Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I never cut loose in high school, but in college I threw a lot of parties. My house was known for indoor softball games, food fights, and dancing on tables.
When I was twenty-eight, I returned to my hometown to go to grad school. My eighteen-year-old brother was still living at home and having trouble with drugs and school. I had spent the previous five years doing drug-rehabilitation work with at-risk youths, and I tried to tell my parents how to set boundaries for him, enforce rules, and be consistent, but they didn’t listen.
Despite my training, I did everything wrong with my brother: advised, scolded, reprimanded. Not surprisingly, he ignored me. Over the course of the next year, my brother got arrested and, for a separate offense, was kicked out of school, yet he continued to do drugs.
When my parents took a vacation, I suggested they get a housesitter to keep their home safe. They didn’t take my advice. The night before they came home, I got two phone messages. One was from my parents’ neighbor, explaining that she liked my brother, but if the three-day party didn’t end soon, she would have to call the police. The second was from the guy I was dating, saying he’d just been invited to a party at my parents’ address.
When I pulled up to the curb in front of the house, I saw garbage and beer cans fanned out across the lawn and the neighbors’ lawns on both sides. Inside, carpets were pulled up, chalk marked the floor, and everything was a mess.
I started swearing, crying, and yelling at my brother that he had no appreciation for everything our parents had done for him, that he walked all over the people who loved him most, and that he was ruining his life. My brother just sat there at the kitchen counter, too stoned even to take in what was happening. Later I’d be glad he couldn’t remember.
Six months after that, I moved across the country, and my brother came along for the ride. As we traveled over mountains and across the desert, we talked — or, rather, he talked, and I listened for a change. He asked me whether I’d ever used drugs and what my college years had been like. And, for the first time, I told him about my parties.
In sixth grade, pressured by my best friend, I go overnight from being a member of the girl-haters’ club to attending boy-girl parties with dancing and music. When the girls aren’t dancing with the boys, they can dance with each other, but the boys have no such luxury. So we have to either ask a girl to dance or stand in groups, tapping our feet and mouthing the words along with Elvis, Frankie Valli, and the Everly Brothers, afraid to sing in our cracking adolescent voices, trying to divine from the lyrics what it will take for a girl not just to dance with us, but to actually like us.
At the party’s end, the host’s parents turn up the lights in the basement rec room, and I walk out in a daze, music ringing in my ears, the image of the girls in their party dresses on my mind. Even at home, as I lie in bed and my mother kisses me good night, I hear Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Lesley Gore, and the Beach Boys. I toss and turn, replaying every conversation and every dance, kicking myself for bungling the steps I’d practiced, for making the conversation starters my stepfather taught me sound so wooden.
Hours pass before the rock beat quiets in my head and the images fade and I drift into fitful sleep. Why is this so difficult? Why am I so tormented? And why does no one tell me that the others are lying in bed feeling exactly the same?
John Unger Zussman
Portola Valley, California
On Sundays when I was a teenager, my mother’s large extended family came to our house for a midday meal. As the years went by, the guest list expanded to include friends and my father’s family until my parents were feeding a crowd of twenty or so every week.
One Sunday my Great-Uncle Marco from Mexico City showed up unannounced. My grandmother’s youngest brother, he was the classic unmarried uncle who returns to tell tales of his exotic travels. He fascinated us not only with his stories, but with his constant innuendoes about sex.
At dinner, when someone made a toast, Marco downed his wine as if it were cold water and he’d just returned from a hike in the desert. Then, before anyone could react, he jumped onto the table. My brother, my sister, and I exchanged glances: what was he doing? Marco held his glass up to the other guests and made his own toast: “A veinte mujeres con cuarenta tetas!”
Not everyone at the table understood, but my brother and I certainly did, and we began smirking. Soon everyone began laughing, clinking glasses, and repeating the toast to “twenty women with forty breasts.”
I learned much later that Marco was gay, which made his saluting women and their breasts all the more provocative. I never saw him again and could not tell you any longer what he looked like, but the image of him standing on the table with his outstretched glass endures.
I am albino, which means my skin and hair are paler than pale, and though I have partial vision, I’m legally blind. I grew up in a town where it seemed everyone worshiped at the same handful of churches and was white and voted Republican and wore the same clothes. I was white, but I was too white. I was an agnostic atheist, a bleeding heart, and I dressed like the grunge-rock musicians I admired. I didn’t even fit in with the delinquent kids, because my parents were too strict and my grades too good. I felt like the town freak.
