I choose to fancy myself a successful mingler, much like I choose to remember that I’m terrific at bicycle riding. Since I rarely perform either of those simple tasks, it is not difficult for me to convince myself I am good at them.
The last time I hoisted myself onto a bicycle, it was my old roommate’s, and I quickly realized with horror that the last bike I owned only had two speeds: However Fast I Can Pedal and Stopped. And to stop this bike from 1986, I only had stop moving and the training wheels did all the work. But there were levers and cranks and buttons and baubles on this modern, more threatening bicycle, and since I possessed knowledge of none of their functions, I ate asphalt in under 90 seconds.
Something very similar happened to me at the party I just attended.
I’m going to share a phenomenon I have experienced since buying the bar. I rarely get invited to parties, and it’s because everyone hilariously assumes I’m already going to other parties. Every Monday, customers ask me “how the parties were this weekend,” and they look alarmed when I say that I spent my weekend watching reality TV and trying to find the source of the eight fruit flies in my bathroom. Why are they there? There’s no food in there. I don’t keep food in there.
I live on the end of a very short, largely unoccupied, dead end street, and three days ago I realized that four of my bar regulars have lived two doors down from me for five months. How did we never notice that? This is an adorable group of young friends whose presence I always appreciate at the bar. They are intelligent and talented and respectful. So when they announced on Facebook that they were having a party, and I was invited, because everyone on Facebook is invited, I started a countdown to my evening of social finesse. On the night of the party, after overcoming a minor sartorial crisis, Jedd Evan and I stuffed our coat pockets with leftover beers and headed over.
Minutes later I found myself standing in a room full of Zog’s regulars, and MY turf was nowhere to be found. Standing in my own bar imparts me with a certain confidence I’m always sure will translate into real life should my participation be required in a social capacity other than hostess, but it never does.
I’m very good at the bar. I’m quick and funny and I use poly-syllabic words and I treat my friends to good stories and charm dollars easily out of people I don’t know. I can tell jokes and recount tales and issue advice and do creative things. But when I’m not on my own turf I forget how to be a functional person.
I parked myself across from the fridge and started talking to two guys I knew and two guys I didn’t know. Almost immediately, someone opened said fridge and I watched as a full gallon of milk freed itself in slow motion from the top shelf, burst open on the linoleum and spilled onto my flipflopped feet. I made a couple of jokes about crying over it and silently congratulated myself amid their polite laughter. Suddenly, the following sentence exited my mouth and I was forced to watch its painful trajectory as it barfed itself into the conversation: “Hey three of you guys have glasses and guess what my old roommate just moved out and he left three giant bottles of contact solution do any of you guys ever use contacts do you guys want them because I can just go run home and get them.” And then suddenly, propelled by my good intentions, I was sprinting the fifty yards back home in my milkfeet, wondering WHY THE HELL I just opted to distribute bottles of contact solution like party favors at an ophthalmology mixer, apropos of nothing.
I returned with the contact solution, distributed it to the bespectacled unwilling, and gave Jedd Evan the pre-opened, rejected one, which he employed as a conversational tool by using it to replace random objects around the room. As in, he’d slyly leave the contact solution in place of the hot sauce in front of ten people chewing things that needed hot sauce. Everyone laughed because he is funny, and good at parties.
Some guy came up and told me he liked all my earrings, so I immediately slapped my ear a few times in response. Why did I do that? Then I talked a mile a minute about how you touch your own hair when someone notices you got a haircut, and I hit myself in the head a half dozen more times to illustrate my point. No one said anything. Or laughed. But a few kids did rescue me by launching into a full Q&A about Zog’s, in which I took part for close to twenty minutes. It was painful, and not because of them. They were delightful.
It was me.
They asked legitimate questions, such as, “How does someone in their early 20s buy their own bar,” (I’m 30), “Do you feel bad kicking out drunk people,” (no), “Do you ever have to cut off your friends,” (I almost exclusively have to cut off my friends), and, “What does that ___________ tattoo mean?” About halfway through this exchange, I realized I was being potty-mouthed and very boring and I could sort of see it on their poor faces. They had the look I get when I want to end a conversation I’m having with a social pariah but I don’t know how. I felt so awful for them.
Abruptly, I released them from my small-talk grip by simply shrugging and saying, “Whatever,” thereby relinquishing my monopoly on the conversation, and instead of asking them questions about themselves, which is what you DO at a party, I just sort of shut up and stood there until they floated away. I tried to interject witty remarks into other people’s conversations. Here are some examples of things I ACTUALLY SAID:
“Oh, Elvis is still alive? Wait. Costello?”
“Yes, yes, I got all the milk out of my shoe.”
“My parents got divorced and that’s how come there’s a treadmill in my living room.”
After a while I just stopped saying anything. What was heartbreaking was that no one was being even slightly rude to me. All the dumb shit I was saying and all the awkwardness I introduced to the room—it all came from me.
But the sore, palpitating crux of shame came when, after being silent for a while while Jedd Evan performed beautifully with the group he was regaling on the other side of the party, I decided to step up to the girl Audrey and take her shoulder and lean in and whisper to her. I said, “Audrey. I don’t mean to be a downer but I never get invited to parties and I’m really nervous and I really don’t know how to talk to people.” I don’t know why I did it. I guess because I just needed to say it to someone but it’s really not the sort of thing you tell a virtual stranger at a neighborhood cookout. It was time to go.
I went out on the porch with Jedd Evan and slumped in a chair next to a wool-vested, headless plastic human skeleton, a remnant of a Halloween party I hadn’t been invited to, and I clutched my tepid bottle of Fat Tire and stared into the street and tried to tell Jedd Evan funny stories while I thought about all the nice, welcoming people inside the house and how I’ve not had enough practice at parties and even though (or especially because) I’m almost a decade older than most of them, I’ll probably not get any better at this point, even with practice.
I’m probably just being paranoid. But, see, the problem is that I’m thinking about it at all. As Jedd Evan and I trudged home, we passed Rich’s house, and Rich is a bicycle mechanic in Carrboro. I waved to him and then glanced over at my old roommate’s forgotten bike under my carport. Maybe I’ll bring it in to Rich for a tune-up tomorrow and see if I can’t get the hang of it again.