Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Christmas Party, Pt. 1

I was standing there at Bill and Shelley’s Christmas party (our new neighbors two doors up) when I felt something hard bump into my elbow. It was a breast, apparently in a pretty supportive bra, which got my mind going about sizes and cups and all that before I had even figured out whether to say sorry or not. The woman, who was about my height, hadn’t paid much attention to it, and was refilling her drink, holding the arm part of her big drapey shawl or whatever it was back while dipping her cup into the antique silver punch bowl. It had tasseled fringe (the shawl, not the bowl, although I guess that wouldn’t have been too surprising given its vintage) and was kind of hippy-dopey for my taste, but you can’t, or shouldn’t, really judge someone by their scarf, as it might have been a gift or handed to them from a particularly special deathbed or whatever. Scarves come and go, and I had on a stripy black-and-cream number I’d found after a party at Ray’s. It was Calvin Klein, and had a little silver tab that said so, but I was always careful to tie it so that that part was hidden. I don’t like clothing with names. I can get behind a Who t-shirt, but when it’s just an ad for a manufacturer who never wrote Heaven and Hell…you know what I’m saying. Anyhow. There was this woman, and she had a breast, and she was pretty fast and loose with it.

I filled my glass mug thing with some of Bill’s “famous egg nog” and gave it a try. We were all around the drinks table in their nice dining room; there was a fancy silver bucket of ice, with tongs, and pretty good handles of Maker’s and Aviation and stuff. I figured that I could have like twenty dollars’ worth of cocktails for free, and might even fill a Dixie cup with gin for the freezer at home. Work has been pretty scant lately, as not a lot of people are banging down my door wanting half-written guitar intros or untested recipe concepts scrawled on the back of that sticky cardstock paper that comes wrapped around a set of three new pairs of socks (birthday present from Aunt Brezna).

Cornelius had agreed to come along for a bit, which was a relief because I’m terrible at making small talk at parties until I’m kind of flippant from a drink or two. After that I can make jokes about the bathroom or whatever it is people like to chat about at parties, but until then I know I’m a wallflower, I own that I’m a wallflower, and that’s my job at the party. I do my job well. I’m that guy that makes people feel awkward, and they can take comfort in knowing that, as with any perfect party, the universe has provided the requisite awkwardness-making guy. Cornelius is old, and people also like having a guy around who isn’t sexually threatening, so we made a pretty perfect pair. They were lucky to have us.

Cornelius sidled over with his mug of nog.

“Hideous stuff,” he confided in me, putting the rim to his closed lips and feigning a sip. He was really good at it; I tried it a few times, and there are definitely tricks you have to know to take a convincing fake pull. He’s always surprising me with little social courtesy things like that. It’s nice.

“Yeah, look how proud Bill is of this stuff, over there in his big dopey red sweater,” I said, maybe too meanly. Bill was handsome, had his hair combed well, and was every bit the holiday host. His sweater was just red enough for the occasion, and had a nice white collared shirt underneath. He shared a big laugh with a tall guy who wore dark brown leather fashion sneakers, the kind of guy I’m inclined to call a PR-firm prick before even meeting.

“I don’t know how he makes it so damned thick.” Cornelius slid this line over like a snide comment jotted on a bar napkin. It was the eggnog-insult equivalent of a karaoke slag like KARRIE SINGS FIELDS OF GOLD LIKE SHE WAS WIPING HER ASS WITH THE SHEET MUSIC PASS IT ON. Sniggers and smiles hidden by quickly-hoisted green glass Heinekens. Poor Karrie. Poor Bill…his thirty-dollar cream flop was making him a target at his own party. Sure, we were jerks. And it probably cost more than that; cream’s like three bucks a pint and the bowl it was in was the size of a Beverly Hills holiday squash.

“I’m guessing,” I guessed, “...he whips the cream past the soft peaks stage to the point where it squeezes out its own moisture. It’s kind of like overworking a dough, and I don’t know of any way to rescue it.”

