The Ring

by Nathan Leslie


f you open your eyes you'll see: soft bills passing between strangers, belt buckles unclasping, fingers burrowing in panty hose runs, hair twirling in between fingers, wedding rings unscrewing into pockets. Most people skate on the surface, accept the literal, buy into ploys.  Drones. Career men. Ladies checking their lipstick in the rearview. However, the surface is useful if you can twist it to your advantage, if you can alter yourself without altering its perception -- appearances.

I am getting married. My fiancée, Helen, is truly a "good person." She gives to the poor, adopts pets from the SPCA; she has a healthy network of friendships that she nurtures and maintains; she drives the speed limit, and always crosses the street when the sign flashes "walk;" she gives old clothes to Goodwill; she tries not to judge rashly, or raise her voice; and she never, ever says the words "I hate." I do sincerely love her-although not for the reasons she thinks. I love Helen not because she's a good person, but because she's an oddity. I had no idea that it was possible to abide by all of society's complex and unspoken rules. I had no idea it was possible to be "good." Though I am in a strange sort of awe of her, I simultaneously fear her: Helen is the perfect science experiment, the ultimate government conspiracy, the perfect citizen. I love Helen because I truly do hope to attain her level of wisdom and nobility. Someday. For now I'll choose the opposite.

This is not to say I'm a Charles Manson. I maintain a decent (though dull) job at the Department of the Interior (we do many interior things interiorly). I have my own fair share of friends, and I try to abide by the law the way most people do-when it is convenient. But I have a terrible malicious streak. My favorite day is April Fool's: I can get away with something that I'm not supposed to do. Last year I painted my colleague's golf trophy neon pink. At least I try. Yet, in my relationship with Helen, I've always been stable, supportive, and honest. I've never cheated, or strayed, and I don't think I ever will. However, what has been rankling me of late is the incessant wedding planning itself.

I recognize this cliché of wedding planning complaints. Every man feels they are being forced to play doll and tea party at the same time. However, I've had it up to here with caterers, disk jockeys and bands, photographers, bakeries, rental halls, invitations, embroidered cloth napkins, spoons and forks and table cloths, tuxes and dresses, flowers and ribbons, slights and honors ad nauseum.

Of course, I don't share these frustrations with Helen. I sit quietly and smile in clean rooms, decorated with clean art, pillowed and curtained perfectly, heated or air conditioned just so. We flip through catalogues that smell of rose petals and rosemary, and point to things we like or don't like. "Oh, that's nice," she'll say. "Oh, I like that," I'll declare. Helen pinches her skirt between her fingers, crosses her legs, crosses her arms and leans forward. She kisses me, and squeezes me, and says she loves me with all of her heart. I do the same and repeat what she says in a sort of pantomime. Everything is so perfect, and I do as I'm told. Even our parents get along. Her parents are nice and generous and supportive, and I suppose mine are the same. Silently, they shuffle pieces of paper to each other, like Mafiosos--hundred dollar bills. Marriage: perfect symmetry, a palace of an event. Everything and everyone just so.

When our parents leave, Helen cheerfully pours us each a glass of wine. I dislodge one of the pillows from the sofa, or twist the curtains slightly askew. I think of Persian rug-makers intentionally creating an imperfection in the weave so they don't mock Allah's divine precision. We clink glasses and sip our wine delicately. Helen purses her lips and creaks a pleasant smile, her teeth white and clean. We sigh and sit in silence, or sometimes play trance music (her favorite). Then I listen to the calming electronic drums, the digital rain, the sound of pygmies chanting. As a couple, we are top-knotch at sitting together without saying a thing; Helen says this proves she feels "comfortable with me." Then she notices the dislodged pillow or askew curtain, and silently stands, and glides over to the imperfection, rights it and glides back to me like an phantom.

Recently I revel in my time alone, especially on the Metro. I just watch people, strangers, noticing the individuality of their faces and gestures, what they decide to read on the train, what they are wearing-as if the people on the train are individual shapes or numbers, as if they are small functions in a larger equation. These days I price rings, trying to pick the perfect wedding ring. On the train I look at the wedding rings other women wear. Some are modest bands, but most sport unwieldy, thumb-sized diamonds crowning two bands-the fused engagement ring and wedding ring. I want to go all out, just like the husbands of these women. I want to be a show-off. I already purchased a one-carat engagement ring. Yet, I want something grander more lavish for the actual ceremony. I want to upstage myself. When I'm watching women I can't help thinking what do they really think about these things? Do they really care if they have a huge diamond? Are women as materialistic as I think they are, or do they have a sense of irony about the function and symbolism of their jewelry?

