There was dust floating in the afternoon sunlight that hung around a small stack of cardboard boxes. The walls of the apartment were blank canvases, only a few last pieces of paper lay on the ground. Howard was on his knees next to an open box sorting it out into two boxes – one to keep and one to discard. There was no need for old receipts, pay slips or a forgotten issue of American Scientist: they could go in the recycling box. The next piece of paper made him pause. He picked it up and his heart sank.
"This document officially recognises the application for the dissolution of marriage between Messrs. Rajesh Koothrapali and Howard Wolowitz, dated this the 5th of February, 2011."
It felt so fresh, but at the same time seemed so far away. Not even two years ago...
“No,” Howard sighed into his cell phone, “We’re still at the airport.”
“Don’t yell at me, Howard,” Sheldon said. “If you were more reliable, I wouldn’t have to…”
“Put Leonard on the phone, please?” Howard said with false levity.
“Hey, Howard,” Leonard greeted him.
“I’m going to hang up now. When I get his stupid souvenir, I’ll call.”
“Sounds good. Have a safe flight.”
Howard didn’t even say goodbye.
"Can we stop by the bookstore before security?" Raj asked.
Howard rolled his eyes. They'd been in the airport for barely ten minutes.
"Oh, Raj, come on!" he whined. "Can't we just get to the gate so I can take off this stupid parka and turn off my cell phone so Sheldon doesn’t call me about his yak fur again?"
“It’s not yak fur, it’s musk ox wool,” Raj corrected.
The Conference on Near-Earth-Sized Planets was too good an opportunity to pass up, but they didn't quite understand why anyone would want to hold it in Canada, in February. Thankfully they still had the essentials from their Arctic expedition, which unfortunately wouldn't fit in their luggage. Unfortunately, they had a souvenir request from Sheldon.
"But Oprah just released her new Book Club pick!" Raj said.
"Seriously? You've already got enough Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks in your bag to crash the plane."
"But I don't want to finish everything and have nothing to read."
"It's a four hour flight!"
"Exactly! What if I get bored?"
"Sleep. That's what I'm planning on doing." Howard yawned. "Who books flights at six a.m., anyway?"
“Air Canada flight 569 to Calgary is now boarding at Gate B17…”
"Look, there it is!"
Howard hadn't even noticed the bookstore by the time Raj had already grabbed a copy of the book.
"Lolita?!" gasped Howard. "That's more likely to be on my reading list..."
"It's a classic work of literature and a twist on the typical coming-of-age story."
Howard took the book. "Did Oprah tell you to say that?"
"It blows open a new understanding of the world. At least, that's what it says on the website."
"This is why I love you," Howard said, smiling and shaking his head as he approached the cashier, digging awkwardly through his oversized jacket to look for his wallet. "Let me get it for you, I know how disappointed you get when you buy a book you don't end up liking."
Raj thanked him, beaming, and the clerk eyed them strangely in the warm airport as they left.
Security had been a hassle, with the guards eyeing up Raj and deciding he needed additional questioning, and with their telescopic equipment being peered at inexpertly, and, most annoying of all for the airport employees, their coats jamming up the scanning machines.
After sweating their way onto the miniature airplane and taking up most of the space in the compartments above, behind and in front of them, Howard did as he promised and promptly fell asleep on Raj's shoulder. He woke up just a bit later to a steward offering him refreshments, and Raj with his eyes glued to the pages of Lolita.
"So," he ventured, sipping boxed orange juice from a plastic glass, "do you like it?"
"It's not what I was expecting," replied Raj without taking his eyes from the page.
Howard smiled and squeezed Raj’s thigh. Raj jumped, but kept reading. Howard shook his head and looked out the window. The plane was high above the cloud cover, like they were sailing on an ocean of cotton candy. Howard dozed off in the warmth.
When he woke up again, Raj was pouring over another book and munching on Howard’s snack.
“Gave up on Nabokov?”
“No,” he said nonchalantly, “finished it.”
“How do you do that?” Howard mused aloud.
“Did you know,” Raj said oblivious to Howard’s question, “that there aren’t any polar bears in Alberta?”
Raj continued, with his newly acquired trivia. “Because polar bears need to live within one hundred kilometres of open water. There also aren’t any rats. They’re kept out by the Rat Patrol at the Saskatchewan border.”
