It’s my fourteenth birthday, and my wish is to be someone else.
Okay, maybe not someone else entirely, but certainly someone less like me. For the moment, however, I’m stuck, packed into a booth with the Blooms and Company at Cowboy Clems Chow House, a rustic Western-inspired restaurant, fully loaded with peanut-shell-covered floor and deer-antler-covered walls. It’s a place where the servers wear name tags that read: Hi, I’m Cowpoke (fill in the name).
Twangy music plays loudly in the background.
You are my angellll …
With a pleasant expression, Dad does his usual: turns up his iPod and adjusts the earpiece hidden discreetly around his neck. I can see by the tracking of his eyes that he’s going in and out of his lipreading routine, presumably based on the level of his interest in the table conversation at hand. He smiles pleasantly at Mom, who never seems to mind.
Barbecue-type smells invade my nose as I survey the room. Lots of gluttonous badly dressed adults. What do I like about Cowboy Clems? No one I know, or want to know, is ever here.
The thing is that I’d been planning this birthday dinner for weeks. My parents were supposed to take my best friend, Tess, and me to Manchu Gardens, which is the nicest Japanese restaurant in town: paper lanterns, waitresses in traditional kimonos, lilting Japanese music, and a tinkling koi pond with real koi. And we were going to sit in the back room with authentic Japanese ambience.
But the fates had a different plan.
* * *
In the car earlier today, my younger brother, Michael, let loose with a disgusting belch.
“Michael! Stop that belching right now! You’re smelling up the car.” Mom did a whole-body turn around from the passenger seat. “Daddy! Daddy!” she said to my father because that is, revoltingly, what she likes to call him. She lifted the earpiece from around his neck. “Open the glove compartment and take out that bundle of air fresheners. It’s a good thing I bought these in bulk, Mister!” she scolded Michael, unwrapping a fresh one in the shape of a lemon and hanging it on the rearview mirror.
“Buuuuuuurrrrrpppp,” was Michael’s witty reply.
I often like to imagine that I’m a genetic throwback to some long-lost princess, but that somewhere along the way one of my ancestors fell in love with a stupid, smelly field peasant, thereby sullying the rest of the Bloom gene pool forever. Those circumstances robbed me of my real identity (and legacy), a normal family, social distinction at Arthur P. Rutherford Middle School, and the opportunity to develop an artistically expressive wardrobe.
In the car, I turned to Michael.
“You better cut it out,” I said. “No airy bodily emissions of any kind at Manchu Gardens.”
An uncomfortable pause ensued.
“Ooh, Mom. You are so busted,” Michael said.
“What?! Mom!! No!” I whined. “You didn’t get reservations at Manchu Gardens?”
“Well, honey,” she wheedled. “We couldn’t get an early reservation. You know how Daddy hates to eat late. He gets so agitated.”
We all looked over at Dad, who had taken the opportunity at the red light to calmly turn the wheel of his iPod.
“They’re taking you to Cowboy Clems.” Michael shrugged. “Hey, it’s not my fault.”
Could this birthday get any worse?
Moreover, I had been hinting for weeks about my birthday present too: a generous gift card to Maude’s Chic Fashion Boutique. You see, I call my parents the Bloom family communists primarily because Mom firmly believes that all worldly goods should be (a) purchased in bulk, (b) made of the cheapest fabrics ever, preferably burlap, and (c) distributed equally among the masses (the masses being the Bloom family members).
In keeping with the communist philosophy, Mom prefers to shop at the Bulk Emporium, an all-purpose store where one can purchase clothing and spark plugs at the same time, not to mention oversize grocery items with expiration dates that extend beyond the time that Earth will colonize other planets.
If I want my own money to spend, I have to babysit the ever-horrible David Lipski. I am planning to be the babysitter of choice when David’s parents go to a big bar mitzvah celebration in New Jersey in December. It’s going to be practically an all-night affair, with an open sushi bar and a retro disco band, and I figure I can make out big time.
As a matter of fact, I already have the new outfit picked out with my earnings and mentally envision myself sashaying down the hall at Arthur P. Rutherford. New Year. New Me. Girls flitting their eyes enviously in my direction, wanting to copy my look. Boys approving my look with a nod and a wink, indicating that I’m someone it would be cool to know.
* * *
Back at Cowboy Clems, Jared Needleman (neighbor, party crasher, and unrequited crusher) nudges me out of my reverie.
“I have something for you,” he says.
Could it be a birthday gift? I wonder. Tess and I exchange raised-eyebrow looks and lean toward him curiously.
