I was nervous. Very nervous. Incredibly nervous. I reached into my pocket with my right hand, like I had done so many times in the past twenty minutes, my fingers grazing the peach fuzz-like velvet of the box. It was like a worry stone that I rubbed absentmindedly. However, whenever I caught myself doing it, I made myself stop; I didn't want to mar the box. I pulled my hand out of my pocket and rested my arms on the table top.
It had been two years—two years to the day when I had first met Nelly. And now I was going to propose.
Waiting at least two years had been had her idea. She had never explicitly asked me to wait until today to ask. And as far as I knew, she didn't have today circled on her calendar as a special day. It wasn't a typical anniversary, because it didn't mark our first kiss or first date. It was just two years since I had met her, here, at this very restaurant.
It had been a day to remember, that's for sure, when we had met. I still can recall the table of girls who had stared at me from across the room but hid their faces as soon as I looked back at them. I'm used to getting recognized wherever I go, and it's the polite thing to do to introduce myself and offer an autograph. Now that I look back on it, it seemed presumptuous of me, but it's been ingrained in me for so long that I'm an ambassador for my team and the league.
The whole exchange that took place afterward was a little awkward and surprising, which is what made such an impression on me. I'm definitely used to overconfident, determined women approaching me and making their intentions clear—which I suppose can be flattering, but it's mostly unwelcome.
She left without me getting to talk to her again, but imagine my surprise when I saw her again over the weekend. That's when we really started to get to know each other, but it wouldn't have happened if we hadn't have met at this very restaurant. Even though this would only be the second time we'd ever come here together like this, this was a very important place for us, and now it was going to mean even more to us.
I'd come back from Canada specifically for this reason. I still returned to Nova Scotia during the off season, to see my parents and the rest of my family and spend some time at my home on the lake, to relax and unwind after a stressful season and to train and refocus for the next. I'd come back to Pittsburgh occasionally for press and hockey reasons, and sometimes Nelly would come up north and visit for long weekends at my house in Enfield. But she still had to work over the summers with the Penguins organization because she had responsibilities that extended beyond the hockey season. It was a part of her job, and she loved it. Luckily for me, though, she understood that I was still a Canadian boy and that I needed the quiet time over the summer to unwind from the season.
She'd stay at my house—our home—in Pittsburgh even when I was gone. Of course she did, because it was her home now, too. It wasn't particularly hard on us, for us to be separated for periods of time over the summer, because we were so often separated for the entire season, too. It sucked, and had taken a lot of getting used to once she had moved in with me—but that was the nature of our relationship. It was all we'd ever known during our time together. We weren't lucky enough to have a "normal" relationship, but it wasn't always a bad thing; nothing felt better than returning home after a road trip or being away for an extended span of time to my girl and her open arms. We certainly made due with the life we shared together.
Nelly had known from day one what my life was like. Commercial shoots, photo shoots, interviews, contractual obligations galore, practices, games, road trips, charities, appearances, black tie dinners, meetings with my agent and sponsors—beyond that, even my personal time wasn't always my own. If we went out for dinner or a movie or just for a walk around the block, half the time we'd get stopped by a fan or someone looking for an autograph or a picture.
She not only understood all that, but she donned the professional girlfriend persona well. Nelly would always smile and offer to take the picture or would hang back just far enough that she was out of the way but never so far away that she appeared disconnected or aloof. It was the perfect balance, and she always took it in stride and never got upset or irked by it. She knew that it came with the territory.
The only time we were really alone and totally ourselves was when we were at home, just the two of us. Since she was so laid back, she was cool with spending the quiet time together. Going out was such a production because I'd always have to call ahead and get a reserved table in a secluded area if we didn't want to be disturbed. It wasn't a hassle because I'd do it if I knew Nelly wanted it done, but she was just as content as I was to spend the time home alone, and it was great to know that we were on the same page and so similar in all the important ways.
Which was how I knew she was The One and why I was going to marry her.
We were a natural fit; that's the only way I could think of to describe it. When we met, she knew exactly who I was: Sidney Crosby, Captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins. She liked to joke that I was the biggest thing to happen to hockey since goalie masks. But that wasn't all I was to her. It had been hard, sure. Especially when we lost in the second round the first year we were together. That was a tough time for us, because I do not like to lose and I certainly wasn't happy with the outcome of our season, falling to the Habs in seven games. I was miserable, and I know that I'm not easy to put up when I'm consumed by the losses. But we struggled and got through that first tricky month of the summer, and it got easier from there.
As much as it sucked to lose with her watching, it was so much fun to win with her cheering me on. Sharing the Olympics with her made winning the gold and scoring the winning goal that much sweeter, even though had promised Orps that she was officially cheering for Team USA. And then when we won the Cup the next season, the first season in the Consol Energy Center, it felt amazing to see her come down to the ice with my family, where I could hug her and she could congratulate me. I had really wanted to share that with her. She was the first person I had wanted to see after we had taken the big team photo with the Cup and family members had been allowed to trickle down onto the ice surface to celebrate with us.
The timing was perfect for my surprise; seriously, it couldn't have been better. Nelly was staying with her parents for the weekend as they undertook a huge house cleaning project to go through the basement and de-junk and de-clutterize, as she called it. Her parents wanted her there so she could sort through her own things and decide if she wanted to bring it to her new home or get rid of it. I'd made the excuse that I was coming down to do some things around the house to get it ready before I got caught up with summer Cup celebrations and had to come back into town for the preseason—but mostly, I was here to ask the big question and to hear her say "yes."
