The Fake Celebration

The Fake Celebration

Introduction

This story is the second installment of a series. For clarity’s sake, I’ll repeat much of the information from the first installment, since it still applies. The story is completely different from the previous one, but the same exercise inspired it.

I’ve been playing with an idea: that imagining ourselves acting in bold, cathartic, and even shocking ways can be just as healing as actually pulling the behavior off. In fact, it’s safer; you reap the benefits without subjecting yourself to the messy awkwardness of real people reacting to your actions. Recently, I published a short story on Hevria with this theme — I fought back, finally, against some online bullying I’d experienced, in a hilarious but ultimately healing way. Writing about and sharing this fantasy felt even better than merely imagining it. I had the sense that I’d taken control over the original problem, transformed it into my own playground for my mind and my soul.

So I had a brainstorm: why not do it again, many times, as a kind of psychological and even spiritual exercise? I could respond to difficult situations in wild and wonderful ways, in my mind and on the page. I wrote the short story below in that spirit. Everything there is fictional; nothing happened as described. Like the narrator, I’ve longed for a reason to celebrate, but none of the story’s details correspond to actual happenings. The story’s dynamics and people are completely fictional. The narrator is me, more or less, and I kept key details about my parents intact, but no other character corresponds to any particular real-life person.

Perhaps the most important thing: I’ve been laughing at the scenarios that appear in my mind. They create lightness where sadness and tension once reigned. I haven’t worked miracles: sadness and tension still poke out when I think about the “real life” situation that inspired this fictional tale. But I’ve moved it all towards humor, playfulness, and a sincere attempt to grow. I hope you enjoy it. Maybe you’ll feel inspired to try this exercise yourself. I recommend it with great enthusiasm.

Part 1: Party Planning

So many people in my life had something to celebrate: weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, book and album releases, births of children. At least once a month, I had some new person to congratulate, some new party to attend. I did it all without thinking too much about it, but then I began to feel a certain emptiness, and even a separateness from my larger social world.

I love being a participant observer — hanging out with people, groups, and communities and watching them live, making my own life a kind of anthropology experiment. And yet, somehow, I began to wish that I had my own reason to rejoice, something important enough to warrant a group celebration. Ostensibly, my life held nothing worthy of large-scale jubilance. I couldn’t very well make a big bash honoring my lack of desire for a husband, or the bizarre experiences I’ve had with people in the publishing world.

Of course, I could have a party just because: people do that all the time. But it wasn’t the party itself I missed. I was getting enough of that when other people planned events… with none of the expense or stress. What I missed — should I admit this? — was hearing sweet words like “Congratulations!” and “We’re so proud of you!” It seemed like other people’s lives were leading somewhere that everyone else appreciated, while mine was just puffing along with nothing concrete to show.

One afternoon when I was walking around Cambridge, a glorious possibility hit me. I could have a celebratory gathering and make the reason mysterious. “Wonderful things are happening!” I could announce in the invitation… without identifying said wonderful things.

I had met some challenges in the past decade or so: it’s not like I had no reason for self-confidence. I’d learned how to ask my phone for walking directions, which made finding destinations a bit less precarious. I had gotten better at figuring out what to order in restaurants so I wouldn’t eat too much. After much consternation, I’d discovered how to change the sheets on my bed in less than half an hour of futzing around; certain tricks helped, like looking for the tag and making sure it went on the bottom corner facing the door.

I had also paid off my mortgage during these years, though I accomplished that largely by avoiding big expenses like parties. I felt a tightness in my stomach. Maybe the party wasn’t such a great idea. I prided myself on avoiding just this sort of unnecessary financial drain.

Then a fabulous solution occurred to me. What a gloriously productive walk this was: my mind was awash in creative problem solving. On the bottom of the invitation (which I’d send solely online to avoid any expense) I’d add, in tasteful lettering: “Registry: Bank of America (or any other bank you’d prefer).” That would give people the right idea in a subtle way. I was frequently writing checks to Bat Mitzvah girls and happy couples. When you give, you should also receive… right? Wasn’t that a basic karmic law?

