On Surprises, Big and Small

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Z is a master of surprise. He’s thoughtful and listens when I say off the cuff that I like something, and then at Christmas or a birthday, voila! He’s like one of those 1930s movie heartthrobs who is always at the ready to light your cigarette (even though you don’t smoke) because he anticipates other people’s desires. It’s like his super power.

While I wouldn’t classify it as a super power, one of the things I delight in is getting the “right” gift for someone, and I really like to find things a person doesn’t even know he or she needs until I offer it up, tied with a bow. Z is very problematic for me in this regard. He’s one of two people I know most well in the world, yet every year for his birthday or Christmas I find myself wandering around stores trying to find a gift that I think he might like or need and it’s as if I don’t know the man at all. Like maybe he’s a new co-worker instead of my husband. Last year for his birthday I made the completely arbitrary and now embarrassing decision to buy him a honey dripper because, well… I don’t even know why. He looked at it and said, “What is it?” and now it lives in the back of a drawer and occasionally we’ll joke about it. It’s not like we’ve got pots of honey sitting around that require a dripper. We pretty much squirt the honey right out of the plastic bear bottle and cut out the need for any utensil at all, so I’m not sure what I was thinking.

So this year, I’ve been trying to stealthily compile a list of non-embarrassing presents I could get him, and the only thing I lighted on a few weeks ago was his very own bottle of Aveda Blue Oil so he doesn’t have to rifle through my purse every time he has a sinus headache. We’re both plagued with sinus issues in Seattle because of the frequently and rapidly changing pressure systems here, and though we have a whole list of treatments we use ranging from pills to hot compresses, Aveda Blue Oil is a favorite.

Oh, I was pleased with myself for thinking this up. The very next day after I had this idea, he said, “I wouldn’t mind having my own bottle of Blue Oil.” So much for the surprise.

Fortunately, Z is sometimes forgetful after he says he wants something and it’s been a good three weeks, so it didn’t dissuade me from getting the concoction for him yesterday when I stopped at the Aveda store to replace the bottle of hair gel I accidentally flushed down the toilet a few weeks ago. The clerk asked if I’d like a complimentary neck massage while I was there, so by the time I met up with Z at Barnes & Noble, my hair was pinned back and I was smelling all peppermint-y and I was sure I’d given myself away. I told him about getting the hair gel and the complimentary massage, and he acted none the wiser about his future present. Mission accomplished! Oh, I was pleased with myself.

Z and I have a glut of celebrations in the fall. First, there is his birthday, then there is the anniversary of “our love” when we first became a real couple and not just movie-watching, food-eating buddies—which this year I re-discovered in an old journal coincides exactly with the anniversary of my First Deception for Love.

And then there is today, which is the sixth anniversary of our engagement. Aside from deciding to confess his love two years before, “engaging” me was perhaps his best ever surprise. Later today, I will be forcing Z to look at photos and listen to our engagement song and admire my engagement ring and re-live the day, moment by moment: his surprise present of a trip to Las Vegas, a private-non-public-y proposal, phone calls to friends and family, walking outside into all the blindingly tacky electric hope that is Las Vegas, feeling weirdly insulated in a love bubble and thus not bothered or thrown into a feminist rage at the the dudes handing out flyers for mostly naked female escorts, going to Tiffany to look at rings and realizing that I am not a diamond girl, standing in front of the Bellagio fountain and listening to Andrea Bocelli and Sara Brightman sing “Time to Say Goodbye” (“Con te partirò”), and realizing for the first time ever that it is a love song and not the world’s loveliest sad song, and how it and Z and our new engagement made me feel completely full up with love, not just for Z but for the whole world, tawdry as so much of it was, displaying itself there beside us in rhinestones and neon.

Today, we walked to the Corner Café, and on the way, Z told me how nice my hair looked, and I told him it was because I’d finally replaced my Aveda hair product, and then he said—just like a detective—“Aha! You got that neck massage yesterday because you bought my Blue Oil for Christmas! I tried to convince him that I’d completely forgotten he wanted Blue Oil and that the massage had nothing to do with a Blue Oil purchase, but I am the world’s worst liar. Like really, criminally bad at it. Oh, I was annoyed. Surprise presents for Z: zero (again).

We eat at the Corner Café so much now that the servers there don’t even ask for our orders. We show up, and our drinks magically appear on the table. Minutes later, our meals appear. We’re predictable, some would say boring. Today while we ate, we laughed and whooped because of Z guessing his present and because we discovered that for my entire adult life I’ve thought “milieu” meant “expertise” and I stubbornly refused to believe Z’s definition until I’d Googled it. (And then I spent the next five minutes saying “milieu” over and over again, dragging the last syllable out like a French-speaking cat, and making us laugh some more.) We aren’t what you’d call high-context humorists.

After lunch, we went to the drugstore to pick up some odds and ends. We had to have some photos made, so I left him to it while I did the rest of the shopping and then met him back at the cash register. The clerk briefly held up one of the photos—one that appeared to be of the two of us—and told us that while he didn’t usually look at guest photos, that one caught his eye because it was so sweet. (Aside: we know his statement isn’t altogether true, because he once gushed excessively about how handsome Rick’s father was when we had a family photo enlarged. It made us a little uncomfortable.) I didn’t think anything about it other than Z must have made some photos of us to send to Z-ma. Then, as the cashier handed us our bags, he said something that sounded vaguely like “Congratulations on your years together.” Weird, I thought.

We slogged out of the shop into a downpour, me trailing behind Z like a baby duck trying to keep up with its mother, haranguing him all the way: What did that guy say? And finally Z growled back at me, That silly man! It was supposed to be a surprise. He’s ruined it!

When we got home, Z presented me with a photo that Mom took of Z and me this fall, looking out over Lake Washington and holding hands. He’d printed a happy engagement message above it, as a sort of sweet, personalized card to commemorate the day. It’s sitting next to the bulldogs-at-the-movie anniversary card I got him, which was also not really a surprise because I had to dig it out of my underwear drawer and sign it in the bedroom like an after thought because I forgot to get it ready yesterday while he was out of the house. I briefly considered giving him the Blue Oil as an engagement anniversary present, but then I thought, December 25th is a ways off—there’s still a chance he’ll forget what’s coming to him.

There’s also a good chance that after we run down the litany of engagement memories we’ll end up watching West Wing on Netflix tonight and eating the remains of a decapitated Gingerbread Man, which isn’t quite as glamorous or exciting as life this time six years ago, but I don’t think I’d get in my time machine for do-overs if you paid me. I like our little rut. Our (non)surprises. Us.

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