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The Proposal Thief
by Alexander Carver
That afternoon I spontaneously proposed to Daphne while on a nature hike in the Malibu canyons. Having reached the crest of a particularly steep hill, I happened to look up into the air and spot a sky-writing plane adding the finishing touches to the question “WILL U MARRY ME?”
Without pausing to consider the ramifications of hijacking another man's marriage proposal, I grabbed Daphne by her bare shoulders, shook her until she shouted “Ouch! What?!” (She’d forgotten to put on sun screen), and pointed skyward.
“OH...MY...GOD. YOU...DID...NOT?” Daphne said, with one hand covering her mouth, and the other hand blocking the sun.
Although certainly a romantic at heart, I'd never been one to shovel out the dough to convey it. Handpicked flowers and breakfast in bed were more my style. Hiring planes to do figure eights in the sky, less so. It wasn't so much that I was cheap, as it was that I was not financially viable. I'd sold a TV pilot two years earlier, been a big hero in my circle (despite the fact that the show never got produced), but failed to ride the wave to further success. Bad luck. Bad Karma. Bad premises. Bad something.
But the sky-writing plane entering my airspace was a big break and the new centerpiece on my romantic resume. It was like finding a wallet with 3 thousand dollars stuffed inside it. I later Googled “Skywriting cost” and discovered that the going rate is 250 bucks a letter. And even if I did have the money to pay for such an elaborate proposal, I certainly would’ve cut costs by changing the wording from “WILL U MARRY ME?” to “MARRY ME?” and maybe even “MARRY?”
And so, on that glorious Saturday during the first week of Spring, as the sun was sinking in the cloudless late afternoon sky, I suddenly found myself down on one knee, opportunistically speaking the first words that formed in my head.
“Daphne, I know this is a bit extravagant, but I only intend on doing this once in my lifetime...”
“Wait...where's the ring?” Daphne said, fully aware that in most marriage proposals a man down on one knee is usually accompanied by some bling.
I buckled. Good question. I switched knees, gathered my thoughts, and responded: “Oh God…it's a long story. The jeweler promised me the ring would be ready on Friday...yesterday. But he didn't come through. It probably won't be ready until the end of next week at the earliest,” I said, buying some time to round up the funds and locate a suitable engagement ring. “I guess they're pretty crazy right now with it being Spring and everything. Oh, and same goes for the sky-writer, uh...Carl. He said if I had to cancel “to accommodate the fuckin' jeweler”-- his words not mine – he couldn't reschedule us until after the holidays. You'd be surprised at how few sky-writers there are in Southern California, where it's, you know, always clear and sunny, and just...perfect sky-writing weather.”
Finished with my little spiel, I studied Daphne's face to see if she was buying any of it, and to my astonishment spotted a single tear dribbling down her cheek beneath her imitation Gucci sunglasses. The corner of her mouth was pinched the way it always was when she was emotional and nibbling on something in her mind. It was the same expression Missy, my childhood Cocker Spaniel got on her face every time I faked a throw with her tennis ball.
“I can't believe you did this,” Daphne said, peering down at me, still kneeling in the dirt. “This is so unlike, well...extravagant of you.”
“So? You haven't answered my question...”
“The one in the sky?”
“Oh! Yes! Oh my God, yes! Of course I'll marry you! Are you kidding me?”
I leaped to my feet and we hugged while spinning in circles. She initiated the circles, and I went with them, despite the danger posed by the steep incline, figuring it was the way she’d always pictured the peek moment in her life’s romantic highlight reel. These were the theatrics that would be part of the legend of the proposal our grandchildren would clamor to hear over and over again as Daphne and I sat with them by the fireplace. I hated to think of myself still lying about it as an old man sitting by the fireplace, but it was too late now.
“Come on, let's get home and consummate the engagement!” I said, grabbing Daphne’s hand and pulling her down the hillside. I wanted to get her to the car before the real proposer and proposee happened, equally joyful, upon the scene.
