“My thirteenth birthday is going to be fucking awesome!” Ernie had proclaimed the week before.
What it’s actually like: a placid, almost morose dinner at The Stewed Prune with the Womacks. Ernie, his tuxedoed grandpa, and his cardboard cutout grandma are seated on one side of the table; Theo, Jan, and myself are seated on the other. At the far end of the room, this guy who’s even older than Mr. Womack is playing the Eyes Wide Shut theme on a grand piano. Various retired couples slurp their food, dab at their mouths, clip their tones.
Ernie’s understandably underwhelmed, and is kind of being a meanie about it. I don’t know if he invited all 213 of his SuperMegaNet friends and they cancelled on him, or, more likely, if he was never friends with them in the first place, but he’s been acting like it’s the worst thing in the world to be celebrating his birthday with “just us” (his words), just the Runt Squad.
We make it through lukewarm soup and a slightly stale salad bar. Then Mr. Womack adjusts Mrs. Womack, pulls out a Nikon Coolpix, and announces that it’s time for presents.
Ernie sighs, shoves his bowl out of the way, grumbles, “Finally.”
First up: a box from Chin & Jowl containing a sweater, corduroy, and a mushy birthday card signed by Mr. and Mrs. Womack.
Ernie moves the box aside, glares at me and the others. “Yours better not be as lame.”
I frown and nudge Theo. “You go first.”
He grabs his gift bag, slides it across the table.
Mr. Womack aims the Coolpix awkwardly. (Beside him, in her state of living cardboard death, Mrs. Womack leers eerily at Theo as if to say, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”)
Reaching into the bag, Ernie fishes out a scented candle. Scrutinizes it.
“Aromatherapy,” Theo explains. “You can use it during one of your Hella War campaigns. It’s good for concentration.”
Ernie puts the candle away. “Next.”
Jan hands over a scuffed Spendco gift card that he clearly retrieved from a storm drain. “It’s got ten dollars on it,” he says assuredly.
Ernie stuffs the card into his pocket, makes an unenthusiastic grabbing motion in my direction. “Next.”
I hand him my gift bag.
He reaches inside, pulls out the most adorable plush loaf of bread you ever saw. Kawaii!
“What the fuck is this?” he asks, bewildered more than upset.
“A plush loaf of bread,” I reply with glee.
“I can see that. Why are you giving me a plush loaf of bread?”
“I was at GimmeGimme the other day. I saw it and thought of you.”
“Because it’s cute.” I falter. “Because I thought you’d like it.”
“Gee. Thanks.” Ernie replaces the loaf back inside the bag, folds his hands neatly on the tabletop. “Well, unless anyone’s got a soap dish or pair of bookends they want to give me, I think we’re done here.”
An hour and a half later, I’m sitting at the edge of my bed, still dressed from dinner, still stinging from Ernie’s reaction to my present. I’d never tell this to your face, Jan, but a gift card you found in the trash? My plush loaf was way better than that! And Theo—you clearly let your aromatherapist mom do your shopping for you!
Le sigh. I know it’s not supposed to be about me. This was a birthday gift for Ernie. He didn’t have to like it—but, then, he didn’t have to hate it, either. The mature thing for me to do would be to shower and call it a night.
Instead, I download into Ernie’s bedroom, ready to yell at him, ready to demand that he apologize to Theo, Jan, and myself for being such a—
Ernie’s lying in bed, asleep—
—the plush loaf tucked under one arm.
What a jerk! He’d had me believing he absolutely despised my birthday gift, and here he is, snuggling up with the thing!
One of Ernie’s eyes blinks open, rolls around a few times.
Focuses squarely on me.
“You’d better not tell anyone,” he mumbles.
I smile. “Your secret’s safe with me.”