The Poser of Proposal
It was a foggy and hot summer morning in May when my mother came to me with a difficult proposal: to leave my father or stay together for us, my sister and me.
I remember sitting on the edge of my bed, staring down at the K’NEX rollercoaster I started building the night before and being unable to look my mother in the eyes, even though I knew she was crying. This all in my final week of eighth grade, a time before I moved into the unknown and overwhelming territory of high school. I thought about her proposal and I thought about crying, about feeling anything other than the dull thrum in my chest.
Without looking at my mother, I told her to do what would make her happy.
My mother kissed me on the crown of my head. Just before closing my bedroom door, she leaned in one last time. You can stay home from school today, she said.
This was my dowry for accepting her proposal.
Most often, when I think of the word proposal, the idea of marriage comes to mind.
Why this idea of making a specific suggestion, an offer to be taken into consideration, is most directly associated with marriage has more to do with conditioning and less to do with intent. I’ve mostly heard the word when friends or family mention that so-and-so proposed, or that so-and-so was proposed to. And the outcome is always a yes, even if the evidence that suggests otherwise is there, buried in a shallow grave beneath the relationship. It’s as if there is no other answer to the suggestion.
If a man offers to marry the woman, the woman must say yes. This is the social order of such events.
The first recorded use of the word proposal dates back to 1629.
Latin in origin, proposal branches from the root word proponere, which is also the root word for proponent. Later, it became proposer in Old French, as well as poser, which means “to place.”
When the word made its way into Middle English, that’s where we get the base word of propose.
Michelle Orange visited the Theory of Creativity class I took my first semester of graduate school.
At some point, while discussing her book Pure Flame, she talked about the publication process and how sometimes to publish a book, the writer must write a book proposal and went on to say that the book often is vastly different from the proposal originally pitched. The narrative morphs over time in ways that the writer could not previously expect.
When the book is finally submitted to the publisher, they sometimes send it back because it doesn’t quite meet the expectations of the original proposal.
It’s the morning of Thanksgiving, and my mother is washing the dishes.
I hand her my dirty glass as I explain to her that we, my partner and I, have no idea where we want to live, only that we don’t think we want to stay in Baltimore—we love it, but we want to experience life elsewhere.
My mother looks at me, her eyes wide, and dries her hands. Well, she starts, do you plan on proposing to her anytime soon?
Why does everything have to be about marriage?
Is there anything else?
Absence is a father who laughs at your dreams.
How good does a proposal have to be for it to be accepted? How bad does it have to become for it to fall apart?
Here’s a story: Once, there was a woman who met a man and they fell in love. Then she met another man and fell in love. One man had the promise of brains, the other brawn, and both drank more than the body could handle.
The woman knew she couldn’t have both, so she was faced with a decision and no way to know the outcome.
In the end, the woman made her choice. She wouldn’t know until years later, after she had accepted the one man’s proposal, but their relationship would turn to rotted wood and rusted nails, a faulty motor and burned out battery—the remnants of some old boat abandoned in the creek, waiting to be revealed by the receding tides.
By the end, there would be little left of her world. Only fragmented memories and a broken home, discolored by the years spent saturated by smoke.
How did she even arrive at such a proposal? How am I supposed to breach the subject to a woman who talks so little of her personal life?
There is more to her life than marriage, but how do I know what is truth and what is merely an answer?
It’s the writer’s job to make it interesting, to have fun with the writing, to explain the writing within the writing.
But what does it say of a writer who holds no answers, only more questions?
Another term first documented in 1629: fool’s errand.
It was late, and she sat on the marble floor of her bathroom, smoking a cigarette as the hours passed. Moonlight leaked through the Venetian blinds, the red cherry of the cigarette’s tip burned brightly in the dimness.
She didn’t typically smoke—not anymore, at least.
But there was something about the act of watching the wisps dissipate into the air that soothed her. And when there was no knowing how late her husband would be this time, or if he’d make it home at all, she needed all the soothing she could get.
Besides, smoking helped her stay awake.
Watch as the smoke spreads thin until there is nothing left.
