“I’m too weird for parties like this,” I protested, picking at my jeans. They were stiff and shrunk from being washed. My clothes were getting washed a lot these days. I didn’t know how I felt about the constant cleanliness that came with long-awaited success.
Mary, my roommate of about four years, replied with a placating grin. “This is the last social occasion for the week, I promise. We have to go and make nice with these people, then we’ll split. You never know where the next commission or new gallery spot is going to come from.” She looked over at me, care in her eyes. “Marli invited all the other painters in the Knightly show and you don’t want to be the guy who didn’t come.” She paralleled us into a tight spot along a narrow side street in this not-quite-independently wealthy part of town. Large houses built uncomfortably close to each other lined the sidewalk. Huge houses. Tiny yards.
I stood in the middle of the 3/4 lane street and felt like a mouse in a one way maze. Not even a rat, a mouse. An agouti mouse about to join a cage of white ones. I followed Mary up the steps to a house discernible as the One Where the Party Was by all the noise emanating from inside and a sign on the front door that stated as much. “Marli’s nice, you know?” Mary said as she paused to read the note.
If you’re here for the party, come on in! (We probably won’t hear you knock.)
“That bodes well,” I muttered as I zipped up my maroon hoodie and followed Mary in. I needed my ragged hoodie’s protection from the chill in my own head more than the unseasonably warm December night.
We immediately ran into a clutch of people hanging out in living room number one. The girls— mostly in Little Black Dresses— smiled in parallel as I tried to find a wall to hug.
Is that a tree decked in clear lights, poinsettias and nothing else?
The stairwell banister to my right bore bows with poinsettias tucked in them to match the tree.
Oh, hell. I do not belong here.
I shuffled behind Mary as she exclaimed how happy she was to see people she obviously didn’t know.
“Hey,” a tall, broad dude in a blazer greeted us. There was not a single glint of recognition in his eyes. “Great you could make it! Coat room is just through there on the right,” he indicated a narrow hall behind the stairs.
Does he live here? I wondered as Mary thanked him and led us down the hall. “Jesus, this is a huge party!” she laughed.
Mary’s prerogative would be to ditch her bag and find some alcohol. I didn’t bother with bags. I party-watched as she sifted through the guest-room-turned-coat-room for a memorable spot to land her belongings.
The party was a party. Ladies in little black dresses and awkward heels bought last year to attend a holiday party. Odds fifty-fifty that the footwear was on both its maiden and final voyage.
Those were the ladies in attendance, copied over and over again in an upper middle class automatonic slip stream. And then the dudes. Because boy, were there Dudes in attendance. Guys who either didn’t bother to change after their banking job or actually— and I shuddered at the thought— put all those button downs and slacks on for a party.
You know, somewhere you go to have fun?
I held my cheek in dismay as I took Mary’s hand to stick with her through a crowded watching-TV room to the kitchen. It was our long-established method of not losing each other in highly populated situations.
The kitchen was large and surprisingly functional. Our hosts weren’t too well-to-do to cook their own meals six days a week. I scooted after Mary through a mess of people in the white woodcraft kitchen, complete and replete with a massive marble island, to a three tier rack of round coolers on the back wall. As Mary dug through a white and red Coleman marked “wine cooler”, I overheard a snippet of conversation.
“Was that Tony pulling up behind us?” an older man asked.
“Yeah, I think so.” a lady replied.
“You think he’ll introduce us to his wife again?”
The lady replied with derisive little laugh.
Poor man, I thought, he must have dementia and he keeps forgetting he got married. I wonder how his wife feels about that?
Suddenly I felt a hand on my arm, spinning me around. “I bet you think you’re funny—” a vaguely familiar man growled, then, realizing I was not the comedian he was looking for, he smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I was certain you were someone else.”
“Good thing I’m not, it sounds like,” I replied.
“Sorry about that. Let me, uh, make it up. I’ll help you find a beer,” he touched the center of y back as he spoke. He was dressed a little more hipster than most of the Dudes: a blue and black checkered shirt and jeans. I spied his beverage of choice. Some kind of fancy IPA.
This party might be so bad, if it was a chance to drink expensive beer without paying.
I pointed at his hand. “That or better.”
He nodded approvingly at me. He wore thick, black Buddy Holly style glasses, causing the kitchen light to obscure his eyes. “Well, we got BMCs, light beers, hoppy beers, dark beers and in here,” he pointed at the bottom cooler, “is stuff we couldn’t figure out what it was.”
I went for the bottom barrel as Plaidster asked, “How do you know Chuck and Marli?”
“Marli’s boss commissioned me to paint a horse,” I answered as I dug through the cooler. It was a conglomerate of mixers, weird fruity drinks, ciders and one very hard to find Belgian beer, Westvleteren 12. I only knew it because of an ex-boyfriend.
Oh, Jesus, don’t let that guy be here.
Plaidster pulled out the Westvleteren 12. “Here, you should try this one, I brought it,” he pulled a small bottle opener from his pocket. “You seem like you’ll appreciate the magic.”
“Pull a rabbit out of that bottle,” I replied.
“Have you had these little bread meat things, they are phenomenal, go right over there, they’re on the stove,” Plaidster pointed at the stove behind me as he poured my beer.
