Our Engagement

By David C Lawrence
7 May 1996

(This was originally sent as an email message to friends and family, with the Subject line saying simply, "My Weekend".)

This past weekend just did not go as planned. The plan, you'll soon see, wasn't massively complex. I would have thought there was only really one part of it that was really up in the air, no pun intended – but I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me start with how the weekend was supposed to start, not how it was supposed to end. If you don't care for a story, but still want to know why I have sent this to you, just skip to about two dozen lines from the end.

I wanted to take Diane away for a weekend respite. She has been working very hard on a high intensity lawsuit for many weeks, usually also on weekends, and she very much needed a break. I also had an ulterior motive for taking her away; I was going to ask her to be my wife. I was hoping that whisking her away from work on Friday evening would be enough of a surprise that she wouldn't see the marriage proposal coming. It's always best to catch a woman off guard with this question, because then you tap into her instinctive reflex to say yes, rather than giving her the chance to rationally consider the consequences of actually spending the rest of her life with you.

About ten days before this was to happen, I called her secretary to make sure she could get away. Since her secretary, Kathy, is also her boss's wife, and I let her in on how important this weekend was, I figured she could pull some strings. "No lovin' for you unless you let Diane go, Greg!" I told Kathy the basic plan: I would pick up Diane at work on Friday around 5:30pm (she never, ever leaves that early), take her to Charlottesville, Virginia to stay Friday and Saturday night, doing whatever she wants on Saturday, and then rouse her on Sunday morning to take her on a hot-air balloon ride over the Blue Ridge Mountains. On the balloon ride I would propose. Diane would be a couple of thousand feet above the ground in a flimsy wicker basket – hardly the place to refuse. We'd celebrate with champagne when we returned to terra firma, and then have a nice motorcycle ride through the country to get home to Arlington, where would would be snubbed by our normally very affectionate cat, who undoubtedly would not be happy about our being gone for more than the usual length of a workday. The only iffy part was the balloon ride, because it was subject to the weather. My backup plan was to take her up to a scenic vista along a hiking trail above Skyline Drive and propose there.

Kathy went for the plan, big time. I don't know what she had to do to Greg to make it happen, but that's his pain, not mine.

On Wednesday before this was all supposed to happen, Diane's mother called. She had been trying to come down to visit our new home since we moved in last December, but had to call off several previously planned trips. This time, she said, she would make it for sure.

Ten minutes after Diane got off the phone and wandered into some other room, I grabbed her address book, rushed behind the closed door of my office, and whispered through a hurried conversation with her mother. I told her about my plan to surprise Diane by taking her away for the weekend, but before I could get to telling her about the proposal she was already saying she would call back and call off the trip. "No, no," I said, "it would be better if you could still act like you're coming. It helps the whole surprise." She agreed and that little snafu was averted.

Unfortunately, Jennifer didn't know that. Jennifer is Diane's paralegal, and she had been clued into the plan by Kathy. (Later we would discover that Diane's whole office had been clued into the plan.) Soon after Diane told Jennifer that her mom was coming for the weekend, Jennifer was on the phone to me in a panic, offering to call Diane's mom to get it worked out. Apparently Kathy and Jennifer were more nervous about the weekend than I was.

On Friday morning, after Diane left for work, I could finally set about putting everything together for the trip. I stuffed the motorcycle tank bag with clothes, toiletries, and rain gear, that last because hit-and-run thunderboomers were predicted throughout the weekend. Her helmet and leather jacket were stuffed into a backpack so I could get them to her office. On the advice of a wise friend who's been on many a balloon trip, I tied thread to the engagement ring, intending to later secure the other end of that thread to myself. One memory I did _not_ want to create on this trip was the image of a diamond ring plummeting from the sky to the forest below.

Work, work, work. Called Diane midday like nothing's up, just to see how she's doing. She's pretty worn out from all she's been doing. I hoped to myself that the weekend will be refreshing. Back to work, work, work.

A little after 5pm I headed from the Capital Beltway to downtown DC. At the reception desk of her office, I told the receptionist my name is Tom Johnson, trying to work the surprise to the very last minute. Knowing that she wouldn't have any idea who Tom Johnson is, and might possibly tell the receptionist to send me away, I helpfully added, "She won't know who that is, because I'm really her boyfriend David. I want this to be a surprise." When Diane answered the phone, the receptionist told her, "David is here." Thanks a lot, lady.

Nonetheless, Diane was still very surprised to see me. I told her to just put away whatever she's working on because we were leaving. "It's been cleared," I said. Probably not the best thing to say. She immediately knew that I had been scheming, and wanted to know what I did, concerned as many people would be if their significant other had been talking to their boss about them behind their back.

