Every time I watch Grease and it comes to the sleepover scene my stomach starts to get queasy, my palms sweat a little and my eyes glaze over as I lose myself in the past for a few minutes. Sleepovers were a pretty big declaration of status but for me they were just another event that I had to go to that caused me a great deal of anxiety. I dreaded them for a minimum of three days before, imagining everything that could go wrong: I could fall asleep and someone might do something mean to me (Third graders didn’t generally need bras so that fear didn’t even come into play until junior high, but they might draw on my face with a permanent marker or stick my hand in warm water, making me pee.) I might get sick from the food and throw up all over the Birthday Girl or worst case scenario, I might have the poops on the night of the party and have to run to the bathroom multiple times with everyone suspecting what I was doing when I went in.
Then the big day would arrive. Sleepovers were always scheduled for Friday nights. This meant that the school day on Friday would be full of secrecy, deceit and some bit of excitement swirling around amongst my classmates. First of all, not everyone was invited so I had to be careful about who I spoke to about the sleepover because with one seemingly innocent conversation I could easily become the pariah of the third grade. One mis-step and the social standings I worked so hard to achieve on the playground would come crumbling down around me. Those first few years of grade school are essential in determining ones social status for the rest of their life. Scratch the tip of your nose a little too long in kindergarten and you will forever be labeled the Nose Picker. Get a little bit of dirt and sweat on your face on the way to the bus stop and you will always be the Dirty Sweaty Kid. Come to school with a giant cow lick and smelling like maple syrup and you will never shake the stigma of being the Kid Who Always Smells Like Maple Syrup. (Why was there always one kid who smelled like maple syrup every day?)
Navigating the school day on Friday was like walking through a social faux-pas minefield. If you spoke to someone about the sleepover and they weren’t invited, they got their feelings hurt and the rest of the girls who were invited were mad at you for the rest of the day because you caused such awkwardness. By the end of the day, your stomach hurt, you felt incredibly alone and you just wanted to go home and have your afternoon snack. But you were stuck going to the party because you had already said you would be there. Now you had three hours to sit and dread the party because you started your day with friends and ended it with enemies that you would be spending the night with.
If you were lucky enough to have survived the school day without committing social suicide, you left school giving all of the other party-goers that knowing goodbye that said “I’m saying goodbye to you as if I won’t see you until Monday but we both know we will be eating pizza and singing Sister Christian in your living room in three hours. See you then!” You walked home, threw your stuff on the floor and headed straight to the table where your mom already had a snack waiting for you to eat while doing your homework. We always did our homework as soon as we got home from school to get it over with. I hated this ritual on Friday but as I sat with my chocolate chip cookies and watched the Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday evening I was glad that I wasn’t hunched over the kitchen table fretting over long division.
The next three hours were torture. It was that moment of limbo, wherein I didn’t want to really do anything at home and wear myself out for the party, making me more vulnerable to permanent markers, but I was also bored to death just sitting and waiting to be chauffeured to the party. So what better way to idle away those last hours of freedom than by sitting and worrying about the upcoming festivities and the multiple ways it could go wrong?
Finally my dad would tell me it was time to go and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I would take my Big Red chewing gum sleeping bag (I loved this sleeping bag. It looked like a giant pack of gum), my fastidiously gift-wrapped Rainbow Brite paint by numbers and my little overnight bag containing my sleepwear (shorts and a tee) extra underwear (you can never be too prepared) and my toothbrush and toothpaste, and head to the car.
After a long and gut-wrenching car ride in which I blazed a spectrum of being excited about being popular enough to be invited, to begging not to be left alone at a sort-of stranger’s house, we would arrive. My dad would walk me to the door and be greeted by the chaperoning parent, working out all of the emergency contact number and pick-up time information while I squeezed past the boring adults and joined the already raucous party in session. The adults would finish their discussion, I would say my goodbyes (never hugging because that labels you as the UnCool Kid Who Still Says Nite-Nite to Their Parents) and head back over to the gaggle of girls in the living room. For a moment, my worries subsided and even though I was still a little nervous, I would begin to relax just a little.
As more girls arrived, we surrounded each new arrival, showering her with attention and praise for the new teddy bear sweatshirt she was wearing, until someone new arrived and the whole process started over. As soon as everyone had arrived, we would turn on MTV and dance around the living room while watching the videos. I didn’t have cable at home so I alternated between dancing like a fool and sitting slack-jawed in front of the tv as Lionel Richie stalked a blind girl who was sculpting his afroed head out of clay, Toni Basil jumped around in a cheerleader uniform or Michael Jackson didn’t stop til he got enough, dancing in front of giant cubes of clear Jell-O.
Suddenly the doorbell would ring and Birthday Girl’s Mom answers it, trading a few crisp twenty-dollar bills for four steaming cardboard boxes of greasy pizza. She carries the boxes to the dining room table as we all fall in line behind her like a parade of baby ducks following Mama Duck into the water for a mid-day swim lesson. The dining table was covered in pastel vinyl, matching paper plates and cups and glittery confetti. A few streamers had been haphazardly taped to the wall to let us all know that we were indeed at a party. And the buffet along the wall was covered in brightly wrapped birthday presents. A few of us at this point would head back into the living room to get our neatly wrapped Rainbow Brite or ET toys and place them the already highly stacked pile.
After inhaling two to three pieces of pizza each we head back to Birthday Girl’s (BG for short) bedroom and sit around talking about the newest elementary school gossip: Who was “going out with” who (where were they going exactly?) Did you know that Jeff kissed Amy on the playground? Jacob told me so. Jeff told him because they’re best friends. BG, always a trendsetter, already has a VCR in her room and pops in her very own copy of Grease. We are all impressed.
The phone rings. BG is super cool because not only does she have a phone in her room, but it’s a plastic Mickey Mouse figurine that stands with an outstretched arm perfectly cradling the phone. Birthday Girl answers it. But there is no one on the line and all she hears is some breathing and a few quiet giggles followed by the distinct sound of someone being shushed. Then click. We all think that this is odd but quickly resume our conversation which has now lapsed into discussing the merits of wearing leg warmers over our jeans.
Mickey rings again.
Same thing; giggles and shushing. Except one of the gigglers mistakenly pops out a few words before she is shushed and our entire party then remembers: Tricia Lewton, who lives across the street is having a sleepover tonight too. MaryAnn Coyle, who has a very distinct voice, was the one who didn’t shush.
We are being prank-called.
This means war.
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