But true divas know that you can keep your naturally flat, boring hair, eclectic style, smeary eyes, and uncured nails and still knock the town sideways with your attitude. And I've got that in spades - especially at certain times of the month. Ask my husband.
So I prepared for my diva birthday by throwing out my previous down-to-earth plans for hiking and picnicking with my family and instead demanding that Matthew take me out to an ultra fancy restaurant, one like we have never known in all our married life. Though previously my frugal tendencies might have gotten in the way, I was about to turn 35, an age known for reckless enjoyment of surf and turf dinners.
I threatened to get my hair professionally done for the occasion. Matthew didn't flinch. He said I could get a mani/pedi, too - maybe even take a friend for moral support if I had a fear of uppity strangers filing my nails and exfoliating my feet with sharp utensils. So, as any true diva would, I demanded, "Why? Do you want me to get a manicure? Do you think I need one?"
"No, I don't think you need anything. I just thought it would be nice."
"Well, I hate fake nails!"
"You don't have to get fake nails. They can do stuff with the nails you have, you know."
"Like what?" I asked suspiciously.
"Oh...well, I can do that myself."
I skipped the forbidding mani/pedi and began devious diva plans by dragging my clan to the mall a week before my birthday, so that my entourage could help me pick out a new, enticing perfume for the date night (having just discovered that my man was so-so about the one I had been wearing). Inexperienced as I am in this, I caved in to sentimentality when I spied Elizabeth Arden Sunflowers in a perfume boutique. I jumped, clapped my hands like a simple girl, and exclaimed, "Ooh, you have Sunflowers?!" It wasn't even expensive, yet I had to have it. My brother Nate and sister Annie had bought it for my birthday when I was a teenager, and one spritz of that bright perfume took me straight back to Tennessee. Named as it is after big, yellow, happy flowers, its whole essence warmed me.
I knew a different, more expensive perfume was Matthew's favorite, so I asked with puppy-dog eyes and clasped hands, "Do you mind, Honey?"
He didn't. He understands I'm a sucker for nostalgia. I almost suggested we get both, but I wouldn't be greedy. So I dropped a hint about Christmas.
Afterward, I forced my peeps to shop for a pair of curvy jeans (because real divas have curves), and we spent in excess of $40 on the dark-washed, long-legged pair which made me feel quite naughty.
To top off a truly lovely, successful shopping trip, Matthew bought me a box of chocolates, all dark, and I stuffed some in my mouth before we even got home, as any self-respecting diva would.
There was something about this birthday. I don't fully understand myself what slapped me silly over this number. 30 barely got a nod from me, but 35 felt important. I would like to say my desire for a special evening was because I wanted to celebrate years of continuous blessings, because my life has been just that, but it wasn't that pure. Insecurity pinched my brain, too.
With a recent promotion at work, Matthew has been traveling more and has attended some very nice work dinners with his fellow professionals in town and out of it. Those fancy dinners made me jealous, I'm sorry to admit. Were all of Matthew's decadent meals to be eaten with coworkers? Was I destined to become the boring, homebody wife, not quite a bona-fide writer, with whom he ate take-out pizza on the occasional Friday night?
That was why I requested the fancy restaurant, and I wanted him to choose it for me. I wanted pampering; I wanted romance; and I wanted to make memories together over our own delicious entrees. Plus, I had a little black dress, purchased on a whim months before, that I had yet to wear. It would be perfect.
My 35th was on a Saturday, and we were going out on Sunday night. Though there was a small misunderstanding about who was supposed to find the restaurant, by Friday afternoon Matthew had it all planned.
My husband snuck out of our bedroom Saturday morning and kept shushing the kids, but I had trouble sleeping in; I was too excited. Some minutes after I heard my family leave for the store, I went out to see the birthday sign my children had made for me. I picked out each contribution to the banner easily; they all have their own distinct artistic styles and color preferences. The sign was so beautiful that I sent my husband a praising text.
I was cleaning our house for the new babysitter when Matthew and the children walked in with flowers, balloons, and a very tall salted-caramel mocha, my favorite. As I sipped my skinny, decaf mocha with whipped cream, slowly getting the jitters, Matthew told one of the kids to retrieve a small bag for him from their toy cupboard. Inside was a bottle of J'adore, that other expensive, sensual perfume.
"You shouldn't have," I told him bashfully. "We're going out for that fancy dinner."
