By Nikki Schulak
“This essay doesn’t have to be about our affair,” my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, told me.
This can just be a story about a ring.
My son Max turns fourteen next month. He was sprawled on the couch watching a YouTube video—that viral Bruno Mars lip-dub marriage proposal that took place in Portland—when my husband and I came in from walking the dog.
David and I were in the middle of having the Why Don’t You Take Drum Lessons bicker. This is the one where I nag at him to find a hobby, and he says, “It’s not your responsibility to organize my life” and then I say, “I just want you to get out more, and be happy,” and then I get pouty, and he gets mad, and then I get mad that he’s mad.
Max looked up from his phone like he’d just realized we were in the room. “How did you—you know—propose to Mom?” he asked.
David and I stopped our bickering and collected ourselves.
I answered Max’s question even though I knew it was meant for David. “He got down on his knee. He gave me a dozen roses.”
“Yeah, everybody does that,” Max said. “I mean, what did he do that was special?
“Knee bending and roses are romantic,” I explained.
David spoke up. “Well, son.” He lowered his voice in the name of drama. “I chased her—from the Upper East side to the Upper West side—by cab.”
“You did?” This was more the kind of story Max had expected. Put some music behind it, and you’ve got a YouTube video.
Our whole engagement story is in fact special, but not the kind of special I’m ready to share with my teenager. I didn’t tell Max, for instance, that I’d bullied David into marrying me. Maybe “bullied” is too strong a word. I’d said something along the lines of, “David, we have to get married as soon as possible.”
And he said, “Why?”
And I said, “Because my parents are going to die soon, and it’s important to me that they see me get married.” My father had late stage diabetes. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Then I added, “I love you, honey. But if you aren’t ready to get married, then we’re going to have to break up because I need to find someone who is.”
After that, our conversation went on so long, I had to take a taxi to my psychiatrist’s appointment on the West side instead of the cross-town bus.
When I told the psychiatrist about my marriage proposal, she said, “Sometimes women are ready to get married before men are. Give him a little time.” My session lasted another twenty minutes. And, sure enough, when I walked out of the building, there was David waiting on the sidewalk. He did get down on a knee and handed me a dozen roses and said, “Nikki, I realize now if I don’t marry you, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”
Then we walked along Central Park West holding hands until we found a pay phone and I called my mother. “Mom,” I said. “David and I are getting married!”
“Oh, Nikki, thank God!”
Then she asked, “When?”
“This summer, I think, Mom. On the farm.”
And she started to cry.
When we called David’s parents, his mother said, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t tell if she was excited or appalled.
A few months after we’d announced our engagement, David and I gathered in the dining room of his Grandmother Kaska’s house with his parents, Anton and Margaret, and my parents, Bernie and Esther, and David’s sister. We couldn’t gather in the living room because it was full with two grand pianos. Kaska had trained at a conservatory in Switzerland before the war, and had then taught piano in Queens for more than forty years.
The china cabinet in the dining room was filled with ivory figurines from China and silver sugar bowls with silver tongs and bottles of liquor dating back to the fifties. On the walls were oil painted scenes of Paris, and Brussels, and also a few dark portraits.
I hadn’t expected an engagement ring. David and I had never discussed it, and it wasn’t something I had ever dreamed about. So when his family gave me the diamond, I was surprised. My hands are not beautiful. I garden without gloves and at the time I worked with animals, cleaning cages, and my nails are thin and tear easily and I bite them. After I started wearing the diamond, I tried to take better care of my hands. I’d quit biting for a while, months at a time, but then, I’d be at the movies, and the film would be suspenseful, and before I knew it, my nails would be raw and my cuticles would bleed.
Grandmother Kaska sat at the head of the table. On the wall behind her was a portrait of a woman who could have easily been mistaken for a man. Kaska said, “Nikki, I’m going to tell you a story.
“This”—she turned and pointed to the portrait, her eighty year old fingers bent and swollen from arthritis—“was Vera. Vera was my mother-in-law, Rajmund’s mother. She was the first to wear the ring.” Everyone in the room looked at the portrait of Vera, who looked back at us. “Vera’s husband worked in the diamond industry and he made the ring for her, in Amsterdam.
“When I became engaged to Rajmund, Vera took the ring off her finger and put it on mine. I wore that ring to Cuba when we couldn’t get into the United States. Three years later, I wore it to Ellis Island.” Kaska took a sip of tea. “When Margaret got engaged to my son, I took the ring off my finger and put it on hers.” Now Kaska looked at the ring on Margaret’s finger, so we all did.
