“Whose birthday is this?” Lara asked, as Essie turned the wheel to back into a parallel parking space on the narrow residential street. A passing postal truck honked.
“Whose birthday? Whose party?” Lara repeated the question, louder.
Essie turned the car off, let out the breath she had been holding. She glanced back at her four-year-old daughter, who was kicking her legs with concentrated displeasure.
“You know, I actually forget,” Essie said. She had plugged the address from the invitation into her phone. She searched through her purse, but the invitation wasn’t there. The present, wrapped on the seat next to her, was a gender-neutral soccer ball. Who was it for? How was it possible to have forgotten?
“That’s okay. As long as they have cake.”
“I’m sure there’s cake.”
“Let’s go! Oh, there’s Maia! Mom! Let me out!”
Released from her pink car seat and clutching the present, Lara raced down the sidewalk after Maia and her mother. Essie trailed behind; the heat was radioactive.
Maia’s birthday party had been yesterday, in a ballet studio called Dance Express. The teacher led the group in knee bends and arm stretches, twists and leaps. Maia sat in the middle and sobbed. There was grease-soaked pizza and a bakery-special cake with a crooked five.
That was yesterday. Today, the same people, plus a bevy of relatives, were gathered in this sweltering backyard. Essie still couldn’t remember the birthday child’s name, but she recognized him when he ran across the yard. A boy. Something trendy and popular. Connor? Cody? Hunter?
He had a moon face and a fringe of red hair, freckles smudged across his nose. He wore baggy black basketball shorts and an Eagles jersey. He ran towards the adults then veered off, an asymptotic trajectory. An older woman in a wildly patterned blouse implored him with real pathos in her voice to please eat a piece of pizza.
“Essie! Different day, same pizza.”
Essie turned to see Chelsea, the mother of Ralph, a child with bleach-blonde Kennedy hair. Chelsea and Essie were not close friends, but they chatted on occasion at preschool pick-up. From these talks, Essie knew that Chelsea was an ophthalmologist who was afraid of lizards and wanted Ralph to be her only child.
“Do you think it’s actually the same pizza?”
Chelsea laughed, a broad comforting sound. “Like an eternal, traveling pizza? That no one ever eats? It’s possible. Oh, goodness, are those cold cuts?”
The women squinted, and Chelsea clucked her tongue.
“Sitting in the sun like that? Lucky no one ever eats at these things.”
Essie laughed. “Do you know the mom’s name?”
Chelsea shrugged. “No clue. What do you think is in the cooler? Can I get you something?”
“Water, if they have it.”
Chelsea returned with two bottles of water, handed one to Essie.
They both took a sip and Chelsea made a face. “Lukewarm.”
Essie shook her head. “I don’t care, it’s so hot.”
“You’re not wrong. I have air conditioning at my house,” Chelsea said, making an exaggerated, wistful face.
“I have lemonade,” Essie said, and the women laughed.
“Why is there no shade in this entire yard?” Chelsea asked, and Essie could only shrug.
A shout went up from a group of boys across the lawn. Chelsea raised her water bottle in a salute to Essie and powered off across the lawn towards the kids. Essie searched for Lara, spotted her racing across the lawn, cheeks red.
An older man who must be the birthday boy’s grandfather lurched over toward her, unsteady either from age or the beer clenched in his hand. Essie struggled to move her gaze from his stomach, which swelled over his belt. She noted that his fly was unzipped, and tried to be less judgmental. If she could not understand the complexities of socio-economics, genetics, and diet upon health, she could at least give them the benefit of the doubt.
He leered at her, tipping his head in an attempt to look down her shirt. She took back her mental generosity, crossed her arms.
“Which one’s yours?” he asked, gesturing towards the children. His hand smacked into the siding of the house.
“The blonde one,” she said.
“Well. Well, I hope she has a good time. Can I get you one?”
He hefted his beer can towards her face, and she took a step back. His breath was overwhelming in the heat.
“No, thanks,” she said, waggling her water.
“Right,” he said. “You girls and your water. Rusts a steel pipe, you know!”
