Z’s birthdays always start off with the ceremonial presentation of gifts while he is still in bed, with only the top of his head peeping out from beneath the quilt, and this Friday was no different. I’m not sure how this tradition got started, particularly since I was always a save-the-presents-until-the-end-of-the-day-so-there-is-something-to-look-forward-to kind of girl, but Z loves his birthday and likes to start it off right. Because I was born early in the new year, my birthday has always signified the end of the holiday celebration, and so those last few hours of gift joy were to be savored. Z’s birthday is on the other, better end of the holidays, so maybe this is why we have such different “birthday styles.” Though we do both seem to be in agreement that we should stretch out the celebrating for multiple days. We’re extravagant like that.
This year there were very few surprises because he’d given me a list of things he wanted and I wasn’t feeling very creative. The bulk of his gifts were treats from Zimbabwe that he wanted, as well as a request for a duplicate silicon spoon for the kitchen because—full disclosure—I don’t always do dishes immediately and he’d like to have a spare so it’s ready for the next day’s meal preparation in case last night’s is still dirty. (Z is an excellent cook and I am not, nor am I an enthusiastic dish washer.) Honestly, the biggest surprise I could muster this year was one of those Slushee cups like I had when I was a kid—you know, you freeze the inner part and then later pour a soda or Kool-Aid into, scrape the sides a few times, and voila!, instant frozen beverage. That’s right. Z and I may be middle aged, but we act like eight year olds. A Slushee cup is a good present. (I really am pleased with myself for thinking of it.) Had he not forbidden me to show you examples of his annual birthday gift bed, I’d post one here. We always do a before photo, when the presents are still nicely wrapped, and then five minutes later, I take an after photo and it looks like a windstorm blew through.
Twelve years ago, I met Z at a beginning of semester party at the nameless Indiana university where he’d just been hired as a visiting professor and where I was a lecturer. It sounds dramatic, but the minute I saw him leaning against a post, sipping a beer, and talking about fishing on the Zambezi with his brother and getting chased by hippos, I said to myself—and then drove immediately to the house of my oldest friend so I could have proof that I’d said it aloud on September 15 , 2001—I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.
Who I forgot to tell was Z. In fact, a month later when his birthday rolled around, he still thought we were just colleagues who shared pleasantries at faculty meetings. His birthday that year fell on a faculty meeting day and he arrived with donuts in hand to celebrate. As luck (and a little pre-planning on my part) would have it, we sat next to each other at that meeting. During a lull, I asked what he was doing for his birthday. I’d never been so bold as to ask a man out, but I couldn’t stand the thought of my future husband sitting on a lawn chair in his apartment in lonely splendor on his birthday, so I decided that I’d see if he’d like some company. Before I could ask, though, he said he was flying to Minnesota to visit friends. Immediately, I imagined some horrible girlfriend there that I’d have to do battle with, but instead of walking away in defeat, I got crafty.
I’m a terrible, terrible liar, and that, more than morality, is the main reason I do so very little of it. I’m not even good at faking enthusiasm for things I don’t like. But I had to think fast, so I asked how he was getting back from the airport when he returned. He said he was taking a cab, and I said—seriously, my only successful lie ever—“As luck would have it, I’m visiting my step-mother who lives right by the airport on Sunday. I could pick you up if you like.” This was not a lie technically in that I do have a step-mother and she did live by the airport and I could visit her, but none of that had been planned. He didn’t immediately accept and I thought perhaps he’d seen through my ruse, but Z is a thrifty guy, and so after the initial pause, he agreed.
I spent the next three days while he was in Minnesota painting my nails and plucking my eyebrows and trying to pick out an outfit that didn’t look like I thought I was on a date but that was still alluring. (Very difficult to accomplish.) On the forty minute drive to the airport—and no, I never did make it to my step- mother’s—I constructed a list of conversation generators, and I showed up fifteen minutes early, pacing in the arrivals hall, wondering who this Beth was who was suddenly so convicted of what needed to belong to her. And there he came through the arrivals gate looking slightly hung over.
I don’t remember much of the drive back home, only that it was as impossible to figure out if he had a girlfriend in Minnesota as it was to figure out if he had any interest in me. We talked easily though I found it difficult to focus on the content of what he said because his accent was so intoxicating. I’d ask a question and realize ¾ of the way through his response that I had no idea what the answer was that he’d been giving me. (He would say I am still this way, and it has nothing to do with his accent and more to do with my under-developed listening skills.) The forty minutes flew by. Towards the end of it, I suggested an outing for the following weekend, and he agreed.
Much to my chagrin, it wasn’t a date. Nor would the next five years worth of activities and birthday celebrations. He remained completely oblivious to the fact that we were meant to be together, and even seemed to skip over the part where, after two years, I suggested to him that maybe it was worth considering. I spend a lot of time talking about how awesome Z is in this blog because he IS awesome. He was completely worth the wait. But I have to say, in the years between 2001 and 2006, I was the awesome one. If they gave one out, I’d have earned the Congressional Medal of Unrequited Love during this period. I was a trooper, though at the time, I think most people and one shrink thought I was either deranged or pathetic because I couldn’t let go of that idea I had of the two of us as a couple.
In 2006, Z had just moved to Seattle from Zimbabwe. He had been offered two jobs and because I was starting to suspect that possibly everyone else was right and nothing would ever change between us, I suggested he take the Seattle job instead of the Pittsburgh offer only because I’d never been to Seattle and it sounded like a good place to visit. For his birthday, I flew out to see him and met this city for the first time. While nothing changed ON his birthday, everything changed during the week of my visit. Z had had an epiphany of sorts and wondered if I was still free or willing to consider possibilities between us.
Was I free or willing? Ha. Like I was going to suddenly, after this long wait, start railing against destiny? I don’t think so.
So now, on the occasion of Z’s birthday, I feel extra happy. Not just because I’m glad he got born or because we get excited about things like Slushee cups and Chia pets that other people our age are probably too busy and mature to care about, but because it’s also like the birthday of us, twice over.
Though in retrospect, I’m thinking maybe I should start demanding presents on his birthday too.