Remembrance of Things Bad

I have done some bad things.

I’m not saying I’m a bad person, mind you. Not at heart. But over the years, and especially in my relationships, I have done bad things, hurtful things, dumb things. And at times, my partners have reciprocated. But that has never justified my actions. Nope.

I was reminded of one particularly bad sequence of relationship events while reading a recent article in the Times. What happens, the article asked, when an engagement is called off? More specifically, what happens to the ring? This hit home, because I went through a bad engagement, or an engagement that ended badly. And the ring was a point of contention before and after the break-up.

Let’s get this out of the way: This engagement never should have happened. We had broken up and reconciled more times than I can remember, including once while living together, an arrangement that ended my fiancée’s friendship with the woman she was living with before I moved in. My fiancée and I had one of those you’re-terrible-for-me-but-I-love-you relationships that convince me people do have connections from past lives, and we act them out over and over, and the gods of reincarnation have very sick senses of humor.

The true badness influencing events here was my incredible cowardice. I knew in my heart I should not be with this woman, but I didn’t want to be without her, be alone, and she was the most attractive woman who had ever said she loved me, and she was smart, and she was destined for a lucrative career as a lawyer, so what the hell. All perfect reasons to get married (this after I had already been married and divorced at way-too-young an age). I still am not sure what made her think she wanted to be married to me, a lowly writer who could never win the respect of her parents, because how could I ever pull my financial weight, for god’s sake? And her parents’ opinion, especially her father’s, counted dearly in her calculations. (I should have fled this relationship years before, when she told me in all earnestness that her father was perfect. Not one flaw. Live and learn.)

Despite all the warning signs, we moved forward. I recruited a best man, who later told me he didn’t know how he could toast a marriage he thought was a hideous mistake. We moved in together again. And I picked out an engagement ring, one that she simply loathed. So we went to another jewelry store, and this time she picked out the ring, and of course it was more expensive, and I scrounged for the cash, but she was happy. Or at least not disgruntled. But she did not wear the ring long.

My doubts had never totally dissipated about the aptness of our impending nuptials. Fueling the doubt was the growing infatuation I had for a woman at work. “Wait a minute,” I said to myself, “this is wrong. How can I be thinking about another woman while I’m planning a wedding?” A friend cemented the issue: “Show some guts and do the right thing.”

So I did. I went home and told my wife-to-be that our wedding was not to be. It would be a lie. She, understandably, cried and raged a bit. Then she gave me back the ring. Since it was late at night, I went to sleep in the basement, drained, feeling rotten yet knowing ultimately I had done the right thing. The brave thing.

As I slept, I was woken with a prod.

“Where is it?”

“Where’s what?”

“The ring.”

I motioned to a nearby table. She grabbed it and went upstairs.

After I left for good, she sent me a Xerox of some document. All that legal training had not been for naught; she had found some precedent that said she could keep the ring since I had broken the engagement. It didn’t explore the variable of the jilted giving back the ring first and then ransacking a basement to retrieve it in the middle of the night. I shrugged. It was done, no going back, what can you do.

But consider this fact, something that has plagued me whenever the subject of this aborted engagement arises: That ring was purchased through the sweat of a much younger author-in-crisis. An eight-, nine-, ten-year-old who religiously took his weekly allowance of 25 cents to Franklin’s Pharmacy, spring and summer, to buy five packs of baseball cards. The crumbly gum quickly disposed of, he fingered the cardboard images and memorized the stats on the back. And then he safely packed them away in a plastic box shaped like an athlete’s locker, with sections inside the locker to hold the players’ cards for each team. Yes, there was even a slot for the Seattle Pilots and the Montreal Expos.

And yes, I was that baseball-addicted youth who held onto those cards for 20 years and saw them miraculously increase in value. A concept so foreign to his child’s mind. And then, as a should-have-known-better adult (ha!) of 30, I sold those cards to pay for that retrieved engagement ring. The big prize lost: a Nolan Ryan rookie card that fetched $250 then and quadrupled in value just a few years later. (Some solace: it has since declined almost as much.)

Let's not forget Jerry Koosman

Let's not forget Jerry Koosman

I learned, reading the Times article that sparked all this, that my legal-eagle ex had it all wrong. It didn’t matter who called off the engagement – at least in some states. The ring is a conditional gift. If the condition – getting married – is not met, the donor gets back his gift. I wuz robbed!

Maybe the law has changed only since 1990. Maybe the law was different in Connecticut. Maybe it all really doesn’t matter now. And maybe losing the ring was my karmic payback for the bad things I’ve done, the hurt I’ve caused her and other women. But I know this: no sane man should sell his baseball cards to buy an engagement ring.


~ by mburgan on October 13, 2008.

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