Strife of the party
If ever an event moves me to such extreme protest that I show up, sit my ass down, and set myself on fire, it's going to be some poor kid's birthday party.
Friday afternoon preschool pickup found me listening to a kid — one of the two Charlie loves best — tell me, with my arm protectively around my son's shoulders, that Charlie...is evil.
He was all serious and spooky-like, too, big-eyed and full of consequence. He wasn't joking. He was somberly apprising me of the situation, just in case I wanted to subject Charlie to some sort of parental correction, trial by ordeal or something, as it was clearly my duty to do. The temptation was strong, but out of fear that he'd denounce me for a witch, wiiiiiitch, would you just look at her vestigial nipple, I managed to keep from asking him, what the fuck? Where does a five-year-old learn to call someone evil?
From another five-year-old, perhaps, as H., Charlie's other favorite kid, demonstrated, coming upon the scene and repeating the accusation. "He is evil!" hissed H., a child I like very much except for that pesky condemning my son to the stake thing.
And, I mean, okay, there are days when Charlie's difficult, times when he's tough to be around...just like everyone else's kids. So I knelt on the gravel to bore a hole through their foreheads with the ferocious heat of my unblinking gaze — I mean, talk to the kids at eye level, and tried to get them to work it out. I can't even tell you what they said, as they all tried to talk at once, Charlie hurt and angry, the others righteous and accusatory. "I think you're all good friends," I told them, feeling my third nipple burn at the lie, "who maybe just need a break for today."
"We used to be good friends," Charlie said, sniffling, "back in olden times."
It came to pass that the whole evil thing was, according to M., the first kid, something he'd heard on iCarly. This is a more piquant detail than it might immediately seem. You see, a couple of months ago I was attending, yes, a birthday party, when I got conversationally stranded with M.'s father — marooned in a corner where there's no clear view to any other partygoer, no one to send desperate rescue me eye signals to, no one to wave at frantically and then excuse yourself: "I just need to say hello to...that guy! Whom I've never met! Who looks kind of slightly murdery! Anyone else! Anyone at all."
The father launched right into a litany of complaints about the kids who were, he was certain, a negative influence on his son. Without any apparent sense of social caution, without knowing any of the intricate alliances among the preschool parents — wait, I say that like I do, when the only thing I know for sure is that I hate those mystery jerks who made off with Charlie's snow pants, despite his name in Sharpie on the tag, whoever their pusillanimous asses might be. If you are reading this post, know this: I will find you.
But anyway, he fearlessly named names, speaking almost viciously of one kid in particular. To hear him tell it, his own son had been an otherworldly angel until he was introduced to preschool, "that one overweight kid, I mean, he's huge," and the drippy-nosed hell that is les autres. And I stood there listening to this, silently appalled, not saying much, because how could I tell him that I had similar concerns about his son?
So without my stopping him, like he didn't even hear my eyeballs clacking furiously in their sockets as I rolled them nigh unto a seizure, on he went, detailing his and his wife's careful strategy for keeping M.'s innocence intact. No junk food, he said, explaining that they'd noticed disturbing behavioral changes when M. had had too much of this or that. No toy weapons or violent play. And naturally, no television.
And two months later, there's his kid, making Charlie cry by quoting what he'd heard on TV.
And here I go circling back. I always do. It's my thing. We always get there eventually, no matter how many dark and creepy rest areas I drag you through to get there. For the record, officer, I was not looking for a blowjob from a drifter. I was talking about birthday parties.
The playground situation was complicated by the fact that just the day before, I'd accepted an invitation to M.'s birthday party. There had been months — moooonths, I tell you — of "You're not coming to my party," the schoolyard power tripping that I had breezily ignored. Asked point-blank in the parking lot, I accepted for Charlie gladly. I knew there'd been some friction between the kids, and had talked with Charlie about it, but I didn't think it was serious. Yet the next day there I was, kneeling in the gravel, trying to do too many things at once to do any of them well: defend and reassure my kid; correct — very gently — someone else's; broker a precarious peace; and restrain myself from demanding, "What the hell is wrong with you?"
Charlie, of course, forgave, or rather forgot, as soon as he heard of the party. But when I went out this afternoon to buy a present, I was still feeling pretty indignant. I was thinking of Charlie's face when he heard M. call him evil, and of M.'s father's bluster, and I was entertaining this wicked fantasy of buying M. something his parents would hate. "I saw these adorable pajamas and immediately thought of M.! Oh, he was just bubbling over yesterday about iCarly, couldn't contain himself. I didn't even know what it was! Looked all over town, in fact. I thought it must be some interesting kind of puzzle or game or something, something educational like that. I finally found a nice teenager at WalMart who could help me. She took me right over to the girls' sleepwear. I know the fabric is sort of...well, shiny, I guess, but it's probably at least a little flame-retardant. They have laws about that even in China, right? Anyway, you can tell by the smell that that right there is some quality textile ink. And if M. gets a little hot in all that polyester, this delightful heart-shaped cutout will cool him down in a jiff."
But instead I bought him exactly what I know he wants. Of course. Because no matter how I might feel, I'm not five years old. Except inside. Where it counts.
And this is why I hate birthday parties, because they turn me into a bitch. A bitch who laughs just a little at the thought of this child in synthetic satin. "Oh, yes, that was lucky! All of the others on the rack were pink. This was the last one in turquoise. Blue for boys, right? I know they may look a little small, but children's sleepwear is supposed to be snug-fitting. Carly's giant rhinestone-pimpled face is only a little distorted by the stretch."
UPDATE: With the help of a ball peen hammer, a can of WD-40, and a lusty farrago of newly invented swears, I think I have comments working. Please let me know if you notice anything strange.