One more try. She widened her mouth, lifting the corners in the same way that they did, but it still didn’t look right. Something was off, she just couldn’t figure out what; the teeth perhaps? She closed her lips, but that just looked worse.
(Oh well, no time to perfect it now.)
She moved away from the mirror, put on her new coat (bought especially for the occasion) and squirmed. The shop attendant had claimed it was a perfect fit, but it felt tight and restrictive. The sleeves were itchy too. She took it off, put her old one on, and checked the address again before setting off.
The room was dark. The only light coming from a lamp in the corner and the streetlights outside, which cast a soft glow through the window. Elongated beams of white danced across the ceiling each time a car went by; the light streaking through the white picket fence.
‘Hey, I didn’t know you were coming. What a treat’ The man, who seemed familiar, stepped forward to initiate the obligatory greeting ceremony, and they both ended up in an awkward kind of dance, their bodies completely out of sync. Tango meets The Waltz. In the end, they opted for a kind of disappointing half-hug.
She glanced around the room and watched as two other people greeted each other: an effortless ‘hi’ quickly followed by an easily navigated shake of the hand.
(How the hell do they know what to do?)
Such a bewildering array of actions, it seemed impossible to figure out who was going to do what. Yet somehow, like a complex version of Rock, Paper, Scissors that neither party ever lost, they managed. The way humans greeted each other looked like a masterclass of psychic ability, although she had it on good authority this wasn’t the case.
‘… and so then he said, “that’s one for the books.”’ The man standing in front of her erupted in a burst of enthusiastic laughter, and she realised she hadn’t listened to a word he’d said. She attempted a small chuckle.
(What should I say now?)
‘And did he put it into a book?’
He laughed again, although less forcefully this time. ‘That’s a good one.’ (A good what?) ‘Anyway, it’s great to see you. I’m just gonna go and mingle. See you in a bit.’
‘Sure’ she said.
Later conversations, well some of them at least, seemed to go a little better, though it was difficult to tell either way. Maintaining interest when people talked about the holiday they’d just been on, just booked or wanted to book, was a challenge, and she didn’t see the point in answering pointless questions about her job.
When she tried to change the subject – to something more relevant – the group she’d joined shuffled gradually away. Her suggestion that it should be possible to determine the speed of the passing cars by timing the white beams, as they traversed the ceiling, had been met with silence. They didn’t even seem interested that most of the cars must have been exceeding the speed limit by at least 15mph.
Later on, she noticed the group glancing in her direction and sniggering. She was sure laughter was supposed to be friendly, but this felt threatening.
Perhaps coming here had been a mistake. She didn’t seem able to get it right, despite her best efforts. It came so naturally to them. They made it look easy. It wasn’t. The man she’d spoken to at the start of the night had never come back (see you in a bit indeed!) and the confusing group, who managed to make laughter seem like something malevolent, were now ignoring her completely. A stream of lights flashed across the ceiling, reminding her of the world outside. It was time to go.
She picked up her old coat and headed for the door.
‘Are you leaving?’ she turned to see her friend. ‘I’m so sorry. I haven’t had the chance to catch up with you yet. You know how it is when you host these things, you seem to spend the whole time speaking to everyone and no one all at once.’ She didn’t.
‘I need to get home’ she said. (I think I’m supposed to lie now) ‘but I’ve had a lovely time.’
Her friend lunged forward, startling her a little, and gave her a tight hug. It felt uncomfortable and welcome all at the same time. ‘Don’t worry about it, these things are horrid aren’t they. I’m only doing this as a favour really.’ How did she know she’d been lying? (not psychic? Yeah right).
‘It’s not really my thing’ she replied, ‘but I am pleased I came.’ A truth she’d only just realised. The last time she’d done this it had been a disaster. Before the end of the first she’d been shaking uncontrollably. She’d run from the house and spent the following two weeks staying in her apartment. Apart from a couple of distressing trips to the shop, she hadn’t gone out at all.
This had been better. Not a raging success, but better.
‘I’m pleased you came. Let’s go for some lunch next time, just me and you?’
(That would be better.)
‘That would be better’ she said and chastised herself for not swapping ‘better’ with ‘lovely’.
‘It would, wouldn’t it? Look, don’t worry about that lot in there, I’d rather spend time with you any day – at least I wouldn’t have to feign interest, while fighting off terminal boredom.’
She smiled. It was small and only lasted a moment, but it felt genuine. Her friend beamed back and hugged her again. ‘I’ll call you in the week’ she said.
‘Thanks again for coming, it means a lot.’
She walked home, buoyed by the unexpected invite to lunch. It felt like a real breakthrough, and even the idea of another party didn’t seem so bad either. If she didn’t try quite so hard to fit in, to be like them, then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. And if it was then perhaps, they weren’t for her after all.
Image – Pixabay.com