By this point it was around 5:45pm, and it was looking like we would actually make it out of town by 6pm as I wanted, so we could get to Charlottesville before it was dark.

By 7pm, we were finally on the road. In the meantime she had to go over her lists for work and her original weekend plans (this woman is the Queen of Lists), go home to get a couple of more toiletries (as I, a barbaric male person, had only brought the deodorant, toothbrushes, hair drier and hair brush), and I had to get my television back from my best friend (who was returning to his new home in Florida over the weekend and had to empty out his old apartment in DC).

Because we were running late, I had to make up some time. Blasting down the Interstate 95 raceway (where average traffic speed seems to regularly be 75-80mph), we were 50 miles south in Frederick in about 35 minutes. Route 3 west took us to Route 20, a two lane road that becomes a very nice motorcycling road south of Orange. By 9pm, a little after dark, we had reached Charlottesville and settled in for dinner at Oregano Joe's.

Fast forward to the next morning. The night at the hotel was not restful. Voices, televisions, slamming doors and traffic could all be heard loud and nearly clear. The end result was perhaps six hours of sleep at best, and four hours of tossing and turning and frustration. Diane was understandably feeling worse, not any better, and couldn't bear the thought of having to get up at 5:30am the next morning, no matter how good the surprise I had planned was. By this point she had already guessed it was a balloon trip, so that was out on the table. She really wanted to do it, but I know she was feeling lousy. I made the decision to call off the balloon ride, which we could do some time when she was feeling better. I still intended to pop the question, if only I could find a good time and place. I didn't didn't have many choices, since we decided to go home after breakfast and wouldn't be taking the long, scenic route along Skyline Drive.

She had liked the Route 20 ride on the way down, so we took it back. This was a much better choice than the way most people would go, US 29, because it goes near Monticello, past a couple of wineries and then near Montpelier. All are beautiful, romantic settings. US 29, on the other hand, is a cop-infested multi-lane road that only passes by one winery and The Wonderful World of Miniature Horses. That latter draw notwithstanding, Route 20 was definitely the nicer choice.

Since I didn't think we'd be stopping anywhere, though, I conceived of a new plan of proposing while riding down a back, dirt road in the woods – Diane's favorite kind of riding. There were many such roads along the way. The thread stayed on the ring and was tied to my belt loop; though the planned proposal would be only three feet off the ground, the 25mph rolling speed and gloved hands could have still proven problematic.

The opportunity for stopping by Monticello unsuprisingly fell by the wayside as we turned north of US 250 on the east side of Charlottesville. As we got near US 33, I let her know that we were very near the Barboursville Winery and Ruins, a fine winery and state historic site. She had always wanted to visit a winery, so she decided a stop there would be nice.

In the main building of the winery, Diane sampled some wine and picked out some interesting Mother's Day gifts. We then walked down the dirt road to the ruins, a brick house once designed by Thomas Jefferson and occupied by James Barbour, the only governor of Virginia who had never been elected. The grounds are very nicely kept there, and the front of the house is used for Shakespearian theatre in the summer. It is a lovely country setting, with fields, vineyards, woods, and a pond all in view.

Behind the house is a very tall hedge, in the middle of which is a hole that permits passage to another field in back. As we returned from the field, we sneaked into another opening off the side of the main passage. This is a secret world, enveloped by the arms of giant bushes and shielding those it embraces from the prying eyes of the outside world.

It was the perfect place to do some kissing.

The kissing proved to be the perfect thing to get her in a dreamy mood. Looking at me and then hugging me, she said, "I really like it here." I, of course, immediately threw away my plans for proposing later on the ride.

"Would this be a good place for me to tell you how much I love you?"

She said it was.

"Would this be a good place for me to tell you how much you mean to me? And how beautiful you are?"

She blushed, and said it was.

"Would this be a good place for me to tell you how much I want to spend the rest of my life with you?"

She said it was as her face lit up.

"So would this be a good place for me to ask you if you will marry me?"

She said yes!

"Will you marry me?"

She said yes again, wondering either why I asked twice or whether I was really so anal as to observe that the first time wasn't, strictly speaking, a proposal.

Either way, it didn't matter. I placed the ring on her right index finger, knowing that it went there because it was on the wedding day that it was finally transferred to the left hand. ("Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring ..." As my mother has since instructed me, the engagement ring only ends up on the woman's right hand on the wedding day, from where it is transferred after the wedding band is placed on the left hand.)

We went back to kissing.

Eventually we wandered out of the hedge and to the winery. We told the people who run it that we became engaged by the ruins – only fitting, since proposals probably don't happen there every day – and they poured us champagne. A little while later we were back on the road, following the winding ribbon of pavement back to Arlington and one sulky little cat.

Some day we'll do that balloon ride.