That afternoon he made my cake while I watched an old movie with the kids, and later I painted my nails a deep coral color and became so mesmerized by them that I held my hands out in front of me like a sleepwalker, admiring them wherever I went. Having been years since I last painted them, I forgot how pretty they could look.
That day I was joyful, and there could not have been a better finale to it than to eat the pumpkin-chocolate cake that is my forever birthday cake. It has veggies, chocolate and spices without yucky frosting to mess the glorious combination up. The recipe is HERE.
Matthew advised me to bring a shawl on our date. That was confusing. October in Phoenix is like June in other places. But I grabbed a fiery orange-red pashmina.
I had curled my hair, and for once it really turned out. It must have had something to do with that Freeze Hold hairspray I borrowed from my son. My new black dress, turquoise jewelry and older but sexy black heels complimented each other nicely. I did a smoky eye that didn't look like it'd been applied with a crayon and wore red lipstick.
We drove to Scottsdale and pulled up in front of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. That was completely unexpected. Birthday confetti was thrown on our table. We had a veal ravioli appetizer that elicited sighs of satisfaction. We drank wine, and after one glass I was ready to sleep in that circular booth for a couple hours (it was already 8:30pm, after all), but then I ordered onion rings with my crab cakes - yes, onion rings - and they were the most delicious breaded onion slices I have ever had. Matthew and I both devoured them, and their wonderful seasoning perked me right up. The steamed mushrooms also were heaven, but the desert they brought with my name written beautifully in chocolate - in chocolate! - was truly divine.
Matthew took me on a short drive after the restaurant, and my anticipation and confusion grew as we slowly made our way up a manicured road to a golf club. It was deserted. As Matthew bent over his phone anxiously, I realized we weren't quite where we were supposed to be for the second act of our evening.
He soon found the place off a winding side street. It was a Hyatt Regency resort, hidden by gigantic palm trees, like sentinels in the darkness. Holding Matthew's hand as we threaded our way through the immaculate grounds and pristine lobby, I wondered why we were there. Were we going to see a jazz concert? Go dancing? Have another decadent chocolate desert? Were we getting a room?
Matthew asked the ladies at the concierge desk, "Where are the gondola rides?"
"You're taking me on a gondola ride?"
I felt a little weak in the knees.
The rides were in the small man-made lake behind the ridiculously ornate adult pool. Matthew had to jimmy the pool gate to gain access. Here more gorgeous, skyscraper palms marched beside the sparkling water. We turned a corner and spied the gondolier in his tell-tale striped shirt, black pants and mustache. Two couples were there before us, so we sat on the broad lip of a fire pit that sparked our clothes and smoked our hair, but its warmth was welcoming and romantic. I was grateful for it and the shawl and Matthew's encircling arm, despite the fact that he kept pinching my bum.
The enchantment increased when we heard the gondolier's powerful voice singing Italian somewhere over the water.
I was excited when out turn came, giggling over my difficulty in stepping down into the gondola with those shoes and that dress. We faced away from the gondolier who said after a minute, "So, obviously we're dating..."
I laughed. "We're married."
He asked if it was our anniversary. My birthday, I told him.
"I knew it must be special occasion. Both dressed to the nines."
He sang Happy Birthday to me, but I didn't recognize it - despite the fact that my name was mentioned - because it was sung slowly in Italian. We then told him we had been married 13 years, had two girls and two boys, and he told us of his own five boys and one daughter, the one his wife had been waiting for.
"Now, Hillary, where are you from?" he asked. He said I had an accent. Matthew and I laughed. I have been accused of having an accent all my life, but people are at a loss to place it. Am I French? Irish? Spanish? English? I've heard them all. I usually tell them Tennessee, and they respond skeptically, "Well, maybe that's it..."
Next he serenaded us with a charming Neapolitan song about kissing, explaining that in it a man was describing his girl's sweet little mouth with its cute pucker and how he couldn't resist it. It was performed so well in his clear tenor as we slid through that dark water beneath a crescent moon and stars, I was inspired and would have passionately kissed Matthew, but the gondolier was watching and seemed a little nervous we might get amorous.
As we stepped out at the end, he told us we didn't look old enough to be married 13 years with four kids, and I thanked him profusely, assuring him that we don't hear that often. Then Matthew and I strolled past the magnificent pool once more and through the rest of that grand resort, holding hands, headed home.
It was such a wonderful, unexpected gift from Matthew, the memory of how he surprised me with an idyllic gondola ride on my birthday. My 35th was really special, more so than this diva could have dreamed, thanks to my romantic man.