Now I had to figure out where and when. It was the beginning of the summer: if I stuck with the warm months, I could do it outside in a park or something and avoid the cost of a room, if the weather cooperated. I thought of the space in front of the beautiful public library right near my home. I could reserve several rooms at the library for free if I told them far enough in advance, in case it rained. The library would also be right there so people could duck inside for the bathrooms if the weather did turn out to be nice. Wow, my mind was really cooking.

Since I love introducing people to smoked sable, a luscious treat that many have never tried, I’d serve that, with whitefish salad, poached salmon, and other goodies, including that wondrous invention, the black and white cookie. I’d get it all from a kosher place to accommodate those who needed that, and ask the caterer to come out with tables and set it all up. I never would have thought I could do such a thing, but it was all seeming easy. I truly had come a long way in recent years. No, this wouldn’t have the feel of a fancy wedding, but it would be fun. At least that’s what I hoped.

I picked a September Sunday, after Memorial Day and colleges’ move-in days, figuring people would be back from other adventures and free to celebrate something new. A kosher deli in nearby Brookline was able to fill an order for the food I wanted, and one of the owner’s sons was happy to come out, set it all up, and keep things moving. “Don’t worry, you just have to sit back and enjoy the party,” said a man with a deep, strong voice who sounded like he was probably from Brooklyn or Queens. Perfect. Just the guy I’d want behind all of this. I really wasn’t so nervous about it: a huge sign of growth that was worth a celebration in itself. It was much more expensive than I’d hoped, but I had registered with Bank of America. I approached it all with uncharacteristic — and healing — optimism. I even looked into nearby hotels and negotiated a discount at the one right next door to me, in case out-of-towners wanted to come.

Then I had to word the invitation, which I’d send out through email and Facebook. This part was a bit tricky. How could I impart the idea of fantastic successes worthy of blissful celebration without giving away any specifics? I pictured certain nosy relatives — the people most likely to make the Bank of America brainstorm worthwhile. They would badger me, and then, if they got nowhere, my parents, for the specific reasons behind this event. They wouldn’t accept mystery: they’d think they had every right to know what was going on. And I supposed they did if they were going to travel out of state for a party… but, since I didn’t actually have anything in particular to report, I had a huge challenge.

After considerable tinkering and obsessing, I wound up with this: “Celebration in honor of fabulous happenings and accomplishments. Come and enjoy! You won’t want to miss it!” I blasted the invitation around through Facebook and email and felt nauseous right after I did it, worrying that no one would come. But then the RSVPs started floating in. And the questions.

Most of them were well meaning. Friends guessed that I had a book coming out or had gotten a spectacular new job that would allow me to move to Manhattan: maybe something that would involve writing my strange essays, poems, and tales for fabulous pay. “Come on, just tell me what’s happening. I’ll be even prouder,” my friend Jessica said, poking my stomach, as we ate baklava and drank coffee at Café Algiers. I grinned mysteriously and said nothing, but I could feel the baklava settling into my gut in a not-so-pleasant way.

I started screening my calls very strictly, in case it was someone wanting to learn the full scoop and praise me based on a full understanding. Congratulatory Facebook posts would appear on my page and receive over 100 likes. “But we want to know what’s going on!” someone was sure to comment. I never replied to those comments, and I could sense a growing animosity. Maybe it was just an impression that didn’t tap into anything real, but that sure wasn’t my hunch.

My mother called me, very upset, because she noticed the Facebook posts and had no idea what they meant. (I didn’t actually send my parents the invitation since I knew they wouldn’t like the part about registering at Bank of America. I just invited them on the phone, and said I wanted to reciprocate with all the people who had hosted me at events.)

“You’re hiding something from us? From us?”

“No, it’s all just a joke that got way out of hand. I teased some people by telling them I had something huge that we all needed to rejoice about, and it got much bigger than I had hoped.”

“I still feel like you’re hiding something, but I won’t push it right now since I can tell you’re upset.”

I was beginning to wish I’d never planned this party. The celebration was turning into a nightmare. Sometimes a joke is no longer a joke, even if you think you’re making a grand point about the world and how it works.

