Last night I passed this old junkie couple I see from time to time in my 'hood. Occasionally one or the other is propped against a building with a sign, but they've been invisible most of the winter-- maybe on the dole or maybe sober in public housing. The warm spring evening brought them out again and they were hanging around one of those random jewelry stores where the halogen display lights in the window make the inventory look like it's positively glowing. I can never figure out who shops at these places-- besides the odd recruits they get to pass out promotional postcards, they are nearly always empty. But the junkie woman was whining and nagging and begging… she wanted a ring. No matter that she is old and pungent and missing her teeth and sporting a beer belly these days. Beyonce whined for a ring. Of course she made several hundred million from the song, but she got hers. Put a ring around it, this woman now told her partner in her hoarse, loud voice with the bad language punctuating. Yeah.
I had a ring. The first one was a princessy-Tiffany thing that was bought for me by a college professor. I was barely 20. My boyfriend at the time was a a young ethereal musician who was vague and laid back and lovely. The professor looked like Alan Bates and I had just seen Women in Love. He was older (29) and macho and ordered dinner with panache. He used rhetoric and charm. After a few weeks, he gave me the ring. I was a little shocked, but I was also a little seduced by the novelty and the D.H. Lawrence fantasy and the attention, and I accepted in a version of my young life where the future was sort of the Emerald City.
A few weeks later, sitting in a carved mahogany pew at the staid New England family church of my fiancé, his mother caught my eye while I was admiring the way the stained glass reflected in my diamond. She shook her head very slightly to reprimand me and right then I recognized that I'd pay a price for this sort of thing. I wasn't having it.
Back at school, I was embarrassed to wear the ring. After all, it was a little conspicuous with my jeans and painted T-shirts and bare feet. I sheepishly visited my ex-boyfriend and realized that I missed our druggy hours listening to Jackson Browne and Traffic in a single dormitory bed, and after removing my diamond symbol, I cheated on my fiancé who was busily furnishing a cute little off-campus love nest for us. Of course I told him-- I mean, he should have realized that I was incapable of any kind of serious commitment and being swept off my feet sort of left me hanging somewhere uncomfortable.
But he pressured and reasoned with me; he would let me have my little recess to come to terms with adulthood, and our future as a couple. It resonated in some way-- I mean, in the fairytale version of my life, he was the perfect husband. He even had a cool car and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. But the ring was like an albatross. It reminded me of my emotional confusion, and my failure to keep promises, and the responsibility which awaited me in my vague future. Watching my junkie neighbors last night, I remembered how I went with my fiancé to return it to the jeweler, thinking the ritual would give me closure; but the jeweler himself insisted on holding it, because it was a custom design and he was certain we'd eventually repair things. This horrified me. It was like a soft noose. I wanted it re-sized, melted down, put back in the case. It haunted me-- the ring, the little GIF moment of his staid Boston mother shaking her disapproving finger at me in church.
Months later, we had a few good dates, serious laughs, a couple of weekends.. and then, one Sunday night, he produced the ring. I felt betrayed, misunderstood-- like an animal that had been tricked into a pasture and then collared and caged. I went into an emotional tirade and then I bolted, for good… into the stoner arms of my young boyfriend with whom I had no future, no plans, no rope or obligation. When I finally got married, years later, there was no diamond-- just a simple band which was tough enough to live up to.
But what the junkie woman was wanting, I realized, was a kind of lasso on the future. She wanted a symbol.... a reward for all the change she'd bagged on their behalf, all the nights they'd plotted and planned, copped and begged and cooked and injected, nodded and fucked and slept… a token for that enormous vague blanket of time they'd woven from their version of mutual reliance and using…however random it was. Insurance that they were going to sleep under that blanket for couple-junkie eternity. That he would not leave her, now that they were maybe sober, maybe on the dole, old and unattractive. She wanted not just security but some bling to seal the deal. Put a ring around it, yeah.
I wear a ring. It's kind of an anti-ring-- an engagement ring I've kept over the years from a more recent almost-marriage. It's partially my Mom's, partially someone else's Mom's… it was the ring that was in a way just a ring, because I think neither of us really believed in a future, but we settled for a ring. It's just a ring. I wanted to pull it off last night and give it to the junkie woman, even though she'll inevitably sell it for dope. I wanted to convince her-- it's just the Scarecrow's diploma or the Tin Woodsman's heart-on-a-rope. It's the myth that keeps these cheap jewelry stores, and 47th Street, and Tiffany's… in business. But it was stuck. It's like worn into my finger-- attached. I am engaged to a ring.
What that woman really wants is for this co-dependent stand-in-for-a-husband, or anyone-- to want to give an unsolicited gift of love, but she, like many girls and women, has already played out the drama and burned the script to the end--reversed the roles, sabotaged the punchlines. She may deserve this, like many women--- and she will not get it. The rituals of love, and the tokens-- well, they have little to do with our own story, but somehow we squeeze into them, like clothes that no longer fit. And we outgrow them. With all the failed marriages, how many cast-off sad rings sit in drawers, get pawned or exchanged or re-offered, because fortunately the jewelry is recyclable?
In this world, we can't ask for love; we can only give it. We can't take it back, and we can't do things over, no matter how much we'd like to. My old great-uncle used to tie a string around his finger to remind him to do something or other. Men I have known-- maybe even my husbands-- tell me they have removed their wedding band while they cheat on their wives. Or not. My ring reminds me of some kind of love story-- as it was, as it wasn't. One day I'll pass it on and it will continue… in a box, on some finger, on ebay, down some drain into an urban sewer where one day some street-junkie might find it and sell it for dope.