“Great, thanks,” I moved toward the stove and once my commitment to tasting the awesomeness was clear, Plaidster trailed after me. “I mean, they’re pretty tight.”
I picked one up.
Is this melba toast?
Yeah, it’s melba toast.
I looked around for Mary, but alas, she’d been swallowed by the mouth of party. They’ll spread her over Melba toast. I shook my head. C’mon, let off the grotesque images one night.
My beer connoisseur sidled up next to me and held up my beer. “See, not bad,” he shrugged and plucked up a toast meat thing. As he did he leaned under the shadow of the stove’s massive stainless steal hood.
His eyes were dark brown, and—
“Are you wearing eyeliner?” I asked abruptly. I couldn’t justify my question. Why should I even care? The guy just struck me as vaguely familiar, like maybe I’d seen him somewhere else.
“What? No, are you?”
“Yeah, I’m a girl. And it was the Elves of Evil Toy Drive at Goth Night last night.” At the word “goth” the jumble of voices surrounding us— not unlike a high school cafeteria boxed into one house— got a little quieter.
“You went to Goth Night?” he asked, a note of familiarity in his voice.
Oh, that must be it. Gotcha.
“Yeah, were you?”
“No, why would you think that?”
“Because you just said ‘Oh, were you at Goth Night?’ kinda like you were gonna add, ‘I was there too, that’s super rad.’ Too much to hope for, I guess.”
“No, no, I think it’s cool, I just,” he looked around, like maybe he was gonna get in troubs with his girlfriend for talking up the melba toast chick with a penchant for expensive beer. He leaned closer and spoke into my ear. “It’s probably a good idea to keep that stuff on the DL around this crowd, you know?” He pushed his glasses down with one hand to look at me.
His eyes were dark brown, and heavily eye-lined. He winked.
“Anyhow, enjoy your fancy beer, sorry I hijacked you from your friend, I answer to ‘Brad’ tonight, and so will probably half the guys here,” he leaned in again to say the last bit and moved past my shoulder.
“Wait, don’t you think we should—” I turned, but “Brad” had already sunk into the mire of merriment in the dining room.
“Hey,” Mary tapped me on the shoulder. “Who was that?”
“A guy I kind of know,” I answered. It sounded a lot more evasive than it actually was.
“See, social butterfly! And you were gonna puss out.” Mary laughed and took a swig of her pink wine cooler.
I looked at her and flapped my hands, right flapping faster than left. “Uhh, awkward butterfly.”
Mary took another drink. “I’m gonna go pick out a party ornament for the tree. You want to?”
I shook my head, but followed her to living room one, anyway. We bumped into people’s shoulders, hips and butts as we walked through. I kept an eye out for Brad’s dark, carefully messy hair.
I tucked myself into the corner and eyed the front door longingly as Mary insta-friended three blond chicks drunkenly fumbling through a crate of cheap ornaments with attached cards. They debated “cute” and “clever” messages to leave for Marli on the tree.
“Oh, my god, you can’t put that on a Christmas tree!” One girl laughed as she read the other’s message. “That’s the Lord’s Tree!”
I sighed and drank. Being tipsy made the scene less repugnant and more ludicrous.
“Hey, you put an ornament up there?” a tall, buzz cut guy in a light blue button down leaned over and asked me.
“I think my friend’s putting enough up for both of us.”
He chuckled and switched his beer from one hand to the other. “I’m Jim.”
Sure you’re not Brad?
I shook his hand. “Cathy. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice. How do you know Chuck and Marli?”
“I know Marli. Through her boss.”
His face lit up like maybe he’d stumbled on a diamond in jeans and a cheap hoodie.
“Oh, wow, do you work with Sam Roberts?”
“No, I’m just a painter. I paint the horses on display at the Down’s Art museum. Marli’s boss commissioned one from me.”
Why did you say “just” a painter? Like being Mr. Robert’s office slave is better? Like you’re apologizing for not being what this guy wanted?
“Oh, wow. That’s cool. Must be kinda hard to paint in your Mom’s basement, though. Is the lighting good?” he grinned at his joke.
The light in here will be awesome once I set this place on fire.
I gave him the no-go head shake.
“I mean, I guess if you’re taking money from rich guys to paint Derby horses it’s pretty good pay, so you can go paint whatever you want later.”
Hey, don’t verbally back-track too hard buddy, you might go stumbling over word rocks. Sprain your tongue.
“Actually, the commissions are quite lucrative.”
“Yeah, especially if you’re good,” I turned on my heels.
I need another beer.
I pushed through the crowd and stood alone to contemplate the beer wall. I lifted the fist lid. Yuck. I tried the next. Some kind of cider. This was really straightforward when I had Brad to just hand me a beer.
As I rummaged the coolers for something decent to get drunk on, I heard a man speak behind me.
“Oh, Jon, hi, Patty. Have you met my wife, Denise?”
“Hi, nice to meet you.”
That must be the forgetful fiance.
Ah, ha, a cooler of West Sixth. I will take that.
I popped the tab and moved along the kitchen wall toward the TV room.
There was a man in the doorway wearing antennae, large, faux TV antennae.
“Are those antennae?” I asked, staring above the other party goer’s head. I mean, I’m drunk but I’m not that drunk.
TO BE CONTINUED…