Some other words first documented in 1629:
Here’s another story: It was a fool’s errand to believe that their marriage would change him for the better. After all, the proposal can be denied and the vows are not for the improvement of another, but rather that they will love one another through the good and the bad.
Of course, there was a deep reluctance to believe that he wasn’t capable of change, that deep down he didn’t want to change. No matter how many times she tried to broach the subject, there seemed to be some other occupancy taking up space in his mind, perhaps even his heart.
When enough was enough, she made the decision. She approached her children with a proposal of her own, where she gained the necessary support to act.
One evening, after her husband returned far later than he said he’d be, she stood in the kitchen and proposed to him that they get a divorce.
Instead of remaining calm, her chickenhearted husband erupted in confusion. Told her that this was a ludicrous proposal, which disserved his heart by its abruptness, its coming out of nowhere, where was it coming from? And what would the kids think of all this?
She stood firm in her belief that this marriage had far deviated from the initial proposal. She shifted her weight from one hip to the other, recrossed her arms, stared at her husband as he hunched over the dining room table, crocodile tears sputtered down his cheeks, the collected facade shattered.
She had had enough of this charade of self-torturing.
Poser shares a similar origin as the word proposal.
Derived from the Latin word proponere, poser is an Old French word meaning “to place.” Nowadays, poser means two different things in American English:
a baffling puzzle or question.
a person who poses.
Which is to say that a proposal, by association, can also be a baffling puzzle or question—which is to say that a person who poses during a time of seriousness might not take the proposal all that seriously.
As a society, we’re so caught up in the idea of posing in just the right way, in just the right setting, in just the right light, all to ensure that there is no refute to the proposal, that often we don’t stop to consider if the proposal is truly right in the first place. This need for showmanship blurs the lines between those genuine and the posers who are posing for the sake of an ideal proposal.
My mother stopped over after her shift at the dental office one evening. She wanted help on her resume because she wanted to land a remote gig so she could spend more time with her grandchildren, my nephews.
Instead, we walked our dog around the neighborhood and made small talk.
Eventually, my mother suggested we grab drinks. I’m not sure why she always turns to drinking, or why all things, in general, turn to drinking as a means to an end. Whether it is out of boredom or stress or celebration, my family and friends always go back to it. I’m not even sure I know why I still drink knowing the harm it’s caused already, how it’s wounded my family in inexplicable ways.
But that’s not why I’m here.
Before all that happened my mother mentioned that she was home alone the rest of the week. Her long-time partner had gone to his house in Delaware to wrap up some work on the garage, and so she was all by herself, in a neighborhood she’d never felt comfortable in, in a house that wasn’t her own. This was the real reason why she stopped by, an event that doesn’t happen often.
“The older I get, the more I hate the dark—I have to turn all the lights on,” she said. “If I don’t, I just get this feeling — like this deep loneliness, that in the dark I’m all alone,” she said. “I hate it,” she said.
It was early June when I got word that my first book, The Singing Heart, had been accepted for publication.
At the time, it felt revelatory—one of those rare moments when it seems the universe is at work in your favor, like I’d landed on the right pathway in life for the first time in my twenty-two years of living. And the book itself, I thought, as so many young writers might foolishly think, would propel me that much closer to becoming a successful, full-time writer.
But as the postcard with a quote by Søren Kierkegaard I’ve taped to the first page of my notebook reads, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
This first book of mine was an assembly of poems I’d written either early in the morning or late at night, with no larger concentration or idea or theme in mind. The poems were spontaneous thoughts or feelings, banged out on a typewriter in a time when typewriters were trendy, thanks to the rise of “Instapoets” on Instagram, written for mass consumption under the guise of some profound depth that was nothing more than vanity.
Reader, these were the poems of a desperate young man who was trying to make a place for himself in a world that he felt he had no place in.
Back then, I had no sense of self-worth—and no sense of self. Instead of looking deeper, of doing the hard work that comes with understanding the self, I looked everywhere else and tried to capitalize on a growing trend.
For better or for worse, it worked.
