Dear Dirty America


It’s Just A Ring

It’s Just A Ring
December 09
06:30 2015

from the front lines

Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up.” — said the notable ophthalmologist, Joseph Barth

The woman in H— Jewelers was a little too fresh in the morning for my distinct shopping taste. Under her eyelids was a translucent patch of skin showing wiggly veins pulled taut and blue. With extra huge eyes, it seemed, she peered out toward the tiled walkway packed with jostling shoppers, some strolling, others trudging. From a short distance the veins looked like eyelashes painted on for a vaudeville show. And, I was afraid, the show had begun with me in the front seat.


Classic “one knee” proposal

“Are we looking for something for the lady?” she asked me, winking. My wife peered at a set of dazzling earrings behind the display case. The lights shone on them just right to make them really sparkle. She said they reminded her of her mother.

“Hint, hint,” the saleswoman said to me. “They’re already precious to her. Want to try them on?” she asked my wife. My wife said no thank you. She just thought of her mother, but that didn’t mean she wanted to have them.

“Hint, hint, hint,” the woman said to me. “That means she wants you to come back alone and pick them up for her. I’ll write down their number and style so we’ll know exactly which ones.” She scribbled on a card and handed it to me. “I know it’s hard for guys.” She circled her name on the front of the card.

I told her that I needed a ring. Any old piece would do. Used or new. So she started with the gold and the silver.

My wife and I had the unfortunate pleasure to be crammed into a sprawling shopping complex on Thanksgiving weekend. So little did we shop that it felt like someone had thrown us into an adult playpen with a bunch of babies tussling for the best toys, and two seconds away from throwing a fit if they didn’t get what they wanted.

But what was it they wanted? Spiritual satisfaction? Arcane knowledge? A clearer picture of reality? I wasn’t sure why anybody stepped foot into that festooned dungeon. The food smelled decent, the perfumes mixed enticingly well, the colors were cheerful, and the bargains—oh baby!—were slam dunks, but the atmosphere was chaotic and superficial.

We had to come sooner or later. We’d been married for well over a year and I hadn’t bought a ring. I was off the market, but how would anybody know it? everybody asked. We’d married with little fanfare—which is how we liked it. No Facebook announcements. No bridal parties. No wedding with music and dancing and cake. We only let our family members know when the timing was right.

We weren’t ashamed of being married, as some people would speculate. We just don’t take pleasure in talking about the details, or answering people’s questions. “So, where did you guys meet? How did you propose? Do you want to have kids?”

I answer the middle question very plainly. We were walking through the campus of Cal State San Bernardino, there to sign papers for her new position when she asked me, rather suddenly, but also in exhilarating fashion, “Let’s get married, why not?”

I told her to hold on, just let me think about it first. But I knew I would say yes. Everything had been facilitated, and we were as perfect as two people can be for each other on this physical plane of needs, wants, and strained runaway emotions.

And let me tell you, it was a good decision. Marriage is a wonderful institution. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. There’s no need to try to fluff it up on social media. It’s important on its own.

I’d put off getting a wedding ring for that whole year. I didn’t want to deal with jewelry vultures. Bunch of predators. I couldn’t stand the way they’d eyeballed us when we’d gone ‘ring shopping’ a few months after we’d been married. Pushing, prodding toward the more expensive metals and diamonds. Or unfolding the real deal—put it on a payment plan, that way we could spend even more and not worry about it till later.

It’s a deal straight from Lucifer’s playbook, and Lucifer, for those who don’t understand what they’re dealing with, is the best of marketers.


Oppenheimer 1945

My wife bought her ring that day. I’d put off buying mine. With the excuse to ‘shop around’. I didn’t like the idea of a piece of metal on my finger. Now that I have it, I still don’t.

Always, it feels like I’m lugging something around. Like a light bag of groceries. Or too much change in my pocket. Or a wart growing out of the side of one finger and rubbing the other.

It’s irritating. I don’t know the history of the wedding ring or how it came to be, nor do I care to search it, but it must have been ages ago, because for as long as we have recorded history, we can watch humans lusting after physical symbols of their higher, or lower, emotions, achievements, and commitments.