“Wait! We have to take a picture first!” she said, bringing a halt to our downward progress with the heels of her Timberlands.
“Why do we need a picture?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“What do you mean, why do we need a picture?” she said, removing her sunglasses to study my face.
“Well, it's written right there in the sky. We don't need a picture, it's right there in front of us.”
“Are you kidding? I can't tell if you're kidding. Because we have to show it to everyone, you idiot!”
“You wanna show it to everyone? I was kinda hoping this would be our own little secret.”
Daphne laughed. “Okay, stop screwing with me... There must be someone around here who can take our picture.”
“The words are gonna evaporate. Maybe we better just do a selfie,” I said, hoping to exclude others from the hoax and better my chances of surviving it.
At that point it wasn’t too late to abort and say something like, “Hey, Daphne, I was just kidding, that’s not really my proposal up there…it’s someone else’s…but, uh, the offer still stands if you’re interested…after you finish beating me to a pulp with one of your hiking boots.” But, I was too scared to confess. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could pass off as a practical joke.
Daphne took out her iPhone and switched it into camera mode. “Okay smile and try and look ecstatic,” she said.
We posed in front of the word clouds with Daphne angling the camera up at our wooden smiles. She snapped a few shots, but the camera at arm's length was too close to our heads to allow all of “WILL U MARRY ME?” to appear in the background. In the pictures you could only make out the question mark and part of the letter E.
“Let's just get a shot of it by itself,” I said.
“No! Anyone can get a shot like that off the internet! We have to be in the picture to prove it's our proposal! Jesus! Didn't you think any of this through before you set it up?”
“Well, how about I get a shot of you, and you get a shot of me?”
“Andy?! This moment is about us! Not me! Not you! Us! This is like the biggest moment in our lives together, and you’re acting like it’s no big fuckin’ deal!”
“Okay--okay, calm down, let's not start dropping F bombs and ruin a sacred moment!”
“Well, you should’ve invited Adam or Joe, or one of your other tag-a-long friends to come with us so we'd have someone to take our picture!”
“No, I shouldn’t have because then you would’ve been angry at me for turning ‘the biggest romantic moment in our lives together’ into a buddy-buddy thing!”
“Andy, it’s gonna disappear! Do something! Do something!”
“Alright, I’ll go find someone to take out picture! You stay here! Don’t move! I'll be right back!”
I took off in a dead sprint down the rocky incline, slipping and sliding several times on the loose earth, as I searched for appropriate hikers to take our picture. The first couple I spotted were wearing matching Armani hiking ensembles, and appeared to have the financial means to afford such an aeronautical display of affection. Bypassing them -- as well as a family with two children who undoubtedly would’ve asked me a thousand questions I couldn’t answer -- I soon came upon a young Asian couple, sitting on a large rock, sharing a joint. The young Asian man, wearing an acid washed U.C.L.A sweatshirt, was laughing at something the girl was saying, as she held her face up to the sun, absorbing some vitamin D. Their youth, preoccupation with the sun, and drug consumption hinting at the fact that they probably hadn't made a major life commitment to each other within the past few minutes.
“Please come quick, my fiancé and I need someone to take our picture!” I yelled, startling them.
“Why? What's wrong?” the young Asian man said.
“Nothing. Everything's fine. We just want our picture taken beneath that,” I said, pointing up at the sky, where the letters of the proposal were beginning to collide and expand.
“Oh, how sweet!” the young Asian girl said. “Did you just propose to her?”
“Yes! Come quick! Before the evidence is gone!”
The three of us -- two of which were giggling uncontrollably -- sprinted back up the hill to where Daphne was waiting in a state of panic.
“Quick, quick, it's melting!” she said, handing the young Asian man her iPhone.