But now I was stuck. I couldn’t cancel the party: I’d be shamed for life after all this attention. July moved into August, and I called the deli to check on arrangements and see exactly how much I’d owe and when the payment would be due.

“I don’t think I have any record of this. I don’t see anything about a party by the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library. Are you sure we’re the place you called before?” a woman’s voice asked. She sounded like a mature person, well into adulthood, probably middle-aged.

“Positive. Maybe there’s something else you can look up? We’re talking about the first Sunday in September. Maybe you have this under date and not place?”

“We’re doing a party in Cambridge that day, but not by the library. It’s right nearby, on Harvard Street, at the Shunway House.”

“I’ve never even heard of the Shunway House. You must be looking at someone else’s event.”

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Stephanie Levine.”

“Hang on. I think I have an idea about what’s going on here.” I heard some paper shuffling in the background, and then the woman called out: “Herb, can you check on something for me?”

After a few minutes, the woman returned to the phone and said: “Your party by the library was changed to the Shunway House. I’m so sorry — this just happened, and I wasn’t around for the discussion. We were going to call you very soon. Don’t worry: it’s not even a five-minute walk away from the original location. The people who are paying thought you might have problems with a party outside of a public library. Everyone and his third cousin could stop by and mooch off of your food. The Shunway House has really nice grounds, so you can be outside if the weather is nice, and the inside — a really great space — has also been reserved, so people can do what they feel like: hang out inside or outside. It’s generally best to keep food platters inside so nothing gets tainted by heat or bad weather. People can take their plates and go wherever they want on the grounds. If the weather is good, we’ll have tables set up both inside and outside. All the food you asked for will be there, including some extras. Like spanakopita. The people paying remembered that you love it, so they decided to add it to the menu.”

A whirring sensation passed through my head. I was planning to pay for this myself: what could possibly be going on? It dawned on me that my parents could have decided to pay — that actually seemed likely — but they never would have changed the location without telling me. For that matter, I’d never told them who was catering the party, and they had no knowledge of places around here.

“Um, would you mind telling me who has taken this party over? I don’t know anything about this.”

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say. But they figured you’d be happier if the pressure to plan were taken away from you. There’s a note here: they said we should tell you that they’re very proud of you, and they want to do this for you as their gift. Anonymity is a condition here: they don’t want you to know who they are.”

“Well, OK then, so we’re on for that first Sunday in September, starting at noon?”

“Yup: you have the space from noon until 5 p.m. Should give you plenty of time to celebrate. If you give me your email, I’ll send you specifics on the location. You can then let everyone on your guest list know about the change. This shouldn’t bother anyone since it’s so close to the library, and it’s completely accessible in case anyone has an issue there. After you do that, just mark your calendar, and come to the party. The people we’re now working with want you to just relax and have a good time.”

I thanked her and immediately called my parents, who denied having anything to do with this. “If anything, I would have convinced them to call the whole thing off. This party is not making you happy: I can see that loud and clear. No way would we have taken it over and paid,” my mother said, and I believed her 100%.

So the universe and I were even. I had thrown out a mystery, and the universe had thrown one right back at me.

Part 2: The Celebration

The day before the party, I felt sick with dread and homesickness: strange, since I was home. I missed the home I’d enjoyed before the party had sprung into being: the one where people weren’t constantly grinning and congratulating me, and then saying: “I guess we’ll find out what this is about on the big day, huh?”

On a lovely Saturday when I should have been savoring all kinds of pleasures, I sat on my bed and seethed. How could I face this party? What had I done to myself? How could I get out of it? At around 2 p.m., I forced myself to take a shower and go outside for a walk. A walk had inspired this disaster; maybe another one would inspire some kind of solution.

I strolled along the Charles River, hoping some ducks would be out. Ducks often brought me peace, and maybe now they’d bring some kind of hope to this awful situation. Sure enough, I spotted some ducks waddling back and forth between the grass and the river. I watched them and formed a genuine smile: a great sign that things might resolve themselves somehow.

