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Ring of regret

A woman's lifelong fantasy about the engagement ring she would one day wear loses its luster when reality enters the picture.

Published March 7, 2006

[Times photo: William Dunkley]
Melissa Horn, 33, models the engagement ring that was her dream. Now she’s trying to sell the 1-carat diamond ring for $3,400.
Ever since she was a girl, Melissa Horn had dreamed about her ring -- as much as getting engaged, as much as the wedding; probably more than the groom. (It's not like you can waltz into some castle and pick out your handsome prince.)

But the ring -- you can custom-order that in any jewelry store. You can choose your own band, setting and stone (as big and perfect as you want), customize the symbol of his love.

* * *

People wrap so many ideas around engagement rings. The band is supposed to be circular, like eternal love; it's supposed to be worn always and forever, like marriage itself; and -- for most women -- it has to have a precious stone, preferably a diamond.

Jewelers have long capitalized on this tradition. The more your man loves you, they tell brides-to-be, the bigger the rock he should buy to prove it. One ad asks: "Isn't she worth two months' salary?"

Every engagement ring starts out as a symbol of hope. But thousands wind up unwanted, hawked in pawn shops and on eBay, tarnished by regret and lost love. Even these castoffs have stories.

I was reminded of that recently when I saw this ad in the St. Petersburg Times classifieds:

Engagement Ring -- 1 carat white gold Princess cut w/baguette on each side. Size 7. Original owner, all papers, like new. Worn only two months. $3,400.

(Talk about eternity, I told myself. The payment plan on that one probably lasted longer than the engagement.)

I called the number. Melissa Horn answered. At first, she didn't want to talk about why she was getting rid of the ring. "It's sort of embarrassing," she said. But yes, she still had the ring. And yes, she was still trying to sell it. So she finally agreed to meet me for lunch.

Melissa works at a Tampa insurance office. We met nearby, at a T.G.I. Fridays. As we slid into a corner booth, Melissa warned me: "My story isn't real romantic." She ordered a quesadilla, and hot chocolate to warm the cold memories.

"But I'm not mad anymore," she said. "At least not at him."

* * *

Melissa is 5 feet 6, three inches taller in heels, with perfect posture and glowing green eyes. She pulls her long, light brown hair into a barrette. Her only jewelry is a silver band around her left middle finger.

"I brought the ring," she said, pulling a white box from her purse. "I keep it at a friend's house so I don't have to see it." She placed the box on the table between us but didn't open it.

"So," she said, "what do you want to know?"

She told me she grew up in California, the oldest of six kids. Even in elementary school, she fantasized about her wedding. It was always a fairy tale; she always saw herself as the princess bride in a long, flowing white dress, her arms filled with flowers. She couldn't quite picture her groom.

By the time she was in her late 20s, Melissa's friends and siblings were getting married all around her. She went to dozens of weddings; then, as the years went by, to baptisms for the babies. She dated, had several long-term relationships, but nothing that lasted.

"That ring," she said, pointing at the box. "Was the closest I got."

She didn't want to give me her former fiance's full name. She didn't want me to call him. "I don't want to drag him into this." She lowered her eyes. "It's my problem now."

They met on Gandy Beach, on a sunny Saturday. Hi, he said, dropping his towel beside her blanket. A couple of hours turned into all afternoon; the sun sank into Tampa Bay.

"We talked and talked," Melissa said, wrapping both hands around her mug of hot chocolate. "He was real easy to talk to."

She found out, that first day, that he smoked -- she hates smokers -- and was divorced, with two kids. She was a little disappointed; she'd always hoped to marry someone who had never walked down the aisle. Still, she was attracted to him. So she invited him to come to church with her the next morning.

"Church is such a turnoff to so many guys these days, I thought I'd start there and see if that ended it," Melissa said.

To her surprise, he agreed to go. "He came to the door in a shirt with creases, nice pants and shiny shoes. I was impressed."

He was four years older than her. He was working as a repairman.

"In the beginning, that first month, I asked him, 'Do you ever want to get married again?' I didn't mean me. Not then," she said. "I just wanted to know if that was an option."

He didn't answer. He looked sort of puzzled, she said. Slowly, he nodded yes.

* * *

The quesadilla sat on her plate, untouched. The server noticed. "Everything okay?" she asked.

"Fine," Melissa said, waving her off. She was ready to talk about the courtship.

For a couple of years they dated: movies, church, dinners out. Some weekends, she would stay at his place. Sometimes, he would come over to her apartment.

"I kept wondering where we were going," she said. She tried to live in the moment, enjoy the now. But her thoughts kept fast-forwarding.

"I'm ready to settle down," she said, "get a house, garden on Saturdays."

She dreaded pushing him, risking what they had. Still, she needed to know if they had a future. One day she dropped the question.

"Do you ever think we'll get engaged?"

Silence hung between them. He said he wasn't sure.

"Let me know, then," Melissa said. She walked out of his apartment and drove away. If he didn't know now, why should she wait? It wasn't like she had time to waste.

For two weeks, they didn't talk. But when they ran into each other at a birthday party, he asked her to come outside. He'd been thinking, he told her. He didn't want to lose her. If that meant he had to go get an engagement ring right then, he'd do it.