When these thoughts flood my head, I open my briefcase, and pull out my sports magazine. Then I become one of the people I observe. I sink into a football, or basketball article and wait until the conductor announces my stop. Then I roll my magazine in my hand, pick up my briefcase, and step off the train towards the parking lot. I watch other men and women do the same thing. I like feeling as if I am part of a workforce, although I doubt if the workforce cares one way or another. I like feeling as if I am part of society, although I doubt if society would notice my absence.

However, I have impulses. I decide to interview women about their rings. I want to find out the truth about these symbols of marital union. I made money on stocks; I have savings; I have a Roth IRA; I have a 401(K). I decide to offer each interviewee one hundred dollars for fifteen minutes of tape-recorded conversation. Also, I will offer to interview them at their Metro stop, so I don't inconvenience my subjects. Before I even begin I am aroused by the whorish transaction, as close to prostitution as I am willing to go.

The first woman I ask is in a hurry and says no, and I wonder if I am fooling myself. Perhaps she thought I was making an advance on her. The next day I ask an elderly lady, wearing a purple fanny pack and a baseball cap--seemingly a tourist. Old people like to talk, I think. She agrees to talk to me, but says she won't accept any money (I thought this would lesson the allure, but it doesn't). We stop at Metro Center, and find a quiet corner on the second floor. I ask her about her wedding ring, and she says that her husband gave her the most beautiful ring in the world, not too big, not too small, not too garish. "My husband was the most considerate man I've ever met," she says. "I miss him dearly." I ask her if she ever envied the rings that her friends wore, and she looks at me funny and says, "Real ladies don't do that sort of thing."

The next day I interview a young woman who has been married for two years. She seems shy, and I have to yank answers from her mouth. She says she never really thinks about her ring. "It's just sort of there," she says. "Like part of my body. I guess it's beautiful." She glances at it oddly. Her diamond is small, and the surrounding stones poorly cut to my eye. I ask her if her ring effectively symbolizes her marriage. "We're getting separated," she says. "If we get divorced I guess I won't wear it anymore. I don't know. It will be weird just having part of me sit around a drawer."

The next day I interview a middle-aged woman, who wears a power-suit and walks with an air of braggadocio. She will provide a good contrast to the others, I think. We stop at Galleryplace/Chinatown and she offers to buy me a beer at a café down the street. I accept. She tells me I have nice features, good bone structure. I thank her politely. I drink three beers, and unclasp my belt buckle. I hope she is not offended, much less turned-on. Of course, the last thing in the world I would want to do is excite another woman on the cusp of my precious wedding. I wonder if she likes animalistic sex. I don't ask.

"My husband and I purchased our own rings," she tells me. "We both have enough income that we wanted to get what we wanted. We didn't want to be disappointed, or resentful in the least. So, I'm as happy as I can be about my ring. The diamond appears to be the size of a crab apple. "A lot of people are doing that now." She says the ring symbolizes what they can achieve together. "It's really a statement about our place in society," she says. "We are in the upper-tier--unapologetically so." She asks me why I am doing this, and I tell her. "Buy her something nice," she says. "Don't scrimp on the most important day in a woman's life." I ask her why a wedding is any more important than any other day. "It just is," she says. "I'm not a sociologist."

Today Helen is supposed to meet me at our Metro station. We have reservations at a new Malaysian restaurant. I get off the train and wait for her by the turnstiles. I like the sense of anticipation, watching the mass of random faces, and looking for Helen in the hodge-podge of people. Each face is different, each personality unique. A woman blows her nose. A man wears a straw hat. A short man slips his fingers through a hole in his girlfriend's hose. He wears a wedding band, and she doesn't. Then Helen emerges out of the mass, the personality and face that has come to love me. At that moment I do love her. Then my heart sinks-maybe it's just the love of familiarity.

Yet, the harried society in which we live is propped up by the slightest of supports. One hundred years ago I would have worked in a factory. A hundred years before that I would have dug ditches. Our society has lost its sense of context. So now I enter data and crunch numbers--what the difference? It's no more honest or noble than digging ditches. I see these government bureaucrats wearing slick Armani-style suits, and I want to "accidentally" spill coffee on them, just to show them they don't live in the future. This isn't utopia. This isn't a dream.

