Queen for a day

Birthday week continues…

Yesterday, we were reminiscing together about my best friend throwing me a wonderful surprise birthday party for my 40th birthday.  I can only recall one happier birthday.

I may have mentioned that she was two years younger than me.  During the party, I already started planning a return of the favor for her.  With two years to plan the event, I knew I would have time to make it perfect.

My friend had two great joys about Florida life:  the water and the seafood.  I still rib her today about moving her family to one of the driest places in America.

She liked boats, but they had to be big.  One birthday, I took her out on one of those “cruise to nowhere” trips that run you out for a day so you can gamble (which we didn’t do) or sit on the deck and watch the ocean (which we did do).  That was nice, but a bit too large and impersonal (not to mention the hassle of going to the port).  Still, I wanted something that combined boats and seafood.

Eventually, I came across something called the Jungle Queen, a riverboat tour that went up what is called the “New River” in Ft. Lauderdale, eventually docking at an “island” where they put on a show and had a BBQ including ribs, burgers, corn and, most importantly, shrimp.  OK, I think we were looking pretty good.  Next was managing the guest list and the surprise.  For that, I needed to employ the ultimate prankster, aka my friend’s husband.

We plotted, planned and connived the process by which to surprise her.  With their son only about three at the time, I hit upon the idea of me wanting to take her whole family out, but him claiming he had to work late (which he often did).  He took it a step further and suggested he could claim he was too tired and would just look after their son, but she should have a good time.

In the meantime, he and her older son worked up a list of family and friends to invite and I worked up the list of work friends to invite.  As is my usual over-the-top gift giving tendency, I volunteered to cover the banquet costs for all the guests if they just paid the boat fare.  There were the usual protests, but I held firm, claiming this was no different than anyone buying all the food for a party at their home.  I really wanted a big turnout and fortunately, the boat fare was the smaller of the two charges.

The next big key was coordinating the arrivals.  The boat only allowed boarding by a certain time and not after a certain time.  The key was to get the guests on the boat before I brought my friend but get my friend on the boat before her husband and family arrived.  We also had to make sure there were no decorations on the boat, since my whole shtick was going to be just the two of us having a quiet birthday dinner.

In one of those amazing and fortunate results that only seem to happen on the best intentioned ideas, everyone made it onto the boat before my friend and I got there.

Brief digression:  I didn’t have a cell phone then.  In fact, I didn’t get a cell phone until about five years ago and only because my boss at work lost track of me at a big convention once (coincidentally in my friend’s new hometown of Las Vegas).  I had hoped to be the only man in the modern world who managed to avoid owning a cell phone.  More on this another day.  End brief digression.

My friend kept asking me where we were going to eat and I kept coyly avoiding direct answers.  The boat was not close by, so she grew more curious and insistent in her questions.  I simply repeated my mantra that she would enjoy the place and I was combining her most favorite things in the world, which amused me more to know how many of her favorites would be there.

When she saw the boat she laughed and smiled and gave me a quick hug of thanks.  That was a moment made for the movies, since she was looking at the boat while she was hugging me and I was looking over her shoulder and saw her husband pulling into the parking lot with the rest of the family.  Thankfully, he saw me right then, too, so he quickly ducked the car behind some docked boats and parked.

I bought some time by pointing out the beautiful sunset and talking about which of the many boats docked there I would like to own one day.  In my peripheral vision, I could see her husband carrying their son, with her other son, daughter and parents following.  I turned her shoulders and kept her eyes directed at the skyline while we got on board.

As the boat finally left, I guided my friend to the back of the boat; the section I had already discussed with the tour director that held the friends who had arrived earlier.  She gasped and gave me a look and a small jab, then went over to greet all the friends.  Between squeals and laughter, I managed to set the moment up by saying it was too bad her husband couldn’t make it, to which she appropriately responded someone had to look after her son.

Almost on cue, there was a noise, whether a cry or a laugh, I couldn’t tell, but in the uncanny way that Moms have, she froze, not able to understand why her ears seemed to be hearing her son’s voice.  At that point, her family came out from the under-deck and I actually had a moment of fear thinking she was having a heart attack.

Of course, the rest is easy to guess.  Everyone had a terrific time, with the guests all feeling almost as much joy as my friend.  The barbecue was scrumptious, my friend eating plenty and plenty of shrimp and we also had our cake we had picked up and stored in the boat kitchen presented at the end of the dinner, with the two dozen-plus people making a big ruckus singing the birthday song.

For many months afterwards, everyone who attended talked about the day, as much about the joy in my friend’s face as for the fun they all had.  Some of those also ended up having an event hosted on the Jungle Queen, so I suppose even the boat crew was happy for that day.

And that is my best birthday memory ever.

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