My son, who is nineteen, goes to a lot of parties. In fact, in any given three-month period, he goes to more parties than I’ve been to in my entire life. And so, he has stories to tell, because that’s really the primary reason for getting together with other people: to take note of all the irritating things they do and then go home and describe them to everyone who wasn’t there.
The most common theme of these stories involves a person who showed up uninvited. This is some guy from another school, a friend of a friend’s cousin, who heard there was something happening on Friday night and decided to go, intending to cause trouble.
As I listen to my son recount the latest incident — a narrative that always ends with “If he said one more word, I was going to let him have it” — I find myself focusing on all the wrong things and, inevitably, asking all the wrong questions.
“He’s a friend of Kyle’s girlfriend’s brother. Anyway, it doesn’t matter who he is. He was drunk and he wanted to fight me.”
Still missing the point but hoping to fulfill my role as a good listener and a caring father, I ask who Kyle is. This causes my son’s skull to explode, sending eyebrows and teeth flying in opposite directions.
“Never mind!” he screams.
But by now, it’s hard for me to back away. I want to know why this person was so eager to trade punches with my son. What I fail to comprehend, over and over, is that there doesn’t need to be a reason.
The real problem is that we’ve ventured into an area of life where I have little understanding. For me, even the most casual parties are exotic and mysterious affairs, something like cult meetings and pagan rituals. There are things that take place at these gatherings, things that seem to have a significance that hovers just beyond my grasp. Why do people go? How do they know what to wear, or whether to eat before they arrive? And most of all, what invisible force causes them to magically group into clusters of two, three, and four that scatter around the room and fall without effort into a mutually compelling conversation?
On those rare occasions when I find myself in a crowded room, I’m always the one drifting around like an old shoe that’s fallen off a boat and is now bobbing aimlessly on the waves. It would never occur to me that it might be a smart idea to get into a violent disagreement with another guest. Mostly, I just want to go outside and sit in the car.
This friend of Kyle’s sister’s best friend’s dentist’s nephew – what motivated him to leave the comfort of his home, drive to a total stranger’s house, then walk through the door, drink a six-pack of beer, and start a needless argument? What element of self-assurance does he possess in abundance that I seem to completely lack?
In high school, I would find out about weekend parties on Monday morning. At my locker, in homeroom, and then again in the cafeteria, I’d hear fragments of conversation that, when pieced together, formed a hazy outline of recently shared outrageous and hilarious behavior. The details would grow larger with time, exaggerated, pulled into weird shapes that would make them all the more memorable for later telling at class reunions. I never remember these adventures, because I didn’t go to parties. And the thing is, once you’re tagged as someone who doesn’t go, you stop getting invited. You’re out of the loop.
I remember the first party I ever attended. I was five. It was someone’s birthday, and after school we all filed into a meeting room at our church. We played musical chairs. No one explained the rules, and if they did, the basic premise had eluded me. One minute we were all marching around in a big circle, and the next minute everyone else was seated and smiling, and staring in my direction. A grown-up told me to go stand next to the wall, which I did, trying frantically to figure out why I was being punished because they hadn’t thought to bring enough chairs.
At that same party, we played a game called Pin the Tail on the Donkey. A child was blindfolded, then handed a drawing of a tail that had been pierced with a long tack. An adult would spin the kid around, and then we’d all shriek in inexpressible delight as he’d lurch around the room, sometimes nearly stabbing us in the face.
And then there was the square dance. Again, it was a birthday party, this time in the seventh grade, and again I felt as though I’d wandered into another country, someplace where the men wore furry hats and kissed each other hello, and where everyone drove on the wrong side of the road. Someone was barking out instructions, but they might has well have been speaking Hungarian. It was around this time when I stopped getting invited to parties.
When I receive an invitation now, I usually find a reason to stay home. The experience is too awkward, filled with too much lingering adolescent tension. For one thing, my voice doesn’t carry, and I can always tell that the person I’m talking to can’t hear a word I’m saying, but they keep right on nodding their head as if they can. Meanwhile, everyone else is standing around in those littler clusters of two or three or four and discussing important financial matters or the latest news from Libya. Then the host says something from clear across the room and everyone bursts into laughter.I do tend to go to weddings, and I do my best to have fun, and even to mingle. But as soon as that music stops, I instinctively race back to my chair. I didn’t shave and put on a suit and tie just to end up standing next to the wall.
For all of these things, but especially for my aversion to parties, my son likes to ridicule me. He calls me a loser, and claims that I can’t dance and that I have no friends.
I love my son, but if he says one more word, I’m letting him have it.