First and foremost, this is literally how I proposed to my wife. Not as it happens in the story, of course, but by writing her the story itself, and then giving it to her for New Years. But still, I feel like you have to give me some points for that. But probably more points to my wife for still saying yes in spite of all that and everything else she has to put up with.
I had been reading too much Bukowski. And at thirty-four, I was much too old to be just now discovering old Buk, but I had long avoided him because of the types of sad-bastard stories I’ve read over the years from writers who profess to worship at his sad-bastard altar (which you are probably now thinking the same about me as I write this). But as in “Okay But Will You Anyway,” I tend to write a lot of fiction that’s some version or me or my uglier alter ego, and at the heart of most of my stories, I tend to play the bad guy or at the very least the butt of my own brutal jokes, so a friend of mine had gotten on me about giving old Buk a chance. Of course, Bukowski tends to be so polarizing that I was at least curious to figure out what he was writing that had pissed off so many people. Probably it was the same thing when I read Catcher in the Rye back in college (Wait that’s it? I can remember thinking. That’s all? He doesn’t try to kill himself or anybody else or anything?)
In Bukowski’s stories, however, it does not take long to see what offends people. The “narrator” is frequently completely misogynistic and wholly irredeemable. But for as big of a dirty old misogynist as Bukowski was in real life and portrays himself in his writing, I was struck by the moments of tenderness that trickle out in the midst of his most brutal stories, of the tragic co-dependence that these characters have for each other, as desperate and damaged as they tend to be, as ugly as the men can be to the women and vice versa. Maybe it isn’t always love and maybe it’s almost never healthy, but these characters feel for each other and yearn for each other and kept coming back for more, and to me, there was something so beautifully human to that.
My actual proposal is not that much of a story to tell really (or any more than the fictional version I’ve already written). We were both writers and we’d been together for ten years, and over those ten years, we’d moved around every two years looking for a teaching/writing jobs that would pay a livable wage. We’d talked about it off and on over the years, which is to say that she’d talked about wanting to get married, and I’d always talked about how we’d waited this long, we might as well wait until one of us had a decent job, a place that we could see ourselves living for ten, twenty, fifty years. The point is we hadn’t found that job or that place, and I didn’t have the money for a decent engagement ring, let alone a wedding ring to replace it with, and as a short story writer, I wasn’t exactly Mr. Plan Months in Advance. I had thought about getting her name tattooed on my arm—as horribly cheesy as that sounds—but of course that takes money, too, and weeks of having sex with the lights off and getting undressed in different rooms to conceal it. I thought about a lot of things, including the fact that she could say no and that I was too much of a sad-bastard writer to deserve her in the first place.
So I did the only thing I could think of. I sat down for two days and I wrote this mostly true story (or at least this has mostly all happened though not necessarily the way it’s depicted). And at the end of the night on New Year’s Eve, after the ball had dropped and we’d gotten half-drunk and all that, I handed her my story (I’d written stories about us before, though never very flattering or romantic). While she was reading it, I went to the bathroom, took off all my clothes, grabbed a Sharpie, and scribbled her name on my chest with a crooked heart around it. On the way out, I grabbed the dog, pulled off the ring with the dog’s heartworm tags, took the tags off, and got down on one knee from behind couch. When she finally got to the last page and looked back, there I was with that crappy key ring in my hands and fending off the dog from trying to lick my privates.
And you know what she did? She started giggling. Couldn’t stop giggling.
“Jesus Christ,” she said eventually.
Then after making me sit there and listen to her giggling for far too long, she just shook her head. “Oh what the hell,” she said.