For unmarried people in love and still on speaking terms with their families, holidays bring on difficult choices. The boyfriend and girlfriend want to be with each other, but both sets of parents want their still-single children home for one of the last family dinners before they go off and start building families of their own. After all, the empty-nested parents hint, it's their celebration too; and without their grown-up babies to share it with them, the holiday couldn't possibly be the same. Everyone can be flexible some of the time: Thanksgiving, for example, is always negotiable; birthdays can be celebrated a week late; anniversaries are important only every ten years or so. But the big holidays are always trouble. Unless the in-laws-to-be are living down the street from each other, someone is going to wind up compromising. And it always seemed to be us.
Although we'd been together for almost three years and living together for one, Nicky and I were planning, as usual, to spend the holidays with our respective families. After two years of missing each other as we unwrapped presents on Christmas Day, we decided to break with tradition and have our own celebration a few days early. We purchased a Christmas shrub from the guy selling trees on Second Avenue, dragged it up four flights to our little apartment on the Lower East Side, strung it with lights and goofy ornaments from Chinatown, and made a date to exchange gifts on Friday night, the day before we were leaving town to go to my parents' house in New Hampshire--and three days before Nicky would fly back to New York for Christmas with his folks.
At the time I was working as a legal secretary. After getting back from writing school in Virginia, I'd decided not to return to my day job in publishing so that I could work at night instead, the idea being that this brainless job would leave time in the mornings to write the one-act play that was going to launch my brilliant career as a brilliant writer. It seemed like a good idea at first, but after a few weeks the precious mornings dissolved back into sleep, and by the time I was up and dressed I had only an hour for myself before I had to go to the law firm again. The work wasn't easy, either. I resented making photocopies and chipper small talk for the lawyers, and I wasn't making headway as a writer during my free time. I was miserably aware that something in my life needed to change. Maybe that's why, over the previous months, I had become increasingly fixated on the idea of getting engaged. I didn't think it would suddenly make a difference in my writing career, nor did I want or expect Nicky to start taking care of me financially. But at least getting married would show initiative and progress in an otherwise stagnant life. I began to pepper Nicky with stinging hints about wanting our relationship to "move on" and veiled threats about what might happen if it didn't. We had been together for three years, and I was turning thirty in ten short months. People were beginning to ask me when I was going to get married, and instead of telling them to mind their own business, I had started to wonder myself.
When the Friday of our pre-Christmas festivities came around, I had had a typical night on the job. My assignments included running downstairs to pick up a law partner's dinner; typing a term paper for another attorney's coed girlfriend; and, for the last two hours, sitting bleary-eyed in front of the computer while a visiting lawyer painstakingly dictated an endless list of names for me to print as labels and stick onto file folders. It was clerical hell, but all was forgotten as soon as I arrived home. Nicky had arranged a spread of all my favorite pastries from De Roberti's Pasticceria on First Avenue, set out biscuits for our puppy, Emma, on a separate plate, and chilled a bottle of champagne in an ice-filled plastic tool bucket.
We sat on the floor by the winking shrub, drinking bubbly, eating cannoli, and listening to the Elvis Christmas album. It was exactly the way we would have done Christmas five days later if we had both happened to be orphans. I gave Nicky his gift, an antique dress sword from the Civil War, a symbol that he, a writer as well, would always have backup for his mighty pen when times got rough. He loved the present and was genuinely moved by it--suddenly we were both on the verge of tears--but there was a gravity in the air that had nothing to do with my sentimental Christmas card. Out of nowhere we were acting strangely formal with each other, and although I wasn't thinking about getting engaged that night, I have to admit I wasn't not thinking about it either. Nicky handed me a large, fraying, water-stained cardboard box, tied with a ribbon. This turned out to hold a smaller package, which I unwrapped to reveal a beautiful antique silver jewelry case. This, I assumed with a mixture of disappointment and relief, was my Christmas present. Good, I thought. Everything stays the same. And then: Damn. Everything stays the same.
It would not be the first time I thought that Nicky was about to propose to me. Right before I left New York for my yearlong stint in graduate school, he took me to a fancy restaurant in Brooklyn and insisted that we be seated by the window so that we had a magical view of the Manhattan skyline. It was a perfect setup for a marriage proposal: candlelight, champagne, and a "ladies' menu" with no prices on it. My impending departure had me feeling that anything could happen, and I began to imagine that there were plans afoot. I thought I saw the waiter give us a knowing look. Nicky seemed slightly nervous. We had drinks and small talk, appetizers and dreamy looks, main courses with hands held under the table. As the meal went on, and Nicky started to seem a little more relaxed, I realized I might be on the wrong track. Finally, halfway through dessert, I blurted out, "So you're not going to propose to me, right? So I can just calm down?" Nicky was stunned. It hadn't even occurred to him. I felt like a jerk.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Something New by Amanda Beesley. . Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.