V is for Visalia
“Both healthy and not-so-healthy. Check and double check.”
Andrew pats the top of the very full cooler and turns his head back. “Zelda…”
Zelda, holding her clipboard and pencil like a grade school teacher, repeats, “Cooler.”
Andrew twists his lips in amusement. “Check.” He pulls himself out of the car and leans up against it. “You know we’re only driving a few hours, not cross-country.”
“Better over-prepared than under-prepared—that’s my road trip motto.” She makes a final check mark and places the clipboard into her tote bag. Climbing into the driver’s seat, she fires up the navigation on her phone, already programmed. “And it looks like, with traffic, that it will be exactly two hours and thirty-four minutes, barring rest stops, fuel breaks and accidents.”
“Aye aye, captain,” he says, taking the passenger seat. "Visalia, ho!" He fistpumps the air for emphasis.
Zelda stops the ignition key mid-turn. "I'm pretty sure no one ever said that about Visalia in the history of ever." At Andrew's shrug, she adds, “Well, sometimes Stacy Gardner in my junior class was called the ‘Visalia Ho’. Heyooooo!"
Andrew laughs, he's glad that Zelda is in high spirits. Andrew's hiding it well—or he's trying to hide it well—but the fact that he's going to be meeting Zelda's parents—well, her dad and step-mom—in person in, what was it?, two hours and thirty-four minutes barring etc. etc., was giving him a little stomach upset.
Zelda, as if reading his mind, reaches over and pats his arm gently. "Don't worry, Andrew. They're gonna love you, I promise." She turns on the ignition fully, sets her roadtrip playlist to begin, and as they pull out of the parking space, the speakers start to blare "Highway to Hell."
Andrew gives her a look.
Zelda gives him a sly grin in return. "What did I say about Visalia? It's appropriate."
He's never been there, he’s rarely left Southern California his whole life. "I'll take your word for it."
"Oh, you won't have to, you'll get to live it for one whole glorious weekend."
He's pretty sure she's kidding, but the things he's heard about those Central Valley towns make him think she may not really be exaggerating much. He shifts to settle in his seat. She's taking the first shift and he'll take the second, so he might as well get some rest.
But he can't get comfortable, no matter what position he tries. It's not the pillow, he's slept against plain glass during many a road trip with Stu. It's not the tunes, Zelda's keeping them at a low enough volume. It's not the stop and go of the traffic, though that doesn't help. No, it's the bulge in his right hand pants pocket, reminding him with every shift of its existence.
His left pants pocket buzzes, distracting him, and he pulls out his cell phone. It's a text from Stu. "Ring burning a hole in your pocket yet?
Andrew frowns, tilting the screen to tap back his answer. "Yes, thank you. In the car now."
Stu doesn't take the hint, but he never does. "Are you getting nervous?" He adds a couple of sweaty faced emojis.
"That Stu?" Zelda asks, glancing over.
"Yeah," Andrew tries to be nonchalant. "Oversharing as usual."
"I'm actually surprised he didn't invite himself along," she jokes.
"Thank god for Big Bird and her weekend projects." He quickly deletes the entire conversation, just in case, then settles his chair back.
Somewhere between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield, he finally falls asleep, his dreams full of swarthy, disapproving fathers and rail-thin, hypercritical stepmothers and dusty, hot towns with nothing but one old, dirty McDonalds at the single, aging stop light. The engagement ring is too small, too gaudy, too plain, too something, and falls out of his pocket when he gets out to use the bathroom at the gas station with the grungy floors.
He wakes with a start, realizing that the car isn't moving. "Is it my turn to drive?"
"No." She removes the keys from the ignition and places them inside her purse. "We're already here. I decided to let you sleep."
He bolts upright, raking his hands through his hair. "Oh, no, what? I'm not ready, my shirt's a wrinkled mess, I—"
"Andrew," she says softly, calmly. "You look fine. You look great. Best bedhead on the West Coast. Really."
