Sometime in April, I dragged my best friend (and soon-to-be Best Man) Justin to the Santa Monica Father's Office, an upscale pub for upscale people having upscale conversations, and I told him of the half-assed proposal plan that I'd concocted thus far. I had all the W's down (the who, the what, the where, and most certainly the why), but the HOW was haunting me. The HOW was keeping me awake at night. I asked myself the same question over and over again, as if my subconscious had buried the solution somewhere deep down, and after enough interrogation it would eventually submit.
HOW the hell am I going to sneak off to North Carolina to get her parents' blessing without her knowing? I mean, we're not one of those too-cool-to-care couples who go without seeing each other for weeks at a time. God no. This is the girl who occasionally peeks at my email and monitors my monthly credit card statements...
So, as men are prone to do, Best Man of the Future and I threw back some craft beers and threw together the most cockamamie, unrealistic, this-shit-will-never-work plan of action ever created. It was a ruse if ever there was a ruse. And the ruse went something like this:
Honey, so, before we go on the cruise - [cruise: A 2-week Mediterranean getaway that my mother had gifted our entire family to celebrate her long-anticipated retirement] - I have to spend some time with Justin. He feels like I've been ignoring him lately, and we need some "guy" time, so he wants to go to Joshua Tree for a day - [Joshua Tree: a National Park located 2-1/2 hours east of Los Angeles, first made popular in 1987 by the band U2 and more recently by HBO's Entourage] - and the only time we're both free is the day before the cruise, so I thought we'd drive up the night before at like midnight, and that way we can spend the whole day there, maybe do a few shrooms - [shrooms: magic mushrooms] - and then come back that night. We'll probably be back around 10 or 11, and then I can pack real quick before our flight leaves at 4 AM. Okay? Yes, it'll be fine. I promise. I promise. Yes, I promise. I promise.
The ruse was rough at best, but all of the key elements were there. Motivation (Justin's emotions), travel time (5 hours round-trip) and the antagonist (enter: shrooms). And she bought it. She was semi-furious, and she no doubt detested Justin for that short period of time, but she bought it. Ruse, Part I, accomplished.
Mom and Dad were kind enough to charge the flight to North Carolina on their credit card (to conceal the purchase from Ms. Nosy-pants), and Justin agreed to house the ticket and the itinerary at his apartment. I bid 2E's farewell and drove to Justin's with a pair of sunglasses and what looked like a bag that one might take to a National Park in the middle of the California desert. He then drove me to LAX, where I caught a flight with a one-hour stop in Atlanta. I used the downtime in the AirTran lounge at ATL to investigate the Joshua Tree park website and learn about it's most notable features: the twisted Joshua or yucca trees that populate the park (see below); the existence of desert bighorn sheep; the visitor's center and cafe; and the abundance of nature hikes and trails.
Welcome to the paranoid, detail-oriented mind of a writer.
When I arrived at Raleigh-Durham, I was relieved to share the details of our until-then successful ruse with the woman at the Enterprise customer service desk, who I was certain could in no way spoil the surprise. She hooked me up with their cheapest, most economy-sized rental, a blue Chevy Aveo with automatic nothing, and pointed me in the right direction as she wished me the best of luck.
I drove to her Dad's place first. When I was later asked about that choice, I surrendered, I wanted to get the scary part out of the way. Aside from a storm in Dallas that caused some turbulence on the first leg of our flight, the trip had been surprisingly smooth until this point ... but when I drove up to his two-story home on the western outskirts of Chapel Hill and noticed the absence of cars in the driveway, I thought perhaps that this was a sign of things to come. Should I have notified them that I wanted to do the whole have your daughter's hand thing in person and spoil the surprise? I might have debated that option sooner.
So I drove to her Mom's place, eight miles out and a few minutes north of the UNC Chapel Hill campus. You can't imagine my relief when I discovered not only 2E's Mom but also her brother Patrick, returned home after completing his spring semester at Indiana, peeking through the window of her office at the Aveo pulling up the drive and the vaguely familiar but still very unfamiliar figure approaching the front door.
Patrick tells me he knew the purpose of the visit almost immediately. I suppose it was the way I was walking -- a swagger I had practiced for weeks in the full-length mirror of our bedroom in Los Angeles. The can-I-ask-your-daughter-to-marry-me swagger. As for her Mom, she was clueless, asking me several times Why are you here!? before I gave in:
"Today is that really cool day when I get to ask if I can marry your daughter."
