past and future parties
This was supposed to be an essay about Kendall Roy’s fortieth birthday party, and television’s fascination with a particular kind of party, and why we love to watch a rich man on TV have the worst fortieth birthday ever. But I kind of got tangled up in my own feet writing that, and currently it’s both much too long, and not finished. It’s coming next week though! But for now, here’s a tangent off of that essay that turned into its own thing.
Somehow it’s party season. Here we are again, back in the past, and too far into the future. People put up decorations in doorways and windows, they mix up lethal punches in large bowls, they turn all of the lights on in their living rooms and text their friends to come over. There is less of it than usual, and more of it than there has been in so long. It seems awkward and it doesn’t, and then it still does. I hate it one day, and can’t get enough of it the next, and don’t want to stop and ask myself if any of this is really any different than it has been any other year.
Maybe nobody should be going to parties at all. But parties rise back up anyway, into the winter and into the calendar, down in the muck at the end of the year. Some version of the holidays moves in like a ghost, dressing up in a costume as itself. The big Christmas trees go up in Midtown, and only one of them burns down. Store windows glint and preen and make offers in tinsel and lights. In tiny beehive-point apartments, people decorate cookies and serve cheese and stand around together wearing clothes pulled out of the back of the closet, all nervous feet and awkward plumage.
What are we supposed to do with one another? What are we supposed to do with anything? What are we supposed to do with the gouged-out spaces of the year and the silence at the end of it, with the fact of time, with the calendar and with the continuance of days? What are we supposed to do with all this food and all these dishes afterwards, with the harsh realities of the hallways in other people’s buildings, and these tiny little spaces where the heat hisses under the cracked-open window and the sharp night air beckons from outside? What are we supposed to do with all these rooms where everything is the same, and nothing is?
We try to do the same dances, to walk the same patterns, but the rooms are no longer the right size or shape for them. Parties mean that I am glad, and whole, and not defeated; parties mean I can get up out of bed and dress myself and put on big shoes, and walk out into the world stood up like a Christmas tree. Parties flourish in winter because we want to show that we are not afraid of the dark and the cold. Whatever was arrayed against me has not defeated me; here I am all the way at the finish line of the year, pushing through the night toward someone’s else’s house, in a big coat and a bright face.
Trees and candles glitter in windows. The gossip and welcome of other people’s living rooms, the murmur and wink of the coats on the bed, all of it flares back to life. None of us are really ready for it. The nearly two-year nightmare is in no way over; we are in the middle of something, not celebrating the other side of it. For a while I thought I was learning how to wait something out. Perhaps now I begin to understand that I am learning how to live within it. Every party is a disaster movie; every room is the end of the world. I go inside them anyway; I take off my shoes, I hold a drink in my hand, I pass around a plate of cookies. I reach out my arms for old friends when they come in the door, shaking the cold off of their coats. Everybody compliments everybody else’s outfits and nobody asks how the year has been, or what we imagine for the next one.
Parties are always a self-delusion; they occupy the space between who we wish we were, and who we actually are, between what we want and what we think we should want. I bristle when people say that the pandemic is over, but every party is a gesture that tries to sell that same past tense verb, pushing away reality with both hands. The warm room is a fast-dancing and desperate hope, trying to negotiate with the future that has arrived, trying to find a way to live in an essentially unlivable world.
A very old friend of mine threw a party last weekend. He had moved during the last two years, and so his holiday party doubled as a housewarming. The party was a party and it was also a memory exercise, as though I had once spoken a language in childhood, and moved away, and now years later had to start over memorizing verbs. Thomas and I got there and late and late turned out to be early; an hour after the start time we were the first to arrive. We walked through cold streets from the subway. We climbed up an ugly, skinny, nervous hallway, florescent lights and treacherous sagging stairs dissonant with the grace of the apartment we entered. Through the door the room was warm, painted the color of someone else’s window seen from the street. We put our coats in the narrow bedroom, shook off the quick cold-water intimacy of glimpsing somebody else’s bed, and then retreated back into the public spaces, which were very small and very bright. We stood around clutching drinks, complimenting objects in the room.
