TENTH BIRTHDAY PARTY
It was Margaret Krupnick’s tenth birthday, and although there weren’t going to be any ponies or men with big hats, Margaret was sure it would be the best party of that year. If nothing else, it would be the first co-ed party. Everything was coming together great, except for her best friend, Esther Runtowitz, who had broken her arm after daring God to stop her from falling off the roof of the garage. She descended gracefully, like a dying swan, and landed with a dull thump. Only a broken arm and some cuts on her face, but there was no way she could play co-host today. Margaret would have to carry the weight of the party on her own back, vaguely hunched as it was. She wore a correctional brace on weekends, but who wears those things to school? Sure, Cathy O’Reilly wore headgear, but this was much worse. Also, it made sitting in chairs painfully uncomfortable.
Guests began to arrive, girls first, then boys in suits looking like they’d showered or at least wet their hair down. Among the crowd, was a smaller boy she knew little about, Harold Cohen. He was lightly freckled, red hair a mess from regular tousling at the hands of the other boys. Instantly, she felt a childish attraction to Harold. She could see that he was a shy, sensitive boy who just needed somebody to look out for him. Somebody who would help him express his deep animal longings, and expose the wild man buried beneath the three-piece suit and polka-dot bow tie.
Throughout the afternoon, during games of Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Which Intellectual am I?, Harold exhibited a unique deftness for poking the donkey in the eye, or shouting out the names of actors instead of authors. Margaret took these cues as desperate pleas. Who is more in need of her help than the poor boy who doesn’t know Stephen Jay Gould from Anthony Michael Hall? In spite of her subtle advances, extra cake, and endless glasses of cola brought straight to him, Harold left alone, and that day marked the last time anybody set eyes on him. There were rumors that he grew to be six feet tall, and learned to speak without the stutter, but Margaret didn’t believe them, knowing that he would never rise higher than his orthopedic shoes allowed.
Margaret Krupnick was having one hell of a time at her senior prom. Her date was the handsome and charming Chet Masters, who, although he attended private school on the other side of town, was welcomed with knowing gestures. Esther Runtowitz, whose own date, Sheldon Goldstein, kept stopping mid-dance to sneeze into his handkerchief, remarked that despite having lost the title of king and queen, Margaret and Chet were the finest dancers in the room.
There was something seductive and charming about Chet, and Margaret knew that she was the envy of every girl. Still, something nagged at her. It was as if her shoes were half a size too small, or her dress cut a little slim around her ample bosom. She found herself gazing off in the direction of Marvin Mittelbaum, the red-haired junior, rumored to be a sexual dynamo. He had taken a position along the wall, near the sours and olive bar, and was busy reading, scowling as he did when he walked through the hall. There was a stirring in Margaret’s gut, which she attributed to undercooked pork, and still, no amount of vomiting in the bathroom between songs remedied it. Even Esther was showing some mild concern, absentminded as she was, gabbing on about Sheldon.
As the night wore on, Margaret began to find excuses to sneak away from Chet, circling the room to trade small talk with various friends and teachers. She eventually worked up the nerve to ask Marvin if he’d like to dance, but by the time she turned to find him, he had gone home, having left his copy of Portnoy’s Complaint left on the edge of the buffet table. That night, lying amidst piles of stuffed animals and pillows in ruffled cases, Margaret dreamed of ducks flying in formation, and then of Count Chocula rising up and imploring Margaret to eat healthy, which, if you think about, made no sense.