He snapped shot after shot of us as he lied on the ground continuing to giggle. Posing both earnestly and animatedly, Daphne and I hugged, kissed, made funny faces, and pointed up at the sky together with matching expressions of awe. In total thirty-seven pictures were taken, one of which Daphne later deemed usable for our wedding announcement photograph in the L.A. Times.
“Thanks so much for coming to our rescue! Andy's such a horrible planner!” Daphne told the young Asian couple after the impromptu photo shoot was over.
The four of us then exchanged information and vowed to get together sometime for drinks, which like good Los Angeleans we never followed up on.
With the proposal officially documented, Daphne and I headed, hand-in-hand, back down the trail to my Jeep, Daphne splitting her attention between negotiating the rocks along the treacherous incline, and monitoring the dissipating words in the sky, representing the sealing, and, I suppose, ceiling, of our covenant of love.
By the time we reached the Jeep, the words had merged into a single cloud of illegible exhaust, and as I stood holding the passenger side door open for Daphne, she took a final glance up at the sky and said: “It's the most romantic thing anyone's ever done for me...although probably not the most romantic thing anyone's ever done for the planet.” A comment that made me angry, but not half as angry as I would’ve been if I'd actually financed that emission of greenhouse gases.
As we drove back to our bungalow in Venice Beach, I tried once again to manage the news of our engagement.
“Hey, Daph, maybe we shouldn't tell too many people about this,” I said.
She laughed, reached over, and tousled my hair.
“I'm serious. You know how people are, especially family members. Your sister's gonna be insanely jealous. She’ll hate us for months over this.”
Ignoring me, as she multi-tasked, Daphne texted her friends the news, while auditioning several wedding hairstyles for herself in the rearview mirror.
“Didn't Derrick propose to Becky at a baseball game or something lame like that?” I said.
“A football game. After the 49ers kicked a game winning field goal. He was so happy they won, he got down on a knee and proposed. The moron.”
“See -- if you tell her how I proposed, Derrick'll look like a cheap, unromantic douche bag.”
“Derrick is a cheap, unromantic douche bag.”
“I know, but do we have to remind Becky of that?” I said, making a sudden, hard turn into our unpaved driveway that caused the Jeep to hop and Daphne to swear.
“God, you're weird. My fiancé's weird!” she yelled out the passenger side window at no one in particular, though a flock of pigeons took it as their cue to scatter. “You spend all that money to propose to me in this incredibly romantic way that makes me feel like a princess, and then you don't even have the bravado, or whatever you call it, to brag to everyone about it. It's so...un-American of you.”
“I just don't want people inquiring into my finances, that's all.”
“How much did it cost, anyway?”
“See! You're doing it already!”
“More than $2,000? My first thought was that it cost at least $2,000.”
“I'm not discussing it, Daphne. I just hope that it makes up for all the times in the past when I didn't have enough money to properly romance you,” I said, taking her hand and kissing it as we walked through the threshold of the house.
“Did you borrow money from your parents again?”
Once inside the house, I grabbed a grape Otter pop out of the freezer, and laid down on our bed to compose myself and do some thinking. I’d read online that in the age of the internet and social media, all lies, crimes, and sexual transgressions had a 60 percent greater chance of being detected than they did, in say, the 1950’s, when information travelled much more slowly, or didn’t travel at all. As I was eating my comforting Popsicle, contemplating every flank from which I could be attacked, Daphne ran into the room, leaped onto the bed, and covered my face with kisses. If there was one positive development that had come out of my ill-advised proposal it was that by treating (or appearing to treat) Daphne like a princess, she was responding in kind by treating me like a prince. And I knew that the treatment would only get better as more of her friends got wind of the proposal and repeatedly praised me to Daphne. Women love to be the envy of their friends and no woman more than her.
“I'm so turned on by this new, romantic, financially viable side of yours. You wanna go take a bath together?” she said, taking the Otter pop out of my hand and suckling it suggestively.
