Volume 12, Issue 7 ~ February 12-18, 2004

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This Week's Lead Story

My Quest for the Perfect Proposal
A Love Story
by Louis Llovio

The drive home was unbearable. Worse, I think, than the party itself.

The silence was deafening, and my silly jokes and asides didn’t begin to crack her veneer.

It had snowed in the morning, and if fate had really cared about me it would have allowed snow to reach the rooftops, stranding me safe at home.

No such luck.

Christmas parties are supposed to be the highlight of a year of hard work. They’re the time when everyone comes together not only to celebrate the season but also the passing of a year’s labor.

This Christmas party wasn’t either, at least for me.

Actually, it was the polar opposite.

I spent the party dodging questions about extra-large sweaters and wedding proposals.

My girlfriend Petra didn’t seem to find the little jokes as cute as did everyone else.

Everybody was laughing about the piece I had written for Bay Weekly’s 11th-Hour Christmas Guide, about satisfying the toughest person on your list. I chose Petra, who was pushing me with subtle hints — like picking a date — to the altar.

I wrote about how I was trying to find a way around my quandary and how, in place of the ring she expected, I planned to substitute an extra-large sweater.

A lot of people thought it was funny.

Petra wasn’t one of them.

It was bad for the relationship but a great career boost. Readers loved it.

Now, driving down Route 2, the radio on a football game — strike two — it was colder inside the car than out. We were on our way to another party, and the quicker we got there the better.

Plus, by this point, I was looking forward to a couple of beers — strike three.

I was out.

In the Beginning
Petra’s dad says she found me on eBay, which is his way of saying we met on the Internet.

It wasn’t the most romantic way to meet, but it worked.

Internet dating is a nice way to meet a lot of people whom otherwise you could never have imagined.

I bumped along the information superhighway and earned my share of bruises before I logged on and met Petra.

There was the woman who screamed at me for not promising her I could commit to marry her within the year. The staff at Ruby Tuesday’s had to pull her off of me after we wound up in the salad bar when she tackled me as I tried to sneak out.

I haven’t eaten Thousand Island dressing in more than two years.

Thirty years ago, after taking in as her own Louis and his brother Albert, Diana had to give father Louis Sr. an ultimatum: ‘put up or shut up!’ They’ve been happy ever since.
There was the six-foot-eight television producer who had me cowering in a corner as she finished her third lobster with her sixth gin and tonic, telling me of her plans to get back at the station manager who fired her because she refused to lead the news with a hostage stand-off at a downtown bank. “Not really newsworthy,” she’d said to him.

I was able to escape her because she happened to spot an ex-boyfriend, who had unceremoniously dumped her and was having dinner with a normal woman.

Dating is tough, but Internet dating is not for the faint of heart.

A lot of people send you pictures of their sisters — their 22-year-old model sisters — instead of themselves.

In the end, it worked out all right. I met Petra. We fell deeply in love. We’d been happy … until that day driving home from the Christmas party.

My Last Word
I want to make one thing perfectly clear: There is no question as to whether I want to spend the rest of my life with her.

That said, at the risk of coming off as insensitive or sexist, I have to say that weddings are unfair for men.

A man who says he cares about the color of tissue inside his wedding invitations is, at best, being nice. Or he’s lying.

The same goes for the woman who says that his opinion matters.

While the bride usually thrills through the whole process, the man just needs to know what time to show up, what to wear and where to go. He’ll be there.

It’s practice for the rest of our lives.

Does that mean men are against marriage?


Men appreciate marriage as much as women, but marriage is not synonymous with The Wedding.

Men have one shinning moment, the last time in our natural lives we will have any say in domestic matters: The Proposal.

So it is paramount that The Proposal be done right.

Every Tom, Dick and Harry drops to one knee after dinner and proposes. Whether it’s potato skins at the Inner Harbor or a horse-drawn carriage through Central Park, it’s been done. And it’s been done to death.

When it comes to The Proposal, Petra says, “You don’t even need a ring. Just ask!”
It’s not that simple.

I want to do it right. I want it to be important, and I want it to be special.

That’s where the dilemma is. Where am I going to find the perfect proposal? What is the perfect proposal?