And then I had an idea. I could send out a message to all my guests with a cryptic note, explaining what we were celebrating… and yet not explaining at all. I headed home to my computer and started brainstorming. Finally, I came up with this: “We’re celebrating, among other things, my ability to walk for miles in the rain, meet a friend for coffee minutes after a rejection comes, grade those projects even when I’m tired, and come up with ideas for all the writing I’ve been doing. And more, of course. There’s always more. Most of all, we’re celebrating the never-ending possibility of more. For me and for everyone receiving this note.”

Before I could wimp out, I blasted these tidings around to everyone I had invited to the party. Afterwards, I felt kind of queasy, but also slightly relieved. I got into bed super-early, without even looking at any responses that might be coming in. Amazingly, I slept a full night and woke up just as the sun was rising. I went into my living room, which has a long sliding glass door, and held an old prism I had bought during middle school up to the light. A small but gorgeous rainbow emerged, and I smiled at no one in particular, just my changing mood and the hope that seemed to emerge.

Today was a party. I’d see many of my friends and family members together in one beautiful house. What could be bad? Well, actually, lots, but even that was funny when I thought about it in the right way. And if anyone asked me about the reason for the celebration, I’d show them a printed copy of last night’s note. In fact, this was one final touch I could take care of. I printed out 60 copies of the note and put them in my knapsack. I figured there would be some kind of basket inside where I could put them. This would hopefully allay any questions or worries about the reason for the party. If someone came up and asked me about it, I could point them to the basket. Rude, maybe, but people needed to learn not to be so nosy.

My friend Sandra had agreed to join me at the Shunway House at around 11, so I could get used to the place and calm down. We met in front of my building, which was less than a five-minute walk away, and I told her the whole story as we headed over. I’d known Sandra since graduate school, and I had few secrets with her. We knew each other’s quirks and preferences, and many of our embarrassments.

“So the whole celebration thing is actually fake,” I said. I felt fine about admitting it to her. Maybe one day this whole disaster would simply be a fabulous memory. Sandra stared at me and then started laughing so hard, her short, chubby body reminded me of a joyful Buddha, or maybe, closer yet, a giggling, adorable baby. She wore jeans cut off below the knees, and a pink T-shirt with an image of a pot of flowers knitted onto the front. I figured she had done the knitting herself: she loved to get creative with her clothing. Sandra was making me happy. Maybe the other people at the party would too.

“What do you mean, fake? There’s no party? Is this just you and me walking over to that Shunway House place for shits and giggles?”

“Oh, no, there’s a party, all right, for better or worse. It’s just not a celebration.”

“Wait. I’m confused.” By now we had reached the Shunway House: a converted red brick mansion with a lush backyard. It looked like a large private dwelling, though it had an unobtrusive sign that said “Shunway House” by the front door. Tables and chairs were already set up for my event. I started feeling nauseous. It was a similar sensation to being dropped off at sleepaway camp for the whole summer, knowing I’d be uncomfortable and out of place for eight weeks.

I looked at Sandra, who stood there, waiting for an explanation. Somehow, that pulled me out of my frenzy and grounded me. “It’s fake in the sense that there’s no particular reason to celebrate. You know, I didn’t win a prize, score some fantastic grant, publish a book, or find a spouse.”

“Well, I knew you didn’t find a spouse.”

“Of course, but you know how people think.”

“So this party is just… what?”

I had to think about that question. How would I answer it? Finally I said: “It’s somewhere between a joke and a shifting of reality.”

Sandra laughed again, but quietly, controllably. “I don’t get it, and yet… maybe I do.”

“That’s where I am with it, so we’re even.” We high-fived each other, which was exactly what I needed at that moment.

My parents showed up, which made sense; they tend to arrive early for events. When I first see them after a long separation, I am always struck by their radically different skin tones: my mother is pale, and my father is always very tanned. They both looked dapper; they were taking this all very seriously. My mother complimented my shirt — a button-down, purple one I had bought with her during a family trip. This was a great little sign: she didn’t expect me to wear a coordinated outfit like she always did to these events. I asked my parents and Sandra if they remembered each other, and they all smiled and hugged. Then I told my parents about the joke.

“Let me get this straight. You told people you have something to celebrate, but you actually don’t?” my father asked.

