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When my boyfriend Ben* met up with me during a summer of grad school research in South Africa, everyone told me he would propose.
Friends, family, professors, colleagues, the owner of my guest cottage, the baristas at Kauai where I often stopped for almond smoothies, everyone. I never knew I’d be the type to get spastic over such a prospect, but as Ben’s arrival drew closer, I began unrolling a personal PR campaign for how it might all go down, from wardrobe analysis to brainstorming clever Facebook updates to accompany the transition from “In a Relationship” to “Engaged.”
I really should’ve known better.
Ben plans and plods, weighs decisions, talks things through. He reads Fodor’s, Frommer’s and Lonely Planet before traveling. After two years, we’d just started to think about our futures together; as much as he may have adored me, a surprise proposal halfway around the world simply wasn’t likely.
But who had time for such practicalities? There were facials and pedicures to schedule.
Things started going wrong the night before his arrival. While Ben’s flight was somewhere between Ghana and Gabor, two armed robbers broke into my room and stole my laptop. I emerged physically unharmed, but by the time police reports were filed and I stopped shaking long enough to see clearly, I headed to the Johannesburg airport six hours early.
When Ben came through the gate, I flung my make-up free, PJ-wearing self into his arms, telling him how I was almost murdered while simultaneously scanning his carryon for box-shaped bulges.
Instead of a ring, I got a nasty cold and fever. The next day we hit the Panorama Route with a lifetime supply of Rooiboos tea and Strepsils, destination: safari. Our itinerary included a look through God’s Window, an escarpment 3,000 ft above endless horizons of cliffs, waterfalls and jungly vistas.
God’s Window was obviously the perfect place to propose. Never mind that I was alternately sweating and shivering, repeatedly sneezing into a wad of fast food napkins. It would be rugged, adventurous! I wondered which nearby tourist we might task with taking our first official engagement photo.
“Sweetie?” I turned as Ben got down on one knee.
Then he leaned down to re-tie his shoe. “What do you say we stop somewhere for lunch?”
We drove the rest of the day through green canyons and valleys. When we arrived at our safari camp, everything made sense. It was all so Hemingway -- huge canvas tent with a cozy bed, a patio where you could sip coffee on a leather couch and have staring contests with vervet monkeys. This was surely where he’d propose.
Especially on our last night, when we returned from an evening game drive to find the front of our tent draped in tiny white lanterns. Gone was the leather couch; in its place was a meticulously set table with white linens. That sneaky devil, that man of mine! I grabbed Ben’s hand, beaming as I bounded towards the champagne bucket.
“I’m confused,” he said. “What’s all this?” Adorable, really, how he pretended not to know.
I did a quick sweep of the table for a velvet box before ducking into our tent to grab my camera and make sure my phone had WiFi. Cheers!
Champagne gave way to Pinotage and Ben’s questions continued. “Was this on the website? Do we have to pay for it?” A soup course arrived, then a main course involving some sort of antelope.
“Do you think all couples get this? Did the travel agency plan it?” He was clearly waiting until dessert to propose, but as each plate was cleared, a small wave of uncertainty grew inside me.
Chocolate cake arrived next, and Ben continued his charade by musing on rare birds of the region. “The warblers are beautiful, but I hoped to see a lilac-breasted roller.”
“Ben, I know what you’re up to.”
When his face went genuinely blank, the wave crashed. Not even he was that good an actor.
“Huh?” He leaned over and picked a raspberry off my plate. “Up to what?” he asked again.
No, he really hadn’t planned any of this at all. And he certainly wasn’t proposing.
I was every woman I’d ever made fun of as the tears came fast, faster, then segued into full-fledged heaving. “Holy crap, honey. What’s wrong?”
I could pretend the food disagreed with me. I could blame nervous exhaustion, residual stress from the robbery. I could say the cold medicine was messing with my emotions.
I went with honesty. “Ben. I’m about to say the most awkward thing I’ve ever said to anyone in my life. Ok? [long pause] I thought…I thought this whole thing…that you were about to ask me to marry you.”
Silence, save for the low growl of a distant hippopotamus. A spider crawled across my napkin. A candle blew out. I waited for him to tell me I was needy and demanding, then dump me, like a wildebeest carcass. Leave me for the vultures.
Instead, he hugged me. Then he lovingly, if annoyingly, outlined the myriad reasons why a proposal was never in the cards on this trip. Each began: I love you, but I’m way too paranoid to carry diamonds around a strange country, but I want your help choosing the ring, but proposing on vacation is kinda cliché, but it’s freezing here at night and who wants to get engaged then fall asleep wearing seven layers of fleece?
Yeah, yeah. I loved him too, but I was still mad.
In the morning, I awoke to puffy eyes, a sore throat, and a pacing Ben. He was angry -- not with me, but with the safari staff.
“Last night! What the hell! That was no “perk.” That was a set up! The worst thing you can do to a single guy traveling with his girlfriend!”
In retaliation for these imagined indignities, he left our guide a measly tip at checkout. Our guide, in turn, glared as he gave us "directions" out of the lodge.
Away we went, Ben navigating, me driving, onto a twisty road that should’ve led to the highway but instead narrowed to nothing but a dusty path. We persevered, following our directions as best we could. Turn right, bear left. Forty-five minutes later we were creeping through a thorny scrub forest. I prayed the inch of dust now covering our Honda would protect it from the spindly branches poking it from every angle. Ben asked if I wanted him to take over at the wheel.
“What, I’m not good enough to marry and now I’m not good enough to drive?”
“I’m so not going through this right now.”
When we hit a clearing, I lowered the window and turned on the radio. The signal, though fuzzy, was clear enough: All the single ladies! All the single ladies! We forged ahead in tense silence broken only when Ben yelled, “Jesus! RHINO!” I screamed, slammed the brakes, and stared as a family of rhinos snorted their disapproval at us.
“Put your window up!”
“Don’t give me orders.”
“Don’t get gored to death by a rhinoceros!”
If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it...
An hour later, a giraffe galloped across our path, kicking dust at our windshield and finishing off my nerves. I handed Ben the keys.
I closed my eyes and envisioned nightfall, with us camping on the roof of the car surrounded by hungry lions, like a New Yorker cartoon. I dozed until a violent lurch jolted me awake. The trunk of an acacia tree blocked our path.
“What now?” I whispered.
“Here’s what I propose--” said Ben.
“Oh? You actually propose?”
“Douchebag.” I started laughing. He started laughing. “Douchebag!” I cried again.
“Bridezilla!” he shot back, smiling as he opened the car door.
“Do you propose running off into the bush? Living among the hyenas?”
“I propose we move this tree out of our way. Then we get on with our life. Together. Ready?”
He took my hand as I joined him outside.
We found the highway with 20 minutes until sundown, and as we dropped off our filthy rental car, I decided to leave all my expectations and presumptions with it. This was a time to embrace Ben for everything he was in that moment. The kind of guy who reads Fodor’s, Frommer’s and Lonely Planet.
I loved him for it, but more important, I loved myself. I opened up when I could’ve shut down. I was vulnerable and shamelessly honest, and he still wanted to be with me. I could be safe with him. I would be safe with him.
When he did propose two months later, with a one-of-a-kind ring we designed together, he still took me completely by surprise. And we didn’t have to wear seven layers of fleece to bed that night.
*not his real name