In 5th grade a mob of pony-tailed girls threw me off a 10-story building then steamrollered my remains.
At least that’s how I felt after Jessie’s slumber party. In fact, I’m still a little flattened from the experience.Boy was I thrilled, to be handed the little invitation with a cat sticker sealing the envelope. Little old me with an invitation to a ball! The tri-folded directions to her house were as magical as a treasure map. All the girls in our class responded to Jessie’s invitation distribution with cartwheels and squeals. No doubt this would be a hopper of a hoe-down. For the entire week our imaginations were bubbling over about the sleepover. We counted down the days til Friday and girls passed notes like this:
Do you think they’ll have pizza?
Circle one: YES NO
Yah, I bet they will have TONS of pizza! But I hope it’s not thin crust (yucky face). Thin
crust is nasty! Gotta go, Mrs. Brown is looking at me. Bye!
Friday night finally came. In my feverish excitement I almost fell down the cellar steps that led to the garage. I climbed into my dad’s “Rust Bucket” (as my mom contemptuously called it) or “Beast” (as my dad affectionately called it). The engine heated up as I burrowed amongst the old newspapers and tissues covering the passenger seat. Soon we were off, creaking along toward the glowing spot on the horizon--Jessie’s house. Despite the blasting air, I had to wiggle my toes to keep them warm. I clutched my sleeping bag as we climbed and descended the five miles of hilly two-lane roads. I had never been to Jessie’s house before, so the route there in the deepening dusk added to my anticipation.
If you imagine a friend ladder, Jessie was probably two rungs from the bottom of mine. She was nice and everything, but since she was best friends with her mom, she wasn’t close friends with anyone at school. She was afraid to spend the night over anyone’s house and didn’t go on field trips unless her mom was a chaperone. Her parents got a D-I-V-O-R-C-E (you can’t actually say the word without sinning) when she was little.
I had been to a few sleepovers before, but never with this many girls and never at a rich girl’s house. Well, rich to me--she had her own bathroom. And I was betting that she’d have real ice cream, not the brown-white-pink kind packed in a 5 gallon tub.
According to our magical map, we were entering the densely forested portion of the journey, as indicated by the mini pine-trees. It began to snow. Big airy flakes danced around us like fairies. My dad appointed me as the Look-out to scan the roadsides for deer. They’re a big problem in Western Pennsylvania--if you hit one your car gets totaled at your own expense because deer don’t have liability insurance. That’s what my dad says, and he knows because he sold insurance for about six different companies throughout my elementary school tenure. Straightening up in my seat with eyes alert, I scanned diligently, though my mind wandered to grim hypotheticals. Sometimes their antlers crash through the windshield and impale you. And on Animal Planet they said that Australia has a similar problem with kangaroos; the strong feet decapitate you.
Know what the saddest animal to run over is? A family cat. That happened once to our cat, Striper. Mom ran him over with the mini-van because he stole the pot roast off the counter. Just kidding. She ran him over by accident pulling into the garage at night. We buried him over the hill in my mom’s silk slip. By this time tomorrow I would have liked to crawl into that crude grave with him. But for now, it was all rosy cheeks and fluttery heart.
The Rust Bucket Beast slowed to a stop in the snow outside Jessie’s house.
“464 Maple Avenue. This must be it,” my dad said.
We looked at the impressive stone house. Shadows danced past the lower story windows.
“Ok, thanks, Dad,” I beamed swinging the door open.
“Love ya, Sweetie Peetie. Have fun. I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning.”
Smoke billowed around the idling Beast as he watched me crunch through the snow up the long walkway to the front door. Wow, was their front yard big! And no exposed tree roots to trip over, like at our house. And dogs! I hear dogs barking in the backyard. They’re allowed to have dogs! Maybe they also have a unicorn with a rainbow mane?
I pushed the doorbell, hearing laughter and music inside. It had been a tough year for me in school, like every year. I desperately wanted to find my place in the class, but just couldn’t. I ended up not liking many kids, and few kids liked me. Maybe they didn’t like me first. I don’t know. But these little parties meant so much more to me than what they were. I knew without knowing that tonight was a magic moment that just may, somehow, transform me into a princess who everyone loved. It was pure wish. But I had received an invite--that was enough of a start to stir up hope.
I heard the door unlatching, and then a spear of light pierced through the cracked door. There stood Jessie’s mom in a white apron. She smiled as the smell of cupcakes poured around her from the kitchen. Vanilla vapors swirled and drew me inside. The warmth of the house hit me like Christmas morning. As I tugged my boots off in the threshold, I stared at the fireplace in the den. How could anyone possibly deserve a fireplace like that? Jessie was beyond “lucky” or “blessed”(as the people at church said)-- she must be some kind of royalty. I’d later find out that child support largely funded that furnace. Her divorced parents tried to salve the separation’s scar by giving her outrageous gifts. Like for her birthday this year she got a GOLF CART. A real one. She rode all over her yard in it with her sweatered Schnauzer. She also got an Italian leather jacket, even though kids totally ruin that kind of stuff. I wasn’t jealous, just awestruck.
Her mom returned to the kitchen as I followed the laughter down the hall to Jessie’s room. As I turned the corner, I saw from the threshold of her room that all the girls were already there, piled on the Queen-sized bed. They dropped dead silent and stared at me, as expressionless as stones.
“Hi,” I said.
A couple girls looked at the floor and around the room.
“Hi,” Jessie mumbled back.
