Julie found it a nice distraction from death to fixate on her engagement ring.

Max approved.  For one thing, it gave them something to shop for on the weekends when he wasn’t traveling for DVD Kiosk investor pitches.  And for another, he was eager to cover the tracks of his earlier bullet-pointed email proposal, which—now that he was no longer on a kamikaze mission to get Julie back—resurfaced in his memory during coffee breaks as an embarrassment that he must erase.

So when a larger-than-usual unemployment check arrived, with a letter from the unemployment administration stating they were fixing an error, Max did not resist Julie’s pleas to spend the windfall on a ring, right away.  Yes, Max would have preferred to use that $2,100 to repay his brother, or get Wells Fargo off his back about the overdraft (the bank was calling every day now, and Max had to silence his cell phone when he was with Julie so she wouldn’t suspect something was up).  And yes, he still thought Julie would be smarter to wait until DVD Kiosk landed the Series A funding, because then Max could buy her the 1.5 carat, color grade D Ascher cut solitaire at Saks.  But Julie had gone to an estate jeweler and found a half-carat emerald cut diamond with a cloudy inclusion in the center of the stone, which she protested nobody could possibly see.  And the sooner Max got the ring and got down on his knee, the sooner they would have an acceptable engagement story.

His deeper drive, only half-conscious, was to claim a pure, un-coerced moment of free will.  Max imagined strolling around with the ring in his pocket, tingling with the anticipation of Julie’s imminent delight, waiting for the perfect moment when he would be spontaneous and gallant.  Buying the ring together made arranging this tricky.  Fortunately, the ring needed to be resized, so Max insisted that he would pick it up from the jeweler’s, strategizing that this would land the proposal back under his control.

Unfortunately, Julie also got a phone call from the jeweler’s saying that the ring was ready.

Max decided to come home from the DVD Kiosk offices early, because he knew Julie would be impatient.  Or perhaps he underestimated Julie and she would let him do this right.  He decided to surprise her by suggesting a sunset drink at the Top of the Mark.

Julie met him in the building’s hall wearing heels and lipstick.  She said, “I thought we should we go out some place nice.  Top of the Mark?”

Unfortunately the Mark Hopkins Hotel was under construction, and the scaffolding extended all the way to the top floor lounge, blocking the views.  A cover band was playing Foreigner.  “Oh, well,” Julie said.  “This is still a good glass of wine.  So did you happen to run a certain errand downtown today?  Pick up anything special?”

Max signaled for the check and tersely said they should try the Big Four.

At the Big Four they each had a glass of Laurent Perrier, and the bow-tie attired man at the piano played Andrew Lloyd Weber, a medley from “Cats.”  Max’s skin grew prickly.  Julie said, “Are you OK, sweetheart?  Did something awful happen at work?  But why would you be in a bad mood, when . . .   Oh, wait, it’s a surprise, OK, fine.”  They drank silently through a few bars of “Memory.”  Max was on the verge of suggesting a stroll around Huntington Park, thinking he could stop in front of the fountain, when Julie said, “I know.  Let’s get some air.  Let’s take a walk through the park.”

No one else was out.  The cathedral loomed across the street while the city lights glinted below.  Max was about to ask Julie to sit on a bench next to the fountain when Julie said, “Maybe we should stop here for a minute.”  They sat and she grabbed his hand.  “Do you happen to have something special in your pocket?”  She smiled with her lips closed and opened her eyes wide.  Then her face fell and she sighed.  “Max.  What’s going on?”   She dropped his hand.  “Honey.  Are you going to give me the ring or what?”

In a pathetic voice Max heard himself shout, “Can’t you just let me do this one little thing the way I want?”

Back home that night, Julie began crying.  She wasn’t quite as animalistic as the early days, but she made the snorts and glugs he remembered and said she didn’t understand why he’d be angry about proposing.  Max found himself apologizing and declaring, “Do you know how happy I am to be back together?”  So they agreed upon a “do-over,” and Max kept the ring in his satchel until two weekends later, when they drove down to Santa Barbara for her mother’s quickie wedding.  After the civil ceremony at the courthouse, while they were all having dinner at a restaurant at the beach, Max hatched a plan.  He would ask Julie to go for a walk on the sand, then drop to his knee beneath the pier where they had gone on one of their earliest dates.  Outside the restaurant’s seaside window, a salmon sunset streaked the sky.  The check had just arrived and Julie’s mother and Tom were about to take off and Julie’s brother and Tom’s sister were hugging goodbye.  Martha grabbed her daughter’s hand and said, “Hey, where’s the ring?  I thought you said you got one.”

In the parking lot after the others had driven away, Max said gloomily, “How about a walk on the beach?”  He took a few steps onto the sand.  The sunset was tacky, like a Thomas Kinkade painting.  He assumed an awkward half-squat.  Julie clapped her hands in a rehearsed display of delight.

Rachel Howard is the author of The Lost Night, a memoir about her father’s unsolved murder. She is currently serving as the interim director of undergraduate creative writing at Warren Wilson College. A longtime journalist, essayist, and dance critic, she maintains home ties to the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, a workspace cooperative, and will return to the Bay Area in 2013.  She is finishing a novel, from which this piece is excerpted.