In August 1989, just after first grade started —the first year of “real school”—I would turn six. Father and Aunt Claire decided I should have a party, and that I should invite more friends than just Harriet. They never told me this, Father and Aunt Claire, but I knew. They were perfectly happy with Harriet—were genuinely pleased to see her when she came over (you can tell when adults are faking their feelings), were genuinely pleased to have me go over to Harriet’s after school. Or on weekends.
Still … I knew that they would have been even more happy to hear some other voice in the house, to hear me cry as I banged out the screen door, “I’m going over to whoever’s [not Harriet’s] house!”
So a few weeks before my birthday, Father, over supper, asked me if I’d like a party. He had his reporter’s notepad and a pencil on the table. He was going to take notes on this.
So when he heard my eager assent, he next asked: “Whom should we invite?” (Notice the whom? Father always used precise grammar—especially when he spoke to or near me. Always a good example.)
“Harriet,” I chirped, then chomped on a fresh ear of sweet corn.
Father waited a minute. And when I suggested no other names, asked, “How about the others?”
“What others?” I managed through a mouthful of corn.
“I mean,” stumbled Father, “aren’t there other children you’d like to invite?”
I stopped chewing and looked at him. Chewed some more. Swallowed. Spoke. “No,” I said. “Harriet’s fine.” Having her in the house was party enough for me.
Now Father wore that flustered look that kind, generous parents wear when their kids say or do something they want to disagree with but aren’t sure how.
Father drew doodles on his notepad. “I was thinking,” he said slowly (the way adults do when they’ve already done their thinking and have made up their minds), “that because this is such a special year—first grade and all—you would like to invite some of your good friends from kindergarten?”
“Harriet is my good friend from kindergarten,” I said, though I could now see where this conversation was heading—and how it would turn out. So I knew I was starting to sound a little defensive.
“But what about the others?” asked Father.
Now I was in a bind. If I told the truth (there are no others), I was going to sound like some kind of social outcast. Which I was, I guess—but didn’t care.
So I decided not to prolong this awkward conversation. “Sure, Father,” I said. “How many were you thinking of?”
“Four,” he said. “Four in addition to Harriet.”
“Yes,” he said. “Exactly four.”
Later, I called Harriet and told her we had to come up with four names for the party—exactly four. Harriet, of course, had more friends at school than I did—a lot more. She spent most of her after-school time with me, but I knew, seeing her in class and at lunchtime, that she just was more of a social person than I am.
“Leave it to me,” she said. “I’ll bring over a list tomorrow morning. See what you think.”
After Father left for work, Harriet bounded in the house, not even bothering to knock. With each other, we were long past that kind of thing. I barged into her house, she into ours. No problem. She headed straight for the living room, where she probably knew she’d find me reading. She was right. I was—a book on numerology, the idea that the numbers in our lives (our birthdates and so on) have great significance. I wasn’t buying any of it. But it was interesting.
Harriet saw the book in my hand. “Your Days Are Numbered,” she read. She gestured; I handed the book to her. And she read the subtitle: “A Manual of …” She looked at me.
“Numerology,” I said.
“You read the craziest things,” she said, handing the book back.
She was more right than she could possibly know.[i]
“I’ve got a list!” she announced. “Four perfect names for your birthday party.”
I looked at it quickly. The first three I had no real problems with: Jane Maurice, a quiet girl who also liked to read. Matilda Peacock, a bouncy but harmless girl with one of the oddest names in town. Elena Marcliffe,[ii] a girl who drew horses all the time on scrap paper and always checked out library books on horses. I’d seen her talking with Harriet many times at school. She seemed all right. And then I came to the fourth name. The one that caused me to wonder if Harriet had suffered an attack of mental illness.
“Blue Boyle!” I cried. “Why on—?”
“I know,” said Harriet. “He doesn’t really fit in.”
I snorted. “That’s for sure. He fits about as well as you fit Aunt Claire’s clothes!”
Harriet laughed. “I’d like to see that,” she said. “I really would.” Then both of us were laughing about Harriet in Aunt Claire’s clothes.
“But Harriet—” I began again as soon as we’d settled down.
“Just listen,” she interrupted. “Here’s what I’m thinking. He bothers us both at school, right?”
“Yes.” Though, truthfully, he hadn’t bothered me so much since his Halloween embarrassment last year. Maybe he was planning his revenge. Or maybe he was just a little afraid of me. I didn’t know. I was just relieved that he pretty much left me alone.
“So,” Harriet went one, “maybe if we invite him, he’ll see it as, you know, a sign that we like him.”
“We don’t like him.”
“I know!” said Harriet. “I hate him. But let’s make him think we like him. Then maybe he’ll leave us alone.”
“Or maybe start inviting us to his house!” I countered. “Or cave!”
And we both started laughing again, picturing ourselves at a Blue Boyle party, where they probably ate cooked kittens and poached puppies and played badminton using actual little yellow chicks for birdies.
“But see,” continued Harriet, “he won’t even come to your party. Why would he? That’s the best thing about inviting him. He won’t come!”
But, of course, he did.
[ii] Ed. note: These names are all names of some significance to Mary Shelley. A good friend was Jane Williams. Maurice was the title of one of her books—as was Matilda; a family friend was Thomas Love Peacock; Elena was the name of one of her husband’s children; Theophilus Marcliffe was one of the pen-names that her father, William Godwin, used on books he wrote for a children.