“Turned the corner”-- more like turned into the coroner’s. A hot panic rushed through me as I grasped the situation. They don’t want me here. My eyes fell to the floor as I stared blankly at my socks. I wanted to run home. But somehow my socks were sucked into the plush carpet like quicksand. I knew I couldn’t leave--my dad was almost home by now--and I knew that that fact was even more disappointing to the girls than to me. Unconsciously I slid my backpack off my shoulder and stood beside the overpopulated bed. They resumed chatting and fixing each other’s hair. Wow, the bed had a dust ruffle! Stupid dust ruffle. I tried to laugh when they laughed, but mine was a little too loud and too late. So I’d look back down at the dust ruffle. After they were sufficiently French-braided and baretted, we headed (thank God) for the downstairs’ torture chamber, (I mean “gameroom.”)
Snowflakes of hope were shaken within me as I was caught up in the blizzard of excitement around me--all the pajama’d legs rushing down the stairs in bright slippers. A change of environment, a change of activity--maybe this was my chance to climb up the friendship ladder a few rungs. Jessie put on an oldies record. As the needle found its groove, out blasted “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’.” We lined up to take turns inventing silly dance moves, each trying to outdo the previous girl. Our screaming and laughing filled the house and burst through the chimney like a firework. Oh boy, my cross-eyed old man hobble was gonna bring the house down!
When my turn came I didn’t hold back. I had the stage. I could feel the funniness of my contortions, laughing at myself as I danced. And it did bring the house down! The roof collapsed right on my head. The girls simply stood there, like pillars, and rolled their eyes. I wanted to rip the record off the player and dash it against the wall. Instead, I hung up my hobble and stood against the wood paneling like a ghost, watching the others get in line over and over again. The contrast was almost laughable. I behold their ruddy, exuberant faces rife with merriment and imagined my pale, floating head alone in the room-- the head of Bob Marley…from Dickens, not from the Carribbean.“Let’s play Hide-N-Seek,” someone suggested. “Anything,” I thought. I was assigned to be one of the Hiders and quickly found an awesome spot under the stairs behind some boxes. It was cramped and musty. But I must say that I was exercising phenomenal restraint by not bursting out laughing at how well I was hidden. They were going to be dazzled by my ingenuity when they finally discovered me. Maybe my new nickname would be Princess Houdini. Every few minutes I’d have to carefully shift my position so that my legs wouldn’t go numb.
After what felt like 15 minutes under the stairs, I started to wish that I’d picked a more obvious place, like in the coat closet. I was getting bored and feeling phantom bugs scrambling across my arms.
When I reached the point of sweating from the stuffiness, I peeked my head out and heard muffled voices coming from the adjacent garage. As I creaked the garage door open I saw the girls sitting in circles playing Chutes & Ladders.
“Why didn’t you come find me?” I asked, confused and upset.
“Because you were the only one playing,” Brittany snapped.
“That’s really mean,” I shot back.
“That’s really mean,” she mocked. “No one wanted to find you.” She looked back at her cards.
I didn’t know what to do except shut the door. My feet carried me back upstairs to the kitchen, and to my knowledge, I didn’t leave any glass slipper on the staircase. The only snacks left were broken pretzels and carrot sticks. At least I was alone. I felt the temporary relief of a fugitive who ducks into a darkened alley.
That’s it, I thought to myself. The snow permanently settled at the bottom of the globe. I would not allow it to be shaken again.
The hum of the refrigerator and the nightlight above the sink were somewhat comforting, but the solitude was to be short-lived. I heard someone coming up the stairs, and then Bethany appeared. Of all the girls who could have darkened the kitchen threshold, I was glad it was her. She was the quietest girl in the class, and there wasn’t much to love or hate about her. Everyone was kinda friends with her, but no one was best friends with her. I could tell by her round, still eyes that she had nothing against me.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I said, like a tire going flat. “There’s not much left.” I motioned to the food.
We picked at the pretzels.
“Why are they being like this?” I asked.“I dunno. I think Jessie’s mom made her invite all the girls in the class or she couldn’t have the party.”
“Well, why didn’t they want me to come?” I asked, frustrated.
“I don’t know. Just didn’t,” she said.
We walked with the bowl into the living room where I saw all the sleeping bags arranged over the floor. There lay Barbie, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, smiling on the bags, clearly enjoying their own ball.
“Everyone already picked their spots,” I observed.
“Yeah,” she confirmed.
I retrieved my brown, plaid bag from the hallway where I had left my boots and unrolled it in the kitchen. It might as well have had Cinderella’s step sister on it. Then Bethany dragged hers from the living room and laid it in the threshold between the living room and kitchen, near mine. We didn’t really talk much, but it was comfortable silence, with munching and an occasional exchange about school.
The “garage girls” came up eventually and were somewhat surprised, but mostly apathetic, to see me and Bethany together. I just ignored them and sat on my bag as they traipsed into the living room talking about Mr. Carey, the cute new gym teacher at school.
I fell asleep early with the bag pulled tight around my head so that they couldn’t pull pranks on me as I slept. I looked like a caterpillar. When I woke up I smelled syrup and saw slippers shuffling back and forth across the kitchen floor. Some of the girls had stayed up the entire night. They proudly munched their waffles. The girls who were overtaken by sleep insisted that they had heard the first bird chirps (even though they were betrayed by their lop-sided ponytails.) "Yes, we did hear them!" "No, you didn't!" was the breakfast conversation. "Who cares?" I thought as I fished in my milk for that elusive last Cheerio.
I don’t know how I got through that interminable night, but I was never more excited to see my dad walking toward me in the morning sun. Because I never figured out what I had done wrong, I concluded that I was something wrong. Maybe it was a sort of birth defect. Or maybe I had done something to deserve it. It felt like a leprosy of the personality that no action or inaction on my part could remedy. Anticipation of rejection settled into my bones like arthritis, and I hobbled through school, just waiting for the bell, waiting to get home to my cat, waiting to get my red nose into a book. After Jessie’s sleepover, school and home became almost hollow; the hope of magical transformation was shattered like the mirror mirror on the wall.