After consummating our fiancé status with the help of a few candles and eucalyptus scented bubble bath, Daphne settled down for the night on the sectional in the living room with a fully charged cell phone and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne she’d been saving for a special occasion.
“My Mom’s not gonna believe it,” Daphne said, scanning the numbers on her phone. “She thought you'd never pop the question. She said: 'You watch after five years he'll dump you for someone younger. Then five years after that he'll dump her for someone younger, and on and on, until he drops dead at a hundred, having successfully dumped a dozen women and escaped marriage his whole life.'”
“She really said that?”
“Well, I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist of it.”
“Here, give me the phone. I want to tell her the news myself.”
“Be my guest...”
Daphne dialed Pittsburgh and then tossed her cellphone into my lap.
“A skywriter?! That sounds so expensive!” Mrs. Wallace said, when I'd conveyed the details of our afternoon to her. “Do you have the kind of budget where you can afford to throw money into the air like that?”
“Mrs. Wallace, you know me well enough to know I don't waste money on trivial things. But, something as important as establishing a lifelong union with Daphne and your family, well, that's very different.”
“...and weren't you supposed to go to Mr. Wallace first and ask for his daughter's hand in marriage? Isn't that the proper protocol?” she said, shearing the olive branch I was shaking in front of her.
“Well, yeah, but it was a bit difficult to manage geographically. I guess it's true I could have called him to ask... Sorry about that. Please tell Mr. Wallace I'll call him this week to make it official.”
I covered the phone with my hand and turned to Daphne. “Your Mom's mad that I didn't ask your Dad’s permission first.”
“He didn't even give me a ring yet, Mom! He’s doing everything ass backwards!” Daphne shouted into the phone, before I could cover the receiver.
“Well, he probably couldn't afford a ring after paying off that Ringling Brother's Barnum and Bailey airplane pilot!” Mrs. Wallace shouted back at her, directly into my ear.
“I'm still on the phone, Mrs. Wallace...or is it Eileen now?”
“After the wedding, after the wedding…”
“Okay. Well, here's your daughter,” I said, tossing the phone back to Daphne.
“Can you believe it Mom? An airplane up in the sky!” Daphne said, pouring herself another glass of champagne and smiling at her fiancé with love and admiration.
Predictably, it was Daphne's sister Becky who uncovered the lie in time to save her sister from marrying a fraud. Although Becky and I had always gotten along fine, she didn't particularly like her younger sister, and was extremely competitive with her. I was fine in Becky's eyes as long as I remained a harmless, financially struggling sidekick to her sister, someone who made her feel better about her equally floundering significant other. But when it suddenly appeared that I had become the kind of man who had the romantic and financial wherewithal to execute such an impressive marriage proposal, she had no choice but to re-cast me as her enemy, find a trowel, and start digging.
I'm told Becky's detective work began simply by the typing of the words: “Sky-writer, Malibu, March 28, Will U Marry Me?” into a Google search. From there the clues poured in and led her to the true proposer, a 52-year-old real estate mogul by the name of William H. Brunt, who on the afternoon of the 28th had taken his 30-year-old actress/model girlfriend, Emma, out surfing at Paradise Cove. As they paddled out to sea, Brunt pointed into the air to show her the words he’d hired a pilot to lace into the sky. After slipping a 2 1/2 caret Tiffany diamond on her wet ring finger, the two of them caught the next wave to shore…while at the same moment, I was on the other side of the Pacific Coast Highway, on a hilltop, riding a wave of my own, which would soon come crashing down on top of me.
Right now, I’m trying to raise enough money to hire a sky-writer to write “PLEASE FORGIVE ME DAPHNE! in the sky above her new apartment complex back home in Pittsburgh.
25 August 2015
Alexander Carver is a produced playwright and screenwriter, as well as a published author. His short stories have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Dark Matter Journal, and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. He writes and resides in Santa Monica, California, where he is currently producing his first feature film "Naked Yoga", based on his play.