? (The Restaurant being Murata's, her mom's restaurant.) We'd love to go with you." and I awoke in a panic. No! No! We were supposed to be alone! All alone! "Sure. That'd be nice," Vicky replied.
Great. Now, not only did I have to deal with proposing to a woman who I'd spent the whole day fighting with but I'd have to do it in front of her elderly relatives... did anyone mention "perfect"?
But first, we had to visit her grandmother in the convalescent hospital. Oh joy. Look, let me tell you, I hate these places. My grandmother was shuttled from one to another for the last 15-20 years of her life. They reek of death and sadness and aren't filled with bounties for the other five senses, either! Vicky and I got there ahead of her grandfather, aunt, and uncle. Her grandmother had broken her hip and it was clear that she was too old to ever recover. I wondered, looking at her, which would be better, spending the last few years she had in delusion or knowing the truth? Should I just tell her. "Look, you're never going to walk around again. You're never going to dance. You're never going to feel vital or young. Your whole life is behind you and you're probably going to die here." As I was thinking this, she was telling Vicky about how, in rehab, she had walked three feet. What a horrible place to be, waiting in line for death. And, as I thought this, my stomach began to turn. I had been hungry before... but in this place... And then, her family arrived, and the attendant brought in chairs. (It would be an insult to nurses to call this woman a nurse.) Vicky's grandfather sat in close to his wife. It was obvious that he loved her. Only a few minutes before, she had said to me, "I want you to know, we approve of you." And here I was, having my doubts if I approved.
And as we left, her aunt said, "We'll see you at the restaurant!" Great.
So, it was clear that my first job at the restaurant would be to get us a secluded table, a small table, a table where future in-laws could not sit. I picked out a two-seater... and now I had to figure out what to do about Vicky.
We started talking - but then the food started to come out. Her mom dashed wave after wave of appetizers onto our table - everything from sushi to salad to soup to.... weird things.... It made it rather hard to talk, though we tried.
Then, her family arrived. I scanned the restaurant. The only empty table was the four-seater beside us. "Let's move this one over to yours," her uncle said and, voila, I was sitting at a six-seater.
Now, lesser men would have given up at this point. Lesser men would have recouped and assembled his resources to fight another day. Lesser men would have been smart enough to admit defeat.
But I am not lesser men!
Then, the main course came out: salmon. Thankfully enough, for our bursting bellies, we split it between us. And then, we had dessert.
... and then we waited. Vicky didn't know what we were waiting for but I did.
We were waiting for two things... and I didn't know which one would happen first. I knew which one I was hoping would happen first. I was hoping her family would leave. There was also something else. I had purchased a bottle of 1995 Dom Perignon champagne and put it, along with a bucket, flutes, and ice, inside of a cooler in the back of Vicky's car. Vicky's dad, who was working at the restaurant that night, had gone out and brought it into the back of the restaurant. At some point, someone was going to bring out the champagne and I was going to propose.
Which would happen first???
At about the time I was thinking this, Vicky's uncle, John, had got his main course and was offering me a bite of his steak. I ate it quickly, hoping he would do the same.
And we waited.
They got their dessert.
And we waited.
Vicky and I couldn't talk about our quarrels... or, at least, I wouldn't because her family was right there.
So, we waited.
Then, they left.
I excused myself, walked to the waiter, and said, "So, did Steve tell you about the surprise?" I might as well have said, "The sparrow reads Variety in winter." for all the good it did me. He looked at me like I'd just proposed to him and said, "Uh, no." I wanted to slap my head.
But then, Steve gave me the signal and I walked around to Vicky's side of the table.
I guess she thought I was going to talk to her about our quarrels... and I probably should have... but something had occurred to me. You can spend your life dissecting things. You can die trying to understand why someone said something hurtful. You can spend years posing argument after argument. You really can. And I've been pretty good at it.
But, right now, I just wanted to ask the woman I loved to marry me.
So, I got on one knee and told her how much I loved her. I told her how much, in only two months, she'd come to mean to me. I told her how she already made me more contented and comfortable than Rosa did after 15 years.
Then, her dad brought out the champagne.
It was around this time when Vicky started to get the idea that something very different was going on.
I told her I would always try to make her happy and I knew that she'd do the same and, as I slipped her engagement ring onto her hand, I said, "Vicky Mari Pearson, will you be my wife?"
And she said, "Yes!"
And we kissed more than people normally do in Japanese restaurants. We kissed enough to make people uncomfortable. I kind of liked that.
We stayed for a while longer. After all, we'd had a busy day.