[A version of this story was originally published by UW-Eau Claire-Barron County Campus in their annual Red Cedar Review in June 2020.]
“What kind of name is this?” Grandma asks. She’s helping me write birthday invitations to my first-grade classmates. I know exactly which name she means. “Who names their kid Marlon when his last name is Dabrowski? You can’t be president with a name like that. You might survive one of those names at the polls, but not both.”
“You named your daughter Geraldine Evelyn Mickiewicz,” I say. My mother hates her name, especially the Geraldine part. And she says she married dad for his last name—Andersen.
“Your mother was never going to be president.” Grandma peers at me over her cat-eye glasses. My cheeks burn. “You like this boy, don’t you?”
I’m silent. Truth is I love Marlon Dabrowski and have since the first day of school. Marlon has some bad points, besides his mother being our teacher. He’s pudgy. My grandma would say he still has baby fat. And he’s not a talker, so I have to do most of the chatting. His name is different, but it has rhythm when I sing it. Then again, Marlon has good points. His eyes are brown like the coffee beans my mother grinds every morning, and they’re surrounded with long, dark, dreamy lashes. He has a dimple in each chubby cheek, and he smiles a lot, so I get to see loads of dimples.
The next morning at school, I place an invitation on each desk. Reception is mixed. Jillian, Sherry, and Holly form a snug circle.
“Not going. She’s weird,” Jillian says.
“Me either,” Sherry says.
“I’m not showing this to my mother. She’ll make me go.” Holly crumples the invitation.
The boys aren’t excited either, but it’s not specifically about me.
“I hate girls’ parties,” Scotty says.
“Me too. Too much pink and Barbie stuff,” Todd sighs. “I’m tired of Ken and Barbie.”
“She has a trampoline in her backyard,” Doug says.
“Really? That’s different. I can put up with girly colors and sappy Barbie stuff if I can jump on a trampoline.” Todd bounces on the balls of his feet.
I don’t care what any of them say as long as Marlon comes. I ask him, “Are you coming to my party?”
“I don’t know. My mom doesn’t like you since she caught you eating paste,” he says.
“She caught you too!”
“Yeah, but I told her you dared me.” It’s true, but ratting on me to the teacher, even if she’s his mom, isn’t cool.
“Why’d you do that?”
He walks away.
“I have a trampoline in my backyard,” I yell after him.
At recess I ask Marlon again, “Are you coming to my party?”
“I guess. My mom says I can go as long as I don’t eat paste.”
I ball my hands into fists and slam them on my hips. My voice is deadly calm, “We’re not serving paste at my party.”
For two weeks, I’m on my best behavior in class. I don’t eat paste. Or smear thin layers of glue on my hands, let it dry, then peel it off, and ball it up. I don’t run into the girl’s bathroom pretending to cry so I can get out of class. I don’t read a storybook during math.
On Friday, the day before my party, I slip up. I’m supposed to write the alphabet over and over so I can memorize it because I still can’t recite the letters in order. I write it once and start reading.
“Put that book away and memorize the alphabet,” Mrs. Dabrowski says. She doesn’t have eyes the color of coffee beans or long, dark, dreamy lashes.
“Why do I have to memorize it?”
“Everyone has to memorize it.” She props her reading glasses on her head.
“But I can look up there.” I point to the banner above the board that has all twenty-six letters in order.
“Go sit in the hall.” She lowers her reading glasses, and her eyes appear to grow behind the lenses.
On Saturday, the hour of my party arrives. But not Marlon. Three girls and four boys come. But not Marlon. At first, I hope he’s just late. But then it becomes too late for him to just be late.
The boys keep looking out the window at the trampoline. “That’s a real nice trampoline you have,” says Todd, bouncing his fingers on the edge of the dining room table my mother has dressed with a lace coverlet and set with plain white paper plates and plastic forks. He’s not going to get to jump on the trampoline—my mother doesn’t want anyone getting hurt—but at least he doesn’t have to look at Barbie stuff.
The girls, mostly silent, take no pains to hide their boredom, and the cat’s got my tongue. I’m scared to talk to the girls, who don’t like me, and none of the boys are Marlon. Playing pin the tail on the donkey, eating cake and ice cream, opening presents, passing out party favors—it’s all a blur. It’s hard to be sad and pretend to be happy. I’m done with birthday parties.
On Monday I walk into class, sit at my desk, and open a book. I don’t even look for Marlon.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to bring Marlon to your party,” says Mrs. Dabrowski, her voice all soft and sweet like my mother’s when she’s explaining to the milkman why we can’t pay the bill. Mrs. Dabrowski is standing by my desk. “We had something come up unexpectedly.”
“That’s okay,” I say, “With a name like Marlon Dabrowski, your son can’t ever be president anyway.”
For a moment empty air hangs between us, then anger puffs out of her and washes over me. Flashing through my imagination, like pictures in an album, I see her yell at me, my mother yell at me, and Marlon look at me with disgust, but none of that happens. Instead, Mrs. Dabrowski takes her bug eyes, which are the color of mud and rimmed with stubby lashes, and zooms back to her desk. I hear her shuffling papers, and if they were panes of glass, jagged shards would litter her desk.
“Marlon,” she calls, and he walks to her. I don’t hear what she says to him, but I don’t have to.
My heart squeezes, and I keep my eyes on my book. If I watch Marlon walk back to his desk and he looks at me, I’ll burst out crying and run to the girls’ bathroom, and my tears will be real.
All morning I’m a perfect student. If Mrs. Dabrowski thinks it’s to make her like me, she’s wrong. I need the cocoon I’ve spun around myself. Truth is I still love Marlon Dabrowski.
Throughout the morning, I steal out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye glances at Marlon. During one glance, I notice he’s folding paper. If his mother catches him making paper airplanes again, she’ll bite his head off. She’s in a mood.
At recess I sit alone on the wooden bench farthest from the kids playing kickball. My eyes are closed and my head is tilted toward the sun. A shadow crosses my face, and when I open my eyes, I expect to see a cloud but see Marlon instead. He hands me an envelope made out of writing paper. “I don’t even want to be president,” he says. He shoves the letter into my hands and runs back to the kickball game.
I open the folded paper. Inside he’s written happy birthday and placed a dollar. It’s his whole allowance for the week. He knows I don’t get one.
Refolding the paper around the dollar, I look for Marlon across the way. He’s looking back at me. I’m smiling and he smiles back. Aah, those dimples, loads and loads of dimples.