"Okay, okay... let me just catch my breath." He pulls in one long, deep breath, holds it for a few seconds, then lets it out again. He draws his fingers into fists and taps them on his knees a couple times. "Maybe one more minute."
"This is really throwing you, isn't it?"
It is. But not for the reason she thinks it is. "I'll be fine."
Zelda places her fingers on top of one of his fists and works them into his palm to hold his hand. "We'll be fine."
Her encouraging smile gives him the final boost he needs. "Let's do this."
W is for Free Will
Andrew's eyes go wide. "Are you kidding? I always thought that was the sort of thing you discussed with your kid the day after their Bar Mitzvah."
"Nooo, not in my household," Stephie says. "My mum sat me down the moment I turned eight and had the talk."
Stu pops a handful of nuts into his mouth. "Eh. My uncles lived at the house. No one even had to tell me about it."
Zelda comes back to the table, carrying another round of beers. "Tell you about what?"
"About whether there's a God," Andrew answers at the same time Stu says "About how some families are closer than—"
Everyone gives Stu a horrified look. "Oh! I see we were on a totally different topic, never mind me."
Zelda slides in beside Andrew. "Well, my parents never brought that up at all. My dad was a staunch Catholic and no other worldview was permitted. My mom tried on religions like they were items at the thrift store. Neither one wanted me influenced by the other. They wouldn't even discuss it." She takes a sip of her beer. "And then I went to Stanford, where higher education was the only god."
"That must have been a shock," Andrew says. "My parents just wanted to make sure I experienced all the good Jewish traditions before setting me adrift." He thinks for a moment. "Honestly, I feel like they only did it because it was the expected thing to do, not because they really believed it.”
“It’s kind of insane,” Zelda says. “Parents going through the motions like that.”
"Well, really, there's only one way to solve that problem," Andrew says. "Give them a choice." Zelda chimes in at the same time with, "Never take them to church at all."
The two of them stop and look at each other. "Really," Zelda says in a flat voice. "You'd let a child be influenced by—whomever—before they're intellectually ready?"
Andrew's a little taken aback. He had no idea she felt so strongly about this. "Better that than give them nothing to believe in at all."
"What about believing in themselves?" Zelda's eyes go wide, the way they do when she's really passionate about something. He's thought more than once that juries probably don't stand a chance against those babies. "In making a difference in the world?"
Andrew doesn't know why that rubs him the wrong way, but it does. "Isn't that the whole basis of religion? To give us self-worth and purpose? Where do they learn that? Through self-esteem programs and the spirit club?"
Stephie and Stu have grown very quiet, which is truly obvious when Zelda and Andrew are staring at each other, nostrils flared. The tables around them are quiet, too, listening in on the row he and Zelda are apparently starting. "Maybe we should—" Stephie begins.
But Zelda pushes her chair back from the table suddenly. "No, I think I'm just gonna—" She flees from the brewery faster than her strappy heels should allow her, because he's out of breath when he catches up.
She stops, sighs, and turns around. "Andrew, I'm just tired, I want to go home and take off these stupid shoes and watch TV."
"More trashy TV?" he tries to joke. "You watch another Civil War documentary and your brain is going to turn to mush..."
She doesn't even crack a smile. A couple months ago, she would have riffed on how sexy Ken Burns's voice was and how she can't get enough of the drama, but now she just waits impatiently for him to let her go.
But he can't. He loves her, more than he's loved anyone. "Zelda..."
"What's the point of me staying if all we're going to do is fight?"
She's right, but admitting it would be like admitting things are falling apart. "We don't always f—"
"Yes, we do. Last week it was savings vs. investments, yesterday it was discount vs. organic, today it's whether or not to raise our kids with religion. Kids we haven't even talked about having because we can't even agree about this other stuff right now!"
Her eyes are starting to sparkle with unshed tears, but he can't help but find them even more beautiful. He starts to argue with her, to tell her that they're just going through a rough patch, but then he's just proving her point.
He wants to fight for her, but all they do any more is fight.
"All right," he says quietly, his words feeling like the knockout punch. "If you want to go, go." He doesn't say 'see you tomorrow' because he doesn't know if she'll want to.
He waits until the sound of her heels have faded into the distance before he goes back into the brewery. Stephie and Stu are just settling themselves back into their seats, as if they didn't watch the whole thing. "Is she coming back?" Stephie asks, her voice falsely light.
Andrew shakes his head mournfully.
"I think I'm gonna just," —she's throwing money on the table and grabbing her purse and halfway to the door as she speaks— "you know, see you later."
Andrew sits and Stu pushes him a beer. "Drink it down. Things'll look better in the morning."
Andrew doesn't look at it. All he sees in his mind's eye are Zelda's unshed tears. "I don't think so."
X is for X Marks the Spot
Zelda pulls the small strip of paper from underneath her Big Ben snow globe and unfolds it with a smile. "Stroll along the street where we know every name." Hmm. Where is a place that she and Andrew know everyone? Or does he mean the collective ‘we’? She can think of two possible places. One means just going down the street, the other means getting in her car and driving halfway across town. Which one seems more like Andrew?
She chooses the car.
One of the many interests she has been delighted to find out she shares with Andrew is a love of puzzles. So when she found the first clue waiting for her on her desk at work at the end of the day on her birthday, she did a little happy dance in front of the window. She half-expected Andrew to be watching her from his office, but when she turned around his desk was empty. Not even Stu was there to make faces. It only made her happier, knowing they were probably both involved in the preparations.
A birthday scavenger hunt is just the perfect gift, really. Where will it lead at the end? A surprise party? A romantic picnic? A fancy dinner? (If it's a fancy dinner there'd better be a clue that involves a salon or at the very least a chance to change...) She's leaning toward the first one, just because Stephie's texts have been less frequent than usual, and she keeps hinting that she's getting ready for a 'date' she has tonight.
Zelda frowns at herself. Okay, that was mean. Maybe she really does have a date. On Zelda's birthday. Which they've celebrated together for the past several years without fail. She shouldn't read into it.
Zelda arrives at Grauman's Theater and parks, humming a little ditty from a show they saw last week. How long has Andrew been planning this? Who else has he gotten involved in the plot? She knows that if it were her, she would have probably left everyone Andrew knows even slightly out of it—just to be sure that no one let the secret slip.
The clue pretty clearly leads her to the Walk of Fame. But where on it? She starts at the theater and heads west. After walking for a few minutes, she hears Stu's voice. "Excuse me, Ms. Vasco, may I get your autograph?"
She laughs, turning to him, and plays along. "Certainly. Who should I make it out to?"
"John," he answers immediately, handing her a slip of paper and a pen. "No, wait, Paul. Or maybe George? All of my friends just adore your work."
She pauses to look down at her feet. Of course, she's standing on top of The Beatles' star. "I'll make it out to Ringo, too, just in case."
She starts to sign the slip but it's the next clue. "Oh, I believe in yesterday, but Linus sets his sights elsewhere." "Elsewhere?" she says aloud. What on earth?
Stu clears his throat. "Are you gonna sign it or what?" Under his breath, he adds, "Celebrities."
"Oh!" His expression doesn't change. "Wow, you are really committing to this role. I don't get to keep this one?" She signs it, the wheels turning in her mind the whole time. "There you go, don't sell it on eBay!"
Linus believed in The Great Pumpkin… but this is May. There are no pumpkin patches open for business anywhere. "Pumpkin... pumpkin," she whispers. "Did he mean something else?"
"No, he totally meant pumpkin," Stu says out of the corner of his mouth, while he's pretending to Instagram her signature. Or is he pretending?
Whatever, she knows she's on the right track. Maybe she should go to that pumpkin patch where she saw that huge mutant pumpkin and Andrew cracked a joke as they passed by in the car. Worth a try?
