i am engaged

Brenda Wilbee 1971

FIFTY YEARS AGO, flu had been going around the small Southern Baptist college I attended. I was ill, running a temperature; nonetheless, I’d been dragged off to church. Sunday night. Halloween. Full moon. Service finally over, the man I’d reluctantly been dating turned off Camelback Road of Phoenix, Arizona, onto the college campus. But instead of driving straight on and taking the road that ran out to the girls’ dormitory, Norris made an immediate right and came to a stop outside the library—a hunkered down building of stone that sat square on its haunches to stare through blank windows onto a circular fountain eerily stark and empty. Water turned off for winter.

“What are you doing?” I asked, wanting only to ease into a hot bath and then into bed, vaguely wondering if I’d have to get in line for my turn, one tub for 150 women.

“Let’s take a walk around the fountain.”

“I can’t. I’m sick. I need to go to bed.”


He got out anyway and came around and opened the door, a gesture that surprised me. This singular attempt at chivalry was noteworthy, but I quickly understood this was not an act of gallantry but enforcement. I was to get out of the car. I threw up the hood of my winter coat, jammed my hands into the pockets, and dutifully began the circular trudge in a shuffling wind. Body aching, shivering, my face hot with fever, I hurried best I could around the silent, two-tiered fountain.

“Wait. Let’s walk around again.”

“I’m sick.”

He commandeered me into another silent march around. I made an attempt to gain the car but he took my arm and steered me to a nearby concrete bench. Despite my coat, the cold found my bones and I scooted forward, balancing on the edge to avoid the worst of the icy concrete.

Norris sat beside me, opened his mouth, shut it. The world shivered in the wind and somewhere across Camelback Road a dog howled at the full moon. What was the matter with him? I wondered, stomping my feet into the sidewalk to warm them, tucking my chin deeper into my coat collar.

“I’m trying to work up my nerve,” he finally said, “to ask you to marry me.”

It took a minute to process. Was this a bad joke? A proposal on Halloween? When I was ill? Freezing cold? In the shadow of a building reminiscent of the Munster’s, I half expected a bat to nose-dive off the eaves, a door somewhere to creak. I think I asked, “Why would I want to marry you?” A fair question, but I heard myself say, “Can we go someplace warm to talk?”

He had keys to the science building. He started off.

“We’ll drive,” I said, coughing.

So we drove the 200 feet. Favor enough, I suppose, because this time he didn’t come around and open the door for me. I opened it myself and stepped out, the wind at once finding my ears and rattling the fronds of palm trees lining the drive—an eerie, unsettling clatter. Nevertheless, I followed Norris to the long, low building, sum total of Grand Canyon College’s science department. Once there, he rattled his keys in the moonlight and swung open the zoology door, hinges actually squealing.

Venetian blinds had been left open. Halloween’s moonlight fell in stripes through the slats, cutting in bars across the desks to the backwall bookcase, where it threw up sabers of moonlight over rows of glass jars filled with pig heads and animal fetuses, co-joined cats, an unborn fawn, all floating or jammed into formaldehyde baths and neatly labeled in jars that looked like a mad man’s pantry. In front of the classroom, suspended by a hook drilled into its skull, was the skeleton Tony Bony. So named by my lab partner Tobi. A gust of wind came through the open door and jangled a bit of life into him; and the moonbeams—parsing through the Venetian blinds like silver blades—sliced through his floating rib cage.

“I am not talking here,” I said.

For weeks, I’d struggled to break if off with this man. I hadn’t wanted to date him in the first place. But he always countered, cajoled, coerced, wearing me down. “No” was not part of the Christian language I’d grown up with, and I’d already suffered much in silence. But marry this man? This was more than I could bear. Please dear God, don’t make me do this. Moonlight sheared off his face, one he told me was handsome. My shock must have been evident.

“Everyone thinks they’re handsome!” he defended.

Uh, no. Everyone I knew was well acquainted of their flaws. I certainly wasn't the cat’s meow. I have my mother’s legs. They go from my ankles to hips without fanfare, my knees simply functional. My feet aren’t attached right. I grew up hearing occasional discussions about whether to put them in braces, to make my toes point straight. My head. I was seven when the hairdresser in a little shop across the street from Port Coquitlam’s triangle park told my mother it was shaped like a football. I had no idea what a football was. My football head, she said, was also too big for my skinny neck. About this time, Aunt Shirley decided to make me a skirt. Brown corduroy, gold paisley pattern. I stood on her kitchen table in downtown Vancouver while she poked and prodded and finally declared I had no hips. Like the football, I had no idea what hips were. I did understand that not having them made me less than I should have been, and my face burned with new shame. As to my bum… My sisters had informed me early on that it stuck out, leaving me forever embarrassed by the consequential gap between my hinny and whatever hand-me-down swimsuit Mum could lay her hands on. It was this flaw Norris zeroed in on. Incessantly. Better not hang your underwear on a clothesline, he kept telling me, people might think a ship’s set sail. I weighed all of 105 pounds. Yet I believed him.

“I am not going to talk in here,” I repeated, glancing over to Tony Bony.

“The student council room then.”

The minute he opened the door into a sterile room without heat and flipped on the single light hanging from the ceiling, I said, “I am not going to marry you.”

“As a Christian, you have to.”

When had his request become mandate? I sat as directed, the stuffing knocked out of me. He pulled up a chair to my right, plopped a Bible on the table. Where had that come from? In a flutter of panic, I attempted to argue my way out of this. “Why would I marry anyone so mean to me?” I asked. “You don’t even like me. Last week you kicked me in the grocery store—for no reason.”

“You deserved it.”

“For no reason, and in front of Bill and Janice.”

I reminded him of our outing to Lake Havasu with these same friends. They’d all swum off, leaving me alone for hours in the Arizona desert.

I brought up Dollar Night at the movie theater. One night, the film had been of such cruelty I’d begged we leave. No. He’d paid his buck, he said. If I wanted to waste my dollar, fine, go ahead. Tears caught me off-guard, a contact slithered sideways, eventually I lost it. He wouldn’t help look. Gingerly I touched my clothes, my shoes, the sticky floor, fumbling around in the dark while screams in surround-sound knifed my ears. Miraculously I found my contact, thank you, Jesus, and asked for the car keys. Norris slapped them into my hand but refused to budge, forcing me to climb over his knees. For an hour I sat in his ’64 Mustang behind the theatre building, debating the right and wrong of driving back to the college and leaving him stranded.  Do not repay evil with evil. I stayed.

I reminded Norris of these things and more. He calmly opened his Bible to I Corinthians 13 and I flinched. I knew exactly what was coming.

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not seek its own… thinks no evil… bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.    – I Corinthians 13:4-7 (NKJV)

“I do not love you,” I tried.

“‘He that loveth not, knoweth not God.’” He quoted I John 4:8.

I knew the verse. I knew all the verses. He did not, and I watched him flip to the concordance at the back of his Bible to riffle through the tissue-thin pages in search of more verses to aid and abet. He’d sensed, I suppose, how it was with me and the Bible—a kind of kryptonite that weakened me—because he pressed his advantage while I frantically mounted a futile defense. I don’t recall the precise conversation, and I’m embarrassed to paraphrase. It reveals an astonishing lack of critical thinking on my part, certainly a devastating lack of self-preservation.

“Love the Lord with all your heart,” he read.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” he quoted.

“You’re required to love me,” he reiterated.

“You must be willing to lay down your life for me.”

I suspect my own arsenal of verses flitted through my mind. He probably didn’t have to try that hard.

“What if Jared asked me to marry him?” I tried, desperate to move away from the quicksand of random verses to gain a more solid ground of common sense.

“He didn’t ask you, did he? He asked Sally.”

“Tom then.” I brought up the guy I actually liked. “Suppose Tom asked—"

“He hasn’t asked. I have.”

This bit with Jared and Tom is verbatim, cauterized into my brain by the sheer absurdity of it.

“So anyone in the world,” I said, following the logic through, “should they ask me to marry them, I’d have to say yes?”

He looked me straight in the eye. “Yes.” This, too, verbatim.

A sane woman would have gotten up and walked away, somehow gotten herself back to the dorm and taken care of herself. Truth be known, I didn’t know how. Rudeness was not part of my Christian upbringing and the word “no,” remember, was not part of my vocabulary.

The lopsided fencing match staggered to its inevitable end with Norris, his long thin saber—the Word of God quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword—backing me, without weaponry of any kind, to the brink of a familiar abyss I first experienced when I was six years old. Utterly helpless to argue the black and white of Scripture.