Jess and Zach’s Love Story
Jess Upton leaned toward the hotel room mirror, inspecting the brown eyeliner stretching across her eyelids. She closed one eye, then the other. The line above her right eye looked thicker than the one above her left. Expelling a heavy breath, she tossed the eyeliner onto the bathroom vanity. “I’ve practiced this a million times. My eyeliner is completely uneven.”
Her maid of honor, Lindsay, leaned against the cluttered vanity and reached for the eyeliner. “It can’t be that bad. Let me see.”
Jess faced Lindsay and closed her eyes. Her maid of honor would surely tell her the truth. Waiting for a response, she bit her bottom lip. “Well, what do you think?”
“It looks even to me. I think you’re being too picky.”
Jess opened her eyes, the tension in her neck loosening. “Okay, good. It’s just … I don’t want my make-up to look too dark. I want it to look natural.”
Lindsay shook her head and shoulder-length curls draped across her pink pearl necklace. She reached for Jess’ shoulders, giving them a gentle squeeze. “Stop being so hard on yourself. It’s your wedding day and you should enjoy every minute.”
“Of course I am.” Grinning, Lindsay let go of Jess’ shoulders. “Zach will think you look beautiful no matter what.”
Jess smiled and turned back to the mirror. Lindsay was probably right about that, too. Even when she didn’t wear make-up, Zach would get that look in his eyes—the kind of look that made her feel pretty, like Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles pretty.
Lindsay dabbed lip-gloss across her mouth, then smacked her lips together. “I’m all done. Do you need anything else before I go put on my dress?”
“No. My mom should be here soon.”
“Perfect. I’ll be back in a little bit.” Lindsay wrapped an arm around Jess’ waist, giving her a side hug. Stepping out of their embrace, she walked out of the bathroom, stopping at the doorway to the room. “Oh, and one more thing.”
Jess turned to face her best friend. “Yeah?”
“Don’t cry and mess up all your make-up before the ceremony begins.”
Jess pressed a hand against her chest, pretending to be offended. “Why would you worry about that? I never cry.”
Lindsay gave her a knowing look.
“All right, all right. I’m a little emotional, although …” She held up her index finger. “I’ve never cried at a wedding.”
Lindsay’s eyebrows raised and disappeared beneath her blonde bangs. “Seriously?”
“Scout’s honor.” Jess pressed her pinky and thumb together, keeping the other three fingers raised in a Boy Scout salute. Zach would be proud of her. He’d been a Boy Scout since he was in fourth grade and still actively participated as an Eagle Scout.
Shaking her head, Lindsay left the hotel room and disappeared into the hallway. The door swooshed shut with a gentle click and silence settled over the room.
Leaning over the vanity, she applied the rest of her make-up—tan eye shadow, brown mascara, and light pink lip-gloss. Finished, she stood tall and turned her head from side to side, staring at her profile. A smile spread across her face. Her hair and make-up had turned out better than she’d imagined, and yet, it looked weird to see a different version of her face with noticeable make-up highlighting her green and blue eyes and without her hair tied back in a ponytail.
But today was not a day for ponytails. Today was special. Today she would make a lifetime commitment to Zach.
Just thinking about him brought a light airy sensation fluttering through her stomach. Without a doubt, Zach was the perfect man for her. It seemed cliché to think so, but their personalities fit together like two puzzle pieces. He was the chopsticks to her sushi, the water to her plants, and the toy mouse for her cats.
He was molded exactly for her.
Jess blinked back the moisture in her eyes. Who was she kidding? Though she’d never cried at a wedding, she cried at everything else—pet adoption commercials, great movie endings, her student’s accomplishments. How could she possibly hold back tears on her own wedding day?
She grabbed a tissue from the Kleenex box and dabbed at her eyes. Somehow, she’d have to hold it together for just a few more hours.
A light knock rapped on the door. She walked out of the bathroom and opened it, a big smile spreading across her face as Mom wrapped her in a hug. “Happy wedding day, darling.”
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me, too.” Mom stepped out of their embrace and rubbed her palms together. “Let’s get you in that beautiful dress. Where is it?”
“It’s in the closet.”
Jess watched as her mom took the lacey white dress out of the closet, slowly slid it off the hanger, and unzipped it.
Mom raised the dress and held it above Jess’ head like a halo.
Jess’ arms shot into the air. “Watch out for my hair. The bobby pins feel tight, but I wouldn’t want to loosen the up-do.” Her soft voice was muffled as Mom carefully slid the dress over her arms and head.
