I was the only one of my friends to have boys at my sweet-sixteen party. The rest of them had their sweet-sixteens in theme restaurants, usually Hawaiian or Mexican: girls only, no dancing, just eating a fancy meal in an exotic setting. It was my mother’s idea to have a co-ed party in the front basement. I knew this was because the basement would be cheaper than a restaurant, but I was thrilled. During the month we spent planning every detail together—the invitations, the menu, the decorations, the order to the bakery for my cake, the order to the florist for my corsage of sixteen lumps of white sugar nestled in a bed of pink ribbons—I felt as if I had a real mother.
I invited fourteen girls: friends from school, friends from camp, and cousins. To balance them, I would need fifteen boys. But I wasn’t dating much, nor were my friends, and I knew only three boys well enough to ask. So my mother called her cousins, most of whom I knew only as some of the many nameless friendly faces who had trooped in and out of Nona’s kitchen when I was very young, and she asked them to ask their sons to come and to bring friends.
I don’t know whether my mother specifically told my father we were planning the party, but he couldn’t have helped overhearing us talk about it all month. Yet he never mentioned it and just went on with his regular routines as if nothing special were happening. I didn’t think that was strange; it was tacitly understood that though my father chose not to participate in the rituals of ordinary life, like celebrating birthdays or paying condolence calls, he tolerated the rest of the family’s participation as long as we didn’t try to involve him.
My big evening finally arrived. Upstairs in my room, I checked my stocking seams in the full-length mirror to make sure they were straight, then put on my tan and white sheath dress and dyed-to-match tan high heels. I had gone to the beauty parlor that afternoon to have my hair done up in a French twist, so now all I needed to complete my outfit was eye shadow, lipstick, and jewelry: small hanging gold earrings, my gold charm bracelet, and the choker of white cultured pearls my mother had given me as a sweet-sixteen present.
Feeling glamorous and sophisticated, I surveyed myself one last time before I walked to the kitchen to show my mother. She was standing at the sink emptying ice cube trays into a bucket, an apron over one of her good dresses. “You look very nice!” she said, smiling as she dried her hands on the dish towel and took a few steps to the cupboard to get the florist box. She lifted the sugar corsage out of the tissue paper and pinned it onto the left side of my dress near my shoulder, then stood back to get a good view. “Perfect!” she said.
I didn’t go in to show my father, who was sitting at his customary bridge table in the living room playing a game of chess against himself, a library book on chess open beside his board. Since he had returned an hour ago from his day at Brighton Beach, where he had gone to escape the party preparations that had begun in the morning, he had made no acknowledgment of the activity going on all around him, and I thought it was better not to call attention to it.
I glanced at the clock above the refrigerator. 7:30. The invitation was for 8:00.
“I’m going down, Mom,” I said.
“OK,” she said. “I’ll be there in a little while.”
I closed the apartment door behind me and made my way down the two flights of hall steps to the basement. At the bottom, I paused in the doorway for a moment to survey the room. Everything looked beautiful, especially the twists of pink and white crepe paper that crisscrossed the ceiling, dipping down here and there in graceful arcs; Uncle Bill had hung it in the morning, moving his ladder from place to place under my direction.
I made some adjustments to the arrangement of forks and napkins on the long table against the wall and moved the vase of daisies, my favorite flower, to the exact center. Then I placed the assorted kitchen chairs we had borrowed from Nona and my aunts against the other walls, so the center of the floor would be free for dancing. I turned on the table lamps my mother had let me bring down from our living room and turned off the overhead fluorescent light. Now the room was bathed in a warm, yellow glow.
I took a small “45” from the stack of records my friends had lent me—the only records I owned were the classical albums we received by mail from the Columbia Record Club—and looked at the unfamiliar label. Pat Boone: Love Letters in the Sand. I clicked the thick spindle attachment into place on the portable record player, started the record spinning, and lowered the needle. A slow, dreamy song filled the room. On a day like today, we passed the time away, writing love letters in the sand. Just like a nightclub, I thought. The evening’s magic had begun.
My guests began arriving a few minutes after 8:00. Bearing gifts, they came down the outside steps that led directly into the front basement from the street. The boys wore sport jackets and ties, the girls, sack dresses and high heels. Feeling like a hostess in a play, I stationed myself at the door to greet each one.
“Hi, I’m Stew,” said a tall boy in a neat crew-cut. “Lenny asked me to come. Is he here yet?”
“No,” I said, “but please come in.”
“This is for you.” He handed me a small gift-wrapped package.
“Oh, thank you,” I said, taking it and turning to whichever of my friends was near. “Carrie, this is Stew, a friend of Lenny’s, but Lenny isn’t here yet.” I handed her the package.
“Nice to meet you,” Carrie said. And while I stayed at the door to greet my next guest, Carrie led Stew in, introduced him around, and added his present to the growing pile on the gift table.
