Natalie was walking down the street as fast as she could, her feet making satisfactory slaps on the ground with every step, and she heard the cadence of it in her head as she walked. One more block till I'm home, she was thinking when her phone buzzed in her pocket and Beethoven's Fifth started playing. When she got her hands on the phone and saw that the caller ID read Henry, she smiled and flipped it open.
"Hey- what's going on?" he asked.
"Nothing- can't believe I just finished my first week." Natalie just got a job with the Boston Symphony Orchestra- an internship, really, but she was getting paid a little. Grad school was ending, and she would be leaving the comfort of college. "I love it. I'm on my way home- how are you?"
"I'm good." Henry sounded strange, like his mind was somewhere else.
"What's up? You ok?"
"Yeah- I'm fine," he said. "Want to come over tonight?"
Natalie crossed the street and headed towards her apartment building. Henry lived across town from her, just a long walk or cab ride away, which was a huge plus. Doing something fun with Henry would be a perfect way to end the week. "Definitely! What time? I want to shower and stuff first, though."
"Lemme see- it's about five-thirty now. Why don't you come by around seven? We can watch a movie, or something."
Natalie smiled. "With popcorn?"
"Store bought white cheddar- your favorite."
"Don't know how you could like that crap, but I still bought it. The things I do for you..."
She could practically hear him rolling his eyes as she threw her purse and keys on the table and kicked off her shoes, thinking about if she had enough time for a bubble bath.
"Not that I, like, mind getting you popcorn or anything- you know that, right? I'd do anything for you- even get you cheddar popcorn. Which is probably terrible for you, by the way." His voice sounded even stranger now- higher or something. Natalie raised her eyebrows.
"Um, I know that, Henry... Are you sure you're alright?" He never sounded this nervous. What was he talking about?
"Yeah- yeah, I'm fine."
"Well, I've gotta go now, but I'll see you then, ok?"
"Ok- love you, Nat."
"I love you, too."
Henry hung up the phone and set it carefully on the table.
Now what? He couldn't rehearse the words in his head or plan anything else out anymore. If he thought about it one more time, he didn't think he could go through with it.
Walking through the main room in his apartment, Henry passed by a mirror hanging on the wall. Glancing at himself, he noticed his wrinkled shirt, and in a moment of self-consciousness, ran to his bedroom and riffled through his drawers until he found a much cleaner shirt that Natalie had complemented him on. He quickly discarded the offending garment, and pulled the new shirt on and buttoned it carefully. Heading into the kitchenette-laundry-room where the bag of popcorn sat on the counter, he reached into the cabinet, taking out a metal bowl. He poured the popcorn into it, then reached into his jeans pocket and pulled out the tiny black box. Setting it down on the counter, Henry stared at it for a long minute, trying to ignore how much hope he had riding on it.
She loves me, he said. She's said it loads of times- that has to mean something. And we've been dating for seven years!
Sometimes, when Henry thought about growing up and out on his own, he had trouble, distinguishing his solo memories from his memories with Natalie. Most of what he remembered from high school was Natalie- the disaster of her junior year mingled with the blessing that they came together; helping her recover from it all throughout senior year, going through college admissions with her, and studying in schools only a brief train ride away from each other. Now he was twenty-four, something of an adult, still with Natalie. It was amazing it had worked out this way- people didn't meet their soul mates in high school, or so he had thought. But he knew now that he had thought wrong.
Hopefully Natalie would agree.
He took a deep breath and dropped the velvet black box amidst the popcorn, burying it in the white kernels. He then carried it over to the sturdy table in front of the couch; he also took out some napkins, cups, and made sure there were drinks in the refrigerator. Some guys spent a lot of money and took their girlfriends out for something fancy when they proposed, but he knew that wasn't what Natalie was after. After all, he knew that Natalie wanted nothing more than to be loved- he couldn't prove that through a fancy dinner. He hoped he'd proved that already.
But sometimes he worried that he couldn't love her enough to make up for her believing for sixteen years that no one ever saw her.
Well- it will have to be enough. It's all I've got.
Natalie stepped out of the shower, wrapping herself in a towel, but hesitating before she began drying off.
What the hell was with Henry tonight? Was he on something? But it seemed like something different... And after all, Henry only took 'organic' drugs, and he'd even been severely cutting back on those recently. It wasn't something medically-induced, she could feel it.
Just let it go- it's your first chance to relax in weeks!
It was true- she'd been so busy lately, between job interviews and recitals and performances. She hardly had time to breathe, much less take a night off with Henry.
In a moment of private sappiness- the kind she saved for herself that no one would ever know about- ever- she allowed herself to think about him in a way that she knew she scoffed at when other girls did.
She pulled her clothes and was putting a few finishing touches on when the clock announced six-thirty. It was time to go.
"Hey!" Henry said as he opened the door, and she walked straight forward and wrapped her arms around him.
"Hey, Henry," Natalie said, kissing him for a long time as he closed the door.
"What's up, Nat?" he asked after they broke apart, leading her over to the couch. They plopped down next to each other, and she rested her head against his arm.