Nothing emphasized my feelings of alienation like a school dance, where I’d sit at the back of the cafeteria and eat chips to numb myself. One time I tried to mingle, but a girl I’d ridden to the dance with told me to stop following her around like a puppy. I went back to the food table and tried to disappear.
Parties became more painful as I got older and developed crushes. I watched the boys I was attracted to dance with other girls, girls I would never resemble. I didn’t even know how to dance, and I hated the music the DJs played. Often I just sat in a corner and tried not to cry.
Now twenty-six, I feel a little more comfortable in my pale skin, but parties still scare me. I don’t always know how to approach strangers, and I suspect they don’t know how to approach me. I’d rather drink champagne with the older women in my writing group than go to a party with people my own age. I still prefer heavy rock music to dance beats and deep intellectual conversation to small talk.
Every once in a while, though, I’ll go to a social gathering and find it bearable, even a little fun. Inside me the little girl who wants to be like everyone else battles with the rebel who says, “Fuck what everyone else thinks.” I hope someday the two sides of me can live comfortably together.
Orcas Island, Washington
It’s the summer of 1966, and my friend Jane’s mother is having a party at her Greenwich Village town house. Jane and I are not exactly guests at the party, but I am sleeping over, and we brush shoulders with the real guests on our way to the kitchen to get ice cream. We have on miniskirts and sway when we walk, aware of how pretty we look. Some women at the party are wearing high plastic boots and dresses that are almost see-through.
Jane’s mother is an artist. Her long blond hair is streaked with gray, and she is wearing a green caftan and drinking a cocktail one small sip at a time. Her paintings hang on the walls, including portraits of Jane and her older sister, Diane, who was born with one ear and only half a face; she has had many surgeries but still doesn’t look normal. Diane usually stays in her room on the second floor during parties, and most other times as well. I say hello to her when I pass her in the hallway, but I never stop to talk.
On the stereo Billie Holiday is singing a song called “Strange Fruit,” about black people being hung from trees. I know the world can be cruel and bad things can happen, but I feel insulated from all that. After the song ends, Mitch Ryder begins to sing “Devil with a Blue Dress On,” and guests gyrate to the music. Jane and I join in, watching our pretty, young reflections in the wide windows.
From somewhere in the house comes a hot, muffled bang, and Jane’s mother runs up to the second floor. Seconds later she shouts down, “Call the police!”
Diane has shot herself with a gun her mother kept in the closet. She is dead. The note she left says she was tired of being ignored because she wasn’t beautiful.
New York, New York
With our extroverted mother’s fifty-third birthday approaching, my siblings and I decided to throw her a surprise party. We’d failed to mark her fiftieth with real fanfare, and now that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, we wondered how many birthdays she had left. The oldest of seven, I took the lead, writing to as many friends and family members as I could, imploring them to come — or, if they couldn’t make it, to send a letter of fond memories. I also asked, with some embarrassment, that they send money; my mother, though a hospital nurse herself, had no health insurance.
The January day of the party dawned cloudy and cold, and there were forecasts of snow. On our way to our mother’s house, my brother and I watched a car pull over to the side of the road because of the ice, and we knew there would be no party. We were grateful just to make it up our parents’ gravel road without incident, bringing a scrapbook full of cards and a check for $441. Our mother was chagrined to learn of our foiled plan, but she appreciated our thoughtfulness.
Seven years later, the summer before my mother was to turn sixty, an MRI revealed that the breast cancer had migrated to her spine. There was risk of paralysis, and the doctors hospitalized her for emergency surgery. After the eight-hour operation, the sight of my mother’s pale skin and swollen-shut eyes was almost too much to bear. Again we all wondered how much time she had left.
Two months later, our mother was walking with a brace, and we began planning another birthday party. This time we decided not to make it a surprise, hoping the anticipation would help her pull through her illness-induced gloom. I baked cupcakes, and we asked guests to bring only a dish to share. (Our mother was applying for Medicaid to cover her hospital bills.) The weather for the party was clear and unseasonably warm, and our mother looked happier than we’d seen her in a long time. When our shy father, who’d been the stay-at-home parent, stood at the microphone to offer a tribute, he began, “Living with Carolyn is like living with an angel.” Our mother broke in: “Keep in mind he’s older than me — and more forgetful.” The room rang with laughter.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
When I was eighteen, my parents hosted a debutante party for me at our country club. The theme was India, and the preppy clubhouse had been transformed into a rajah’s palace. An elephant stood at the door, and a tame tiger nuzzled guests’ hands as they waited in the receiving line for me to greet them.
