Essay: How a Pandemic, Botched Botox, and a Hangover Made for an Interesting Proposal

A move to a family condo in Irvine sets a meaningful stage for this couple’s engagement.
Illustration by Hannah Agosta

My boyfriend, Sam, and I were planning to move from our Costa Mesa apartment to my aunt’s Irvine condo in March of last year. My aunt was moving after 31 years. Then COVID-19 stalled everything. Each day in quarantine, our 700-square-foot apartment felt smaller and smaller—we would only leave to walk our dog around the block or pick up takeout. The stress and uncertainty of the pandemic made my TMJ flare. I would clench my jaw all day and night, causing migraines, jaw pain, and even ear pain. I learned it can also cause the muscles on the sides of your face to bulk up over the years. I looked at photos and realized this had been the case for me. I decided to have Botox injected into those overworked muscles to hopefully calm down the pain and slim my face.

I booked an appointment with a nurse at a plastic surgeon’s office who claimed to have done the procedure many times. She injected 30 units of Botox into both sides of my face. Within a week, one side of my smile wouldn’t lift. Within two weeks, my muscles began to atrophy, and my cheeks became hollow. The nurse later admitted I was only the 10th person she had done this procedure on.

I couldn’t look at myself in photos without analyzing my face. I’d send pictures to friends and family to ask how bad it was. Sam heard me complain about it nonstop and was extremely loving and supportive throughout the whole thing. Having discussed marriage before, I begged him to hold off on any proposal plans he might have, since I wouldn’t be able to smile properly for photos.

“It’ll happen when it happens,” he’d say.

July came and my aunt was able to move. Now we could get into the nearly 1,100-square-foot, two-story, two-bedroom condo that had been in my family for decades.

My mom originally purchased it in 1986. At the time, she was dating a guy who made plans to take her to dinner at a Newport Beach restaurant, Cano’s, now the location for A’maree’s. My mom had a cold that night and was hesitant to go, but he convinced her otherwise. He had reserved a table overlooking the harbor, which is where he got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. Soon after, my parents moved into the condo together.

On the day of their wedding in 1988, Mom got ready at that condo: She slipped on her wedding dress, walked down the stairs, and went outside where she got into a vintage Bentley with my grandmother. They drove to a chapel in San Juan Capistrano. Next month marks my parents’ 33rd wedding anniversary.

My mom sold the condo to my aunt in 1989. When I was a child, my family spent an entire summer living there as we moved homes. My sister and I slept downstairs each night and would stay up late talking about what we hoped our futures would look like. I said I would live there with my many dogs and husband.

While I was happy Sam and I were moving to my family’s condo, I was still obsessing over how much my face had changed, compounded by the stress of the pandemic and moving. Regardless, we decided to celebrate our new home with close friends at a nearby park. I felt justified indulging in more than a few hard kombuchas. Of course, I got a hangover.

During breakfast the next day, Sam suggested we bike to the lake that evening. I said I’d rather go at that very moment since I wasn’t sure how I’d feel later, but he insisted we wait since he had errands to run. Around 4 p.m., we pulled our bikes out. I had thrown my hair up in a bun, pulled on a white T-shirt that probably needed to be washed, a pair of cut-off denim shorts, and well-worn slides.

“Let’s go to the right,” Sam said.

“If we go left, it’s much quicker,” I explained.

“Chelsea, please just trust me; let’s go this way,” he replied as he started to bike off to the right.

Stubborn and still nauseous from the hangover, I biked left as fast as my legs would take me to beat him to the corner and prove my point. I stood there out of breath until he caught up with me only a few seconds later.

When we arrived at the lake, there was an older couple reading, a man lying on the grass looking at his phone, and a young woman sitting on the bench, the coveted lakeside spot, clipping her toenails. We stood off to the side awkwardly until the woman left and we took her place.

“The bike ride was so short. Let’s keep going,” I said.

“I’m really just enjoying this view,” he said.

We sat there silently for a few minutes, watching geese swim by.

“I love you so much, Chelsea,” he continued.

“I’d love you more if we could keep biking,” I mumbled, headache setting in.

He brushed past my rude remark and explained how much I meant to him and how everything that led to us meeting was fate. In high school, he moved from Downey and became neighbors with one of my best friends. He transferred into my photography class two weeks after the semester started. Everything lined up, and we’d been together ever since. He then reached over to his tote bag and pulled out a small box. I blurted out, “I knew it!” before he got on one knee, opened the box to reveal the ring we had designed together, and asked me to marry him. I put on the ring and hugged and kissed him as we took countless photos in front of the lake—all while I consciously hid my lopsided smile.

“Wait … did you officially say yes?” he joked.

As we biked home, I listed everyone we needed to call and declared we were going for sushi to celebrate. Sam remained quiet. When we pulled up to our patio, he opened the gate to reveal my family and our friends, yelling, “Surprise!” I teared up and gave everyone hugs, admiring all the decorations they had hung for us.

“Clearly it was a surprise for Chelsea,” my mom joked, and I looked down at my outfit. I quickly changed into a dress and ran back downstairs to eat dinner with everyone.

“Chelsea just couldn’t let everything happen,” Sam laughed as he explained how I almost undid each step of his proposal.

He had invited our friends over that Saturday to get me to believe that it would be the only day anything exciting happened that weekend—not anticipating the hangover. He had a friend drive up from the desert to hide and take candid photos of the proposal, which was why we had to go to the lake and sit on the bench in the evening. Our friends and family were parked along the “shorter route” that I biked through like a maniac.

He also decided that waiting to propose until we moved into the condo would be more meaningful to me because it’s where my parents had been engaged. I smiled one big uneven smile and told him I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of our lives together. It wasn’t until after we booked our venue that I realized Sam and I will get married in the same month and in the same city as my parents—and I’ll walk down the same stairs my mom did in my wedding dress.

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