By Lara Krupicka
At our annual neighborhood block party I had been struggling to join in on conversations and find a group to connect with during the pre-dinner activities. Each person I tried to engage seemed to catch sight of a friend after a few moments of chatting. Now I stood in front of my chair, plate in hand, wondering what to do. All around me others were sitting in their circles, talking and eating. No space for another chair, no invitations to join a group. And I didn’t have the nerve to insinuate myself into a group. It looked like I would have to eat alone.
When my daughters and I arrived at the party pulling a wagon loaded with camp chairs, a baked bean dish, and frosted brownies to be entered in the bake-off, my husband was already hard at work setting up food tables. Our athletic teen, wearing earrings where earbuds usually dangled, hair conspicuously tucked into a long, wavy ponytail, reached past me to carry off the casserole dish and brownies, before joining other teens scooping snow cones. Our quiet but quirky twelve-year-old, dressed in neon-pink t-shirt and lilac capris, quickly spotted friends and deserted me for the popcorn machine and bounce house. Our youngest, the social butterfly, hazel eyes bright with memories of previous years’ bashes, went off to find her own fun, leaving me to unload our gear.
Camp chairs covered the grassy hilltop, clumped in closed circles. I wandered among them in search of a gap for ours, but only found empty space between groups. I arranged our chairs in a semi-circle there and went to sell raffle tickets.
By the time I completed my shift my children had eaten and gone.
Even my husband, who in years past had wandered the block party aimlessly while I escorted our young children around to ride ponies and play games, had abandoned our dinner site. I found him in his epicurean element at the food table, where he was serving Italian beef, while chatting up grilling recipes with a neighbor.
My cheeks were hot and my throat tight as I finally sat amidst my family’s empty chairs. I choked bite after tasteless bite, wishing I was somewhere else.
Just finish, I thought, eyes focused on the soggy coleslaw below my fork. I fought the feeling of exposure that swept over me. It conjured memories of the girls in grade school talking about a sleepover everyone had been invited to except me; in junior high being the last girl seated along the wall waiting for a partner to dance with at Cotillion.
It also brought forth the wistful memory of arriving alone and late to a packed gathering in college and watching a row of friends scrunch together to make room for me. What happened to friends like that?
I had thought I was forging friendships, however loosely, at a weekly coffee gathering of moms from our neighborhood elementary school. We shared hairdresser recommendations, school gossip and stories of our parenting woes. Yet here at the block party those same women passed me by with only a brief “hello.” Their brush-offs confounded me and compounded my embarrassment at eating alone.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up from my plate. It was my youngest. A few damp strands of hair clung to her temples, the rest springing out in wild wisps. Her chest heaved.
“Mom,” she said between gasps. “They told me to get away.”
At this I noticed the tremble in her chin, the glum set of her mouth, and the glassy sheen of tears in her big eyes. I set my plate on the ground and stood up to look around.
“Who?” I demanded. She named two girls her age whom I had seen her following earlier.
In the field below us were clusters of children, some running a relay, others competing at a ring toss game. The two girls in question were throwing beanbags at Cornhole boards.
I turned back to my daughter. “Why won’t they let you play?”
She shrugged, her fingers rolling the edge of her t-shirt. Over her shoulder I could see two other girls from her class skipping along arm-in-arm, paper sacks of popcorn held in their free hands. There was no point suggesting she join them. They had dismissed others already that evening for the rare joy of unrestricted fun with a favorite friend.
My own chest heaved now and my hands shook as I reached for my plate.
“Let’s go,” I said. “We don’t have to stay here.”
As I packed up our chairs I half hoped someone would stop us. Instead adults continued to talk in their tight circles, while kids played in their groups. From the outside it looked like an all-American block party. From the inside it stunk of childish cliques.
My husband raised his eyebrows in question when I stopped to tell him of our departure, then returned to his conversation.
I moved past him, gaze fixed ahead, one arm protectively around my daughter’s shoulder. Do not engage, I told myself. The anger and hurt simmered too close to the surface for me to dare any interactions.
“Wait!” my husband called out. I stopped with a sigh. “Can you take this home?” he said, holding out our empty casserole dish.
I jostled the chair higher on my shoulder and took the dish from him. Just then music blared from tall speakers beside a DJ van. Out of the corner of my eye I could see seats being shifted in preparation for dancing.
We covered the few blocks to our house quickly in spite of all we carried.
At home my daughter slumped upstairs for a bath. I set about scrubbing the casserole dish and cleaning first the kitchen, and then my bedroom. All the while, strains of The Beatles and Gangnam Style filtered through the open windows, an odd soundtrack to accompany my sorrow.
As I tucked my daughter into bed that night, I wanted to offer her reassurances. That it would improve and girls wouldn’t always exclude her. But I couldn’t.
Instead I kissed her on the forehead above those big hazel eyes, dimmed with disappointment. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Me too,” she said. By the squeeze she gave my hand, I could tell she was sorry for the both of us.
Lara Krupicka is a parenting journalist, mom of three and an introvert.