Thomm Quackenbush, author

Left 2 Breed | 2009 | Across the Universe

12.31.09 11:59 p.m.

People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they'll have good voice boxes in case there's ever anything really meaningful to say.  

-Kurt Vonnegut

 


Come On, Party People

Jacki and Hick  
She is good at this party thing

Parties are scary. Don't pretend you don't know. They tend to be held in enclosed spaces, peopled by strangers eating to fill the spaces between words they cannot hear over the music. Yes, the pretense is to gather friends and have a concentrated amount of fun to celebrate a milestone, but the actuality is phobia-inducing.

As a child, I feared parties slightly more than I enjoyed them. I recall once, at five or six, inch-worming my way out of my bedroom, covered in a gold sleeping bag to observe through a hole in the zipper my parents' friends. These were not strangers (these same friends have attended our Easter egg dyeing since time immemorial), but they were here under the auspices of a party and were therefore not to be trusted.

Things then were little better with people my age. For some reason, my brothers and I got it in our heads to unhook and hide any videogame system we had to foster a party environment. Weather willing, we then spent the whole of the party making war on our cousins, forming temporary alliances and enmities until the aunts and uncles again left with their broods.

I have thrown few successful shindigs - my friends have typically opted not to show, rather than show and drag behind them the sort of social disasters that would make for good reading - so perhaps I never had proper experience in my formative years to build up a tolerance to the concept. (It no doubt does not help that I do not drink, smoke, do drugs, or sleep around, rendering most parties pointless.)

In this strange social milieu, it makes sense that one would compensate. Melanie does by flirting intentionally inappropriately, entirely with women who might theoretically be receptive (in that they once, half-drunkenly, confessed to me some heteroflexibility). The implicit understanding is that her hitting on them is meaningless, though not indiscriminate, just to get a rise out of the object of her remarks and sufficiently break the ice that we can proceed as friends. Given that she is a cute and confident woman, it tends to be disarming enough to make an impression. These women do not hear Melanie whispering to me within five minutes of entering the party that she is overstimulated and wishes to leave as soon as possible, if not considerably sooner, requests I try to defer until they melt.

I compensate by setting rules. If I sit here for ten minutes while others talk of yokel neighbors or the vagaries of their finance job, if I contribute toward a conversation about dog breeds, I reward myself as operant conditioning. At Jess's Boxing Day party, these rewards transitioned from small cookies (until I ate all the chocolate chip ones that could be classed as "small") to single peanut M&M's to finally guiltlessly wandering away when there seemed to be a lull in the talk.

It sounds obsessive-compulsive, I know, but there is really no internal need, nor am I above breaking my unspoken rules as occasion demands. It is a means of daring myself to be social, rather than hovering around the hostess and becoming burdensome, as is what I wanted to do for comfort (I haven't seen Jess in months owing both to boyfriend and work). But the rules dictate that the inviter and hostess cannot be the designated social buffer. These games give me something to focus on beyond temporary doldrums or the awkwardness of being in a room with unfamiliar faces.

Social buffers can obviate the need, but only to the extent that I can extend my rules onto another person. Melanie, especially, can be helpful because her compensation can complement mine. If nothing else, I know triggers enough to turn her into a topic of conversation for a few minutes. She is considerably more interesting than I am.
John and Joann  
These are what guests look like

I was without a buffer at Jess's and the guests - while charming enough - did not seem inclined toward individually replacing them for any length of time. I floated from room to room to room (for her house is rather large), but felt I was a moment too late to participate in the right conversations and was too much of a teetotaler not to care.

New Year's Eve, the following week, is largely acknowledged as the grandest party of the year. Oddly, I find these parties less intimidating simply because they are defuse. Everyone is having parties so there are fewer stigmas, one needs only pick a party and stick to it and I was promised to Jacki's party a month ago.

The problem was that many of Jacki's guests backed out at the last moment - as guests do - so she solicited me to harass my friends to join us.

Stevehen was out because, as far as I know, he spends his New Year's Eve packing for his new life. He has more important things to do than scorn people willfully different tonight. I don't know if he spends the night in reflection, though he makes some comment to the effect that he is turning in early so as to make his train to Hull, to his new life, on the only night of the year universally acknowledged to be worth insomnia. I have known Stevehen a decade, but I cannot really imagine how he would spend this final night.

