Wednesday, October 19, 2005


In Which Treasure is Found...

I know that the way my blog--and therefore my life--tends to go, you're all primed for a typically disastrous third act. I've spent two posts setting you up for the big event, so the last post must be the catastrophic pay-off, the moment where whatever house of cards I've built just falls apart, leaving me sprawled in a bloody heap, wondering what the hell happened while everyone looks on and laughs. Right?

Well, ordinarily, I'd love indulge you with yet another installment of self-deprecating disaster. But every once in a great while--maybe even once in a lifetime--something DOES go as planned...

* * *

On the morning of her 23rd birthday, Her Lovely Self sat in her office with her coffee and a fresh stack of faxes. It was Fax Friday after all, the day when companies everywhere deluged her office with press materials.

About five releases in, one caught her eye and she had to read it three times before she realized what it was:


October 12, 1992

Highland Park, IL--Wastewater Management, Inc., the nation's largest privately held wastewater remediation company today unveiled an ambitious strategic initiative for Calendar Year 1993.

"Every since our company founder pioneered the development of the eco-friendly sludge tank, WMI's commitment to cleaner wastewater throughout the industry has remained paramount," said Matt Modesti, CEO of WMI, which this year posted earning of $117 million.

More importantly, today marks the birthday of Her Lovely Self, staff editor at the Small Environmental Trade Magazine, located in suburban Chicago.

"She's a gifted editor--not to mention SMOKING HOT--and we wish her many happy returns of the day," said Modesti.

Modesti added that HLS might find today's edition of the Chicago Tribune of special interest.

"In particular, she'll want to check out the Personals section for the northwest suburbs," said Modesti. "She can find today's Tribune in the cafeteria downstairs."

This is the 23rd year that Her Lovely Self has been in continuous operation, Modesti noted. "I only hope WMI lasts as long and our future is half as bright," he said.


At 9:42, observers reported Her Lovely Self and one of her girlfriends--a coworker--walking briskly to the building cafeteria, where they purchased a copy of the October 12 Tribune. After a few minutes of giggling and riffling of the paper, there was a cry as the girlfriend pointed emphatically to a section in the personals, which read:


FR: ???

In your office, old boyfriends
And bad stories rest here


Happy Birthday!!

Not many people knew this, but there was a certain file cabinet in Her Lovely Self's office, at the bottom of which, under a hanging file rack, sat several mangled photographs of assorted ex-boyfriends whose photos had, one at a time, been ripped off her bulletin board and discarded here, in this limbo filing area where she also kept files for stories that the magazine had killed and not run.

HLS pulled folder after folder out of the cabinet before finding a small velvet bag. Inside was a silver bracelet with her birthstone set in the middle, and a small sturdy key with a dirty orange knob on the front, the number 342 printed on the knob. She puzzled over the key. By this time, the girlfriend had blabbed to coworkers about the mysterious scavenger hunt Her Lovely Self had embarked on. One colleague examined the key. "Looks like it goes to a locker, like they have at the train station," he said.

"Or the airport," another editor piped up.

But Her Lovely Self had work to do and faxes to finish wading through. With some difficulty, she set the key aside.

Just before noon, the security desk rang and announced Her Lovely Self had a delivery. Everyone was expecting flowers, but instead a man in a white apron arrived, bearing a box containing two Vienna Beef hot dogs with the works, plus fries with melted Merkt's cheese (a local specialty and Her Lovely Self's absolute favorite fast food). Also in the box was an envelope. Inside was a handful of tokens for the El and a note that read: "Some tokens of affection. But don't use them yet! Wait for spring to bloom in your office first."

About an hour later, the security desk called with another delivery. Actually, two, both from the same florist. One was a large bouquet of red roses. The other was slightly smaller bouquet, but of fresh tulips, her favorite flower. She read the card on that one first. It said:

Spring has bloomed, beautiful and bright
(Just like you)
Happy Birthday!


Incidentally, in her desire to decipher the message, Her Lovely Self overlooked the bouquet of roses.

Can you figure out the message?

If you're still trying, don't scroll down.

No really, because I'm gonna give it away in a few lines.

You sure?


Well, after much overthinking and dithering with cryptograms and ciphers, it was determined that the new set of letters should simply be placed next to the earlier set.

