I was at a small bistro downtown tonight, one of those places that's a hip version of an Italian restaurant from some designer-retro vision of 1950s Little Italy. You probably know the kind of place: Sinatra endlessly playing, the furniture dark and heavy, the wine list good yet one that would've induced shock and awe in the real 1950s. The clientele was exactly what you'd expect, too. Late twenties, early thirties, carefully tailored. Out in the dining area there were even a couple of tables with families who might well have been brought in by the designers. I was at the end of the bar--- a quick stop on my way home from work. You can imagine me there; you've known me here long enough to do that. At the end of the bar, always. The quiet figure with a glass of pinot grigio, older than the others at the bar, nondescript dark-grey fleece jacket on a crisp evening more October than two days before year's end. A glass of wine, a small plate of pasta with olive oil and a bit of garlic butter. Something simple and as nondescript as my jacket and my black chinos. Someone who's just there because the bar was a brief haven on my way home. Someone just there to watch.
There was a party of girls just down the bar. Four of them, all mid or late twenties, corporate chic, streaked blonde, two of them with State-issue ID/access cards still on cords around their necks. Exactly the demographic the bistro was designed for. One of them was showing off an engagement ring, happy and proud of the diamond on her hand, clinking glasses with her friends. So easy to imagine how thrilled she was--- so easy to imagine that she'd be spending her spring planning a wedding and a honeymoon.
I'm not mocking her at all. I don't want you to think that. A lovely girl, out with her friends, and genuinely happy about the next stage of her life. I did smile at them and nod--- a quiet stranger who was nodding at her happiness.
I may have told you before, though I'm not certain. In the course of my life, I've asked two girls to marry me. Both accepted. Neither time came to anything--- nothing all that awful happened, it just didn't work out. My record, though, is perfect: two proposals, two acceptances. No, I've never been married, and at this stage of my life, I'd probably be awful at it. There's a point at which you're too used to living alone to finally marry. There's a point, too, where the number of people who might consider you as a partner falls away to nothing, a point where those you might ask are either already married or too traumatized or exhausted by previous marriages to risk anything on you.
Still and all, I do miss the idea of marrying. I've said before that I suppose I like the idea of having been married more than the idea of actually being married. I miss the idea that I could still participate in a major social ritual.
I'm not particularly excited by the idea of a wedding. I'm male, and I know what my role is at a wedding--- to stand to one side in a rented tuxedo and say "I do" at the prompts. Which is fine, after all. I can wear black and learn my steps and responses in a few minutes. I'm a quick study, and I wouldn't forget the ring.
I think the moment of putting a ring on a bride's finger attracts me: symbols are magic, after all. I like the reverse of that, too. A lovely girl putting a ring on my finger in response is like...what? I've been through a doctoral hooding, and I imagine that it would be like that--- a formal reminder of being translated into some new state. I vaguely recall being very young and going through a confirmation ceremony in a dark old stone church; that comparison might be more appropriate. The attraction is the same, and I'm sure it's something the girl at the bar understood. It's about becoming something new, about being recognized as something new.
You've been reading me here for a while. You've heard me say more than once that I like ritual and the idea of ritual. Ritual makes so many things easier. Ritual makes so much of social life possible. And rituals give us a place in the social order.
I'm a gentleman of a certain age, and a gentleman of limited circumstances. I'm not the target demographic for De Beers. I'm not sure I could offer a girl a diamond even if I wanted to. But I miss the idea of being part of a moment where someone would let me slide a ring onto her finger, where she'd be recognizing that I have value in the social order.
You fall in love with an individual, but you live in a social world. Being formally with someone establishes you in a role in society. Having someone accept a formal proposal is a statement about your social value. Missing out on the ritual at an appropriate point in life means that you'll be left farther and farther behind in the social world and that you'll seem more and more suspect in terms of your social value. It's not just you're assumed to be Oedipally-challenged or perhaps gay. It's that you're increasingly assumed not to have the necessary value to be part of social structures.
Two more days 'til the end of the year. The week after Christmas is always a melancholy thing, or at least always is for me. Tonight at the bar, I did envy the girl with the ring. Somewhere in the spring or summer of the new year she'll be taking a public, socially-sanctioned step into a new phase of life. I envy her that--- the social transition, the rite of passage. Well, I hope that in ten years she'll look back on this season and be happy. I do wish her well. I'm running out of moments of transition and growth, of rituals that affirm my value and place. I do worry that I've run out of time altogether.