Luca and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Birthday

A tale of the worst birthday party ever — if you’ve had worse, my hat goes off.

Story by Judith Voirs; illustrated by Ray Cruz; Atheneum Books for Young Readers

My son, Luca, was turning thirteen. He stated in no uncertain terms he didn’t want a party — neither with friends nor family. Nada. Niente. Nicht.

My wife, who worried what posterity might say about why there was no evidence of the special event in the family photo album, decided that “no party” was not an option.

A week before the mid-March day, she asked Luca where he wanted to celebrate with his two siblings and parents.

“No party, please,” he replied. “I already told you.”

By mid-week, I asked my wife, Gina, “Has he given you a restaurant?”

“Not yet,” she replied.

“Gina, forget it. If he doesn’t want a party, so be it. Besides, it’ll save us a hundred bucks.”

Thursday passed; Friday arrived. I heard Gina tell Luca’s two siblings not to make Saturday afternoon plans.

“Has Luca changed his mind?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Gina replied.

“Just give it up.”

“He hasn’t given us a good reason why he doesn’t want a party.”

“He doesn’t have to. It’s his day.”

“I’ll get him to come around.”

Saturday morning arrived. Luca was in his room, keeping a low profile.

At 11 a.m., everyone was called to the front door, but only his two siblings showed up. I poked my head into Luca’s room.

“Look, I see your point. Just humor your mom, and we’ll keep it short as possible.”

As the family meandered towards the subway in a cold drizzle, Gina asked, “So, Luca, where do you want to eat?”

Had he been a captured GI, he wouldn’t have given her even his serial number. By now, his 15-year-old older sister was arguing his case against a “coerced event,” and his younger brother, 7, also put in his two cents.

On the subway, I asked Gina, “So, now what do we do?”

“Let’s go to Greenwich Village. We’ll stroll around, and he’ll get tempted by someplace he likes.”

By the time we exited the subway, I’d made an executive decision. We would not stroll and drag out the kid’s pain. Luca loved peanut butter and jelly; there was an eatery in the Village that served nothing but PBJ sandwiches — your choice of crunchy, smooth, almond, cashew, and slathered with a half dozen types of jams atop one of five different breads. You could also have marshmallow fluff.

We got a table. I took out paper and pen to take everyone’s order. Luca reported he wasn’t hungry. His siblings seconded him. I turned to my wife.

“Well, I don’t like PBJ,” she said, as if I should’ve known it from a pre-nup.

I went to the counter and ordered a few different sandwiches and drinks. As I returned to the table, the teen hatred was so intense that my family actually shimmered — as if they sat on asphalt under a desert sun.

“Hey, the sandwiches come with ruffled chips,” I chirped, sitting down. No reaction. “And, Luca, the chocolate milk is just how you like it— with all the syrup at the bottom of the glass.” It was all poison to him.

Our order was called. I went to fetch it. When I returned, tray in hand, Gina was gone.

“Where’s Mom?”

“She got so disgusted she left,” my daughter, Alma, replied, barely hiding a grin.

“Where?”

“She’s at the bar across the street.”

I peered out the front window. There she was, bellied up with a drink, having a nice chat with a bartender. I was furious. But then I had hope. Gina had initiated this insanity; with her gone, maybe the kids would see me as a neutral party simply trying to keep the peace, and they would eat.

Nothing doing. I was an accessory to this injustice. Three tall peanut butter sandwiches, two dripping with grape and strawberry jam and one exploding with fluff, sat like cement blocks on the table.

“To hell with it,” I said. I ate.

Eventually, my daughter asked, “Can I go across the street?”

“Where?”

“With Mom.”

“Are you going to have a cocktail, too?”

She rolled her eyes. She’d been the chief spokeswoman of the day’s civil disobedience.

“Go ahead,” I said. Without her around, maybe the boys would eat.

Not a crumb.

A half sandwich was all I could muster, my stomach was so twisted into knots. All the overpriced PBJ and milk went into the trash, and the boys and I crossed the street to the bar. My fury doubled when I saw Gina drinking a spritzer with lemon! Was she not humiliated and chagrined enough that she needed a double Scotch?! And Alma, who being underage could not sit at the bar, was standing alongside it telling the laughing bartender about our lovely outing.

I stayed outside and waved at Gina and Alma. “Let's go,” I mouthed.

They came out. The kids darted down the block.

I said to my wife, “Never, never — in a billion years — will I be part of a birthday party who’s honoree doesn’t want it. Do you understand?”

“You know,” she said, casually, “it just may be that some day he’ll be glad he had a party.” It was one of those marital comments that, if not ignored, would be used to launch a divorce settlement.

To salvage the drizzly day, Gina announced that we’d go a funky hobby shop around the corner so Luca could spend birthday cash. The children dashed inside, happy as chattering larks.

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