Mary Ann McGuigan ~ The Party Favor

The pock­et­book is blue, a dark hue more like a chem­i­cal spill than a sky. It has trav­eled with us from one apart­ment to anoth­er, with­stand­ing every rushed exo­dus, every evic­tion. Always we find it nes­tled safe­ly between sweaters and gloves my moth­er deems too thick and nev­er wears. Mom has nev­er said where she got it from, but I think her sis­ter gave it to her. We reg­u­lar­ly inher­it cast-offs from fam­i­ly mem­bers who con­sid­er our house their per­son­al Goodwill bin. It’s a long rec­tan­gu­lar bag, the kind Rosalind Russell tucked under her arm as a girl reporter. But it’s unmis­tak­ably an acces­so­ry for a grownup, not some­thing you’d gift to a girl turn­ing eleven.

My invi­ta­tion to Rachel Silverman’s birth­day par­ty land­ed on my desk late on Friday after­noon, tossed non­cha­lant­ly onto my math book, as if unin­ten­tion­al. Rachel had breezed by me, head­ing from the back of the room up the aisle to her own desk, her thick curly hair hid­ing her face as if she was work­ing under­cov­er. Until I saw my name, I thought the enve­lope was some­thing she’d dropped, some­thing I should return to her. I tucked it into my book bag, opened it on the way home, thrilled and shocked to be brought into her cel­e­bra­tion. My sis­ter June didn’t hes­i­tate to enlight­en me that, giv­en its late arrival, the invi­ta­tion like­ly result­ed only from a can­cel­la­tion. Mrs. Silverman is a stick­ler about her lun­cheon set­tings. I hope that isn’t true. She’s always nice to me. She’s giv­en me a lift home from school more than once when it’s rain­ing hard. And when Rachel was assigned as my sci­ence project part­ner, her moth­er invit­ed me to the house to do the work. Even if my sis­ter is right, I don’t care. I’ll be with Rachel and her friends from school, togeth­er in a room where they’re less like­ly to be whis­per­ing and gig­gling only to each other.

My moth­er holds the invi­ta­tion card at arm’s length, perus­ing it like it’s a dread­ed elec­tric­i­ty bill. When she hands it back, she exchanges a look with my sis­ter Alice, the kind grownups share when the mat­ter at hand is dirty or unmentionable.

Well,” she says, most­ly to Alice. “Let’s see what we can come up with.”

What they come up with is the blue pock­et­book. I squint at it in dis­be­lief. My sis­ter June tells me I look like my lunch is going to make a sec­ond appearance.

She’ll love it,” Alice says.

But … it’s so grownup,” I say.

Exactly,” says Mom. “Every girl wants to feel like a grownup.”

For a moment I see that I shouldn’t go to the par­ty. Parties aren’t for peo­ple like me,  whose fam­i­lies can’t afford to buy gifts. But the moment pass­es as I let Alice and my moth­er con­vince me that the gift will stand out, that nobody needs yet anoth­er Barbie out­fit or a board game to gath­er dust.

Still, I wish we could at least wrap the thing in prop­er wrap­ping paper. But we don’t have any. One of my broth­ers sug­gests using the fun­ny papers. “Brilliant,” Alice declares, but for a time we can’t find any tape and my mom says a bit of glue will work just as well.

June finds the tape, thank god, runs it under the tap to get the gunk off. It still works. It was in the tool­box, which hasn’t been cleaned out since the dog threw up in it.

The walk to Rachel’s house is long, but at least it doesn’t rain the way the morning’s fore­cast pre­dict­ed. The fun­ny papers would have got­ten sog­gy for sure. Mrs. Silverman opens the door, trilling me a wel­come that seems sin­cere. I hold the gift low by my side, and see the oth­er presents have been placed on a side table in the din­ing room. I wave a greet­ing to Rachel, slink toward the table with my gift, relieved I won’t have to hold it behind my back, as if it was some­thing from an adult book store.

We have lunch first, a deli­cious sal­ad with diced meat that I’m pos­i­tive isn’t Spam. Nobody talks to me much at first, so I focus on chew­ing. But before long some of the girls speak to me about stuff, about home­work, boys they like, teach­ers they don’t. We laugh some­times and Rachel encour­ages some of them to share sto­ries with me that I might not have heard. I see Mrs. Silverman glance at me now and then, most­ly from across the room, as if try­ing to remain unob­served, as if she has some sci­ence project of her own underway.

We sing “Happy Birthday” and I keep my voice down once I real­ize that the rau­cous ver­sion my fam­i­ly favors isn’t the way it’s done here. Rachel is allowed to start open­ing her gifts before we fin­ish our cake. She doesn’t seem that impressed by them, unable to repress a com­ment about a Barbie make-up case she already has. Her moth­er speaks her name in a tone sub­tle enough not to embar­rass her, but Rachel gets the mes­sage, thanks the girl, as if the present is some­thing she’s been long­ing for.

Mrs. Silverman slips my gift onto Rachel’s lap, beneath the table, so some of the girls may not have noticed the wrap­ping, but Sandra and Beth gig­gle, hands over their mouths, choco­late on fin­ger­tips. When Rachel unwraps the pock­et­book, she’s silent, looks up at her mom, as if at a loss. But she doesn’t laugh and nei­ther do any of the girls. Maybe it’s some­thing about the way Mrs. Silverman takes the gift from Rachel, con­ced­ing this is some­thing unlike the oth­ers, but in a way not to be mocked but trea­sured. “How love­ly,” she says, glanc­ing at me almost with a wink, as if only the two of us can appre­ci­ate how spe­cial this real­ly is, this gift that got me through the gates.

~

Mary Ann McGuigan’s non­fic­tion has appeared in X‑R-A‑Y, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and else­where. You’ll find her fic­tion in The Sun, Massachusetts Review, North American Review, and oth­er jour­nals. Her col­lec­tion PIECES includes sto­ries named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. THAT VERY PLACE, a new col­lec­tion, is due out in 2025. The Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library rank Mary Ann’s young-adult nov­els as best books for teens. WHERE YOU BELONG was a final­ist for the National Book Award. For more about her writ­ing, vis­it www.maryannmcguigan.com.