“So…you think I’m ready?”
“Come on, you were ready for this last week,” said Remi. “You put in the reservation last month-”
“I know, but…it’s just hard to think about, you know?” I said to him. The center of Old Windenburg was so quiet for a Thursday night. Only one tourist showed up to photograph Der Bergsteiger, and that statue attracted many on other days. But then again, it meant less people to see me fumble through a proposal.
The University of Windenburg was the hottest spot for foreign students. After growing up known more as Das Viet than…well…as Axel Hahn, I was suddenly a real German on campus. They were a rare breed. Ragnhild Myhre was not one. There was no other way I could have met her, though. And I was smitten. I otherwise would have never listened to second-wave black metal. Or discovered lots of old goth rock! Her many tattoos looked glorious when she was on top of me.
That started when we were twenty. Remi had been bugging me about proposing for a while too. He said he would have done it within a year, which scared off most women from him until five months prior. I was expecting him and his new darling Layla to get engaged any day and make a huge spectacle of it.
But now it was happening to me. And with how my stomach felt, proposing over dinner sounded like worse and worse of an idea.
“I know Ragnhild too. She loves you so much, and you’re going to make this the best night of her life,” said Remi. “Please don’t worry about it. You’re not the one of us who should.”
“Well, Layla loves you too, right?” I asked.
Remi squeezed me in a hug. “You’re doing something great and I’m not even jealous now.” Back when he was single, he was always a little snide about my first dates with Ragnhild. Or that time he found one of her bras in my flat.
“Aww, you’ve grown up too,” I said. “Just tell the waiter to put the ring in her wine. She’ll see it.”
Ragnhild was waiting for me closer to the restaurant. I reserved a table at a seafood place. I could never afford it myself, without bugging my parents to pay the bill, but they were more than happy to. And they bought a bottle of good champagne to celebrate with later.
Everyone had my back. And beautiful Ragnhild did too.
“Thirty euros for an entree?” Ragnhild gave me a sarcastic pout. “Are your parents paying for this?”
“They love you that much,” I said, with a chuckle. “Vater said that I should take you on a nice date for once.”
“Well, the food all looks very good,” said Ragnhild. She smiled in the way she did, with her eyelids squinting up. “Did he give you enough money for wine too?”
I wouldn’t propose before we ate. One, I wanted Ragnhild to enjoy dinner like it was any other night. And two, Remi stalled with arranging it. We already had our first glasses of oaked chardonnay when I heard a muttered order. Salmon and herbs…and do you mind if I put in a special request?
Ragnhild seemed none the wiser.
Salmon for me, and swordfish for her. We both tried a bite of each other’s dishes. I wish I made the same choice she did. She said she was tired of salmon in all its forms. Norway teemed with it.
After the waitress took away our plates, I wanted to finish the bottle of wine. Ragnhild hesitated, especially the waitress poured it away from our table this time. This was going to be it! My hands trembled.
And they trembled more when I saw her take a sip like there was nothing on the bottom.
“Ow! Gross…what?” She pulled a golden ring, with a white sapphire in the middle, out from her mouth. She didn’t put it on her finger, just on the table. “Wait…Axel, was this for me?” She laughed, but I thought nothing of it.
I took her hand. “I wanted to be creative…well, it was Remi’s idea too.”
“That’s very interesting,” she said. Her face winced a little. “So…is this what I think it is?”
“Ragnhild, will you marry me?”
The whole restaurant was watching and silent. I wish I could say that Ragnhild lit up. I wish I could say that she struggled to find a beautiful way to say yes.
“No, I can’t.”
“Axel…shit. I love you, I really do,” she said. “But I don’t want to go this far. Definitely not right now, maybe not ever-”
“But I do!”
“I…I didn’t think you did either.”
“Rags, we can talk about this,” I said. “We can-”
“I don’t think it will work out…” said Ragnhild.
“…aren’t you glad I said this now rather than later?”
I wouldn’t cry in front of a restaurant, but I did outside. Remi had to come chasing after me, still smelling like fish, thyme, and dry rosé.
“Why couldn’t I see that?” I said, sobbing. “I’ve known her for two years! I should have seen that coming.”
“I’m so sorry,” Remi said, softly. “I should have suggested something much more low-key. Now…what can we do?”
“Go home, curl up and die…so many choices right now.”
Remi escorted me to the next bus home. Not to my flat; I shared that with Ragnhild and had to break that lease somehow. My parents would always welcome me back, though. My older schwester did the same last year.
We traveled past the glow of Windenburg, and into the green German forest. The first crickets of spring chirped. The full moon was high in the sky, and every star shone its brightest through the nighttime clouds. Hardly any other lights were on, except at our house.
“I want to face them alone,” I said to Remi. “They helped fund this all and now it’s just a waste.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
“I’m asking this one thing, okay?”
“Alright. Take care of yourself.”
Our front walkway was less than 5 metres long, but it was the longest walk I had in awhile. I spotted some balloons hanging up, through the glass door. My excited parents noticed me too and waited.
“Congrats Axel!” My mother cheered out. Vater and Lili watched with big, beaming smiles. Big droplets of condensation dripped down that bottle of champagne.
“Where’s Ragnhild?” my dad asked me. “Is she still outside?”
“I shouldn’t have asked for any of this!” I couldn’t take it in front of them either. “It was all a big mistake.”
My parents’ exuberant faces both melted into horror.
“Oh, cháu ơi, we’re so sorry,” said Mẹ.
I just ran upstairs, back to my old bedroom. They kept it for me and all I wanted to do was be surrounded by the tacky gothic wallpaper I picked as a teen.
After changing into my pajama pants, I slipped under my blanket. I wanted to stay there forever, forgetting about Remi and Layla, or about my parents and their 30-plus year marriage. And I could stay there for a while. I was sure I locked the door.
Must have been another one opening…
“I think you need some cheering up.”
I emerged from under the covers, for Lili to take a seat on my bed. She had changed into her pajamas too.
“It sucks going to bed depressed, okay?” she said. “Did she really reject you in public?”
“Okay, it’s not just that. You know how we rented a flat together? We both got into the University of Oslo for grad school, her dad had a whole unit in his house set aside for us…what’s left for me? I’m stuck.”
“You can just mooch around like I do!” she said. “Mẹ and Vater love the extra help.”
“I get that it works for you, but…”
“…you’re not a mooch.”
Lili thought in silence for a moment, or at least I hoped she was.
“Hey, here’s some good news. You know aunt Lien’s university? They got ranked as having the best Computer Science program in America,” she said. “She called me last week about it. A lot of it was her work so she’s thrilled.”
“Aww, why doesn’t she ever call me?” I asked. “I’ve always liked her work.”
“Beats me, but it’s something to think about.”
“Wait, think about that?”
No answer. Lili left the room.
Lien lived all the way west, on America’s west coast. She told me a lot about it and where she lived in Sabier City, though I had never gone. The skies were grey and foggy, and food was diverse and plentiful. Thousands and thousands of overseas Vietnamese lived there and all knew each other.
Best of all, it was only four in the afternoon in Sabier City.
A/N: …I did it?
Most of the foreign family terms probably don’t need any translating. And the statue in the center of Windenburg at least looked like the sort of guy who climbed a mountain.