"The 19th?" he said. "Maybe? Sounds familiar." He scrolled way back on her Facebook to October 19th, 2013, where someone had posted, "I know you aren't too fond of others celebrating it, but happy birthday Debbie! Hope you have a fantastic day!"
"Ah! Thanks so much!" I said. "So um... 'not too fond'? Does that mean she would hate it if someone threw a surprise party for her? Cause I wanted to."
"Possibly," he said. "We should do it anyways." So you see, the entire thing was his fault from the beginning.
The obvious reason why she didn't want people celebrating her birthday is that she doesn't like being the center of positive attention because, on top of as much legitimate humility as anyone could ask for, she has an unwarranted layer of low self-esteem. Instead of accepting compliments, she usually tries to downplay, qualify, outright deny, or deflect them onto somebody else (with your mom being the most frequent target). I've been training her out of that, but it's slow going. Her bias against herself goes so far that it skews her perception of reality and causes her to spew such nonsense as "I can't sing" or "My suggestions on your book aren't that good" or "You deserve a better friend". So maybe a party would make her really uncomfortable. I envisioned her walking in, seeing the surprise, and bursting into tears in not a good way. There was also the matter of her being super busy with her senior year and two jobs. How could I make sure she was gone at the right time, and home at the right time instead of off doing something else, and that I wouldn't make her miss an online quiz or fail a test the next day?
But Steve said we should go for it, so with the glorious feeling of being absolved of all culpability, I did. From the beginning I knew I would have no trouble recruiting people to participate. To know Debbie is to love Debbie. The first difficulty was in narrowing them down to her closest friends, as I felt that limiting the size of the event would limit her potential discomfort, and her apartment isn't huge anyway. The second difficulty was in finding a comparable number of female people to participate. When Charlotte at the nursing home (may she rest in peace) embarrassed Debbie by asking her, "What are you doin' with all these boys?" she unwittingly coined a phrase that applies to most of our heroine's life. Debbie's entourage is so skewed in favor of heterogeneous chromosomes that sometimes people call her "Snow White" with the implication that we're her dwarves. So I invited about ten guys and four girls, including her old roommates, and then started asking some girls she isn't that close with just to reduce the disparity a bit.
Right from the get-go I pleaded with God to make this work and not be a disaster. I told people that I had never done anything like this before and didn't have a plan yet. I kept hoping that someone would take the hint and come up with a plan themselves, but everyone just said "Keep me in the loop" and left me at square one. I ordered a present for her, thought about what supplies we might need (definitely blue stuff - that's her color), and tried to subtly interrogate her about her musical tastes, but nothing solid came to mind. After about two weeks I realized I should probably get permission from her roommates to invite a bunch of people into their apartment, so when I was over for Sunday lunch I asked Taylor. She said they were already planning something for that day, since she had done some detective work of her own, and if necessary would it be all right if we did ours the day before? I said that would be all right if necessary but if we could combine our things and do them both on the same day that would be better. She said she would have to consult with Mercedes, who was gone for the weekend, so I said I would check again at the next Sunday lunch.
That week Steve held a movie night that Debbie didn't make it to because she had to work. After everyone else had gone I stayed behind to discuss Debbie's party and then just Debbie in general. Since me and him have become good friends independent of her, I decided to admit that I used to be rather jealous of him. "She was always like 'Can Steve come? Let's invite Steve. I bet Steve would like to join us.' And I thought, 'I just want to be with you. I don't care about Steve.' I've repented, though. I'm sorry."
"I was jealous of you too," he said. "I thought, 'She's always hanging out with this guy.'"
Then we briefly discussed how she had friendzoned both of us. I can use that word in reference to her because she uses that word. Once I explained to her why some people find it offensive, and she said, "That's stupid." She said that, not me.
"The one thing I don't like," Steve said, "is how she always has like ten guys and no girls at her things."
"Oh, yeah," I said. "Her party's gonna be the same way."
As I left, I looked to the apartment next to his, where Debbie no longer lives, and thought back not very long to all those summer nights when I dropped everything, sometimes literally, and rode my bike as fast as it would go to come sit on that balcony with her and take refuge from the hell that was my job. I thought back to one of those times when she began with "I don't know if I'd be worth it this late, but..." and I knew that was crazy talk because she was worth it at any hour. I thought back to the first time, when I called her on a stupid desperate whim and asked to come talk because I was feeling super stressed, and how that blossomed into a friendship of depth and intensity beyond my wildest aspirations. I knew we didn't see eye-to-eye on some things, mostly with her being more of a Utah Mormon than I am, so I never imagined that talking with her would forge such a joyous connection, and there was certainly no indication from the first night she picked me up that her kindness knew no bounds. I thought about that, and felt wistful and nostalgic for what's probably over and never to be again, and then went home.
