I recently saw a friend I hadn't seen in a while, and she immediately reached for my hand, gushing, "Let me see it!" I was confused, until I remembered that I had recently gotten engaged.
My confusion turned to embarrassment. The ring, after all, was a vintage white topaz we had bought on Etsy for $40. The wedding was going to be a no-fuss affair, just our parents and my son and a $25 permit to get married in a public park.
But most of all, I thought about how I had failed at this once already. Several years ago, I got engaged for what I thought would be the only time. My boyfriend and I had been together for eight years and we were in the process of adopting a child together.
That time, I behaved in all the ways expected of a bride-to-be. I waved my expensive ring in people's faces and put an entire album of the proposal on Facebook. I dreamed about the kind of weddings we'd attended for most of our friends - large affairs in beautiful venues with sit-down meals and open bars.
What I didn't announce was that the engagement itself was the result of an ultimatum I'd delivered a year earlier. I wanted that bling, and the status that I thought came with being an engaged woman. Plagued in my 20s with low self-esteem, addiction issues and the wreckage of a dysfunctional childhood, I thought that being "chosen" by a man would give my life more value. I wanted to be the type of woman someone wanted to marry.
And I was, for a while. But wanting to prove you're good enough to get married isn't a reason to tie the knot, and, ultimately, the relationship didn't work out. (The child did, though, and he's the best thing that's ever happened to either of us.)
While there's a very clear social narrative for what to do when you get engaged, there are no clear protocols for ending an engagement. You feel a little silly for creating such a fuss, only to cut it off with an understated "never mind."
I informed just the key people in my life, discreetly changed my relationship status on Facebook and gave back the fancy ring. As splashily as I had gotten engaged, I quietly got unengaged.
So when I turned 31, I was five years sober, living alone for the first time and feeling like a total failure. I was also a mum, with a joint custody arrangement that had not been part of my plan. I didn't expect to be loved again in any kind of permanent way, not with all my baggage and deal-breakers.
Of course that was when I met the true love of my life, a man so suited to my specific quirks that a friend asked if I had created him for myself, "Weird Science"-style.
We first started seriously discussing marriage just months in, and we decided to make it official after he began spending time with my son a year later. This time there was no grand proposal, just a conversation. Afterward, I ordered my own cheap ring as kind of a placeholder.
I haven't gushed about my engagement to friends; and when it does come up, I change the subject. I do have the dress: It's off-white, and I got it for $80 on Modcloth.
Neither of us cares much about the wedding itself. We just want to get it done cheaply, somewhere our parents can watch, in a ceremony my son can be a part of.
Sometimes I worry that my apathy about the whole engagement-wedding process is a result of publicly failing at my first attempt at marriage. There is some natural chagrin to a second engagement, some whiff of "No, really - I mean it this time." Once I prove to everyone that I'm capable of making good on my decision to get married, maybe then I can start celebrating.
Maybe I am a little jaded, too. I now know that life doesn't always work out how you intended, and that forever love doesn't always turn out that way. The first time around, I felt invincible. Now I know a lifelong partnership is much more complicated than it seems.
In the gap between my two engagements, I learned a lot about myself. From a more mature perspective, I can see that getting engaged was never what I thought it was - some magical carwash that takes your grimy, imperfect self and spits you out as a beautiful, gleaming bride. Finding someone to love in this world is an accomplishment, but getting engaged isn't.
I needed all of the hoopla before because something was missing - something in me, and something in my relationship. For a while, it was fun to distract myself with jewelry and accolades, to let them fill me up where my partner didn't. But in my new relationship, I had everything I needed to begin with.
So forgive me if I don't seem excited about getting engaged. It's not that I don't love my fiance wildly, or that I'm not elated about spending my life with him. It's that this time I'm ready, and I've been celebrating since the day I met him.