I wore a purple and gold sari and bangles that pinched my arms. I was hot and nervous. As I kissed people on both cheeks and made small talk, a friend kept me refreshed with the club’s special vodka-mint cocktail.
Before the receiving line had reached the end, I felt sick. My escort quickly dragged me out to the garden, where my high heels stuck in the earth, and I tripped and ripped my sari. He brought me upstairs to our private room, and I bent over the toilet and puked. When I looked up, I saw my father. “I’m so sorry, Daddy,” I cried. Then I passed out.
The next few days were awkward. No one in my family said much to me. My parents just seemed relieved the news of my disappearance hadn’t made the newspaper’s society column. I felt bad for having let them down.
One night, about a week after the party, I was washing dishes, and my dad was helping. He paced anxiously in and out, returning wineglasses to their proper shelves. Suddenly he hugged me, and we cried. “I just wanted the best for you,” he said. “I love you.” It was the first time he had ever said those words to me.
My two sisters and I were dressed in our pajamas, teeth brushed and hair combed, when our father came home from the office at seven. We begged him to let us stay up while he ate his supper so he could read us a bedtime poem afterward. He agreed, and once he’d finished his liverwurst sandwich, we followed him down the hall to the living room, where he kept volumes of German poetry by Goethe, Schiller, and Heine.
When my father opened the door to the living room, a burst of applause greeted him. It was his birthday, and many relatives, friends, and neighbors had gathered to celebrate. Our father’s eyes filled with tears, and he hugged, kissed, and shook hands with his guests. My sisters and I quickly changed from nightclothes into pages’ uniforms so we could hang up coats and help people find the bathroom.
When all the coats had been hung up and the party was in full swing, my youngest sister, Helga, became bored. She wiggled into the middle of the crowd and in her loudest voice asked, “Doesn’t anyone have to go to the bathroom?” A line of laughing adults formed.
My mother had hired musicians to play my father’s favorite piece: Schubert’s Trout Quintet. (My father was a devoted fisherman.) To add to the show, my sisters and I donned costumes and acted out the parts of the angler and three silvery fish on an improvised stage in the corner of the room. After the jumping fish had escaped the hook and the music had ended, we ran over to our father and landed on his lap.
Our mother, in her long tulle dress and dangling gold earrings, glided among her guests, the perfect hostess. She did not know that this would be the last party she’d give at which her Jewish and non-Jewish friends would mingle.
This was Germany in 1932, and not long afterward my father’s youngest brother was beaten up by the Nazis in the street. He escaped to England, alive but penniless. One good friend and neighbor became a prominent Nazi Party member and informer, and he never entered our house again. Before my father’s next birthday, my sisters and I left for Holland, and our factory and home were confiscated.
Our father eventually was sent to a concentration camp. Our mother’s sister and her husband were killed in the camps. When I think about that evening of friendship and laughter, I wonder: What changed? What made friends become enemies?
Renate G. Justin
Fort Collins, Colorado
When I was seventeen, my friends and I went to all-night dance parties called raves. Around 4 A.M., when the rest of the city was calling it a night, we’d be dancing in front of twelve-foot-high walls of speakers.
The illegal parties began late on Friday night and wound down around noon on Sunday. They changed locations often to evade the cops. Each weekend we drove through ghetto neighborhoods in search of the party, following the vague directions a fellow raver had left on a friend’s answering machine.
For the first time in my life, I was popular. Usually when I was around a good-looking boy, I had trouble remembering to breathe. But at raves cute guys told me they liked watching me dance and asked my name. For me, though, the social scene and drugs were merely a backdrop for the music. I’d dance for hours, stopping only to get water.
There was a friendly, communal atmosphere at raves. You could leave your backpack lying on the dirty warehouse floor, and it would still be there when you returned hours later. Everyone smiled at each other and left their egos at home. We called it “church,” because it was the closest any of us had ever been to God.