Until the events of a few days ago, when I was with Keilaina and Dan, I had thought I would try to drag Melissa along. Melissa wouldn't come of course, even if she had promised she would, which is why I waited to ask. If I gave her time to panic, there would be no chance of her attendance, rather than simply an exceedingly slim one. I would get the same brush-off call I had received a dozen times before, when I tried to forcibly extend Melissa's social sphere so she would cease to perseverate. However, because I held her mental illness culpable for how she reacted to Stevehen nixing her attempt at a reunion in March (an action she had been bragging about), she called off our friendship for good for the third or fourth time this year, exclusively through text messages. I know, as before, this is really about Stevehen and her mixed feeling that won't be resolved yet. I do not know what she does instead, whether it is a quiet evening at home with take-out and bad movies or if she spends it entangled in the limbs of the drunken paramour who refuses to be anyone's boyfriend.

Melanie spends it hundreds of miles from me, with her best friends Cole and Stephanie, joking around and forgetting that they age. It is familiar to her, better than showing off her learnedness to erudite colleagues of her parents until pricey champagne renders her giggly, then indifferent, then comatose. Cole and Stephanie tease her as she breathes her love to me over the phone after midnight, shouting "mawwiage!" until we relent and shout it back. She later threatens to leave the sleepover if they don't let her sleep.
Hick and Daniel  
But true party success requires both a utility kilt and the banker from the Abyss

I can think of few else who are not already promised to a quiet evenings or a more raucous parties. When I try extending my invitations to associates on Facebook, the gregarious woman snipes them away to a building full of parties, so I give up.

Last year, Jacki's party featured no electricity until after the year had turned over. We melted snow on the stove for our toileting needs and my additions to the party hid in the kitchen, quietly judging. This is far from the worst party I have ever attended.

Still, there is something to be said about a party featuring a professional roadie in a utility kilt, a five foot tall lutinist, and mushroom pate. The mix of people who attend Jacki's parties is always diverse, united possibly only by the fact that she rubs shoulders with readers if she has the least bit of say in the matter. As such, one cannot help but feel there is insipient conversation just under the surface of interaction, as the kilted Hickory proves as he describes his time as crew for Cirque du Soleil. I leave the kitchen for a few moments and return to Daniel and an older man discussing cartoons with a sacerdotal depth. In another room, a long story is created about a guest named Nile, who once found another Nile and so was finally Niles. One of the guests, Dawn, whom I have known for nine years but never well, talks about her misadventures on the Dutch equivalent of Facebook, enjoying our momentary attention and raising her volume and pitch accordingly.

Attention, it seems is the only currency at most parties. One must prove oneself worthy to be a life of the party, if not the life. It is something I felt absent from Jess's party a week ago, because-even though I am disinclined to attract attention to myself, save in writing-I like the thought that I am capable. Unless I unfurled my anecdotal knowledge that rabies cannot be sexually transmitted or depressed everyone present while relating when my dog died, I knew I had little to contribute to a pet-related conversation. Dawn knows that we cannot comprehend Dutch-our attention to her would wane if we could-but it is almost eccentric in a land where the polyglots know Spanish or French (or, gods help them, Japanese). Dawn, devotee of colonial trappings, wouldn't be satisfied to have learned something almost commonplace (no matter how many people outside our borders are nearly born fluent).

Daniel imperceptibly bristles in the presence of those making any effort to draw attention to themselves, whether at parties or in private, rewarding their efforts by focusing elsewhere. This does not, however, mean that he was not an active participant at the party this year, aided no doubt by the fact that he could be seen thanks to the electric lights. He seems more engaged this year, either because he was not burdened by the baggage of his ex and her boyfriend (as famously as I remember Daniel and Arthur getting along) or quite simply because others can see him and direct conversation his way. As there are a few people at the party whom I know on a more than superficial level, I flitter from room to room and make a poor social buffer for one who is inclined to establishing and holding his social ground, meaning Daniel would have to find his own compensation by letting others know that he is actually eloquent, learned, and witty. As point of fact, Daniel gets on so well at the party that, when I begin drooping in my seat and brushing off suggestions that I sleepover, he remains with the few who stay (the aforementioned Hick, John, and Jacki). I could learn a few things from him.

Just after midnight, as I kiss the silver pendant whose twin is around Melanie's neck in lieu of kissing Melanie's neck, Jacki reminds me of how I spent the initial minutes of last year: huddled in her car, pizza on my lap, listening to her pour out someone else's tragedy as we made our way back to her guests. What I did not know until this point is that Kevin, her then fiancÚ, presumed/accused that Jacki and I kissed at midnight. The nature of parties is that unlikely things can happen (often lubricated by alcohol), but I am taken aback that he would assume both that Jacki would allow this transgression or that I would infringe upon my relationship with Melanie even in this small way. She says, with a sigh and half an eye roll, that it is funny now, leaving unspoken how unfunny it was then, dealing with this insult while still playing hostess.

Perhaps we would be better off without parties.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: Arrested Development
reading: And the Ass Saw the Angel
listening: The Hushed Sound

Left 2 Breed | 2009 | Across the Universe

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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