"Just tired, really- can't tell you how glad I am to have a night off." She stretched out as she said this, as though determined to relax.
"You should take more time off- you work so hard, I'm sure anyone would let you."
She shook her head. "Not with everything finishing up like this- I just have to stick it out. I'll never get anywhere if I take time off... I mean, with the recital coming up handwork, not to mention classes, and even more job interviews...!" Her voice was steadily rising, which Henry knew to be the telltale sign of Natalie's stress getting to her.
"Hey- you're taking a night off, remember? So you're not working?"
She smiled. "Right. I guess I just forgot."
They decided on a movie, and were settling in with the lights turned off when Natalie picked up the popcorn bowl. As she ate, Henry watched her fingers retrieve each piece of popcorn, unsure as to whether he wanted her to eat faster or take her time and not find the ring. I can't take it any longer, he said, and grabbed a fistful of popcorn.
"I thought you hated white cheddar?" she said, eyeing him knowingly.
"I do," he said, struggling to swallow the fake-cheesy tasting snack food. "But I was just checking to make sure I... still hated it. You know."
"Sure," she said, clearly confused but not caring enough to ask. But now, when Henry looked down at the bowl, he saw that the small jewelry box was now exposed. Nat's eyes were fixed on the screen, and Henry's on the popcorn, as her hand rhythmically dipped into the bowl and repeatedly missed the box. He could have sworn his heart was in his throat. I finally understand what that means, he said. Like, it never made any sense before. But I totally get it now. But even this did not provide a distraction.
Natalie continued to eat the popcorn, when suddenly her fingers brushed against the velvet. Her eyes looked automatically downwards, and she saw something poking out from the bowl of popcorn. Brows furrowed, she brushed away the rest of the popcorn, and uncovered a black velvet jewelry box.
Had she been paying any attention, she would have seen Henry pausing the movie and turning to face her. But she could only stare at the box in disbelief for an immeasurable length of time.
What... she thought. Even her brain wasn't forming coherent words.
"Is this...?" she finally stuttered out.
"Nat," Henry said, and she finally turned towards him, meeting his eyes, which were deep and kind, familiar. "Natalie."
He took one of her hands in one of his own, and then moved the popcorn bowl from her lap, retrieving the jewelry box.
Oh my God.
"Natalie," he said again, and this time she made an effort to listen. "I was not with you from the beginning, the beginning of everything that's happened to you, but after you first came into my life, I've wanted to be there with you ever since. I want you to know that I'll... be here," he swallowed carefully, looking like he was trying to say something he couldn't really put into words. "I'll be here until the end, Nat. I love you, and I want to give you what you never had- I want to be in your life, and I want... I mean, what I'm trying to say is- Natalie, will you marry me?"
She could not hold his gaze any longer- this was just too much. It was completely out of the blue, and... "Henry," she tried, but couldn't look at him. She didn't even know how she felt yet. "We've never talked about this- I just...I wasn't expecting this. It's just- a surprise." But is it a good or bad surprise? She didn't know.
Henry tried not to walk away right then, fighting the horrible rejection he was feeling. "Nat- Natalie- is it really a surprise? I mean, we've been dating seven years- seven and a half, actually-" there was a pleading note in his voice.
She opened her mouth to argue, but he didn't want her to shoot him down quickly- not this time. He'd just opened up his heart to her, and he would make sure she gave him a fair shot.
"I've never left you- and I never will, I promise. No matter what happens, if that's what you're worried about."
It's not that simple, Henry, she wanted to say. I don't believe you'll leave me. But... one day I could leave you. Like Mom. I may not have a choice.
I won't. I won't hurt him that way. I know better than Mom- I've seen it happen, I won't let it happen again!
And I am not Mom!
I am not!
He wasn't helping his case by whining, he knew, so he backtracked. "Natalie- just think about it. Take all the time you need- I'll be here. But I just want you to know that I'm willing to be in this with you forever."
She was shaking her head again. "Henry, I don't need to think about it."
He just looked at his hands, not able to look into her eyes.
"Henry," she put a hand on his cheek and forced him to look at her. "Henry."
I am not my mother, she told herself again. I can have some happiness. I deserve it!
"Yes, Henry, I will marry you. There's no one else in this world I'd rather be with." She blushed right after she'd said the words, knowing they were more romantic than she'd ever used before. But they seemed to be just what Henry wanted to hear.
For a moment he just stared, blinking, before a huge smile broke out onto his face and he laughed aloud, taking her in his arms, almost crushing her by hugging her too tightly.
"Nat- I love you so much!" he cried out.
"I love you, too, Henry," she said, sort of overwhelmed.
He let her go for a moment to take out a simple engagement ring and slip it onto her finger, his hands shaking, and she knew he was as giddy and overwhelmed as she was. Unable to come up with words, she just kissed him, and she felt his hands on back, holding her safely to him.
Maybe she could have a normal life. After all, what was more normal than marriage?
She shuddered- ok, so maybe that wasn't the best example.
So normal, maybe not. But maybe they could be happy.
And that was enough.