My mother once told me, “Remember, when you get married, you’re marrying a whole family.”
Then Margaret got up from the table. She came and stood between David and me, and she took the ring off her finger. “I have to admit,” she said, “I thought I’d wear this ring a few more years.” She handed the ring to David, and he slipped it on my finger. Actually, he didn’t slip the ring on my finger, because it wasn’t a perfect fit, although by the time we got married in August, and I’d lost my bride pounds, the ring did fit just fine.
Margaret sat back down. “Go ahead and get a new setting if you don’t like this one,” she said. “I know you’re hard on your hands.” Everyone at the table looked at my hands. “But then, of course, with a new setting, it would no longer be the same ring.”
David’s sister, who was in high school at the time, said, “It’s weird to see it on your hand, Nikki. I’ll always associate it with my mother.”
My mother said, “I can’t believe my daughter is going to wear a diamond.”
I told this story to my girlfriend Penny. Penny has many diamonds, and I told her how the ring on my finger is ceremonially passed from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law in each generation, and that the expectation is that someday, I will give this ring to my son’s fiancée. Penny, who’s husband recently gave her some $2500 Kiki de Montparnasse pearl restraints and the accompanying 24K dipped handcuffs with key and chain for Mother’s Day, said, “Give your diamond engagement ring away to your daughter-in-law? Darling, I think that’s assuming an awful lot.”
I do wonder, though, who will I give it to? Because my son and my daughter both currently date girls, it’s possible I’ll have more than one daughter-in-law. Then what? Does it go to the spouse of the child who marries first? Or the one I like best? This is confusing, perhaps, but the important thing is this: the ring has been handed from one generation to the next, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law for over one hundred years; it was on my finger that the ring broke.
When I had the affair, then came out about it to David, I explained to him that I didn’t want to end the relationship with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to stop being a wife, either, and that was the beginning of our open marriage.
The transition was not elegant. David was hurt, and angry, and surprised. I became the family pariah, which of course, every family needs. David and I went to counseling, first just the two of us, then, my boyfriend, too. We called it tri-therapy, and it went on long enough that we couldn’t afford to rent a place at the beach that summer because our entire vacation budget was going to the therapist.
Near the same time we were becoming a truple, we had a step-niece who was divorcing after four years of marriage. Our kids had been in the wedding—a big wedding, at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. The family opinion was that the divorce was unfortunate, especially given the twins, but still, much more socially acceptable than what David and I were choosing to do.
“It’s not like they get to vote,” David said.
“An open marriage?” David’s mother said to us. “What the hell am I supposed to tell people?”
“Tell people we love each other,” I answered. “And tell them that we love parenting our kids together in the same house.”
“But you cheated on him,” Margaret said.
“Tell them our sex life had irreconcilable differences. Tell them David’s dating lots of nice women. He’s doing just fine for himself.”
She considered this. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Maybe we could have helped.” Then she bestowed some advice: “Lots of married couples don’t have sex. After a while, in a marriage, sex doesn’t matter.”
“For me it matters,” I said to her. “It matters to me. And believe me, it matters to your son.”
What I didn’t tell her was that David hadn’t gone down on me in twenty years; that he’d confessed in couple’s therapy that he’d “never been that attracted to me,” but he thought it didn’t matter. I had tried to make myself more attractive to him. I lost weight, I dyed my hair, I wore sexy clothes and lingerie, but nothing I did made him want me the way I wanted to be wanted.
I asked my step-niece out for lunch. Sadie is the one member of my family who didn’t treat me like a pariah at the family gatherings we still got invited to. I admired her, and I trusted her to give me the straight story.
“Sadie, I feel a little paranoid. It’s been more than a year since you got divorced, and I came out about the affair, and I get this sense like everybody in the family is still just talking about me behind my back.”
“You aren’t paranoid. Everybody is still talking about you behind your back.” She took a big bite of her turkey reuben. “We have parties you aren’t invited to.”
“I know about the parties. What are they saying about me?”
“I knew you’d ask, so I brought some notes.” She took her Smart Phone out of her purse. “Do you want me to read them to you now, or do you want me to send them to you in an e-mail?”
“Oh my God, Sadie. Just read them.” The ice was melting in my tea.