“Well, a gentler soul than I ought to pass along an anonymous card with the correct technique. I’m suffering a fool’s syllabub here and I don’t like it.” Cornelius wasn’t usually this grouchy, and I was liking it. Maybe we’d hassle someone later, like two wild dogs gone wrong on grog.

“I’m going to dump this out in the toilet, old man,” I said to him. “You can go next.” I liked calling him old man. It put me in my place.

“Mum’s the word. I shall follow your lead upon your reëmergence.”

I found the bathroom under the stairs, but it was closed, so I waited a minute. I don’t like to jiggle the lock and bug people when they’re exposed; it creates bad energy and I hate when people do it to me. I wish more people knew to leave the door cracked when they’re done. Anyhow, pretty soon the door opens and out comes the woman with the breast, and she gives me a freshly-peed smile or whatever you call it. I like a woman who can make eye contact with a stranger even when everyone knows the score about who just had whose pants down. Maybe she was a painter. I smiled back, hopefully quickly enough so that she caught some of it. I wanted to know more about the breast, I’ll be honest. What was it up to? Having a good time? Had the breast heard the new Vampire Weekend single?

I spent a minute checking my nose hair and gums and stuff, just to be sure I wasn’t about to start up a conversation with a piece of alfalfa sticking out of my eye, or one of those other little social gaffes. All clear, I let Cornelius in to dispose of his fatty, fluffy logjam. I wandered back to the drinks area to try something else.

The woman was there again; I guess she’d had the same trouble with the egg nog, and had moved on to bourbon with ginger ale. I forgot what that was called, which sucked, because I could have used that term when talking to her. Oh well, two fewer words in the universe at my disposal. I’d find a way. I grabbed a fresh glass, clinked in some ice cubes (perfect cubes, not the usual…interesting…it would seem that Bill had some fancy theories about ice cubes), and did a half and half of Grey Goose and that fancy full-calorie Braintree tonic water that comes in the little brown Old West bottle. There were some lime wedges, but I wanted to see if the Grey Goose actually had any of its own citrusy flavor, so I held off. I wondered if she’d notice that I evaluated the limes but then didn’t choose one; any little detail can catch a person’s eye. She might think I had been a lime snob and didn’t see a nice enough one; we might hit a good stride and I’d just be honest and tell her I wanted to see if this fancy vodka had any distinctive flavor that made it worth the extra money. She’d point out that if I really wanted to find that out I shouldn’t have mixed it with anything, and I’d laugh a little, and she’d have the upper hand, and people like that, especially at the beginning of a conversation when it’s anybody’s game and the power is up for grabs. Who wants Canada? What about Alaska? No? Okay, that’s where we’ll put nice people who don’t know what calzones are. Boom.

Oh, I forgot to mention that she’d left a napkin in the toilet. It had balloons on it. There weren’t any napkins with balloons on them at the party. Did she have a kid? And who leaves a napkin in the toilet after flushing? Maybe she’d been picking her nose with it after the fact, or doing one of those secret things ladies do in bathrooms, like wiping her makeup around to make better cheekbones, or hiding the hole where the little alien baby wriggles its hand out. I tucked that one away.

As I said, she was about my height, maybe a little shorter, which explains the breast/elbow thing. She had long mid-back blonde hair and a long flowy gypsy-type skirt thing that stopped just short of her funny boots, which I happened to know were Fluevog Grand Nationals, because I like shoes. Maybe she’d like that I knew that. I tucked this away as well, and had a celebratory big sip of my drink. If I was going to get into Stranger gear, especially with a mysterious woman, I was going to need some help, and I wasn’t there yet.

I found Cornelius in the library off the living room, a little alcove with candles burning tastefully atop tasteful stacks of tasteful books about Giverny and Baroque furniture and all kinds of other tasteful, tasteful stuff like that. Cornelius was looking this all over with his nose delicately clenched in a way that I had come to recognize. With him that was the equivalent of throwing a chair through a window in unhinged disgust.