I couldn’t say what exactly my first book was even about. Most of the writing I did during that time was in that pretentious, writerly vein, which is to say that I was often too drunk or hungover by the end of a “writing session” to remember what I’d just written.
We talked often about marriage, about her grandmother’s ring, about how I’d use it for our proposal.
One evening while lying in bed, we talked about the act of doing so and how I’d have to ask for her father’s approval before proposing—as a courtesy to him, she explained. It’s not that her family was particularly religious, but her sister’s husband had done so and that cemented any future expectations.
My partner asked if I’d thought about how I’d go about it, whether it’d be a private affair or public display, before changing her mind.
Don’t tell me, she said. I shouldn’t ask you about that kind of stuff. I don’t even know if you’ve thought about it.
I’ve thought about it, I told her.
And it was true. I had thought about it, and I had come up empty-handed over the “right” way to propose. Too often I heard grand stories of public displays that I didn’t know how to make it private and meaningful.
I wasn’t even certain of how my own father proposed to my mother.
Nowadays, poser tends to take on more severe meaning.
What Merriam-Webster tries to gently state with “a person who poses,” Urban Dictionary goes right for the throat: “To pretend, to be somebody you’re not, to be a part of a culture or genre just to fit in.”
This is the variation of the word I’m most familiar with. This is the variation of the word we slung at each other like sharp rocks in high school. This is the variation of the word that haunted me for years after someone declared aloud for the first time that I was, in fact, a writer.
It was a Thursday night, and I’d met up with some friends at a bar in Canton after my shift as server.
After using the bathroom, I stopped for another drink and fiddled with my last twenty for the night. I remember the void that opened up inside me and how it slowly consumed any residual hope that things would one day be better than this.
I remember wanting to cry, but not being able to cry.
The bartender made his way over to me, asked what I wanted to drink. I ordered a Loose Cannon and prepared to part with my last twenty.
The bartender paused. Aren’t you Coty Poynter, he asked. The one who writes poetry on Instagram?
Excuse me? I had no idea who he was—I still don’t today.
You’re the guy who writes poetry on Instagram. You just had a book published, right?
No shit. Congratulations on the book! It’s awesome that you’re trying to make something of yourself. I feel like so many others from our high school haven’t done shit.
Thanks, I told him and tried to hand him the money. Part of me reveled in the acknowledgment; the other part of me, the part that the void left untouched, wanted to run. Poser. It echoed within my emptiness.
The bartender placed the beer in front of me. Don’t worry about it, he said. This one’s on me—you’re a writer who just published a book. You should be celebrating!
When I think back to that moment, those words, it sounds like metal pipes clanging together. It’s all noise without clarity. There are no good feelings that come with it. Somehow it felt like a slight—some kind of acknowledgment to suggest he knew, just as I knew, that I was nothing more than a poser.
The whole publication process for The Singing Heart was a stop-and-go conversation across time zones with no definite end in sight.
The editor I worked with was based out of Australia, so our schedules rarely aligned. Often, our phone calls happened at what was late at night for me, if they happened at all. Emails went unanswered. Access to the project managing tool was given to me, but there was rarely any visible work put into it all.
Where I once felt I’d found the right path, I now felt detached—scammed, even.
Whatever joy felt when I first received a publication offer had long faded into a distant, distorted dream.
Now when I think back on that time, there is only shame and embarrassment. That book has become the preservation of my depressive, erratic state. It’s an artifact of another lifetime. I was a fool to think that lifestyle, all the drinking and misanthropic thinking, would elevate me to literary greatness, or at the least make me an underground success.
The writerly life; the life of a writer—it’s a twisted joke, one that’s been too often romanticized for far too long.
Looking back, I’m amazed I made it out alive.
I’ve managed to exorcize the sense of being a poser since then. No longer do I question what makes a writer a writer, whether or not I’m able to consider myself a writer. No longer do I try to live a writerly life.
Where there was once a sharp foreignness that cut through my belly, now resides a calm that cannot be ruptured.
At its best, I bring myself to tears.
At its worst, I laugh and keep writing.
