I remember the day I got engaged. It was Friday, Oct. 9, 1987. Ten-Nine-Eight-Seven. It was also the day I was promoted at work. Arlene and I opened a bottle of champagne for the promotion and, while sipping our glasses on the couch, I thought, “what the hell?” I went into the bedroom, retrieved the ring from my sock draw, got down on one knee, and asked Arlene to marry me. She said yes (damn).
We were going to Boston the next day, to a bed-and-breakfast, and I had planned to ask her then but this moment seemed right. After she said yes, we went to our friends Barb and Phil’s house, where they laughed and cheered and congratulated us. More champagne was consumed and we all behaved the way people are supposed to when hearing good news from friends.
Saturday morning we headed to Boston. We had planned the trip to see the foliage change; it was a beautiful drive. It took about five hours and I drove the whole way there. I had never stayed in a bed-and-breakfast before and looked forward to the quaint old house I had envisioned from years of romantic movies. There would be a wrap-around porch and wicker chairs where we would sit and sip white wine and watch the leaves scurry across the lawn playful as children.
So I was not prepared when we pulled up to a four-story apartment building wedged between a series of four-story apartment buildings just outside of Boston. Apparently Arlene had been fooled by the same romantic movies that I had and assumed all bed-and-breakfasts were built by central casting.
We walked up to the entrance and rang the bell. The door opened and we were face-to-face with The Tall Man from Phantasm, all yellow teeth and eyes with two days growth of beard and white hair that swam across the top of his head. We asked if we were in the right place (we were) and then entered the building. We followed him as he led us up the staircase. If this was a movie the audience would be yelling at the screen, “For the love of God, don’t go in there!”
We stopped on the third floor and he opened a door and motioned for us to step inside. I just knew at the moment that he had planted hidden cameras throughout the house and made his money by filming young couples who came up to see the foliage.
It was a small room with a single bed and dresser and childish wallpaper filled with extremely happy clowns. Arlene and I had not even exchanged a word at this point, dumbfounded by our circumstances. We were still content to tough it out, but what happened next was a deal breaker.
I stepped over to the bathroom and noticed there was a wooden door you would slide closed for privacy. So I slid it closed, and the closet suddenly appeared to my right. The bathroom door and the closet door were the same door. It would seesaw between the two, winking at you as it slid back and forth.
“Okay,” I said, “we’re going to go now.”
That was fine with him as he then explained that we would never find another room anywhere near the city and that if we left he’d have this place rented “within five minutes.”
We thanked him, made arrangements to have our money returned, and left.
For the next three hours we drove all over Boston, and the surrounding area, looking for a room. But the Tall Man was right; there was nothing to be had. We finally swallowed our pride and returned to the four-story apartment building only to find that there was already another couple thankfully playing with the bathroom-closet door. The Tall Man’s yellow teeth waved goodbye to us as he closed the door in our faces.
We decided that we would start to head home and hopefully we’d find a hotel close enough that we could drive back and forth to Boston to sight-see. About three hours into the trip we did find a motel with a vacancy sign. It was a few miles off the main highway, surrounded by woods, with only two or three cars in the parking lot. All I could think of was Psycho and I wasn’t going to stick around to see if Anthony Perkins could put us up for the night. I turned the car around and headed home.
I pulled into our driveway about 10:00 that night. I had driven to Boston, around Boston, and back from Boston all in one day.
I was exhausted. I went into the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. I stared ahead and it looked like the walls were breathing. I fell back, but was too tired to sleep. This was a horrible day.
The funny thing is, looking back at that weekend now, this would be the good day.
We had been to Boston and back in one day, but who knew the tougher trip would be the quarter-mile walk to Arlene’s mother’s house.
We walked in the front door and Arlene’s oldest sister, Andrea, was sitting at the kitchen table. Her constant companions, coffee and cigarettes, were perched faithfully by her side.
“Congratulations,” she said.
“For what?” I replied, not sure if her congratulations were for the engagement or the promotion.
“Your promotion,” she clarified.
“What about the engagement?” I asked and that’s when she lit the fuse.
Andrea rolled her eyes.
Before I could ask her to explain another one of Arlene’s older sisters, Joanne stepped into the house. Andrea might have lit the fuse, but Joanne was the bomb.
For the next three hours the living room was a battle zone. I was repeatedly told that marriage was not a good idea. I tried to decipher why, but Joanne was vague in her comments. I didn’t understand any of this. Up until this point no one in her family ever gave any indication that I was wrong for Arlene. I had even shown the ring to Joanne the week before, and she was all smiles about the idea of marriage. I found out later, that wasn’t the case.
“That explains it,” Arlene said.
Apparently for the entire week after showing Joanne the ring, and before actually proposing, Joanne had done her best to talk Arlene out of dating me.
The battle continued. At some point, I’m not even sure when, Arlene left the house in tears, but I wasn’t about to give any ground.
After nearly three hours the fog suddenly cleared. I was told I didn’t have nice clothes until I met Arlene. I didn’t have a nice house until I met Arlene. I didn’t have a nice car until I met Arlene.
“Wait a minute,” I said, “do you think I’m marrying Arlene for her money?”
To this day, the irony behind that thought still makes me laugh. For the 10 years I was married, every bonus check and every tax refund went to paying off the credit cards Arlene maxed out. I would look around the house and ask, “Where did the money go?’ Did we buy Faberge Eggs? Are they in the attic? Take them out so our guests can enjoy them.” Money poured through Arlene like water through a hose.
I would never win the argument that day, so eventually I left. A year later we were married. Ten years and three kids later we were separated, and then divorced. Arlene and I still get along very well. Amazingly, I frequently see her sisters all the time at family events and no blood has been shed (yet).
If there is one thing I’ve learned from my experience it’s this: If the date you get engaged on sounds like a countdown, the universe is trying to tell you something. Shut up and listen.