The night I met Bella, I felt a connection to her I’d never before experienced. Granted, in those days I had no experience, but that didn’t impede my ability to recognize my pull to her wasn’t the sort of thing that happened every day. I knew it was mutual—it was too strong not to be. I also knew it wasn’t the sort of thing that would lose its intensity in time.
It didn’t matter that she made me wait until after I graduated high school before she’d go out with me—the sight of her nervous smile when I picked her up on the night of our first date made it all worthwhile. The sight of her bare breasts after I brought her home was an unexpected bonus, one that should have told me everything I needed to know about the woman I’d already fallen in love with. Patience was not her strong suit.
Despite her need for instant gratification, she had no problem whatsoever making me wait, though never for sex. In the early stages of our relationship, she shared her body with freely and frequently, withholding the part of herself I craved beyond reason. It wasn’t her love—she gave me that to best of her (then) limited ability. Her trust was another matter altogether.
And so I waited.
The inevitable happened, and we went through a separation. I grew up, but she grew up even more. The difference in her was palpable; she was warmer, more open. Rather than retreat into herself and panic, she talked about her fears and gave me the opportunity to respond to them. Two years later, I was ready to put a ring on her finger and make public the whispered promise I’d make each night as I held her naked body in my arms—that I loved her more than my own life, and for as long as I continued to breathe, I was hers.
I was fairly sure she’d say yes. Still, the chance that she distrusted the institution of marriage more than she trusted me was too great to ignore. After a great deal of thought, I decided there were three possible scenarios: The first—and I hoped most likely—was that she’d accept. The second was that she’d laugh, remind me she didn’t believe in marriage, and give me consolation head. I’d say Scenario Two blew, but considering the fact I was planning to propose to her at the Art Museum and would therefore feel compelled to decline the aforementioned sympathy suck, that wouldn’t be accurate. The third possibility was that she’d accept. I’d think everything was perfect, until I’d realize that every time I mentioned setting a date, she’d start playing with herself.
Devising a contingency plan for Scenario Two was easy. I just had to hint at what I was planning to do. If she wasn’t ready to commit to me that way, she wouldn’t want to be put in a position to say no anymore than I wanted to hear her do so. Crisis avoided—at least for the time being. Scenario Three was more problematic because its presence wouldn’t be immediately apparent, therefore eliminating any chance I’d have to plan around it.
Ultimately, there wasn’t much I could do about it. I loved her unconditionally, and though marrying her was important to me, it wasn’t important enough to risk losing her. I directed my obsession to things I had a reasonable shot at controlling—specifically, the proposal itself. My twenty-first birthday provided the perfect opportunity. Bella was meeting me at Art After 5, so I had adequate time to check into our hotel suite and make the necessary arrangements. The six hours and forty-two minutes I spent in her absence were the longest of my life.
It wasn’t because I was nervous. I was ready for this; we were ready for this. I took the steps to the Art Museum two at a time and made my way inside the Great Stair Hall. After scanning the room, I found Bella sitting at one of the tables, swaying almost imperceptibly to the jazz ensemble. Her beauty was as captivating now as it was then, and once again I was rooted in place, unable to do anything but stare. Then it was because I’d come face to face with the object of my fantasies; I didn’t pretend for a second there was even a possibility she’d want anything to do with me. If not for my father, I never would have found the courage to approach her, nor would I have been able to present her with a glass of wine and thus create the fleeting illusion that I was her equal. I wanted more than anything to show her that I may have been younger, but I was a still a man. Specifically, that I was man enough for her. Despite my efforts, there was one equality I couldn’t overcome—one that would only go away in time.
And now the time had come. I could finally buy Bella a drink—and I didn’t need my father to do it for me. I went to the bar and stood in line, and despite the significance of the occasion, I couldn’t find it in myself to feel at all celebratory. Just because I was capable of doing this on my own didn’t mean I wanted to. The moisture behind my eyes confirmed I needed to get out of there before I embarrassed myself, so as quickly as I could, I made my way back to the East Entrance.
“Leaving already?” the security guard asked.
“Just making sure I don’t miss someone.”
I pushed the door open and stepped into the heavy evening air, feeling completely ridiculous. There was no chance I wouldn’t miss my dad tonight—and that I wouldn’t continue to do so for the rest of my life. My thoughts were racing around my mind with such intensity I was almost dizzy. I closed my eyes and exhaled with as much force as I could in a futile attempt to expel my grief. Staring blankly ahead, I took one deep breath after another, watching the sky darken and the clock on City Hall start to glow yellow. Then I started talking.
“I love her, Dad. I love her more now than I did then, even though I swore that wasn’t possible. I know she hurt me, but I wasn’t blameless. You said you were on my side no matter what. I need to know that’s true, that you’re with me. Because I’m nervous as hell about asking her to marry me, even though I have no doubt it’s what I want. I’d propose whether you gave your blessing or not, but it would be nice to know that I had it…”
Knowing the noise from the Parkway below was the only response I could expect, I made my way back inside. The moment the door closed behind me I heard it—a small vocal ensemble was singing Nessun Dorma.
I looked questioningly at the security guard. “Earlier there was a jazz ensemble.”
“They’re between sets,” he explained. “These are students from Penn.”
I thanked him for the information, then made my way to the edge of the Great Stair Hall. While listening to an a cappella group from the university at which I was about to attend medical school perform my father’s favorite song, I went to the bar and purchased his favorite drink. Standing on the same patch of marble where my father waited patiently for me the night I met Bella, I raised my martini in tribute.
“Bros before hos. I love you, Dad.”
No longer doubting he was with me, I put down my empty glass and went to join Bella. The following day would determine how I referred to her for the rest of my days, not whether she’d share them with me. I didn’t doubt she would. In twelve hours, I’d be done waiting. As anxious as I was, I didn’t count the seconds; for once, I was content just to be. I bought Bella a glass of wine, just like my father had that first night. With jazz swirling around me, I walked toward the rest of my life.