“What the heck are you reading?”
“The Lonely Planet’s Guide to Canada,” Raj explained. He raised the book to show its cover, which didn’t stop him from reading even for a moment. “Alberta also has some of the best beef in the world!”
“You’ll feel right at home,” Howard smiled at him.
“Also,” Raj continued like a child with too many facts and too little breath, “the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, where we’re staying, used to be owned by Canadian Pacific Railway, which built the luxury hotels at major points along the original railway line. Lady Agnes Macdonald, the wife of the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, tied herself to the cattle catcher and rode 1,000 miles through the Rocky Mountains that way. Hmm, I wonder if those are different from the Rockies in Philadelphia… “
Howard stifled a laugh, but Raj caught him.
“What?” he whined.
“Nothing, just that you’re the cutest thing in the galaxy,” said Howard, smiling as he leaned in for a kiss. Raj moved away, his eyes darting around the cabin.
“What is it?” Howard asked.
“Not on the plane!” Raj protested.
“God, can’t I ever just give you a kiss without checking who’s looking?” Howard huffed. “Besides,” he added, “it’s not like the stewards haven’t seen it all before.”
“I think you mean heterosexist.”
“Whatever. We’ve talked about this before.”
Howard sighed. “I know.”
“But on the plus side,” Raj added cheerfully, “the Lonely Planet says…”
Howard listened to Raj rattle off a few more facts in his half-Valley Girl, half-New Dehli lilt.
“I love you so much,” he told Raj when he took a breath between paragraphs.
Raj looked up, and Howard quickly gave him a kiss. Raj turned a shade of burgundy and furrowed his forehead so tightly that his eyebrows almost met. Howard started counting down out loud from ten.
“What are you doing?
“Just proving that the world hasn’t ended…”
Raj tried to pout, but Howard was batting his eyelashes at him with mock-innocence, so it ended in a smile. He went back to his book as Howard closed his eyes, put the thin pillow behind his head, and pulled his blanket up to his neck.
It seemed like no time at all before the steward came around to check that Howard had his seatbelt on and chair up for landing, and soon they were popping their ears as their plane touched down. Raj leaned over Howard and looked out the window at the snow-covered ground that reflected sunshine like a blanket of diamonds.
“The weather looks so nice!”
Just then the intercom came on.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I’d like to welcome you to Calgary, where it’s a balmy minus 4 degrees Celsius… oh, no, sorry folks, that’s Fahrenheit. It looks to be a cool minus 20 Celsius…”
Howard and Raj exchanged stupefied looks, unable to understand how it could be so sunny and so cold at the same time.
“He’s joking, right? It wasn’t that cold at the North Pole,” Raj said.
“That was July,” Howard noted, trying to reassure himself. “Look, people are wandering around outside, it can’t be that bad.”
Raj squinted at the workers on the tarmac.
“I think those are robots.”
Thankfully they didn’t have to walk across the tarmac to get to the terminal, but they did have to cross a road outside to pick up their car. They balked at some of the more intrepid drivers who were jogging briskly to their cars in nothing more than a pair of shoes, dress pants and shirts as they themselves shivered even in their parkas and winter boots.
“This isn’t the Circumpolar Ice-Drilling AGM!” Raj complained through chattering teeth. “Who thought it would be a good idea to have the Gliese Conference at the North Pole?”
Howard had to remind him that they weren’t even anywhere near the North Pole, and that it had to be somewhat cold if he was still planning on going skiing. Once they got inside the rental car with the heat on Raj quickly forgot about complaining and was glued to the passing scenery instead. They were soon one of the few cars on the near-empty road flanked by snow-covered rolling hills.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Raj asked, trying to locate any other roads on the map in front of him.
“Of course I’m sure,” Howard said, only slightly annoyed. As if to prove his point, just then they passed a green sign that indicated they were still on the TransCanada, Highway 1, and still had 167 kms to go before they reached Lake Louise.
Howard glanced over at Raj, who was staring, wide-eyed, at the highway.
"What is it?"
"Where... where are all the people?"
"Probably at work," Howard offered.
"This is crazy! Do you know how many people we would have passed in India by now? Not to mention donkey carts... This is post-apocalyptic."
"Well, enjoy it while you can. We're back in crowded L.A. in two weeks."