By 8:30, my party was well under way, with kids dancing the Lindy to the records. The food was delicious. My mother had made coleslaw and her famous tuna salad—fresh lemon juice and grated carrots were the secret ingredients—and my aunts and Nona had contributed homemade colsonia, koulourakia, and baklava. Store-bought cold cuts and bakery-fresh rye bread rounded out the menu, along with plenty of soda and potato chips, replenished periodically by my mother. It wasn’t theme-restaurant food, but from the way everyone came back for refills, I knew they were enjoying it.
Everything was going smoothly, and I should have been happy. But now that I was no longer in my greeter’s role at the door, where I had known exactly what I was supposed to say, I had to circulate and talk to people without a script. I felt strange, as if I wasn’t really in the room, but was watching someone in a movie say stiff things like “Thanks for coming.” … “Would you like some more soda?” ... “This is my friend Lolly from Girl Scout camp.” Mature words were coming through my mouth, but inside I felt like a little girl dressed up in her mother’s high heels, eating forbidden foods like soda and potato chips. I didn’t belong here with these big teenagers, who laughed easily as they joked with one another in small groups. They even knew the words to the songs and sometimes sang along as they danced.
I was working hard at pretending, hoping no one would see I was an impostor, when suddenly I saw the whole room in a different way. These kids were having fun at my party. I was the guest of honor, the one wearing the corsage of sixteen white lumps of sugar. I felt my round shoulders straighten and my neck lengthen, heard my voice become more assured. I felt taller, beautiful, sexy, sixteen. It was as if a completely different person had emerged from within me and taken over my body, stepping naturally into the role I had been trying so hard to play. I kidded around, even flirted, something I had never done. Most of the boys hadn’t met me before, and this poised, outgoing, lithe and pretty girl was their first and only impression of me. They flocked around and kept asking me to dance as if I were Cinderella at the ball.
The evening whirled by. I danced, opened my presents to an audience breathing oohs and ahhs, and donned a hat made by two of my friends from all the bows that came off the gift wrapping. I blew out my birthday candles, handed pieces of cake around as my mother cut them, and danced some more. A few times I noticed one of the boys writing down the phone number of one of the girls. At my party! This was the happiest day of my life.
The dance floor was filled with bobbing couples doing the cha-cha, me among them, when suddenly, from out of nowhere, my father charged into the center of the room in his gray trousers and white sleeveless undershirt.
“GET OUT OF HERE!” he screamed above the music. “GO HOME!” His face was contorted with rage, and the veins stood out on his neck. “WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING? IT’S MIDNIGHT!” His bare arms flailed the air wildly. “GET OUT OF HERE! IT’S MIDNIGHT!”
While the girls all knew he was my father, none of the boys did. They fled out the door to the street in fright, not even stopping to say good-bye. And though the girls had always known my father was “strict,” they had never seen him in action. They, too, were terrified and ran. I alone stood still, back to my round-shouldered self, watching my party scatter. I was unafraid, but mortally embarrassed.
Within seconds, everyone was gone except my mother, my father, and me. The cha-cha music played to the emptiness. It’s cherry pink and apple blossom white, when your true lover comes your way. My mother lifted the arm from the spinning record to still it. My father started back up the inside steps. He was quieter now, just muttering under his breath. I remained standing where I was, looking at the festively twisted crepe paper. It had all happened so quickly that I hadn’t seen whether my mother tried to stop him and couldn’t, or whether she didn’t even try.
“I’m sorry, Laura,” was all she said, meeting my eyes for a few seconds before turning to the table to start cleaning up. Numb, I began collecting crumpled paper napkins and bringing them over to the garbage pail near the sink. Neither of us spoke.
I was in my room the next evening at 8:00 when I heard a knock on our apartment door. That always meant trouble; by order of my father, 8:00 was too late for visits. He was in the living room, with the door closed. Maybe he hadn’t heard. I hurried to the apartment door and opened it. When I saw three of the boys I had met at my party, I was extremely flattered; until the previous evening, boys had never expressed much interest in me. But I was also afraid that my father might hear them. These boys were from the world of normal people. They didn’t know about the 8:00 rule, or that “strangers” were never allowed to knock at my door without prior arrangement, no matter what the hour. They also didn’t realize that the madman who had ended my party the night before was my father; they probably thought he was just some crazy person who lived in the building.
For a few seconds I was nervous and didn’t know what to say. Then, just as the new, poised girl had taken over for me the night before, she took over for me again and went out onto the hall landing to talk with the boys, closing the door behind her. While she bantered easily, like an ordinary teenager, I tried to think of a way to suggest that we all go down and continue our conversation in the street. But before I could, my father opened the door.
“GET OUT OF HERE! IT’S EIGHT O’CLOCK. WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING? DON’T YOU KNOW IT’S EIGHT O’CLOCK?”
For an instant the boys looked shocked. Then, once more, they turned and fled. The poised girl disappeared too.
Finding myself standing on the hall landing with my father, I followed him back into the apartment. Muttering, he turned right, into the living room. I continued straight, to my bedroom.
I closed the door and sat cross-legged on the floor, scarcely breathing. Head forward, my eye attached to a speck of gray lint on the rust carpet and held on tightly. I felt my body become smaller and smaller. The lint became larger and larger. My head dropped down toward it, lower and lower, until the lint finally drew me in and closed over my head.