“There was something I wanted to show you, but we left last night before I got the chance.”
Bella rolled her eyes as I led her up the steps to the Art Museum, clearly have no clue regarding my intentions. At least that’s what I kept telling myself. Either that or she suspected what I had planned and was none too pleased.
“Is that why you dragged me out of bed so early?” She let out an exaggerated sigh. “Kind of ridiculous, don’t you think? I mean, there’s nothing on display in this building I haven’t seen, and we got so little sleep last night.”
If nothing else, she had the last part right. After leaving Art After 5, we’d spent the night doing just about everything two people can do in a hotel room, except rest.
“You may have seen everything,” I conceded. “But I doubt you know everything.”
“I don’t pretend to. This being established, my knowledge retention is better when I’m not half asleep.”
Once we were inside, she headed toward the nineteenth-century European wing; I took her hand in mine and nudged her in the other direction.
“American?” she asked.
I nodded and led her into the gallery.
“Why? I know all about The Gross Clinic. If you remember correctly, I was one of the thousands of little people who donated money to keep it in town.”
“You and my dad have that in common.”
“Somehow I doubt there was anything little about your father’s donation.”
I laughed. “You’re probably right, but that’s not the Eakins’ piece we’re here to see.” I stopped in front of a wall that was covered with small portraits and gestured to the one in the upper-right corner. “This is my favorite piece in the museum.”
“Really?” Her eyes appraised the painting. ”In all the time we spend here, you never mentioned it.”
“I had my reasons.” I chose not to mention exactly how humiliating those reasons were.
“That surprises me.”
“As much time as we’ve spent here, it’s not as if we’ve discussed every piece on view.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m surprised this is your favorite. I mean, she may be topless, but you can’t even see her nipples.”
“Have you ever really looked at her?”
She shook her head. ”No offense, but portraits bore me. They always seem posed and contrived.”
“That’s valid to an extent, though this is an artist’s study, which makes it different. I saw this for the first time when I was thirteen years old. I stood here and stared to the point that it was embarrassing. Everything about her captivated me—her coloring, her facial expression…”
“Those too,” I admitted, laughing. “But just look at her. She’s beautiful, yes, but you can tell there’s so much more to her than that. There’s also emotional depth and vulnerability. She seems withdrawn into her thoughts, despite being topless before an artist. If she were to come to life, I wasn’t sure what I’d want more—for her to turn so I could have a better view of her body or for her to tell me what she was thinking. I decided then this was the kind of woman I wanted to find for myself, and if I should ever be so lucky, I’d do everything in my power to make her mine. Then I went home and jerked off to the picture of this painting I found on Wikipedia.”
“I don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
It had to be like looking in a mirror for her. How could she not see it?
“I need to put certain things in historical context for you,” I explained.
“Okay,” she said, drawing out the last syllable as if it were a question. “Was this before or after your father bought you porn?”
“Before. He bought me the porn after I jizzed all over my laptop.”
She laughed. “I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that Genius Bar discussion.”
“Yeah, I honestly don’t know how that went down. I just know the next day when I came home from school, on my bed there was a stack of Playboys, a new computer, a box of tissues on my bed and note from my dad telling me under no circumstances was the laptop to be used in conjunction with the other two items. Anyway‚ none of the women in those magazines compared to the girl in this painting.”
“Is she really that remarkable?”
“I think she is. Natural, unassuming beauty from the inside out is hard to come by. Add intelligence to the package, and it’s borderline mythical. I was beginning to think it didn’t exist…” I turned to Bella, and stroked her cheek. “Then one day at school, I passed it in a hallway. Four years ago today, in this very building, I got up the nerve to ask her out on a date.”
She looked at me in disbelief before turning back to the painting. Realization slowly dawned on her face.
“She looks like me,” she whispered.
Though Bella kept her eyes on the painting, I couldn’t take mine off her.
“Almost exactly. It’s no wonder you weren’t impressed with her looks, considering how you’re not terribly impressed with your own. I know you’ve often wondered why I fell so hard and fast. It would have been impossible for me not to fall in love with you. You have the mind of an intellectual, an appreciation for art and music, and the face of my early-teenage wank material.”
After retrieving my mother’s ring from my pocket, I went down on one knee and waited for Bella to notice. The moment her eyes met mine, I’d ask.
She turned slowly, and when she saw me on the floor before her, she covered her mouth with her hand, gasping.
“I can’t believe you’re actually kneeling.”
I laughed. “I don’t know why you’re surprised. It may seem like a role-reversal of sorts, but I’ve actually been on my knees before you since the first moment I saw you. Now be quiet, or you’ll ruin this.”
“I’m sorry, I just…”
I gave her a stern look and cleared my throat. “You’re my best friend, my lover, my confidante, my muse.” I’d love her forever regardless of the word used to designate what she was to me, but there was one title I wanted her to have most of all. ”My wife?”