"Crowded? Are you joking? California is practically empty."
"I'll remember you said that the next time you’re griping when we're stuck in traffic."
"Very funny... Wooooow..."
Just then in front of them rose a panorama of grey, snow-covered mountains surrounding a valley. The mountains were so new, geologically speaking, that it looked as though they had jutted from the ground mere moments before. Howard was impressed, and Raj couldn't stop staring.
"Wow, would you look at those mountains?"
"Which ones?" Howard asked him, deadpan.
"Those. And those!" Raj said, pointing.
Raj hadn't even noticed that it was the third time in less than a minute that he had said it, which made Howard smile.
"What are you smiling about?"
That made Raj smile.
"Can I have a kiss now?" Howard asked pointedly, "You know, since there's no one around to see for miles and miles..."
"No," Raj said, still peering out from the bottom of the windshield to see the peaks as they meandered on the road through the valley.
"What?!" Howard started. "Why the hell not?"
"Because," Raj told him, not taking his eyes off the scenery, "you're driving."
"Fine, you can drive on the way back."
About an hour and a half later they stopped to stretch their legs and get some gas in Banff, but decided to skip the Hot Springs, despite Raj's pleading. Howard told him he didn't need to smell like sulphur and chlorine all weekend, despite how great the travel guide made it sound. To make up for it, Howard bought Raj some chocolate bars at the huge candy shop, and managed to get a photo with a cardboard cut-out of a Mountie outside the shop next to it.
As they continued driving, the excitement and travel finally caught up with Raj who fell asleep in the passenger’s seat. Howard yawned, wishing he could cuddle up next to him, and tried to remind himself that he only had another forty-five minutes left to drive. As he watched both the road and the scenery, he switched on the radio, but couldn’t find anything except right-wing talk radio shows on the AM dial. He assumed the mountains were blocking any more reception than that, and was thankful that his cell reception was bad. Even if there were an emergency, it would still make up for the fact that Sheldon wouldn’t be able to get in touch.
Being without any CDs or any convenient method to hook up his iPhone, Howard resigned himself to the silence of the car. Moments later he caught himself swaying to unheard music, and found himself whistling Hey, Jude quietly. He laughed to himself, remembering the trip he and his mother took to visit relatives in Denver when he was twelve. They had brought a tape of the Beatles that kept jamming on that one song, so by the time they got to Grand Junction they had listened to it for what felt like close to a million times. For the last five hours of the drive, as the mountains started to show themselves in all their majesty, they were singing it all on their own, until their ‘nah-nah-nah-nahs’ made their throats sore.
As he kept humming to himself, he grew sad. Out of nowhere, he realised that, while he could easily tell anyone about that trip, he wouldn’t be able to tell his mother about this one. Sure, he could bore her with the details of conference, lie to her about how kosher all the food had been, how unbelievably cold but amazingly beautiful Canada had been, but not how cute Raj had been when he fell asleep, and how he read his guide book like it was a sacred document, how he still didn’t want to be kissed when there were too many people around. Sure, he could tell Leonard and Sheldon and Penny, not that they would care, not that they would want to know, not that his mother would want to know, but there was something about the fact that he wasn’t able to do it that made him long to do just that.
“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song, and make it better…” he sang, just letting his mind wander to the conference, and to general worry as he spotted Moose X-ing signs and mentally calculated the impact of a two-ton animal hitting a car travelling at 70 miles an hour…
Finally he wound up some narrow roads and came out into what he assumed was the most scenic parking lot in the world. The Chateau Lake Louise lived up to its name, with turrets and stain-glass windows, and framing it was a frozen lake with glaciers acting as sentries on all sides. He woke Raj out of his sleep.
“What? Who? Zombies? Where is everybody? Where did everybody go?”
“Nothing happened, silly,” Howard said, pointing to the scene, “Look, we’re here!”
“Wow,” Raj said, then added without pretence, “Look at those mountains!”
Howard couldn’t help but give him a hug for that.
“Did you know,” Raj spouted, “that Lake Louise was named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, after whom the province was also named?”
“I do now…”
“And that we’re only like fifteen minutes from the ski hill?”
Raj kept on chattering as they got their luggage out of the trunk. It was their first experience with black ice, and Howard was happy to have the down padding from his parka when he face planted into the snow. Raj was glad to have his camera.
