She got me good and I had no clue it was coming.
I was looking forward to turning 30 with as much enthusiasm as I reserve for mowing the lawn or shoveling snow. Birthdays in my 20s involved the trappings of youth: drink packages, shots, hazy memories, Tums and Tylenol before bed, and just enough drunken shame for a great story.
Compounded on the exhaustion of doing the Chicago birthday bar scene, Leann and I spent my a 29th birthday in Rome and Florence. Instead of shouting at friends at a bar, I saw Michelangelo’s David. Instead of a burger, my birthday dinner in Florence was a mushroom gnocchi and tiramisu substituted as birthday cake. How do you possibly top that?
You know that moment in a movie where everything clicks? That’s what I’m living right now after my girlfriend and close friends executed the perfect surprise 30th birthday party for me. Retrospectively, I was aware of a few abnormal behaviors from my girlfriend and my buddies Brian and Jon. But, to be clear, I had absolutely no idea.
My girlfriend planted the deceitful seed two weeks in advance. We were out with her girlfriends Sue and Kristin for Cinco de Mayo (one of the true high holidays). During dinner, Sue mentioned that they never went out to celebrate her friend’s finishing of med school. They were planning something low key for the following weekend. Leann told Sue to keep us posted and we would see if we could make it.
And with that, the trap was set.The Hook
The conditions were perfect for chicanery. I hadn’t been looking forward to 30. I didn’t feel like planning a party. My friends had been distant lately. A few friends said maybe they would come to an event I setup. There were unmet life goals that superseded my desire to celebrate. I was prepared for a pity party of the ages. On numerous occasions, I told Leann I didn’t want to celebrate 30.
Leann was masterful. The Saturday was no different from most other recent Saturdays. We finished watching Breaking Bad, waffled over going out or staying in for lunch, where to get lunch if we did go out, what we could make if we stayed in. You wish you were there. Admit it. Despite selecting Chinese lunch specials, my fortune cookie foretold of no clandestine fête. General Tso knocked me out and I suggested nap time in an effort to remind Leann of my advanced age. Why she tolerates me, I don’t know. In a rare move, she also took a nap. Normally, she will read or watch shows about cannibals.
After a power hour nap, it was time to get cleaned up for the shindig with her friends. I didn’t pack a ton of clothes, or nice ones at that. I hadn’t shaved in at least a week. I picked the least wrinkled shirt and then we ate a frozen pizza while watching Portlandia. The master planner was drawing me further into her web. She asked if I had been to The Bedford. I had, but asked her if she wanted me to tell her the bar’s theme or have it be a surprise. Here I thought I was going to surprise her. Ironically, The Bedford is an old bank with a huge vault.
I offered to drive, but Leann said that she was happy to drive. We packed a few snacks for the road and left shortly after 8PM. There was no huge urgency to get out the door at a certain time, which might have been a tip-off. Instead, business as usual. During the drive, I lamented about friends I hadn’t seen in a while and how no one was planning to come to my birthday party the following weekend. All the while, Leann said nothing.
Traffic wasn’t bad and we made it to the bar in about 40 minutes. There was only one problem: there was nowhere to park. As we did laps around the bar, Leann was texting more than usual. I debated saying something, but opted to let it go. She was getting frustrated with the lack of parking. We eventually found a spot a few blocks away. Fed up with circling, she asked me to parallel park.
We hurriedly walked up Ashland. Meanwhile, Leann shot off a few texts. We got to the bar and gave the door guy our IDs. Leann told me to go ahead while she fished for hers. Instead, I waited. Down the stairs we went.
First, I saw her two girlfriends at the foot of the stairs. As I hugged one of them, I saw Rob from my office over her right shoulder. It’s not uncommon for me to bump into someone I know when adventuring in the city, so I didn’t think that was peculiar. Before I could say anything to Leann, I saw Todd, one of my oldest friends both in age and length I have known him. And that’s when it hit me.
“SURPRISE!” they shouted.
Time slowed down. I glanced around the room and discovered all the faces were those of my friends. That’s the feeling of love.
As I processed what just happened, I noticed the flash from Gia’s phone as she snapped pictures. Then, Jon and Brian, two of my closest buddies appeared. My sister emerged from behind a pillar. Nancy, Chris and Bob from work popped out.
I stood there stunned and in disbelief.
Walking around the bar I found more familiar faces. Jill drove in from Ohio. Colleen, who I met swing dancing a few years ago, came out to celebrate. For the briefest of moments I feared that my nightmare of a roast of girlfriends past was about to occur.
When thinking about this night and these moments, I still can’t fathom it. It felt like a huge group hug. But not one of those crappy hugs you give someone you don’t like. The warm hug where you feel embraced and supported. It’s a feeling I never quite felt before.
Free time becomes limited with each passing year. I don’t see friends as often. People go to grad school or move or get married or start a family. Friendship becomes harder. In this one night, so many of my friends made time for me.
Later in the night, my friends gathered around a table covered with 150 homemade, mini cupcakes including spice cake/vanilla icing, vanilla/chocolate icing and chocolate with buttercream coffee icing. They sang Happy Birthday. I looked at the smile on my girlfriend’s face and the flickering flames in the 3 and 0 candles and knew this was one of those moments. A moment I wish I could pause and really absorb. It had been a long time since I felt ebullient and this loved.
With friends like these and a girlfriend who I learn and love more about with each day, I don’t know why I was reticent for another year.