“That’s kind of right, but there’s a little more to it.” I hadn’t included my parents in the email blast with my message about the party, since I’d never told them this was supposed to be a celebration. They weren’t in my party contact list because I’d invited them on the phone. I found the sheets of paper I had brought and passed them around.

My mother read out loud: “We’re celebrating, among other things, my ability to walk for miles in the rain, meet a friend for coffee minutes after a rejection comes, grade those projects even when I’m tired, and come up with ideas for all the writing I’ve been doing. And more, of course. There’s always more. Most of all, we’re celebrating the never-ending possibility of more. For me and for everyone receiving this note.”

She looked up at me. “I love it.” Now, my mother often doesn’t love my schemes and odd behavior, so this was meaningful.

“Do you think it does a good enough job of explaining why we’re celebrating? I mean, I told people this party was honoring something big. It’s a huge problem, because there’s nothing big to honor.”

“What could possibly be small about the possibility of more?” Sandra asked. She sounded completely genuine.

“By the way, Sandra, you didn’t pay for this party, did you? Someone did, and it wasn’t me, even though I was planning to.” I couldn’t imagine it, but I frankly couldn’t imagine anyone other than my parents doing it… and I was convinced that they didn’t.

“What? What kind of crazy question is that? I don’t even know who the caterer is.”

“That’s what we told her,” my parents said, practically in unison.

The caterers arrived and set up platters of smoked sable, whitefish salad, and poached salmon. They put out bagels of all kinds, cut in fourths, which I loved: would make it easier to try all different kinds of bagels without stuffing yourself. The spanakopita was there too, with spinach and cheese oozing out of the crispy filo dough. On a dessert tray were little black and white cookies, and glazed donuts oozing with raspberry jam. It was all put out at once: perfect for me, since I like to eat dessert along with my meal. Whoever organized this party seemed to know me pretty well.

People started arriving: friends from the area, several friends who had traveled in, and several relatives from all over the country. It felt great that people wanted to honor my celebration, even if there was nothing to celebrate. They came inside first, to get food.

My cousin Lynne ran up to me and shouted: “Congratulations, Steffi!” and her boyfriend, Darren, shook my hand for at least a full minute. Like many who had known me as a child, Lynne called me by my childhood nickname, Steffi.

“So what’s this about? What did you do this time?” my cousin asked. She took off her sunglasses and pushed her long blonde hair out of her eyes. What did you do this time? — I couldn’t decide whether to find that question happy or tragic. She was remembering the days when I often did have something to celebrate: an acceptance to a school, or a book coming out, or something.

Sandra jumped in the middle of things and passed Lynne one of the explanation sheets. “By the way, they’re in a basket near the front door, and I’ve been telling people to take them,” she said, winking at me. Lynne read it slowly and carefully. I almost felt like I could experience her mind mulling it all over, trying to figure out what it meant.

She stopped reading, met my eyes, and said: “Wow, this is a fabulous idea. Leave it to you.” I breathed in slowly, savoring the feeling. This was going to be OK.

The weather was glorious: about 75 degrees, clear, and not too humid. A few fluffy clouds floated in a mostly blue sky. Something about the sky made me feel optimistic about the future. That in itself was something to celebrate.

Everyone ate and enjoyed, wandering around both inside and out. I introduced my neighbor, a young math professor from Mexico, to smoked sable, and he said it was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted. Questions about the reasons for the party were pretty rare. I guess my written explanation helped.

Then Melinda approached me, getting way too close to my face and assaulting me with breath sour from fish and garlic. I was never clear on who exactly Melinda was, but she was some kind of distant relative through marriage. She had driven all the way from Connecticut to be here, which in theory was heartwarming, but I knew Melinda: she didn’t want to miss anything. She wanted all the gossip, all the drama, all the dirt. Melinda was around 70 years old, and nasty in a subtle way that allowed for no retaliation, because if I pinpointed the precise thing she said that had upset me, I’d be admitting that she had hit a sore spot.

Melinda reached into her pocketbook. She tended towards worn-out clothing, but, according to my parents, she was worth a fortune from her first husband. Suddenly I remembered: I had registered with Bank of America. No one had been giving me envelopes or anything, and I had a hunch that most saw that line as a joke. Melinda had been very generous with other family members, but never me, because I had never done anything that she valued: I’d never married or had children.