I’ll never get over that she lied to us. It’s shameful.
I can forgive her for the affair. It’s the fact that she hasn’t stopped with that boyfriend.
If her parents were alive, they would be embarrassed by her choices.
She should take off that family ring and give it back to Margaret. Of course now no one will ever want to wear it.
And my personal favorite:
They should take their daughter out of St Mary’s and put her in the public schools.
Sadie closed her phone and finished her sandwich. “I’m sorry, Nikki. I’ve got about five more minutes and then I have to head back to the office. Let’s have dinner soon.”
“Listen. I don’t want to have to explain about us anymore. Neither does David. We’re always on the defensive. I want us all to be able to be in the same room at Thanksgiving this year. I really want to know: What do you think we should do?” Sadie freshened her lipstick. She took her keys out of her purse and set them on the table.
“You’re the ones who’ve chosen the morally ambiguous path. You owe them more education.”
I know Sadie hated selling their bungalow after the divorce. She hates the shared custody. She hates the way her kids come back from weekends with their dad all tense and frazzled.
My boyfriend is a good man. He and David get along. The kids like him. So does the dog. He makes homemade burgers that our son describes as “the best he’s ever eaten.” He was our daughter’s preferred driving instructor this summer.
“What we’re doing isn’t destructive,” I say. “It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s working for us.”
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Tell them.”
I did not take the ring off out of shame or as a protest. The shank split just as we were preparing for a big family trip, and when we got back, I was busy and it sat in a box on a shelf in my bedroom for six months. The jeweler I took it to for repair called the split a “stress fracture” and told me it wasn’t my fault. He said the solder line had worn down from years of rubbing and normal wear. He asked me when I’d had it resized.
“Never. I think my mother-in-law had it resized when she gave it to me—more than twenty years ago.”
The jeweler nodded his head as if that explained everything, and he studied the ring with his loupe. “This diamond isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s charming. I’d estimate it was cut sometime between 1790 and 1820.”
“1790? It’s older than I thought.”
The jeweler looked up at me.
“Old?” He kept a straight face. “This diamond was formed in the earth more than a billion years ago.” He looked back at the diamond and added, “This is an old European Cut. It’s got a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. It also has a circular girdle, and—take a look here—it has fifty-eight facets.”
“That’s interesting,” I said. “The family tells a different story.”
He shrugged, then he pointed out that there was some prong failure. He got out a little envelope, dropped the ring in, and wrote out a claim slip. “I’ll have it done by next Saturday.”
When I got back home from the jeweler, I texted David.
Me: The ring was made by Vera’s husband and given to her, right? Because the according to the jeweler, the diamond is actually older than we thought. Can you ask your dad about this?
David: Actually, I think the ring was originally forged by Sauron. In Mordor.
Me: And can you ask your dad what his grandfather’s name was? And what year did he and Vera marry?
David: Why don’t you just ask my dad yourself?
So I sent my father-in-law a quick, casual e-mail, asking about the ring. He still hasn’t replied.
When I picked up the ring, the band sparkled in a way I’d never noticed. The jeweler asked if I’d like my other rings cleaned as well. I didn’t know that gold needed to be cleaned. I handed him the two other rings I wear: my mother’s wedding ring, that I’ve worn since she died nineteen years ago, and my wedding ring, which I’ve never had cleaned in the twenty-one years I’ve worn it. He didn’t comment on my mother’s simple gold band, but he admired my wedding ring. “This is old, too,” he said, impressed. “I’d estimate 1820s—because of the Lily of the Valley pattern, and the quality of the gold. Is it eighteen carat?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Is it English?”
“I don’t think so…”
He looked inside the band and found the inscription “David and Nikki 1994”. David’s wedding band has the same inscription as mine, except in his ring, my name comes first. We had asked the woman who designed the rings for us to copy an old pattern. We wanted them to look seasoned, like they’d seen a lot of love.
The jeweler shrugged.
Despite the family’s opinions, I don’t have any intentions of returning the engagement ring early. Partly, this is because I like the way it looks on my hand now that I’ve discovered a good gel manicure holds up for weeks, and partly because my boyfriend whispers sexy things in my ear when I’m wearing it, and partly because I won’t be shamed. I want my kids to associate this ring with my finger. Someday, I want them to reflect on the fact that I didn’t take it off.
NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her teenagers, her husband, her boyfriend, and her beloved dog, Calvin.