Back then, when the label of writer was passed to me in a pint glass, I drank it down quick and the idea of poser—of imposter syndrome — burrowed itself deep within me. No matter how I tried to kill it off, the thing persisted.
But I think that has less to do with the disbelief that someone like me, someone who grew up in Dundalk, a town people mocked for being full of dumb, thoughtless people, where people were praised for having all their teeth, a place people rarely left, could make a living as a writer and more to do with the time my father laughed at me.
I don’t remember how old I was, only that I was at the age when the slightest nudge could put me off course. Because I’ve relived this moment so often in my dreams, I often wonder if it happened at all.
But for all my uncertainty, I know it wasn’t merely a dream.
What I do remember is this: coloring in the marine life I drew—the blacktip shark, the tiger shark, the thrasher shark, a blue whale, an attempted blue crab—as best I could with restaurant crayons; a large window to my left that held the cold weather at bay; the Chesapeake in the distance; the sun drifting beneath the horizon; my father across the table from me.
Once I finished coloring with my artwork, I showed my father. He studied it intently, his gray-blue eyes darting all over the page. He nodded his head, told me how good it was.
His compliments gave me the courage to make my proposal: I want to be an artist when I grow up.
Without missing a beat, my father looked at me and laughed. He laughed and looked at me. He said to me, “You can’t make a living as an artist.”
Silence is the mother who asks nothing of your life.
A little over two years passed before my second book, Delirium, was published. In that time I spent most of my free hours meticulously revising each poem, trying to bring out some greater depth of the shallow writing my past self had done.
When I sent in my book proposal to Bowen Press, it was informal, short, vague. Robert Hand, the publisher, emailed me back within a month to accept my book for publication. That was in April of 2018.
Almost eight months later, and my second book was published.
I didn’t know then what I know now.
That is, I didn’t know that book proposals were prone to change. I didn’t know that, in fact, change was good when it came to the process of writing a book from the idea pitched to publication. The idea that it could change didn’t cross my mind because the book, by and large, was complete, and what I conceptualized for the collection felt solid enough. If my publisher didn’t buck, why should I?
I wish I would’ve questioned the process more. I wish I would’ve used my voice to speak up, to ask questions. I wish I would’ve looked back and seen that a proposal is not a definite thing; that it is a thing that is malleable; that there is always time to alter the course and move in a new direction.
What is there to say about my parent’s divorce? It felt like the kind of thing that was in motion before the movement began — the sound of glass splintering along the kitchen floor before the glass is thrown. The buildup long and full of quiet discontent.
I remember so vividly the day that glass was thrown.
It was early June and it was suffocatingly hot and our fifth-grade yearbooks had come in just in time for graduation.
The weeks leading up to this day were filled with tight-lipped discussions between my mother and father. Only on occasion did he mention that he’d be leaving soon. I’m going to get us a cool, new boat, he might’ve said.
What he didn’t say is that he had to travel to Florida to get the cool, new boat, which was actually a boat that barely ran and needed more work than the boat was worth.
This meant that my mother, once again, had to take care of me and my sister, had to drop us off and pick us up, had to cook for us and clean up after us, had to do our laundry, had to tend to the garden and lawn, had to keep Wise Liquors and Wise Tannery running while he was away.
My mother pulled out front of our house, put her white 4-Runner in park. I flipped open my yearbook, eager to show her my portrait and the note I wrote to go with it. She looked at the page, over and over, searching for something, though I didn’t know what.
“What about your father?” she asked.
I struggled to explain my father’s absence from my little note of gratitude to my family—there was frantic guilt and then the numbness that followed. I shrugged. My sweat-slick shirt clung to me.
“I guess I forgot about him.”
My mother broke into tears.
With those five words, the glass had been thrown and it was only a matter of time until it hit the wall.
One evening, my partner and I lay on the couch listening to records. We split a bottle of red wine between the two of us and talked about whatever came to our minds.
At some point, we moved onto the topic of marriage proposals and how it’s bizarre that more women don’t propose to men, how we’re still stuck in the old-school mentality in so many ways.