“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.” Mom kneeled down on the carpet, lowering the dress to Jess’ calves. She gently pulled at the top layer of lace until it lay evenly across the silky petticoat.
Bending forward, Jess pointed at a rusty-orange sash curled next to her bare feet. “Will you tie a bow in the back?” She turned around as Mom reached for the handmade sash and wrapped her arms around Jess’ waist.
With quick, fluid movements, Mom tied the bow and gave it a firm tug. “All done.”
Pressing a hand to her stomach, Jess held her breath and turned toward the long, rectangular mirror attached to the wall. She twisted from side to side and bit her bottom lip, her earlier confidence wavering. What would Zach think? Would he like her hair, her make-up, and her dress? After all, all this fuss over her appearance was just for him.
Zach Pederson stood beneath the open arch of the Iowa State Campanile clock tower. On one side of the tower, the campus event coordinators hustled to arrange fifty white seats on the plush green grass. On the other side, the string quartet tuned their instruments to the Turtle’s song, “So Happy Together.” The popular beat floated across central campus and students stopped to stare in his direction.
Heat flamed beneath his cheeks. He ran a hand over his smooth, bald head and leaned against the yellow brick clock tower. This was the perfect place to get married. In 1985, Edgar Stanton lost his wife, Margaret, the first women to be the Dean of Students. In honor of her memory, Edgar wanted to establish a monument on campus for students to remember her. Over the years, the love story had touched the hearts of many students who had made the monument part of a campus tradition—a student officially becomes an Iowa Stater when he/she is kissed under the Campanile at midnight.
Zach slid his hands inside the pockets of his khakis. Months after he’d met Jess, he’d taken her campaniling. Even then, he’d known there was something special about her. He could still remember Jess’ giddy excitement as she stood beneath the clock tower, her face inches away from his. That kiss had officially made them Iowa Staters.
“Jess is on her way.” The photographer rushed in front of him, her big black camera swinging from her neck. She kneeled down on the pavement and lifted the camera to her eye. Clicking once, she glanced at the image and looked up at Zach. “Keep your back turned and move in the middle, so I can get a better angle to capture the first look.”
He walked into the sunlight and neatly rolled up the sleeves on his white dress shirt. Thankfully, they’d decided to take pictures before the ceremony. It was abnormally warm for fall and he didn’t want to sweat through his clothes. “Can you see Jess yet?”
The photographer nodded. “Yes, she’s walking toward us right now. Close your eyes.” Click, click click.
Light footsteps walked up behind him as small, warm hands covered his eyes and the scent of Jess’ floral perfume grew stronger. “Hey you.” She dropped her hands and he turned around, opening his eyes.
His breath caught in his throat as he soaked in her appearance—her black silky hair pinned in an up-do at the nape of her neck, the white lacey dress, the handmade rusty orange sash—Jess had already divulged several clues about her wedding attire, so none of it was a surprise. She couldn’t keep a secret when she was excited about something. But even with the clues, he never could’ve imagined just how lovely she would look. She was absolutely beautiful, and yet she was still her cute, girlish self.
Grinning, Zach slid his hands around her waist. “You’re stunning. Like an elegant model from the 1950s or 60s.”
Her cheeks turned crimson as she met his gaze and wrapped her arms around his neck. “And you look very hand—”
His mouth cut off her words as he lifted her off the ground, pulling her against his chest. He kissed her again and again as a flood of emotions surged through his pounding heart. This amazing person was about to be his wife. Forever. He couldn’t imagine a more loving, fun, and intelligent woman than Jess. She was the person who took him out of his comfort zone, convincing him to move from Iowa to California without the security of a job. The girlfriend who wanted to spend a date night exploring the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The fiancée who woke him out of bed one morning to go hiking in Tahoe.
Setting Jess back on the ground, Zach kept his hands on her hips and leaned back to study her graceful profile. Sunlight glistened across her rosy cheeks. “Can you believe we’re getting married today?”
She shook her head. “I’ve been planning this day ever since I was a little girl. It seems surreal.”
“The fact that the day is finally here is surreal. The fact that you’ve been planning it for years is definitely not surreal.”
“That’s what I meant.” She gave him a gentle push. “And if I didn’t make plans for us, we’d be sitting in our house everyday, playing with Theo and Ellie.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad. I could cuddle with them watching Back to the Future while he purrs on my lap.”
“Case and point.” She smiled. “What would you do without me?”
He kissed her forehead. “The better question is, what would you do without me?”
She put a finger to her lips, pretending to think. “Well, I know one thing. People couldn’t call me a cradle robber anymore.”
