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Decent Proposal
Kristin Cosby

“Everyday, my life is going down. And it will go down more,” the crippled Hungarian said flatly. I glanced at him uneasily from the passenger seat as we crawled through the rainy, Pittsburgh traffic in his car. The car was a dented, black Nissan Altima. The crippled Hungarian was Mogor, a computer software developer who emigrated from western Hungary to work in Providence, Rhode Island, three years ago. For the past hour and half he had been telling me about how he had just lost both his jobs. I was trying to comfort him, but since I barely knew Mogor, I wasn't succeeding in making him feel better.

Mogor braked at a stoplight. His crutches and cane, which were lying in the back, slammed into my seat.

On the radio a male Hungarian pop star was wailing a mournful tune.

“Can you understand what he is saying?” Mogor asked.

I listened for a moment and translated, “I am always crying for you...”

“No!” Mogor interrupted, “‘I am just a fool for crying for you.’ It is much more applicable to my life.” He shook he head sadly. His girlfriend, Eniko, had left him a few weeks ago, but still co-inhabited their Providence apartment because she couldn't afford to move out.

I studied Mogor for a moment. He was pale; his cheeks sagged; his light brown hair was receding. He seemed to perpetually frown. I could not guess his age; he looked old and worn out, but I imagined he had always looked old and worn out. When he arrived in Pittsburgh this morning, he had given me a bar of Hungarian chocolate. Cheap stuff; in Hungary, it would the kind of thing you would bring a kid when you went to visit his or her parents. Then he took me out for coffee at Panera.

We were driving down Forbes Avenue towards the University of Pittsburgh campus in the pouring rain. He parked in the handicap zone in front of the Cathedral of Learning, the liberal arts building, where I work and attend graduate school.

The rain pounded down on the roof of the car, Mogor's temporary handicap parking permit twisted and turned from the rear view mirror. Eager to finally escape, I reached for the door handle and turned to say goodbye.

Mogor cut me off. “Maybe I haven't made myself clear,” he said. “You can help me and I can help you. You could marry me.”

Last spring a young couple walked into the chintzy silver-imports store that I then managed. They were speaking Hungarian. Having spent some time in Hungary as a child, I also spoke Hungarian. Always eager to practice my language skills, I went over and introduced myself. Their names were Eniko and Mogor. They had been living together in Providence for the past two years. He worked, and she attended college. The three of us spoke in Hungarian for a while. Eniko and I swapped email addresses and phone numbers. Like me, she was in her early twenties. She was delighted with my fumbling attempts to speak her language. Mogor, on the other hand, seemed bored and impatient. He sharply corrected my Hungarian when I was mid-sentence as though he were reprimanding me. I told them that I was trying to go back to Hungary in order to study Hungarian and visit my old friends.

“Why would you want to study Hungarian?” Asked Mogor sourly, “Nobody outside of Hungary speaks it.”

I smiled. “But we're speaking it.”

He didn't seem amused.

A few weeks later, Eniko called me and left a message on my cell phone. She invited me to their flat to have dinner and speak some Hungarian. It was a busy time for me. I didn't call back. And I didn't think much of it when I didn't hear from her again.

The following September, I was attending graduate school at Pitt when I got a call from Mogor. He was delighted to discover that I had moved to Pittsburgh. He was staying with friends in Philadelphia. Mogor wanted to see me; he was insistent on seeing me. He wanted to help me study in Hungary, if I was still interested. He was willing to drive from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in order to talk with me. Despite my initial wariness, I was curious about what information he might have for me. I agreed to meet with him.

The following Monday, Mogor was seated on a bench outside the Cathedral of Learning at 11 a.m. as arranged. He stood up to meet me as I approached. He was using a cane.

It had been a bad year for Mogor. He fell at work and hurt his hip. The hip didn't stop hurting, and he went for an X-ray, then to a physical therapist, and then finally got an MRI which revealed that blood hadn't been circulating to a large part his hip bone. The bone was badly damaged; it would be a long track to recovery. He got fired from his jobs, he lost his green card, and his insurance companies were trying to toss his hospital bills back and forth instead of paying them. Mogor got a lawyer and was suing his insurance companies. Eniko left him, but didn't move out. So they were still living together in Providence while she dated another Hungarian guy and went to school and Mogor stayed home, limped around the apartment, and thought about his biggest problem of all: he was no longer employed by the companies that brought him to the United States. Therefore, he no longer had a green card and would have to move back to Hungary.

So he drove to Pittsburgh, gave me the Hungarian equivalent of a Twix bar, bought me a cup of coffee, and then, sitting in the front seat of his car in a handicap parking zone he popped “the question.”

Mogor was suggesting a simple swap, my American citizenship for his Hungarian citizenship. (And soon to be European Union citizenship once Hungary is admitted to the EU in 2004.) He pitched it like a business idea, carefully outlining the perks and benefits for me. We would get married in Las Vegas and spend the weekend there on his tab. He would give me money up front and establish a joint bank account that he would continue put money into for me to use when I needed it. I didn't have to wear my ring in public. In eighteen months, we could get divorced. We could see other people during this time. And we didn't have to have sex.

“I will support you, give you money, whatever you need,” he said, “You will come to Hungary and meet my family. They already know I planned to ask you this. I know many people who have done it. It's no big deal. There will be an interview. But we don't have to lie. We met in your store. We tell them that we fell in love. Who is to say that we didn't? It's a perfect arrangement; you're perfect for this arrangement, and you speak Hungarian.”