The next day she made her birthday public on Facebook, which I had mixed feelings about because it might make our surprise less surprising, but also decrease her chance of being upset. The next next day, at Sunday lunch, I knew I needed to work out a solid plan with her roommates so I could tell the people I recruited before the last minute. I worried that they would be getting antsy by this point. Taylor wasn't around at first, so I asked Sarah, who knew nothing about it. Then Taylor showed up and I asked her and she said she hadn't gotten to talk with Mercedes yet and wouldn't until later in the evening. With Debbie's birthday a week and a half away, I couldn't wait another week, so I asked if I could come back the next day to check and she said that was fine. I asked if she knew when Debbie wouldn't be home and she said she had no idea. I should have just gotten her number, but I'm conditioned not to ask for numbers that aren't offered to me. I learned my place this year. Anyway, I decided to just show up before work and I would have a seventy-five percent chance of someone besides Debbie answering the door. Debbie answered the door.
"Oh," I said. "Um, is Taylor there?" No, she wasn't. "How about Mercedes?" No, she wasn't. So that wasn't suspicious at all, to come here and ask to speak with almost anyone but her after she'd been my only reason for coming here in the past. "Do you know when they'll be back?" No, she didn't. "Can I try back later?" Sure, I could.
Then we talked for a minute about personal stuff, and presently her gaze drifted downward and she inquired, "Where are your shoes, mister?"
"At home," I explained. Where else would they be?
That could have been a disaster, but I felt like it had been a good experience and she probably didn't suspect a thing. I came back after work, and this time Mercedes answered the door. "You're here for Debbie, right?" she said. "I'll go get her."
"No! Actually, um, is Taylor there?"
Taylor was there, but she was napping, so I stood awkwardly with Mercedes in the hallway, feeling guilty, as she woke up and freshened up and put clothes on. Then she told Mercedes why I was there, and they ascertained that Debbie wasn't home, and we worked out a plan. They would take her to dinner at 6, and then around 6:15 my crew would enter the apartment and set everything up and they would bring her back home and she would be surprised. I was elated at how quickly the plan had emerged ex nihilo and how simple it had turned out to be, other than the fact that her present still hadn't arrived. We were hammering out some inconsequential details when Debbie got home. Her eyebrows raised a little as she said, "How's it going?"
"Good," I said, inwardly cursing myself for being unable to prevent a big dopey grin from sprouting on my face.
"That's good," she said, and kept walking past. "I'm going to wash up."
As soon as she'd gone, Taylor's eyes got big and she motioned toward the door with both hands and mouthed, "Go!" And although I don't understand women very well, I took that as a subtle hint that she wanted me to leave. I did, though it took me a minute because it turns out their door doesn't open from the inside when it's locked. I didn't know doors like that existed. I went to the grocery store a couple evenings later and skimmed the greeting cards for something suitable. I thought it would be a difficult choice, but it wasn't long before one jumped out as a good fit.
Also on that day, one of the planned party participants said, "By the way, I did the math, and I realized I probably won't be able to help. This is on a Wednesday night. Debbie and I are actually in the same Institute class that night and would likely arrive around the same time!" On further probing, he said the class was from 5:30 to 7, which would sort of put a damper on her roommates' plan to take her to dinner at 6. Wracked with anxiety, I cornered Taylor at Sunday lunch again and informed her of this terrible news. She said she already knew that and didn't seem to remember the schedule we had set the first time around. We settled on them taking Debbie to dinner at 7:15 and us showing up around 7:30, and I informed everyone of the change while politely neglecting to mention that there had been a miscommunication that wasn't my fault. This time, not taking any chances, I did get Taylor's number in case of any more last-minute alterations, with a promise not to use it for anything else.
The day before her birthday, her present finally arrived too, and took a load of stress off my chest. Guess what it was. Go on, guess. No, not that. No, not that either. On second thought, you're never going to guess it so I'll just show you.
I wrapped it during my own institute class and then left early. I was very nervous. This is Utah, so I wasn't confident that they would actually be gone by 7:30, so I needed to get there before anyone else to make sure no one walked in on them. And how would I know when they were gone? I should have texted Taylor and asked her to tell me exactly when they left, but I didn't and then I assumed they would be busy scurrying around and let's face it, I should have texted her anyway but I don't always make rational decisions under pressure. At least once they were gone I figured we would have at least an hour, maybe longer, as they would be busy enjoying their girls' night out and probably be even later in getting back. The main issue would probably be getting bored waiting for them. So, trying to be inconspicuous with my shopping cart holding ice cream and donuts and orange juice and computer speakers and Debbie's present and card, hoping they wouldn't drive past and see me, I made my way over.
One of the first things I noticed was Charlie parked nearby, looking at his phone. I imagined people scattered throughout the parking lot, like Secret Service agents, watching and waiting. It was an amazing feeling. I looked to her building. It's one of several in the complex, and it's one of those where all the doors are on the outside with balconies running past all of them connected by stairs, and hers is on the third floor. I looked up and saw that the light was still on, indicating that they were probably still home just as I had suspected. I looked down and saw one of the guys standing on the first floor by a pillar, waiting. "Hey," I said, walking over to him.
"Hey," he said. "They're still in there."
Good to know. "You saw them?"
"Nobody told me not to come until 7:30."
I blinked as I tried to comprehend what he was telling me. "You - you went in already?"
"For me, being on time to something means being early. 7:30 means like 7:20."
Mentally I called him a naughty word that means "impossibly stupid person". It was nothing personal, but the stress of the sudden realization that he may have just single-handedly ruined everything got to me a little. Out loud I asked, "Did she see you?"
"I don't think so," he said. "Her roommate answered the door and she wasn't in the room." So that was all right.
At about that time Neal showed up and asked what was going on, and we told him they hadn't left yet, and he said we should probably go hide around the side of the building because he could see us when he drove up. We did, and about that time, at 7:30, Taylor texted me and asked, "Are you there yet?"
"Yes," I replied immediately, wondering what she would say and imagining that she would direct me to stay out of sight while they left.
Three minutes later she responded, "Ok good. We will be back in about 15 minutes."
I died a little inside. Charlie picked that moment to come over and ask if we could go up yet, so I said yes, by all means, and mentioned to everyone that we were on a bit tighter deadline than I had anticipated. I raced up the two flights of stairs to peer in the window and check for myself whether the apartment was, in fact, empty. And right in front of the window I saw Trevor blowing up a balloon.
I had originally planned on getting everything myself, and had debated whether to purchase one dozen or two dozen balloons, weighing my love for Debbie against the size of her apartment. But then people volunteered to bring various things, and Steve offered to get something, and no one had called dibs on balloons so I said he could get those. When I walked in, there were at least sixty balloons piled over every inch of the floor, and five guys were in the process of blowing up more. I thought it was rather excessive, to be honest, but had to give them props for enthusiasm. Then Bryson showed up with the streamers, and I still had tape from wrapping the present, so I waded through the balloons and started setting those up as a few more guys started to trickle in. It became apparent that we weren't going to be finished in time, but at least we'd started and it was the thought that counted. Then they asked me to ask Taylor to stall for ten minutes or so, but she didn't respond. During that time we turned the lights off, just in case, and finished setting up streamers in the dark. "It's risky," one said, "but that's how we live."
"I can't do this," Trevor said. "I can't just wait here in the dark with a bunch of guys. Did you invite any girls?"
I listed the girls I had invited and their reasons for not being able to come, at least not on time. Mackenzie, for example (another recurring character that you should read about if you haven't already), felt that Ingrid Michaelson was more important. So he made a few phone calls to girls that he knew, who didn't know Debbie at all, and then went outside to watch for her return. He asked what kind of car she was in, and I didn't know, and the whole atmosphere was pretty tense until 7:58 when Taylor said, "We are almost back." She had given us the ten minutes. Trevor came back in, some guys hid under the balloons, and we waited in relative silence. Very soon we heard a knock on the door, and my heart leaped into my throat. We debated what to do about it. They wouldn't knock on their own door, would they? Unless her roommates were giving us a heads-up, perhaps? We opted to ignore it, and it went away.
I was filled in on some of these details later. As Debbie was walking to her apartment, she said to her roommates, "I have some cake in the fridge. We can eat that." They suppressed smiles and said that sounded good. As she got closer and saw the window, she thought, I thought we left the light on. Then she opened the door and everyone jumped out and yelled and she thought, There are a bunch of dudes in my apartment. From my perspective, the way she jumped back and laughed left no doubt that she was well and truly surprised, and she disappeared from view for so long that I thought maybe she had run away. But she hadn't, and she didn't burst into tears, and she wasn't angry. She came in, and everyone started talking and getting out the refreshments, and Trevor realized that the knock had come from the girls he had invited, so he ran out to go bring them back.
I started the music. The most I had gotten out of her was that she liked "modern stuff", so I made a four hour playlist of songs made within the last decade, and I think they worked out because once in a while I caught her dancing and/or humming along. It was on shuffle, but the one to start with was a no-brainer: "You Don't Know You're Beautiful". Then I stood back from the crowd and just watched her be happy. After a few minutes she wandered over to stand beside me and asked, in a tone indicating that it wasn't really a question, "You didn't have anything to do with this, did you?"
"It was Steve's idea," I said. "It was all Steve." And it was, in a manner of speaking.
"Yeah-huh," she said. "That Steve."
A bit later, Trevor squealed on me anyway. "I can't stay quiet!" he said.
I heard her mention something to her roommates about all the assignments she had due, so I asked her if we needed to leave, and she said no. A couple hours later I asked again, and she said no. "I'm not doing homework tonight," she said.
Debbie seemed to have changed for the better that night. She hugged everyone who came to the party, while she's usually not comfortable touching most people. She graciously accepted all the attention and affection lavished upon her. She graciously accepted the responsibility to start eating first. I always take the Disney princess cup when I'm there, but this time I gave it to her, and she graciously accepted it. She graciously accepted our refusal to let her wash any dishes, which is often a point of contention in that household. She graciously accepted my present, though I had forgotten that there was a vague illustration of a naked child in it, and she made Steve draw pants on him. Instead of telling us that we shouldn't have done this or that she didn't deserve it or any of the other lies that would have been more in character for her, she just said, many times, "Thank you."
Not gonna lie, I'm pretty pleased with all of us.