My oldest brother, Bad Child, is on the phone.
“Noodle [of tea party/bonfire fame] is singing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ in Mandarin at her school on Saturday night,” he says.
“Of course she is,” I reply.
“Want to come? There will be food.”
How could I possibly pass up a pot-luck dinner at a public school in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
My six-year old niece Noodle is obsessed with Chinese. She’s developed quite a musical repertoire in Mandarin – she can, for instance, sing you Happy Birthday:
Judy shyler quai la,
Judy shyler quai la!
Judy SHYLER quai LA-AAA,
JUDY! SHY! LER! QUAI! LA!
At least, that’s what it sounds like to those of us (idiots) who don’t speak Chinese.
When I show up at the house, my nieces appear wearing weird outfits. My sister-in-law has been out of town for a week, and it shows.
Pinwheel, Noodle’s older sister, has got her jazz shoes on about the potluck.
“It’s an international dinner!” she says, clapping her hands with glee. Families are apparently bringing dishes that represent their ethnic backgrounds.
“So what are you making? Greek salad? Moussaka? Spanikopita?”
Pinwheel points to a Tupperware container.
“So what is it?”
“Asian pasta salad,” says Bad Child.
It appears to be fusilli and broccoli with some kind of peanut butter sauce. I look blankly at Bad Child and his blond, blue-eyed children.
“And what are you going to tell people if they ask what ethnic background this dish comes from?” I ask.
“The New York Times,” he says, turning on his heel.
At the school cafeteria, children are tearing around while their exhausted parents and beleaguered teachers look on. It’s the usual Park Slope scene – white upper middle class liberals, grown-up hipsters, lesbian couples with adopted Indonesian babies, and a mix of Asian, Latino, Caribbean and Eastern European parents. Noodle and Pinwheel are absorbed by the seething mob of screeching kiddies, leaving us to case the buffet tables. We slip the “Asian” pasta salad next to a pile of soup dumplings made by a real Asian person and load our plates with pickled pig’s feed from Trinidad, jerk pork from Jamaica, kielbasa from Poland, and meatloaf from Elizabeth, New Jersey. We go back for seconds – Cantonese spring rolls, baked ziti with “mozzarel” and “ricot”, and pickled mango from heaven.
The girls ignore us. With their friends around, we are total downers. We do not have shoes with wheels on them, nor do we have any Dora stickers to trade. No one else seems to want to talk to us either, so we find seats near the make-shift stage and watch a nebbishy parent with an enormous gut approach the mike. He is wearing a t-shirt that says, “Narcissism stops with YOU!”
Bad sign. Bad.
“I want to tell you kids a story,” he bellows. “It’s a JEWISH STORY. Are you kids READY?”
The kids give him a round of golf claps. They’re calling bullshit on this guy but are too polite to say so.
I look at Bad Child.
“Nightmare,” he whispers.
For the next twenty minutes, the dude drones on like an accountant with theatrical ambitions, reveling in the sound of his own voice amplified across the cafeteria. I look over at Pinwheel, who is yawning audibly.
“What the hell! When are the kids going to sing?”
“We have to wait for this asshole to finish.”
When he does, the kids look like they’ve been released from Gitmo.
The first grade lines up for the Chinese song. Half the kids have no idea what they’re singing and get all the moves wrong. What’s more, some tubby brunette is busy edging Noodle out of the way. Noodle struggles valiantly to keep her ground, but being tall and skinny, she is no match for the heft of Tubby McTubbenstein. I make a mental note to keep my eye on that one. That one is bad news.
Noodle skips over to me after the performance.
“You were really good!” I say, hugging her. “I like the way you sing in Mandarin!”
“CHINESE,” she corrects me.
“Oh. Right. So who’s your boyfriend?” I ask.
She points to a little boy with red hair and alabaster skin. He is ravishing.
“So what kind of boyfriend-girlfriend stuff do you guys do?”
“I give him cards.”
“Does he give you cards too?”
“Noooooo,” she says, in a way that makes me understand that I just asked a really stupid question.
“Do you want him to?”
“Yes, but he ignores me.”
She seems oddly resigned to this. For a moment, we’re both quiet thinking about The Little Boy with Red Hair. Finally, Noodle shrugs and runs off after the LBWRH. He retreats, perhaps unaware of the important fact that he is her boyfriend. When Noodle catches up to him with her long legs, she punches him playfully on the arm. His little face scrunches up and turns red. He pulls the sash of her dress. Noodle squeals and dashes off, looking coyly behind to see if he’s following. He isn’t. He’s now chasing some other girl – a girl named Raven wearing a pretty red party dress.
I watch as Noodle’s face falls, as she smooths her hair and walks off bravely to collect her left shoe.
It occurs to me that in life, there is always some girl named Raven in a pretty party dress about to steal your dude while you’re trying to find your left shoe. But I didn’t learn that until I was twenty - they start ‘em young in Park Slope.