We made a flipcam video to honor the occasion, but I was still somewhat bloodshot from the red-eye. And I stunk -- but I couldn't shower. I was supposedly in the middle of the desert in mid-June, exploring nature trails, riding big horn sheep. I would have to remain as I was. God help the neighboring passengers on my return flight(s).
While her mom ran to the safety deposit box to retrieve her great-grandmother's wedding ring (which I'd known about since 2E's and I first started dating, and which would become 2E's engagement ring), Patrick and I went to see Reid, who was now home after a morning of writing/caffeinating at the local coffee shop.
As it turns out, he was napping when we arrived. We crawled into bed with him (don't ask), but he was deep in the fog of his waking sleep. So Patrick and I caught up and read the paper until he came out into the living room, at which point I asked him what I intended to ask. And when he asked me if I would love and protect and support his daughter, I'm almost certain I said, Well, I know at the very least that she can support me.
And while I fudged "the talk" with the FOB ... Justin, in essence, disappeared. For those 20 hours, he did not exist. He revisited old movies and walked around Santa Monica, doing nothing, speaking to no one, not existing.
With engagement ring and two parental permission slips in hand, I drove back to RDU with time to spare. Who knows -- perhaps I could catch an earlier flight and arrive home a little earlier than expected. Sweeeeet.
Of course, life never works that way, never the way you'd want or expect it to. The storm in Dallas (the cause of those 30 minutes of turbulence en route to Atlanta) had now developed into "tornado weather," and all flights west had been canceled. I downright panicked. I went from airline to airline, hauling ass from terminal to terminal, hoping to get a flight anywhere that would then get me to LAX. Or Bob Hope. Or the OC airport. I just needed to get out of Raleigh.
In less than 12 hours, 2E's and I were supposed to be boarding a flight from LAX to JFK, where we would then board an international flight to Barcelona. If I missed any one of those flights, I could potentially miss the entire cruise. Granted, I could meet them all in New York, but it would entail 2E's packing for me, locating my passport and flying solo to LAX, which would require some sort of explanation. Inevitably, I'd have to spoil the biggest surprise of her life.
And yes - this is where everyone goes Well WHY did you WAIT so LONG to do this??? WHY did you do it SO last MINUTE?!?!
Look, her parents were both out of town in the month before the cruise (her Mom traveling here and there on business, her Dad in Africa or Australia or one of those continents that begins with an A), and this was the one 20-hour period that was available. These 20 hours were sacred. So there.
The first leg to Atlanta was canceled, then it wasn't. Then it was. I tried to read a book but What the hell am I reading??? I can't focus on anything! 2E's Mom sprang into action and texted me updates throughout the evening, but it was code red at all airlines, total chaos, all ticketing desks overwhelmed and overbooked and understaffed and we all assumed that we'd be spending the night in the airport with a carry-on for a pillow and one of those meal coupons for Church's Chicken.
After a two-hour setback, the flight to Atlanta decided to officially depart. I got on, praying that the storms in Texas were clearing and that the second leg of my flight was also conveniently delayed. "It is," the gate attendant assured me. "It'll be there when you get to Atlanta." And I kissed him. Her. Them.
People were batshit in Atlanta. There were hundreds of travelers crowding each and every gate, everyone late to whatever they were headed to, the entire airport in low spirits and high stress, but in my mind I know that no one is in the same shitstorm as I. 2E's Mom continued to send me reassuring text messages even though it was past midnight on the east coast. I did the one thing I could do -- I sat patiently on the floor like everyone else, waiting for the improbable news that my flight was by some remote chance actually leaving tonight.
And you never dream of the day you'll say it -- but thank god I booked with AirTran, a company that cares so little about the safety of its passengers that it will fly in pitch black through miles of tornado weather. When no one else would get me home, AirTran would.
I did the math as I boarded. It's 12:30am on the east coast; that's 9:30pm on the west coast. 5-hour flight. I would be home at 2:30am. I texted Justin furiously. I was coming home.
The plane figure skated around the runway for half an hour -- surprise, surprise -- and I fidgeted in my seat, unable to sleep while all the other passengers passed out around me. I counted the minutes until landing. And I prayed that Justin had come up with some amazing excuse as to why we weren't home. He would have to explain a 5-hour delay.
We landed just before 3AM, and Justin was there at Arrivals looking ragged, looking almost as beat as if he'd driven for five hours through the desert, hiked several nature trails and consumed a ziploc baggie worth of shrooms. We raced home, and I showed him the ring -- which in his mind, for all this trouble, should have come with a built-in hologram or something. It was 3:30AM, and 2E's had passed out from concern. Her bags were packed and at the door, and an extra bag was set out on the living room floor. I showered and dressed and threw all of the clothing I owned into the luggage she'd set out and located my passport and unplugged all the appliances and by the time I was through just after 4AM. It was time to leave.
On the flight from LAX and JFK, 2E's and I played my least favorite road trip game: Where the Hell Were You? Justin had given her a litany of excuses --
- that the trip took 3-1/2 hours as opposed to 2-1/2
- that the day had gone by so fast
- that we'd waited too long to take the shrooms
- that they took longer than we'd thought to wear off
- that my phone had died because it was searching for a signal all day in the middle of the desert
- that we had stopped to eat at a diner on the way back from The Tree
- and that I had passed out (most likely sick from bad shrooms) in the backseat of the car
I verified his story. I said the same things, but not word for word. I remembered everything he remembered, only slightly differently. I did well for not having slept at all the night before. I texted Justin now and then to praise him for building a solid foundation. He had executed the ruse to perfection.
And while she vented to her mother on the phone (oh, the dramatic irony), I snuck off to the Hudson News shop in the airport to purchase a $10 phone card. I tried to phone the restaurant in Brussels, but I couldn't figure out the damn international code. I decided to wait until Europe to make the call.
The vacation was out of this world. We spent two days in Barcelona before boarding the ship. We had excursions in Naples, Sorrento, Tuscany, Rome, Nice, Cannes and that small, Italian city on a hill that acts as the backdrop in Clooney's The American.
We then flew to Paris, spending three more days with my parents, my siblings and their families, soaking up every minute of it. All the while, I carried a small ring box in the second pocket of my backpack, tucked in a pouch beneath two traveler's size packs of Kleenex.
We bid farewell to my family on our third day in Paris as 2E's and I had decided to take a side trip of our own to the romantic city of Brussels, only 300km away by train. I'd spent the last month planning out our itinerary, seeking out quirky activities for two quirky anti-tourists, discovering the gems of the city via travel websites and guidebooks. We dined at one Spanish-Belgian restaurant with a moving conveyor belt; you simply pick up the color-coded plates that appear appetizing, and you pay by plate. We had original Belgian french fries. We walked the Rue Royale, stopping by the storefront of the premiere florist in Belgium as well as the shoppe of the best chocolatier in the city, who has supplied chocolate to royalty of every kind and almost every American president in the last few decades.
The only thing I hadn't planned out was the where. Where would I pop the question. I knew the city fairly well from my research, but you never know how things are going to appear in person. After devouring our chocolates and stopping at a bank of pay phones in a nearby hotel to ring a certain restaurant for a reservation, we continued down the Royale to the Jardin Botanique, an ornamental, maze-like garden centrally located in Brussels. In reviews it was majestic; in person, it was creepy. In reviews, there were "quiet places for lovers to sit and whisper"; in person, those quiet places were primarily occupied by high schoolers and drug dealers. I wasn't about to propose here.
Geometric gardening & Belgian junkies
We walked and walked and walked. I didn't know where the hell I was going. Well -- I did. We were headed toward the restaurant, our final destination. But parts of Brussels, like parts of any big city, can be creepy, and we hit almost all of them en route to dinner. Our feet ached. I was beginning to think this wouldn't happen.
And then it just did. As it did in Atlanta -- when AirTran decided to just ignore the tornado warnings and just fly -- I decided to stop trying so damn hard.
The restaurant was called L'Idiot du Village, a spin on one of our favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, The Village Idiot. It was appropriately pricey and supposedly a celebrity hot spot and I'd been dreaming of taking her there since, well, New Years. The restaurant lived on an alleyway of sorts, about two hundred feet of cobblestone and silence, nestled in the heart of this sometimes romantic, sometimes creepy, but all-around lovely city. I asked 2E's to set up the video camera on a window ledge in the alleyway; we'd been videoing ourselves these last two weeks, documenting our travels, and this would be the last segment. The final recording. I'll hide behind you, you start to say something, and then I'll jump out! I said. It was the best I could come up with.
When I didn't jump out, she turned around, and I was on one knee, and in my hands I was holding her great-grandmother's ring ... the ring that I had stowed away in the pocket of my jacket ... the jacket which I had kept tucked at the bottom of a shopping bag ... the shopping bag that I'd been hauling around town since we left our hotel at the outskirts of Brussels that morning.
That night we ate one of the best meals of our lives, made even better by an expensive bottle of wine, a flurry of French accents and the three-hour-long tale of -- well, the tale that I've just described to you. All of the ins and outs of a ruse that, at many intervals, had the potential to fall apart entirely but never did. And I loved telling it to her.