He holds out his pink palm and there sitting in the middle of it is my bite plate.
“Remember in Gym, when I was spotting you on the parallel bars and you fell off, onto my…” He blushes crimson. “Onto me … Miss Manley asked me to return it to you. I’ve been keeping it in my pocket,” he says, patting the front of his pants.
It’s my turn to blush crimson. How could I forget? I suddenly remember my dream from the other night—when I fell off the roof and Jared broke my fall. The boy from my dream flashes across my mind. So beautiful, saving me from falling. The smell of pine. A strange prickly feeling comes over me.
“Uh … hi … hi!” Tess waves her hand in front of my face. “You in there?”
I look over to see Tess’s familiar face: pretty, angular, with her large dark eyes and the mass of black curls that frames her face. The dangling silver piano charm she wears around her neck catches the light, causing me to blink and jostling me back into the moment.
She leans in and whispers, “Well, I hope you’re not thinking of ever putting that back in your mouth again.”
“The bite plate.”
“And here are y’all’s bibs for the evening,” says Cowpoke Heather, handing us little white paper dribble bibs, which Michael and Jared happily put on.
“Here’s one for you, Jenna,” Jared says, passing me a paper bib decorated with a picture of a happy steer eagerly awaiting consumption by some sloppy Cowboy Clems patron.
I shoot Jared the most withering stare I can muster, hoping he’ll get the hint to leave me alone, which of course he doesn’t.
“I can attach it for you,” he offers, making that thwacking sound with the Velcro as he opens and closes his bib over and over.
“Thanks, Jared,” I say. “But you’ll have to kill me first.”
“Oh.” He looks dejected.
“Kill you? Hey, I’ll do it!” says Michael, grabbing two butter knives and swinging them around like a samurai swordsman, all the while honking little samurai noises through his nose.
He pretends to cut me up into little pieces.
Then he and Jared rock with laughter like it’s the funniest thing either one of them has ever seen.
“Oh just put it on, Jenna,” Mom says. “Otherwise you’ll stain your shirt.”
“So what? I have another twenty-five at home. In the same color. You bought them in bulk, remember?” I say.
“Oh that’s right,” Mom says.
I can only sigh and grab a chip from the community chip basket that the Bloom communists love to keep having refilled at no extra cost, furthering their belief that everything should belong to everyone.
“And then I heard the cashier at the Bulk saying that tonight was some sort of special night for people interested in astrology. Isn’t that exciting, Jenna?” Mom’s voice pulls me back into the moment. “Something mystical about the stars being lined up.”
“Do you mean the equinox, Mrs. Bloom?” offers Jared.
“I think that was it. Apparently it only occurs every two hundred years or so and opens the door to all kinds of mystical possibilities,” Mom says. She makes an ooh sound and wiggles her fingers in space. “Something about a portal for good and evil, inhuman visitations from otherworldly dimensions, heightened paranormal activity. Stuff like that.”
She shoves a chip in her mouth.
Was communist Mom talking about mysticism? Could it be?
“What kinds of paranormal activities?” I ask.
“I dunno.” She shrugs. “Another cashier opened up so I jumped on that line. Daddy, didn’t we order the guacamole dip?”
“Well, Mrs. Bloom, when my father and I did our documentary Debunking the Mysticism of Astrology, or Crackpots with Telescopes,” says Jared, “we discovered that, despite what you read in popular books and see in the movies about vampires and werewolves and the like, most of all this paranormal stuff is just a bunch of hooey.”
“Oh, that’s very true, Jared. You’re an insightful and grounded young man.”
Mom shoots me a wink.
“Did you just say hooey?” Tess interrupts, shaking her head. “You worry me sometimes, Jared.”
“Would you rather I say something gross like poop?”
“Now I know you really didn’t just say poop.” Tess rolls her eyes.
And as Tess and Jared spar and the communists devour their chips, I realize that I’m at an all-time low. I now have a new appreciation for the Emily Dickinson unit we’re doing in Mrs. Hanlan’s English class, and of Emily’s dilemma as a badly dressed weirdo in self-imposed social exile, which she so poignantly examined in her poem “I’m Nobody”:
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
It was turning out to be the worst birthday ever.
Until suddenly, from behind the bar, the kitchen doors swing open, revealing a golden-white light. A boy emerges, tying an apron around his waist and pushing back a wisp of hair from his forehead. And he’s the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen.
Text copyright © 2013 by Laura Toffler-Corrie