It’s one of the most disgusting, off-putting phrases in the English language, and anyone who says otherwise is a sadist, hell-bent on inflicting misery onto the world. Like Katie, who recently snuck it into an otherwise lovely morning of cheesy eggs and French press. “Let’s have a party!” she snarled.
It’s not that I dislike parties, I loathe them. What’s to like? Buried in a sweating scrum of poorly matched personalities, attentions haphazardly flung across the room like so many drunkenly flung javelins—a roomful of crackling indigo lasers to be acrobatically avoided like one of those spy movies, lest an alarm be tripped and my cover blown. Because that’s it, I guess. I’m terrified of being revealed.
Revealed as what, I don’t know. I have my secrets, my guilty pleasures like everyone else, but I don’t have that much to hide. Sure, I’ve seen every episode of Gilmore Girls multiple times, a fact I’m pretty sure precludes me from holding public office in Alabama, but I’m not a pedophile, and I don’t dissect live animals in my spare time. I don’t even have a stash of gay porn hidden away. Just the regular transgender stuff, like everyone else.
Despite the dearth of skeletons in my closet, I’m gripped by the same paralyzing dread whenever I have to speak with someone for longer than it takes to order a sandwich: Don’t let them see. I don’t care what these people think of me, I don’t care what they think, I don’t care. It’s my mantra, more or less, and for the most part it’s true. I don’t care, not really.
Except, dammit, when I’m being honest with myself. Then I do care, and desperately.
On a personal level, I want to be liked. Anything better than, “Ugh, that girl,” is preferred. I’m human, after all, despite Katie’s protestations to the contrary. But it requires effort, a drive down that two-way street of friendship and genuine interest. And too often when it comes time to pay those dues, my emotional wallet comes up short. I want to like you, Random Party Guy, but why is it so damn exhausting?
My distaste for parties would be easy to write off as social anxiety disorder or an introverted personality, but I wasn’t always this way. I used to like people, very much, in fact. Craved being around them, even. As a kid I made friends easily and fearlessly. Even into high school, despite my impressive wardrobe of unwashed Megadeth t-shirts and permanently etched don’t fuck with me scowl. But somewhere along the way it became easier not to care, not to even try. Right around the time I got married, I think.
“I know, let’s do a White Elephant party!” Katie sang a couple days later, her eyes glittering like a fourteen-year-old boy’s the night Megan Fox shows up in his bedroom, a pack of White Claws and the new Call of Duty wedged into her cleavage.
If there’s anything worse than a party, it’s one that requires planning. I might make it through a night where moderate drinking is all that’s required of me, but now I have to shop, too? I’d rather plan my own death. It was worse when we lived in Florida and all our friends were artists. Every get-together had a theme. To some that may sound positively delightful, but even today, years removed, I’m driven to hiss the word through clenched teeth. Theme party. Theeeme party.
These were great in high school. Pimp and Ho Party! the invitation read. “Which one are you?” my Dad chuckled as I begged a few bucks for the Salvation Army.
But catchy ideas catch on. Friends bought houses, christened tiki bars and discovered small-batch artisanal vodkas, and the frequency of the damn things grew. Like rats. Festive, costumed rats. Which given enough time would surely end up a theme, one that might actually be amusing if Katie would agree to dress as Marilyn Manson’s rectum.
As white elephant parties grow in popularity in the U.S. it’s become more and more acceptable to recycle unwanted gifts. But in our new home of northern Thailand, where most of our friends are neither American nor ungrateful pricks, this concept is utterly strange.
“You want me to…what, again?” a French acquaintance asked, struggling to comprehend the depth of American ingratitude.
“You should buy something. But something really, really bad, and then hand it out at the party,” Katie told her.
“And I do this…so you and everyone else can laugh at me?”
Eventually most of our friends got into the spirit, but not all, which explains Ivan’s wounded expression when the clock he gave us a week earlier, the one featuring both the name of the private Catholic school where he teaches and a number of dancing, costumed teddy bears, was unwrapped and mercilessly mocked by everyone possessing both eyes and gin on their breath. Group ridicule: one of America’s finer exports.
I unwrapped a tube of something called Pink Nipple Cream, the description promising “To Be Whiter and All Day Confidence.” People come up with the strangest things to dislike about themselves, but I hadn’t realized nipple color to be one of them. Regardless, the results were undeniably dramatic, at least according to the photo on the rear of the box. An otherwise identical pair of breasts illustrated both Before and After colors, charting a startling transformation from Jerky to the apparently more appetizing shade of Deviled Ham.