Trial Flights
I tried to explain this to Petra on the car ride home from the Christmas party. I wanted to convince her that, in my fashion, I was being romantic.

Her unblinking stare out the windshield told me she didn’t agree.

I had thought of ways to ask her before, but it never worked out.

One was at the top of the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier in Chicago. I imagined it perfectly: I would ask her when the car reached the top, the skyline of Chicago off to my left, Lake Michigan spread out below us. Then we’d have dinner at Morton’s and a night overlooking the lake.

I ended up having to work, so we canceled the trip.

Next there was Germany.

We traveled with her parents and another couple. I was going to have her mother carry the ring for me. I’d ask her in Berlin on a romantic evening with the television tower lighting up the night sky.

Have you traveled to Europe recently?

I couldn’t afford the ring.

Anyway, those old people wore me out with their energy. If I had dropped to one knee I might not have gotten up.

I needed help, so I called in the experts.

Cries for Help
“Chuck, it’s Louie.”

“Hey, hold on a second.” Chuck covered the mouthpiece and shouted to his secretary to hold his calls.

“What’s up, man?”

Michael Steele proposed to his wife, Andrea, on her birthday. ‘I like you very much,’ he said, at which ‘she looked at me as if I had four heads.’ Then the lietuenant-governor-to-be dropped to one knee and said, ‘I like you so much I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’ Here they celebrate their recent 18th anniversary.
Chuck and I have been friends since we were sophomores in high school. He works for the phone company but is also a part-time private detective. His qualification for the job was reading mystery novels by the pound. Though some scoff at my using his services, he does good work. Many times when I’ve needed information I couldn’t get through the proper channels, he’s come through. He is Hawk to my Spencer.

“I have a problem.”

He laughed the harsh throaty laugh of a man who’d seen too much. “Why else would you call?”

“Look,” I said, knowing that getting a favor from Chuck was signing onto a debt I didn’t know I could ever repay. What he couldn’t know was why I needed the information. “I have a story I’m working on.”

“What’s it about?”

I told him I was writing a story on proposals, so I needed to find the best.

He laughed. A confirmed bachelor who hadn’t spent more than six months with a woman, he held marriage in contempt. “This is for you isn’t it?”

He is good.

I tried to lie. “No, it’s for a story.”

“If that helps you sleep at night, then so be it. But there’s more here than meets the eye.”

“You’re crazy,” I said, trying to laugh it off.

“I didn’t get to where I am without trusting a hunch.”

His secretary walked in, and I heard her say he had a customer on the line who wanted to add call-waiting to his service.

“I gotta go,” Chuck said abruptly. “Call me in two days.”

Seeking Help on High
The wait was unbearable. Barely 24 hours had passed, and I couldn’t sit still for another second.

I jumped in my car and headed down to the State House. Who better to ask about closing a deal than Maryland’s top dogs?

After elaborate planning, Petra’s brother-in-law, Dan, got the jjitters, dropped to one knee and proposed to his wife, Andrea, at her apartment.
Snow still blanketed the farms lining Route 2, and the threat of more was in the looming gray clouds rolling in from the south behind me. This wasn’t Chicago or Buffalo. The moment the first flake hit the grass at Government House, the whole state would shut down. TV crews rushed past me, the intrepid reporters ready to stand out in the falling snow so citizens statewide could see that the white stuff falling on their lawns actually was snow.

Somewhere a team of producers was coming up with new graphics and a catchy name for the storm, while meteorologists gave their Doppler computers a break and slept, gearing up for the next 12 hours of live coverage.

If I was going to get my answers I needed to act fast.

My first stop was the governor’s house. Nobody was home; they must have been out buying salt and shovels. I left a message and went to hunt down House Speaker Busch.

Speaker Busch was in a meeting, but he would probably call me back. Meanwhile, his aide asked, “Can I tell him what this is about?”

I crossed my fingers and told the truth.

Both the president of the Senate and the lieutenant governor were tied up, too. I left more messages.

It was getting late and with Armageddon rolling in on the horizon, I needed to get home.

Raising the Bar
“Louie, you are in a world of trouble.” The ringing phone woke me up, but Chuck’s words got me out of bed in a hurry.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m in Annapolis. Meet me at the City Dock in an hour. We need to talk.”