This revealed the following message:

(sure you’re ready?)



It was almost 4 o'clock and Her Lovely Self wondered whether she should leave yet. Her boss came out of her office and said, "Are you kidding? Get out of here! But come tomorrow, we want to know all about this treasure hunt."

Her Lovely Self was a little nervous about leaving her car in the lot. Was she really supposed to take the El? She decided to go ahead and do it (although if she had gone to her car, she would have found a note on the windshield that read "What are you doing? Take the El already!!")

From our office, it was just a few train stops to O'Hare International Airport. After a quick check at the information desk, Her Lovely Self determined which terminal contained locker bank #300. She found it in a corner off of a food court, a room occupied only by a large black man who was sitting at the shoeshine chairs, laconically strumming a guitar.

Her Lovely Self put the key into the Locker #342 and opened the door. Inside was another present containing a dress and shoes that she had long lusted after. Wrapped with the clothes was another note, with an address on one side. On the other it said, "These might come in handy where you're going. Better catch your ride."

As she turned to go, she saw the man with the guitar was staring at her. "Are you the birthday girl?" he croaked. She nodded. He cracked a big smile. "That is one crazy man you got." And with that, he began strumming "Happy Birthday."

The airport was bustling now as Her Lovely Self headed across the entranceway to where the cab stand sat. On the way, though, she couldn't help but notice a driver holding a huge sign bearing her name. She went over and identified herself. The driver ushered her to a small car and whisked her into the city. Well, not whisked exactly, seeing as it was rush hour. But by use of assorted surface streets, he got her from the airport to an address in the city with commendable dispatch.

"This is where I'm supposed to go?" she asked the driver. He nodded, showing her his notes with an address that matched the one she found with the clothes in the locker. Just outside was a restaurant she'd always wanted to go to, but which was always reserved months in advance.

The driver let her out and ushered her into the restaurant, wishing her a happy birthday.

Hearing this, the maitre d' hurried over.

"The city magazine yes?" he asked.

She looked at him dumb-founded. He sighed and tried again.

"It's your birthday, correct?"

She nodded. He gently took her elbow and conducted her through the crowded restaurant to the kitchen doors and inside. There, off to one side, was a small table--the chef's table. It seated four, but there was only one person sitting there.

"Happy birthday," I said, smiling like a cat stuffed full of canary.

Of course, it hadn't all gone according to plan. I had rather hoped she'd change into her new dress in the car (she sort of forgot about it in her shock, and later she found out it didn't fit anyway. She kept the shoes though.) And I hadn't expected the shoeshine man to serenade her (he was one of the few people I hadn't even tipped). But overall, the plan had worked like a charm.

And what had the plan been? To compete with SJ? No. Remember what I said about running another man's race? It was beneath me, and frankly it wasn't worthy of Her Lovely Self. No, my motivations were somewhat different.

As I looked at my fat freelance check that night at the bar a week earlier, I realized that I had never before been in a position where I was both in love with a woman and in a position to show it (not show it financially, though the money was going to help). I had often asked myself this question: If I had the resources and the imagination, how special could I make someone's birthday? I wanted it to be exciting, mysterious, romantic, too, if I could muster it. I wanted it tailor-made to woman of my dreams, incorporating as much of her likes and desires and wishes as I could. Given that I only had a weekend to plan it, this seemed like a decent response to the question.

Making cake after cake until I got the recipe right, placing a personal ad in the paper, ordering her favorite flowers to be delivered with a coded note, hiding a gift in her file drawer, ordering lunch delivered along with the El tokens, faxing a bogus press release from the machine upstairs, making sure a limo driver was waiting to intercept her at the airport. That was the easy stuff.

The hard part had been the last part: two seats at the coveted chef's table, which my friend Susan had orchestrated. Her boss, the city magazine editor, was great pals with the chef that owned the restaurant. For the first (and so far only) time in my life, I got someone to pull strings for me. The upshot was that I was granted 90 minutes--from 6 to 7:30--at the table. Two courses only, and I had to pay for the full course meal, plus a serious tip to the head waiter, who made it all happen. But it was seriously worth it.

