There are too many balloons at my cousin Charlotte’s first birthday party. The streamer could be pared down, too. These family gatherings just always make me so miserable. Mom tells me I’m generalizing—exaggerating when I say things like always and never. Okay. These gatherings only usually make me want to gag.
I make my way through dinner and cake, but when it’s finally time to open presents, I'd rather escape. The men, though, have beaten me outside and are hunched under Uncle Adam’s truck hood examining his new Hemi. I’m in second-year Latin, but it doesn’t help me understand the fascination with half an engine.
Those of us trapped gather in the Great Room. Why doesn’t Aunt Pat get accused of exaggerating? The room is big, sure, but no curtains or pictures and if you took out the pink and purple party decorations, there’d be no color, either. That’s when it reminds me of another place.
Charlotte’s lying on a padded mat staring at the hovering ceiling fan oblivious to the mountainous heaps of presents I’m setting next to her. I know—I know; I’m doing it again.
Aunt Pat sits cross-legged next to her Birthday Girl. I want to write who brought what gift, but she hands the pad to a neighbor kid across from me. Then Aunt Pat waves a frothy gift in front of Charlotte, who's busy sticking one hand into her mouth and curling her wispy blond hair with the other. I have brown hair that’s not wispy. Frothy and wispy—good vocabulary words.
Aunt Pat shrugs her shoulders and opens Grandma Rose’s present herself—a yellow rubber duck. She swims it in the air toward Charlotte until it taps her on the nose making her yell, “Duck!”
Everyone—mostly everyone laughs. I begin drawing a dragon on my hand.
Grandma Rose sighs. “‘Duck’ was Patty’s first word.” That starts the talk of stupid baby “firsts.” When you’re adopted as an older kid from another country, there isn’t anyone to brag about the funny stuff you said and did as a baby. What’s worse is when your deceitfulness makes for new firsts you pray your mom won’t mention in public.
Aunt Pat is ripping paper from another present—a red plastic telephone, not the cell kind, but the kind we had at the orphanage. I say the word slowly, breaking it down into its parts: tele phone. Tele: meaning operating from a distance. The way mom had learned to operate from me. Phone: meaning sound.
Sound operating at a distance, like the “I love yous” that felt a thousand and one miles away.
My mom coughs a little. She alw—sometimes does that when she’s nervous. “‘Telephone’ was Sabena’s first word,” she says. I pause in the outlining of the ferocious flames I’ve allowed to escape the dragon.
“How could you remember that, Wendy?” Aunt Pat says to my mom, but she’s looking at me with a face as blah as her walls—the only look I ever get from her.
“It was on the videotape the agency sent us.” I don’t remember any tape.
“They had a tape of her as a baby?”
“No, she was nine. She sat at a table coloring while a social worker asked her questions she wouldn’t answer.”
“Not much has changed,” says Aunt Pat. I close my hand over the dragon and a fist appears.
“We couldn’t understand a word of Romanian, but I think the social worker was frustrated; this was Sabena’s chance to shine, and she was blowing it. Then from somewhere in the background, a phone rang.” My mom coughs again. “Sabena jumped up, revealing just about all thirty-two teeth and called out behind her: ‘Telefono, telefono!’
“We understood the literal translation, of course, but we thought we understood the figurative one, too—hope.”
My mom is right. A phone call always—no, not always. Every once in a great while, a phone call meant hope for one of us.
Aunt Pat says, “Technically that wasn’t her first word.”
“Just stop, Patricia,” Mom’s looking at me with a face that feels good to my heart. “The world's not a level playing field. And maybe you should wait till Charlotte grows up perfectly before throwing those stones. I’m tired, really tired of you always making snide comments.”
The Great Room is very quiet. I have to say, I’ve never been so happy. And, yes, I mean never.
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