Our salesperson bore down on me that Thanksgiving weekend and told me, “Why don’t we move on up to a better metal, like gold? You’ll love these.” But you won’t love the prices, she should have said.

My wife is special in that she is an anomaly amongst most other people I know—she has disdain for expensive trinkets such as rings, earrings, and all other jewelry. Material things mean little to her. She said rather bluntly in front of our salesperson, “We can get much better quality for a better price in Dubai if we want to.”

Our salesperson sniffed at that, like she’d got a little pepper up her nose during breakfast. But she deserved it. We’d explicitly told her we wanted a simple ring for me. Inexpensive. Plain. Not gold. Not silver.

She was a fighter. She wore her business jacket and pants like she’d been born in them, and she’d sleep in them that night. You don’t work your way up in H— Jewelers if you’re not dedicated. “Do you see any you like?” she asked me, pointedly ignoring my wife, and scanning the expensive display.

“Not really,” I said. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t see the point in buying expensive stuff when I don’t even know how long I’m going to live.”

That caused a mental stir. Her facial expression changed. Those tiny veins throbbed, were threatening to pull out from their moorings and flail detachedly with every sealed pump of her heart.

I know it’s normal for people to pretend they’re going to live forever, and it’s considered psychologically sound, but I’ve never been much good at it. I’m better at the default belief system that has me reminding myself that death can come at any age, any hour, any minute. Do I want to be strapped onto my deathbed with worry for my expensive metals and a houseful of appliances?

Leave the metal buried in the ground! Leave the diamonds encrusted in the earth! We’re travelers on this planet, quick to arrive, quick to leave. Get out with doing as little damage possible.

I always felt that the more material pleasure and worldly joy I consumed and got used to would complicate my death. The concept of death is fuzzy, but at my quietest moments I picture a person who has placed too much emphasis on this life and has lived to acquire its shiny and pleasurable trappings, suffering immense disturbance in the soul when it needs to come out of the body. It won’t go easily. Stubborn as a pampered donkey. It’ll bray mercilessly until it’s ripped out like a rotten tooth from its snug, moist connection points in the body.

In spiritual circles, that kind of death is thought to be a sign of a failed life. A person knows he has to leave the earth eventually, yet holds on to his body and the thoughts of all he’s accumulated. It’s an ignominious release. You should slip away like a hair being pulled out of warm butter.

I could be wrong, I suppose. All I know so far is that marriage is a fine and powerful institution. It’s a commitment of the heart, and I’m told by practically everybody that it needs to be symbolized by a round bit of precious metal that’ll barely slide over my knuckle. I can’t even chop an onion without feeling like it’s in the way. When I eat, it clanks against the handle of my fork. When I wash my face, it scrapes my nose.

Our saleswoman decided to laugh at my concern about death and worldly pleasure. The mall is not an ideal place for serious discussions. She had opted out of wondering if I really had a terminal disease, and how carefully she should step around it, or acknowledge it.

“We hope you’re going to stick around for a long time, don’t we?” she asked, and she glanced at my wife for support.

“Of course!” my wife said with a huge smile.

It’s been a couple of weeks now, and I’m slowly getting used to the ring. In theory, the ring should be a deterrent to any shuddering glances thrown my way from desperate females (or males from time to time). It should be as off-putting to a single woman as a sprig of hairy warts painfully bursting beneath the knuckle of my third finger. But then again, symbols aren’t as strong as they used to be, even if the metal band is as solid as ever.

When I catch a drift of a flirty word or two from the young checkout girl in the grocery story—and that doesn’t happen very often, and maybe I’m just imagining when I think it does—I set my left hand on the plastic counter as she’s warmly asking what I’m planning to do with all those avocados and, like, she so much enjoys guacamole if I’m ever in the mood for a friend to eat it with, you know, like anytime, because she’s so totally free unless she’s um, you know, busy, like at work, and it is at that point I raise and drop my third finger one, two, three times, to let the ring clink brashly, brusquely so she stops scanning, quits talking, and looks.

But does the insinuation stop? You wouldn’t believe it if I told you that sometimes that ring only fuels somebody else’s fire. Who are these people? What are they burning for? And how are we to handle that?

[header photo from Mauro Cateb; Oppenheimer photo from Koos Raucamp (ANEFO)]


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