“Can I bleach my asshole with this?” I wondered aloud.
The box proudly advertised “Lactic Acid from France” as a key ingredient, which if I remember from middle school health class is something that collects in your muscles after heavy exercise. That confirms it: People will put absolutely anything in or on their bodies if maybe, just maybe, it will make them even a little more beautiful. Discarded hormones from French people—or animals, more likely—not excluded.
Seeing that it’s next to impossible to find a brand of face cream, deodorant, soap, or shaving gel here in Thailand that doesn’t promise to lighten your skin, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Especially in a land where the miracle whitening benefits of snail secretions are endlessly barked from any number of billboards, TV commercials, and magazine covers. Precisely which of the snail’s many possible emissions isn’t disclosed, but I tend to assume it’s the semen, if for no other reason than my delight at imagining millions of desperately vain young people paying to be facialized by an impassioned gastropod.
My gift also included a single-use facemask made from placenta, but instead of laughing like the rest of the party, I found it disconcerting. I mean, what was the source of the placenta? Was it humanely harvested? Organic? Collected by cultists?
While the gifter was quick to point out a flock of animals on the label—“It’s sheep placenta!” she grinned—there was also a lovely young woman posed rather prominently in the foreground, her eyes downcast, as though fraught with depression. By her rounded cheeks and undeniably fertile glow, it wasn’t unreasonable to think she might have recently given birth. Had she given up her placenta willingly, or was it taken from her? Perhaps, I shuddered, by cultists, along with her lactic acid?
Andrei’s contribution to the gift pool, though heartfelt, was not fully appreciated by the group. “It is the bag with the bags,” he told Elena, its mystified recipient. She was busy excavating innumerable folded plastic grocery bags from a Halloween-orange mother-bag while he spoke, not yet grasping that the bags themselves were the gift.
“In my country, when you have-a this, the bag with the bags,” the Russian patiently explained, “it mean you have-a grown.”
“Like you’ve matured? You’re an adult now?” I asked, trying to be helpful. The first to arrive at the party, Andrei had enthusiastically shared his gift’s sentiment with Katie and me. Grateful, we made sure to choose other gifts.
Andrei’s eyes, already gaping wider than a pair of regulation Titleists, stretched further as Elena dug and dug, transforming him into a caricature of some giant, dehydrated Boston terrier. What kept his eyes in their sockets at that point I have no idea. An unexpected bump from behind would have popped them free I’m sure, like ping pong balls shot from you-know-where at one of those infamous Bangkok nightclubs. Super Pussy was one, which Katie and I still regretted passing on during a recent prowl through the Thai capital.
“You like pussy?” the young man had asked eagerly, passing out handbills on the street. A reclining woman graced the flyer’s front, a series of tiny white orbs hurtling from her vagina. She was pictured shooting them into cups, into the delighted/disgusted crowd, and even through what appeared to be a flaming toilet seat. The man watched as we scanned the leaflet, wide-eyed. “You like super pussy?” he then wanted to know.
“Well, sure,” I admitted, folding the paper into my pocket. “But can she do baseballs?”
“Ooh, I want to see a ping pong show!” Andrei yelled out of nowhere, as though reading my mind. All eyes snapped in his direction, and I braced for the backlash.
The party was stacked to the gills with intelligent, outspoken feminists, unflinching defenders of women everywhere. Andrei’s comment, though doubtlessly borne of genuine curiosity, was sure to spark a virulent debate.
But to my surprise, he was answered with head nods and murmurs of assent.
“Yeah, I’d like to see that,” Carly agreed, the same Carly who just days earlier had publicly eviscerated a mutual Facebook friend for unironically dropping a “Not all men!” into a post about rape culture. “I hear they can shoot a ball into a cup from, like, six feet away,” she marveled, her walnut eyebrow raised in a similar arc.
“Do you think they can play catch with them? With the ping pong balls?” I wondered. “You know, like, one person here, the other over there? And they go back and forth?
“Like this?” Femke squealed, producing a used squash ball unwrapped earlier in the evening, generously gifted to her by the girl so deeply unimpressed by Andrei’s bag with the bags. The group was crowded into our orgy den, the nook of floor cushions and fluffy pillows named not for how Katie and I used it, but for how we imagined the über sexy Swiss-German couple from whom we’d bought the setup might have. Femke tenderly placed the ball into the crotch of her jeans, then launched it toward Katie with a magnificent pelvic thrust.