The four years I’d spent waiting for this moment were nothing compared to the amount of time that seemed to elapse as I waited for her to respond. When no sounds came from her lips, my chest tightened and breathing became painful.
Saying nothing, she lowered herself onto her knees, and I thought this was it—Scenario Two. I was making a silent plea to my father to give me the strength to retain my composure when she I heard her whisper.
I stared at her dumbly, unable to move.
“Yes!” she repeated.
Her hand was trembling as she extended it to me, and I nearly slid the ring onto the wrong finger. Once it was in place, I kissed her hand and pulled her into my arms.
“Can we go back to the hotel now?” she whispered.
“Absolutely.” I wanted nothing more.
Though the Eakins’ painting remained on the wall, the girl it depicted left the museum holding my hand.
“I can’t believe I didn’t realize it had been exactly four years.”
“Exactly four years. That’s one thousand four hundred sixty-one days. Over two million minutes.”
“It’s a lot of time.”
“It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of our lives.”
I was more relaxed that I would have thought possible, and though nothing had changed between us outside of a public declaration of an existing promise, somehow we were different. Though I wanted to be alone with her, to be inside her, the urgency to which I was accustomed was no longer present. I didn’t fear I’d run out of time with her, therefore time was mine to take.
So I did. Once we were back at the hotel, I kissed her. Though she was in my arms, her body pressed against mine, my lips moved with slow reverence. They brushed over hers, not the way a hormonal boy would kiss his girlfriend but the way a man would kiss the woman who pledged herself to him—if only the woman in question weren’t so damned inpatient.
“I see how it is,” she said. “We’ve been engaged less than two hours, and already you’ve lost interest in our sex life.”
“Oh, I’m interested. I just want to take my time and savor this. I’ve always belonged to you. I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the fact you finally belong to me.”
“I have for a long time now.”
“What can I say?” I asked, shrugging. “I’m a traditionalist.”
In fact, I was so traditional, that I doubted I’d ever seen anything more arousing than the sight of her hand adorned by my ring. I couldn’t help but stare.
Bella was doing the same thing, but the look on her face was more of disbelief.
“In case you’re wondering, she insisted.”
“Huh?” she asked.
“My mother. I told her I was going to ask you to marry me, and asked her to come with me when I picked out your ring. She took what is now your ring off her finger and told me to give it to you. She said you were already her daughter, and this made it official. I asked her if she was sure she was truly ready to part with it, and she said it was time.”
“I think I’m going to cry.”
Maybe giving her my mother’s ring wasn’t such a good idea.
“It’s okay if you’d rather have something different; neither of us would be offended. I just thought since it had been in my family for over a hundred years and you love antiques so much–”
“No, I want it.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yes.” Despite her assent, she seemed unconvinced. “It’s just…”
“Won’t it upset your mother to see it on my hand?”
“I think she’ll experience a range of emotions, but nothing like that.”
“I can’t wait to see her and thank her.”
I laughed. “I figured. She’ll be coming out with us later. She knew I was planning to ask you this morning. So tell me—was this a good surprise?”
“Well, I wasn’t completely surprised. I saw the ring in your bag last night when you had me look for your Dopp kit.”
“I planned that, too.”
“I wanted to surprise you, but I didn’t want to put you on the spot. I figured if you weren’t ready to say yes, you would have mentioned it last night.”
“Are you serious?”
“You don’t really think I’m that absent-minded, do you? No guy wants to get turned down during a public marriage proposal.”
“You seriously thought there was a chance I’d decline?”
“Don’t you remember what you said to me four years ago? ‘We both know you have no intention of ever telling me no.’”
“Of course I remember, but I wasn’t talking about our relationship. I was a seventeen-year-old guy who’d just caught a glimpse of his wank material’s thong. Not only did I have a raging hard-on, but you were all wide-eyed and heavy breathing. At that moment, getting your into a long-term relationship was the last thing on my mind. My love for you notwithstanding, I was more than a little wrapped up in the idea that any sexual advances from me would be welcome.”
“But you never made any!”
“No,” I admitted, laughing. “Once I got over the initial ego boost, I realized I didn’t want you for a fling. I wanted forever.”
“It’s yours,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. “And regardless of how you meant it, my inability to say no to you is more true true now than ever.”
“I think I’d like to test this.”
“Go right ahead.”
“Do you love me?” I asked.
“Do you trust me?”
“Do you want to marry me?”
“Yes!” she yelled, laughing.
“Will you let me pay the mortgage?”
She rolled her eyes. “If you insist, but only after we’re married.”
“Fair enough. How about a dishwasher?”
“Baby, you can wash the dishes whenever you want.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I know. Now, since you’re being so demanding, may I make a request of you?”
“My future wife can have anything her heart desires.”
“Make love to me.”
I picked her up and carried her to the bed. It wasn’t long before my desire to make an honest woman of her made a liar out of me. As it turned out, there was one thing I found more exciting than the sight of her wearing my ring—the sight of her wearing my ring and nothing else.