It was as though it blazed with the fire of a million suns as it fragmented the soft afternoon light filtering through the window of L’ Étoile, the small bistro on the corner of 7th and Oak Streets. It was a cushion cut diamond set in a sliver of platinum polished to perfection. I had dreamed of this very same ring countless times since seeing one like it at a jewelry store downtown, and now that it was in my grasp, I didn’t want it.
Looking up at the man who presented it, I blinked once, then twice, as though trying to focus on him, trying to really see him. I had known Malachi Stevens for two years, seven months and a handful of minutes, and even though I knew how he took his coffee and that he always slept on the right side of the bed, I couldn’t imagine forever with him.
I licked my lips and began to say no, to tell him that although I appreciated his intentions, I didn’t think this was the direction our relationship should go. I tried to ignore the hope swimming in his eyes, the way he gripped the ring box or how that tension ran up his arm and clutched his body. I had to say these words and by extension end this relationship. It was sure to disappoint our parents, but this was the right thing to do. Wasn’t it?
“Can I get you two, any-“ the question was cut short with a gasp when the young waitress saw the ring.
Unfortunately, this drew the attention of the other diners. From the corner of my eye, I saw an elderly couple at the next table turn, the woman placed her hand on her husband’s and he then placed his other hand on top of hers. The wishes of a happy future for our marriage made my throat swell around the words I had to say. Two men in business suits nodded in approval, most likely thinking of their wives, and later that day they would go home to tell said wives of the proposal that took place at L’ Étoile on 7th and Kent during their late lunch meeting. Even the bus boy, a stout Mexican, stopped what he was doing to watch what was to be a pivotal point in our lives.
Under the weight of their stares, I stretched a smile across my face and breathed out, “Yes.”
The bistro erupted in cheers, near strangers congratulated us before melting back into the background, returning to their lives, not knowing the part they played in this tableau.
The man sitting across from me transformed from a boy waiting to be told his wish was granted to a man who had won his career’s highest honor. Still, his hands shook as he slid the ring onto my finger or was it him accommodating for my shaking fingers? He leaned across and pressed his thick lips against mine and I should have felt comfort and happiness, but all I felt was the cold, iciness of regret.
Was it too late to say no? Could I pull the ring off and hand it back now that we were in the privacy of our table? I could, I should, I w-
Malachi’s cell phone began to ring. By the sound of church bells, I knew it was his mother, Regina Stevens, the matriarch of the Steven’s clan. Her calls were never ignored.
“Hi, mom,” my…. fiancé said after swiping the surface of his iPhone. “Yes… And she said yes!”
Of course, Regina knew about the proposal. The woman was in the know of almost everything in the Stevens boys’ lives. She knew that Jerome’s wife was pregnant before he did. She knew that Malcolm’s girlfriend was cheating on him and Regina knew what to do to console him after she told him the unfortunate news. Why would it be a surprise that she knew that Malachi was going to propose? The only thing is how did they know the exact ring I would want?
Although I respected the woman and spoke politely with her, there was always a feeling that she was watching and waiting for something to happen. She was the last person I would confide in, knowing full and well that anything said would get back to Malachi.
As he spoke to his mother, recounting the proposal, I studied the man I agreed to marry. He checked all the boxes. A successful black man on the rise at his engineering firm. Tall, dark and handsome with the most succulent thick lips and the deepest brown, bedroom eyes. He went to the gym but wasn’t a slave to it. And somewhere between working hard on his career and his body, he found time to lavish me and make me feel like the most important woman in the world. Could the most important woman in his world break his heart and incur the wrath of Regina?
I never found out the answer that afternoon, this time it was my cell phone that was ringing. It was the office, and I was being called in for an emergency meeting. A case for Mr. Richard Knowland, my law firm’s most important client, had taken an unexpected turn.
I was grateful for the escape, but the weight of the ring reminded me that I had unfinished business.