We weren’t confused with Russian spies, and we didn’t end up spending three days with the mob, but a run-of-the-mill bad date is still a bad date…unless it’s with the greatest woman in the world.
I love buying flowers for my fiancée on ordinary days. Nothing conveys that notion that “I really dig you, for reals…!” quite like latching onto a handful of roses and setting them up on the kitchen island. This goes over well if it’s done with full flourish. Cut the bottom inch off of the stems, dig that slightly oversized vase out from under the sink basin, add that packet of cocaine-looking food supplement, and fill it up with water. For added effect, lean one of those $4.00 “Just Because” greeting cards against the vase, and scatter the surface of the island with that handful of pink-and-white M&M’s you found in your briefcase. The result is always magical.
Of course, the reason this works is because it’s spontaneous. And the number one benefit of those unscheduled “I love you” moments is that the expectations are so low, that all you have to do to hit a home-run is breathe. But when it’s not an ordinary day…? When the occasion is a big one, and those expectations rank somewhere between delivering a State-of-the-Union address and batting in the bottom of the ninth to keep the series alive…? That’s when all those mistakes you never noticed end up catching more attention than a 3:00AM Donald Trump tweet.
Such was the case late last year. You see, Wendi’s birthday falls on December 18th, and like everyone I know with a December birthday, she loathes it. This wasn’t a new revelation on my part. My dad’s birthday falls three days shy of the Big Savior’s 2K-candle shindig, and while my old man always downplayed a lifetime of disappointment with dismissive arm-waving and bits of casual harumpfery, I always knew better. Summer kids get pool parties and nights around the fire making s’mores. December kids get that one box wrapped in deep blue Howdy Doody paper surrounded by a heaping mountain of nativity scenes and fat Santa Clauses.
So, as Wendi’s big day arrived, I resolved that this year she would enjoy a genuine birthday. A night for her, about her, celebrating her. Instantly I scoured the Internet looking for the right gig. When it comes to our musical tastes, Wendi and I are “small-audience” music people. Sure, we’ll hit up a show at The Lawn (great venue) and sometimes the old Deer Creek joint north of the I-69 bottleneck (not such a great venue)…but more times than not we enjoy dropping in on a show in a 200-person nightclub such as The Hi-Fi, The Vogue, or The Bluebird.
But everywhere I looked, the bands didn’t fit. I cross-referenced the names on the lineup with their work on YouTube: too twangy…too rappy…or that Skrillex DJ’ing-is-the-new-Saxaphone stuff… All I wanted was a singer-songwriter with a good hand at the guitar, a sense of humor, a reasonably steady voice…you know an upbeat coffee-shop performer with a penchant for songs about tragic relationship disasters and horrible turns of fate. Alas, despite candidly documenting lives of abject misery on a foot-tall stack of CD’s, most of them had dialed back their live shows so they could spend time at home surrounded by the warmth and love of their families. Hypocrites.
My options narrowed, so I gulped hard and went to the fancy commercial website for that grand old stage the Shriners built over a hundred years ago. Even though a big-time bank has ponied over fistfuls of cash to change the name, I still call it the Murat…which always sounds forced when I say it…probably because I’m especially bad at being French. Once I found the website I scrolled the page, clinging to a desperate hope that Ray LaMontange or Ryan Adams had maybe been guilted into a special Christmas performance to raise money for homeless pandas. For the record, I’m not a huge fan of either singer, less so for the music (which is okay…if overplayed…a lot…). Mostly it’s because Wendi professes to “love” them with a tone of voice which makes me moderately nervous. While I’m quite sure neither of them will approach her with back-stage passes, I’m very confident that if either one of them blew out a tire in front of the house, I would lock Wendi inside and personally pay the extra $50 to make sure the tow truck arrived inside of five minutes.
The only gig in town was Straight No Chaser, an acapella group which had started at Indiana University, then ran out of steam and disbanded, then caught fire on YouTube, and now tours the world celebrating international fame. I was intrigued. It wasn’t that Skrillex thing, at least. But still…acapella…on one of the biggest date nights of the year. It sort of felt like scoring Super Bowl tickets the same year the NFL changed the rules to two-hand touch. For the longest time I hesitated, my mouse hovering over the click button. Most of the shows—something like four or five of them—were sold out. I could sit in the upper section on a Saturday night for the price of one index-finger and my first grandchild, or I could get lower level Friday night seats for a kidney and retina. I went for the upper level, figuring I’d probably be almost dead when my kids give me grandchildren, anyway.
I scrolled the page, clinging to a desperate hope that Ray LaMontange or Ryan Adams had maybe been guilted into a special Christmas performance to raise money for homeless pandas.
Before closing down my browser, I took one last scan at the page—by now I was on one of those middleman “Ticket Hero” sort of sites. In dark, bold letters “Ticket Hero” told me what I needed to know: “Doors Open at 7:30.” I looked up down the page for a start time. Couldn’t find one. Odd.