He rolled his eyes. “Very funny. I think people stopped calling you that after I turned twenty-one.” When he’d first met Jess, he was in college and she was in her first year of teaching. “Actually, in all seriousness, I have no idea what I would do without you. That’s why proposing to you was the best decision of my life.”
Click, click, click. The photographer cleared her throat. “Sorry to interrupt, but …”
Heat flushed beneath his cheeks as he turned in the photographer’s direction. He’d almost forgotten she was here.
The woman pointed at her watch. “We’re running behind. We need to start taking the other pictures.”
Zach reached for Jess’ hand, entwining their fingers. “Let’s get this party started.”
Standing on her tiptoes, Jess peered at the parking lot across the street from the Campanile. The shiny red Corvette was sandwiched between a green Jeep Cherokee and a blue CRV. She held up her arm and waved to get Dad’s attention. The 1964 Corvette reversed out its hiding spot and slowly pulled out onto the street.
She set a hand against her forehead to diminish the glare of the sun and turned in a circle, scanning the area one more time. Zach was nowhere in sight. She expelled a relieved breath. Ryan must have picked him up by now. Zach had no idea that she planned on arriving to the ceremony in Dad’s Corvette.
She jumped up and down as Dad pulled up to the curb. Getting out of his vehicle, he walked around the back, stepping over the empty cans attached to the bumper and the Just Married sign.
“Hey kiddo.” Dad ran a hand through his gray-speckled hair and gave her a tight smile.
Her stomach lurched. His forced smile wasn’t a good sign. “What’s wrong?”
Stopping beside her, Dad leaned over and lifted the bottom of his navy blue khakis, exposing black tennis shoes with neon shoestrings. “I’m really sorry, but I forgot my dress shoes at home.”
Jess shrugged and gave Dad an affectionate look as she pointed at the tan KEDS on her feet. “That’s okay. I’m wearing my tennis shoes, too.”
Below his mustache, Dad’s lips curled into a grin and he put a hand over his chest. “Good, I’m relieved. I didn’t want you to fire me.”
“I would never do that. You could walk me down the aisle in sweats and I’d still be happy.”
“Really? Why didn’t you tell me that before?”
“Because …” She adjusted his brightly colored tie, centering it above the buttons on his blue shirt. “You look very handsome in your dress clothes.”
“Thank you.” Behind his gold-rimmed glasses, Dad’s eyes lit with excitement as he opened the passenger door. “Ready to go?”
Nodding, she lifted her dress and slid across the plush leather seat. As Dad walked back to the driver’s side and hopped inside, she set the yellow and purple bouquet on her lap and clutched her uneasy stomach, taking deep, steady breaths.
Now that she was in the vehicle, reality sunk in like an anchor on the ocean floor. The ceremony was about to begin. Hopefully, everything went according to plan and she didn’t mess anything up. So many things could go wrong. She could start crying and mess up all her make-up, or trip and fall, face planting into the ground. Her deodorant could wear off and pit stains could come through her dress. A bead of sweat trickled down the back of her neck and she wiped it away.
Dad shifted the car into low gear and merged onto the crowded street. “Cory is going to text me when all the guests have been seated. So I thought we’d drive around until then. Sound good?”
“Yes.” Jess rolled down the window, letting in the fresh, fall air. She took another breath, exhaling slowly.
He glanced in her direction. “Are you nervous?”
“Maybe just a little.”
“Oh,” he said in a quiet tone.
She winked at him. “Luckily, Zach is one of the two greatest men I know.”
Dad reached over the stick shift and patted her arm. “Well then …” He paused for a moment, his lips trembling as he blinked back tears.
A grin tugged at her lips. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Surely, there had to be an emotional gene in her family. No way would her parents be able to make it through the ceremony without crying. Maybe if she didn’t look at them, she’d be able to hold back the floodgates.
Turning away from Dad, she looked out the window as they passed by the familiar old-brick buildings around campus. She let memories from college calm her nerves—Barton Dorm, where she lived her freshman and sophomore year, the Kappa Sigma house, where she met Zach at a fraternity party, Jack Trice Stadium, where she played cymbals with the Iowa State band. College already felt like a lifetime ago. Five years had passed by so quickly, especially after she’d met Zach. Life had been a whirlwind since then—dating long distance, moving to California, renting a house together.
Dad’s phone buzzed. He reached for his phone and glanced down at the screen to view the text. “It’s from Cory. All the guests have been seated.”
Her heart pounded in her chest. Dad turned onto Union Drive, stopping at a light. A white minivan pulled up behind them. In the side mirror, Jess caught a glance at the driver, who was leaning over his steering wheel, staring at the Just Married sign on the back of the car. The light turned green and the man drove past, giving them a curious look before honking his horn.