When Zelda drives up, Stephie is sitting in front of the pumpkin patch's sign with a plastic pumpkin candy bucket on her lap. "Ha!" Zelda says, rolling down the window. "I knew you didn't have a date tonight!"
Stephie's mouth opens in affront. "Who says I don't? Just because I agreed to help Andrew doesn't mean I don't have any other plans."
Zelda looks Stephie up and down. She's still in her work suit, but wearing tennis shoes instead of heels, makeup fading, hair in a ponytail. "Uh huh."
Stephie stands and turns away. "You want the next clue or what?"
"Yes, yes, I'm sorry." She turns off the car and gets out, coming to stand at Stephie's shoulder. "Is he cute?"
Stephie turns to her, a grin spreading on her face. "Very."
"So you do have a date!"
"I said I did!" Stephie hands over the plastic pumpkin and starts to walk toward her car, parked a little way off. "You took so long to get here I thought I was going to have to cancel!"
Zelda sticks out her tongue at Stephie and Stephie returns the gesture. "Enjoy your date!" Even if it is to my party later, she doesn’t say out loud.
Zelda pulls out the next slip to read, "Today is the greatest day I've ever known, but there's something I'm looking forward to more."
Huh, that's a tough one. Could he— Suddenly she notices that there's something else inside the plastic pumpkin. Her eyes go wide when she sees what it is. A ticket to Disneyland! Oh wow, if this is a surprise party, then Andrew really went all out.
So she's supposed to go to Disneyland next. But where? The park is huge... Will someone be waiting for her at the entrance? Or is there some theme to the clues that she's missing out on? As she gets back into her car she thinks about the puzzles. First the Big Ben snowglobe... The Beatles... a pumpkin patch...
"Damned if I can figure out the connection."
She walks through the gate into Disneyland, searching for a sign, banner, a person, even Andrew himself. But all she sees are other park goers milling about. For a moment, she just stands there. Is someone watching, just in case she doesn't figure it out? Maybe she should just text Andrew and ask him outright. She did get this far.
No. She can do this. It's only 7pm, and not quite sunset. Think, Zelda, think!
Big Ben. Clocks. London. Snow? Walk of Fame. Celebrities. The Beatles. Yesterday. Linus. Pumpkins. Today. Disneyland. What could...?
It comes to her suddenly, and she sets off walking at a brisk pace. If she's wrong, then she'll give in and ask.
She's not wrong. There stands Andrew, all alone, in front of the Tomorrowland entrance, the setting sun glinting off the futuristic satellites on the sculpture. "You made it!" he cries, face lighting up.
She takes him in her arms and kisses him. "You didn't make it easy," she says when they part.
"Would you have wanted that?"
He knows her too well for someone who's only known her for eight months. She presses her lips together and shakes her head. "So..." She looks around. "Where is everybody? Hiding?"
Andrew's eyebrows draw down. "Everybody?"
"You know... for my surprise party."
"Oh..." He draws a hand down over his face slowly. "You thought... oh man, I'm sorry..."
"No, really, it's okay," she says. She's a little disappointed, but not much. He did take her to Disneyland for her birthday. What could be better?
"It isn't a surprise party, but I hope it's a nice surprise..." He starts to lower himself toward the ground. "...of a different kind."
Her utter shock at seeing him down on one knee burns away all other expectations she might have had or not had like an atomic bomb. "Andrew..."
"Time is funny," he begins. "I didn't know you yesterday, but I know you today, and I hope I'll know you in every tomorrow.” He holds up the ring, which sparkles in the final rays of the sunset. “Will you marry me?"
Y is for Yokohama
"Are you sure about this?"
The question doesn't take Zelda by surprise, but it does make her purse her lips in mock-annoyance. "Now you're asking me?"
Andrew smiles, but it's not a smile that reaches his eyes. He's not happy that she's going, but he's happy for her, in that sort of abstract way that you want what's best for the people you care about.
She scoots a little closer on the faux-leather airport seats and threads her fingers through his. "I swear I'd take you along, except I hear that they're putting me up in one of those capsule hotels for the first week. I know I'm pretty short, but..."