“But how did you fly in with the snow?”

“Snow?” he sounded surprised. “You’re still dreaming. Wake up and get down here fast.”

Out the window, not a flake had fallen.

Maryland’s Speaker of the House, Michael Busch and, Cindy, his wife-to-be had talked about getting married, even picking out kids’ names. One day he walked into the house and said, ‘I think it’d be good for us to get married on December 22.’
An hour later I was walking down Main Street past a few early-morning stalwarts on the way to work.

Chuck was sitting on a bench by the Market House, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, his coat collar turned up and his loose hand buried deep in his pocket for maximum warmth.

“I know this information is for you,” he said, dispensing with the pleasantries. “I wish you hadn’t lied to me, but it’s too late for that.”

“But …” I started to argue but thought better of it. The jig was up.

“I didn’t fly a thousand miles from sunny Florida for games, so I gotta tell you straight up, you’re in a mess of trouble.”

I slouched down on the bench and steeled myself for the worst.

Chuck pulled a notebook from his back pocket and flipped it open. “Your brother Jon set the bar pretty high. The kid took his girl to the beach for a bottle of wine and to stare out at the stars. Then he took her inside and danced for a bit — the romantic dancing with no music just two people swaying in the night. I can’t say I really understand that, but who am I? Anyway, he’s got tea lights and rose petals on the stairs leading up to the second floor where yellow, white and purple petals trail into the bedroom and the bed.”

I slouched farther down in the bench, wanting to crawl under and disappear.

“Inside, the room is lit with candles. He’s got two vases of white and red roses resting against the bed and in the middle of the bed is a porcelain plate with red rose petals and two tea lights. The ring is on the plate. Laura turns around and the kid is on his knee.”

I couldn’t let fear overtake me; I had to stay in control.

“Okay, I can’t compete with that. I need to make sure Petra doesn’t hear that story. Do you think we can keep it from her?”

“Sorry, man,” Chuck shook his head. “They plan on telling it at the wedding.”

Jon is a good kid, but I didn’t know he had this kind of romance in him. As upset as I was with him for setting the bar so high, I was pretty impressed. Laura was a lucky girl. A lot luckier than Petra.

“There is a bit of hope as I see it,” Chuck said. “Even if you botch all the plans, you can still drop to one knee and just ask. That’s how Dan asked Andrea.”

“You spoke to Dan and Andrea?” They’re Petra’s sister and brother-in-law.

He gave me his cocky, knowing grin. Of course he’d spoken to them. If he wasn’t the best at what he did, why would I call him?

“Dan planned this entire weekend away at a bed and breakfast with all the trimmings. Andrea knew what was going on, so she got her nails done. But wouldn’t you know, the guy goes out for donuts for the drive while she’s getting ready and he gets a bad case of the nerves. He’s pale, antsy looking, acting strange. So she pushes him, she’s worried, you know. If you have something to say, just say it, she finally tells the guy. He walks the rest of the way into the room, drops to one knee and right then and there pops the question. All that planning and he asks her at her apartment, just the two of them.”

“Wow,” I said.

Man to Man
“You know what Andrea told me? ‘That’s what happiness is, not staged romantic gestures, but the everyday beautiful moments.’”

We sat on the bench quietly, letting the stories sink in.

Chuck finished his coffee and tossed the cup in the garbage can. “I’m not that smart, okay, but let me tell you something. Jon and Dan both did it right because they did what was right for them. And that’s all that matters. Your parents’ friends Scott and Corrine Baker got engaged on the third date. He just looked over and said his parents were coming to town and he was going to announce he was getting married. You know what she asked him?”

“What?” I said, not sure I wanted to hear the answer.

“‘To whom?’” Chuck laughed. “Can you believe it? Scott looks over and smiles. Almost 36 years later, and they’re still like newlyweds; you should’ve seen the light in her eyes when she told me the story.

Family friends Scott (third from right, back) and Corrine Baker (third from right, front), here with their children and grandchildren, had been on only three dates when he told her that his parents were coming to town and he planned to tell them he was getting married. Corrine replied, ‘To whom?’
“Its not about how you do it, man. Charlie asked Wali to see the pearl ring she was wearing and he replaced it with an engagement ring at her birthday dinner. Then he threw her a surprise party.”

