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People / Places / Things
The Edge Piece
by Deborah Markus

ll right, so it wasn't the social event of the century. But it worked for me. See some old friends, hang out at the park on a beautiful spring day, eat some cake. Alot of cake. A big humongous cake.

That's the great thing about hitting kids' birthday parties -- kids haven't learned to feign indifference to butter cream frosting. You have to engage in serious hand-to-hand combat to get any for yourself, but at least there'll be some there to fight over, because kids haven't grown up and gotten stupid about dessert. They won't try to palm off three twists of lemon zest and a segment of fresh orange as the grand finale to the meal. Heck, half the time at kids' birthday parties, there isn't any meal at all. Just cake. They may not always be great company, especially just before nap time, but at least children have their priorities straight.

I have a four-year-old, and he (with a modest gift) was my ticket of admission to this fete. I was just so glad to be at a party thrown by people who understand social justice. I don't mean they're activists or anything. I don't even know if this cute young couple and their cute young kid know what politics are. Is. Whatever. But they haven't, unlike most of the members of my circle, forgotten the basic bargain implicit in being a social creature, part one of which is that when you throw a party you throw the damned party. I mean you throw the damned party. You don't invite people to a here's-what-you-get-to-bring-so-that-I-don't- have-to-do-all-the-work. I hate those so much I have to get special shots. I get invited to one of these alleged parties, and it's always a phone invitation because God forbid they spend eight extra seconds -- or dollars -- sending a real live invitation, and so I'm sitting there gripping the phone like it's my husband's hand and I just went into the second stage of labor (technical name: OOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWW) and gritting my teeth to keep from saying something like -- well, something long and boring and tedious. Something about how how come I have to spend money, time, and energy planning and cooking and figuring out how many people are really coming, no, really, and who's allergic to what, when it's not even my party and so I don't get any social credit for the work I'm putting into it; plus I have my full part of the other side of the bargain, the whole figuring out what to wear and where we're going to park and what I'm going to have to sell to pay the babysitter. Plus there's sure to be no cake in sight because I move in very organic and health-conscious circles, which means that these people only degrade their systems with straight kool-aid and frosting-in-a-can when I'm not there.

And then when it is my turn to throw a party, I'm torn between setting these people a good example of what hospitality is all about, and saying the hell with it, I'm getting back a little of what these people stole from me. Kind of like social security. So I was really glad, as I started to say back when this column was young, to be going to a party that someone else was actually really honest-to-gosh throwing, and if I had to spend a couple of hours trying to look pleasant while a gaggle of fouryearolds took turns tripping over my shoes and spilling "fruit" punch on my nice new jeans, it was a small price to pay. There was no piñata, at least. That's always so Lord of the Flies-y. There really wasn't much of anything going on for the first half hour or so after my son and I arrived, which was almost a half hour late but hey the party started at ten-thirty on a Sunday and I'd be late for my own funeral if they had it at an ungodly time like that. I have my limits. But the joint wasn't exactly jumping when we got there. Everyone was just standing around pretending not to eye a small platter of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches which, other than the drinks, was the only thing passing itself off as refreshment at the moment.

I began to feel a little nervous. I'd forgotten that this couple was famous for underfeeding their guests. The last party they'd thrown, they'd ordered two pizzas for almost two dozen guests. You do the math. No, don't. You'll cry.

I began to calculate now. Two hours at the party, plus the other one or two I'd hoped to spend at the playground right across the street -- we'd never make it on half a pb&j apiece. There was the cake, of course, but being wired on sugar isn't the same thing as having real useful energy and I still had to drive home.

Just when the guests were all starting to size each other up, wondering who we should start gnawing on first when the sandwiches began to run low, the caterers arrived. Unfortunately, so did the puppet show. But we made it through that bit of darkness and found a glorious light, along with jumbo bowls of pasta salad and trays of turkey roll-ups. And then -- then the parents of the birthday child earned the right to have their names written in the sky in letters of fire. There was none of that mature, adult period of waiting between main course and dessert. As soon as the traffic in front of the refreshment table thinned a bit, the hostess clapped her hands over her head for attention. "Cake time!" she called.

I bent to coach my son, who has an active social life but is still working on the little nuances of party behavior. "Now, when they ask you," I murmured urgently into his ear, "or even if they don't, tell them you want an edge piece."

He nodded and we all began to sing. "Happy birthday, dear Whoever, happy birthday to you!"

"Go," I said. The line was already forming, and the birthday kid's mommy, like a fool, was cutting the cake along the shortest edge. And heading toward the middle, not the fertile icing fields of top or bottom. I felt like a football coach whose best player is headed full-speed toward the wrong whatever-those-things-are-that-football-players- run-toward.

And then my son proved himself to be my son. Not that I harbor many doubts on the matter, but still it was touching to see the blood-of-my-blood relationship demonstrated so clearly. And so publicly. Fifth in line with a mob forming rapidly ahead of him, he opened his mouth and pealed out "EDGE PIECE!" in just that tone of voice I've warned him never to use except when Daddy won't wake up and face his responsibilities as a parent early on a Sunday morning.

And then the birthday kid's nanny, who is a fine woman and whom earlier in the party I had in all innocence complimented on her beautiful netted hat, went to the cake table and, wielding her authority as caretaker, snagged my son not just an edge but a corner. Dear Lord, AWHOLE CORNER.

"What do you say?" I gasped.

"Thank you," he said.

"How about, 'Here, Mommy, have some.'"

"Get your own piece," he said, and I dabbed at a tear of pride. That's my boy. And, hey, I was fourth in line. There was still some edge left for me. Or would be, if I had anything to say about it.