The wrapping paper on my birthday present is impenetrable. Mom must have used half a roll of tape to secure the sharp folds, creases, and delicate trimmings just so. She wants my Sweet Sixteen to be special-more special than me wearing a Hanes undershirt, Levi's, and my dirty pair of Converse in our cramped mustard-yellow kitchen.

      "I bet you can't even fit into that pretty sundress I bought you in August!" Mom taunted when she realized I was dead serious about not dressing up for dinner. "You've shot up at least three more inches since then."

It was endearingly pathetic. So I put on a foil party crown.

Mom cooked her homemade ziti, got me a whale-shaped ice-cream cake with chocolate crunchies from the Carvel across town, and invited my friends over at nince to help me blow out the candles. Once we're all tweaked out on sugar, we're going to bail on Mom for some suburban debauchery in my honor. Even though it's Thursday, I'm allowed out until midnight.

      "Dinner was awesome," I say, and watch Mom's lean body shake with elbow grease as she scrubs hardened noodles off a Pyrex dish. A chocolate-brown ponytail swishes across her shoulder blades and a few gray hairs catch the light from overhead. They seem to sparkle.

       "The trick is, I cut all the ingredients in half...except for the cheese," Mom tells me over the sound of running sink water. She is a pro at halving family-sized recipes. The anti-Betty Crocker.

I shake her present next to my ear. It doesn't make a sound. "Can't you do the dishes later?"

      "All this buildup. The suspense must be killing you!" When she turns around, her grin is wide. She flings a damp dish towel over her shoulder and plops into the seat across from me. "Happy birthday, Ruby."

I tear into the package, prepared to give an Oscar-worthy performance of Best Reaction to a Bad Present. Historically, Mom has exploited gift-buying opportunities as chances to make me more girly. A baby-blue eyelet blouse with cap sleeves to soften my angular boyish figure. A palette of sparkly eye shadows to brighten my strikingly plain face. Some dangly earrings that get swallowed up by my dark, thick hair. I never begrudge her thinly veiled makeover attempts. It just seems stupid to keep things I'm never going to use. So I trade the goods for credit at the thrift store and get presents more my style. Like old camp T-shirts from summers before I was born, jeans so worn you could trace the white outline of the pocket where the previous owner's wallet was kept, or those striped socks that have little sections for each of your toes.

But Mom promised this year would be different. That I was going to "absolutely die" when I saw her present. She's been all goofy over finally cracking the code ot her daughter's weirdness, a proud moment for a single parent whose kid turned out to be nothing like her. I only hope I can act my way out of disappointing her. After all, she's trying. And trying should count for something.