By Gayle Brandeis.
The first boy to give me a ring, at least part of one, was Timmy Murakami. He left an “I like you and I hope you like me” note in my third grade locker, a note that suggested we go for a walk by Lake Michigan together. Along with drawing little YES and NO squares for me to mark, he had folded the bottom left corner of the wide ruled notebook paper into a sharp triangle, and had tucked a little yellow plastic heart inside, clear and pale, like lemon candy. It looked like it had fallen off a ring, prismatic like a diamond, a bit of adhesive still on its back. I never replied to the note—too shy—but sometimes I would set the gem on top of my ring finger and feel a rush through my body I couldn’t quite name, an admixture of quease and thrill.
The first thing I ever stole was a Chicago Bears ring. I didn’t mean to steal it. I had tried it on in the gift shop at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, where my family often went for Sunday brunch, a lavish spread of ice sculptures and lox and tiny fussy desserts, live piano music accompanying the hiss of butter from the omelet station. My sister and I loved to go to the gift shop and look at the snow globes holding the Chicago skyline, the activity books that came with invisible ink pens, the bins of candy and playing cards, the Buckingham Fountain keychains. I forgot the ring was on my finger when we left the store to get another plate of tiny, fussy desserts, didn’t notice it until we were back at home and my shirt snagged on it as I changed into my pajamas. My heart started to hammer. It was an ugly ring, the Chicago Bears logo huge and garish. I hated football. It was not a ring I ever would have asked my parents to buy for me. I had no idea why I had even chosen to try it on. But here it was. I was a criminal. There must be some badness in me I hadn’t known I possessed. I felt guilty, but also slightly excited, maybe even a little proud—a good girl like me getting away with theft. I yanked the ring off my finger and hid it deep inside my underwear drawer, where only I could feel its shameful glow.
For many years, I owned no significant rings—just those of the gum ball machine variety, flimsy mood rings and the like. Ones easily broken, easily forgotten. The significant rings in my life were my mother’s rings; I gazed at them on her graceful finger or set lonely on her night stand. Her thick gold wedding band was serpentined with smaller gold bands braided to resemble rope. It scared me a little; it seemed to signify struggle. Her engagement ring had been her mother’s; it had an art deco look with its fine filigree of silver, lots of tiny diamonds leading to the center stone. Something about it scared me, too, maybe because I knew my grandmother had died a month before my mom’s wedding, and anything related to death—anything related to adulthood, really—scared me. My mom switched back and forth between them on her ring finger. Sometimes she wore one on her left hand, one on her right. Sometimes she didn’t wear either, her hands bare and pale. She had been a hand model when she was a young woman; there are close up photos of her ringless hands facing one another, gently curved in supplication. They remind me of tulips; they remind me of wings.
My first husband and I got engaged my junior year of college. We had survived his affair with his best friend’s sister’s best friend, a woman he had had a crush on since junior high; our relationship was stronger than ever and we wanted to make it permanent. I told him I had seen a ring I liked at a hippie shop in downtown Redlands full of incense and high end tie-dye—the ring had a yin yang symbol at its center, flanked by metal birds. When he came back to our apartment, got on one knee and presented a ring with a peace sign at the center, flanked with what looked like metal acorns, my heart sank for a moment, but I told myself that this ring was even better than the one I had wanted—marriage is about compromise, right? Peace seemed like the right symbol for that. Still, for months, whenever I looked at the ring—which I did love—I saw the non-yin-yang of its center, saw the ghosts of birds hovering over the bezel.
When it was time to buy a wedding ring, I was pregnant. I had found out about the pregnancy while I was doing my study abroad in Bali my final semester of school. We decided to go ahead and have the baby, to get married soon. We went to Sears because we had a card that worked there—whether it was a Sears card, proper, or the gas card my parents had given me that could be used at a few other establishments (we ate at El Torito regularly for this very reason), I don’t remember. I just remember how giddy we were as we looked for the cheapest wedding rings in the case.
I had never liked gold. I was hoping for a silver ring. But the only plain silver bands were sized for men, and the plain gold band was only 50 bucks. It wasn’t my ideal choice—in fact, for years, I wished it could magically turn silver—but it was a ring, and we could afford it. My fiancee chose one that almost matched, but not quite—the band was narrower at the bottom; he thought it would be more comfortable as he worked in the cabinet shop, the job he had found after he was laid off from his under the table construction gig.
The guy behind the counter measured my finger with a strip of paper. “We should leave some extra room in case my fingers swell up,” I told him.
“Are you sure?” he asked, and I insisted yes; yes, I was. I wasn’t able to see beyond the pregnancy, wasn’t able to see to all the years beyond giving birth when the ring would be so roomy, it would often slide off my finger. Once it slipped off in the ocean, and somehow, miraculously, I was able to find it in the churning water; it felt like a sign that the marriage was fated, consecrated, blessed by the elements. I even left a chunk of watermelon in the waves to thank the sea for returning the band. Many years later, the ring fell and rolled across the kitchen floor, landing in the shadows below the dishwasher, and it felt like a different kind of sign, a sign that the ring, the marriage, no longer fit.
Still, I put it back on. I kept it on even after I told my husband I thought it was symbolic that our rings didn’t match, that we weren’t part of a set, that he had chosen his own comfort over our union. I kept it on even after he looked at me, betrayed, and said “This ring?”, his voice breaking as he pulled the band off his finger. I kept mine on even after we separated; I kept it on until we decided to move forward with a divorce. And when I took my ring off, I felt naked, vulnerable in the world. I hadn’t realized how it had kept men at bay; I hadn’t realized how differently men would look at me without that strip of metal encircling my finger. At the grocery store, at the post office, all those eyes, as if the ring had been a force field, as if I was suddenly in everyone’s cross hairs.