I wonder if Helen and I shouldn't drop out of corporate society and become ditch diggers, live in a hovel dug out of a hillside without obligations and demands-a spare, albeit gritty existence. If she's such a good person, she should want to live a simple life with simple furnishings, and a ditch for a toilet. If Helen were such a good person, she wouldn't lead me into an ambush.

I decide to purposefully buy a forged wedding ring. I want some part-the supposedly most important part-of our ceremony to be to a sham. I want to acknowledge the fine line that keeps our reality from destruction. Moreover, I want to hedge my bets, but not by banging a stripper at some clammy bachelor party (a fleeting hedge). I want to have a seed of our own destruction already planted, so that if Helen leaves me after a year of marriage I can point to her ring and say, "Well, I always knew this wasn't going to work; even your ring is a fake." I want to know that part of my relationship with Helen is a fraud, to be reminded of the artificial nature of our marriage (and every marriage) every time I sit down with her to eat dinner, every time we are holding hands, every time we are driving on some romantic get-away. I want a reminder that things can go wrong, just in case they do.

However, actually purchasing a good forgery is more difficult than I expect. I spend hours hunting down a good paste-maker on the computer. Good thing I work for the government (seemingly I could be hatching plans to blow up the Sears Tower and nobody would know). I e-mail forgers all over the company, and after weeks the cream rises. A guy named Jakob Trollinger tells me he can make me the perfect fake diamond ring for eight hundred.

Nobody will ever suspect, he says. He doesn't use synthetic GE diamonds, but zircon and clear quartz topped with a diamond coating. This way, he tells me, "If your wife tries the light test, or the bits of paper test, it should still pass. It will still cut glass."

Two months later, I receive his package in the mail at the PO box I set up for the circumstance. It's a thing of beauty, a three stone diamond ring, Swiss cut, two carats, and all fake. I throw the packaging in the garbage, and slip the ring back into its jewelry box, then into my pocket. On the Metro I pay women to look at it. I feel like an exhibitionist. A woman in her exercise attire tells me it's the nicest ring she's seen in years. A woman in a brown sports jacket tells me she'd love to get a ring like that. A matriarch examines it and tells me my wife must be very lucky to have me. Throughout the ride home I maintain an erection.

*    *    *

I should have hired a wedding planner. There's the clergy, marriage license, lodging for out of town guests, receiving line, registry, videotaper, program, pew cards, blood tests, boutonnières, bridal album, presents for attendants, meadow bouquet or silk rose, plastic or engraved glass, bachelor dinner, pre-wedding party.

The wedding day comes and goes. Everything runs smooth as can be. Helen holds her hand over her mouth in amazement. She loves it. She eats the wedding ring with a fork. She wears it everywhere, shows it to her friends and family, cries in happiness. She dances with colleagues, and drinks wine with her friends. I barely see her through the entire reception. Everyone hugs her hands and tells her they are so happy for her. She twirls her hair in her fingers. Her friends ogle the ring as they kiss her cheeks and hug.

Then six months later our relationship is over. Over veal chops and artichoke hearts she tells me she's having an affair with a colleague, and she can't see breaking it off. She tells me she had to let me know. I tell her about my fling with Rhonda during my trip to Houston. We decide to call the whole thing off. I ask her what went wrong, and she shrugs her shoulders. I shrug back. Neither one of us knows. We are bored. She is ready to move on.

"I feel lonely all the time," she says. "I don't know why."

"I know, we planned this wedding and it took over our lives. It seems like we have nothing to do now that we don't have to plan."

"I miss planning together," she says. "I miss the times sharing ideas." I nod. We down our vodka, and she pours us both another shot.

"Listen," I lean towards her. "I don't have any hard feelings. We part ways mutually, happily. But I'm wondering, what are you going to do with that ring?"

"This," she says, hoisting her finger vertically. "It's yours." She throws her hand in my direction, as if it were a used tissue. I unscrew the ring from her finger and slip it into my pocket. This is not the way I planned it to go.

"I just don't understand," I say.

"Neither do I," she says.  
NATHAN LESLIE has had fiction and poetry appear in over thirty publications including Amherst Review, Wascana Review, Poetry Motel, Connections, The Crab Creek Review, The Higginsville Reader, Fodderwing, The Sulphur River Literary Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Washington Post, and DaybreakHe completed his MFA at the University of Maryland this past spring, where he won the 2000 Katherine Anne Fiction Prize.  He currently teaches writing at Towson University.  This is his second appearance in
The Adirondack Review.