Oh, no, Melissa assured him. It didn't have to be right then. But if he did decide to get her a ring, she wanted to help pick it out.

"I mean, this is something I'm going to wear for the rest of my life."

(Or at least two months.)

* * *

Weeks later, they were running errands when he brought up the ring. Had she decided what she wanted yet?

"What's that mean?" she asked him. Was that his idea of a proposal?

She felt so shortchanged. Was he really ready to buy the ring, she wondered, or was he just caving to her pressure?

Sure, I'm ready, he told her. (What else could the guy say?) On a sultry Saturday in August 2004, they strolled into the bright lobby of the International Diamond Center. Melissa showed him the difference between F- and J-quality stones, between flawless and flawed ones. What kind of guy would give his girl a flawed diamond, she told him. She described the ring she'd dreamed about since she was a little girl: the princess cut, with baguettes on each side, set in a simple white-gold band.

The jeweler showed them a few. "Much too yellow," she said, rejecting one stone after another.

An hour later, they found one that came close to what she had envisioned. It cost $2,000 -- all her fiance felt he could afford. But that one was ready-made; the band wasn't flat enough; and it was only a half-carat. She wanted a whole one.

"Wasn't I worth it?" she asked me.

The jeweler led them to another case and showed them a bigger rock. He could custom-order the setting and band, he said. In a few weeks, she could show it off. "The stone was $3,300, the setting $500 -- all together a little less than $4,000. That seemed reasonable," Melissa said. She knew it was more than her fiance wanted to spend. But oh, she loved that ring. Would she be willing to co-sign for it, he asked.

Melissa hesitated. She used to work in a bank. She wouldn't even co-sign for her sister to buy a used car.

"I'm not going to co-sign," she told him.

Then we'll look at smaller diamonds, he said. Of course, that wasn't an option. She had scanned the whole store, tried to lower her expectations, but there just wasn't any other ring she wanted. Why should she have to settle?

"It goes against my whole princess theory," she told him. "I shouldn't have to pay for it."

Finally her desire for the ring overcame her reluctance. So she signed.

* * *

Melissa picked up her fork and carved a bite from her quesadilla. But she left it on her plate.

"Everyone ooohed and aaahed over that ring," she said.

Once the engagement became official, it was time to plan the wedding. Melissa had always dreamed of a church wedding, with a sit-down dinner at the Hilton afterward for at least 100; flowers and a band; cobalt blue gowns for her bridesmaids.

What color should the groomsmen wear? Tuxedos or suits? What sort of food should the caterers serve?

Her fiance didn't care. Just tell me when and where to show up, he said.

"It's not like that," she told him. This was his wedding too. He had to help decide, help plan.

They squabbled over everything: flowers, band, cake, how to pay for it all. So in October, Melissa just stopped bringing up the wedding. They decided to break up -- at least for a while.

Two months after slipping the ring around her finger, she slid it off. She tucked it back onto its blue velvet pillow inside the white case. That's when she asked her friend to hold on to it, so she wouldn't have to look at it. She hoped, after a while, she could forget about it.

By that spring, she almost had. Then the notice came: Her ex-fiance, she said, had stopped making payments on the ring.

Because she had co-signed, she owed the balance -- plus interest and late fees: $3,400. (Didn't seem so reasonable anymore.)

* * *

Once upon a time, she believed in happily ever after. Now all she wants is to sell that blasted ring.

"I just want to be done with it," Melissa said, pushing her plate away. "I tried to return it," she said of the ring. "But they'd only give me an exchange." So she put it on eBay, advertised in both newspapers.

"It makes me so mad, every time I think about it," she said. She can't avoid thinking about it. Each month, the International Diamond Center reminds her.

For a long time, she said, she was hurt and sad and "so, so mad" at her ex-fiance.

She sat silent, shaking her head. The server brought a takeout container for her lunch.

"I've thought about this way too much. And I know, now, I put too much pressure on him." She reached out with her left hand, the one the ring should have been on, and fingered the bride-white box. "It would have been so much better if I'd just shut up and waited and let him do it because he wanted to."

For a few weeks, that engagement ring was exactly what she had hoped for. Now she sees it as a symbol of aggravation, of her own selfishness and regret. A reminder of what might have been.

"I guess, maybe, I was greedy," Melissa said softly. (That must have been hard to say out loud.)

"I didn't want an itty bitty ring. I had to have what I wanted, even if it was more than he could afford."

Slowly, she opened the box. She turned the ring toward me. (So I could see? Or so she didn't have to?) Under the restaurant lights, the stone gleamed.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Melissa asked. I nodded, tried to smile.

She closed the box. It snapped shut with a hollow sound.

"But that's not what marriage is supposed to be about," she said.

Did she ever tell that to her ex? "Not exactly." They still talk sometimes, but not about the future.

"I'm just so mad at myself," Melissa said, standing to go.

"I'm sure, if he had the money, he'd help make payments on the ring. But for right now, I've got to get it off my credit."

I thanked her for sharing her story and wished her luck.

(Paying your debt to karma: $136 a month. Attaining self-awareness: priceless.)

Lane DeGregory can be reached at (727) 893-8825 or

[Last modified March 7, 2006, 09:04:56]

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