Posted Monday, September 6th, 2004
The White Elephant Party
It was just a party. A chance to meet the neighbors. And what are you to do? Not go? It had been a two months since Katie died. The counselor told us not to shut the world out. Grieve, she had said, but don’t indulge the grief.
“What the hell does that mean?” Gabe had said. “She thinks grief is some kind of puppy?”
Gabe had been on a flight to Prague for a medical conference when it happened. “Influenza” Dr. Roberts’ said. “He’s an idiot,” Gabe said. “Get another opinion—use Dr. Moonka this time. My kid doesn’t die from the fucking flu.”
But she did.
Her temperature was only 100 when she went to sleep. I stayed with her just in case. She woke at 4am and wanted a drink of water. She started wheezing at 6am and died fifteen minutes later, her little fingers slipping free from my right hand as I gripped the phone harder with my left, frantically giving our address to the emergency operator.
My new neighbor Marilyn took care of the details at the viewing. And I was grateful. I hadn’t slept in days. I wasn’t eating much and I had vomited on the bathroom floor that morning. She helped by engaging me in lighthearted banter, telling me stories about her boss at work and the upcoming party at her house.
“Just a get together for the neighbors,” she said. “We do it every year.”
Gabe had insisted we have the viewing saying, with clinical detachment, “for closure.” I relented—for him—even though I didn’t need to see my daughter dead in public with powder and blush on her face to help me heal. I grieve well and hard alone. I cry in surges and I feel so alive—Alive!—it hurts, but it is good. Reverent in its solitude. People just diffuse my feelings.
So, I hadn’t yet cried, you see. According to Gabe.
So, you see, I didn’t cry at the viewing or at the funeral either.
Instead, I stored those moments in the core of my head and got through the day in a cold, numb place on the surface. Numb enough, in fact, not to immediately register how many times I heard Gabe explain that I was alone with Katie when it happened.
The invite was on purple paper with white lettering:
What: White Elephant Party
“Your trash might be someone else’s treasure!”
Bring an unwanted item in a bag. We’ll pass the bags around. When it's done, you get to take the bag you’re left with!
Gabe had loved parties, once. He’d wear Hawaiian shirts, sip bourbon and talk about his days as a volunteer doctor in Tanzania. I had just received my degree in hospital administration. We talked, one day, about opening a clinic for inner city kids.
I convinced Gabe to go to the party. We needed something. We hadn’t made love since the night before Katie died.
I rummaged the house looking for a good gift—a funny one to show everyone we were trying to plug back into life—and finally settled on a donkey-shaped cigarette holder that one of Gabe’s colleagues had given him when he was trying to quit smoking. It dispensed the cigarettes out of its backside.
“How ‘bout this?” I asked Gabe, smiling.
“Whatever,” he said, glancing over the rims of his reading glasses.
So, I stuck a cigarette in its bum and wrapped it.
Gabe got those glasses after his promotion last year. I looked through them, once, and realized they were only everyday glass, like a window.
I found out I was pregnant the morning of the party. I had gone to the doctor thinking I was anemic. I decided to wait until the right moment to tell Gabe.
That evening, Marilyn greeted us and took our gift. We drank spiced cider and slowly warmed to the evening. Gabe reached for my hand once, even.
He liked the neighbors—another doctor, a judge, an investment banker.
Marilyn started passing the gifts around. She gave us a heavy, solid one, which we guessed was a brick. We swapped it out for a lighter one—something rectangular in bubble wrap.
Gabe started to strategize with me: “Let’s try to get that one,” he said, pointing to a flat one. “Might be an old Carpenters album.”
“Scratched-up and pocked,” I said, “if we’re lucky.” We laughed. I would tell him on the walk home, I thought.
The party started breaking up around midnight, with folks murmuring about babysitters and glancing over our way, in hopes we hadn’t heard.
On their way out, one couple opened their White Elephant gift, tearing back the bag and inner wrapping to reveal a hand-blown vase.
I whispered to Gabe, “Someone took this a little too seriously, I think!”
Another couple opened theirs—a cappuccino maker.
Gabe’s face went white. He squeezed my arm. “What the hell’s going on here?”
We canvassed the room to figure out who’d wound up with ours.
A crystal pitcher.
A hand-painted Italian ceramic bowl.
A Mont Blanc pen set.
A Chinese jade statue.
An antique clock.
A small plastic donkey with a cigarette up its ass.
Marilyn had opened it. “Who knew I needed one of these!” she said, and laughed with natural grace even though her face was red and she deliberately avoided looking our way.
Silence. Everyone looked at each other with half-cocked smiles.
“Now I want that one!” one man finally yelled, slapping his knee.
“Who brought that?” I heard someone whisper.
I was ready to fess-up and laugh about our ignorance. Until I looked at Gabe. He was staring at the wall. The veins in his neck bulged like the veins in my swelling breasts.
“Open yours!” someone called to us.
I smiled, “Oh, right.”
A Cartier picture frame.
“Very nice,” I said, letting my eyes rick around the room. Reality had shifted to that cold place on the surface of my brain again.
Gabe pulled me toward the front door. “Marilyn,” he called. Then in a quieter tone, “My wife didn’t realize—“
Marilyn held up her hand. “Quite alright—really. We do it this way every year. You—I—should’ve,” she looked down. Then she took my hand. “What matters is that you came.” People were staring at us now, whispering amongst themselves. “Let’s have lunch soon,” Marilyn said to me. Everyone said goodbye and we walked into the crisp night.
“You saw the invite,” I said. “I guess I should’ve called Marilyn, but it seemed so clear.”
“Clear?” He stopped and stared at me. “What about the last few weeks has been clear? What!”
I heard him packing in the morning. He emerged from our room holding a suitcase.
“Just for few days,” he said.
“It was just a stupid party. Gabe! What are you doing?”
A few days turned into a few months, then a divorce.
I still cry for Katie—alone in my apartment—and for the child I never knew. Marilyn calls me sometimes. Her annual party is coming up again. Tomorrow, I’ll shop for a gift.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by Ashley Minihan on Monday, September 6th, 2004 at 7:54 PM
This story frightened me and kept me in suspense. I loved the use of detail in the listing of the objects given at the party.