The Party Giver by Soniah Kamal
Intent: You are cordially invited to our son’s 5th birthday party.
The Agenda: arrival of guests, magic show, lemonade, chips, pizza served on Captain America disposable plates, party over, pick up, go home.
Décor: Decorate the sidewalk with chalk. Big blotches of pastel flowers smeared into clumps of spiky green clouds to mimic grass. The massive sun in the sky will mirror the blob of yellow chalk amidst the fake grass— a plob of cheerfulness which a single rain, or even the hose turned on, can wash out. Tie a bunch of birthday balloons over the mail box where they will loom like bloated fingers and cast shadows over the chipped sidewalk.
Guest list: 12 kids from school. Drop off. Cars will begin to arrive one after the other in no particular order. A parent—usually a tanned Mom, occasionally a sun baked Dad— will step out with a gift clutched as tightly as the child they are depositing for the next two hours.
Timing: Two hours. In a whole year. That is all. Yet it is a dreaded two hours of keeping other people’s children safe.
Sometimes you couldn’t. Even twelve children could be too much. And one child could get lost. One child could wander up the carpeted stairs, past the den, into a narrow hallway painted a sky blue with a closet for linens and a washer-drier, candy-cane red. The child had no business going up the stairs; one could argue the child had no business being at the birthday party; one could argue the child had no business being born.
One could argue many things.
She hadn’t wanted to throw this birthday party. And certainly not at home. But Adam had insisted. It would be good for her, he’d insisted by which he meant what happened ten years ago was an accident and we cannot punish our five year old for the loss of his elder brother. We need to throw him a party. He needs to be thrown a party.
You need to see that what happened, back then, was a freak accident.
Adam didn’t say these things aloud. These things were spoken by the pinch of his bold mouth, the blink of his heavy lidded eyes, the way his Adam’s apple moved like a bobble-head toy. Every gesture begging-telling-commanding that whatever stage of grief she was still at must come to end: move on. Get over it.
“If not over it, then through it,” Adam said that afternoon she’d found out she was pregnant again with what would be their second child (well, first if you counted those alive). He’d held her to a promise she’d forgotten which was that she was his wife first and then a mother, that marriage came before children, that she had to allow him a second chance at parenthood even if it was a second chance neither he nor she had asked for—despite his vasectomy, despite the condoms she religiously bought every month, despite their bedroom activities so lacking of the razzmatazz which had once dazzled their bed sheets, despite it all they were pregnant again with a second son.
He was their son, she’d said kept repeating, their first born, gone to a birthday party at a friend’s house, a routine birthday party from which he should have returned sick on cake and yet wanting to gorge on the candy in his goody bag.
Instead, when they went to pick him up, no one could find him.
“Are you sure you dropped him at this house?” the mother of the birthday boy asked.
She’d wanted to slap the bitch acting as if her birthday boy’s big day was spoiled because of this. As if they had spoiled it on purpose. As if they’d carefully chosen this date, this venue to lose their son.
She still remembered screeching throughout that house, calling his name, the aftermath of a birthday party filling her with rage for it was a successful birthday party which meant everyone invited had come. There were only twelve children, the birthday boy’s mother said, and she’d given them strict instructions to stay in the basement.
She’d shouted at the woman. “What have you done with my son? What have you done with my son?”
And watched as Adam apologized to the woman. “I apologize on my wife’s behalf.”
She’d hated him at that moment. Often she believed the hatred sown then had only grown even after the funeral, even after the subsequent years of individual counseling and couples counseling, even after they looked down at their mewling second son, terrified together at the formidable task of keeping life safe.
“What happened wasn’t yours or Adam’s fault. God giveth. God taketh away.”
At first she’d used to yell at people who said this to her. Now she listened, as if she’d been drugged by Adam’s admonitions to behave sanely for the sake of their second born who’d never known their first born who’d died at a birthday party.
Sometimes she imagined their first born might as well have been her son alone.
Adam was insistent that the second born have a birthday party.
High time, he kept saying, high time.
