I arrived at precisely 2:00 pm, just as the invitation requested, with a bottle of wine and two gifts in hand. I entered the home to a festooned downstairs, helium balloons skimming along the ceiling, red streamers stretching from one end of the large room to the other. Sesame Street's Elmo smiled at me from every nook and cranny, announcing Happy Birthday in bright primary colors.
I balanced the gifts I'd purchased for my Godson as I climbed the stairs to an empty kitchen. "Hello?" I called, unsure of where everyone was hiding.
"Oh God, the guests are here!" My friend Chuck joked, darting into and out of my line of sight as he sprinted across the hallway of his parents' house, still buckling his belt. His mother and father came out of another room, the baby trailing behind them.
"Hello, Chimi," Chuck's parents said, welcoming me with hugs and pecks on the cheek. "It's good to see you."
"Good to see you, too," I smiled, hugging them back with my free hand.
"Let me take your coat," Chuck's father said. I put down the gifts and the wine, stripped off my coat and gave it to him. "Make yourself at home," he said. I smiled and uneasily shoved my hands into the pockets of my too tight jeans.
It always makes me anxious when someone tells me to make myself at home; I am incapable of feeling "at home" in anyone's residence unless I've spent at least a year's time in that house. I never know where to go or what to do, or even where anything is. My friend Pollo's mom emerged from yet another room, and scooped up the baby. We smiled at one another, but said nothing. I don't speak Spanish, and she doesn't speak English, so we were stuck in the absence of conversation. The birthday boy Adrian looked at me with his big brown eyes, and I made a move to kiss him. He gave a shy smile and turned away, burying his face in his Grandma's shoulder.
So far, I was not feeling at home.
Shortly thereafter, guests began to arrive. Family and friends of Pollo and Chuck's, along with friends of Chuck's parents. Spanish words bounced off of the walls around me, rendering my huge vocabulary completely useless. I accepted a glass of Shiraz offered to me, hoping I would loosen up and be my normal, sociable self soon enough.
Then the families began pouring in: Couples around my age with toddlers trotting in front of them, strollers and toys and collapsible playpens in hand, wedding bands gleaming. They carried presents that they were able to purchase with ease, because they know about kids. I spent an hour in Wal Mart's toy section, painstakingly reading the boxes and trying to guess what a one year old would like to do. Three different gifts were chosen, and three times I turned around and placed it back on the shelf, second-guessing my choice before I even made it to the check out. I was thrilled with what I finally chose - a Leap Frog Learning Pad for kids ages 6 - 36 months, complete with a separately purchased Spanish and English Baby, Let's Go! cartridge - But it took me an hour to find it.
The men formed a circle to talk about sports and cars, the women gathered to talk about what Adrian was doing now developmentally and something they'd read in Parent's Magazine. I stuffed my face with a slice of salami wrapped around a chunk of Colby Jack cheese and looked around.
I stared at the fathers running after their sons, the moms delivering the requested juice to their daughters. I took a gulp of wine and realized why I was so uneasy: I always thought I'd be one of the parents at a party like this, not the single woman.
As long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a mother. My whole life was based on the assumption that I would follow, more or less, the pattern of my parents' 34-year marriage: Meet and marry young, and start a family sometime thereafter. I never took the SATs in high school, because I never planned on attending college. I planned on being a wife, then on being a mother.
I was engaged at nineteen to a wonderful man named David. He was a cadet at West Point, on track to become an officer in the Army. We met when I was seventeen and began dating almost immediately. Our wedding date was set for June 3, 2001. We were best friends, and I couldn't have asked for a better man as a future husband. He made me laugh and he would do anything for me. But as we signed contracts for caterers and DJs and florists, things began changing. I purchased my dress, went to three fittings and bought shoes and a veil to match. We sent out beautiful invitations, heavy stock ecru paper bordered in dark blue and sliver, requesting your presence at my marriage to a Second Lieutenant in elegant script writing. I spent a week painstakingly addressing the envelopes, rushing to get them out in time. Not long after I dropped two hundred invitations at my local post office, David and I called it off.
One month before our wedding, we decided we weren't ready; That we weren't sure that getting married the day after he graduated West Point was the right decision. We'd been together for almost three years, we bought home furnishings and registered for gifts at Pier 1. But something was missing. We loved each other like crazy, but it wasn't enough.
So now I have a gorgeous white dress hanging in my parents' house, custom-made to fit my then twenty-year-old body, waiting to be sold or given away, and I'm the single girl at a party full of families.
Sometimes, like a party full of mothers and fathers, or when another of my friends advises me that she's getting married or is expecting, I start to feel the ache of being so far from where I thought I'd be. But I'm not just looking for a vehicle to get me from single gal to married mother; I'm looking for the right one. I tried once with David, again with Tom, and struck out on both occasions.
More often than not, when I relate my desires to anyone, I hear "But you're so young! You've got plenty of time to get married and have kids." or "Why would you want to do that? You're so smart. You should focus on your career." And I don't know how to relate that I don't feel twenty-four. That I don't want a career. That Adrian's birthday party was nothing but a slide show in all the things I've wanted for so long. That I'll never feel "at home" until I have one of my own.