She pulled out a tube of lip balm, and I laughed out loud at my dashed hopes. I really was having fun, even with the day’s disappointments. We were standing outside, and Melinda squinted from the sun. I had a bizarre urge to suggest that she get sunglasses — she never seemed to have them, even during the summer — but I refrained.

“So what’s this celebration about? I mean, what is it really, honestly about?” Melinda stepped even closer to me, and I worried that her breath would cause me to gag.

“Did you get my message last night, or one of the sheets of paper that explains it all?”

“I got both,” she said, and kept standing there, less than an inch away from my body. My heart started beating even faster than usual.

“Well, that’s it. That’s the explanation. I’m sorry if you were expecting something different.” For the first time in years, I felt true self-pride. I wished Sandra were here to pat me on the back and say, “Good one!” but she had been mingling around all afternoon. So I said it to myself, silently, and grinned.

“Oh, come on, we’re both adults here. You think I’d be offended, is that it? Let me tell you, Steffi, I have seen it all in my time.”

I laughed harder and harder until I could barely keep standing. Melinda seemed to think I was marrying a woman. Or maybe that I’d gotten a job in a brothel. Sandra showed up behind me and asked, “What is going on over here? What have I missed?”

“Nothing much,” I managed to say, and Melinda walked slowly away. I wondered if I should have told her a tale about a fake wife-to-be, in hopes of scoring a gift. But my honor was too strong for that.

“This party is good!” Sandra said, and I agreed. But my anger at Melinda was starting to escalate. How dare she assume that I was lying to her. Then a creepy thought occurred to me: what if Melinda had been the one to pay for this party? It seemed outrageous: she didn’t know the first thing about Boston-area caterers. But the thought of it being anyone here was pretty outrageous. It was very unlike Melinda to make herself anonymous if she did something generous. Her name was all over her synagogue, on plaques and on benches. But, honestly, that anonymous act was unlike everyone who had shown up to this party.

I looked around at the people hanging out on these grounds. The professor and graduate student types were standing in little circles, holding drinks. Whoever had paid for this party had thought of alcohol, which I was going to skimp on since I, personally, wasn’t crazy about it. I was going to have mostly water, the crisp, calorie-free treat I tended to favor with my food. But the new planner had asked for a separate alcohol table, with wine and mixed drinks, and, as usual, people loved it.

My family was mostly sitting at the tables, passing around their phones, probably sharing pictures. Good old Uncle Jeffrey had taken tons of food as usual: smoked fish, bagels, and dessert all on the same plate. Everyone was eating and talking, and a few people were laughing. It was highly possible I’d discover all kinds of tension if I went closer, but I stayed put. From a distance, they were gorgeous, and this was all happening because of my party. Most of them hadn’t been to Boston in many years, and, earlier, I’d suggested neighborhoods and museums for them to check out. Seeing a new place and discovering its charms: that, too, was reason for celebration… right?

I saw Melinda head towards my family at the tables. I’d noticed that she had gone inside; now she was back out here. There was an excellent chance that she would sour the mood with her speculations about me, her anger that I seemed to be holding something back. But I couldn’t worry about it. Even God couldn’t — or wouldn’t — control all the nuances of human behavior. Many who believed in the kind of God discussed in the Bible said that he (she? it? ze?) had created the world and intervened in all kinds of ways… but also left people with free will, and the ability to choose how to act.

Well, if that’s how the biblical God did things, I decided to take a lesson and not interfere with Melinda and my family. It would all sort itself out. Maybe some people would even defend me. I had set this party into motion; the rest was beyond my control.

Ethan Gershon, a friend from around town, walked over to me. Ethan was one of those all-around super-accomplished types. Though he was only about 30, he had already published 3 books: two novels and one academic exploration of social class in large American cities. Recently married, he and his wife had just hosted a bris for their son. His wife, Shira, was home taking care of him. Tall and slender with thick black hair, Ethan was attractive in that geeky way Cambridge women seemed to love. He was the kind of guy who would have been super-popular at a summer camp for academically gifted high school students.