For now here I was, waiting for her, and incidentally, wearing the last of my freelance check: a brand-new Italian suit I had just bought at the Merchandise Mart that week. It was a gorgeous, double-breasted, dark, dark olive suit, one of the very few garments that I've ever owned that did not clash in some way with the color of my hair (just the opposite, in fact). I looked as close to a million bucks as I ever would in this life. Felt that way too. Her Lovely Self was speechless as she numbly sat at the table and a waiter swiftly appeared from amid the bustle of the kitchen to pour us some wine.

"I thought--" she began.

"You thought this was SJ's big surprise?" I asked.

She nodded.

I leaned in. "Now look, it’s just us here, so tell me honestly: Did you really think he was capable of everything that happened today?"

That brought her out of her shock and she smiled, diplomatically refraining from answering. "Those clues were really clever. I especially liked the ad in the paper." The she frowned. "But--I'm really supposed to meet SJ for dinner."

I had planned for this. I hoped. "What time is he picking you up?"

She bobbed her head this way and that. "Welll, he's stopping by my place around 7 and we're supposed to walk to the sports bar. Then we're coming back to the apartment for cake."

"Covered," I said. "Your roommate's gonna tell him you're running late and she'll go the bar with him. By the time they come back for cake you'll be home."

She made a face. "I dunno. I feel bad blowing him off."

"First of all, it's your birthday. Last time I checked, you can do what you want on your birthday. Second of all, how many times has he blown you off?" And caused you to blow me off too, I thought, but didn't say.

She looked a little more resolute then. "A lot, now that you mention it."

I looked around. "And wouldn't you rather be here than at some smoky sports bar. On your birthday?"

And that pretty much settled that.

We ate what the wait staff gave us: if memory serves I had some kind of salmon with oysters and she had grilled duck with apples (we switched dishes with each other halfway through). Mostly, though, what we had was a good talk. Under any other circumstances, it might have turned into a sniping fight, but I had made a serious effort today and I was full of good will. Not to mention about 40 percent more self-respect than usual.

So when Her Lovely Self worried one more time about blowing off SJ, I smiled, speaking in as even a tone as I could, but still speaking my piece.

"Listen," I said. "I gotta say this, and then I won't say it again. It would be real easy for me to be mad at this guy for jerking you around and taking you away during those times when we had things planned, like that dinner with your grandmother. But the truth is, he hasn't done anything that you haven't allowed him to do."

She put down her fork and looked at me. "Meaning?"

I took a swig of wine. It was no time to lose my nerve. "For weeks I've listened to you complain about this guy, the way he blows you off or calls you at the last minute. You complain, but you drop what you're doing willingly enough. And often as not, what you drop is me. You gripe about SJ's behavior but you kind of indulge it. And you do it at my expense, you know." I said it all in a breath. Suddenly, my chest was pounding and my hands were shaking.

I braced, waiting for Her Lovely Self to get defensive or reply in anger. But instead, tears welled up in her eyes. "You're right," she said, as it dawned on her (better late than never) that she'd been doing the same thing to me that he'd been doing to her." Now she was crying. "And you still did this thing for me." She dabbed her shining eyes and stared at me in, I’d like to think, a somewhat new light. "Why did you do all this?"

"Because you deserve it," I said. "And because I wanted you to myself for once. Because I deserve that."

But she wasn't hearing me. "You must hate me," she said, staring at her hands.

"No," I said, trying to think how to word it. "I mean yes, sometimes. I guess. I sort of see myself as two people. The guy who's your friend hates getting blown off every time someone else calls." I took another breath (I sure was using a lot of oxygen all of a sudden). "But...but there's another guy too. And he's in love with you."

Boy that got her attention. Suddenly, I felt my mouth go dry as she looked at me with an expression of surprise and wonder and maybe just a little bit of hope. Anyway, it's a look I can still see today, pretty much any time I close my eyes. "He's in love with you," I repeated. "And so, you know, when you're in love you put up with a lot of shit. At least I do. So...there you go," I finished lamely.

Or maybe not so lamely, because then she reached across the table and kissed me. It was a good hard kiss on the mouth, a real smacker, with just a little bit of tongue. From the moment I'd seen her, I always thought Her Lovely Self had just the greatest lips and wondered what it would be like to kiss them. Not just a peck, you know, but to really plant one on her. I wasn't disappointed. Apparently neither was she.

In fact, the only person who was disappointed was the maitre d', who was standing over us, looking pointedly at his watch. It was 7:35.

