The Proposal

by Madan

"How do I tell her?", he thought. "How do I summon up the strength to walk up to her and let her know that there will never be any other woman for me? How do I ask her to be mine? What do I have, that..he doesn't?"

He was sitting outside, waiting for her, a rose in his hand. His emotions had overwhelmed him, leaving him incapable of rational thought. He started to write, in a futile attempt to relieve the tension that had been building up inside him.

"Will she marry me? Will there be children? Will there be a family waiting for me to return home? Will I willingly put myself through the crushing rigors of an unsatisfying job, because providing for the family I love so much makes it all worthwhile, meaningful, and even desirable? Will I get to sacrifice myself for someone's sake, for the incomparable feeling of being loved, of being wanted by someone, someone who understands? Someone who knows what it's like to live the way I do. Someone, who loves me, for who I am, and what I could be."

Stirred by the scent, he looked down at the freshly cut rose, with a growing sense of unease. He felt it was a failure of his imagination. He could not think of anything else to get her besides this kitschy gesture of love. The realization that there was nothing unique about his gift, or his desire to impress her kept battering the last remnants of his self-confidence. But he still had to try. There would be no turning back after this. Life had left him bruised and defeated to the point where he couldn't feel very much pain anymore, and any pain he had to suffer was nothing new. His mind had had ample time to accustom its machinations to the brutal torture his conscience made him endure, ever-present reminders of an unfulfilled existence.

The only emotions he still felt capable of were the crushing sense of loneliness that was now a part of his being, and a longing to be loved, which had stayed with him through everything life had thrown at him. He had tried to crush it with his despair, but it only grew. He was not meant to be a pessimist. Just another sensitive, hopeless romantic being mercilessly crushed by an impossibly difficult life, and a completely indifferent universe.

He had spent a lifetime alone waiting for her to come to him, and she hadn't. She had chosen another man instead. He had overheard her talking to her friends about him. There was some mention of being loved and being perfect for each other, and knowing each other's thoughts even before the sentences were uttered. A feeling of belonging, a sense of home, warmth, and trust. But he didn't believe it. He wouldn't let himself believe it. It would be the death-knell of all his hopes.

All the signs pointed to an imminent rainstorm.The sky was overcast, and there wasn't even the slightest hint of a breeze stirring the drooping flags that were hanging at half-mast around the plaza. He looked at them, increasingly perturbed, sensing the despair that hung heavily in the air. Was this a premonition of how things would go? Life's warning that only defeat waited at the end of this path?

Tears of desperation started to well up in his eyes. Still, he could not leave. He could not go back to an empty apartment without doing anything about it. This was his life's reckoning. Everything he had ever felt, thought, seen and become was in preparation for this moment. He refused to see a life without her. He did not want it. It would be discarded, much like an old garment that no longer fits or serves any purpose.

A clap of thunder rent the air as the rain started to fall, settling into a steady rhythm. The flock of pigeons gathered around the plaza flew distractedly towards the ledges that offered them shelter. People scattered hurriedly, as if afraid that they were made of wax, and would dissolve in the downpour. He remained sitting, motionless. It was almost time.

The rain increased in frequency, as he made futile attempts to protect the rose. Out of desperation, he shoved it into his coat pocket. It would be safe there. He sat in the rain for what seemed to be an interminable period of time. Yet, a steady calm was beginning to descend on him. Perhaps it is the calm that accompanies action in a trying situation, he thought.

"At least I'm doing something about it.", he mused out loud, in a last ditch attempt to boost his flagging faith in himself.

The doors of the building flew open. This was his moment. He got up forcefully, his chair crashing backwards, the noise echoing across the empty plaza like a gunshot. He had gotten the attention of the woman, and walked forcefully towards her, dripping wet, his hands and legs trembling. She was smiling at him uncertainly, trying to discern the intention behind his advances. As he walked up to her, he tried his best to effectively articulate the words he had prepared weeks in advance. "There is something I would like you to have. I have wanted to tell you this ever since I saw you. It is my sincerest wish that you would accept my love, for I have loved you since I saw you, and nothing would mean more to me than your acceptance." It had looked nice enough on paper, but had lost much of its intensity in the telling, and came out blunt, awkward. He went down on one knee, and reached into his pocket to give her the rose, as she stared at him, perplexed.

A crowd of onlookers had gathered underneath the awning of the building, watching curiously. He did not fail to notice that none of them were smiling. They were all here to watch him crash and burn, he thought. "But no matter, I have come this far". Self-conscious, and completely absorbed in his thoughts, it was too late when he realized that the force with which he had pulled out the rose had caused the petals to rip away from the stem in a blaze of scarlet, before being hurriedly washed away by the rain. The sound of raucous laughter erupted across the plaza as he stood on bended knee, with a bald rose in his hand. Even the girl was covering her mouth with her hand to suppress peals of laughter. "The shame of it all, he thought", as the laughter reached a shrieking crescendo. "There is only one thing left to do". He stood up, and walked away. The rose fell to the ground, its bright hues dissolving swiftly in the rain.

He turned as the door flew open again, and a handsome young man strode out with an umbrella in his hand.

He was taken aback by how similar the man's features and movements were to his own. The man walked up to the woman, kissed her, murmuring an apology for having left his umbrella inside, and they both walked away together, her arm holding on lightly to his.

The crowd dispersed, to return to their empty lives, aware that the evening's entertainment was over. The downpour slowly ceased. The man walked on with downcast head, as the pigeons once again hopped nimbly in the square around the wet tables and the fallen chair. The flags remained resolutely at-half mast, mute witnesses to rejection.

Everything was once again as it was.

The man woke up screaming in the darkness, drenched in his tears and sweat. He reached out to touch the inert form of his sleeping wife. She stirred.

"What is it, love?"

"Nightmare, I think", he stammered.

His wife sat up and switched on the light so she could see him.

"Darling, it's all right. Look at me. I am here. This is real. You are real." She caressed his face with her hands, as he broke down, sobbing helplessly.

"I had it again. You were with someone else. Everyone laughed, and I went home to put an end to all of it".

"Tell me everything."

He did so, and as the words flowed evenly alongside his tears, the warm sensation of relief that accompanies a confession settled his troubled heart.

She mused for a moment, choosing her words carefully and whispered them into his ears, as they lay enveloped in each other's arms.

"My darling. The man, it wasn't you. You were the one with the umbrella. I have always been yours."

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