I’m turning ten this year. My birthday is in September, so it falls on the first week of school, which makes me the most popular girl in my class almost instantly. Everyone wants to be my friend, because they all want to come to my party.
We were at Food For Less the night before the first day of school. Air Supply played over the supermarket loudspeakers. Norma complained the fluorescent lights gave her a migraine. Still, it didn’t stop her from spending hours browsing for bargains. My mother likes to ‘get her moneys worth’ and she has many tricks up her sleeve to ensure she gets the most value for her cash. She hates being tricked or cheated, and she believes the world is out to get her.
As she poured the content of two boxes of grapes into one, I begged “Please?”
“But, it’s just ONE more person”
“You can invite ten friends” She paused for a moment, confused by my disappointment “You should be happy! That’s one more friend than last year!” she said, putting an overflowing box of grapes onto our cart, and discarding the empty plastic container.
An employee approached us “Ma’am” he said, “The grapes are pre-weighed and pre-packaged”
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t know” Norma responded, acting aloof “We’re not from here, we’re still figuring out how things work” she lied “Won’t happen again”
“Uhmmm” the employee muttered under his breath, before walking away.
My mother says, “In life, it’s better to apologize, than to ask for permission. If you ask for permission, people might say NO, and that’s the end of it. So, it’s smarter to do whatever you want, and then apologize for it (if it’s wrong). That way, you always win.” It’s kinda genius.
“Please!” My pleading continued, as she weighed potatoes on a scale. Printed the sticker, and threw a couple of extra potatoes into the bag.
“You’re lucky I’m even giving you a party at all”
“Dad would let me,” I blurted.
She shook her head; put three onions in the cart “Go live with your father, then”
We walked in silence. The Bee Gees controlling the sound waves. Norma drove our cart toward the frozen desserts.
“Can I just ask one more thing?”
“What” she said annoyed.
“Why can’t I—
“Because that’s the rule. You can invite eleven friends, to your eleventh birthday”
“That’s a stupid rule” I rebelled.
A large clearance sign above the Sarah Lee desserts “All Sarah Lee Cheesecakes- Buy one, get one free” Norma’s eyes widened.
“Do you know how many friends came to my eleventh birthday?”
I didn’t know.
“My neighbor Raquel, and my two cousins, Anita and Tony. We didn’t even have candles in Cuba, so I blew out a match, on a week-old slice of bread pudding,” she said, examining a box of cheesecake.
“So, that was good enough for me. You have to learn to be grateful Lili” She paused for a second “Now, which do you prefer?” she held up three boxes of Sarah Lee Cheesecake “Blueberry, Strawberry, or Mixed Berry?”
“I don’t like cheesecake” I said pissed off.
She piled the cart with boxes of cheesecake anyway “I bet your friends will.”
That night, while Norma put the groceries away, I made my birthday invitations. Under the dim-lit desk lamp of my room, my heart racing, my hands clammy, sweat dripped down the sides of my earlobes, cooling and evaporating, as the drops reached my chin. I couldn’t decide which of my friends to invite. Of course, Tracy and Danny are coming; they’re my best friends. But then I have friends like Reshma, who is really quiet, but sweet. She is from India. Her parents own a store. Last year, she brought me a little brass elephant as a souvenir from her trip to Mumbai. I really want to invite Reshma to my birthday party, but I know that if I don’t invite her, she will still be my friend on Monday; whereas if I don’t invite Katie Bowman (the prettiest girl in my class), and Lucy Coral (the most popular girl) - they might not be as friendly with me next week.
I know I like Reshma better than Katie, and definitely MUCH better than Lucy. Katie is nice, she always smiles at me, but she only talks to me, when she’s not hanging out with Lucy, and Joanne. Joanne is DEFINITELY not invited to my party (she’s a bully). And Lucy is mean, but she can be nice (when she’s not hanging around Joanne), or trying to impress the boys. I want to invite Katie, but I know Katie won’t come if I don’t invite Lucy. I don’t really want to invite Lucy, but if I don’t invite her, then she’ll be mean to me on Monday, and all the boys will ignore me. So I probably should NOT invite Reshma. I have to think about the consequences.
My mother always says “Lili, your actions have consequences” I know I’ll be the most popular girl in school (the day I hand out my birthday invitations); but I also know, I could be the most hated girl in school, if I invite the wrong friends to my party. It’s all so complicated. Why can’t I just invite Reshma?
I paced around our apartment. Norma had gone to the neighbors’ house to ask if they had room in their freezer (for all the cheesecakes we couldn’t fit in ours). Tortured by my big decision, I sat on the couch, in the darkness, until she returned.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked, startled by my mood.
“I am sad”
She didn’t believe me.
“Why are you sad?” Norma turned on the lights.
“Because you won’t let me invite Reshma”
“I said you could invite ten friends, but WHO you invite, that’s entirely up to you!”
Enraged, I threw one of my dog slippers at the television. It missed.
“Young lady, you are one step away from having NO party!”
“But nothing. No means No” she paused “If I agree to your demands, you’ll never be satisfied with anything, or anyone. You’ll be unfulfilled for the rest of your life” She lectured “Plus, getting older means you’ll have to make decisions that won’t always make everyone happy” She paused “You should see this as an opportunity”
“But it’s my birthday!”
“Exactly! And I’m giving you the gift of making a big decision. Trust me Lili, you’ll look back on this, and thank me, one day”
Norma doesn’t understand. She says I think I’m the Daughter of Rockefeller (whoever that is). She says children in this country are spoiled, and she wants me to grow up to be different, to have ‘values’. But I don’t want to be different.
That night, I laid in bed, restless, my legs trapped from wrestling with the covers; my eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling; when suddenly, I was struck by an idea; I jolted out of bed, turned on my desk lamp, and pulled out my coloring pencils.
The next day at School, I handed out fourteen invitations. I figured, even if ALL my friends showed up, Norma wasn’t going to monitor the door and say, “Sorry Sangeeta, but you and your daughter can’t come inside. You’re number eleven, and we’re at capacity!” That would be rude; and my mother is many things, but she is not rude.
Only twelve of my friends showed up to my party. Lucy and Katie didn’t come. Reshma and Sangeeta were among the first to arrive. They had bought me a teddy bear that said “To Some One Special;” as well as three sparkly bracelets from her dad’s store. She said they were special Indian friendship bracelets. I liked them a lot. Norma told me later that they were tacky, but I think she just doesn’t understand other people’s cultures.
During my party, Norma was all smiles, chitchatting, offering chips, and grapes. GRAPES! My jaw dropped when I saw her offering shriveled, rotting old grapes to the guests. I could just imagine her saying “In Cuba, these grapes are perfectly fine.” Under normal circumstances I would’ve been embarrassed, or ashamed, but it was my birthday, and all my friends were here.
I got a present from almost every one of my twelve friends, except nothing from my mom. She said that her present to me was the party.
When everyone left, I could tell Norma was ready to ground me forever. “Mom” I said, as I helped her clean up left over cheesecake from the table “I thought you would be proud.”
She looked at me puzzled. “Proud of what Lili? That you lied, and broke the rules to get your way? You are in a lot of trouble, young lady!”
“--But Mom, you taught me, that it's better to apologize, than to ask for permission.”
Norma was raging.
I put my hand on her shoulder “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry”