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Play Day

What is bought is cheaper than a gift. — Portuguese proverb

I had told Jen to be ready at 8:15 a.m. At 8 a.m. she was folding laundry in her garage and, from the look on her face, not the least bit surprised to see my car pulling into her driveway. David and I waited patiently as Jen put away clothes and gathered her things. Okay, so David waited patiently. I followed Jen from room to room, apologizing for my hyper-punctuality while simultaneously trying to hurry her out the door with passive-aggressive questions such as, “Are you sure there’s nothing I can do to help you finish getting ready?” When I backed out of the driveway, David sitting behind me and Jen riding shotgun, the orange digital display above the steering wheel read 8:04.

I had given Jen as little information as possible: dress comfortably in layers and expect to be away from home until late in the evening. I’d also told her not to eat breakfast because I wanted her to be hungry for our first stop — Krispy Kreme. David and I led our friend into the diner-like joint and up to a window through which she could view the doughnut-making process. We watched as a variety of Willy Wonka–style contraptions and conveyor belts dropped sticky doughnuts into boiling oil, flipped the dough to fry the other side, and finally, bathed the tasty round cakes in a milky sugar-glaze waterfall. Though her preference runs to bacon ’n’ eggs, the educational aspects of the breakfast more than compensated for its sickly sweetness.

Jen guessed the next event on the agenda — a morning movie — as soon as I exited on Friars. I revealed our objective was the 10:05 showing of WALL-E. Jen, my veteran movie buddy, seemed not the least bit bothered that I brought her to the mall at 9 a.m. — 30 minutes before the theater was even open. David, Jen, and I window-shopped back and forth past the long line outside the Apple store. “If they’d ordered the damn iPhone 3G online when it was released two weeks ago,” I quipped, “they wouldn’t need to waste three hours in line on a Friday morning.” After leaving the theater around noon, the three of us walked past the line once more, tsk-ing aloud at the poor planners like a trio of church ladies.

“Now what?” Jen asked.

“Now lunch!” I answered.

While Jen enjoyed her Double-Double at the Mission Valley In-N-Out Burger, I explained to her that the theme of the day was childlike frivolity. Of all my friends, Jen is the one with whom I can watch bad horror movies, hit up the arcade, and simply geek out like a preadolescent. David and I had crafted the day’s itinerary not so much in honor of Jen’s birthday (which had come and gone three weeks earlier), but more to demonstrate our appreciation for her friendship.

Obligatory gifting is one of the reasons I stopped celebrating Christmas and Hallmark holidays like Valentine’s Day and why I avoid baby and bridal showers. I resent having to struggle to fulfill an imposed duty, and I balk at forced “thoughtfulness.” Giving nothing at all is better than bestowing some space-taking item gifted out of a sense of obligation. I prefer to give only when inspiration strikes. Two weeks ago, I happened upon and purchased a small ceramic teatime sculpture that reminded me of the high tea to which I’d taken my mother. Instead of saving the gift for a “special occasion,” I gave it to her that weekend. Mom seemed to appreciate my thoughtfulness all the more when she learned there was no “reason” for it.

When it came to Jen’s birthday, David and I wanted to give her something that could not be purchased with a gift card from some brand-name store.

“Where are we going next?” Jen asked when we’d finished lunch.

“None of your business,” I answered.

“I love this,” said Jen, her face reminiscent of my niece Bella’s that time I told her a unicorn stood guard every night outside her bedroom window. “I don’t have to think about anything, I didn’t have to plan anything; I just get to go along on this great ride with two of my favorite people.” David and I shared a delighted look.

When we pulled into Boomers, Jen was bouncing in her seat with anticipation. “Are we going to play miniature golf? Can we do the go-carts too?”

“We’re going to do all of it,” I said. In her excitement, Jen skipped to the entrance. It was a weekday, so the place was not too crowded. The summer sun was high in the sky, so we shed our outer layers before collecting our clubs and brightly colored balls. After we sunk our balls into the holes of 18 miniature obstacles, we assaulted the go-cart track. Strapped into my cart and pushing my small pedal to the metal, I laughed as I rounded each corner and felt the rush of air caress my skin.

Had I known the bumper boats came with long-range water guns, I’d never have pushed away from the rail. Fortunately for me, my burning skin found the cool water blasted from Jen and David’s guns more refreshing than maddening. Still, I just about lost it when they banded together to push my boat into the corner of the pool, where a fountain was shooting streams of water into the air. Those sadistic freaks only laughed harder when I began to panic. They showed mercy just as I was about to be drenched, allowing me to putter to the other side of the pool to lick my wounds. When we’d finished splashing each other, the three of us headed inside the arcade, where we blew $10 worth of coins working up a sweat with Dance Dance Revolution and Percussion Master; we found our humility with Beatmania, but not before I kicked David’s ass at air hockey.

Making our way through Boomers took less time than I’d planned, so David and I improvised the next stop. We brought Jen back to our place, where we kicked back with a glass of wine and went head-to-head in the strategic board game Blokus.

After “letting” Jen win every round, we set off for the last planned event. “Okay, I give. I have no idea where we’re going for dinner,” Jen said as I drove past the airport.

“We told you, we’re taking you to Mexico and selling you into slavery,” said David.

“There’s no way you’d ever get this one,” I said. “It’s so off your beaten path; I’ve never even been there before.” I waited until I’d turned left past Humphrey’s by the Bay on Shelter Island before announcing, “While gazing upon a spectacular vista of the city lights sparkling across the bay, we’ll be dining at… Bali Hai! Oh, and we’re going to have some crazy Hawaiian drinks, too.”

“This is awesome,” Jen said after we’d taken our seats against the giant window in the restaurant. “This has been the most wonderful day. So easy, no stress — all fun. Just great. Thank you.”

“We’re happy you think so,” said David, raising his mai tai.

I lifted the giant ceramic tiki head that contained my slushy girl drink. “Thanks for being a great friend,” I said. “Oh, and happy belated birthday.”

We clinked our wild Hawaiian libations. A moment later, after glancing out the window, Jen said, “Hey, there’s a sea lion!” David and I followed her gaze and watched in silent awe as the animal materialized and dove once more, its flipper feet slipping into the shimmering water. As I stared at the ripples, I marveled at how cool it was to be so close to such wonderful creatures. The sea lion was pretty awesome too.

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