It’s been a long time since I enjoyed myself at a party. The last one was probably decades ago, when I was dressed in little more than a diaper, propped in front of a few candles, drooling and babbling incoherently while my friends crawled on the floor and tried to lick the cat.
That was in college. Since then, I’ve never really been a big fan of the party scene, mainly because I’ve never been a big fan of socializing with people, and people always seem to be injecting themselves into parties, except the ones you see advertised on late-night TV that occur on the other end of a $1.95-a-minute telephone line. I hear they use GPS ladies for those (“Turn left in 500 feet. Ooh, that feels so good”).
The college parties really were the best, because they were back in the seventies, when free drugs and free love were all over the place, except in whatever room I happened to be inhabiting. In the dorm, a party was just a bunch of guys and a Friday night, and the success of the bash could only be judged the next day, as we recounted to each other what was the last thing we remembered. (After one event featuring the notorious MD 20/20, a fortified wine also known as “Mad Dog,” the last thing I remembered was a second-grade spelling bee). I wasn’t much for fraternity parties, though I did crash one undercover as “Ed Mims,” son of an astronaut training for his flight to Jupiter.
Once I left Tallahassee and moved to the Carolinas, most of the diminishing number of parties I was invited to involved co-workers, either mine or those of my wife. Both were awkward, though it actually turned out to be an advantage not knowing any of the people from Beth’s office. At least I could commiserate with the other spouses as we discussed what a great sound engineer Phil Tristam was on Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and admired the cover art over and over again.
It was at one of these events that a winsome young lady approached me and asked if wanted to “shag.” She was talking about a beach-music step that is the official State Dance of South Carolina. (We barely have a functioning State Education System but we do have a State Dance.) I thought she wanted me to accompany her to a nearby driving range to chase down golf balls.
Now, it’s 2010, I’m 56 years old, and the only people who want me to show up at their social engagement are either staging a reunion or recently passed away. I usually manage to avoid the funerals with the excuse that my suit is at the cleaners and my only other black clothing has a decal of Ozzy Osbourne on it. The reunions have been coming fast and furious lately, though since most require a flight out of town I can simply curse the unfairness of the terrorist watch list in my regrets RSVP. But one was staged within driving distance this past Sunday, and I found myself reluctantly going.
Again, it was a group of old friends from my wife’s newspaper days. These were people I had known for almost 30 years, even if that acquaintance had only comprised maybe four total hours together, unless you count the occasional random encounter at the grocery store where you slip behind the dairy case because you can’t remember their names. We were to gather at the townhouse home of the hostess, and the theme of the evening was to be soup. She’d stir up several pots of minestrone, chili and some kind of creamy green stuff, provide the wine and the salads, and we’d each bring our own soup spoons and bowls. How kicky! What fun!
We arrived a few minutes late and as I climbed the front steps, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought through what my policy was to be on hugging. It was definitely inappropriate for the men I knew would be involved, but for the ladies, I sensed it was going to be required. Fortunately, we first met our hostess for the evening in her slightly cramped kitchen, and she was positioned on the other side of an island from me. It may not have been as large as Hispaniola, but it was big enough to keep us physically separated.
We chatted briefly in the kitchen while we collected our wine, complimented her on the fine uptown neighborhood, then admired the hardwood flooring of her living room and how many vaguely familiar people were standing on it. Gradually, we worked our way into this small group of maybe 15 people, exchanging squeals and cries of “how long has it been?” and reminders of who we are. Familiar old stories were recounted, and the laughter became more and more effortless as the alcohol took effect. We had to rein in the giggles a bit when talk inevitably turned to who had cancer and who had strokes, but otherwise I was soon so at ease that I almost fell down some stairs.
When another round of soup was introduced (“Woo-hoo! It’s chowder!”), the original groupings broke up and I found myself trapped on a couch next to a man I’ll call “Joe,” since that was his name. I knew Joe was a smoker and would soon have to excuse himself to the balcony, so I summoned my patience and listened intently as Joe told how he had just returned from a cruise in the Caribbean, and it was one of those unfortunate outings where the entire ship came down with a stomach norovirus. Joe told a lively story, right down to the watery sea spray he simulated with his sputum. I actually felt the same nausea he was describing by the time he was finished and back out on the deck, smoking like a smokestack.
During a lull in the soup, one of the basketball fans asked if anyone knew the outcome of that evening’s Duke-Baylor game. A younger crowd would’ve been able to track every dribble via their wireless devices and, though most everyone in this aging group had cell phones, most sadly used them as cell phones. So did I, as I called up my 18-year-old son and asked him to check for the score online. Within moments, I was proudly able to announce that Duke had won, according to Daniel’s internet connections, and everyone marveled at the technology that allowed a barren shell like me to have a son.
We had been advised in the invitation to ask the hostess about her ballroom dancing, and it was rapidly approaching the point in the evening (almost 8:30) where we’d soon be dozing off, so we were led downstairs to watch a video performance of Rhonda shaking her elderly thang. She had enrolled in one of those courses where fawning young male instructors taught you a few stiff steps, then gyrated madly about while you marched around smiling, occasionally raising your arms into the air and eventually being hoisted skyward by the bare-chested threesome. It was very entertaining for all the wrong reasons but the small audience that had gathered around the screen put on a good show and offered Rhonda enthusiastic congratulations.
By now, the soup was spent, the video was watched and the stories had all been told, so somebody yawned and virtually the entire room took the cue and started making their exits. I think everyone, including me, genuinely had a good time, though our definition of such had certainly changed since those days in the early eighties when we once gathered out by the dam to share several bottles of bourbon under the open sky.
Both times had earnest fellowship — something not easily come by these days — and both had alcohol, so they each qualified as parties in the technical sense. So what if this time, the dancing was all pre-recorded?