He chuckles. She doesn't know why she's trying so hard to cheer him up. She's feeling nearly as bad as he is. Sure, it's supposed to be a temporary assignment, just a year, maybe two if the Japanese branch likes her. And they need to like her, the partners implied quite strongly. She's not only leaving Andrew behind, but Stephie and her great apartment and her life here in Los Angeles. And as interesting as Japan sounds, it's also unknown, and scary, and people speak a language that she doesn't.
He squeezes her hand. "Maybe I can convince Big Bird that Wallflower needs to expand."
"Asia is now a bigger market for apps than the US."
She nods, getting into the spitballing. "And maybe you need a law firm that understands international law to help you get established."
"Don't stop there—I probably need my own team of developers and people to do market research—"
An announcement cuts in to Andrew's words. "Flight 1226 for Tokyo, now boarding our first and business class passengers and those with special needs."
That's it, she's almost out of time. "Skype me every day?" she asks, fighting down a lump in her throat.
"Twice if there's time."
"You know that it's like a huge time difference. When I'm going to sleep you'll just be getting up."
"So I'll start working third shift."
"They have a third shift at Wallflower?"
"I bet if I hinted just the right way toward Big Bird, she'd create—"
She pulls him into a crushingly tight hug, one that feels like if she doesn't let him go then time will stop. He melts into her embrace and she ignores the rustle and rumble of people all around them getting up, saying their goodbyes, jockeying for position in line, just to be first to sit on a plane for eleven hours.
"Rows 10-24, now boarding."
She's sitting in row 18, but she doesn't care. She holds on tighter.
"Rows 25-33, now boarding."
"It's only a year, right?" Andrew says into her hair.
"Or two." She tries to pull him even tighter, but it's impossible.
"Rows 34-43, now boarding."
"I'll be gone longer than we've known each other, maybe twice as long." She does a little mental math. "No..." The dam of tears she's been holding back with one finger of hope suddenly bursts through. "...three times as long!"
"Now boarding all passengers, Flight 1226 for Tokyo..."
"They're going to leave without you."
"Zelda." He pulls back, which is difficult considering how tightly she's holding him. "You're gonna kill it. You're going to go out there and wow them, and see all sorts of cool things and meet all sorts of cool people, and I'm going to be so jealous..." His words are getting thinner as his throat is closing up with emotion. "So I'm going to save up all the money we would have spent going out and sock it into a vacation fund, and come see you every chance I—"
She pulls him into a last, desperate kiss, stopping his sudden torrent of words. And it feels like the last kiss ever, the last kiss she will ever have, even though she knows intellectually how improbable that is.
"Last call, Flight 1226 for Tokyo..."
Zelda rips herself away and stands, wiping at the tears with her suit jacket sleeve. Her eyeliner is probably completely ruined anyway, and she has eleven endless hours to fix it. "I love you, Andrew," she says, and it also feels like the last time.
"I love you, too, Zelda. Have a safe trip."
She nods and walks backward toward the gate, dragging her carry-on as if it weighs a thousand pounds.
When she finally takes her seat next to the window, her seatmates annoyance fading after seeing her reddened eyes and face, she sees Andrew standing there, watching at the windows of the terminal.
Even long after the plane is in the air, she keeps that image in her mind.
Z is for Cubic Zirconia
"Is this stupid?"
Andrew reaches across the gearshift to hold her hand. "Absolutely."
Zelda looks out at the windows, her face unreadable. "Are they going to hate us?"
"Not forever." At least he hopes so. Maybe he should send Stu a last minute text...
"My mom did this—" She whips her head toward him, her big eyes going wider in panic. "Am I turning into my mom?"
"Lots of people do this. It doesn't make you any sort of person." He thinks for a moment. "Except maybe spontaneous."
