I didn’t think I’d be this nervous waiting for someone to not propose to me.
I’d volunteered to try a Valentine’s Day proposal package assembled by the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, and, like any sane unwed woman, I decided I’d bring my boyfriend along. I thought it’d be kind of a funny twist on the whole experience: what’s it like to basically spend a night in a rom-com—rose petals, champagne, side-by-side massage tables, an entire evening constructed around the rising crescendo toward a mutual agreement on matrimony—when you’re not trying to get engaged?
But first, I had to pitch the idea to him. As two adults in a committed relationship, the idea of marriage isn’t foreign, but telling a straight, un-married man that you want to do something tailored specifically around getting engaged is, well, a bit cringe-inducing for the both of you. Even if you are explicit, stringent, aggressively emphatic about the idea that you do not, under any circumstances, expect a proposal out of this whole thing. At all. No way. It’s just for a story.
Even still, when we showed up, the whole thing had an frisson of expectation coursing through the night like blood through an an artery. There we were, about to board a Ferris wheel soaring over the Potomac reflecting the black night above us, no chance of a ring hidden in a pocket or a heartfelt monologue, but still—nerves.
I consider myself a pretty chill person when it comes to the idea of marriage. My philosophy tends to be it’ll happen when it happens, but as a woman in her late 20s, I’m forced to think about the institution on a weekly basis. Someone posts about their engagement on social media, I get a save-the-date in the mail, an ad for an engagement ring pops up on my Instagram, and each time I find myself asking, am I actually that chill about all this? Is there, somewhere, hidden deep in the spirals of my DNA, a tiny, ancient part of me that really, really cares about all this romantic shit?
All this to say, my mind was in a funky place when we showed up. We started the night with a portion of the proposal package at the Capital Wheel called, appropriately, “Love Is in the Air,” which kicked off with us being herded to have our photo taken in front of a green screen, not unlike an awkward couple at prom or two retirees before their black-tie cruise ship dinner.
Once we were inside one of the wheel’s heated gondolas, alone and staring at each other over a mini bottle of champagne, we couldn’t help but laugh. I mean, what the hell were we doing? My boyfriend decided it was hilarious and apropos to get the in-cabin Amazon Alexa to play Burt Bacharach at full blast, and his jazzy croons filled our little bubble of love as we rotated over National Harbor, the lights from the highway streaming as a nearby Potbelly’s sign glowed in the dark.
Of course, there was no denying a strong undercurrent of schmaltz to the moment—we were drinking champagne in a Ferris wheel, for god’s sake—but the whole thing was also peaceful in the way taking an overnight international flight is peaceful. If you were at home, you’d be cleaning or cooking or working, but you’re not, you’re here on a giant circle wheeling toward matrimony, and instead you lean your head back against the seat, the night outside your window, and tell yourself that, screw it, you’ll do it all when you land.
The second portion of the night included the subtly monikered “Serenity Soulmate Proposal Package,” an after-hours experience at the Gaylord’s spa that consists of all the things you’d include when explaining the term “romantic” to an alien (chocolates, champagne, massages, candles, hearts—so many hearts! Hearts on the check-in desk, hearts on the product shelves, hearts on the manager’s skirt, all the hearts!)
No doubt, the evening was turning out to be a lovely, out-of-the-norm experience, but it was also downright ooey-gooey in its cheesiness. Sure, who doesn’t mind champagne and roses, bougie spa treatments and chocolate? Shit, even Ferris wheels aren’t that bad. But combine the whole shebang together, and you have to admit—we’re verging strongly on Hallmark Channel territory here, no?
(A moment for this aside: I have never seen my boyfriend so uncomfortable as I have in the confines of a spa, a land as foreign to him as a newly discovered dwarf planet. His self-care routine incorporates such tenets as shaving and nail-clipping, so to see him try to look normal while perched on a chaise lounge or flip-flopping about in his little spa shoes wearing only a robe is an image I will gleefully replay on the insides of my eyeballs until the day I die. At one point, he didn’t know what to do with himself, so he poured some cucumber water and pretended to consider the recipe (Hmm, this is good, wonder what’s in it?) and then asked me if he could stream a basketball game on his phone and place it on the floor under the massage table’s face-hole.)
Our treatment room was bigger and nicer than my apartment, or even my apartment’s lobby. Two massage tables lay side by side overlooking a wall of windows framing the Potomac and the Ferris wheel lights; in the background played music that sounded like the soundtrack to a video game about elves. On the beds, a row of rose petals led to a single long-stemmed rose. I almost expected Chris Harrison from the The Bachelor to pop out, or at the very least a mariachi band to start playing outside.
Neither of us had ever done a couple’s massage before. What we were supposed to do during it? Quiz each other on state capitals? Hold hands and stare deeply into each other’s souls? Thankfully, none of the above occurred because, as is our de facto state, we both fell into a semi-catatonic stupor as soon as the massages started. The whole thing (what I can remember, at least) was great, thanks in large part to my massage therapist Dan, who has hands like a thumb war champion.
Post-treatment by Dan’s thumbs, we were led to a dimmed sitting room filled with a truly embarassing spread of cheese, chocolate, and champagne. I think this is the part when normal people would celebrate their engagement, but since we are not normal and there was no engagement, Dan and his thumbs seemed a little flummoxed. “Congrats on your…massage!” he exclaimed, ushering us in. At this point, the spa was closed for the evening, so it was just us—well, just us, Dan, his thumbs, and about another ten pounds of rose petals strewed around the floor.
We were truly the picture of romance: “I’m about to get up in this cheese,” my boyfriend said, popping out his Invisalign retainers and slipping them into the pocket of his robe. Meanwhile, I wrestled with the bottle of Veuve Clicquot, wondering if we could pour the rest of the champagne into water bottles before we left (we had to drive and it seems very un-ecofriendly to let a $50 bottle of alcohol go to waste, okay??).
As we singlehandedly laid siege to a brick of brie, we debated whether folks doing this package proposed before or after the massage portion. I said before, as then you could just relax and hang out, but my boyfriend said after, because he thought it would be awkward to have such an emotional moment then strip down to get rubbed by strangers, which, fair point. Outside the window, we could see a silent disco happening in one of the hotel’s ballrooms.
In either case, we both agreed that, while this isn’t how we’d propose to someone, it was good for us to do something different. Like most couples who have been together for a while, we have a tendency to hunker down, to stick to our routine. And maybe doing something so outside of our comfort zone, something so, well, commercially romantic, wasn’t a bad thing.
I’ve never been much of a roses-and-chocolates-and-champagne kind of person, and we’ve never been that kind of a couple, either. But, when you’re beamed down directly in a vortex of romance, sometimes the actual romance strikes you in an unusual moment. Maybe romance is just actually being forced to recognize your partner in a different light: their face staring out of a window onto a river a hundred feet below, a meandering conversation in an empty room, them waddling shyly in a pair of loud plastic sandals.
The magic didn’t last long post-departure. It was only a few minutes before we were arguing on the highway, debating whether or not we should stop for Chipotle. But, then again, maybe that’s its own form of romance, too.