A friend invited me to a new moon ritual where we made altars for things we needed to let go of. I was happy to see a ring box amongst the potential altar containers on her dining room table. I painted a heart against its domed ceiling—my tiny Sistine chapel, showing not the Creation, but the end of the world I had known for 20 years. I wanted the heart to acknowledge the love that was connected to the ring, the love that had been such a part of my life. I painted wings next to the heart, like the birds that flanked the engagement ring I thought I had wanted. I placed the simple gold band inside; I closed the lid.
A little over a year after my separation, I found out I was pregnant. I was 41; my older kids would be 19 and almost 16 when the baby was born. After my boyfriend Michael and I decided to get married, my mom offered her engagement ring, her mother’ s engagement ring, the one that had scared me as a child. When Michael knelt and offered it to me, it felt like a formality, more a performance for my mom than a private moment. I never felt comfortable wearing the ring. It felt too fancy, too heavy in every way. I was terrified I would break it, somehow, or lose it. When I wore it (which amounted to maybe five times, at the most) my hand looked so much like my mom’s—not her hand model day hands, but her aging hands, topped with thick blue veins—it freaked me out.
We found our wedding rings on Etsy—hammered silver bands. They looked like the wedding rings of my dreams, although when they arrived, they were much lighter, less substantial, than I had expected. I had anticipated a reassuring weight on my finger, a solid heft—this felt more like a whisper. Still, the rings were gorgeous, and that made me happy.
Ours was a Very Etsy Wedding—the rings, my dress embroidered with vines, the wreath in my hair, the guest book, even the pen for the guest book, all hand crafted and purchased online from “the world’s most vibrant handmade marketplace”. We wanted our marriage to be homespun, too—earthy, eclectic, authentic. We were so in love, so very much in love. We couldn’t stop kissing during the ceremony, even before we exchanged our rings and had our first official kiss as a married couple.
How quickly things can unravel.
Our baby was born four months after the wedding. My mom committed suicide exactly one week later; Michael’s mom died suddenly four months after that, and we went into a tailspin of bitterness and grief. I started to feel as if I had made a horrible mistake—not about the baby, who was a sunbeam of joy through it all—but about the marriage. Instead of feeling connected by our matching rings, our matching last names (he had taken mine), I felt claustrophobic, suffocated, put upon. I started to think that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing my first husband and I had worn different rings—it had created space for each of us to do our own thing, to be our own people. I had often felt lonely in that marriage, but at least I had space to breathe.
It took a while for things to come to a boiling point, for me to fall in long distance love with someone else, for Michael and I to separate. He took his ring off before I did; I finally took mine off while we were arguing over Skype. It felt light as air as I pulled it from my finger; when I set it on my desk, it barely made a sound.
Funny how the most important rings in my life have all felt lacking, disappointing, in some way. Maybe because rings are mostly lack, mostly absence. They are negative space, limned. Or maybe because nothing ever matches our fantasies, not exactly. My favorite planet as a child was Saturn. I never would have guessed its rings were made of ice and rocks and dust, that what looked like solid color was a riot of debris and empty space.
After months of being bare, my ring finger started to itch. I often caught myself rubbing my thumb against the underside of that finger, as if it wanted to move a ring around. I was in Yellow Springs, OH to teach at a writers’ conference and stopped in a store that sold locally crafted goods. I picked up a t-shirt featuring a silkscreened artichoke for myself, one that said “May the Forest Be With You” for Michael, who I was living with once again. At the cash register, I noticed a display of rings topped with what looked like smooth lumps of agate in a variety of sizes and colors, all set in silver. A sign informed me the stones were actually carved from old bowling balls; that made them all the more cool—kitsch and beauty combined. I knew I had found what my hand was searching for.
Michael wasn’t ready to put his ring back on yet—he still wasn’t sure he could trust me fully—but I was ready to make a fresh commitment to him, to myself. I was drawn to the rings with the big slices of bowling ball, but the bands were too large, made for stout man fingers. Even the more delicate rings were roomy; I finally settled on one that was loose but in no danger of falling off, the stone almost but not quite a heart shape, purple with glints of orange when hit with certain slants of light. The band itself was not closed, but curved like a serpent, one silver end hovering above the stone. An open circle.
The ring felt perfect for our Marriage 2.0—a mix of sustainability and absurdity, beauty and fun, open the way we want our communication to be open; open the way the future is open. My favorite color sparkling; a shape almost like a heart. A ring that wouldn’t disappoint because I had chosen it for myself, had felt its weight on my body, had found it pleasing.
I think about dendrochronology, the study of tree rings, those rings that tell us so much more than how long a tree has been on this earth. They can tell us about patterns of rain and drought, varying levels of pH and carbon dioxide. Sometimes trees have “missing” rings, whole years blank as if they’ve been blotted out, as if they never happened. Sometimes several rings can form in one momentous year.
I imagine a cross section of my body, like the cross section of a tree, all my significant rings enlarged and concentric inside me—my bowling ball ring circling the inside of my waist like an internal belt; my hammered silver wedding ring hovering inside of it; my grandmother’s engagement ring floating like so much ice and dust inside of that; my plain gold wedding bend suspended inside next, then the peace sign engagement ring, then the Bears ring I accidentally stole. At the center would gleam the pale yellow heart Timmy Murakami gave me, a tiny Saturn inside its rings, a pebble that left ripples on a pond, a lemon drop I wasn’t ready to swallow when it was handed to me, but somehow prepared me for all the rings to come—all the rings that show who I used to be; all the rings that show who I am.
Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds(HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt). She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011.
Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as Salon.com, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.
Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler.