Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 13

He said …

“And that’s the last one,” my Dad said, tossing the final bag from the van into the living room.

“Sweet! Thanks for all your help, guys.”

Dad pulled me into a hug and smacked me on the back. “No problem. That’s what parents are here for, right?”

I sunk down to the couch and looked around the dirty walls, ragged carpet, and stained floors. It was exciting to be living off campus this school year—even if our house did look like it belonged in a slum.

The parents took Jess and I out for dinner. Afterward, we huddled around for hugs and prayers, said our goodbyes, and they got into the van for the long journey back to Iowa. And while they were making the treacherous journey back to Iowa, Jess and I stood in the doorway to my kitchen, looking over the disgusting mess that was my uncleaned house.

“You know. My parents own apartments, and when we were younger we used to have to clean them.” I waved one hand toward the scum-filled kitchen and the other to the rest of the house. “This is the … second most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Wow. I’d hate to hear about the most disgusting thing,” Jess said as she covered her mouth, presumably to keep from vomiting.

“I wouldn’t tell you about it even if you asked. Well, shall we clean?”

“That sounds like my idea of a romantic night!”

And clean we did. For hours. Upon hours. The place was so disgusting in fact, taking so many hours to clean, that we had to break the cleaning event up into two days. But as we cleaned, we did what we always did; we cranked up the tunes, sang loudly and off key, talked about our lives, laughed, and had the best time we possibly could. Because we were together.

We reminisced of camp and how we both missed it—it was nice to have Jess to empathize with now. We talked about the crazy things we had done over the summer, the fun dates we had gone on, the best walks we had taken. She told me how much she loved my family and the way we interacted with each other. And I refrained from telling her that I wanted her to be a part of that family.

We had only been dating for three short months at this point, but we both knew where our relationship was going. We both had known where it was going before it had even officially started. It was probably one of those things we both knew from birth, we just hadn’t met each other yet—and apparently when we did meet each other, we were really bad at catching on. Anyway, in the last few weeks, we had become comfortable enough with our future that we began teasing each other about it. Specifically, Jess began teasing me about proposing.

We thought we knew everything about each other before we started dating. But the summer brought exciting adventures for the both of us, and taught us new ways to investigate each others lives. We were closer than we had ever been—and most people we knew didn’t even know that was possible after observing a friendship like ours had been. Honestly, neither did we.

 

“When are they getting here?!” Jess was jumping up and down on the couch. I was standing calmly on the floor, looking up at her with my arms crossed.

“Will you get down from there? You’re going to kill yourself. And they’ll be here any minute.”

Jenna and Joey, my sister and brother-in-law, were visiting for the weekend. We had big plans. Young’s Jersey Dairy for ice cream, smoothies in Yellow Springs, food from somewhere delicious. And, if possible, they were going to stay for the party on Saturday. The annual festivities of Pyhäinpäivä.

Jenna was, how you say, great with child, so everything the family did seemed to be slowed immensely by her painfully lethargic pace. “They probably stopped to pee. Or Jenna got some sort of weird craving,” I reasoned. “Pregnant women do that, you know. Hold on, I need to run upstairs for a minute.”

Finally, Jenna and Joey arrived, Jenna in all of her pregnant glory. First stop: tour of the campus. This was, after all, Joey’s first time at Cedarville. We took him around and pointed out all of our favorite benches, our favorite paths for walking, and our least favorite class rooms.

“Okay, so when do we get ice cream?” Joey questioned. “Jenna keeps telling me about this amazing ice cream. And I wanna put pickles on it.” Either the tour had made him strangely desirous of ice cream, or Jenna’s pregnancy cravings were seeping into his blood stream.

“Oh, we have to drive there. Are you guys ready for that? Then we can walk around Yellow Springs for a while.”

“Ugh, more walking.” Jenna was usually about ten feet behind us when we were walking. It’s not easy carrying two people around with you.

At Young’s Jersey Dairy, we ate ice cream, petted goats, and Jenna even tried to feed a goat ice cream. Jess and I found a pumpkin patch which we tried to hide in, but some little kid found us. We took the remainder of our cones to Yellow Springs and started meandering the streets. Unfortunately, most of them were starting to close. Naturally, we blamed Jenna for her slow walking.

We spent a good amount of time in the toy store, eventually buying something for our little nephew, not-his-real-name-Hank. Then, we went and got smoothies.

“We have serious issues,” I suggested to the group.

“How do you figure,” Jess asked.

“Well, we’ve gone from ice cream cones to smoothies. And now we’re getting ready to go eat dinner.”

We were standing out front of the smoothie shop, sitting at one of the tables.

“So, where do we want to go eat?” Jess sipped her smoothie and thought vigorously.

“Well, you know …” Joey shot a look at Jenna. “Jenna’s getting pretty tired. She probably needs to lay down for a bit before the party tonight. Can we meet up with you guys later and you can just go eat without us?”

Jess looked puzzled and disappointed. After all, the main reason Jenna and Joey were there in the first place was to hang out with us—and they weren’t going to be there that long. But babies always win. That’s the rule.

“Sure. We’ll just come find you guys are we eat,” I affirmed.

“Well, why don’t we all just go somewhere in Cedarville? Subway? Colonials?” Jess suggested, trying to keep the group together.

“No, no. Jenna has too many weird allergies. We’ll just go grab something ourselves. You two go eat somewhere else.” Joey was weird. And persistent. And Jess wasn’t one to argue, so she gave up.

We waved goodbye to Jenna and Joey as they loaded into their car—luckily Jess and I had brought our own car. “So, where do you want to eat,” I asked, poking Jess in the tummy.

“Williams!”

As if it was even really an option. The two of us had already started walking hand-in-hand in the direction of Williams, our favorite restaurant in Yellow Springs, before I had asked her the question.

It was an unusual time for dinner, so there was no wait before we were seated. They sat us at a nice picnic-like table on the patio of the restaurant. Like the sloppy gentlemen that I felt like at the moment, I headed straight for my chair and didn’t even think to pull the chair out for Jess. I perused the menu as Jess talked about a million things: what a wonderful semester this was, how exciting it was for Jenna and Joey to be having a baby, how sad it was that they couldn’t come—should she graduate early? Maybe go work at camp again next summer?

I focused intently on her. But Jess seemed far away. I mean, I could see her sitting there just fine—but I felt like I couldn’t reach out and touch her for some reason. I tried, just to be sure. Successfully, I grabbed her hand across the table. Yep, still there.

I ordered the salmon. Jess ordered the lomo saltados. We enjoyed our meal, but it ended too quickly, as it usually did.

“I thought of something,” I told Jess as we were leaving the restaurant after our meal.

“Yah, what’s that?” Jess said, reaching over and taking my hand.

“I have a present for you. I will give it to you … momentarily.”

“But why can’t I have it now?” Jess asked giddily. Being human, she loved presents.

“I don’t know. Just doesn’t feel right.” I looked down at my shoes and kicked a rock.

“Well, what would make it feel right?”

“I have just the thing! But we’ll need to take a detour on the way home.”

We hopped in the car and began to drive, Jess pestering me as to the location of our drive, me still feeling like Jess was at the end of a long tunnel. Her present was in the backseat, safely stored under a few sweatshirts.

As we pulled into the parking lot of Indian Mounds, Jess’ face lit up. Her favorite surprises involved presents and walks, and our favorite place to walk was Indian Mounds.

She pulled out her phone and looked at the time, frowning a little bit. “Um, shouldn’t we be getting back soon though? I mean, people will be waiting for us at the party.”

“They’ll be fine, I’m sure.” Reminiscent of months before, I got out of Josue, opened the back door, and pulled out two sweatshirts.

“Can I have my present yet?” Jess said, bouncing up and down like a little girl that had to pee really bad—maybe Jenna’s pregnancy symptoms were rubbing off on her.

“Nope. But you do get to carry it.” I withdrew a large gift bag from the backseat and closed the door. I handed her the bag. “It requires a sunset.”

“I know where we can see one of those!” Jess grabbed my hand and pulled me down the path before I could finish pulling my sweatshirt on. We had watched the sunset dozens of times from atop the Indian Mound at the end of the winding trail. It was one of our favorite places not only because of it’s prime sunset-viewing potential, but because it was where I had first asked her to be my girlfriend.

 

She said …

The walk was a perfect idea. Everything was going completely according to plan. I had managed to keep Alex away from the house all afternoon and was very proud of myself. The afternoon had been so much fun, and little did Alex know, it was about to get much more exciting. You see, he thought we were going back to the house just in time for our not-so-traditional Halloween Party. What he didn’t know was that Kylee and I had been secretly planning a surprise birthday party for Alex for months. When we returned from our impromptu walk in the park, he would find all of our friends hiding in the house, ready to jump out and wish him a happy 22nd birthday, which was in just a few days. It was a perfect plan.

During dinner, I had started to wonder if Alex suspected something. He seemed … distracted. After ordering salmon, one of his favorites, he mostly just pushed the food around on his plate, barely eating any—very unlike him. I also noticed that I had done most of the talking. This wasn’t completely unusual, but Alex had been much quieter than normal. I wondered if he was catching on but just trying to play it cool. Although he was very good at surprising me, I’m not that great at surprising him—I get too excited to hold in secrets.

I had also gotten nervous when Joey suddenly announced that Jenna needed to go lie down. Sure, she was rather, um, large. But the plan had been for them to help me distract Alex all afternoon and evening until the party. The two of them heading back to the house so early was way too risky—what if Alex had offered to go with them? It could have ruined the whole plan. Thankfully, Alex had suggested we stay in Yellow Springs.

But now, things were all coming together. After a delicious dinner, a walk in the park, and a surprise present in my hand, Alex’s surprise birthday party would be the perfect end to a perfect day. I was sure things couldn’t get any better.

 

He said …

As we walked, Jess kept glancing down into the big bag filled with tissue paper. Trying to cheat and see what her present was before she got to the mound. I jabbed her in the side and scowled at her.

Finally, we made it to the clearing where the enormous mound sat. We headed for the long, wooden staircase and ascended the mound, skipping every other step. Jess beat me to the top, plopping down facing the sun, setting her present beside her. I sat down next to her and lay my head on her shoulder.

“Can I have my present now?”

“Not now. The sun still hasn’t gone down!”

Jess furrowed her eyebrows at me, then stared intently at the sun as if she were making it go down faster with her gaze. We sat there for a long time, but I don’t recall if we said much. It was like any other time we watched the sun go down. Sometimes, we just enjoyed spending the moment together, not saying a word.

As the sun dipped just below the tree line and I realized Jess wouldn’t be able to see her present if I didn’t give it to her soon, I turned to Jess. “Okay, you can open your present now.”

Before I could even finish my sentence, Jess tore the tissue paper out of the bag and pulled the contents out into her lap.

She held her present high in the air triumphantly. “A stuffed dog! He’s so cute!” She beamed as she pet his soft fur, glancing quickly back in the bag as if she thought there should be something more to the gift. But there was nothing more in the bag.

“Yup, and you have to name him before we go back.”

“Hmm.” Jess stared at the stuffed dog for a long time. “What should I call him?”

“Well, I’ve been calling him Pumpkin. I don’t know why. It just seemed to have a ring to it. But you can name him whatever you want.”

“Then Pumpkin it shall be! Today is Halloween, so it’s a perfect name.” Jess said, thrusting the puppy up into the air again. She plopped him in her lap and threw her arms around me. “He’s awesome. The best puppy I’ve ever gotten. Thanks.”

I pushed her nose and said, “So, you think the puppy can hold you over for a little while longer until you get a ring?” She had been teasing me a lot about proposing to her. Even though it was something we both knew was going to happen eventually, I hadn’t really given her a specific time frame.

Jess sighed. “I supposed he could hold me off a little while longer.”

“How much time do you think he can buy me?”

Jess picked up Pumpkin and looked him mischievously in the eyes. “I’d say … a week or so?”

“A week, huh?” I said, smiling at Jess. “What if he only had to buy you, say, thirty seconds?”

Jess looked at me puzzled. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a little, maroon box. I shifted myself to be in front of her and got down on one knee. I said a lot of things, many of which I can’t remember, since the entire evening had really been a blur up until this moment. But my speech was concluded with, “Jessica Nicole Rathburn. I love you. And I want to spend the rest of my life with you. So will you marry me and let me be your husband?”

I popped open the little box that contained a sparkly diamond ring.

 

She said …

“You’re proposing to me now?!”

Alex snapped the box back shut. “Well, I can wait a few more weeks if this isn’t a good time for you.

“No, no! Open it back up!” I pried the box back open. “Yes, I’ll marry you! I’ll be your wife!”

Blinking back tears of surprise and happiness, I scrambled to my feet and hugged Alex tight. Was this really happening?

It was almost completely dark, so Alex flipped open his phone and directed its light to something very sparkly within the tiny box. I gasped when I saw the light reflected back at me. The ring was absolutely gorgeous—exactly what I would have picked out for myself. Alex definitely knew me well.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the ring, nor could I wrap my mind around that fact that Alex and I were engaged. After the long, twisted path our friendship had taken, we were now going to get married!

As the sun faded completely behind the trees, we stayed on the hilltop, talking and soaking in every last bit of the moment we could. Finally, we knew we had to head back because it was getting pretty dark. Thankfully, we had made this walk back in the dark a few times before.

