Jimmy invited me to a birthday party. I didn't know the birthday girl, and her house was more than fifteen blocks away, and to this day I don't recall the girl's name, but Jimmy pitched it to me over the phone and I reluctantly agreed. Jimmy and I weren't close; our friendship was only a few months old. All we had in common was little league baseball and street hockey.
It took a few determined phone calls to the birthday girl, but Jimmy was a good salesman. He got his wish. He had someone to walk with to the party.
We walked too far and couldn't find her street which took us an extra twenty minutes of walking. Everyone we passed couldn't seem to tell us how to find Emily Street.
Before I could knock, I don't know how it came to be that I stood at the door ahead of Jimmy, Jimmy reached around me and just opened the door of a strange house. Shoving me forward I stumbled into a dimly lit room full of people who didn't know me. The look emphasized what are you doing here and why did you just open the door without knocking? That was the look gifted to me.
Birthday Girl bounded up to Jimmy with a quick hug, took his gift under her arm, and then stepped backward to greet me. She wore a shiny yellow dress. Jimmy slid by her and disappeared into the small crowd. I didn't have a gift. I stared at Jimmy's gift. Her parents and friends of her parents stopped staring silently at me and returned to their huddle in the kitchen. They played cards.
I'd just noticed the music playing as Birthday Girl sighed a small "Welcome" and set her gift with the others on the floor.
A dozen kids perched on the edges of chairs. The cramped living room felt bloated with decorations, small plastic plates of cookies, slices of cake, and small cups of soda. From the quick count of the present pile and the number of kids around me, most had brought a gift...and I spotted empty paper plates with remnants of meatball sandwiches and chips.
With the friction of her dress whishing her away, Birthday Girl had left me standing alone for a moment, but now tugged and whished a skinny girl by the wrist towards me. The girl was introduced as Philomena--she had a slight mustache and very dark curls which reached all the way down her back. I thought she could have been pretty without the facial hair.
No gift, we were late, and now a bug-eyed, dark-skinned Italian girl stood in front of me.
I kept an eye over her head on the kitchen--the folding chairs between the living room and the dining room clearly divided the house into two halves: the adult half and the kid half. Maybe I'd have a chance at a meatball sandwich if I paid attention.
She asked me if I knew Jimmy. She had really straight teeth.
Jimmy occasionally tried to include me in on other conversations. Every time I opened my mouth to say something, I realized I didn't know or recognize anyone, and the words disintegrated in my mouth.
The orphan Philomena stood closer to me now.
If I wasn't watching out for a chance at a meatball sandwich then I was inconspicuously scanning faces for one I knew or a conversation to which I could contribute. I knew none other than Jimmy and could only stare and pretend things so I could avoid talking with Philomena.
Small fingers tugged on my sleeve--she wanted ice cream.
A large commotion arose from the kitchen. Chairs rasped backward as a steady line of adults moved their card game into the basement. Seven adults--all helping to carry bottles, cups, plates, and ashtrays. Dismissing it to nothing more than we were making too much noise, I didn't think much about it, but saw it as my opportunity for a meatball. From across the room I could see the pot on the stove now that the adults left the kitchen.
I followed Philomena for two steps before Jimmy reached up and nabbed my forearm. He stopped me--we were going to sing "Happy Birthday." Grateful to be detached from Philomena of Ethiopia, I knelt so that I could sit on the floor between the sofa and Jimmy's folding chair.
At precisely the same moment that my butt touched the floor, the lights in the living room went out. I could just barely see some silhouettes moving. I assumed it was the dramatic approach of cake and candle.
I relaxed and tried to see as best I could, but couldn't see a thing, and no one lit any matches or seemed in a hurry to. I sat quietly with my head down in the dark waiting for the traditional song, waiting for something to happen--and it struck me that I didn't know Birthday Girl's name.
I'd have to sing, "Happy Birthday dear Birthday Girl..."
Or, "Happy Birthday dear mumble-mumble..."
"Happy Birthday to you!"
This concerned me. I'd have to mumble and I'm kind of in the middle of the cramped room. When the lights came on everyone would see me faking my way through the song. Even if they just lit candles, everyone would see my face awash in the orange glow and would know I mumbled.
The shrill swish of drapes hastily pulled closed made the room even blacker. I could hear Birthday Girl's dress rustle nearby followed by a soft muffled giggle. Jimmy's chair creaked and I got kicked. Someone wearing really strong perfume placed a light hand on my hand and I jumped and tucked my hands under my armpits. My back pushed into the sofa.
Heavy laughter rumbled up from the basement beneath us.
Then a sound built through the room which is as vivid in my head today as it was then. It sounded like everyone in the room chewed with overstuffed mouths of marshmallow.
They couldn't get the marshmellows out or swallow. It is an indescribable sound as it happened at varying rates all around me. At times it softly hovered right behind me, other moments it aggressively crept towards me from across the room--then another soft chewer to the left of me--and a sloppy, wet chewer directly in front...and I could hear Birthday Girl and Jimmy chewing gently together just above my head.
More adult laughter barreled through the floor beneath me. It rose just behind the closed door to the basement and then it exploded like buffalo thundering into the room as blinding lights suddenly flashed on and off followed by all of the lamps in the house in marked and deliberate succession-- her parents stood at the top of the basement steps taking Polaroid pictures of us while the white lights of the house intensified with each click-click of another lamp. The Polaroid memories steadily pitched forward onto the floor. Other adults couldn't climb around their hosts fast enough for a better glimpse and filled the house with waves of deep laughter. Folding chairs teetered over.
Some were still making out through the bright flashes of the camera. Mr. and Mrs. Birthday Girl were taking pictures! He pointed and directed and she aimed and shot. And no one cared. And no one moved. And no one warned me about this. And I was sitting on the floor right next to a skinny perfumed mustached girl nervously shoveling chocolate ice cream into her mouth. With the over-sized spoon in her mouth and chocolate lips, which now gave her a double mustache, she placed her trembling hand on mine one last time.
Bony and cold, I pulled mine away and stood; Philomena, incoherent with teeth and lips mottled with chocolate ice cream, tried to stand too. I helped her.
And surrounded by couples finishing sharing their marshmellows, Philomena and I stood silently.
I made the mistake of looking at her.
Philomena closed her eyes and pressed her double mustache towards me.
The scene remained this way for a century (Philomena suspended in waiting for her kiss) before Jimmy peeled his mouth from Birthday Girl and tugged me out the front door. He said he couldn't take it anymore--her breath smelled like Doritos.
As I spilled my guts to him (no invitation, no gift, no meatballs, no heads up on the making out, no gift bag for me, and Philomena's double mustache) Jimmy stopped to laugh so hard his face flushed and his lips and eyes wet with joy. I didn't know if it was just purely funny or if the real feelings of humiliation I felt were funny. He choked on his laughter and coughed.
Halfway home after we stopped reliving the party, he opened up a gift bag with his name on it and handed me a peanut butter cup. I didn't eat it. Quite frankly the round circle of chocolate made me think of Double Mustache's pursed lips.
The truth of the matter is, in just a few short years into high school, Philomena lost both mustaches and grew into an exotic beauty who dated guys already out of high school while I ate a lot of meatball sandwiches and the more than occasional Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
Still to this day, I can't look at that candy or its orange wrapper and not think of my close encounter with the Double Mustache.