I married a queen, not one of royal pedigree, but of the hometown variety. She was Homecoming Queen not once but twice at her local high school. I began courting the queen about eight years after she wore her crowns, and within six months of courtship, I started plotting and scheming my marriage proposal.
I’m a romantic by nature so it was important to set the right atmosphere for the occasion. I got out of rehearsal early that day and went by Kay’s office to get the key to her apartment. She had a fireplace, and I wanted to take full advantage of the ambiance a fire would offer. It was her birthday, and I planned to cook the one dish I knew how to prepare, Beef Stroganoff. Weeks earlier, while cruising antique stores, Kay had pointed to an early 20th century, American crafted nightstand she liked, and while her back was turned, I bought the piece and picked it up a few days later. (This nightstand resides on her side of the bed and holds a stack of books a foot high.) I placed the nightstand beside the fireplace and set a scroll of a sonnet I had written on top tied with a strip of lace. I’m no Shakespeare, but I could improve on the greeting card doggerel for this occasion. I believed what I had written would up the “wow” factor and help seal the deal along with a bottle of Merlot, some Grover Washington (the stereophonic sounds of a scratchy LP and the crackly popping of burning logs in the fireplace were perfect mood enhancers), and candles.
Dinner finished, the fire at a nice glow, a glass of wine consumed, the antique nightstand “ooed” and “ahhhed” over accompanied by a nice kiss on the cheek, the sonnet read followed by another kiss, this time on the lips, and did I detect a little moisture in her eyes at the tender care I was demonstrating on her birthday? O how she was in for the biggest surprise of all. It was carpe diem time, and I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. I sat down on the carpet in front of the fireplace, shifted around to face her, our legs crisscrossed beneath us, and took her hands in mine.
Now here is the moment in every romantic film where the music swells and the characters speak the predictable dialogue and respond with predictable reactions. But my “Would you marry me?” moment did not end with the joyous leap into my arms or the burst of joyful tears. Kay didn’t leap or burst into anything. She didn’t even say anything. Too much shock and awe to her system, I surmised. She bowed her head and her lips began to move. What was that? I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Was this prayer time? Was she consulting God? Couldn’t she have given me the “yes” I expected and then we both could pray? Sure, I wanted God to be a part of all this, but on my terms and in my timing. I had set this stage. I had scripted this scenario. God should just rubber stamp it, right? The romantic mood I had so careful orchestrated seemed to be disintegrating like the crumbling logs in the fireplace. The longer Kay continued in this silent and pious moment, the more my heart began to fill with anxiety. Was she talking to God just to avoid answering the question? Was she talking to God for an answer to the question? A wiser man would have sat quietly and waited. Instead, I blurted,
“Either tell me now that you’re going to marry me, or I’m leaving.”
Here is a perfect example of going up to the edge and jumping off, and to make it worse, using a terrible line of dialogue to launch myself into this abyss of my own design. What was I thinking? It is as painful to recount as it is to watch, however, watch we must.
There was no mistaking the tears in her eyes this time. The moisture on her cheek glistened in the firelight as she raised her head and whispered,
“Well, I guess you’ll have to go then.”
A wiser man would take a step back, take a deep breath of clean oxygen to clear his head, and maybe, just maybe, if he had only a fraction of the wisdom of say, anyone above middle-school age, he might admit that his brash and hasty, and BRAINLESS ultimatum, was spoken in jest or make up any excuse for blurting out something so outrageous. You would think that, right? Wrong. “Hoist with his own petard,” as Hamlet says of his Uncle Claudius’ knavery, which is to say, “He shall blow himself up.” Subtlety of action is not my strong suit. In my mortified condition, I untangled my legs, grabbed the half-empty (not half-full considering my state of mind), bottle of wine, and stormed out the door. I would finish the Merlot alone, thank you very much.
For what felt like an eternity, I remained in the “cone of silence.” Not only did I not speak with Kay or any of our friends, I stopped going out all together. I only went to the theatre for rehearsals and performances and then back to my cabin in the woods where I would look out my window and lick my self-inflicted wound. I shed a lot of tears. I uttered a lot of prayers. I walked for hours through the woods and pastures where I lived. The isolation was discomfiting and only contributed to my gloom.
At some point in my misery the intervention came; a call from my sister. The news of my abrupt departure had traveled through the grapevine by way of mutual friends. Does my dear sister ask me how I’m feeling? Does she commiserate? Does she inquire after my side of the story and stick up for me? Does she offer encouragement? No. After all this time I can still provide the exact quote of her brief statement: “Big brother, you are the biggest fool in the world if you let Kay Patton get away. Get on your knees now and crawl back to her and beg her forgiveness.” Click, and like that, the phone line was dead.
Kick a guy while he’s down. No mercy; a trait my sister will use anytime she is confronted with her big brother’s foolishness. I waited a few hours allowing her words to stew, and finally, I did get on my knees, I did crawl, but only back to the phone, and dialed Kay’s number. After admitting my idiotic performance that night in her apartment was a huge mistake, I did ask for forgiveness. My groveling was the most honest actor’s performance I had ever given. No fabricated emotion. I was “in the moment” as we actors say when actor and character are unified in perfect harmony of expressing truth, and this moment was raw and real. And Kay’s response? She was gracious enough to accept my apology and allowed an opening for a second chance.
Our reconciliation led us to the altar six months later, and on May 12, 1979, we were wed. Now forty-two years later, we get to celebrate a designated day. But I count myself a most fortunate man to have shared a million joyous experiences with this lady since given a second chance. Oh yeah, and much thanks to my sister, Nan Gurley, for her take-no-prisoners’ phone call, or this day might never have happened.