“Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Jon trudged through snow-covered Philadelphia streets, wondering if Carla would say yes this time to his third and—he swore—final proposal. It was the first real snow of the season, over three inches had fallen in three hours, and Jon wasn’t prepared for the wet walk, his Florsheim shoes slick and porous. The snowfall brought an unusual stillness to the city, and it was the lack of sound that seemed to amplify Jon’s inner thoughts. Carla. The thought of marrying her made Jon’s frozen feet thaw a bit—her Rapunzel hair, the way her clothes smelled like rain, the way she’d avert her eyes from him while they ate, never telling him to close his mouth when he chewed. Jon paused at each intersection, watched as cars and SUVs and buses slid through red lights and stop signs. At every pause, Jon poked a mitten into his coat pocket, feeling around for the tiny white box. Still there. Jon prepared himself for this, his third and final attempt at winning Carla, by immersing himself in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble. He’d found solace in Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” When you move, fall like a thunderbolt. He crossed Pierce Street and saw the orangey-glow of Carla’s porch light.
Carla answered the front door, surprised to see Jon’s Peking-duck-shaped bald spot through her peephole. When she opened the door, she saw Jon on one bended knee, a tiny square box in his mittened hands. “Aaaaagh,” Carla screamed, a scream like you’d hear in a Dateline murder reenactment. The doorknob felt frozen to her hand—she slammed the door shut. Later that night, she’d supposed that she should have seen this coming. Jon wasn’t like the others before him, the ones who gave up at any one of Carla’s hundred fake reasons to break up. She called this her fuck off list, most notably successful so far: You smell like maple syrup; You eat peas one at a time; You clump the sugar bowl with your wet coffee spoon. In fact, Jon never asked for a reason why Carla rejected each of his two prior proposals. This, Carla realized, was really weird. “Should we order in some Aloo Gobi?” Jon had asked, immediately after she’d rejected the first proposal. Carla had looked for a hit of sadness in Jon, but there had been nothing. “Sure,” she’d said, knowing that when Jon ate all of the potatoes out of the Aloo Gobi, she wouldn’t say a word about it. They’d eaten takeout Indian food on Carla’s sectional couch while watching a Die Hard movie marathon on TBS. The second proposal had been more of a production. Flavor of India Restaurant. Dine in. Ring in the rice pudding. Jon had simply wiped the ring clean in his saffron-colored napkin, slid it back into his pocket, and proceeded to eat the rice pudding with his signature open-mouthed chew.
After Carla slammed the front door in his face, Jon stood up and knocked a quick three raps, their secret syllabic code for ‘I love you.’
Carla knew he was expecting her to rap back in four slower taps—‘I love you too’—but she couldn’t make her hand do it. Her fuck off list flooded into her mind all at once—Your toenails click when you walk; You call a library ‘li-berry’; You wear socks with sandals. But that was just it—in her entire litany of fuck offs, none applied to Jon. None. She started to wonder what would it mean to actually go through with it—to marry Jon.
Jon rapped on the front door again—taptaptap. I love you.
Bile formed in the back of Carla’s throat. She knew she couldn’t say no again and get away with take-out Tiki Masala and Live Free or Die Hard. She clenched her hand in front of the door—she air-rapped a taptaptaptap, unable to connect.
“Carla, love, I can hear you in there.”
Carla had always been exceptional in a crisis—clear-headed, able to see fact and separate it from hysteria, like the night her father hung himself in their attic. It was Carla, not her incoherent mother, who’d talked to the police. She’d showed them her father’s medicine cabinet—Walter’s Walgreens, he’d called it—full of pills the color of Carla’s favorite spices—cinnamon, turmeric, fenugreek. Curry ingredients, she now realized, as she stared at the only thing standing between her and another disaster. She would need a new type of fuck off catalog. Something irrefutable.
“Jon, I’m joining the convent.”
Jon put his hand on the doorknob. Seize something that your opponent holds dear; then they will be amenable to your will. At first he thought he’d heard Carla’s breath through the door—thick, more like panting—and then he was sure he’d heard her voice, the way it cracked when she rooted for Bruce Willis to save his movie wife, Holly; Carla’s inner-optimism revealed. Betting equals belief, he told himself. Bet on yourself, Jon.
The doorknob gave way too easily. Jon’s Florsheim’s glided like toboggans on Carla’s marble floors, and then there they were, standing eye to eye.
“Carla, I’m marrying you.” It was out of him so fast, he hadn’t realized that he hadn’t actually asked Carla to marry him. He’d told her he was marrying her. Never venture, never win! Jon felt like Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard, unstrapping Holly’s watch and watching as the bad guy fell down the face of the New York City high-rise.
“Jon, didn’t you hear what I said?” Carla felt her voice breaking. “I’m joining the convent!”
Fill silence with silence. It was obvious as night that Carla was scared. Jon held his breath and waited for a glimpse of the Carla that rooted for the hero to save the girl. The Carla who wanted a guarantee.
To Carla, Jon seemed altogether different that night. Strong. Declarative. Prepared. It was she who seemed to have a wobble in her knees. Her mind was ablaze with a new Roman Catholic vocabulary of fuck offs. Each one she squeaked to Jon seemed weaker than the next. “I want to be a nun, I’ve been called by God to serve, I’ve always known.”
Jon didn’t blink. You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places that are undefended. “I love you, Carla. I am going to marry you. I am going to protect you.”
Carla let out a final chirp, “Jon, I’m gay.”
Jon grabbed Carla’s left hand with his mittened left, and even through a thick layer of wool he could feel it—the break before the actual break. The chalky pallor of her face. Tremors. The look in her eyes like she’d get whenever she walked into his bathroom and saw prescription bottles in his medicine cabinet. “I have high cholesterol,” he’d try to explain, but Carla would always walk away.
Jon squeezed Carla’s hand. Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. He dropped to one knee.
Carla looked down. All she could see was the gleam of snowflakes-turned-shiny water droplets in Jon’s comb-overed hair. Like diamonds, she thought. Jon’s owl stare pierced her and she let out a long sigh, releasing a lifetime of nits and picks and fuck offs and no-no-no’s. Jon was not the same. She could choose to not be the same, too. She watched as a tiny white box tumbled out of his hand and onto the marble floor.
Carla closed her eyes while Jon retrieved the fumbled box. “But why, Jon? Why on earth would you want to marry me? I’m a mess.”
Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Jon waited for Carla to open her eyes. When she did, Jon flipped open the lid to the little white box. He said nothing. The diamond was brilliant. Emerald cut. The orange glow from Carla’s porch light refracted through the stone, casting cinnamon rays onto Carla’s living room walls.
Carla dropped down to her knees, nose to runny nose with Jon. “Why, Jon?”
To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill. Jon slipped the ring on Carla’s finger. He let go of her hand long enough to knock on the marble floor three times—taptaptap. When he heard four slow taps return to him off of the marble, he thought they sounded like horse claps—tiny warriors returning, victorious, from a thousand battles.
Michele Finn Johnson’s fiction has been published in Necessary Fiction, The Conium Review, Boston Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in Puerto del Sol and the anthology Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, and won an AWP Introduction to Journals award.