Proposals of marriage are becoming the most public moment of people’s private lives.
By Meghan Daum
Every Sunday the local newspaper in the midwestern town where I live prints engagement and wedding announcements that look like the pages of a high school yearbook. The faces are fair skinned and robust, some still marked with acne. Their pictures are taken at portrait studios by photographers who appear to have directed them to gaze into each others eyes and said "think about the moment he proposed to you, imagine the scene, try to recreate the look on your face . . . okay, there!"
Sometimes couples simply send in their senior prom pictures. I often suspect that the guy popped the question on the dance floor while the Titanic theme played over the loudspeaker and some tattooed girl in a spaghetti strap dress smoked a joint hundreds of yards away in a bathroom stall covered with phrases like "If you love something set it free. If it doesn’t come back to you, hunt it down and kill it."
Recently, my friend Tom and I were in Café Loup recently drinking non-alcoholic beverages around 6 in the evening. Café Loup is located in Manhattan on 13th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues and the newspaper I just mentioned is published in a town that is located in the south eastern corner of a state that1s sandwiched between Kansas and South Dakota. I bring this up because at some point during that 6:00 hour an event occurred that probably occurs all the time, except that neither Tom nor I had ever seen it occur in quite that way and for about ten minutes we got the feeling that we were witnessing something bizarre and extraordinary, even though no one else in the restaurant seemed to notice it. A man in the front of the restaurant, about ten feet from where we were sitting, started singing a song I’d heard many times on the radio. It was by an artist like Celine Dion or Leanne Rimes and went "you1re my love, my valentine." It sounded a bit odd coming from a male singer with a Broadway belt. He was singing to a young couple who was with him. The woman1s face suggested she was nonplussed but trying to be polite. The man had his back to me, but suddenly he was on his knees, evidently proposing marriage. The woman started weeping. They hugged. The man pulled out a cell phone and made a call. When they walked towards the bar Tom and I could see their faces. I don1t know what he made of them but I recognized them right away. They were the faces from my town newspaper, dressed up like New Yorkers, or at least like midwesterners who, after a few years in New York where they were probably temping while trying to make it as actors or playwrights or clog dancers, had acquired some errant New York trappings. The woman wore an imitation Betsy Johnson dress. The man wore a black tee shirt and shoes that I cannot remember as anything other than Capezio jazz shoes, which I’m certain they were not. They lived in Jersey City.
I figured their first date had been at Café Loup or that they had met on Valentine’s Day (hence the song) or at least that Café Loup was a favorite spot or they shared an affinity for Celine Dion or whomever had recorded that song. But when Tom and I began questioning them, like reporters interrogating flustered Oscar winners backstage, they told us they had never been to Café Loup. It had no particular significance in their relationship. Until now, of course. The man, whose name was Walt, was from Oklahoma. I think the woman1s name was Caroline, but I didn1t catch where she was from, only that it was far away. I admired her engagement ring, which seemed like the sisterly thing to do, even though engagement rings all look the same to me. Tom and I shook their hands and congratulated them. They went off to have dinner. I ordered another club soda.
Tom and I had a conversation that skirted around our tacit belief that this couple was, in a certain sense, not as sophisticated as we were or liked to think we were. His term was "goofy," which was not a groundless observation, and without coming right out and saying it we both seemed to agree that the only people who can fall in love and get engaged over a Celine Dion type of song and weep about it are people whose imaginative standards are such that a café in which to propose marriage can be chosen not based on its nostalgic value or even champagne selection but solely on the fact that it is located on 13th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in New York. The moment seemed to have made Tom somewhat melancholy. I didn1t feel much emotion, but I felt the emotional conflict. I’ve experienced it so many times by now that no longer elicits feelings, merely a replay of the thoughts I1ve had a thousand times. It’s what happens when happiness is held in front of your face like a painting you don1t want to own, but whose placard, nonetheless says "This Is Happiness." I asked Tom if there was anyone he respected who could feel romantically satisfied for longer than one day. He kind of laughed and looked away and later he would recall me as saying "do you know anyone who is smart who is romantically happy for more than one day at a time."