What if I proposed to you, she said. What would you do?
I’d say yes, I told her.
But how would you feel about it?
Relieved, I told her. I’d feel relieved.
It was difficult after my parents split.
Difficult because all at once I felt I had to be the “man” of the house, yet I was still just a thirteen-year-old kid. Difficult because one day my mother would have a breakdown, the next she was out country line dancing with a friend. Difficult because she’d wake up early to get me and my sister ready for school and then wouldn’t get home until ten at night, if not later, the sourness of alcohol her evening perfume. Difficult because those evenings she came home late, I’d awake like a parent in distress as she called for me to help her; I’d help my mother up the stairs, put her in the shower, cared for her as she cared for me. Difficult because she was trying to recover the years she lost on my father, all while I was trying to understand his want for distance.
I had a lot of anger towards my family back then, and some still exists within me today. There are times when I feel it writhing beneath the surface.
But I’m learning to let the anger go—I'm learning how a person should be.
After the divorce, we cared for each other, my mother and me. There were times when I was her caretaker; there were times when she was mine.
Even now though, despite my efforts, I struggle with anger. It’s an ugly thing, an ugly fact, but each year it gets a little easier to understand. By now, we’ve been through so much that each house we shared feels like a different life altogether.
The last thing I want is to demonize my mother because she couldn’t be farther from it. Neither one of us was easy to deal with, and I recognize now more than ever the silent traumas she endured day in and day out.
But after the divorce, we cared for each other—I gave her someone to lean on so that she could take a well-deserved moment of rest. And I love her all the more for never giving up, no matter how tough it got.
As for my father, what can be said about a man who faded into the shadows?
The night the glass shattered against the wall, my father had no idea why.
After numerous dropped or missed phone calls, countless tears shed, weeks and months lost, he finally returned with the new, cool boat that had to be towed then put into a shop more than once. After being so removed from his life, unable to come back to his reality, he kept at a distance for years. My father became merely a body that occasionally passed through the threshold of our home to rest, rising before anyone could see him.
And so, when the shards were scattered across the dining room floor, my father didn’t know what to make of it. He might’ve called my mother crazy. He might’ve told her to calm down. He might’ve told her she’d be lost without him and to take him back. He might’ve told her many things, but I’m not sure he ever told her the truth of what happened during his two-month excursion down and back up the east coast.
That’s one long series of stories he never told me.
Here’s one last story: It was Thanksgiving of 2006, the first since their separation. The woman remained at the home built for their children and the man moved into the dank, windowless basement of the building he bought years before, one he turned into a carpet shop — among other businesses. The carpet shop was a front, a pose that allowed him to assume one character while acting as another beneath the surface.
The children, now grown, arrived at the man’s basement home, which was only around the corner from the house the man—their father—built and finished the year his son was born.
They walked down the concrete stairs, past the concrete walls stained with oil and paint and whatever else was stored in the crawlspace that began where the walls ended. The smell of must and earth mixed with the scent of burnt meat as smoke floated up to the exposed pipework. Around the corner, finished flooring and a small table set for three.
The girl, leading the way, reached back and grabbed the boy’s hand.
The man dished out canned sweet potatoes with butter and cinnamon, cut the dried, tough turkey, gave the children spoonfuls of green bean casserole. All their life they knew the man to be a great cook, but in this hour it felt as if they didn’t know the man at all.
The boy stayed mostly quiet while the girl shared how her first semester of college was, how soccer was going, how life away from the mess that had become their family was going for her.
Not long after finishing dinner, the children stood up from the table and gathered their coats. Before the children could say their goodbyes, the man made a proposal that they stay and watch a movie.
You’re just down the road, the man said. You could walk home. Or I’ll drop you off. C’mon, he said. It’ll be fun.
Neither the girl or the boy could stand to linger another moment in his basement home. The boy’s guilt over wanting so badly to leave stung like glass that finds its way into your skin. But the urge to leave trumped that guilt.
So, the children rejected his proposal.
