When BigB told me he had reserved "Build-a-Bear" for littleb's fifth birthday, I felt my bowels go watery. I put my head between my knees, took a few deep breaths, then mustered the biggest fake smile I could and said, "Terrific!" in exactly the same pressured speech sort of way that a delusional inpatient might insist, "The Demons are eating my intestines".
Build-a-Bear was not the problem. I knew the kids would love it. I was equally sure that every parent of every kid invited would hate us. Forevermore.
Build-a-Bear resides in the state's largest mall, accessed primarily via a poorly designed parking garage that brings to mind the NYC sewer system. Every weekend in December the entire block of the city containing the mall and garage turns into one big migraine-inducing clusterfuck as shoppers wait hours to get in and out of the garage. Us suburbanites mostly avoid it throughout the month of December and, if we have to venture there, will do so on a weeknight, never on the weekend. We leave that sort of craziness for the braver city folk and the uninitiated tourists.
I envisioned parents reading our super hero invitations, with horrified faces and rising blood pressure, as the realization dawned that post-party they would have to wrestle their birthday-crazed child a half mile out of the mall and into the worst parking garage ever designed in the history of parking garages, only to sit in a line of slowly-snaking cars for God knows how long while their kid chatters relentlessly away in the back seat asking question after nonsensical question and demanding answers to each and every one before giving way to whining and, finally, high-pitched wails.
We'd be ostracized for years after this party. I could see it all playing out: The conversation stopping every time we entered the auditorium for PTO meetings. The glaring eyes upon us at every bake sale. Drawing the worst tasks for every single parent volunteer event. There was no doubt in my mind that we woud have to move to Vermont after this party. No more temperate weather for us. We'd be freezing our asses off through April and fighting off swarms of small black flies through August, collecting sap from maple trees for a living, and hoping the neighbors never found out what we'd done back in Rhode Island.
It wasn't BigB's fault. BigB doesn't shop; malls aren't his playground. This was all my fault. When BigB, frustrated by my chickeny procrastinating ways, announced that he would be happy to take over the party plan, I should have shouted "NO, I'll do it, I swear, I'll do it right now!". But I didn't. I said, "Go for it, Dude". And I might have snickered.
That snicker will haunt me the rest of the days of my life.
Knowing that this party was going to go over like an invitation to the fifth circle of hell, I resolved to keep a close eye on the RSVPs.
The invitations were distributed. The first week two saavy moms were smart enough to get their regrets in early. No other parents replied. I smelled their fear. It was clearly time to take action. I mapped out the preschool grounds, donned my camouflage and went to work.
"So, Mom#1, are you guys coming to littleb's birthday party?", I queried the poor, shivering creature I had backed into the story corner. "It's going to be so fun", I threatened. "Yes, of course", she fake-smiled. "We can't wait!".
My heart was bleeding for you, Mom #1, but this is my kid's big day and if you think he's going to be standing forlornly in the middle of the store with an unstuffed bear and no friends you are seriously underestimating my mother hen geneology.
"Hey, Daddio, you'll make it to littleb's party, won't you?", I caught him unawares in the parking lot of the preschool. It was dark and I was wearing black clothing and night-vision goggles. I looked as menacing as a middle-aged mother of four can look who isn't Angelina Jolie. Daddio was discomfited and on edge just the way I like him. He pretended to have no idea what I was talking about. Puhleeze. As if we all didn't know he was the prototype for the sensitive new-age Dad. "I don't really keep up on that stuff, so I'll have to check with Mrs. Daddio", he responded, deepening his voice and trying unsuccessfully to sound masculine. But we weren't going there, not today. "Why, do you have plans that day?" I asked, showing my canines, filed down to sharp points. "Uh, no, I...we....it's not that...it's just....I....we...". He faltered and I had him. "So we'll see you there then, can't wait!". That guy wouldn't be having sex again for at least two months but I didn't care. My boy now had at least two friends committed to attending.
The next parental victim was an experienced multiple-child mom and nobody's fool. I knew I'd have to bring out the secret weapon to secure this parent/child duo: I hid out in a dimly lit corner of the room watching. And watching. And pinning the feather on the turkey and watching. When I sensed the moment was right, just after the cake and punch, when every kid in the place was so lit with sugar they could have flown home, I moved in for the kill.
"Thanks so much for having us, Mom#3. You guys throw the best parties. Last year? The pilgim theme? That was inspired. That reminds me! I'm sorry you had that family emergency last year and couldn't make littleb's birthday party, but you will be able to join us this year at Build-a-Bear, won't you? How is your second cousin's father-in-law, by the way?"
That's right, Mom#3, you've used up your free pass. Check mate, Lady.
Then I slid to seriously low measures, even for me.