She closes her eyes and shakes her head. "That's just it, Andrew. I'm not spontaneous. I'm not some free-spirited romantic who thinks that getting married in Vegas on a whim is the thing to do! I'm a planner. I plan things down to the very last detail. I should be starting a notebook, filling it with ideas and contact numbers and guest lists... I mean, how long have we been engaged?"
He knows the answer to the minute. "One hour and forty-seven minutes."
"I could have done at least one series of interconnected searches by now..."
Wow, she is really freaking out. Is it just nerves, or something much deeper? He doesn't want to pressure her, or she'll regret it for the rest of her life.
He caresses her hand lightly with his fingertips. "Do you want to turn around?"
Zelda's mouth drops open, but she doesn't know what to say. Does she want to turn around? An hour and a half ago, this sounded like a perfect idea. They both knew what they wanted, and Zelda has never been the type to romanticize—dreaming up the perfect wedding from the age of five. It was just like she'd told Andrew—her mom got married or shacked up with so many guys during her childhood that she'd almost completely given up on destiny or the idea of 'the one'.
Until she met Andrew.
His idealism and starry-eyed romanticism had scared her to death. She'd basically run in the other direction.
But sitting here in Andrew's car, on the road to Las Vegas, about to elope... it's the biggest 180 she's ever done.
She looks into his eyes. There's not a hint of disappointment at her second thoughts. They're clear and full of love for her. She can imagine waking up to those eyes every single morning for the rest of her life just as easily as she could an hour and a half ago.
Does she want to turn around?
Zelda's quiet for a long time. He wants to think that's a good sign. If she were really second-guessing this decision, then she would have immediately said 'yes'.
Her lips close, and she takes the lower one between her teeth. Finally, she says, "I don't know."
That's fair. As much as he wants to start their life together as soon as possible—he hadn't really even planned to propose to her tonight, she doesn't even have a real ring, just some drugstore costume jewelry that they picked up along with the snacks for the road. It sparkles, gaudy and overbig—she giggled when picking out the largest one—and reminds him again just how last minute all of this is.
Just why are they rushing, anyway?
"How about... we just keep going and see how we feel when we get there?"
A small grin ghosts across her face. "I did already make the reservations."
She ends up texting Stephie (and Stu on Andrew's phone) anyway. After her phone blows up with ten thousand variations of "Are you insane?" and "Why am I not there with you?" and "You're dead if you start before I get there!" from Stephie and "BROOOOO" (with a lot less variation) from Stu, the ride seems a lot less tense.
They've checked in to the Venetian, taken a gondola ride, changed clothes about three times, once because of flop sweat, the second time because of a tumble from that said gondola, the third because she can't decide if they should dress up or down.
She decides up, and she's torn between regretting it and congratulating herself. Andrew looks amazing in his dark grey suit and tie, so delicious that she wants to tear it off. As they wait in the lobby for Stephie and Stu to arrive, she finds her hand creeping up his thigh.
He stills her hand with his. "Just a little while longer, and we can start the honeymoon for real."
His words should make her want to flee in terror, or laugh at how corny they are, but they're said so earnestly, so quietly, that instead she shivers and nods. The last text she got from Stephie said they were just outside of town, and she was this close to killing Stu. "How did you talk me into driving in together?"
"So." Andrew curls his other hand around hers. "Are we really doing this?"
Zelda looks up into his eyes, and they're no longer full of indecision. "Yes. We're doing this."
His heart leaps. He would have waited for her forever, but knowing that she's just as ready makes everything turn brighter. He can't help but ask, one last time. "You're absolutely sure?"
She leans over and kisses him, gently, firmly, each slow slide of her tongue a promise to have and to hold. "When is anything absolutely sure?" she murmurs at the end.
At that moment, Stephie and Stu sweep in, carrying garment bags over their shoulders. Zelda bounces up and Stephie tackles her in an awkward hug. Stu comes over to clap him on the back, hard. Then he hoots in his best L.A. Kings fan voice, "Let's get this party staaaaaarteeeed!"
The corner of Zelda's mouth turns up to match his. Yeah. Time to get this started.