Other people eventually showed up but not very many, and I wondered if I would ever really want to be in a crowded room again, or if rooms would ever be crowded in the same way, if thresholds and capacities had changed. Everybody took off their shoes; everybody asked everybody polite questions; everybody ate snacks on little plates. I drank seltzer while everyone around me got drunk too fast. Old friends I hadn’t seen in years showed up and we told all our worn-out stories to people who hadn’t heard them before, and acted like they were new, rebuilding our stupid little mythologies, cupping our hands around a fire and blowing it back into life.
My friend’s living room had no couches and almost no chairs, which should have seemed strange to me, but didn’t. None of us quite remember how to offer a public version of ourselves, not sure where the borders are or what the requirements might be. We are all out of practice at being seen. I still can’t quite tell whether I remember the difference between making conversation, and talking to myself. The room had no couches but it had long taper candles burning around a mirror on one wall, and in the light everyone looked like a better version of themselves, the last two years smoothed out of our faces, dragging us backward into holidays the way we remembered them.
My little knot of friends and I sat on the floor. Occasionally, I called out a hello to someone standing across the room. Everyone was happy to see everyone. I felt insulated, like that heavy sleepiness on the first cold day when you close all the windows and let the radiator fill up the room. For a few minutes I hovered in the inhale between being happy, and being worried that I would be punished for being happy. I sat cross-legged like a kid, I rearranged my dress over my knees. I leaned into somebody else’s story. I laughed when everybody else laughed.
There was no point to any of it; it achieved nothing. Weighed up in a scale of risk perhaps it was not worth it. I felt loose-limbed and pretty, important for no reason, willing to fake it again, willing to try to make someone believe something, to care whether people were looking at me. Outside December raged and coiled, puffing up big and thundering through the days at the end of the year, the gauntlets of street-corner tree stands, the shock of the air outside the subway, lost scarves and gloves, the small dramas of family plans and guilt trips, money and gifts, love and loss, the absent places left dark in the middle of the bright lights, the unfinished stories, the missing pieces where nothing fills back into the picture. We did our little dance, a pantomime of an older version of the world. Every party is always imitating something, always trying to be something it isn’t.
Once, long ago, some of these same people and I would have parties in an apartment that none of us has any reason to visit anymore. We would put on clothes that didn’t quite fit us and pretend we weren’t worried about everything we were worried about, telling brave, stupid lies. We would hoist ourselves up onto kitchen counters and climb out the windows to the roof where the skyline and the pizza place and the twenty-four hour gym spread out in front of us, running the long way down Brooklyn to the river, in a time before any of us had ruined anything, in a time when we could all forgive each other for whatever had not yet happened. Parties were about the future, then; we were pretending to be something we were not, convinced that we just needed time to get there, writing checks sure that the money would be in our account when it came time to cash them. Parties weren’t real, yet, but one day they would be. When I was young, everything always felt like a rehearsal; at some indeterminate time we would all step into the light and a party would be a party and not a pretense. One day I was sure I would live like a person in the world, the way I thought everybody else had managed.
Here we are now, at the party in the future. We sit on the floor and I feel nervous and worried and warm and sleepy and like I’ve come home. I am unable to sort one thing out from any other. I am in the movie, and the movie has passed me by. I am in the story, and the story has been dismantled, and has no room for me or for anyone else anymore. I was trying so hard to get to the next thing, and found myself here instead. Parties were about the future and now they are about the past, doing my best impression of a time when all of this felt neither miraculous nor ruinous. The present tense is a small, hot room, where all the lights are on as loud as they will go, where everyone is passing their drinks around, and putting their coats on the bed, and pointing at objects and complimenting them, and saying how good it is to see one another, where we pull each other into corners or lean out of circles to tell each other gossip in low voices, where we take off our shoes and sit in circles on the floor, trying to offer one another something, trying to make something happen and trying to make nothing happen, hoping the delusions will hold a little longer.
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