“Do you ever wear it?” he asked me, looking down at the ring, not meeting my eyes.
What a question.
No. The answer was simple. No. I never, ever wore the ring.
I’d actually forgotten that I’d kept it, for many years. Which seems rather amazing, considering all that the simple band of gold symbolized.
Ray had given me the “promise ring” (I called it an engagement ring) late, late one night in August, 1991. He’d arrived home from Iraq via Germany. We’d been corresponding via letter and a few stray late night phone calls while he served in Gulf War I. After our on again, off again high school relationship, the moment had seemed wonderful and perfect. We spent his three weeks of leave inseparably, slowly letting my family in on the depth of our commitment. But then he’d gone to his new assignment in Georgia, and then things fell apart.
But I still had the ring. I must have put it away in one of my velvet jewelry boxes back then, keeping it as the one, tangible reminder of moments of happiness we’d shared that summer. The promise and the weight and the surety I’d felt at our future together. I pulled it out every so often, just to make sure it was real. But then it was put away again, locked away, like the memories I’d had of him taking my virginity and everything else we’d shared.
I was unprepared for the emotion on his face when I sat next to him and showed him the ring. Sitting next to Ray at all is an event of note; he now lives in Germany with his wife and daughter, and the odds of our paths crossing are as remote as one can imagine. But somehow, we managed to meet at the most mundane and American of places as Starbucks. There were pleasantries, hugs, emotionally charged small talk, as if this kind of chance encounter could happen any time. Never mind that it had been fifteen years since we last were in each others’ presence. Never mind that we were now both married, with children, and lifetimes in the gulf between us now. Here we were, me with my mocha and him with his chai tea, as if this kind of thing were an every day occurrence.
I’m not sure what I thought his reaction would be at the sight of the ring. Surprise, perhaps, that I hadn’t chucked it in a fit of rage after our engagement was called off. Or pride, maybe, that I still had kept it all of these years, that this small bit of gold and diamond had meant so much. But it was neither of those things. It was pain. Physical pain, that I’d brought rushing back to him, in the middle of our perfectly wonderful, normal, meeting up again after fifteen years. He seemed surprised, taken aback, moved. Moved in a way that I simply hadn’t anticipated.
“No, I don’t wear it,” I answered slowly. “I never have been able to. At first it was painful,” I said slowly, acknowledging his own pain, “And then life just sort of moved on, and it didn’t make any sense to. But I kept it, still. As a token, a reminder. Something to hold onto.”
He reached out for the ring, taking the small circle of gold in between his fingers. “It was a promise ring. A promise I didn’t keep. I guess I understand why you don’t wear it.”
“It’s not like that,” I said, trying not to remember what those dark days, twenty one years ago almost, were like. “I look at it as a lovely reminder of the time we were happy. It was brief, sure, but it was a wonderful time. That’s what I try to remember when I look at this ring.” I paused. “I suppose I should ask if you want it back.” Wasn’t that the right thing to do, the protocol after a broken engagement? Or did the 20 plus years remove that statute of limitations.
“No, keep it,” he said sadly. And he looked at me then, his pale blue eyes full of all twenty years that stood between now and then. Twenty years of living life, growing up, moving on, having regrets and coming to peace with all of it. “Keep it with you,” he said huskily.
I tucked the ring back in my bag, my face glowing red with all of the things we both were leaving unsaid.