Surprise Parties

The essential character of most adult surprise parties is that they rarely result in the intended surprise. By design or blundering, the guest of honor almost always discovers the plot in advance. He then faces the diplomatic challenge of ignoring the signs that something is afoot and feigning astonishment when all is sprung. If he’s learned of the plot without the planner’s apparent knowledge, and if the planner is his intimate, his situation grows elaborate. Perhaps, his friend, or lover, has intended that he find out about the impending party, with the notion that he will savor the anticipation. Or perhaps the proud contriver wishes him to be extra touched by how much has gone into the contrivance.

Complicity abounds in such scenes. They’re ceremonial, like Christmas. Those who aspire only to the standard surprise party want Christmas morning as it never was, or only was once. They crave to see a child’s sweet shock blossom from an adult’s countenance—flabbergastedness, the world gone painlessly topsy-turvy. For the rest of us, the party equals the ritual of dressing up the tree and putting out the cookies and milk for Santa. We wake to the presents we’ve purchased from the department store, wrapped and left in his name.

We need not lament this latter fakery. Quite the opposite. It’s the real celebration. Subdued or overt, much pretending after the age of, say, sixteen trades in adolescent fantasy or bureaucratic rationalization. And while some of this ugliness and pathos may creep in the play of the expected surprise party–in the opening of foreseen gifts—a better lying offers itself. The lying necessary to love.

Rightly, we’re taught to revere plain honesty. Yet what lover hasn’t embraced the beloved, looked into that face, and said the things which that other being relishes and knows to be fantastical? And says them merely to please. This kind of lie is a humoring of the highest order. In such gestures, we witness our love’s attempt to fabricate the moment for us. Like hearing that person try, however shyly and incompetently, to talk dirty to us, it’s the display of willingness which makes us love them more. In deciding to please us, they find they might please themselves along the way, and we’re both altered by what we’ve made together.

Thus, we discover wonder beyond our arrangements; the territory of the predictable gives way to mapless terrain. Our friends jump out of the darkness, shouting “surprise!” (as if to tell us what is happening), and we gasp and grin and thank, loving them by dissembling as much as we sense each wishes. In this pretending, we come to feel something of what we pretend to, and something else. And so do they. A surprise party of this sort is a benign imitation of the stickier secrets we keep from each other and ourselves, and it parodies our demand for simple revelation. The scene is oddly purified by the impurity of the motives that suffuse it. And it allows us to manage more deftly the matters of intimacy and privacy–all we cannot conceal or reveal—on a larger scale than usual.

This kind of drama probes one’s capacity for delight. I welcome the guest of honor’s genuine stupefaction because it’s borne of a generous plan, as are few shocks. I welcome his awe at the grand labor, at the rare, nearly-miraculous convergence of lives upon his life. Yet, I love the imitation more. In such circumstances, it represents a zany resistance to the grim, handy facts of life that loiter at the perimeter of each gathering intended to promote joy. As such, it is not a blindness but a wise blitheness, a small deliverance from daily griefs.

The faker can see that some of the guests—his friends and acquaintances–are exhausted, or burdened by illness, debt or thwarted dreams, or that some of them are only a step from embracing the least nourishing portions of their characters. Still, he plays to engage everyone present, to multiply the artifice and the pleasures its enthusiasms might bear. He is like the man who has seen ninety-nine sunsets from a certain promontory and yet walks to it at dusk with those eager to show him the view. After all, it’s the first time he’s regarded the sundown there for the hundredth time.

Of course, these observations presume that the guest of honor is correct that a premeditated surprise awaits. If none appears to him at the divined hour, he confronts the tortuous demand to simulate his heretofore ordinary life. He retreats to a flimsy, hurried-up fortress of routine and peers from it at the suddenly-distant figures he had inferred were the party planners, people once close to him, who were going to acknowledge him as special—betrayers, now. And he may even honor his frustration and embarrassment with the solace that he has met a brute truth of existence.

It’s a perfect moment for the cake and embraces to come forth.

In the twilight after the gifts are opened and shown around, and the executed plan has become history, some guests may drink too much and argue, or leave too early with people they will wish they had avoided, or steep themselves in shop talk or not go home until they are nearly evicted. In short, each of us embarks on further collusions and collisions; we walk on into our own recognition scenes, some of which are unbearable. And for awhile, we do this in the gathered presence of others doing the same, our expectations and intentions nearly always leading to regions beyond themselves. Whether we have thrown the party or had it thrown for us, or have attended it out of affection or duty, we face the certainties and ambiguities which the faker chooses to affirm, entertain, deny or redefine. If we get this choice, we and our conspirators decide how serious the play is to be, how much delight—or perhaps even horror—can be allowed into our lives at that moment. We decide if this is a way that love can be acted out, and if not, what else.