That’s not how I phrased it‹I know I didn1t use the word "smart," although "respect isn’t much better. It doesn’t really matter though, because the more I think about that couple the more certain I am that in 15 years, when some version of Tom and me are still sitting at that bar, Walt and Caroline will have a house in Oklahoma or Nebraska or even Jersey City and it will have a basement family room where they keep their photo albums and when they show their wedding pictures to their children Caroline will say "your father proposed to me in a café in Greenwich Village in New York. A man sang. We drank champagne. That was a beautiful day."
By Thomas Beller
The other day, through no fault of my own, I was witness to a very public proposal of marriage that took place at the Café Loup.
It was a humid early evening and my friend Meghan and I were at the bar drinking non-alcoholic beverages. Club soda for her. Tea with lemon for me (I was hung over; I don’t know what her excuse was). Meghan lives in Nebraska now, and we began catching up. Then, in the vestibule area at the front of the restaurant, a man started singing. Right away there was something about his tone of voice that made me cringe a little. His voice wasn’t awful, but it had this weird emotional charge that made us stop talking. He was singing something about a Valentine. We craned our necks. There is a vestibule area at Café Loup and our view of it from the bar was obscured by a pillar.
I could see this guy singing, and the look of unbridled happiness and emotion sweeping over him, as though he were serenading a new born baby. He had a cell phone in one hand. A tape recorder was on the table beside him. And he was looking at… something, someone, I couldn’t see. Then I saw that there was a couple standing in front of him, and I understood.
"I think someone is getting married," I said.
"No!" Meghan gasped. She craned her neck. I craned my neck.
The bartender sat at the far end of the bar, reading the paper.
I leaned back in my seat to get a better view. There was a guy down on one knee in a black T-shirt, blond hair, wispy mustache. Before him stood a woman: Long brown hair, flowery dress through which you could see her nice shape. Big honest face. Beaming, blushing more and more as the guy on his knee spoke to her. The guy who had been singing was beaming as he looked on, the Maitre D, standing near by, was beaming, we were craning our necks. The bartender was reading the paper at the far end of the bar.
A ring was produced. He slid it on. Hugs. The cell phone was handed around. Who was on the other line? For some reason I imagined it was her father. "Sir, I have just proposed to Caroline, and she said yes. Is that OK with you? It is? Great! I love your daughter!" That is what I imagined being said.
"We have to ask them what is going on," said Meghan.
"But it might spoil the moment," I said.
This was dishonest. I was put off by the moment, so I shouldn’t be defending it. But maybe I wanted to protect them from disgust. What was my problem anyway? I had long ago trained myself to smile with beneficent life-affirming goodwill at the site of couples kissing in the park. Love blooms, it1s great for all of us, how wonderful, etc. I mean these smiles, really! I1m happy for kissing couples! But now I was hung over and all this earnest "there is no one in the world I would rather be with than you" emoting was making me a little sick.
"I don’t think they would have done this in public if they didn1t want people to watch," she said.
"Watching and asking questions are not the same thing," I said. The woman was crying a little. She was on the phone now. Was it her father? This was a big surprise for her, obviously. The happiest day of her life.
And then they were near us. The singer, who had performed the role of surrogate religious figure in the choreography of the whole scene, was now standing out on the sidewalk on the phone, and the happy couple were beside us.
So we launched in. Straightforward questions, honest questions, yet it was peculiar, as though they had just won an award or been on a game show and were now at the post-show news conference.
His name is Walt. I forget hers. They live in Jersey City. They had never been here before. He was from Oklahoma originally. His friend, the singer, was friends with the manager of this place… and his best friend couldn’t be here, "he was going to start the whole thing off by reading a poem," explained Walt, but since he couldn1t be here they called him so he could hear it, and yes, it was a total surprise for her…
"Did you guys meet on Valentine1s day?" asked Meghan. There had been this Valentines theme to the song.
"No," she said.
"Yes," he said.
They looked at each other.
Oh shit, I thought. We’ve done it. A pang of excitement and guilt welled up within me. We’ve gone and contaminated the thing with our questions. For a brief moment the bloom was off the rose. Their first matrimonial spat. But they figured it out. Their first date was on valentines day. The bloom was back on, big hug, wet eyes, time to go back and finish the meal, best regards, bon voyage, we all shook hands as though we were on line to enter a special zone, a circle of light. What is it about proposals of marriage that lends itself to these public performances?
"They were goofy," I said, pouring more hot water into my tea.
"Of course they were goofy," said Meghan. "Do you know anyone who is smart who is romantically happy for longer than a day at a time?"