When I tell people that Donika and I said I love you to each other 36 hours after we met, they inevitably get the wrong idea—something about lesbians and their U-Hauls on the second date. But when we met that first weekend, we had already been corresponding for months. Upon first sight, our chemistry was undeniable, but still, that I love you was simply a statement of feeling; it came with no promise of commitment. We lived a seven-hour drive apart and had no plans to see each other again. If you had told me that within two years, I’d be staging a dramatic marriage proposal, I would have responded with a hearty laugh and total incredulity.
From the ages of 15-35, I spent 20 years in consecutive monogamous relationships, none of them lasting longer than three years. At the beginning of every one, I could see the end. Even in the heat of early infatuation—my body a furnace of desire, each of us purporting to be the best possible version of ourselves—there would still arrive a moment in which I glimpsed the inevitable conclusion, like a familiar house from the window of a passing car. When I said something that scared one girlfriend and she didn’t text me back for 24 hours. When, the first morning a boyfriend and I woke up together in our new place and he realized we’d run out of orange juice. He spiked the empty carton against the countertop in rage.
By my mid-twenties, my prescience about breakups (and their impetuses) had borne out enough times to trust. I was never wrong. Somehow, this insight never stopped me from earnestly promising each new lover that I would love them forever. I meant it every time. I was able to balance these opposing truths in my mind because I felt my passion for each beloved keenly enough to believe that I just might be wrong this time. I have always been an optimist, but especially in love. I’ve never made it through a wedding dry-eyed.
Still, the prospect of marriage always managed to call my bluff. Ten years ago, I ended the last serious relationship I had with a man when I caught wind that he was ring shopping. My last girlfriend before I met Donika used to say sometimes, “Hey, maybe we should get married,” and I always responded by suggesting she locate her misplaced birth certificate, knowing she wouldn’t. It felt like a game of chicken that neither of us was willing to risk losing, because we suspected that if we plowed ahead, we both would tumble.
Despite being so inclined to love, I have never believed in marriage. Partly because I couldn’t get around its history as a business arrangement wherein women forfeited all legal rights as individuals and effectively became their husbands’ property. Partly because of my parents’ long, sad separation that finally ended in divorce. But mostly because, however madly I loved my lovers, I could never unsee our ending.
When I read Donika’s first book in 2017, a poetry collection, I had just spent a year intentionally celibate. After 20 years of consecutive monogamous partnerships, I had finally decided to take a break. I was exhausted by the perpetual process of falling in and out of love. It had gotten undeniably repetitive. I knew that something needed to change, and that something was me. I put the kibosh on sex, dating, and even flirting. I ended friendships that were largely predicated on sexual tension. The first few weeks were challenging, but then? I hadn’t ever known freedom like that. Every other aspect of my life flourished during my celibacy, and an exhaustive examination of my own patterns in love helped me clarify how I wanted to change.
Without exaggeration, it was the happiest year of my life at that point. During it, I often wondered if I would ever want to be partnered again. When I looked up Donika’s email after finishing her book, I had no romantic designs. Her poems had simply moved me in such an uncommon way that I was compelled to write her a brief fan letter, something I’d never done before. From that letter, a friendship grew.
After that first meeting, we did see each other again, but we didn’t barrel into anything, which was unusual for us both. Instead, we got to know each other slowly, over long weekends and phone conversations during which we described our respective childhoods—how as a kid in L.A., she always wanted to see her name written in the sky; how I had always felt part water creature.
Although we had been speaking of love since the beginning, we agreed not to talk about “forever.” We both knew that people changed—we were people interested in changing, and we cared more about being honest with each other and ourselves than in the fleeting thrill of grand proclamations that had contradictory track records.
“Let’s try, I want to love you for a big long time,” she suggested. I happily agreed.
Ironically, ours is the first relationship whose end I couldn’t foresee. Perhaps it had been a comfort to me in the past; however sad my premonitions, it had felt easier to fling myself into things that had perceivable limits. It had been a kind of safety, always knowing a little more than my partners about the limits of our love. Now that sounds lonely to me. I don’t need the safety of knowing more about our story than Donika does, because we have each other—a mutual safety.
I brought it up first. “What do you think about getting married?”
“I would do it tomorrow,” she said. “But don’t you think we should wait until after we’ve passed the magic three-year mark?” I couldn’t really argue with that, though my heart sunk. We were still months away from our two-year anniversary.
“Okay,” I said. “But what if we just got engaged? We wouldn’t have to get married until it’d been three years.”
She laughed, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” A ruminative look came over her face. “But what do you think about proposals?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Proposals are so…heterosexual.” We both laughed.
“How about a surprise ultimatum that will alter the course of both our lives?!”
“Imagine if people proposed buying property or having kids the way we do marriage.”
“Still.” She squinted at me. “It sounds fun without the ambush.”
“But you know me,” she said. “If you want it to be a surprise, you’re going to have to plan it.”
She didn’t give me enough time to plan that surprise. One morning, a few weeks later, she rolled over in bed and told me about a dream she’d had in which she’d proposed to me in a candy store in Midtown Manhattan. “Which I take to mean that we should just be engaged—what do you think?”
“I absolutely think we should be engaged,” I said, scooting closer to her in the bed.
“Great, then that settles it,” she grinned. “You should tell your mom!”
I laughed. “That was it?”
“That was it. I told you I wasn’t capable of anything fancy.”
My mom, who had seen me through every single one of those past relationships, and who already adored Donika, was thrilled to hear the news.
Even as our friends and family congratulated us, I hadn’t forgotten that Donika had, somewhat abashedly, also liked the idea of being proposed to. I am definitely the planner in our relationship, and probably the more frivolous, but I’m not one for grand gestures. While the younger me was secretly wooed by the idea of romantic high drama, experience taught me to be wary of it. Grand romantic gestures often obscure gaping deficits in the emotional resources of a lover, or carry a hidden price for their wish fulfillment that will inevitably be extracted.
But our relationship had already proven to be free of these pitfalls, and my sweetheart had always wanted to see her name in the sky.
It turns out that skywriting is just as expensive as you’d think, but a tiny plane dragging a banner across the sky is a relative bargain. I called my dad, a retired sea captain and fellow incurable romantic, and asked for pilot recommendations. He called a friend who called some friends, and I found someone across the Hudson River who was willing to do it.
On our anniversary in early February, I convinced Donika to spend the day at a mall in New Jersey.
“We can each pick out a $50 gift and then split dinner at the food court.”
“You’re ridiculous,” she said, but gamely agreed.
On our way there, I told her I’d forgotten something at the nearby university where I then taught. While I was in my office on campus, the pilot texted me that he was on his way, and I hustled her out onto the steps of my building. We were two minutes early, so I crouched to untie and retie my shoelace.
“Come on,” she said, hopping from foot to foot. “It’s freezing! Let’s go back to the car.”
At a loss, I grabbed a student newspaper from a nearby stack and opened it, blocking my face from her view. “Hang on just a minute,” I squeaked, helpless.
“What’s going on, Melissa?” she asked, genuinely confounded. Finally, I heard the rumble of the tiny aircraft as it inched its way over the campus.
“Look!” I pointed, dropping the student paper.
DONIKA WILL YOU MARRY ME, it emblazoned the sky. She yelped in surprise and then started laughing. As it buzzed in circles over our heads, she grinned upward, and then down at me.
“Yes, you fool,” she said. “I will marry you.”
My ability to predict the ends of my relationships always had less to do with a single flaw that would break us and more with our failure to change before it did. That is the principal difference between my relationship with Donika and my relationship with past loves. Donika and I both know how to change, and we do. Sure, we’ve had about 30 years of therapy between us and a long track record of learning from our mistakes in love, but mostly we enjoy growing—the work and reward of it, the surprise at who we become when we try to become more ourselves. My inability to see our demise isn’t evidence that our relationship has no flaws, only that our ability to change is predictable, which means that the future never is. For the first time, I trust that whatever hardships we encounter, we will be able to grow around them.
Later, as we ate our anniversary dinner at the food court in that mall in Jersey, we agreed to keep proposing to each other, every once in a while, as the years passed. The idea of forever still seemed to foreclose all the unknown ways we might change over time, but we both still like the idea of choosing each other, over and over, for a big long time.
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