"We were just finishing," I said.

"Not really," said Her Lovely Self, catching her breath.

By the time we got back to her apartment, there was quite a party going on. Cindy, HLS's roommate and my inside man, er, woman, had invited quite a few folks over for cake, including a pal of mine from work and HLS's girlfriend, who had obviously spent the even regaling the assembled party with what little of the birthday treasure hunt she had witnessed. When Her Lovely Self walked through the door, everyone cried some form of birthday wish. When I came in, my pal from work slapped me on the back. "Nicely done," he whispered. Then he stepped back and looked at me. "New suit?"

The only one who wasn't cheering or saying much of anything was SJ. He looked like he'd accidentally wandered into the wrong life but was being forced to stay until it was over. He didn't make eye contact with me at all. But he did go over and clumsily hug Her Lovely Self.

"Sorry I was late," he said, and began digging himself a hole from which he never again emerged. For it was then that he revealed that he had called Her Lovely Self at work (although by that time she was off to the airport). He had wanted to let her know he was going to be busy with a client and wouldn't be able to take her to dinner as he had planned. But he had made it over in time for cake.

And, I like to think, a nice fat side order of comeuppance.

"Hey," he said to her suddenly. "You got my surprise, right?"

Oh yeah, his surprise, the big surprise he'd been planning for weeks.

Well, remember that other bouquet of flowers? The roses that arrived the same time as the tulips I'd sent? That was it. That was his big surprise.

(No, see, he sent flowers. To her. At work.)

(I almost felt sorry for the poor bastard, then. Almost.)

Then Cindy, who would turn out to be very happy with the tent I gave her for her help, looked at SJ, then at Her Lovely Self. "Roses? I thought you hated roses, girl. Didn't you know that, SJ?"

I'd like to tell you SJ's reaction to that and a dozen other moments that night provided me with some measure of sweet validation, but in truth he was barely on my mind, as I stood there by the window, watching our friends chatter and hearing everyone sing "Happy Birthday" as Cindy brought out the red velvet cake I had dropped off earlier in the day (red velvet cake version 5.0, to be honest). I felt myself in a strange and completely uncharacteristic moment of serenity. I was in a total state of grace. For once, everything I had planned--well, everything that mattered--had fallen into place and I had gained something I hadn't thought possible: a chance, a real chance with the woman of my dreams.

I have joked many times since about how much of a factor pity must have played in her original decision to go out with me, but if you want bald honesty, the truth is, I earned that chance by finally deciding to be the kind of man Her Lovely Self deserved, and not by worrying about who was competing with me, or whether or not someone was in the same league as me. Because, really, if you want someone badly enough, then you already have everything you need to transcend whatever league you think you're in, to essentially be in a league of your own. It may only happen for one night.

But sometimes, one night is enough.

As I stood there, taking it all in, my friend from work came over, still beaming, still shaking his head in disbelief. "Gotta say, man, I have never heard of anyone going to such lengths. You should have seen the look on the other guy's face when he heard what was going on. You are a fucking legend." Then he looked around to see if we were going to be overheard. "I gotta ask, though: What the hell are you gonna do next year? How do you top this?"

I froze. Shit. He had a point. I had just set the bar too high for anyone to beat, not SJ, for sure. But possibly not even me.

"I have no idea," I finally said, in a tone that I can only describe as bemused horror. "I guess I'll have to propose to her."

Then we both laughed. Because it was funny.

Later, we laughed because it was true.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

this is why you topped the list of men I love -- I'm all veklempt
All I gotta say is 'goosebumps', man.

Well done.
You brought me to tears. I now officially am totally crushing on you. My birthday is twelve days from now...would you mind terribly if I printed out this saga for my husband so maybe it would spark some imaginative *well hidden* gene in him? Then again, you not only set the bar high for yourself with that birthday surprise, you set the bar impossibly high for all husbands EVERYWHERE. He may be resentful.
Well done, indeed.
Oh, that was fabulous!
I am sending your saga to my boyfriend in hopes that he can find some romantic ideas to wow me. You have also risen to the top of my "men I don't know, but I have a crush on" list. Not that such a lists exists, but if it did, you would be a number one, far and away.
You've brought tears to my eyes...and my husband is twitching in the background. He knows that I just read a serious bit of "wow" romance. How can anyone, anywhere, measure up, MM? You've more than earned this life that you so enjoy!
Nicely done, MM! Well planned AND well executed.
I can't even breathe! Amazing.
Wow ... unbelievable
MM, you rock. And HLS must be fabulous (which I suppose we already knew!), to deserve such a well-planned birthday treat.