Her force and aim were impressive, a labial explosion the likes of which I’d never seen. “She’s also into girls,” her boyfriend whispered to me, as though in explanation.
Katie moved into crab formation and intercepted the ball, then shot it back, albeit with considerably less vaginal dexterity. The process repeated itself several times until our dog Chloe, sensing there was fun to be had, snatched the rubber sphere out of the air.
“She must be jealous,” Katie said, scratching the chocolate labradoodle’s scruffy, graying beard. “Balls are usually her thing.”
“Do she bite when she jealous?” Andrei piped up.
“Chloe? No, she doesn’t bite. She’s my baby,” Katie said, and the dog inserted its tongue into her mouth.
“I once have a jealous rat,” Andrei said wistfully. “I make a dance with his friend, and my jealous rat, well, he bite me.”
Andrei had a gift for drawing out our latent philosophical natures, for elevating the banal through his innately poetic way with words. Moved by what he’d said, our responses tended to echo his in not just tone and beauty, but in a certain ineffable, ecstatic profundity.
“What the fuck?” Carly said. “You danced with the rat’s friend? Is that, like, Russian for doing heroin or something?
“No, no,” Andrei scolded. “I make a dance with him, like this.” He bolted to his feet and closed his massive eyes, his hips swaying rhythmically. With his left hand, he lovingly cupped an imaginary rodent to his ribs.
“An actual rat?” Carly pressed.
One of Chloe’s toys, a smoky gray raccoon, lay next to my foot on the orgy den floor. “Here, Andrei,” I offered, tossing it his way. “I can’t quite picture it.”
“Okay,” he obliged, really feeling it now, singing to himself while traveling back to that special time. “But after this, my other rat, he bite me on my finger.” Andrei’s face drooped in sadness. “And I can never make a dance with him again. He remember my taste too much. My taste of finger.”
Which only goes to show, as bad as regular parties are, dance parties are worse. Especially when jealousy is involved. Or rats.
An old boss turned friend, Gregory, likes to argue that the anxiety human beings feel surrounding difficult conversations, those talks we avoid because you just know they’re going to be awkward and uncomfortable, only lasts for five seconds. “Just start talking. Talk for five seconds,” he says, “and then you’re through it. You’re done.” You pass through the pain and enter into a normal, easy conversation. Or so he believes.
That might be true if all of your interactions aren’t inherently painful from start to finish, as are most of mine, but I get his point. And while Gregory wasn’t entirely right, he wasn’t wrong either. It takes me considerably longer than five seconds, but I do sometimes get to a point of … something. If not peace, then non-anxiety, or un-pain, maybe.
And what, pray tell, is a party, if not one long, drawn-out, blurred and drunken tapestry of conversation? One obvious difference between party talk and a chat with the boss are your available choices of medication. Mention to a doctor your crippling workplace anxiety and she’ll scribble a prescription in no time. But feeling shy at a barbecue? That’s what beer is for.
As the offspring of a new ager-cum-acupuncturist mother and a man’s man father who once told me Novocain doesn’t work on brown-eyed people, FDA-approved pharmaceuticals were mostly what the other kids got. I was, however, free to regularly choke down sixteen or so teensy brown pellets made from a mix of shark paste, St. John’s Wart, and a bouquet of animal penises, all of which combined into a strong desire to cruise for guys at the aquarium, hoping to pass along a miraculously resilient case of HPV.
And while at thirty-four I’m still hardwired to avoid anything stronger than amoxicillin, there’s one drug I sometimes fall back on in social situations. Whiskey, and lots of it. Combined with Mom’s signature Emu Yolk and Monkey Cervix Tea, it unfailingly leaves me feeling confident and supported in no time. Safe in a nest, almost, or coddled in a refreshingly familiar womb.
Believe what you will about the evils of drinking, but I find alcohol infinitely preferable to my previous choice of anesthesia, bag after bag of cheap, lung-scarring marijuana, which even in high school was a theme party staple. Especially if the theme was angst, which it always was.
Lounging in the orgy pit that night, the crowd having fun without any help from me, I was finally able to relax, almost to the point of enjoying myself. As much as I detest these forced, unnatural interactions, it’s the social trajectory I repeatedly find myself on, arcing from Anxious Revulsion to Exhausted Acceptance. Sometimes, on rare occasions, I make it all the way to Eh, Not Too Shabby.
Admittedly, it helps to be blessed with a collection of crotch-launching, rat-dancing weirdoes in a country halfway around the world to be Not Too Shabby with. Which, come to think of it, sounds like a pretty good theme for a party.