Stewart Zepalt had shown up on December 24th, Georgia’s birthday, for the past four years and here he was again, right on schedule, his black Audi coasting to a slow stop in front of her stately 1820s Georgian Colonial like an ad in a glossy magazine.
Georgia dropped the brocade curtain and stepped back, not wanting to be caught expecting him, even though of course, she was. Five years in a row. Still, it felt unkind to acknowledge his predictability. Dread and thrill combined in her stomach to create a peculiar, primordial emotional soup.
This is awful. This is great…awful…
Stuey was here, exactly as she knew he would be. She knew exactly what he was going to say and what she would say.
Except, when he stepped into her foyer, his pleated khakies pressed to within an inch of their life, it felt—different.
“Georgia.” He nodded.
“Stu.” She smiled at her dear friend.
She poured him tea. He added two scoops of sugar, ate three Christmas cookies, then a fourth. Still, not a hint of extra weight showed around his middle. He was a man perpetually stuck in the scrawny body he had found so unwieldy as the seventeen-year-old science-club president.
Georgia had been the treasurer.
Stu’s brown hair was receding and going a little gray around the edges. Over the decades she’d known him, his glasses had gone from smudged plastic trapazoids, to round academic wires, to trendy, rectangular black frames that almost made his hazel eyes look clear and firm. Almost. They chatted about the weather, the difficulties of the piece they were going to play tomorrow at their string quartet practice. “I can’t believe how quickly the tempo changes after measure sixty-four,” he lamented. “And the key at the same time! That Strauss is tricky!”
After fifteen or so minutes of this, he looked at his watch. “You probably have big birthday plans for tonight.”
She did. Well, big for her. She was meeting her three best friends, the members of the Enemy Club, at the Last Chance diner for birthday pie. “You don’t have to do this,” she said.
“I do,” he said.
They both smiled at his unfortunate choice of words.
He wiped cookie crumbs off the front of his blue Oxford and took her hand. He leaned forward. “Georgia, will you marry me?”
She was about to say no, when she hesitated. This was the part where she said no. They’d been through this four times before. But a slight shift in the filiment, an undefined something that wasn’t the same made her think, for just a moment, would it be so bad to marry this kind, sweet, good man?
And then the moment passed. “No, Stu. I’m sorry. But thanks for asking,” she said.
“The offer always stands.” He dropped her hand, tilted his head to the side, and smiled at her.
“Thanks,” she said. “I really appreciate the offer.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, nothing if not polite. “You hesitated this time,” he said.
“I did. I won’t deny it. Something felt—I don’t know. Maybe because it’s my thirty-fifth birthday, I’m feeling old.”
“You’re not old. When we’re still doing this in thirty years, then you’ll be old.”
“You don’t honestly think you’ll still be asking me to marry you in thirty years?”
“Why not? You have other plans?”
“You’re supposed to say, why not, I love you and I’ll never love another,” she scolded.
“You know how I feel about love,” he said. “It’s something you have to work for. I don’t believe in that head-over-heels stuff and neither do you. We’re both smart enough to know that insta-love stuff is lust and fairy tale. Not that there’s anything wrong with lust and fairy tales. But what we have is deeper. Friendship. It’s a much better foundation for a relationship.”
Georgia sighed. “I do love you, Stu. I always will. I just don’t want to marry you and I don’t think you want to marry me. Not really. Still, it’s the nicest birthday present anyone gives me.”
“I’ll wear you down, yet, Georgie.”
They chatted some more about the upcoming seven percent tax increase Galton town board was proposing, the new trail they were going to lay through Sapsucker Woods, ostensibly for baby strollers, but what about the mountain bikers who would show up? She felt deeply melancholy. Not because Stuart seemed sad. He didn’t. He had taken her refusal with the same good natured cheer he displayed every year. She tried to imagine being in his place, getting turned down every year.
If things had been reversed, she’d be humiliated. But not Stu. This was his strength, his inner power: he knew what he wanted and he had the patience to get it. They saw each other every Friday night at chamber practice and went out for dinner a few times a month as friends. Nothing fancy. Maybe to the diner for tuna melts. Or steaks at The Pines with BYO red plonk wine that he’d bring and they’d drink over the course of a long, slow, satisfying dinner. They’d never slept together, never even kissed. But Stu didn’t seem to care about that either.
“Stuart, did you ask out that woman Jill introduced you to last month?”
“I did. She was fun. Very pretty. We got along great. Even had some fun in bed, if you don’t mind me telling you. But in the end, she just wasn’t for me.”
“Did you give her a chance?”
“I did. I really did. It just wasn’t right. Georgia, I know who I am and what I want.”
“Who are you?” she asked, genuinely curious. Sure, she’d known him since fifth grade when his father had moved his optometry business to Galton, but still, this yearly proposal was so out of character with the rest of their life, it made everything else about him—his classical music, his thriving law practice, his ribbon-winning heirloom tomato garden—seem like a front.
“I am a man who believes love can be a quiet and peaceful thing.”
Georgia sighed. “You deserve more than quiet and peaceful, Stu.”
“Happy birthday, Georgia.” He leaned in and kissed her cheek. At the door, he offered her the small, square jewelry box he offered her every year. The ring inside had been his grandmother’s. She shook her head and he tucked the box back into his jacket pocket.
“Stu, what if we really are still doing this when we’re old and gray?”
“I’m not unhappy, Georgia.”
“Neither am I,” she said. But for the first time in five years, she wasn’t sure she believed it.