An Engagement with a Tiny Box
Those of you who follow my personal life, which for any amateur blogger is typically their core readership along with those who are sent to your site accidentally by their specialist porn fetish search terms, will already know that over the New Year I proposed to G and she is now my fiancée. I couldn’t be happier with how the proposal went, following lunch on a bench in Kew Gardens instead of dessert and within maiming distance of some geese (it must be love!). Like anything in life which I have no direct experience of, I looked to American TV for advice on how best to handle the situation. For the first time ever, I got nothing back. Going it alone without televisual aids is the reason I’m still alive and out of trouble and G is not in prison and burn-free. Consider an engagement scene in Season 1 of Damages, an anti-courtroom drama which could be subtitled The Devil’s Advocate Wears Prada. Prodigal lawyer (and former musical project leader) Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) is proposed to by Supermanesque junior doctor boyfriend David Connor (Noah Bean) in their New York apartment. Ellen is emptying department store bags from her Manhattan shopping spree when she finds a small carrier with a tiny box inside. Despairing at taking home someone else’s shopping, she opens the box, sees the engagement ring and David casually asks her to be his wife. On the surface, this is the kind of intimate, surprising, fun and spontaneous proposal I’d aspire to. However, soon after this David is killed and Ellen becomes the prime suspect in his murder (thanks to the show’s elaborate flashback structure neither of these are spoilers). The message couldn’t be clearer; go informal on the proposal and death and incarceration are sure to follow.
Maybe I’m in the wrong genre. Surely sitcoms-which are sentimental and romantic by nature-would give me a better idea of a proposal that tugs at the heart strings (not that you should ever do that to your arteries). Well, not the ones I watch, apparently. Take the proposal of middle-aged widow Marty Crane (John Mahoney) to girlfriend Ronee (Wendy Malick) in the final season of the touching but never mawkish psychiatrist sitcom Frasier. After arguing about Marty failing to tell Ronee about his heart attack, they competitively snipe and grumble to each other continually until Marty lets his proposal slip and Ronee accepts in retribution. They spitefully settle on it. It’s brilliant piece of writing sidestepping your expectations that proposals in sitcoms will always be warm and fuzzy moments. But what the hell use is that to me?! No self-respecting woman would let their boyfriend get away with proposing in the heat of an argument just to get one over on them. Even the most marriage-affirming couple on American TV, Homer and Marge Simpson, got engaged in a way that could never be repeated in real life with success. The poverty-stricken Homer, now a lowly trainee at a fast-food outlet, puts an onion ring on pregnant Marge’s finger before she asks him to take it off before the grease burns her. Homer, of course, eats the onion ring seconds after removing it. The poignancy of The Simpsons can make unglamorous moments like these seem like the ending of Casablanca, but in the five-fingered world you’d be opening a door to recrimination like never before. Not only would you have to answer for the lack of thought and effort in the gesture but also explain why a wide greasy hole of high calorie fast-food seems to complement your loved one’s fingers.
In the back of my mind was Michael Scott (Steve Carell) proposing to girlfriend Holly (Amy Ryan) in The Office: An American Workplace, partly because it is such a beautiful scene and partly because they are the couple G and I are most like. Their secret language of annoying voices, unfunny private jokes and impressions of 1930s film gangsters is virtually identical to ours. Michael takes Holly around the office, pointing out all the memories of her that are superimposed on every inch of the floor plan. After all the male employees in the office propose and get rebuffed, Michael draws Holly into her candle-covered cubicle before popping the question and setting off the sprinkler system. This proposal has everything; intimacy, simplicity, stupidity and laughter. Unfortunately, it was still no help to me. Firstly, the idea that John Kransinski could propose to G and she’d still be a free woman by the time I got on my knees is preposterous. Secondly, it has an understated quality that can only come with an overshoot in ring pricing by 33 months (‘3 years’ salary, right?’/‘I think you can keep the proposal simple’). Like most of my generation, the image of Chandler (Matthew Perry) and Monica from Friends proposing on their knees to each other looms large over the imagination. I doubt, however, that you can ever count on instantaneous applause and weight loss seconds after becoming engaged. But what I’m trying to say in an endlessly roundabout way, as per usual, is that I’m glad American TV gave me nothing to live up or down to, that there was no foolproof formula or pie-in-the-sky ambition to distract me, or perfect moment that made everything else look ordinary. This way, G and I don’t have to share the memory with millions of viewers.