“An assemblage of conspicuously sourced, unleafed dreck, if you ask me,” he slipped over. “Veblen would be smug as a bug in an ugly rug over it all.” He sipped from what looked to be a Baccarat of light golden Scotch. There wasn’t any Scotch on the drinks table, so I suspected he’d filled it from his flask. He may have even brought his own folding Baccarat tumbler; you never really knew with him.

“Yep, pretty damn tasteful stuff, I have to say.”

Bill came over to us, ever the consummate host, the superheated light of pure hospitality shining out from his collar like a crack in the surface of the sun. I took another sip so that he’d talk to Cornelius first.

“Gentlemen!” he boomed, scarcely able to contain the great good fortune he felt at having found two guys standing around in his house. I think he had pomade on his teeth. “How are we this fine evening!”

“One bump shy of a vacation in Rome, my good man,” Cornelius said. It sounded pretty worldly, but Bill and I had no idea what he meant. Sounded like a stab at bad Italian roads, but also made the party sound kind of like Rome, which generally seems like a good thing, though I hear the place is overrun with feral animals.

Bill slapped Cornelius on the back, holding his own mug of nog in his odd-looking hand. For a guy who was built just a little stronger than average, he had pretty fat hands. They seemed like the kind of thing that would happen to a guy who loves to eat French fries with his friends and then go home to have a baked potato and frothy golden beer. They were starchy hands, puffy with tuber tension. You didn’t get the way Bill was by avoiding potatoes. Cornelius took it in effortless stride and asked him to which year the house dated. I wondered what he was getting at.

“1975!” Bill boomed again. “My, you’ve really got an eye for architecture! You ever check this out?” He pointed at a book about Frank Lloyd Wright. The Masterpieces of Frank Lloyd Wright, or something. All I knew about Frank Lloyd Wright was that he was an asshole, but it was alright, because he made houses that people got F’s about in college.

“Quite a mind,” Cornelius mused. “Vibrating madly, just off-key in the mudroom of genius.” Bill didn’t know what to make of that, so he offered a hard-to-argue-with “Precisely!” and pointed out a few more architecture books, including one by that Le Corbusier piece of work (Le Corbusier is the guy architecture students vainly pretend they’re not directly ripping off by wearing severe little dark-rimmed circular glasses). Cornelius nodded in confirmation, and Bill said something about having to turn down the fire under the nog pot. He didn’t even bother to ask if we liked sports scores, which was kind of a relief. Good read, good play. Tie game.

Bill’s wife Shelley or someone had turned on one of those Pottery Barn holiday CDs in the living room, and some rich people were “getting loose,” inasmuch as there were basically quotation marks surrounding everyone on the dance floor, metaphorically speaking. Women in thin white sweaters and tall leather boots with spiky heels were physically moving around on top of the cream colored carpet in ways that said, “Sex with me will be a painfully one-sided, seven thousand pound letdown after a long, horrible night of lying to yourself.” One particularly wild woman had taken her shoes off. Perhaps she had been at Woodstock, or knew how to hold an ocarina.

Suddenly, a hand landed on the middle of the back of my thigh and crawled up to my ass. It didn’t stop there and, in fact, started looking for change in the space between the cushions, if you know what I mean. Interestingly, I stood stock still. Thinking about it later, I’ve never really formulated a game plan for that situation, because I never really had reason to. But there I was, standing stock still, I guess lest I make the situation worse. That’s how I react to surprises, I found out just then.

Trying to keep my eyes from going wide open, I carefully turned to the side to see who was doing this. Part of me wondered if it was Bill, finally revealing his insatiable appetite for all things sexual and depraved. No, in fact – it was the woman with the breast, and in her other hand she held a stiff golden tumbler of bourbon. She smiled right into me and left me no choice about it. I stood there, helplessly smiled into, and did the only thing I felt capable of: I smiled back, quizzical but delighted. Or at least, that’s what I was trying to convey. I was probably making a face like Tweedle Dum with a bee on his nose.