Dad chuckled. “That guy probably thinks you’re marrying an old geezer.”
Jess gave a nervous laugh as they neared the Campanile. Dad turned onto the sidewalk, leading toward the center of campus. With shaky hands, she twisted her bouquet. Driving on the sidewalk was completely against campus rules. Hopefully, the event coordinator wouldn’t be too angry. But it was too late to turn back now. A couple of weeks ago, Dad had made the suggestion and she couldn’t say no. The thought of surprising Zach seemed like a great way to start their life together.
The Corvette crawled down the sidewalk and Dad pressed his palm into the middle of the wheel. She waited to hear the horn—the signal for everyone to turn and see them. Nothing happened. Dad pressed the horn again. No sound. Frowning, he turned to look at Jess. “It’s not working. I probably should’ve checked to make sure it worked.”
“No big deal.” She extended her arm out the open window, waving. Someone had to notice them by now. Nobody turned around. Her heartbeat picked up speed. She waved her hand in a frenetic motion.
Someone seated turned around and pointed at them, waving back. More faces turned in their direction.
The Corvette reached a bend in the sidewalk and the ISU event coordinator stood on the path with her mouth open. As the car drove near, she stood frozen in place, her eyes narrowing.
Jess exchanged a nervous look with Dad. If the lady didn’t move, they couldn’t go any farther. With her lips pressed together, the coordinator finally moved and Dad stopped the Corvette directly behind the seated guests. Jess quickly switched into her heels and let out an excited squeal.
Dad rushed to open the car door and she reached for his firm hand. All eyes stared in her direction as she stepped out of the vehicle. Swallowing hard, she resisted the urge to stare at the ground. She looped her arm around Dad’s, her heels sinking into the grass as they slowly walked down the aisle.
Beneath the clock tower, Katie stood behind a microphone. Her soft, angelic voice floated through the air. Jess smiled at her sister, then directed her gaze to Zach. He stood stick still, biting a trembling lip as he stared at his feet. She kept looking at him, waiting for him to meet her gaze. When he did, he gave her a shaky smile.
The full magnitude of the moment hit her like a strong wind. Here she was wearing the most beautiful dress she’d ever owned, walking toward Zach, seeing all her friends and family gathered in one place. Her heart seemed to expand in her ribs, leaving little room for her lungs to breathe. Tears welled up in her eyes. She blinked. Not now. Hold it together. Just a little bit longer.
Katie’s voice trembled, then faltered off. Jess glanced at her sister. Katie gripped the microphone while tears streamed down her cheeks. Jess smiled. She wasn’t the only daughter who had been given the emotional gene.
In the front row, Mom’s reassuring voice rose above the quartet’s background music. “It’s okay, Katie. Put the microphone down.”
Jess’ heart swelled with appreciation. Thank goodness for Mom. Not only for reassuring Katie, but also for helping plan the wedding. Mom had worked so hard to make sure every detail was taken care of—the decorations, the catering, the flowers. Planning an Iowa wedding from California would’ve been a disaster if it hadn’t been for her.
Katie walked to her seat and the quartet finished playing as the officiant took Katie’s spot behind the microphone. Wiping a bead of sweat from his brow, Ryan’s voice came out loud and clear. “As you all know, today is September 26, 2015. There is no better year for this couple to get married. It’s the year that Back to the Future II takes place. According to the movie, by 2015 drones and flat screen TV’s should be invented, and they are.”
He pointed to the sky and frowned. “But not all of the movie’s predictions came true. Unfortunately, we still don’t have hover boards or flying cars.”
Pressing her thumb and middle finger together, Jess snapped her fingers. “Oh darn.”
Ryan laughed. “Not all predictions can come true, but if I could make one prediction I feel very certain of, it would be that Zach and Jess will be married until the end of their days.”
Jess smiled. What a perfect prediction. Without a doubt, she would do everything she could to make it come true and so would Zach. Marriage would not always be easy, but it was a commitment she was willing to make if meant she could experience a lifetime with her best friend.
Toward the end of the ceremony, Zach’s shoulders loosened. It was almost over and going better than he’d hoped. Not too long ago, Ryan had become ordained so he could officiate the wedding. Just yesterday, his friend admitted that he still hadn’t finished writing the ceremony. If Jess knew, she’d want to kill Ryan. Thankfully, his friend worked well under pressure.
Pulling a piece of paper out of his vest, Ryan handed it to Jess and addressed the crowd. “Zach and Jess are now going to exchange their vows.”
