It was six, seven years ago on New Year’s Eve, fairly early in the day. I was working for Principle Woods at the time, illustrating children’s books. It was an office job, 9-5, go in, sit down, make art all day, go home. I was pretty happy with it.
Now New Year’s Eve also happens to be Lena’s birthday. Overall, this has never been a good thing. She’s gotten screwed more often than she hasn’t by Christmas/birthday “combo” gifts, and she always feel like although everyone in the world is celebrating, no one is celebrating for her. There are issues.
This particular morning, I was calling various florists looking for a dozen long-stemmed reds. I had to call around a bit, since I was apparently not the only one giving roses for New Year’s. I found a florist with some roses, and had them deliver them to Lena’s favorite restaurant, then called the restaurant and let them know the bouquet was on the way, and asked them to keep it in the refrigerator until we got there and I gave the signal. They were all too happy to do so and sounded excited to be in on the plan.
When I got home, I gave Lena her gifts and we did the things that married couples do on their birthdays, and I asked her where she wanted to go out to eat — anywhere she liked. She tossed a couple ideas back and forth before settling on her favorite and off we went. (Letting her pick the place was crucial. That way her guard would be down and she wouldn’t be expecting any surprises at all.)
There was a wait, (there always was, it was a popular place — that’s why it’s closed now) and we sat and chatted and visited with other people waiting for seats. Finally our turn came and we were seated in the front corner of the restaurant’s large dining hall, completely opposite from the kitchen.
When Lena and I were married, a significant part of our relationship contract included birthday etiquette as it pertained to dinner in restaurants. I promised not only to have and hold, but also never to allow a bunch of waitpeople to sing Happy Birthday in a crowded roomful of strangers. It would have been a deal-breaker, and she wanted it in the actual wedding vows, but the preacher wasn’t going for it. In any case, when it comes to public singing, there are… y’know… issues.
Thus the roses. As soon as we had gotten seated, I got up ostensibly to let the waiter know that whereas it was her birthday and we did want a free piece of cake, (the birthday prohibitions do not extend to cake) we did not under any circumstances want singing. I did do all that, but I also identified myself as the guy with the flowers in the fridge and that he should bring them out after dinner. Sensing the potential for a truly grand tipping opportunity, the waiter happily agreed.
When we finished our meal, the waiter came and took the plates away. Lena, full-swing into some story about her work-mates at the office, barely noticed. Her back was to the room, giving me a perfect view of the restaurant. Opposite us, our waiter exited the kitchen doors carrying an enormous piece of chocolate birthday cake with brightly lit candles and a large bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. I took Lena’s hand as she talked, and smiled.
As I watched the waiter moving between tables and winding his way toward us, I noticed that at each table he passed, every female eye locked onto that bouquet and began tracing it’s curving path across the dining hall. A slow and curling wave of silence crept across the room, moving inexorably towards our table. Lena, enmeshed in her narrative of corporate politics and foolish coworkers, was oblivious.
As I raised her hand and kissed it, Lena was the only person speaking in the entire restaurant, and all eyes were on her. The waiter went down on one knee as he placed the cake on the table and presented Lena with the roses. There was a startlingly loud “Awww…” throughout the restaurant followed by a lengthy round of applause. Lena’s eyes popped out of her head, her face turned purple, and she began crying and slumping down in the seat as if to literally crawl beneath the table.
“Happy Birthday Baby. Were you surprised?”
When I look back on those early days of my relationship with Lena, it is in retrospect obvious that “No Singing” on her birthday really meant “No Public Embarrassment.” Moving forward, if I want to stay married to my wife, I will no longer do anything that attracts unwanted public attention to her in any crowded place where we don’t already know everyone present.
There are issues.