A decade later I still listen to that music once in a while at the gym. I close my eyes and picture myself dancing in front of those enormous speakers. I wonder what the ravers I knew are doing, and if they ever think about the way it was when we were all moving to the same beat beneath the colorful lights.
I was born in the Soviet Union, where the word party had a single, political meaning. A gathering to celebrate a birthday or Revolution Day or New Year’s was called a “holiday.” During the perestroika years, when you had to wait in long lines to get virtually any grocery item, my parents would still manage to put together enough food and drink for a holiday: a hidden jar of pickled tomatoes here; a bottle of homemade moonshine there; perhaps some candies smuggled from a chocolate factory by a friend.
The preparations would start early in the morning, and my mom would spend a whole day in our tiny kitchen, cooking whatever was left in the cupboards, while my brothers and I went to the local kiosk to get bread or polished the silverware that our great-grandfather had once owned. I remember the table loaded with eggplant salad, roasted potatoes, assorted fish sprinkled with tiny beads of caviar, and a row of bottles. (My favorite was Pepsi-Cola — the first American soda to find its way behind the Iron Curtain.) The guests would arrive with flowers wrapped in cellophane if it was a birthday, or dusty cognac bottles if it was New Year’s, and take their places around the table.
Any holiday was an excuse for my parents and their friends to sing songs, make long toasts, and talk. I didn’t fully understand the adult conversations, but some common topics were the direction the country was going, literary criticism, and “hope dies last.” The songs expressed love for the Russian people and anguish over what had been done to them. When it was all over, my mom and I would wash dishes and eat leftovers in front of the TV.
Now I live in the U.S. and host my own parties. I make a salad, which takes only five minutes, set out plastic forks and paper plates, and buy hummus and chips from the local organic store. My guests either stand or sit in small groups, each nursing whatever drink they brought for themselves, and chat about gas prices, movies, and the weather. I do the same. Political talk usually ends with a disgusted grunt over whatever President Bush has just said or done. Everyone silently agrees to wait until the election, when things will change.
I miss the closeness of bodies around the table; the never-ending talk about where the country is going; and songs about friendship, love, and loneliness.
Elkins Park, Pennsylvania
Our parents gave my siblings and me each a homemade cake and a single present on our birthdays. If Mom was in a good mood, she might cook your favorite dinner. That was it. So I don’t know why my mother decided to celebrate my fifth birthday with a big party. She decorated with blue and red streamers and a “Happy Birthday” sign she had bought at Woolworth’s. There were paper hats and whistles, and a store-bought cake with my name written in icing.
It was all a bit overwhelming to me, and I became more excited with the arrival of each new guest. Birthday presents covered the buffet in the dining room. The next time the doorbell rang, I beat my mother to the door and, forgetting my manners, greeted my guests with “Where’s my gift?” They laughed, but my mother was furious and sent me to my room.
From my window I could hear the party whistles and see the kids playing tag in the yard. I lay on my bed and waited for my mother to allow me to rejoin the party. But when she climbed the stairs to my room, she informed me that the party would go on without me. My older sister would blow out the candles on my cake, and my gifts would be donated to the orphanage. “Bad little girls do not get presents,” she explained.
I cried myself to sleep in the middle of the afternoon, and when I awoke, the room was lit by the fading light of dusk, and my mother was standing over me with my father’s leather belt. “I’m sorry!” I screamed as she raised her arm. “I’m sorry!”
At the age of seventeen, I was walking to a party when a car pulled over to offer me a ride. Inside were four black guys. I am white. This was Detroit in 1975, and people hadn’t forgotten the 1968 race riots.
I was hesitant to get into the car. But, being young, trusting, and lazy, I scooted in between the two back-seat passengers. After an awkward few moments, the front-seat passenger handed me a joint. I took a big hit and coughed a bit, which drew some chuckles, and we laughed our way down the road, talking about dope and women. At my destination they let me out, and we shook hands and had a good laugh.
Making my way home after the party, I had a buzz on and felt as if I were sitting on top of the world, so I decided to hitch another ride. This time a car pulled over with four white guys inside. Again I got in between the two back-seat passengers. Once the doors were closed, they asked me for money. When I said I didn’t have any, they beat me with brass knuckles and threw me from the moving car.
That night in 1975 has done more to shape my worldview than any other.
