Lying on a catamaran under the stars, I rolled onto my side, steeled my nerve and popped the question. She was on the edge of sleep, so the element of surprise was firmly in my corner. She shrieked. She teared up. She said yes.
It was about a month before the anxiety hit. It wasn't about my decision to propose. My best friend - brilliant, funny and a stone-cold fox to boot - was without a doubt the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Rather, I was anxious about becoming a husband, and every time I heard about another divorce, separation or infidelity, my anxiety swelled. How could I make her happy and keep our love strong forever? How could I thwart my male-pattern blockheadedness and understand her needs and wants? How could I be the ideal husband?
When I crawled into bed that night, my fiancée had her nose buried in the latest chick-lit novel.
And it hit me.
If the perfect man exists, he resides in chick lit, where the demands of serious fiction, with its flawed protagonists and messy verisimilitude, don't apply. By entering that mythical world where men are sculpted from bronze and forged in the fires of perfection, I could finally answer that age-old question: What do women really want?
And so it was set: My groomsmen and I would read and dissect the very book my fiancée was reading. At the time, that was Happy Ever After, the fourth in the Bride Quartet by Nora Roberts, a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author and a member of the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame.
The guys, to my surprise, were up to the challenge. Felicitously, they represented a broad array of skill sets and relationship stages.
"The Professor," a PhD student at the University of Toronto, was well read and well spoken and had been married for just shy of five years.
"The Jock" worked for a professional sports league, was single and social and switched women as often as Brett Favre does teams.
"The Executive," my brother and best man, wore multiple BlackBerrys on his belt, rode a motorcycle and lived in a condo with his fiancée.
"The Hippie" was a banjo virtuoso who played Frisbee, read Sartre and was living with his girlfriend of three years near Toronto's hip Queen Street West.
"The Photographer" was a foodie with a minor fear of marriage. He was raised in a house of women (mom, divorced, and two sisters) and was living with his girlfriend of six years.
It was The Jock who got our discussion rolling.
"I'm not a big reader," he said. "I'd rather listen to a book on tape. But this is an easy read. I can get why girls read this. It's easy to slip into the fantasy and the ridiculous sex scenes and the girls being girls. You can see why it sells like hotcakes."
Indeed, untold millions have read books in the Bride Quartet series, which centres on Parker Brown, a high-society Connecticut wedding planner who falls madly, if reluctantly, in love with rough-edged stuntman-turned-mechanic Malcolm Kavanaugh.
So what qualities did Kavanaugh possess that we would do well to borrow?
"He's a total grease monkey, but he knows his cab from his Chianti," The Photographer said. "He can slide into life with the Brown mansion. There isn't this class consciousness about him."
"And he's very sexual but respectful at the same time," The Hippie added.
Sexual, certainly. But we were divided over whether Kavanaugh was really all that respectful. He shows his affection for Brown by repeatedly backing her up against a wall and assailing her with aggressive kisses despite her half-hearted protestations. So do women want that kind of sexual forthrightness?
"I tried that this weekend. It didn't work. I got slapped," The Jock said.
"Spontaneity, I think it's a big thing," The Executive said. "Malcolm's always doing things like grabbing her breasts, fixing bikes, punching guys' faces."
It seemed we were onto something. I scribbled "spontaneity" on my notepad, and we dug deeper. We read some sex scenes aloud. The Jock reached for carrots and dip.
"I'm a nervous eater," he said.
The Photographer jumped in next. "I was struck by how all of her metaphors were of a great power or a force of nature she couldn't control. 'Storm,' 'wave of lust,' 'plunge off a cliff,' 'a pitched battle,' 'whiplash of lust.' It's this power you can try to fight, but you're helpless. I guess this is the equivalent of watching porn for guys. Guys are very visual, and this is sort of emotional," he said.
The Professor brought everyone's minds out of the gutter.
"It's also the opposite of who Parker Brown is, right? She's organized, always in control. With sex, she loses that control. It's an escape for her."
"But in a way [these sex scenes]don't help determine what the ideal husband is because it's about their first few sexual exploits. The challenge is to maintain that level of excitement," the Photographer said.
That seemed right, and we all nodded. I scribbled another note: "Maintain sexual passion."
The Hippie reached into his bag of philosophical tricks and pulled out some old-school truths.
"He seems to pay a lot of attention to her. And obviously when you're courting someone, you're obsessed with her and you're thinking about her, where now I think about fantasy basketball," he said. "So did I learn anything from this character? He's very enthusiastic and intent on being with her. As a guy or a girl, I want someone who is very intent on being with me."
The Executive put down his hand-held and addressed us like he would a board of directors. "Right. It's that infatuation stage that women want to prolong forever."
More nodding. Our list was growing: Keys to an ideal husband were spontaneity, sustained sexual passion and an enduring infatuation in one's partner.
But there was an even more fundamental element to be discovered. In the book, it's not until Kavanaugh opens up about the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle and the trauma of a motorcycle crash that Brown begins to view him as marriage material.
"Let's go to page 250," The Photographer said. He quoted Brown: "I can't deal with someone who can't talk to me, who can't be intimate with me except physically." The Photographer closed the book. "That may have been the closest to real life for me. I do find that my girlfriend wants to discuss everything and talk it out, and I'm more inclined to keep things in, and that's a constant friction."
"I would agree with you," The Professor said. "I find that gender dynamic to be pretty constant. When [my wife]gets home from work, she talks about her entire day for 45 minutes. And she's like, 'How was your day?' and I'm like, 'Oh, it was fine.' I don't feel the need to get into details about my day."
"Yeah, I'm a big proponent of that. I think these really deep conversations bring people closer together. I think girls especially are big advocates of that," The Executive said.
I got into bed that night a new man: I was now spontaneous, ready for a lifetime of sexual passion, totally infatuated with my fiancée and vulnerable at the same time.
She was immersed in a new book.
"Hey, that book you were reading," I began. "What did you think about it?"
She answered without looking up. "Nora Roberts? I thought it was terrible."
Malcolm Johnston is executive editor at Toronto's Post City Magazines.
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