I don't know what got into me with Ruby's birthday festivities this year, but I put it in my head that I had to perform like a principal dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company. If you know anything about Graham technique, then you know it's all about contractions. As a dance major in college, I worked long hours on getting that perfect I-just-got-punched-in-the-stomach scoop, my upper body curved into a breathless “C.” I don't dance anymore, except once in a while when I decide to see if I can still do a Grande Plié in open fourth (barely) or when I want to throw a birthday party. In which case, bring down the house lights! It's all canes and tap shoes and top hats.
I figured 3 was the perfect age to begin memorable traditions, and by that I don't mean hiring clowns or, worse, participating in the absurd trend of chauffeuring 12 toddlers in a limo to a day at the spa. No, I wanted something born of my own elbow grease, something meaningful yet simple enough so as to be repeatable. The simple thing I fixated on was baking a cake. A box cake, mind you. I know my limits.
I have dreamy aspirations that my child won't hate me when she's in high school; that she'll never roll her eyes at me, talk back or sneak out with her boyfriend; that she won't drink my vodka and replace it with water; that she'll always appreciate my sacrifices. Someday, in my imaginary future, she'll speak lovingly of me with her college roommates as they smoke a joint and eat one of my fabulous cakes that I've sent in a care package, complete with rolling papers.
Thanks to my perpetual state of delusion and—I'll be honest here—my need to overcompensate for those times when I've regretted my choice to be a parent, I did the frenetic birthday tap dance that I swore I'd never do. I planned that party and baked that cake, despite a schedule that was more double-booked than a plastic surgeon's office in Los Angeles before Oscar season.
In roughly 48 hours, I made trips to Children's Land, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond and the UTC mall; I attended a cocktail party, hosted a swim play-date, received delivery men—not in a housewife-fantasy kind of way, either—made the requisite gift bags, took my kid for a hair appointment, met two work deadlines, baked cupcakes for the kids at school and baked that motherf*#@ing cake.
Did I feel accomplished? Did I feel like the Woman Who Has it All? No. I felt like a Woman on the Edge who'd done 231 things, none of them well. It's hardly even necessary to mention that tears flowed after I dumped a pan of cupcakes face down on the kitchen floor while removing them from the oven.
But dammit! That cake turned out like no cake ever has before.
Temperatures at Pepper Grove Park hovered around 100 degrees the day of the party, and all the shaded tables were taken. Beverages were rationed because we hadn't brought nearly enough and because we'd forgotten juice boxes for the kids and because Sam, the guy in charge of packing the cooler, has a penchant for all things mini, including miniature cans of Diet Coke. Now, I understand that he prefers a 6-ounce beverage (they are very cute). But most people? Most of us like our sodas super-sized, thank you very much. I bit my tongue and didn't say anything about the puny drinks. He had been a huge help, actually, and didn't deserve my wrath.
I couldn't disguise my angst, however, when I realized that in the throes of my cake-baking obsession, party snacks never once crossed my mind. There wasn't an Elmo cracker or a raisin or a fruit leather or a slice of watermelon to be seen at our party. All the other mothers' parties had 'em. But not mine. Mine just had the homemade cake.
Pizzas arrived eventually, but I was already in full cardiac arrest at that point. I'm pretty sure veins were bulging from my neck as I tried to politely smile my way through the misery. (When I got home, I had boob sweat on my tank top, and unless I've just run three miles on the treadmill, boob sweat is against my religion.)
When it was finally over, we loaded the car as fast as possible and made for home. It was unfortunate that all of my efforts to be The Perfect Mother led me to distraction: In my haste to get out of there, I'd forgotten to buckle Ruby into her car seat. Which was extra-unfortunate since Sam decided to take the on-ramp to the freeway like Javier Bardem would surely take me if we ever crossed paths one summer night on a quiet side street off La Rambla.
Sam had almost completed the turn when he said to me, “How'd you like those mad skillz, baby?” Then I looked in the rearview mirror. “Oh, shit!” I turned around to see my kid being violently dumped to the floor. She landed there on all fours with the strap of a Pike Place Market canvas bag wrapped around her neck.
She was startled and crying. I checked for injuries and stood soothing her in my arms among the fallen eucalyptus leaves at the freeway on-ramp. Then I handed the human missile her blankie, fastened her seatbelt and quietly apologized to Sam for not latching it in the first place. I let a few beats of silence pass and then let loose with screamed expletives about how best to improve his “mad skillz.” It took everything I had not to bring up the 6-ounce Diet Cokes.
When we got home, I curled up in bed, feeling like I'd just been punched in the stomach, my body in the shape of a perfect “C.”
I don't think I'll try another party like this for a long while. Perfection doesn't really suit me. I'm way more of a flailer, and the sooner I embrace that the better. I've come to the conclusion that all the training and technique in the world doesn't make a bit of difference anyway. Despite my performance, there are certain inevitabilities.
The kid's gonna hate me in high school. She's gonna roll her eyes and talk back and sneak out with her friends. She's gonna drink my booze and try to trick me into thinking she didn't. And she'll probably talk to a therapist about the time we didn't strap her down in the car seat and why it was that she never, ever got to have a normal cake from Costco like all the other kids.