"He used to think that he wanted to be good, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to be brave and wise, but it was all pretty difficult. He wanted to be loved too, if he could fit it in."
-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
Tender is the Night
Matt raised his head from the pillow and turned around to squint at the ancient alarm clock behind his bed.
He sighed and twisted around in the sheets restlessly. Matt had quickly become accustomed to falling asleep to the muffled noise of Chicago traffic and the various sounds that came along with living in a second floor loft apartment in the middle of the city, so the deafening silence of rural Texas was only contributing to his inability to stay asleep.
The other issue at hand keeping him wide awake was his plan for the day ahead of him, which consisted of two important things: asking grandma for her engagement ring and using it to propose to Julie Taylor. He could have taken care of the first thing earlier in the day when he had arrived at the house, but after the initial confusion of seeing him, grandma was happy and lucid, so they spent a nice afternoon catching up over some vanilla crèmes and iced tea, and he didn't want to risk overwhelming her with too much excitement at once. He would get out of bed in a few hours, make her favorite breakfast of scrambled eggs and French toast, and tell her the news.
The summer before Matt's sophomore year of high school, he was helping grandma straighten up around the house and heard her hollering for him from her bedroom. He found her digging purposefully through a large old oak jewelry box on the dresser.
"Come here Matthew," she said, beckoning him over. "Here it is!" She pulled out a black velvet box and admired its contents for a moment before handing it over to Matt.
He held the ring in his hand delicately, vaguely recognizing the antique design, the light streaming in from the window reflecting against the small diamond.
"Your grandpa gave that to me the day he asked me to marry him, and I hope one day, when you find yourself a sweet girl, that you'll give it to her." Mrs. Saracen beamed at her grandson who half rolled his eyes and laughed.
At the time, and as a fifteen year old boy who had very little experience with girls, the last thing he was thinking about was finding a sweet girl to marry, but in the present moment, alone with his thoughts in a darkened bedroom, that interaction was holding a lot of significance for him.
Matt hoped grandma would still be okay with parting with the ring, really one of the only things that she had left to remind her of her deceased husband, the love of her life, the man who would play their song and dance with her in the middle of the living room, the man she had been married to for forty eight years. Matt had always admired their loving relationship which served as a stark contrast to the one he witnessed his parents having early in his childhood before his mom had jumped ship.
He kicked off the blanket and stared up at the ceiling, still unable to sleep and prayed that he had read Julie's signals right over the past couple of months, and that this grand gesture wouldn't just seem completely insane or out of line.
They hadn't seen each other in the few months since she returned to school after her visit, but there were somewhat frequent phone calls, emails and text messages keeping each other up to date on their lives, saying they missed each other but never taking it further than that. It was a weird limbo that he didn't feel comfortable in, and sensed that she didn't either. A month ago, Julie had asked him if he was coming home for Thanksgiving and when he said he wasn't, she sounded disappointed. When she didn't bother to ask him about Christmas, he knew it would be the perfect opportunity to surprise her.
Matt thought back to when she showed up at his door in Chicago completely unannounced. After the initial shock, he had tried to hold his cards close to the chest, but it was pretty much a losing battle from the beginning. While so much of his life had made him feel like he was being strangled, being with Julie was always so easy, like breathing air, and it almost seemed like resisting it was going against his instincts. While showing her around the city, on more than one occasion he had to suppress the urge to grab her hand in his, to kiss her, to touch her. At first he insisted she take his bed while he spread out a mess of blankets and a pillow for himself on the floor, where he pretended to sleep those first two nights, when really, he was mostly awake and consumed with thoughts, his mind racing.
When she finally confessed her feelings to him, all bets were off. After kissing on the street for a good twenty minutes, he took her home and they made love again and again until they finally fell asleep, naked, entwined in each other's limbs in the early hours of the morning. Being with her again only drove home the weirdness he had felt being with other girls. He certainly hadn't been chaste over the past year in Chicago, as his sweet southern accent and small town boy gentle demeanor had gotten him a lot of attention, but there were only brief flings, the kind he would imagine were normal in college, but somehow never felt normal to him.
Once Julie admitted what had been going on in her life for the past couple of months he desperately tried to play it cool, because in reality, he had no right to be angry at her. Really he was more disappointed and jealous than anything else. They played house for the next couple of days, but the happiness he felt finally having her back in his life had a cloud hanging over it. He knew her escapist fantasy had to end at some point and he didn't want to be the one enabling her from facing the consequences of what was going on in her real life. He wanted her to be with him, but for the right reasons, so he knew he had to push her on her way with some tough love, even though it hurt like hell.
Matt eventually dosed off for a few hours and woke to the sun streaming through his window and the gentle hum of the television.
He pushed himself out of bed and made his way out into the living room.
"Good morning grandma," he said rubbing his eyes and sitting down on the couch.
Mrs. Saracen smiled at him as if he never left home, a happy yet glazed over expression her face as she rocked back and forth in her chair.
"Is today French toast Tuesday Matthew?" she asked.
He laughed. "It's not Tuesday but let's pretend it is."
Matt fumbled around in the kitchen trying to find the pots, pans and various kitchen utensils he needed to make breakfast. Clearly grandma's nurse had done some reorganizing since he had last been home. Luckily there was a carton of eggs in the fridge and a loaf of bread in the pantry, and before long he placed a steaming hot plate of food on the kitchen table.
Mrs. Saracen dug into her eggs with excitement.
"This is so good Matthew. I sure have missed you." She smiled at him and took a bite. "Aren't you going to eat something?"
"I'm not really hungry grandma."
"Why that's nonsense! You're a growing boy. You feelin' ok?" She looked at him with concern.
He smiled at her and decided to just come out with it.
"I'm actually feeling better than okay. I'm going to ask Julie to marry me today."
Mrs. Saracen shouted with joy and instantly jumped up sending the plate containing her food and silverware careening to the floor with a loud crash. Before Matt could even react, she had tugged him up off his chair and had him embraced in a tight hug.
She pulled back, her eyes full of happy tears.
"I'm so happy Matthew. You know I love that sweet girl."
He grinned. "I know. I love her too."
"Did you tell your daddy the news?"
"No grandma. You're the only one who knows."
She patted him on the back and took off to her bedroom. "You wait here!" she shouted.
Mrs. Saracen returned and handed Matt a small black velvet jewelry box.
"Open it," she prompted him, still smiling from ear to ear.
He did, and there it was. The engagement ring she had showed him years before.
It was the ring that he would offer to Julie and promise to love her completely for the rest of his life.
"Are you sure grandma?" he asked.
"Of course I'm sure!" She hugged him again and then shoved him towards the door. "Go on now!"
Matt chuckled at her enthusiasm. "Let's at least finish breakfast first. Luckily I made extra eggs,"
He shoved the ring box in the front pocket of his jeans, put his arm around his grandmother and led her back into the kitchen.
Matt pulled up to the Taylor house and sat in his car for a moment, drumming his hands on the steering wheel, listening to the final strains of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are a-Changin' blaring out of the speakers of the old station wagon.
He had the plan and the ring in his pocket, all he needed now was the girl to say yes.