I'd suggested dinner when I had sprung my visit on her at the last possible minute, and I'd suggested the restaurant. I don't know if the significance had passed over her head because she was busy and tired from working with her parents or if she really just forgot. Either way, Nelly was going to be surprised—even though she shouldn't be. She should know that this is coming. When she had said that she thought couples should wait a minimum of two years to fully get to know each other before taking this next big step—but no more than three—I had made a mental note of that. I knew that as soon as we hit our two-year mark, I'd pop the question.
Now that the time had finally come and the moment to propose was here, I was nervous and anxious and ready to do it. It's like that moment right before I'd hit the ice for a big game. You just can't wait to skate out on the ice and position yourself at center ice for the puck drop. It's like your body is itching to perform the physical actions and get going.
I'd worked with a local jeweler for a few months as we tried to search for the perfect ring for Nelly. It had been very difficult; after all, I couldn't go poking my nose around a ring counter at a jewelry store because someone would have said something, and all my plans would have been ruined. I had to be secretive about it, and that meant meeting Franz, the designer, at neutral locations. Finally, since we had no luck finding something that I was sure Nelly would like and what would suit her, we just created an original design. This morning, I had met Franz one last time, to pick it up; now, it was burning a hole in my pocket.
My fingers curled around the box again, almost like I needed to make sure it was still there. Once I consciously realized what I was doing, I made myself let go of it and reach for the glass of water on the table with my right hand to force myself to stop the nervous, repetitive action of touching the ring box.
My knee started to bounce up and down as my anxious energy tried to find another outlet. I glanced at my watch; it was almost six o'clock. I shouldn't have gotten here so early, because I was not very patient. Sitting here and waiting was killing me, but I had been worked up all day as I waited to leave our home in Pittsburgh to drive out here and meet up with her. This was driving me nuts, and I thought for sure that I would spontaneously combust soon if I didn't get ride of this energy by asking her already.
The waitress stopped by with a pitcher of water and refilled my glass. I nodded my thanks to her as I stared at the door and willed Nelly to walk through it. A few times, the door would open and I'd feel my heart rate increase as I expected to see her come through it, but they were all false alarms and I felt disappointed as I continued to wait.
It was three minutes after six by the time she finally pulled open the heavy glass door and breezed into the room. She hesitated as she scanned the room; I watched the way her face pulled up into a smile as she found me sitting in the back of the room and headed over in my direction. Nelly dodged the tables and other patrons as she made her way over to me.
Nelly was dressed in a pair of denim shorts and a loose-fitting tee shirt, her hair pulled back in a messy bun and her cheeks pink. I could immediately see how hard she had been at work at her parents' house by how flush she was.
She first stopped by my side of the table and gave me a peck on the cheek in greeting. "Hey, Sid," she said in a low voice, knowing better than to speak my name too loudly when we were in a public place. "Sorry I'm a little late, but traffic was a little heavier than I thought it would be."
"It's fine," I told her, giving her a smile that I hoped was reassuring but probably looked more strained. My hand slipped into my pocket and grabbed a hold of that black, velvet box, but Nelly grabbed the menu and began to peruse her options before I could go on with my question. Since she was distracted, I made myself let go of it and then I sighed. The moment had to be just right, and I needed her to have her full attention on me.
"Geez, Sid, it was only three minutes," she started, raising her eyebrow but not bothering to look up from the menu. "If you were that hungry, you could have ordered without me."
"Huh? Oh, no," I replied, trying to cover up and explain away my sigh. This had to start off right, and I couldn't have her thinking that I was upset that she was only a few minutes late for our dinner date. "I haven't even decided what I want yet." That was a total lie. I couldn't eat; I was too nervous to be able to even think about food. She continued to glance over her options, so I made small talk to wait until she had made up her mind. "How're your parents?"
"Good. We almost finished today, actually. I'm really trying to encourage them to donate or throw away a lot of the junk in the basement. They still have some of my baby toys and clothes that they don't need to keep, but they just don't want to get rid of anything."
"Well, maybe they're keeping that stuff for their grandkids," I mused aloud. I waited for her reaction to that statement, as an indication of how my proposal would go over. After all, once you get married, starting a family becomes the next step in the natural progression of a relationship.
"I guess," she said absentmindedly. "But they keep saying they want to get rid of the junk in their basement, and it seems like every box we go through, they say, 'Oh, but we're saving that.' It's frustrating because I'm trying to help and be the voice of reason, but they won't listen."
It didn't even seem to register with her, but I didn't let that discourage me. She was a little flustered and too busy studying the paper in front of her. I let it slide. "Well, I'm sure all that stuff has memories attached to it."
She shrugged but didn't say anything else. I changed subjects. "So, what do you think you'll get?"
"Hmm, I'll probably just get the steak salad. It's what I always get here, but that's just because it's that good."
"Yeah, I remember," I said, starting to look over my menu, too.
Nelly looked up and looked at me carefully. "What do you remember?"
"Steak salad. That's what you ordered the day we met."
"The day we.... Wait, you remember what I ordered that day?"
I laughed at her. "Of course I remember that. In fact, you were sitting at this very booth, on that very same side of the table."
She cocked her head to the side and crinkled her face up as she examined my face. "You're right. Oh my God, I can't believe you remember that!"
"I remember a lot of things," I said, reaching deep into my pocket with my right hand, taking a deep breath and preparing myself to ask the big question.
That is, until the waitress stopped at our table, her pad of paper and pen poised to take our orders. "Have yinz guys decided what you want?"
I sighed again and sat back in my seat as the woman who was still just my girlfriend read her meal selection off the menu and I continued to wait for the right moment.
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