A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a roof deck with two friends, enjoying the first rays of the pre-summer sun and drinking a beer when I looked up in the sky and saw someone’s life change. A skywriter was doggedly etching a message out into the cloudless blue expanse. We paused our conversation to watch the words form. We didn’t see the name, but the words “Will You Marry Me?” hovered against the blue for a few minutes until they eventually vanished.
“Did that really happen?” my friend asked.
I shrugged. “It’s probably an ad for something,” I said. “Who actually does that?”
Later, through the power of the internet, I found out that the stunt that half of Williamsburg had seen that Sunday wasn’t an insidious marketing campaign for a summer rom-com. It was a real proposal, with a happy ending (spoiler alert: she said yes). I’m sure this couple will be very happy together, and I wish them the best, but the mortification I felt at the notion of the public proposal cannot be denied.
Being put on the spot in public is horrifying to me. I hate surprises, I don’t do well with the unexpected, and there’s a quiet control freak at my core. I’ve made it clear to the only person I’ve dated that I would consider marrying that a public proposal is a surefire way to get me to say no. I would love to get married one day, or at least settle down with someone for a prolonged period of time, but for me, the decision to go all in with someone does not come lightly, and it’s a moment that I would like to share with them in private. Proposing to someone in the middle of the skating rink at Rockefeller Center, at a Yankee game on the Kiss Cam, on a billboard that you see on your way home, on “The Today Show” — these are performative acts, turning what should be private into the third act climax of a romantic comedy, minus the Vaseline-smeared lens and swelling violins. Unless you’re filming the proposal with the hope that it goes viral, of course.
It seems necessary to maintain some of the specialness of the private moment, because the minute a ring is on your finger, people come out of the woodwork with an opinion to share. Watch any episode of “Say Yes To the Dress” or “Bridezillas,” and you’ll see it play out. The wedding industrial complex has wrenched away any sanctity from the blessed union you’re about to embark upon and left it for the wolves.
Relationships are difficult, complicated arrangements, prone to change at the blink of an eye. At best, they are a happy partnership that functions smoothly. At worst, they are an unpredictable emotional roller coaster. The proposal isn’t the only event in a relationship best left for private. Arguments of any sort are made worse when they begin and end in a public venue. I once spent a very uncomfortable 10 minutes waiting for tacos next to an arguing couple. The girl kept shooting me looks the entire time. Don’t you agree with me? her face said. We both know I’m right. Breakups are another event that should happen in private. There’s nothing worse than being dumped in front of your office building on your lunch break, holding back tears as the person walks out of your life and towards the subway. Trust me.
The best — and some might say worst — thing about a marriage proposal is that it’s often a surprise. You may know it’s coming, but you rarely know when or how. You have no idea what your reaction will be, no matter how many times you rehearse it in your head. [It’s true. When I got engaged, I LAUGHED.— Amelia] If I am ever proposed to, I have a feeling my reaction will be happiness tempered with nausea. Perhaps I will need to quietly excuse myself and take a couple of deep breaths while splashing cool water on my face before I can answer. Or, maybe I’ll just say yes, ugly crying without a second thought. It all depends on the situation. If I happen to be standing in the middle of a flash mob in Times Square, surrounded by friends, family and hired dancers doing the choreography from “Single Ladies,” I would probably say yes to get the insane public spectacle of what I thought was going to be a private matter to stop.
Besides, even if an engagement occurs in private, it’s dead-simple to share the news with anyone and everyone you’ve ever known. An well-filtered shot of your shiny new ring can be posted on Instagram and liked by friends, family and people you went to high school with that you haven’t seen in years. The same goes for the birth of a child, your wedding day, or a particularly beautiful sunset you saw on the way home from work. Social media has stepped in to take the place of the phone call, the annual holiday letter home, the surprise visit to a friend’s house on the way home. So much of our lives are already performative, curated experiences, seen through the lens we want others to use. A public proposal tarnishes the sheen of the next phase, pushing it into the spotlight.
Last year, a prominent media couple, infamous for living their lives in full display on Twitter and Instagram, got engaged. I found out because I follow them on Instagram and Twitter. I saw a picture of the moment of the proposal — him on one knee, her with tears in her eyes and a hand clapped over her mouth in surprise and joy. The picture was taken from a distance, almost paparazzi-style. They must have hired somebody to take pictures as it was happening, to preserve the memory for themselves and the public, a move that I found a little crass. Nothing is sacred, I guess.