It was 1943. World War II was at its height, and Dearborn, Michigan, was the heart of the war effort. My hometown had a naval base, and the Ford Motor Company and General Motors were turning out tanks and airplane parts. Patriotic feelings ran strong.
I was twelve years old and active in my church’s youth group and choir. Our pastor was a good and caring man, and I had heard that he was a “pacifist,” which I understood to mean that he believed in peace.
On Halloween church members were invited to a costume party at the parsonage. The youths were in the basement, and the adults were upstairs. After we’d played some games and eaten, the pastor and his wife came downstairs and said, “There is something we must tell you.” The pastor opened a door at the back of the room, and out walked six Asian people, who bowed to us and said, “Thank you,” in English.
The pastor then asked us to take off our costumes and give them to the “little people,” as he called them. We did as we were told. The Asians put the costumes on, and the pastor led them out of the house.
I did not understand what had happened until the next day, when someone from the church explained: Our pastor was part of an “underground railroad” that spirited American-born Japanese, called “nisei,” out of the internment camps in the West. Evidently, the police had found out about his activities and were waiting outside to raid the house after the party ended. The nisei escaped in our child-sized costumes.
Doris Wells Miller
Santa Barbara, California
I was nine years old and sat in the middle of my father’s party, carving a hole through the dining-room table, which already had graffiti gouged into its surface: images of marijuana leaves and sayings like “Live hard, die free.” My father and his friends had taken to carving on the table at my uncle’s wake a year earlier. Mom had moved away by that time. Since then, the parties had become more frequent and unpredictable: people doing drugs, fighting, and even having sex in front of me.
The jagged hole I’d carved was several inches wide when my father finally noticed what I was doing and loudly reprimanded me in a rare display of parental authority. The room went quiet, and I did nothing for a moment. Then I took his cigarette from his hand and flicked his ash through the hole. “It’s a bottomless ashtray,” I said. The guests burst out laughing, and my father’s surprise quickly turned to pride. He placed a tin ashtray heaped with butts into the hole, then got a drill and screwed it into place.
Later the drunken partygoers realized that the only way to empty the ashtray was to turn the entire table over, so they did, dumping beer bottles and pills and trash onto the floor. I watched as my father cheered on the mob. My protest had become just another example of how our lives had been turned on end.
My husband and I thought it better to adopt than to bring another child into this troubled world. We were close to final approval on adopting a baby from Korea when we decided to host a potluck oyster roast and invite friends and co-workers. It was late September, the perfect time of year for a backyard party. We’d provide the oysters and plenty of beer, wine, and liquor for everyone.
I suppose I invited Lucy and her husband, Barney, as a courtesy. I was a special-education teacher, and Lucy was my classroom aide. She and Barney were teetotalers, so they came, ate, and left early, before things got really crazy and my husband got drunk and threw up in the bathtub.
About two months after the potluck, the social worker at the adoption agency asked me if we’d had a big party at our house recently. Apparently one of our references had reported some of the goings-on at our oyster roast. The social worker told me we were off the adoption list.
I’d listed Lucy as a reference, and I felt sure she was the one who’d reported our party, but I didn’t confront her about it.
My husband and I got angry, and then grieved, and finally decided to start a family the natural way. Before a year had passed, our daughter came along, and three years later we had our son. Both are now in college, and we’ve never regretted what happened.
Lucy died last year. I wish I’d had the courage to thank her.
Greer, South Carolina
In the picture from my surprise fourteenth-birthday party, I’m wearing a denim shirt tied in a knot underneath my chest. My belly is exposed, and I’m so slender you can clearly see the outline of my ribs, which jut out at an odd angle on one side. Careful inspection reveals that one of my shoulders is higher than the other. If I could turn the picture around to show my back, you would see the hump that is rapidly forming there.
There is excitement, but also fear, in my eyes. My parents didn’t throw birthday parties for my siblings and me after we turned ten. I had guessed the reason for this party: they knew I was going to die. Why else would adults — my aunts, uncles, and neighbors — come to a child’s party? I felt like the two-headed calf on display at the county fair: Look at the girl whose spine is twisted, whose ribs crowd into the space where her lungs belong.
It was happening so fast. Less than two months before the diagnosis, I could have run to my friend Yvonne’s house. Now I could no longer walk there. I was a few days shy of fourteen and had kissed only one boy. I’d never been drunk, never driven a car, never even come close to doing that thing that Yvonne told me boys and girls did when they were going steady.
