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  • The first sign that something is up is when the iPad password stops working. I try the password again, but the void between me and Angry Birds widens, I can’t get in. ‘What’s with the iPad?’ I ask Ben grumpily. ‘Someone has a birthday coming up,’ he says. ‘Someone could see something on my iPad they’re not supposed to see.’ I grumble about on-screen notifications and eat a double stuff Oreo.

    Ben is planning an outing for our photography group, which consists of my sister Anna and her fiance, Serge, Vera and her boyfriend Tim, and Matt. Ben says he found an amazing abandoned location for us to photograph, but he won’t tell us what it is, it’s a surprise. Because he wants us to arrive at the location at sunrise – the best possible light for photography – this will be an overnight trip, and since the location is in far Connecticut, close to his dad’s house, we’ll end up there after our photo shoot is over.

    On the day before our photo shoot, the seven of us drive to La Quinta Inn in New Britain, CT. It’s cheap lodging, but good enough for a few hours of rest.The next morning, we get up at 4am and have coffee at Dunkin Donuts. Everyone seems surprisingly awake and ready for some photography. We get in the car and start driving, and I stare out the window, looking for the abandoned factory or shut-down amusement park I have no doubt we are going to. I’m bouncy with excitement. I’m having fun guessing what great place Ben has picked for us, and in my head decide that since sunrise was so important to this trip, it must be a beach. I’m looking forward to some pretty scenery when we roll into a parking lot outside a college. Huh?

    Then, two trucks drive up, each pulling a large wagon. One of the drivers gets out and greets Ben. Ben shakes his hand and says, “Hi Jim.”

    Even when Jim is standing in front of us with his ‘Hot Air Balloon’ t-shirt, I’m still not comprehending what is happening. Jim asks, “Are you ready?” When it finally dawns on me, my heart starts to thump. Ever since I was little, when I made my parents read and reread Незнайка to me over and over again, with it’s fantastic hot air balloon adventure, I’ve wanted to go up in one. And here we are, watching Jim and his team fill up two enormous balloons, giant fans blowing fire into its cavernous insides. Serge is videotaping the scene. “How do you feel?” he asks, training the lens on me. “I’m so excited,” I say.

    From somewhere nearby, Matt says, “Happy Birthday!” and I glance at Ben, amazed at how incredibly, wonderfully overboard he went for my birthday, which is only a week away. We get into our balloons…Ben and I, with Matt, Anna and Serge in one, Vera and Tim in the other. They take off first, waving to us from the sky.We’re flying over lakes, over a canopy of red-orange trees and perfect rows of white rooftops. The sun fills out the sky above, and the world seems so quite. There’s only us and the soft hum of the balloon, warm wind whispering across our faces. Ben holds my hand, and I whisper into his ear how amazing everything is. I look out into the distance. Ben seems to want to say something, but I can’t tear my eyes away from the horizon, from how magical everything looks. I don’t want to lose a minute.

    “You know why I did this?” Ben asks. There’s a strange catch in his voice. “Because I wanted us to have a day that we’d never forget.” He starts pulling at something inside his jacket, and my mind feels strange and empty, as though the wind had blown everything out. The world stars to swim, and out of the corner of my eye, I see Serge, Matt and Anna holding their cameras up, lenses trained on Ben and I. Anna is crying, and suddenly I understand. As Ben sinks onto his knee, my eyes grow wet and salty and my throat starts to burn. My heart feels like it weighs a million pounds. “Will you marry me?” he asks, voice shaking, and it takes an infinite couple of seconds before I can make my voice work. “Yes!” I say when it finally comes back to me. “Yes of course I’ll marry you.” I fall into his arms and then pull away so he can slip the ring on me. It fits perfectly and sparkles in the sunlight. I didn’t know it was possible to feel this happy.The balloon is ready to land, but apparently, Vera and Tim’s balloon has flown off course and needed to land on a private farm somewhere. After landing in a parking lot, we decide to drive over to meet them at their landing site, and end up on some sort of dairy farm. There is nothing but rolling green hills for miles out, peppered with red barns and tractors and…llamas. There are llamas and cows wandering around, and if the whole day wasn’t already feeling like a scene from a book, it certainly is now. Jim tells us about a tradition in which if a balloon lands on someone’s personal property, it is custom to offer them a bottle of champagne as a thank you. Suddenly there are champagne flutes fizzing with bubbly and plates of crackers and cheese being offered to us. We toast the family who’d given us safe landing, and they toast us. “Congratulations to Ben and Kseniya,” they say and there is the clatter of glasses touching each other, singing into the warm breeze.

    Afterwards, we drive up towards Chaplin. We go out for ice cream at WeLiKit (I get strawberry because it tastes the most like how I am feeling), and spend the rest of the weekend at Ben's dad's house. They have a new puppy that the kids named Fudge, so we take turns cuddling with him. Later, we grab dinner at The Willimanitic Brewing Company, where Ben fills us in on his complex plan, which involved lies, secret phone calls, and covert trips to Brooklyn to tell my parents what he was planning. After dinner, all of us go to play laser tag, and though the team Ben and I are on faces an embarrassing defeat, we somehow still feel like we've won. On our way back to the city, even bumper to bumper traffic can't spoil our mood. In the backseat of Serge's car, we pick out our first dance song and talk about the wedding. "Have you picked a date?" Anna asks, though she's been privy to every conversation we've had thus far on the subject. We smile. This is only the beginning.
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