She gave a half-laugh, looked around the yard. Chelsea and the other moms were clustered across the lawn, by the treehouse. They were admonishing the girls for some reason or another. Which one was the birthday boy’s mother? Was that her, over by the slide with the baby in the sling? The heat was broiling Essie’s brain. She unscrewed the top of the water, took a slug.
“Wet t-shirt would keep you cool,” the grandfather said. He stumbled a bit.
Essie turned on her brightest smile, which made him attempt to stand straighter.
“Sorry, I think I hear my daughter!”
She walked out onto the lawn. When she glanced back, he stood forlorn by the entrance to the garage, swaying.
At the playhouse, Lara’s head stuck through a circle cut in the side, painted with faux rivets to resemble a porthole. Essie touched the tip of her daughter’s nose with her finger.
“Hi Mom! Go away, we’re pirates!”
“Do you want some water, baby?”
“No! Go away.”
Lara ducked back into the shelter of the playhouse. There was a clatter, whispering, and then the girls burst down the slide. They were a mass of tangled hair, flowered sundresses, and polished pink toes in tiny gladiator sandals. They raced for a cluster of scrubby cedars.
Essie stood, marooned. Chelsea had disappeared, and the small concrete patio was filled with relatives. Grandfather had lurched his way back into their midst. He was slinging his words towards the woman with the flowered shirt, who didn’t look up from her phone.
Feeling awkward and dizzy from the heat, Essie headed towards the other end of the house. She would use the bathroom, splash some water on her face. Perhaps after cake she could sneak out, feigning an urgent phone call.
Essie slipped inside. It wasn’t air-conditioned, but just being out of the sun was a blessing. She followed a small hallway in search of the bathroom.
One of the doors had a hand-painted green sign that read, “Liam’s Room!” Of course, Liam, that was the birthday boy’s name. Liam R, so as to distinguish him from Liam M. Essie felt a small sense of satisfaction at this recollection. Across the hall was the bathroom, door ajar.
Greenish light filtered down from a high, glazed window, giving an underwater feel to the room. Essie didn’t have to pee, despite all the water she had drunk. She closed the toilet lid and sat for a moment in the quiet. She took a deep breath and caught a whiff of floral hand soap, and then the caustic reek of urine. Her temples pulsed and the mingled odors became unendurable. With a sigh, Essie unlocked the bathroom door.
The grandfather was waiting for her in the hall, his paunch blocking her path with a certain inevitability which she had nevertheless failed to foresee. He smiled.
“There you are,” he said, “trying to hide from me?”
She shook her head, the pain pulsed and throbbed. An icy chill ran down her arms and her vision hazed.
He didn’t notice any of this, because he was busy shoving her up against the wall. His clumsy hands on her wrists, pinning them up, his stomach thrusting into her own. He tasted like beer, and his beard was a scrub brush. Their teeth clinked. She felt a torrent of panic, laced through with disgust.
Something clattered to the hardwood floor, and they both jumped. It was the “Liam’s Room” sign. Essie started to laugh, the sound taking her unawares. A giggle veered into gasping shouts of sound, a laugh track gone askew.
The grandfather, startled, loosened his grip. She twisted out of his grasp, wrenching a finger in the process.
She cackled, and the harsh sound echoed in the empty house.
“The fuck…” the grandfather said, turning and preparing to come at her again, his reflexes clumsy.
“What’s so funny down there?” a voice rang off the hard surfaces of the hall. A woman Essie finally recognized as Liam’s mother, small with a face like half-risen dough, appeared at the end of the hallway.
“Has he been telling his dirty jokes again?” she asked, pointing to the grandfather.
Essie choked on the laugh, started coughing.
“Oh dear,” Liam’s mom said, “let me get you some water.”
Essie followed her to the kitchen, accepted and drank a tall glass. When she handed it back to Liam’s mom, the woman smiled with flat eyes.
The grandfather had disappeared, and Essie followed Liam’s mom outside. The mother was sucked into a dispute over the possession of a Nerf gun.
Essie walked straight across to the copse of pines, where she spotted her daughter’s bright yellow sneakers.
“Lara,” she said, scooping her daughter up in her arms and kissing her cheek.