Still, I’m a smart guy, so I thought it out. Doors at 7:30, they give people at least an hour to get settled in their seats…of course they want to sell beers there…so the show must start at 9:00. That made sense to me. If the headlining act at the Hi-Fi doesn’t even start his sound check until 9:30, then it seemed logical for high-dollar operation like Straight No Chaser to get rocking…I mean harmonizing…by 9:00. My time frame set, I went to another website, landed primo 6:30 reservations for a super nice restaurant in the same part of Indy, and I proudly told Wendi that she was finally going to enjoy a true birthday. This weekend, she was going to be my queen.
Two days later, I gleefully turned north on Delaware and headed to Mass Ave. Once a bohemian district, the Mass Ave District has become so gentrified, that the city’s maintenance department often has to put in overtime to make sure the flakes of gold stay properly embedded in the bricks and cornerstones. And when a cool bohemian district becomes a glitzy gentrified district, that also means that finding parking place and finding social justice become an evenly matched contest.
The plan was to park in one of the pay spots along the Avenue, halfway between the Murat and our restaurant, and enjoy relaxing urban strolls from one end of the district to the other. Instead we looped the neighborhood three times. Each time I found myself stuck on the south end of Massachusetts, trying to make that forced left turn onto Vermont, then over to East Street, so I could do it all again. By the time I gave up my quest for a coveted street spot, and settled for a space on the westernmost edge of the Murat lot, our dinner reservations had come and gone.
Moments later, while meandering the Avenue in search of a place to eat, we passed a cluster of women heading the other way. As they walked by us Wendi and I overheard one of them turn to her friend and say: “We have to hurry. The doors open at 6:30.”
“Is she talking about our show?” Wendi asked.
“No,” I said. Sensing that our date was unraveling, I hung a façade of confidence in front of me. “Our doors don’t open until 7:30,” I explained. “I saw it on the website.”
But instead of seating us at the two comfortably looking tables in front of us, we were instead seated at a much shorter, circular set up surrounded by a set of tiny stools. I’m convinced the restaurant usually kept it open in case a few hobbits stopped by on their way to Mordor.
As our dining options faded, Wendi tugged on the door to a local Irish bar, and the vast room filled with empty tables offered the salvation we desperately sought. It wasn’t the wine and roses meal I had envisioned, but we were at least going to see the show on a full stomach. But instead of seating us at the two comfortably looking tables in front of us, we were instead seated at a much shorter, circular set up surrounded by a set of tiny stools. I’m convinced the restaurant usually kept it open in case a few hobbits stopped by on their way to Mordor.
We waited. And as I sat on my stool, my knees tucked into my sternum, my mind rolled back to those women heading to The Murat as we walked away from it:
“Hurry, the doors open at 6:30…”
I looked at my watch…6:50. No one had taken our order yet, but in all fairness, we had just been seated. Still I wondered. Where were those women going? I ran the layout of the Mass Ave district in my head. The Rathskeller would have required a hard left turn which they didn’t make. Any of the live music joints along the Avenue would have called for at least a soft veer to the left…which also didn’t happen. Thumbing through my phone, I bypassed “Ticket Hero” and went directly to The Murat itself.
“Doors Open at 6:30,” it read. And following that: “Showtime—7:30.”
When I told Wendi that we had to order, eat, pay, and get to our seats inside of a half-hour, she made it a point to remind me that she had suspected that 7:30 seemed too late…that those women who passed us had to be talking about our show tonight…that I need to listen to her more often…that I needed to listen to her all the time. I hate it when she’s right…which is all the time.
The food arrived. We hurriedly ate, and when I reached for my credit card I realized my bad night wasn’t over.
I had left my wallet in the car.
Moments after Wendi paid for her own romantic birthday dinner at the hobbit seats in an Irish bar, we hoofed through a steady northwest wind. I apologized to Wendi profusely and even tried to soften the disaster by comparing the date to a round of golf.
“We started off the night with a couple triple-bogeys and a double or two,” I said. “But once we get in our seats and enjoy the show, it’ll be like shooting three-under on the back nine.”
We approached the back entrance to the Murat while I contemplated my options. We were freezing, and the line to this much smaller entrance was long. We could walk around the building—easily another five minutes—so that I could snatch my wallet, or we could stay put and wait for the doors to open.
“What do you want to do?” Wendi asked.
What happened next still runs through my head in slow motion.
What I was thinking was: I don’t care, but let’s get out of this wind and get inside as quickly as possible. I suppose that means we should stay right here.
But what I said was: “Let’s just get this over with.”
“Thanks…” Wendi shot back. The hurt in her voice pierced me: “You just double-bogeyed again.”
As it turns out, the acapella band is pretty good. And even though I found myself thinking that a good, long Fender riff would have added just the right touch, the show was overall enjoyable. More importantly, even though I screwed up every single stage of our date, Wendi is still with me…sitting at my side as I write for that matter.
I’m still going to buy her flowers on no particular day, just because. But I’m also going to put more effort into the “expected” days I once dismissed. Relationships really do take effort, and the big days count every bit as much as the ordinary ones. And even if future dates also go south—always possible with me involved—it won’t ever be for want of enthusiasm or passion. If I had the chance to do her birthday date all over again, I would. Right now. But if “getting it right” means that I have to trade in my enthusiasm for a meaningless sense of obligation, then I’ll take the disaster. Every single time.