“Hey, Stephanie, congratulations on whatever is going on.”

“Thanks.”

“So is there something… else that you’re celebrating? You know, beyond the walks in the rain and stuff like that?”

I felt my entire body flinch. My nose twitched. I was backsliding: somehow, talking to Ethan, none of that felt good enough. I so wished I could tell him about my forthcoming book with Knopf, or the amazing grant I’d received to study personal spirituality all over the world.

“Does there need to be something else?” I was proud of myself; I managed to say that with confidence.

“No, of course not. I’ve honestly been very intrigued by this whole celebration, and your reasons for it. It’s… different.” Ethan wore a deep green felt yarmulke that matched his shirt perfectly. He looked stylish, religious, and nerdy all at once.

Suddenly, I wondered whether he — or maybe he and Shira: the woman from the caterer had suggested that more than one person was involved — had paid for this party. It was a crazy thought. I wasn’t even that close with them: I just knew them from Jewish events around Cambridge. But someone had done it, and every remaining possibility seemed equally crazy.

“Ethan, can I ask you something?”

“Of course.” He was staring at me; I could tell he was super-curious.

“You don’t happen to know who paid for my party, do you? I ask because someone did, and it wasn’t me. I was planning to, but then, apparently, some people took it over. Bloom’s Deli told me the party-makers wanted to remain anonymous, but you know, I’m a curious type, just like you. The obvious suspects have been ruled out.”

Ethan’s mouth kind of hung open as he listened. “You know, I only wish it was me. Truthfully, I never do anything anonymously. If I had done that for you, I would have been all over you, with a big card, making a speech here letting everyone know that I had been so generous.”

We both laughed. He had just been extremely honest, and I appreciated it. “You know, Stephanie, I think that’s why I was so taken with your whole motivation for this party. I’d never heard of such a thing: getting people together to celebrate simple triumphs. It’s nothing like the show-offy stuff we usually see.”

“Exactly.” Right at that moment, I decided I had done exactly the right thing in making this party. There was no reason to be embarrassed. My little world needed something like this, and I had provided it.

Ethan said he needed to get back to Shira and their baby, and I stood alone for a bit, surveying the event. Family people had begun to talk with local friends. I saw my cousin Lynne chatting with my friend Jessica, who had arrived late after a German class she was taking. Ostensibly, they didn’t have all that much in common. Jessica was a hyper-intellectual theoretical physicist who taught at MIT; Lynne was a fun-loving professional shopper: she helped people — mostly wealthy women — choose clothing that would best suit their needs and boost their happiness in various situations. Those two were laughing hard together, and, at one point, I saw them exchange business cards. This, too, was worth celebrating. The world had just become ever so slightly smaller for two people I liked a lot.

I still wanted to know who had paid for this party and changed the details. Whoever it was had done an amazing job. This was so much nicer than my little shindig in front of the library would have been.

It could have been anyone. For that matter, it could have been everyone: maybe everyone in the Facebook group for the party had gotten together and chipped in. I’d mentioned in my invitation that the party was kosher: someone among my friends would have guessed that Bloom’s was a likely choice for caterer, made some calls, and figured it out. Maybe they’d all made a pact to chip in and not divulge the situation to me.

I had a brainstorm right then: that anonymous gifts make the receiver feel better about people in general. Anyone could have done it; anyone might be worthy of thanks. Someone might make a nasty comment, but… who knows? To give anonymously is to give on behalf of the world. When the recipient is fed up with much of the world — and what possible recipient hasn’t felt that way at least sometimes? — something like this can relieve cynicism and even despair.

The fake celebration had become a real one. This wasn’t a joke. In many ways, it was the opposite of a joke. Actual people had fun, discovered new foods and enjoyed old favorites, and met souls they never would have encountered otherwise. Some, like Ethan, expanded their thoughts on success and achievement.

I never stopped wishing for a more widely accepted reason to celebrate. One day I might reach that level of peace, but I’m far from it right now. Still, I had opened my mind and my emotions much more than a crack. With that start, all things are possible.


Stephanie Wellen Levine

Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine's 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.

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