As they moved to leave, the man asked the children—begged them — to stay with him, just a bit longer. His eyes, the same color eyes as the boy’s, were wild; they were the eyes of a man who’d been lost at sea for far too long, deprived of the very thing that keeps us human. Tears trailed down his cheeks into his stubble, which was new to the children.
I don’t want to be alone, the man said.
And in that moment, the boy felt that was the first truth he’d ever heard from his father.
Before the word proposal in 1629, there was proposition.
First documented in the 14th century, proposition was often used when offering something for consideration or acceptance, which links it almost directly to the word proposal that came two centuries later.
A proposition is also a request for sexual intercourse.
So, in the 14th century, a time when virginity represented the value of a woman, men would make a proposition of marriage to women before the church, which is to say that they made a proposition for sex before God, and once the couple completed or finished or perfected the marriage through sex, the act of being faithful was intrinsically tied to the woman’s honor and the woman’s acknowledgment that her husband now controlled her sexuality.
But should the proposition for sex not result in a child, then the husband could break off the marriage, leaving the woman without honor but with control over her own sexuality.
I’m thinking about generosity. That’s how I best explain how writing has changed for me over the years—even over these first short few months of graduate school. Where before there was anger and resentment in my writing, I’m now trying to be more kind to myself, to my characters; more forgiving of the flaws within both.
If I don’t write one morning because I’ve chosen to remain in bed, peacefully pressed against my partner to feel the warmth of her body for another moment longer, another hour, I no longer silently berate myself doing so. It’s okay to take that time, to cherish that moment.
It’s about generosity for me anymore. The playfulness that comes with trying to develop a character, no matter how tragic they may be, or obnoxious, or infuriating; it’s exciting to feel the elation of the act. And when I try to think back to what was there before, there’s not much. Just another bottle that I see myself in the emptied bottom—a black hole.
No longer do I want to numb myself.
Instead, I want to look the thing I fear straight down the long narrow and run towards it, hurl myself over the edge, and play it as I lay.
I remember when my partner and I first started spending time together — one night in particular.
It was a cool, late-summer evening. We sat out in the courtyard of her sister’s apartment, where she’d been living until she found a space of her own, and enjoyed a glass of whiskey on the rocks. We talked about a lot of things that evening, and we talked about being open and honest with one another.
Not long after that agreement, I told her about my stance on marriage: it wasn’t for me.
Looking back on it, that was the moment she should’ve second-guessed me as a partner—a red flag that raised high as the Natty Boh tower nearby.
Instead of leaving, she asked me why I felt that way.
I don’t remember what I said, but it was likely something along the lines of how messy my parent’s divorce was and how I don't see the point in paying to be with someone you love.
She said okay, took a drink of whiskey, and I remember a quiet that settled between us and how it unsettled me—but to be unsettled is to be forced to move.
Eventually, it was her who broke the quiet. “That could change though,” she said. “You never know.”
There’s something to be said about a writer and how a writer tends to be a poser, be it in the work or in the charade that is the writerly life. For so long I looked up to men who posed as writers of great genius, who drank more than they wrote, who made indecent proposals to the people they encountered.
Even my father was guilty of this.
Before the separation, after my father’s east coast voyage, I was playing a video game on the Lego website in our computer room. My father walked in and rummaged through some books and loose paper next to the family desktop. Tucked in one of the drawers was a black leather notebook. When he showed it to me, he told me something that only now, in writing this, I vaguely remember.
He held the book up in his left hand, tapped it with his right pointer finger. His shitty hairline, the same as mine, and his ballpoint nose. “I’m going to write a bestselling book one day,” he told me. “I’m going to write it right in here.”
But if my father ever wrote, I never saw any of it.
Coty Poynter is a writer from Baltimore, Maryland. He's the author of two poetry books, most recently the collection, Delirium: Poems, put out by Bowen Press. His work has been published in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Equinox, and Grub Street. Currently, he’s the creative nonfiction editor at Mud Season Review, a frequent contributor for Write or Die Tribe, and a graduate student in Towson University's professional writing program. You can learn more about his work at cotympoynter.com.
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