As everyone was laughing and toasting each other and me, I said to Yvonne through clenched teeth, “I want to get drunk.”
We worked the crowd, one of us distracting the adults while the other slipped away their half-empty beers. In the basement a crowd of teenagers had gathered around the pool table. I sat on the cellar steps, drinking. When someone asked why I was getting drunk, I said because there was no one there I wanted to have sex with, and I didn’t have a license to drive yet. After I’d drained the dregs of about twenty cans, the room was spinning. I remember laughing; I remember kissing someone; I remember Yvonne holding back my hair as I puked.
Ten days after my fourteenth birthday, a team of nurses, residents, and surgeons sliced me open from neck to hips, sawed out a portion of my spine, and fused a metal rod to the misshapen vertebrae. In the weeks that followed, my ribs slid back into place, the hump retreated, and my lungs filled with air again. I would live.
Alexander, New York
When I was fifteen, my classmate Bruce announced that he was throwing the party to end all parties. He must have invited everyone at school. Bruce was an insecure braggart whose claim to fame was that he had the most extensive record collection in our small town. When he came down the hall at school, his voice echoed off the lockers. Kids mocked him, and though he pretended to enjoy the attention, I think it hurt his feelings.
I arrived at Bruce’s house a little late, expecting to find the party in full swing. When Bruce answered the door, he seemed disappointed to see me, as if he’d been hoping for someone more important, or maybe expected to see a gang of kids standing there. Then he led me to the study, which contained his wall-to-wall record collection. All the furniture had been removed, as if for dancing, but no one was there. I sat on the floor and stared at my feet, afraid to look at Bruce. After an awkward silence, he got up and put on a jazz album. As we listened, he recited the names of the singer and instrumentalists and gave me the history of the recording.
The doorbell rang, and we both jumped up as if awakening from a trance. A slight boy named George had arrived. I recognized him from geometry class. He looked at me with the gaze of a trapped animal, and I nodded in recognition.
George found a spot on the floor, and we sat with Bruce and listened to one record after another while Bruce gave a lecture on each. Occasionally Bruce would interrupt to say, “I wonder where everyone is?” George and I said maybe they’d gotten the address or the date wrong. Finally we faced the truth: No one else was coming. We were the party.
After more than an hour I got up from the floor to leave, and George immediately followed suit, as if we had choreographed it. We said goodbye to Bruce, pretending that the party had been meant for just us three, and that we’d had a really good time. Once outside, George and I walked silently in opposite directions, leaving behind a lonely teenage boy and his record collection.
In a generous moment I agreed to host a fiftieth-birthday party for my friend Tom, who had been laid off from his job a few months earlier. I enlisted another friend, Jackie, to help with the preparations. Not far into the planning, Jackie and I concluded from Tom’s excitement that this was probably his first adult birthday party. He called us at least twice a day with suggestions and instructions, and the guest list grew to forty people, many of whom were coming from out of state.
On the day of the party, Jackie and I worked frantically to get everything ready, wondering the entire time how we could possibly have been so stupid as to volunteer for this. Then the rain came: not a summer shower, but the kind of storm that usually has a tornado behind it. It lasted for hours but eventually passed, and the party went on as planned. Jackie and I congratulated each other on a job well done — and swore never to do it again.
Less than a year after the party, Tom died unexpectedly. We had helped him celebrate his last birthday. Since then I’ve vowed never to pass up an opportunity to do something kind for a friend.
Allison K. Linder
Once the kids had left home, I pretty much stopped cooking. I go to the store only when we’re about to run out of toilet paper. One recent Friday evening, feeling the familiar mix of guilt and resentment at the assumption that dinner was my responsibility, I asked my husband, José, “Which would you rather have: a wife who’s a really great cook, or one who’s a wonderful lover?”
Tired and hungry, José thought for a minute, aware of the possible ramifications of a wrong answer. “Honey,” he said, “that’s why they make restaurants.”
There are times, though, when my husband has a deep yearning for biscuits and gravy. “Something with a sauce,” he says. This presents a problem, as there are no soul-food restaurants where we live.