She was a good mother, always that, and she did not want to deprive their second born: therefore the sidewalk chalk pretty picture she’d spent the morning laboring on, the balloons she’d blown and taped around the pin the tail on the cheesy donkey, the plain pizza she’d ordered, the potato chips she’d purchased, the individual cartons of lemonade: a birthday party; at the moment the best she could do.
What had Adam done except order there be one? But she was not going to go there. Throwing the party was her responsibility because, according to the husband who said he still loved her very much, it would be good for her; for all of them.
Twelve kids. She would watch over them like a strobe light, following each and every foot step, her eyes not letting a single child out of the spotlight until they were back in their homes. She could still remember the birthday boy’s mother’s question upon opening the door.
“What’s his name?” and then, moments later, “Are you sure you dropped him off at this house?” and minutes later the woman’s face turning into a bubbling soup of confusion and horror.
She wondered if that woman had kept the washer-drier in which her son was found. Why he’d climbed in, how he’d shut the lid, whether he’d sunk with a struggle into the embrace of the soaking clothes; they knew he’d banged on the lid from the bruises on his fists.
When her second son was born, Adam had kissed his blemish free fists. She’d cried then, howled like a washer-drier at full speed, and everyone—doctor, nurses, Adam—had respected her need to rinse herself out, though only Adam kept telling her to calm down. She was embarrassing everyone. She was embarrassing him. She was embarrassing herself.
She wished she’d told him then to shove all this embarrassment into his mouth and go to hell. It was too late now. Sometimes by the time you knew what to say and what to do, time had turned against you. There was no good time. There was no bad time. Often there was no time but that time past and this present time and no time between the two; her child had died and it had driven her crazy that she did not know the precise time.
She had been browsing in Target those two hours looking for useless accessories to beautify her home, and not for a second had she felt any supernatural—a cry in her ear— or natural—a prickle on her skin— message that something was amiss. She continued to pass her time and then went to pick up her first born hoping there was a Snicker or a Twix in his goody bag, some candy they both liked and so could share.
She did not put candy in the goody bags. Just a pencil, a sharpener, an eraser and a notepad. Her second born was five years old today and this was his first birthday party. When it was over, she was proud of herself. No one’s child was injured or had died. Her own child went to bed safe and surrounded by presents given to him by strangers which the children in his kindergarten class were for all intents and purposes.
At first, afterwards, when they’d kiss, they’d taste the salt of his bruises on each other’s lips. They’d bang their hips in a madness mirroring his tiny fists banging, banging, banging. Adam biting her, in order to expel it from her. She biting Adam, in order to ingest it from him. A famine only they shared. She knew his frightened hunger was there because, sometimes, even now, every once in a while, with no trigger she could pinpoint in order to set off for a future time, he’d dig up memory and let her have her way with his remembrance.
“Spit it out,” she’d coax him along, “Just spit it out”.
Death had taken their child, but not the fact that they remained his parents. Her first born lived on in her, but also in Adam.
It was why she’d stayed on.
Why she’d let Adam have his second chance of a second son.
It was why she ate cake today.
But she was still ravenous, starving even. And Adam had pressed his temples and said, “Not today. Don’t bring him up today.”
After Adam pecked her cheek and went to bed, she cleaned the remains of the birthday party, scouring any trace of it from the house. Two hours a year. That was all. It was done. Now she could return.
Soniah Kamal’s novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the KLF French Fiction Prize. Soniah is a Paul Bowles Fiction Fellow at Georgia State University (MFA) and the recipient of the Susan. B. Irene Award from St. Johns College for her thesis on Arranged versus Love Marriages. Soniah curated and edited ‘No Place Like Home: Borders, Boundaries and Identity in South Asia and Diaspora’ (Sugar Mule Issue # 43). Her essays, book reviews, author interviews, and short stories have appeared in Scroll.in, Huffington Post, Bengal Lights, The Rumpus, Arts ATL, Akashic Thursdaze and more and are included in critically acclaimed anthologies.