I arrived early for pick-up at the preschool and sidled up to Kid#4 on the playground.
"Hey Kiddo, how're you doing? I love your dress. So pink! Are you coming to littleb's birthday party next week? What, you didn't hear? It's going to be so fun! You get to build your own teddy bear and every kid gets a real pony! Tell your mommy and daddy you want to come, okay? They might try to say no, but if you keep asking and you cry really loud, they'll give in for sure so don't give up, okay? Ponies are for winners, Sweetie!"
I owe you one, Mom and Dad #4. But face it. If you hadn't been trying to avoid me all week, we could have handled this like the civilized adults we mostly are. You really didn't leave me with much choice.
Then, after I had sunk as low as I thought I could go, I sunk a little lower:
"Hey, Mom#1 and Daddio! So glad I ran into you! I wanted to let you know that we would love to have Kid#1sibling and DaddioJr join us for littleb's party! I know it's hard on the little ones to be left out and so we would really love to have them join us at Build-a-Bear. littleb has always wanted a little sister or brother, but he isn't going to get one. No. That ship has sailed. So nice that he can enjoy the siblings of all his friends on his Special Day."
Yes, Mom#1 and Daddio, I know I've now sentenced you to a post party episode with not one but TWO sugar-addled children in the parking garage from hell during the holidays. I'm truly sorry. I am. Consider it training for the real sibling rivalry that will arrive in about 2 years when one realizes the other is not his/her best friend but a competitor for parental affection. You think things are ugly in the parking garage? You have no idea.
Finally, I had an acceptable number of friends for littleb's party but I knew I couldn't trust these pansies to actually show up, so on the morning of littleb's party, I stuffed the cake into the trunk and the family into the car at dawn's first light. Never underestimate the element of surprise. I collected each family, shooing them out of their houses in pajamas and housecoats, coffee in one hand and car keys in the other. I took position in the front, leading the way to the mall. When I saw the line of cars waiting to access the parking garage even I grew faint of heart for a moment but then I took a deep breath and found my center. My center of delusion.
I squinted my eyes and checked my troops. In my rearview, I could see Daddio nudging the hood of his volvo out of the line. No. Not now. Not when we had come so far. Just one lily-livered parent is all it takes and it was not happening on my watch. I turned to BigB. "Take over the wheel! Do it NOW," I screamed.
Then I exited our vehicle and ran up and down the trail of cars, waving my tattered birthday cake flag back and forth, a maniacal gleam in my eye, screaming through the windshield at the bewildered, panicked parents.
"HOLD THE LINE. HOLD THE LINE, DAMN YOU, HOOOOLLLLLLD THEEEE LIIIINEEEEE!"
Somewhere far off I heard a fife and bugle and I knew Mel Gibson was smiling.
Several hours later, our rag tag bunch convened inside Build-a-Bear. We were tired, wounded and hungry, but we were victorious. Daddio was still bleeding profusely from his left ear after suffering a love bite from his over-excited three-year-old. Mom#1 was nursing a bruised shin, the result of wrestling her child past the mall Santa's Village. Mom#3 fought valiantly, almost losing her life in hand to hand combat over a vacated parking space. She had a glazed, far away look in her eye so I slapped her. Then I wiped the sweat from my brow, wrapped Daddio's head tenderly with a clean diaper, and commenced with the post-parking/pre-exit bearstuffing rally.
Now listen here. We're all scared, sure. But the real hero is the parent who fights even though she's scared.....Sure we want to go home. We want this party over with. The quickest way to get it over with is to stuff these damn bears and eat some cake. Then we can go home. And the quickest way home is through the East end of the mall and out of the lower south level of the garage. And when we get to the lower South end of the garage, I am personally going to shoot that party-planning sonofabitch, BigB. Just kidding BigB! But remember, troops! There is one great thing that you will all be able to say after this party is over and you are home again:
Thirty years from now when you are sitting by the fire, with your grandson on your knee, and he asks, "What did birthday parties used to be like when mommy was little?", you won't have to shift that little nugget to your other knee, cough and say, "Well Son, I shoved my face with pizza and cake at Chucky Cheese". No. You can look him straight in the eye and say, "Son, your grandmommy partied with the Rhode Island littleb mall contingent and a Sonofagoddamnedbitch named Chicken!"
And now, troops......LET'S STUFF SOME BEARS!!!!! Happy 5th Birthday littleb!!!!
Postscript: In reality, we hardly had to twist anyone's arm but mine. RI parents are hearty, hale and not afraid of any old parking garage. Thanks to all the family and friends who ventured out to help us celebrate. Also, thanks to that sonofagoddamnedbitch named Georgie Patton for his great speech to the US Third Army on the eve of D-Day. It was fun to adapt for my own selfish entertainment.