I was dumbfounded. After a moment of shock, I began to calculate. Slipping on a wedding ring would be easier than getting a Fulbright to study in Europe. Citizenship in the EU was nothing to sneeze at. Not to mention thatI was a grad student, and I was broke.

This was the second time in two months that someone had literally offered to purchase my hand in marriage. In August when I was studying in Cambridge, England, a twenty-nine year old Nigerian man, who stopped and asked me for directions on the street one night, followed me back to my building, found out my room number from the porter, and showed up at in my room the following evening. He offered to buy me a cell phone and a car. He was Islamic and already had a wife back in Nigeria, but it was an arranged marriage and his wife was, in his words, not affectionate. He had come to study in England in order to get away. Under Islamic law in Nigeria he could have up to four wives; he wanted me to become wife number two. He refused to leave my room until I said yes and when that failed to win me, he threatened to jump out the window. I talked him out of it.

At the age of twenty-three, I profess I have no interest, or expertise in marriage. I am, however, becoming an authority on marriage proposals. Quick and pricey proposals of convenience seem to be my specialty. I am tempted to see how much I am worth. Perhaps, I should auction off my hand in marriage on eBay and see just how high the bidding goes. I could be set for life. Or maybe, I should just chop off the ring finger on my left hand and put that up for sale. Going? Going? Gone.

Modern day propositions are navigating between ancient and new traditions in an inconsistent landscape of who does what to whom and when. In comparison with previous generations, the yet-to-be-wed of my generation are more mobile, more likely to have gone to college, and to have been in therapy. Through both social acceptability and economic independence, we can wait longer to be married; we no longer have to wait to marry to move out of our parent's homes. So in theory, a marriage today truly consists of two independent, mature adults ready to bring the best of their diverse backgrounds to a loving, lasting relationship. However, this means a modern proposal of matrimony is actually a proposal of an intercultural, economic, legal contract. Thus, popping the question occasionally becomes about as easy and as romantic as simultaneously negotiating an international trade agreement and peace accord.

The expectations of marriage are consistent only in that they always change, so maybe I shouldn't be so surprised that the rules of proposals are also changing. As a woman in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century with relatively secure economic standing, I am expected to negotiate the terms of my own marriage. If I am being bought-out in a proposal it is from myself. It is my privilege; it is my right to accept whatever proposal I see fit. Unlike generations prior to me, I do not need to bother with betrothals or matchmakers. I need neither my parent's approval, nor my father's blessing. I do not have a dowry. I do not have bride price. I may marry outside the once inhibiting boundaries of socio-economic class and race. I should be able to marry someone of my own sex.

The independent woman within me revels in my ability to choose, to sell my “wifinity” for a price and a passport if I so desire. In many ways, it would be a very practical, strategic move. Women throughout history have married less appealing men for worse reasons and under far more duress. However, at the same time, the romantic within me still asks, “Where is the magic? Where's the ring? Where's the man down on one knee?”

The first marriage proposal I received was in the second grade. Steven Johnson proposed to me under the slide at recess. Steven had blue eyes and blond curly hair and chipmunk cheeks; I was head over heels in puppy love with him. We swapped erasers and were married on the spot. I dragged him into the tire-pyramid and made him kiss me every recess after that until the end of the school year when I moved away. We honeymooned at the roller-skating rink and sent each other construction paper Valentine's cards. It was the best.

I was fourteen and a freshman in high school when I received my second proposal. I was in love again, and I took the suggestion of my high-school sweetheart seriously. He proposed, then blew the grey fuzz off a dandelion and suggested matrimony as if he were making a wish. I looked down at the dandelion. Half the fuzz had stuck. Maybe I should have taken it as a sign; marriage proposals and I were not going go hand in hand. Still, I loved the proposals of my childhood; I loved receiving them the boys I received them from. And I loved the memory of them.

In the end I said no to Mogor, aware of my status, my social, economic, cultural ability. The decision was also in part based on my belief, however idyllic, that while a marriage proposal can and should be a logical, mutually beneficial step for two people, it should also consist of something more.

You (whoever you are) and I are in Vienna in mid-December. (Don't ask why. It is my fantasy and I say we are.) We are wandering through the Christmas fair that begins at City Hall and winds through the cobblestone streets of the old city. We were both little drunk from the hot wine in the earthenware mugs that they sell in the main square. Glug wine, sweet, with rum soaked raisins at the bottom. We have wandered through side streets, to a smaller square, it is getting dark, and the wet air creates halos around the street lamps and the strings of Christmas lights. We dodge the worst of the slush puddles; our feet are wet, and we are looking for a place for coffee with whipped cream melting across the top. The limestone buildings seem to glow. An old woman is sitting in one of the booths selling records. As advertisement she is playing an ancient Billie Holiday album on a vintage record player. (I have been there, this does happen.) The air soaks up Billy's words as we slouch across the wet cobblestones to the table. Though really I have been planning for a while, I will make it seem spontaneous, nonchalant. Maybe when we stop at the table to thumb through the records. I will make the link between thumb and ring-fingers (you know how my brain works), and I suggest that on our honeymoon we find a place where we slow-dance to Billy crooning "Without Your Love". The street is soaked, and I am in a skirt, so I don't get down on my knees. But you know what I mean. We decide to buy the old record player together. It is not symbolic, it is not traditional, but it is for good luck.

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