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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Twenty Days in the City of Angels: The 15th Day (I'm Late, I'm Late) [on Howard Fox's 50th Birthday]

Howard Fox Jim Morphoesis, at another birthday celebration
Ever since I first met my companion, Howard has told me again and again that he does not like surprises, while I am very fond of them. Accordingly, when even before we open our Christmas gifts, Howard reveals the contents, I feel all the joy has been wiped away before I've even pulled the ribbon from the wrap; he, on the other hand, seems utterly annoyed by my secretive silence as he pulls the paper away from yet another DVD or cookbook!
Despite this attitude, however, I have often tried, particularly on special occasions, to find a way to bring a little startlement into his life. I often give up, however, before I have even begun, since he pleads beforehand each time that I cease and desist with any secret plots, warning me of his certain displeasure and possible anger.

For Howard's 50th birthday in 1996, nonetheless, I was determined that I was going to arrange something very special, perhaps even astounding. A few weeks before, we had eaten at an excellent small Italian tratorria, La Luna, in the nearby Larchmont neighborhood. Their Pennetta Fume and gnocchi had been particularly excellent. So I determined to rent out the entire restaurant for the evening, inviting about 50 of his and my friends.

A few weeks before the event, Howard once again warned me to not to plan anything "unusual" for his birthday, and begged me on several occasions to let him know if I had planned anything. This time I kept a stone face, refusing to be moved by what I perceived as strange strictures. But as the date came closer, I could see that he was highly suspicious, particularly when I suggested we might return to the Larchmont restaurant on the night in question. Usually, we simply asked each other where the celebrant would like to dine.

"So why are you so eager to go there?" he asked, carefully observing my demeanor.

"Remember how much we enjoyed that meal?" I pleaded.

"Yes, it was excellent. But we've only been there once. What if I wanted steak?"

"You can get steak anytime; and we eat too much meat," I responded, knowing that I'd better come up with another reason quickly or he'd immediately recognize my ploy. "Besides, I was impressed by how inexpensive it was. And it's so close. We don't have to drive far."

"I'll think about it," he frowned.

A few days later, I tried again: "Well we could go to Pane e Vino, which has such a pleasant garden. But the food isn't as good."

"How about Morton's [a nearby steakhouse]?"

"We always go to Morton's! I want to go to some place special for your 50th birthday!"

"And what's this thing you've got with Italian food all of a sudden?"

"I don't know. I just enjoyed La Luna, and found it pleasant. I thought it'd be fun—and affordable," I added.

"I don't really care," he stared me down, "but something's up."

"Absolutely not," I insisted. "Tell me where you want to go."

"As I said," I don't care, Howard demurred. "But don't surprise me."

"Oh I wouldn't do that," I lied. "I know how much you hate it."

But now I knew he truly did suspect, and I understood that I had to find some way to distract him from the facts. I spoke with my senior editor, Diana Daves, seeking her suggestions.

"You could drug him and drag him over there," she laughed. "But maybe if John and I join the two of you for a drink beforehand to celebrate, he'll be confused. We'll tell him we're on our way to a movie, and just want to toast him before we go."

"That's a great idea," I smiled, relieved by the recognition that if there had been a larger party planned, the two of them would certainly be included. If they told him they were going elsewhere, we'd confuse him, if nothing else.

I told Howard that Diana and her husband John wanted to see us before dinner. Indeed, we were to meet in a location in the opposite direction from the restaurant. Howard frowned in doubt. "They're coming in from the valley just for a movie?" he queried.

"Yeah, it's only playing at the Music Hall."

Howard always enjoyed the company of Diana and John, and that evening was no different. After a drink or two the conversation was flowing and he had nearly forgotten any fears he had had for the evening ahead. But suddenly, after glancing at a nearby clock, he asked: "When does you movie begin?"

Our friends had done their homework. "6:45," said John.

"You're going to be late!" Howard announced.

"What time is it?" Diana innocently asked.

"6.30," he replied.

"Oh dear."

"Oh dear," added John.

Suddenly they both stood like two frantic rabbits out of Alice in Wonderland, declaring: "We better go. We'll be late. We'll be late," quickly disappearing from the bar.

Howard took another sip from his scotch. "They're not going to make it," he said. "Particularly at this hour."

"Oh, I hope they do."

"They'll miss their movie," he opined.

As we got into the car, Howard asked, "Now we're on to Morton's?"

"Well, if you really want to go to Morton's," I pouted. "But I was so looking forward to La Luna."

"You're not planning anything?"

"If I were planning something," I responded, "I'd be nervous. Do I look nervous?"

"Yes, you look nervous," he laughed.

Off we drove to La Luna, and a few minutes later were walking down the street to the restaurant. There at a table in the doorway sat Diana and John.

Howard was so confused that for a few seconds he just stood in place, entirely perplexed, peering into the room where all our friends sat.

"So you missed your movie?" Howard laughed.
"Sure did," said Diana.

The room broke into applause, with some singing as we moved toward the back. Next to us sat one of Howard's artist-friends, Jim Morphesis, who had brought him a plastic trophy. "Here, you need an award," Jim announced.

Everyone—it would be pointless to try to recall all those I had invited—broke into conversation, a few asking: "Are you upset with Douglas for the surprise?"

"Yeah, I'm pissed," Howard answered. "But when I look around the room at all of you, I forgive him."

Los Angeles, July 17, 2009

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