Meeting Rachel and Bryan after blogging about ‘The Bachelorette’ was surreal and kind of sad

MANHATTAN — It’s unlikely that there have ever been more people packed into the makeup aisles of a Lord & Taylor than there are today, the Wednesday after the Bachelorette finale. People — mostly women — have pushed themselves into every corner of the store, as close to the stage setup as the strategically placed barriers will allow. Everyone holds their phones in their hands with Instagram or Snapchat open.

There’s electricity and the smell of too many competing perfume samples in the air as hundreds of people wait for Rachel Lindsay, the most recent star of The Bachelorette, and Bryan Abasolo, her newly crowned finance, to walk on stage. Those who showed up soon enough to be at the front of the snaking line will receive a rose and get their picture taken with the happy couple.

At least Rachel and Bryan are doing their best to convince us they’re happy. The Bachelorette finale on Monday night was one of the most gut-wrenching episodes of television the franchise has ever produced. I recap the show for SB Nation, and let me tell you: the cries were loud across social media as Rachel and Peter Kraus — the other finalist whom she seemed way more into than Bryan — broke up because Peter couldn’t promise Rachel a ring. The day after, appearing somewhat shell-shocked, Rachel accepted the Neil Lane rock Bryan presented to her on top of a castle in Spain.

“She legit had a full-on huge breakup which is exhausting,” said Kristin Russo, a TV producer who’s come to the event from her office in the financial district. “[Rachel and Peter’s] was a real conversation that was happening, compared to, like, a TV conversation. I’m surprised the next day she could even go through with saying yes to somebody else. Which is why everybody’s saying she settled.”

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I nod. The other women standing around us, including a few who took the day off work in New Jersey, agree with Russo. Several fans say they’re sad Rachel didn’t follow her heart, but hope she’s happy. Most were Team Peter, but some did like Bryan through the whole season.

“I was always a fan,” says Lauren Fesberg, craning her neck to see if the couple has arrived yet. Tashay Campbell, who doesn’t know Fesberg but is squished next to her in these close quarters, shakes her head.

“I love Rachel. I feel bad for her,” Campbell says. “I think that she wanted to choose Peter, but she wanted to be engaged and get married, and she thought about the person who wanted to give her that. But I can agree with Peter. I mean, yeah, you go on the show and know what the ending is supposed to be, but at the same time it’s real life. I don’t want to marry someone after knowing them for only two months.”

Sarah Fesberg, Lauren Fesberg, and Tashay Campbell all took their lunch break to go see Rachel Lindsay from The Bachelorette.

“Yeah, that was the more normal response,” says Sarah Fesberg, Lauren’s sister. They both ducked out of work to be here. “I’d be freaked out if someone wanted to marry me that soon. I was hysterical watching that breakup.”

“She was, she FaceTimed me,” Lauren says. “That episode was mind-blowing.”

Campbell nods.

“I thought it was all a lie, I thought they were going to surprise us and say Peter won,” she says.

“Yeah,” Fesberg says, laughing. “I thought Steve Harvey was going to pop out with Peter and be like, SURPRISE!”

Everyone in line laughs.

All of a sudden, the crowd erupts. Rachel and Bryan have appeared and are walking toward the stage, stopping periodically to kiss. Arms sprout up as everyone holds their phones up and zooms their cameras in on the couple.

“THERE SHE IS!” someone cries. Screams of “RACHEL!!!” fly up into the department store chandeliers. Bryan and Rachel begin handing out roses and taking pictures with their legion of fans. I make my way over to where people have already gotten their picture taken with Bryan and Rachel. “This is crazy town,” I hear someone say, as I squeeze by and bump into someone else. “He’s so hot, oh my god, I love them,” she says.

Mariam Dal clutches her photo. I ask what it was like to be near them.

“It was amazing,” she says. “I love them. They’re such a beautiful couple. I’m so happy for them, I was rooting for Bryan since day one.”

“You didn’t think her emotions for Peter were more real?” I ask.

“I did,” Dal says. “But I think Bryan deserves her more. Peter couldn’t commit.”

I duck past a few security guards and sneak through a few barriers, cutting toward the front of the line. No one gets angry at me because I tell them I’m a Bachelorette recapper and I need their opinions about what happened. I interview people as I inch my way closer and closer to the couple.

Mariam Dal and a friend show off their photo of themselves with Rachel and Bryan.

The people in front of me — a mother and daughter from Oregon who are on vacation in New York City and happened to find out about this event — get their picture taken. It’s my turn.

I almost can’t believe Rachel and Bryan are real. They seem more like holograms. There is something bizarre about walking up on stage and greeting two people who don’t know who you are, but who you’ve spent the past three months of your life watching and writing about every week. In my recaps I have written glowingly about Rachel, but I have also criticized her, saying she — a smart, funny, beautiful lawyer — got brainwashed by the show. I’ve flat-out said I don’t like Bryan, and that I don’t think he’s very smart. I called him smarmy, and incapable of dressing himself.

I feel somewhat grimy, to be honest, as Rachel gives me a hug. She hands me a peach colored rose, and when I tell her how much I enjoyed her season (even though I didn’t, always), she genuinely appears relieved.

“Thank you so much,” she says, locking eyes with me.

Bryan hugs me and thanks me, too. I tell them congratulations and that I hope they’re very happy together.

“That means so much to us,” they both say, almost in unison. I’m so nervous that I’m sweating and have trouble smiling for the photographer without my chin quivering. Rachel looks at my shirt, which is an ancient, thread-bare tee that says “D.A.R.E.: TO KEEP KIDS OFF DRUGS” and then back up at me.

It’s one thing to write about humans when you know them only as characters on a television show that you’ve decided is sports. But it’s another to actually put your arm around them and realize that yes, they are also people — and they’re real, and they have feelings. Standing between them, I feel like I’ve stepped through my TV and into their world, one filled with flash-bulbs, photo ops, and endless public appearances.

It makes me sad. I, and all of the women waiting in line and clutching photos, don’t know these people. We speculate endlessly about the versions of them that producers decided to show us. And yet here they are, with all their complications and histories, in the flesh. They’re total strangers.

A little shaken, I step off the stage. A man by a printer asks to see the wristband that I never received, and I lie and tell him it fell off. He looks at me, clearly not buying it, and tells me it’ll be fifty dollars, in that case, for the photo. I reach for my wallet, because I am that committed to the cause, before he tells me he’s kidding.

He hands me my picture. I have a slight double chin thanks to an unfortunate angle and I look somewhat terrified. Rachel and Bryan look beautiful, at ease. This is what they do best, this is what they are known for: appearing in two dimensions.