I forgot to buy my niece a birthday present.
It’s unforgivable, really. There’s absolutely no excuse. Forgetting my nephew’s birthday? Understandable. I see him twice a year at most, and his birthday is in September, the same month as at least four of my closest friends, and I can’t keep track of the days. Go on, ask me when his birthday is. See? I have no idea.
My niece, though. I see her all the time. I pick her up from school, because I’m the only one who isn’t at work when school ends, and I can’t let my sister enroll her in an afterschool program. I remember those programs, the anarchy of children trapped at school. The hours playing alone on the playground, pretending I was a horse, or inside, playing with Transformers and Lincoln Logs and other toys I didn’t see the point of.
No, I don’t want her to go through that.
She’s been talking about her sixth birthday for over a year. When she was four, she counted down the days to her fifth birthday, until it got to be the week of, and she burst into tears because she wasn’t turning six. Her daily countdowns to her birthday are one of the most consistent things in my life. We even celebrate her half birthdays.
Maybe it is a bit understandable that I forgot. Our conversations are so oversaturated with talk of birthdays that I became numb to the countdown, and now her birthday—her birthday party—is tomorrow, it’s 10 PM, and there’s no open stores or even overnight delivery to save me now.
What was it that she said she wanted? A dollhouse? Or was it a stuffed animal, a shark, maybe? Her favorite animal is an elephant. I can work with that. I’ll draw her an elephant. A card! Yes, that will work.
It’s only after I’ve grabbed a pencil and paper that I remember I can’t draw. I take out my phone and look up a tutorial. One minute into the video, I crumple and throw aside the paper, because it turns out that elephants are hard to draw, and I know she’ll see right through a shoddy sketch of an elephant. I close the video and start a search for what to buy a six-year-old. Nothing in my budget, nothing I can get by tomorrow. She’s too young for cold, hard cash. Tickets to something, maybe? A stage version of Frozen?
I nearly faint when I see the cost of tickets.
I’m desperate now, so I start digging in my closet and under my bed. A floral scarf? No, that’s probably a choking hazard, or something. Socks? No, that’s ridiculous, who would want used socks? She might like this hat, but it’s too big for her. I scan my bookshelf and briefly wonder if it would be inappropriate to give her one of my two copies of Walden. (Yes.)
Frustrated, I flop on my bed and call my mom. “Hey. Do you still have all my stuff in boxes? Okay. Yes. No. Okay. I’m coming over. I’ll explain when I get there. Yeah. Okay. See you soon.”
At my parents’ house, I dodge hugs and questions and head straight for the basement. My mom trails behind me and shows me where the boxes are. She asks what I’m doing, and when I say I forgot my niece’s birthday, she doesn’t even try to hide the disbelief on her face. “How? She talks about it every day.” I wave her off. I know what I’ve done. It’s not her birthday yet, and I can still fix this.
Going through boxes of my old belongings is always a dangerous endeavor. When I still lived here, I would bring up a box, determined to sort through and get rid of its contents, but I would inevitably end up laying on my stomach in the middle of my room, feet kicked up behind me as I read journal entries and yearbooks and notes from friends. Then I would take pictures and send them to friends from school, and next thing I knew I’d be on the phone, walking down memory lane, and the box would get packed up with not a single item missing.
This time, though, I’m on a mission. I go straight for the boxes of toys, and take inventory:
Puzzles and board games, their cardboard boxes taped tightly shut.
A Barbie van, big enough for two parents and two kids. The American dream in miniature.
The Barbies themselves, so numerous that I’m embarrassed to share the exact number. They’re all still in their outfits from the last time my best friend came over in fifth grade. We had concluded that we were too old for dolls, so we threw our them a going away party (quite the bash, if I remember correctly), then packed them away with a promise to never again occupy ourselves with such childish things.
A fair number of Build-A-Bears, which I’d like to say I got at birthday parties, but the truth is that I wasn’t invited to many birthday parties, especially not fancy ones like that, so I got most of them on mall trips with my mom, where she’d patiently wait as I thought up the perfect name for my newest stuffed friend.
There are so many toys here. I can’t believe I ever asked for more. How was this not enough? I can see the phases I went through, which my parents indulged, making up for what, I’m not sure. I stop myself from changing a Barbie’s outfit, and sit on the basement floor, surrounded by ghosts of myself. There is nothing here I can give her. It’s all outdated, musty despite my mom’s heroic efforts to keep the basement tidy.
I’m going to show up at this party empty handed. I’ll have to lie and say her present hasn’t arrived yet. She’ll say it’s okay, because we’ve taught her to be polite, but she won’t be able to hide the disappointment on her face. She’s old enough to know that it’s not hard to make sure a present arrives on time.
There is still time to learn how to draw an elephant, I think, when suddenly my eye is drawn to a shelf in the corner, and I see her: my lookalike doll. We mailed my first-grade school picture to some factory far away, and in return they sent me a doll that was supposed to, but didn’t, look like me. I knew that, but I pretended I didn’t, and I carried her with me everywhere for about a year. She was my closest friend that year. My mom complained that people in the grocery store gave her funny looks, because even if the doll didn’t look like me, she did resemble some child.
And maybe I’m desperate, or maybe it’s dark down here, but I know now what child she looks like.
I spend the morning unable to focus on anything, and I arrive at the party far too early, my gift tucked in a brown grocery bag. I feel bad about that, too, but I printed a picture of an elephant and glued it over the store logo, so I think it’s fine. When she sees me, my niece runs over and throws her arms around me. “Happy, happy birthday!”
She eyes the bag. “Did you go to the store? Did you get chips? Mommy forgot to buy chips.” She says this quietly, with a touch of disdain, as if her poor mother’s efforts on the cake and decorations and guests is all undermined by the absence of chips.
“Nope. This is your present. Would you like to open it?”
She glances over her shoulder and whispers, “I’m supposed to wait to open my presents.”
“Well, this present is from me, and I say you can open it.”
Her face splits in a wide grin, and I hand over the bag. She runs her little fingers over the elephant. “I love him,” she murmurs before peeking inside and taking out the shoebox inside. I feel bad about that too. “Did you get me shoes?”
“Open the box.”
She lifts the lid, and squeals. I can’t help my smile. “She looks like me! You got me a sister!”
In all my worries, I’d forgotten that she’s an only child who has always desperately wanted a sister. I decide to let her think that was my intent, so I say, “I sure did! Do you like her?”
“I love her,” she says, pulling the doll in for a hug, their dark curls mingling so that I can’t tell where one ends and the other starts.
Even though I haven’t picked up this doll in nearly fifteen years, I still feel a pang seeing her in the arms of a child who is not me. I need to let her go, but before I can stop myself, I say, “Her name is Rachel.”
There is only so much I can give away.