I laughed. “Sounds like Charlie.” Wali and Charlie are Petra’s parents.

“Your mom had to give your dad an ultimatum.”

“You talked to my parents?”

“I do all the time,” Chuck said. “You really need to call them more often. But that’s not the point. Here she is taking you and your brother Albert in as her own and she’s gotta tell the guy, ‘put up or shut up!’ That was 30 years ago. They’ve been happy every day since.”

Lucky Louie
I offered my two cents.

“On my way here, I got a call from the Speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, Mike Busch. He said the same thing. He and his wife-to-be had done the whole thing with picking out kids’ names and all that goes with it, talking about getting married. One day he walks into the house and says, ‘I think it’d be good for us to get married on December 22.’ Like that, they’re married.”

“I don’t think a happy marriage takes a romantic proposal,” said the Speaker. “It just doesn’t affect the long-term outcome.”

Lieutenant Gov. Michael Steele called back, too. He’d actually dropped to his knee, but not before leading his wife-to-be astray.

On her birthday, he took her out to dinner and, acting nonchalant as if it were no big deal, gave her an inconsequential gift. Back home later, he said, “I like you very much.”

“She looked at me,” he reported, “as if I had four heads.”

Then the lietuenant-governor-to-be dropped to a knee and said, “I like you so much I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

At a birthday party for Wali, who would be Petra’s mother, Charlie asked to see the pearl ring she was wearing. He replaced it with an engagement ring.
Chuck laughed. “Louie, you have no idea how lucky you are to have found somebody, man. Me, I got my work and a little black book full of phone numbers. But you’ve got something special. Don’t get hung up on the details. Go with your heart. She doesn’t care about anything fancy. What she cares about is you and spending the rest of her life with you. You’re one of the lucky ones, man. Don’t blow it by thinking too much.”

A few minutes later while getting into his rental car parked along Main Street, he said. “Do what you know is right. And please, for her, quit living your life in print.”

I hugged him, that quick masculine hug of two guys who love each other. Before he drove off, though, he rolled down his window and, with what can only be described as misty eyes, said “Don’t ever forget, you’re one of the lucky ones.”

Yes, But …
Okay, so I was lucky in love. In my quest for the perfect proposal, I wasn’t any further than I had been at the beginning of the search. I had probably regressed some. My idea of what a proposal should be was as shattered as Chuck’s heart.

What I needed, I decided then and there, was the advice of my colleague at Bay Weekly, Bill Burton. There is no bigger expert on marriage than Burton, who’s been married five times — but no one knows how many times he’s been engaged.

“I don’t think many people propose any more,” Burton said in the gruff voice of an outdoorsman tinged with the soft touch of an artist. “Me and Lois just came to a mutual agreement.”

‘I don’t think many people propose any more,’ Burton said. ‘Me and Lois just came to a mutual agreement.’
“Was there any romance?” I hoped for the answer I wanted but knew I would get the practicality that comes with age and knowing what you want from life. “We reached a point where we figured this was the way things were going, and we did it. It was assumed.”

“But didn’t she expect more?”

“I’ve been engaged a number of times,” he laughed. “And that doesn’t matter. What matters is afterward. The years of hard work and getting through the times. That’s what’s important. Getting down on a bended knee and handing a ring with an outstretched hand is a myth.”

“Thanks,” I said to Burton, knowing that I finally had my answer.

Finally, the Perfect Proposal
Sometimes what you want is right in front of you, and you don’t see it because you are trying so hard to live up to what you expect. Whether it was Jon and his flowers, or Dan and not being able to hold out one second longer, or Scott knowing that this was the girl he was going to spend the rest of his life with, or Charlie joking with her, slipping her the ring when she wasn’t looking, or Busch and Burton just knowing it was time, or even my mom saying shape up or ship out. It’s not about how you ask. It’s that you ask.

Me? I’ve been so busy trying to find the right way or the perfect way that I lost sight of that. So I hung up with Burton and I jumped into my car. I knew what I was going to do. I had the perfect proposal! I squealed my tires coming out of the Bay Weekly parking lot and got home where I … you know what.

Chuck is right. I need to quit living my life in print.

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Last updated February 12, 2004 @ 2:21am.