Last month, I received the invitation that all parents dread. I knew this day was coming: The Chuck E. Cheese Birthday Party.
The worst part was, there was no way to get out of it — the birthday girl was one of my son’s best friends from pre-school, and his future bride, according to both of them.
So I did what any good mom would do. I grit my teeth and emailed back my reply: “Of course we’ll be there! Alex is so excited.”
As the day approached, I had flashbacks to two prior parties at this frenetic, migraine-inducing establishment. At the first, I lost my son in the habitrail tunnel for a good 30 minutes. (He was purposely blocking up the pipe like some kind of toddler hair clump.) And at the second, a random child vomited pizza on my feet. You know how when someone yawns, it makes everyone around them yawn? Uh huh. You get the picture.
So you see, Chuck E. has not been good to me. (Has any parent really ever had a good time there? I ask you.)
Of course, my son counted down the days to the party with the excitement usually reserved for Christmas or his own birthday. Finally, the proverbial big day arrived. We bought a present and wrapped it, Alex made a card, and we headed to the mall. Just to be safe, I took a Tylenol and some ibuprofen. I was determined not to let the Chuck E. experience ruffle me this time.
As we entered the place, we were treated to a blast of stale pizza, ’80s pop, and the din of screaming children, all hopped up on soda and Sourballs. Any misguided thought of serenity immediately evaporated. I knew I had officially entered the heart of darkness, and there was no way to paddle back out of this rat-infested river. (Yes, a big cartoon rat — but a rat, nonetheless.)
The only saving grace that day was the fact that my son is now 6, and can pretty much do the games and rides by himself, with me trailing along behind him like a zombie. In fact, I noticed that all the parents’ eyes were glazed over. A defense mechanism, no doubt, similar to the one that kicks in when you go to the dentist’s office or visit relatives with whom you have nothing in common.
Then, the big moment finally arrived. Chuck E. was announced, and the larger-than-human mascot (I’m sorry, I really can’t get over the rat thing. Mickey Mouse is cute, but really, a rat??) came out to wild applause and screams from all the sugar-laced kids…who then proceeded to maul him. There were children literally climbing up his arms and clinging to his legs like barnacles. My son was among the most hysterical. In fact, he was so enamored of Chuck E. that he followed him back behind the curtain on the mini-stage they have there, and I had to scramble up and catch him before the bouncer got to him. (Well, it couldn’t have been a real bouncer, but he looked the part, anyway!)
We finally got to cake and icecream and present-opening, and I knew we were in the home stretch. I became almost giddy with relief, laughing at everyone’s jokes, patting myself on the back that we’d made it without any unfortunate episodes. That was the exact moment — the moment I let my guard down — that it happened. A piece of pizza sailed by my head, and caught me right in the ear.
I didn’t cry. I didn’t yell. I became strangely, eerily calm, as I always do when I’m very upset or very frightened.
“Alex! Get your coat! We’re going,” I said.
And you know, it was OK. I’m not sure who threw that pizza — it may have been Chuck E. for all I know. And that’s OK. Because as God as my witness, I will never set foot in that place again. At least not this year…and not without a helmet.