The inside of the hotel was as lavish as the outside, with oak-panelled walls and light sconces softly illuminating the entrance. They made their way towards a smiling receptionist whose nametag identified her as Candy and indicated that she spoke both French and Japanese.
“Hello, bonjour, konichiwa!” she greeted them, showing a row of perfect white teeth which Raj mirrored.
“Hi,” Howard drawled, fumbling with frozen hands for his iPhone to find the hotel reservation. “We’re with the Gliese Conference. Uh, we should be under Koothrapali/Wolowitz.”
“Okay!” Candy said cheerily. “Here it is, oh dear, I’m sorry, it appears that they accidentally booked you in a room with only a King-sized bed. I’ll just fix that…”
Raj’s smile disappeared, and Howard felt himself break out in a cold sweat. He made a split-second decision.
“Uh, actually,” he said self-consciously, “it’s not a mistake. That’s what we booked. We’d really prefer the King…”
Candy blinked. Her face fell, then turned a bright shade of pink. Howard saw Raj stare at his feet, and he felt his own face going red. Candy completed their transaction with a more businesslike air than that with which she had started it, and passed them their key-cards without making eye contact.
They made their way onto a mirrored elevator with barely a word to each other, except for Raj’s comments on the “nice carpets” and the “nice lake” that could be seen through the twenty-foot high windows.
They entered their room. Howard had expected Raj to bounce into the room and flop down on the massive bed, but instead he wheeled his suitcase to the stand and unzipped it mechanically. Leaving his own bag at the door, Howard came up behind him and put his arms around his waist.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“For what?” Raj asked.
“For… you know, arguing with the receptionist just now. It’s okay if you’re mad at me.”
“I’m not mad,” he said, unenthusiastically. He turned around to face Howard, and leaned his arms on his shoulders. “It’s just… just…”
“Just you wish I wouldn’t be so open about our…”
“No!” Raj interrupted, his eyebrows raised high and his doe-like eyes even wider than usual. Howard was surprised at the softness of his voice. He had been expecting disappointment or even anger. Raj brushed Howard’s bangs back with his fingers.
“It’s none of that, honey,” he told Howard, giving him a squeeze. “I should be the one apologising. I didn’t mean for you to think I was mad at you. It just made me sad.”
He gave Howard a kiss on the nose, and Howard nuzzled him in return.
“I just thought you didn’t want me to say anything.”
“No, no, it’s not that. It’s just,” Raj sighed, “I just wish it wasn’t an issue.”
“Yeah,” Howard said quietly, “or that she could’ve apologised or something. I don’t want to be grumpy about it. I wanted to be excited about this. I know we’ve only been together for a year, but it’s our first sort-of vacation together.”
“We do have a conference to attend, that I have to present at…”
Howard rolled his eyes in mock impatience and let a smile creep onto his face.
“Conferences are always getting in the way of vacation!”
“Conferences are just the start of vacation. And this is going to be a great one! I’m going skiing tomorrow! Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
“No, I think my instinct for self-preservation is too highly developed to strap two planks of wood to my feet and hurtle down a mountain at a million miles an hour.”
“And,” Howard added, “they scheduled the only session that the department let me come for tomorrow afternoon. How could anyone want to miss a panel on Theoretical Remote Planetary Rover Construction, Maintenance and Survivability?”
“You could come for the morning, there’s a bus going back at noon.”
“Um… is having to wash my hair an excuse?”
Raj smiled at him.
“It’s okay, I just thought it would be fun.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but to be honest, I’m terrified.”
Raj blinked at him in surprise.
“Why didn’t you just say so?”
“I didn’t want you to think I was a wimp.”
“What!? Of course I wouldn’t,” Raj said, giving him a squeeze. “I’m just glad you were able to come. It wouldn’t be the same here without you, and I would’ve missed you. … And, you know, I know I didn’t say anything before, but I’m kind of glad you stood up for us like that… It was… you know… kind of hot.”
He grinned, and Howard grinned back. He tried jumping sexily on the bed, but misjudged how many layers of mattress and padding there were, and ended up on the ground again. Raj couldn’t help himself, and laughed until he started to cry before smothering Howard with kisses. They somehow managed to climb bed-Everest, probably the most comfortable bed that either of them had ever been on, and promptly fell asleep.