Question, though - do we get to hear about the proposal? I have a feeling there's a story there...
WOW - I have no words. This was not just an amazing story, but just an amazing thing for you to do for HLS!! Good for her, MM. I mean, good job to you ;-) More guys-in-love should be like you.
Now wait just a friggin minute.

You totaly glossed over the fact that it was the recipe for the red velvet cake that got you in the sack with her. Phone calls and flowers and a table at Trotter's?


We BOTH know it was the recipe I gave you.

And you still owe me that favor, ass-wipe.

Yr. Brother
i loved this story. --b
When I was sixteen, shortly after my father died, I decided to give my, um, then wife prospect, a bed of roses. I couldn't afford to buy actual roses though. The good news was that the local flower stores all let ne take the petals off of the roses that they were going to throw away anyway.

I covered the bed with the petals, then, later, led her into the room. She screamed, and man was it a scream, "what the hell is touching my ass?!?"

It didn't get any better from there. My wonderful, romantic idea totally backfired. Good to hear that it worked out for you though.
Ruined...for all of us guys.
I now have to start every introduction to a new girl with, "Do you read Magazine Man? Because no normal guy is that good."

Seriously though...Bravo! A truly awesome story!
God damn, MM.

Please let my future dates/girlfriends/wives never EVER read this story.

Well done, sir.

You did great!!

If I had just stumbled upon your blog during this three day story of ultimate romance I would think you were making the whole thing up. But since I've been an avid reader for lo these past 8 months I know it's all true. Damn you for making me crush on you AGAIN!

There is no way in hell I'm letting my wife read this one.
My wife is 30 next month... thank god she doesn't read this!
Wow.... this is absolutely beautiful. You brought me to tears, and I cried on the stack of faxes sitting on my own desk.

I'm turning 23 next month... I think I'll send your URL to my boyfriend ;)

Thank you for sharing this.
Well done. I find it amusing that all the male responses are hoping their female others don't read this, and all the female respones hope their male ones do! I'm sure if my husband tried this he'd burn down the house or something.

I did a treasure-hunt for my boyfriend (now husband) that wasn't as extensive, but quite romantic, and he just walked over to my dorm room and said 'what the hell does this mean?' So kudos to HLS for going through with it. ;)
Fucking legend is right!
Are you TRYING to make all of the girls wish their men were as sweet as you? It appears to have worked! Wow, man. You know how to make a woman feel special. Now tell us about the proposal!
My mom doesn't quite get the whole "Blog" thing. I sent her your story and told her that this is why I spend 15 minutes out of my life every single day reading yours.
MM, that was stunning. I've been away/busy the last couple of days, so I didn't have time to sit down and read your last three posts until just now. I started them chronologically, reading them in the proper order. You made my heart ache for you in your first couple of entries, then with this last post you just made my heart melt. That was beautiful.

Now on with the proposal! :)
Wow, HLS is one lucky lady.
The longest, breathiest, sweetest most 1950's dreamy romantic sigh doesn't come close to doing this justice.

Excuse me while I just bask for a while. Wow.
You got the girl, women love you, men fear you.

Hell of a story, MM. My hat is off.
There was only one thing I could say after reading this...



One day, MM, I want to be just like you.


You went and made a 21-year-old college student male cry... Wow, man.

Well done.
This, is why some girls hold out.

I love how you guys can make a plan come together when you really want to, and when you do, damn does it make an impact!
I suddenly have so many ideas for my girlfriends birthday. Thanks. :)
Oh my GOD MM! I have tears in my eyes. This is the most wonderful birthday story I have ever heard. Heck, it's probably one of the most wonderful stories I have EVER read. I am going to insist my hubby read this. He's just the type to do something similar.

And what choice did HLS have but to marry you?

Just brilliant.

I am speechless.

Do i need some ellipsses now?

... Melissa
You found treasure all right, MM. And so did HLS. Are the movie rights up for sale?
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