Lara squirmed, wrinkled her nose.
“You smell bad, Mommy.”
“It’s time to go.”
“But we haven’t had cake.”
Lara didn’t even bother to put a whine behind this observation; to leave before cake was impossible.
“Yeah,” said a skinny little girl with rainbow tattoos up her arms, “we haven’t had cake.”
Essie looked at the other girl for a minute. Bunched green snot hung from her nose, and sweat stood out from her forehead. Essie was pretty sure her name was Rain.
“Silly Mommy,” Lara said, squirming to get down. Essie did not put her down, but tensed her muscles against her daughter’s. She turned away from the puzzled figure of Rain and carried Lara across the yard. Essie stopped in front of the red-haired boy.
“Say happy birthday to Liam and thanks for having me.”
“Happy birthday and thanks for having me, but Mom, we didn’t have cake.”
“I know,” Essie said.
Liam’s mother was taking a second Nerf gun out of its packaging.
“Say goodbye and thank you for having me to Liam’s Mom.”
“Goodbye and thanks for having me to Liam’s Mom, but we can’t leave, Mom, we didn’t have cake.”
“Oh, goodness, you’re not going to leave before cake and presents, are you?” Liam’s mom looked up at Essie, but her eyes gave nothing away.
“Sorry to say we have to get going,” Essie said.
“Oh. Dear. Liam will be disappointed.”
They all gazed out on the lawn. Mild curse words emanated from where Liam was tussling with a cousin over the toy gun.
“Well, you can’t leave without your goody bag. It’s too bad, because we were having a piñata, too….”
“Mom,” Lara said, shifting to stare into Essie’s eyes. “A piñata.”
“She doesn’t need a goody bag.”
“Well, of course she does. Hold on just a minute.”
Liam’s mom disappeared into the house. Essie stood on the concrete patio, the heat and noise bubbling up around her. She was isolated, locked in her body with a pounding head, arms clasping a squirming child. Sweat ran down her temples, stung the corner of her eye. She blinked, and it was like startling herself awake. Through her watering eyes, she saw the party surging uninterrupted around her own rigid form, waiting for a goody bag.
Essie’s laughter returned, mixed with Lara’s wails. She strode across the lawn with the flailing body of her daughter clutched to her chest, not bothering to look back.
Lara had moved to full-on tantrum, kicking at Essie’s legs. Essie placed her daughter in the car seat, working fast to do the buckles. With a snap, Lara was trapped. Essie slammed the car door and went around to the front.
Lara was sobbing, hiccoughing breaths in which it was possible to make out the sounds ca- and -ke. Essie put the car in drive and stepped on the gas.
After a few minutes, her daughter’s sobs subsided.
“Why did we leave before cake? You can’t leave before cake.”
“Are you getting me something better than cake? Like ice cream?”
“Sure,” Essie said, flipping on the turn signal. “Let’s go get ice cream.”
Silence prevailed as they crept in afternoon traffic towards the ice cream parlor.
“Can I have ice cream at my birthday party?”
“How about we go to Disney World, and you can have ice cream there?”
“Instead of a party. For your birthday.”
She looked in the rearview mirror. Lara’s eyes were screwed up in concentration.
“Can I have two scoops?”
Essie laughed. “Sure.”
“Then okay. Today, too?”
“Sure. I’m sorry we had to leave, Lara-bug.”
There was a pause while the four-year-old considered. She sighed, a grown exhalation.
“That’s okay Mom. I don’t like Liam anyway.”
Essie glanced in the rearview mirror.
“Why not, sweetie?”
“At school, I saw him eat a worm. That’s disgusting.”
Essie raised her eyebrows. “That is disgusting. You’re right.”
“He told me to eat a worm. But I said no. Then he pushed me, and I told Miss Kathy.”
“That’s good, Lara. That’s exactly what you should have done.”
“I’ve decided,” Lara said, “I’m not going to be friends with worm-eaters anymore.”
“Me either,” Essie said.
“Two scoops,” Lara reminded.
“Two scoops, love.”
© Sarah Starr Murphy
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Sarah’s interview]