José will be turning sixty this year, and he’s uneasy about it. Both his parents and half his nine siblings didn’t live past fifty-five. Close to sixty is far enough away from six that José can safely recall things he previously needed to forget. One day he told me that in elementary school, he walked home each afternoon for lunch. His house was two long blocks away, and nobody was ever there. Sometimes he’d make himself a mayonnaise sandwich or a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, but most of the time he’d just walk back to school.
He also recalled how on Valentine’s Day he waited around at the end of school while the kids all laughed and handed out cards. He waited until the bell rang and all the kids had left. He didn’t get any valentines. “I think it was second grade,” he said. “I was shy. I was the only black kid in the class. I don’t know if that was why I didn’t get any.”
I have decided to give José a birthday party this year. I’ll ask everyone to bring him a valentine, and to bring me a recipe for something with a sauce. I’ve resolved to learn how to make gravy, because it sticks to your ribs and makes you feel full, makes it harder for the world to get you down.
I met my college boyfriend at a party. He was tall, confident, and gregarious. I was insecure, shy, and fatally agreeable. We ended up having sex on our first date, after a night of alcohol and loud music.
We would talk on the phone and sometimes study together, but we spent most of our time at parties. Soon after we got to one, my boyfriend would disappear. One minute, he’d be at my side; the next, he’d be gone. I’d search frantically and sometimes get worried, but I’d always find him eventually, in a back room or on a porch, completely oblivious to my concern over his whereabouts.
One night we went to a keg party on the other side of campus. We hadn’t been there five minutes before my boyfriend disappeared again. I looked for him everywhere: the balcony, the basement, the backyard. In desperation I went back to the alley where we’d parked his Jeep — and found him sitting behind the wheel next to a pretty girl I didn’t know.
I got into the back seat, folded my arms across my chest, and introduced myself.
“Hi,” the girl responded blankly, barely turning around.
“I was going to give Debbie a ride home,” my boyfriend said to me.
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”
The explanation he gave later seemed dubious. One thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to be so agreeable anymore.
I married that boyfriend, and we’re now approaching our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I still get nervous at parties.
Bill and I lived with Dennis on his horse ranch ten miles outside Eugene, Oregon. I stayed in the guest cottage, and Bill had a room in the house. We paid no rent, but Bill did all the cooking and nursed Dennis when he had problems with his diabetes. I did repairs around the ranch and brought supplies back from the city, where I worked at a nursing home. Dennis lived off his inheritance and the money he made renting his stables.
None of us had much of a social life. At night we would sit around the ranch house’s huge living-and-dining area, which had enough space to host a dance. Bill and Dennis commented that with this much room, we should be throwing parties.
We decided on a potluck, and I invited friends from work and from the university where I sometimes took classes. It went so well we were soon hosting a potluck every Sunday for up to twenty people.
One day a former roommate of mine asked if he could invite a Rainbow Family group to the next potluck. I was vaguely familiar with them as a loose-knit tribe devoted to peace and love. Without thinking too much about it, I said yes.
The next Sunday a group of regulars were eating and mingling when two school buses pulled into the driveway, and about twenty-five Rainbow Family members piled out. They were dressed like pirates and clowns and Shakespearean actors, and they had names like Dr. B-Flat, Sky Woman, and Blueman. A fellow they called “Frodo” attempted to juggle plates and broke three. Dr. B-Flat organized a bluegrass jam beside the buses. Blueman hit on my boss, whose husband was sitting right next to her. Sky Woman took the Rainbow children into the bathroom for a group bath, preventing anybody else from using the facilities. The rest of the Rainbows ate our food and drank our wine as if it would never run out. (They had brought no food of their own.) Our regulars began leaving early. Once they had all gone, the Rainbows pitched their tents in the backyard.
The next morning I woke to find the house overrun by Rainbow folk, preparing breakfast and making a mess.
Bill told me Dennis had taken the pickup into town to get barbed wire.
“But we don’t need any barbed wire,” I said. I noticed he was wearing his backpack. “Where are you going?”
“Monday-morning Mass,” he said. “It’s too crowded around here.” I heard the venom in his voice and knew he blamed me for having invited these strangers.
Feeling guilty, I began cleaning up and helping our guests make breakfast. They consumed all the bacon, eggs, coffee, and bread we had in the house. Afterward they invited me outside to the buses to join in their family meeting, at which they discussed picking peaches at a nearby farm to make some money. Then they formed a circle, and we all held hands to offer thanks and blessings. I felt a little uneasy taking part in this and had the paranoid notion that they might force me to join their tribe.
