Keyi Cui

I was six years old when I went to my first surprise party. My dad was turning 50, so my mom planned a bash for him in our neighbor’s backyard. I remember standing next to my mom in her bathroom as she brushed her teeth. I combed my hair. We were getting ready together for a day filled with errands, the majority of which I would spend looking out the open window or trying to read street signs in the parking lot. The bathroom was thick with steam from her shower. I squinted my eyes to look at my reflection through the foggy mirror. My mom towered above me, and so did all the other party planners.

I can trust you to keep a secret, right? I nodded and told her she could. I was proud of myself for being the trustworthy kid, even though I wasn’t up against much competition — my brothers were still learning to say thank you and tie their shoes. Everything seemed hushed and exciting. I nodded and told her she could. She told me that we were going to have a party for my dad’s 50th birthday, that I couldn’t tell anyone and that I was invited. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t told me for so long. I thought of everything we needed to prepare: we needed pointy hats and streamers and faces launching out of the dark screaming “surprise!”

My dad was making tea while I waited for breakfast in my pajamas. I asked my dad if my uncle was coming to the party, and he smiled. Later, my mom explained to me what blowing a surprise meant.

I remember walking around a wide-open backyard in the grass. The breeze felt cool and foggy. I couldn’t tell how far back the grass stretched. I wore a sundress picked out by my mom. I taunted the hound-like dogs with crackers; they were gray and sleek and much taller than I was. I remember pineapple upside down cake and paper plates and dirty plastic forks strewn all across the dance floor. I remember bending down to pick them up after everyone had gone home, way past my bedtime. I remember seeing some of my dad’s friends for the first time; friends who had travelled overseas from their jobs in London or up the coast from their jobs in Miami. I saw my friends’ parents dressed up and dancing in each others’ arms. My dad flew around from friend to friend — I didn’t see him all night.

Last year I attended my own surprise birthday party. We danced in the basement of my friend’s home. On our way to a restaurant, my best friend at the steering wheel gleefully shrugged her shoulders and made a U-turn back to the town behind us. Our friends waited for us in the basement. Someone flipped a switch and 20 faces lit up as we turned the corner. I remember falling down on the floor before I could greet anyone. We took turns dancing with the crumpled birthday balloons and, like the self-conscious high school students we were, watched ourselves in the full-wall mirror the whole night. My friend and I role played Rihanna and Drake in “One Dance.” I drove home and read kind notes and put the celebratory birthday cigars away for a rainy day. They’re still somewhere in my drawer at home.

On February 2nd, we celebrated my suitemate’s birthday on the confined dance floor of my common room. I pulled out all the stops and bought not one, but two $1 cellophane “Happy Birthday!” signs and hung them high on our brick wall. We swept our floor for the first time in months and soon, the entire room was perfumed with bleach. We wiped off the grime and pushed aside the abandoned problem sets on our coffee table and spent too many measured minutes arranging our measly three bottles of wine and paper plates and candles. Unable to find a speaker, we debated playing our “Splendiferous Jessica” playlist simultaneously on 10 phones.

We concocted a number of elaborate plots to dupe Jessica. Ultimately, we settled on staging two separate emotional breakdowns timed one after the other in our adjacent suites. After comforting our friend, Jessica walked through our door to see what my story was, but instead I looked at her from my couch as she entered our suite and screamed “surprise!” We gave toasts and listened to the synchronized phone music and ordered chicken nuggets when the time was right.

Annie Nields |