Zach gave Jess a reassuring smile as she unfolded the piece of paper with shaky hands. Taking a deep breath, she looked up at him. “When I sat down to write this, I wanted to talk about all the things I love about you. But I’m pretty sure some of us want to eat cake sometime today, so let me cut to the chase.”
Zach chuckled. Leave it to Jess to start off her vows with humor. He had no doubt she took this commitment seriously, but she probably wanted everyone to enjoy this moment.
She glanced down at the paper. “I promise to never ever watch an episode of The Goldbergs without you. I promise to insist on making you pancakes, then mess up and completely disfigure the first five, before producing three edible ones that actually look like pancakes.”
A smile tugged at his lips. After they first moved in together, Jess had wanted to make him breakfast. He’d told her it wasn’t a big deal, he didn’t normally eat much in the morning. But she slipped on an apron anyway and before long, he could hear “Dang it” and “Crap” quietly coming from the kitchen. He walked in to see a stack of misshapen pancakes piled on a plate. He told her he didn’t mind, but she insisted on making more until they were perfectly round.
Jess looked up from the paper, her voice becoming steadier. “I promise to listen to your advice and sometimes take it. I promise not to keep score, even though I’m probably winning.”
Zach shook his head. He’d lose every time if it meant making her happy.
“I promise to share a life of unexpected & strange adventures, and I promise to admire your ability to remember vast amounts of random and mostly useless information.
But most of all, I promise to love you tirelessly through the incredible times and through the merely fabulous times, regardless of the fact that you passionately argued with me about the pronunciation of the word ‘superfluous, insisting that that it was super-flew-us to the point where you bet me and lost horribly.” She paused and lifted her index finger. “Oh, and I promise to never bring that up again.”
“Uh-huh, sure,” he said quietly.
She folded the paper and handed it back to Ryan, then looked at Zach. “I’ll end my vows on this note. It’s a great day to be alive, to be a Cyclone, and to be your wife.”
His heart pounded in his chest. Jess had clearly put a lot of thought into her vows. She’d made them unique and special, sharing some of her favorite moments. Hopefully, his would measure up to hers.
Ryan gave him a small slip of paper. “Your turn, buddy.”
Zach sucked in a breath. “I haven’t written these yet, so I am just going to wing it …”
Jess’ mouth fell open.
He grinned. “Just kidding.”
She sent him a playful glare as he began. “I promise to continue to take you to the drive-in and curl up underneath a blanket in my pickup while both of us cry during Inside Out. I promise to love and support you, especially when you become feisty.”
Pausing, he looked up and studied Jess’ face, mesmerized by the reflection of sunlight on her black silky hair. “I promise to keep having fun and to keep laughing with you. I promise to raise another 1, or 2, or 7 cats with you.”
She formed a fist and pulled it back beside her waist. “Yes!”
The guests laughed.
“I promise to keep setting goals with you, and to never settle as a good enough spouse. I promise that, for you, I will keep trying to improve as a spouse.” Jess deserved that much from him.
“I promise to get much better at cooking steaks. I promise to eventually take you to Spain.” He slipped the paper into his pocket and reached for her hand, lacing their fingers together. “And lastly, I promise to take care of you and me so that we may grow really, really old together.”
Ryan extended his arms to the side. “Zach and Jess, with the power invested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” He turned to Zach. “You may kiss the bride.”
Zach took a step forward and wrapped his arms around Jess’ waist. His heart beat wildly as he pressed his lips against hers. No ring or ceremony could change how he already felt, but kissing Jess as his wife for the very first time was like unwrapping the biggest present at Christmas.
Friends and family rose from their seats, clapping. As their applause grew louder, Jess pulled back, smiling. “I’ll be right back.” Turning away, she dashed to the front aisle.
Zach tilted his head to the side. What was she doing?
Jess stopped in front of her dad, leaned down, and whispered in his ear. He pulled something out of his pocket, sending a shiny, reflective light in Zach’s direction.
Turning around, Jess walked back, holding a set of shiny silver keys. “Guess how we’re getting out of here?”
His eyes grew wide. “In the Corvette?”
Jess nodded. “Let’s go.” He followed her down the aisle as they ran toward the classic car and hopped inside. Jess tossed her bouquet into his lap, traded her heels for tennis shoes, and turned the keys in the ignition. As the car purred to life, Zach laughed. “You know, this is very fitting. You drive the car while I hold the flowers.”
“I knew you wouldn’t be surprised.” A grin stretched across her face. “But I figured this would be the perfect way to start our life together.”