The circle broke up, we said our goodbyes, and the buses backed out and barreled off down the country road. They hadn’t been so bad, I thought. I’d enjoyed their spirit and maybe even liked them a little bit. Then I went back inside and saw the stacks of dirty dishes at the sink.
St. Petersburg, Florida
I held my dad’s hand as his oncologist gave us the bad news: after a decade-long battle with cancer, Dad’s time was almost up. My mother, my brother, my father, and I sat there beneath the flickering fluorescent light of the hospital room. “Dad,” I said, “is there anything we can do?” I imagined he might ask me to call his mother, or hold him, or take him to the shore one last time.
He closed his eyes, and a smile spread across his face. “Yes,” he said, “there is something: I’d like to have a party to celebrate the life I have left and the lives of all those who’ve touched mine.”
The next day I was working on invitations to the “Fuck the cancer!” party, which we held just one week later. I’d originally suggested we schedule the party for two weeks later, to make sure Dad’s out-of-town friends would come, but he’d squeezed my hand and said, “No, I’ll be gone by then.”
We had T-shirts printed, put up tents in the backyard, and threw a wonderful party. Hundreds of people came. Dad sat in his hospital bed in our dining-room-turned-hospice, telling stories and cracking jokes while people waited in a long line to talk to him. I almost forgot that he was dying.
That was his last good day. He died a week later, at age fifty-three, on the day I’d originally wanted to throw the party.
Laura Kay Collins
When my husband and I finally paid off the loans on our natural-foods store, we decided to have a party and invite the whole community to celebrate. We rented the local Grange hall and hired a friend’s band. The musicians stayed at our home, and I cooked all their meals. It was great fun but a lot of work, and it took days afterward to clean up.
The party went so well that my husband and I decided to make it an annual event and charge admission. The first year we sold eight hundred tickets. By the eighth year our little party was a three-day concert, and we were selling up to two thousand tickets, but we were still losing money. We couldn’t afford to keep doing it, I told my husband. He claimed it wasn’t about the money: it was about the community, the friendships, and supporting local artists. I protested that our marriage and our business were suffering, and our children did not like giving up their rooms to visiting musicians — especially our youngest, who had begun to say that all hippies stank.
That year my husband announced that he wanted to host a band at our house the weekend of our seventeenth wedding anniversary. I told him I wouldn’t do it. I needed a break. I didn’t feel like cooking and cleaning when we should be having a romantic weekend. No.
The party went on anyway, and I went to stay at a girlfriend’s house. When I returned home two weeks later, not one dish had been washed nor any food put away. There were maggots and beer cans everywhere — and, oh, the smell. It would be two months before I agreed to come back. After that I took a more active role in the concerts and demanded a say in how much we spent on them.
The following year I caught my husband paying a band almost twice the amount we had agreed upon. It would be the first of many lies. After nearly twenty years of marriage, my husband finally left me for a twenty-four-year-old. But I believe he’d begun to leave me long before, for a party.
In the mid-1980s I ran a neighborhood cafe out of a Victorian house in Seattle, Washington. One day an older Asian man came in asking for any job I could give him. He said that he had fled Tibet and was a doctor. When I asked why he was looking for minimum-wage work, he just smiled and said, “Sometimes you have to ride a donkey before you get to ride the horse.”
I hired him as a cook, and he stayed for several months. Then one day he told me he was moving to San Francisco with his daughters. Hesitantly, he asked me if it would be all right for him to throw a party for his friends and family at the cafe after closing. In those days my motto was “Any excuse for a party,” so I said yes.
On the day of the party, when the guests began to arrive, it became apparent that my cook ran in many different circles. There were authors, priests, professors, businesspeople, and musicians. It was a midsummer night, and as darkness fell, a gentle feeling crept in all around. The oak table in the foyer had been shoved aside, and people swirled in and out, murmuring in quiet, singsong voices and laughing. Women sat on the stairs, combing and braiding each other’s hair. Children were playing. Tibetan flutes appeared, and the musicians played beautiful, haunting melodies. Less and less English was spoken. A single bare bulb lit the foyer, and smoke from the men’s cigarettes drifted up to the ceiling. Some guests started a circle dance.
If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget that party. It was magical. I haven’t felt that kind of collective energy since. And I can’t even remember the man’s name.