It was late afternoon in Sausalito and the sun was at its strongest, streaking the bay with light.
After a daylong bike ride through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge and down a winding road to this coastal town, I was ready to rest. I rode along the water until I spotted a wide green field dotted with couples and families – the perfect place to collapse.
I set my bike down on an empty patch of grass near a couple who looked to be in their mid-20s. She was Irish, he was British. From the high-pitched, exaggerated way she laughed I guessed they were in the honeymoon phase of a new relationship.
Using my backpack as a pillow, I closed my eyes and drifted into that kind of half-sleep only caused by physical exhaustion. Their voices turned distant, blending in with the sounds of boats and children playing. But then something shook me awake.
“Oh, it’s perfect, absolutely perfect!” the girl exclaimed, jumping onto the guy’s lap. “Look at it!”
Did they just get engaged? Within minutes of me lying down next to them, sweaty, nearly passed out? I couldn’t believe it. Clearly I was wrong in thinking they were a new couple.
I caught a flash of light on her hand. This was like a movie – something better than a movie – unfolding before me, and I couldn’t look away.
“You know when you’d point to those rings in the windows? I know every single thing about those rings. How much they cost, what they’re named, everything.” He spoke quickly, emotions cascading through his chest and changing the pitch of his voice.
“You do? Oh, bless you,” said the girl, kissing him.
“I’ve got all the certificates for it and I’ve got it insured. I wanted to wait for a sunny day because when you move it around it’s just insane. Look at it!” He took her hand. “It’s like fire. Brilliance.”
It was obvious he was the practical, stoic one in the relationship, while she was the bubbly free spirit who laughed just as much as she spoke.
“It is,” she said, cocking her head to one side and examining how the stone glinted in the sun. “Brilliance, you’re right! It’s absolutely per-fect.”
There were no photographers hiding in bushes or trails of rose petals leading to a pretty view. She didn’t shriek. I don’t think he even got down on one knee. The proposal was natural and beautiful and I felt honored to be the only one to have witnessed it.
I wondered if they knew I was eavesdropping, but I was so close, how could they not? A few minutes later they moved to a bench just a few feet in front of me – now I could hear every word of their conversation.
“So, want to hear about how I got the ring fitted?”
“Of course I do!” she said, leaning her head on his shoulder.
”Well, remember a few years back when we found your grandmother’s ring in the attic? I had your friend Heather go fetch that ring. I asked her to try and get you to wear it, figuring the sizes would be similar. But of course I knew you wouldn’t put it on your left hand, only your right.” He turned and a smirk erupted onto his face. “So it was kind of a risk.”
“You poor thing,” she said, cupping his cheek. “Bless you.”
The sun started to weaken and the scent of baking bread drifted over from the bayside Italian restaurants. The park was clearing out. I knew I should get the next ferry back to San Francisco but wanted to say something to the couple, congratulate them.
When I saw them taking a selfie I walked over.
“Excuse me,” I said, “Did you two just get engaged? Can I take a proper photo of you in front of the bay?”
“Yes!” exclaimed the girl. “Look at it!” She held out her left hand. She seemed eager to share the good news, as if telling someone would solidify it as real.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Congratulations!”
“This one, she’s the most difficult girl in the world to propose to,” the guy said to me, as if we were old friends. ”I’ve been trying to do it for weeks but she keeps changing the plans! First, I tried in Seattle but that fell through. And then yesterday in San Francisco, when we were about to go to a nice dinner, she said, ‘let’s get chowder and see the sea lions!’”
I shook my head and smiled.
“Oh, you poor thing,” the girl said, cupping his cheek. Then she gave me her phone and I took a series of photos of them in front of the bay.
“How do they look?” I asked.
“They’re perfect,” the girl said, smiling as she flipped through the shots.
I congratulated them again and walked towards the ferry pier to get my ticket. The wait would be over an hour, I was told, since so many bikers had come to Sausalito that day. By the time I got on a ferry the sun was setting gloriously over the water, and I found a seat on the upper deck. I took out my notebook to write down what I’d just seen.
Then, from a distance, I spotted the couple. They weren’t speaking now, just leaning into the ferry railing and one another. They stared out at the water as it turned darker and darker, the day’s brilliance clasped safely in their hands.