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Miami at Home: Bitter sweet 16

I got into my car for the first time in more than a week. My sister, Sara, loaded our two maltese-poodles into the back seat, and she crawled into the front passenger side. 

I started down the driveway and turned out of our cul-de-sac, sprinkles of rain hitting my windshield. Not the best weather for a drive-through birthday party, but we’d take it.

***

Earlier that day, Sara had asked me to drive her to her best friend Rylie’s house for her surprise 16th birthday party. I actually like Rylie a lot, and I love driving my sister around. As much as I complain about doing it, she’ll have her license in a few months, putting my obligatory big sister chauffeur career to an end. But I was not about to drop her off at a party with a bunch of germy teenagers during a pandemic. 

Trying to convince me, she promised that she wouldn’t even be getting out of the car. She saw the confused look on my face.

“It’s just a drive-thru party,” Sara said. “We’re just going to yell out the window.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, and I don’t think she was either. But I could see how badly she ached to see her friend, even if only for a minute. I agreed to drive. 

My only stipulation was that I be allowed to stay in my pajamas.

“I’ll probably wear mine, too,” she said.

***

As we neared Rylie’s house, we found ourselves stuck at the end of a 15-car parade.

“I told you we should’ve gotten here earlier,” Sara said. 

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The plan was as follows: Rylie’s parents coax her to the end of the driveway, she sees cars full of her friends and relatives and we all drive by, honking and getting a short time to chat with the birthday girl. 

Not the ideal sweet 16, but it was better than nothing.

Rylie’s cousin, the event coordinator, sent a group text to everyone letting them know the cars would start moving at 5:30. 

At 5:29, windows started to roll down. Balloons, streamers and signs that read all sorts of birthday messages hung out of them. 

Sara looked hopefully around the car and then at me. 

“I don’t have any party decor in here,” I said. “Sorry.”

Car horns started honking. Everyone was yelling and whistling. 

Party time. 

We inched closer and closer as each car took their turn at the end of the driveway. Sara squinted to see her friend covering her mouth with excitement.

“Aw, she’s so surprised,” she said.

The car in front of us was a blue minivan with little kids hanging out of it. Probably cousins, Sara thought. They each held a gift bag. 

“Oh, shoot. Was I supposed to bring a gift?” Sara asked. “I don’t know how these things work.”

It was almost our turn. I grabbed my mask and strung it over my ears.

“Put your mask on,” I said.

“Do I have to? It looks dumb,” Sara said. “Nobody else is wearing one.”

“Exactly,” I said. She shook her head and put her mask on.

We pulled up and yelled muffled happy birthdays through the plasticy fabric on our faces. They started to talk, the clock ticking as a few cars pulled up behind us. I tried not to listen to their conversation but couldn’t help it.

When I tuned in, I expected to hear whispered boy drama, laughs about the pajamas they were both wearing or see eye-rolling about parents. But instead, I could feel the six feet of space between them. 

There was forced conversation, awkward giggles and strained smiles. A month apart is enough time to start to feel disconnected.

“Sorry I didn’t get you anything,” Sara said.

“Don’t even worry, I’m just happy to see you,” Rylie said.

I could tell she really was happy, but there wasn’t much to say after that. “What’ve you been up to?” is kind of a moot point nowadays. 

Sara promised to bring her a pastry later, and we drove off.

“That was nice,” I said. “I’m sure you’re glad you got to see her.”

“Yeah, it’s just kind of weird,” she said. 

I didn’t have to ask her to elaborate. I knew what she meant. 

calderjm@miamioh.edu

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