Suddenly, I felt my phone buzz in my pocket. It was Kylee, asking where we were. Oh shoot, the party! With all of the excitement of Alex’s proposal, I had completely forgotten that there were a ton of people waiting at his house for his surprise birthday! We had to get back—and fast! As casually as I could, I tried to speed things along for our walk back.

Before long, we had made it back to Alex’s house. Now, with a sparkly ring on my finger, I was even more excited for the party. What a perfect time to announce our engagement, with all of our friends around to celebrate!

As we got to the dark house and walked in, I shoved Alex forward, knowing that all of our friends were hiding in the darkness to surprise him. The lights flipped on and everyone yelled “Surprise!” I glanced around the room, and the first person I saw was my sister. Wait, my sister? A huge banner hung from the ceiling saying, “Congratulations Jess & Alex!”

Wait, what? Suddenly, it all started to click. I turned to Alex, tears back in my eyes, and saw him grinning from ear to ear.

 

He said …

[Two months earlier …]

“It has to be absolutely perfect, whatever I do,” I said to Kylee as we sat in The Irish Democrat eating our tasty burgers and discussing my impending engagement.

“Oh, absolutely. So, what’s our timeline here?”

“I’m thinking … beginning of next semester.”

“So January or February. Valentines Day?” Kylee suggested.

“Ick. Too many people do Valentines Day. Besides, I hate Valentines Day. I’d like to propose of my own volition, thank you very much.”

“Okay, no Valentines Day. What other requirements.”

“Well, food, flowers, a walk, a party.”

“You’re going to have a hard time going on a walk in February in Ohio.” Kylee pointed out.

“Aw, shucks, that’s a good point.”

“Well, how do you feel about the summer.”

“I love the summer,” I said. “It’s my favorite season! But it’s much too far away.”

“Okay. Well, is the walk necessary?”

I looked at Kylee with one eyebrow raised. “It’s Jess and me. We don’t do anything without going on a walk at some point. A walk is more necessary than the flowers are.”

Kylee thought for a moment. Then nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement. “I’ve got it!” She cheered, loud enough that we got a few stares from other patrons of the restaurant.

“Hit me!”

“Can you do it by your birthday?”

“I suppose I probably could. Why?”

“We throw you a surprise birthday party!”

“I don’t see how this benefits me proposing to Jess … and you kind of just ruined the surprise.”

“No, no.” Kylee explained. “It’s not really a birthday party for you. It’s really an engagement party for her!”

I started tracking with where Kylee was going with this. “Woah! So you mean you’d tell her that she was planning a surprise birthday party for me. And she’d do all the preparations for such an event. And, inevitably for a surprise birthday party, you have to get the birthday boy out of the house … so when she gets me out of the house for a walk, I propose!”

“Bingo!” Kylee high-fived me across the table.

“Okok. However, my birthday is not on a weekend. But Pyhäinpäivä is, and it’s just before my birthday! What if we did some sort of a trio. A Pyhäinpäivä celebration, which everyone expects, so she won’t expect me to get suspicious. A birthday celebration, which will distract her from what’s really going on which is … a proposal celebration, which will be planned by you and me!” This was an excellent plan, I thought.

 

Over the next couple of weeks, Kylee slowly put the idea of a surprise birthday party for me into Jess’ head. “After all, you only turn twenty-two once,” she had said to her. “We should make it special!”

Slowly, Jess began to accept the idea. And Kylee was subtle enough that, eventually, Jess thought the surprise birthday party was her own idea! After the idea had settled, Kylee fed Jess all the necessary information. The date it needed to be, the people that needed to be invited, how to get me out of the house.

“Here’s an idea,” Kylee suggested to Jess one evening. “You’ll want Jenna and Joey to come over for his birthday party, right?” Jess nodded. “Okay, so have them come over for the weekend so Joey can ‘tour the campus’, since he’s never been, and then you can use them to get Alex out of the house.”

This ended up being a fine idea, but I failed to realize that I would eventually want Jenna and Joey to leave so I could actually propose. So, I used Jenna’s large belly to my advantage. I told her to play sick so Jess and I could go out to eat on our own. Luckily, Joey’s persuasive ways helped with this. All the while, Jess was still convinced that the reason she was getting me out of the house was for her surprise for me, so she was completely surprised when she realized that I was proposing to her on our walk.

 

She said …

[After the engagement party …]

Alex and I were engaged. Engaged! I had never been so happy or excited in my whole life. Once Alex explained how he had been planning the proposal and the party and every last detail, I was completely blown away. I had my dream proposal.

Best of all, I had my dream fiancé, and I couldn’t imagine spending my life with anyone else.