He stood there, at the door, welcoming his guests. Each, he greeted by name, repeating that he was glad to see them and that he hoped they were well and enjoying the holiday season. He had invited everyone he had known over the many years he had lived in the town, as well as some with whom he had only recently become acquainted.
He had called the reception from 6:00 to 9:00, but he really hoped his guests would arrive—and leave—early. The food had been catered several weeks before, from a local caterer he had used many times over the years. The bartender and the servers were also accustomed to his ways. He had looked over the buffet where the food had been placed, but his attention could not be held by its display. He felt anxious for the reception to begin … and for it to end. He had done the same thing every year since his arrival in the town where he had moved from the city, he couldn’t remember how many years ago. Now he found it difficult to concentrate his attention on his guests and to focus on this holiday reception, even though it was the same as it had always been.
When he thought the last of those he had invited had arrived, he left the doorway and began mingling with his guests. He was known for his conversation—not that it was brilliant or witty, but it was predictable and continuous. In his style, there weren’t any ponderous gaps, the ones that leave everyone wondering what to say, hoping others would speak, obviating the need to say something merely to fill the silence and inherent awkwardness that such occasions elicit.
He had wondered if his guests had noticed the distant look to his eye, or the slight tremble in his left leg, as he had stood there in the doorway, shaking their hands and accepting their greetings in return?
But tonight, his mind couldn’t concentrate, not even on the banal and insincerity that such occasions as his reception require. His thoughts kept returning, and though he tried, he couldn’t keep them in the moment. He moved from group to group, an outsider to his own reception.
The reception was going well, despite his misgivings. He wondered if they liked the food? Did the wines he had chosen from his own cellar please them? In past years, such thoughts would not have occurred to him. They always ate his food and drank his wine and didn’t think of the effort he had spent in their selection. Why should they think any differently tonight?
Had the so-and-so’s arrived? He was sure he had sent them an invitation … or had he? He always made a list of guests and compared it to the previous years’ lists, adding the names of new acquaintances, crossing off those who had died or had moved away. He almost never deleted someone from his list as the result of a personal grievance.
His reception had always been the first of the holiday season. For the most part, those he invited all knew each other—for it was a small town—even though most of his guests were not native to the area but had migrated from cities in other states.
While he wanted to be part of their society, he did not wish to be on intimate terms with any. In this way, he could feel immune to their talk and not be its subject. Tonight, though, while in conversation with some, his eyes furtively searched the room, looking for signs. He didn’t know what appearance these signs would take, and for this his left leg continued to tremble.
Moving from group to group, he caught bits and pieces of their conversations, without awareness of the beginnings. Was it awkward for those he had invited, to have him join them, to somehow make room for him, in whatever it was they were talking about? He therefore hesitated before joining, preferring to merely watch—an outsider.
But he forced himself, to join one group after the other, each time feeling somewhat more anxiety, his mind still back in the group he had but recently left, his thoughts telling him what it was to be feared.
It took several minutes for his mind to join his consciousness and the group of which he was a physical presence. But, while he wished his mind to remain—to quiet his feelings of anxiety—it wandered, feeding his disquiet and adding to his furtive look and the trembling of his left leg.
Each time he joined a group, someone always commented on the selection of his food—no matter how deep or shallow the conversation. He felt they had a need to tell him this, and for this reason—to him—the mood was ponderous. As he didn’t know what they had been discussing before he became a part of their group, he could not switch the conversation back to what it had been. Thus, he sensed his presence to be a burden to his guests, and as quickly as he could, he moved on—to another group.
At some point during the evening—he couldn’t remember when—he began to lose his sense of awareness. He would join a group and not remember their names. Not that he needed to know their names, but not remembering their names did not allow him to know who they were, their relationship to him, or why he had invited them, and the reason for their having accepted his invitation. He was cast adrift, his anchor left somewhere, he could not remember where. The trembling of his left leg intensified, and he felt the need to sit.
There were people around a low table, and he seated himself amongst them. As soon as he found himself in the midst of this new group, their conversation stopped. Why had their conversation ceased? Had they noticed something about him that he had failed to observe? Someone in the group commented on the weather, and another, on the festiveness of the reception. No one appeared to notice the alterity of his appearance, or on the trembling of his left leg. None realized he had chosen to sit in their midst in his search for an anchor for his lost moorings. As his glance fell from one to another, he couldn’t say who each one was, nor why they were speaking to him. As soon as his light-headed feeling lifted, he rose and, as abruptly as he had entered their midst, he walked away, leaving them to resume their interrupted conversation.
He thought he needed something to drink. He approached the bar with the intent of requesting a glass of water. Somebody—he knew not who, for he now did not recognize any of those at the reception—joined him and commented on his drinking water, insinuating something baleful. Was it his look, or perhaps the trembling of his left leg that had caused the other to make the suggestion? He didn’t know what to answer, and moved away without acknowledging the other’s comment.
He felt that he was wandering, without a reason to join anyone at the reception, or even speak. He ate a few of the hors d’oeuvres, conversing with those serving as he did. This he found easier, almost more natural, as though he were one of them. He didn’t feel he was interrupting their conversations, for they weren’t conversing. They addressed him by his given name—as was the custom in the small town—and spoke of local happenings, of other parties for which they had been hired, the weather, and the possibility of a storm in the next few days.
He didn’t wish to leave their company, for with them he had feelings that he didn’t seem to possess with the others—the guests. And yet, he wasn’t part of their society; he was their employer for the evening, and next week he would be a guest at a party where they would be employed by another host.
He lingered a few moments more before moving off to … he knew not where. He wandered, not joining any group. Someone approached and spoke. He thought he discerned in this person’s voice something other than an interest in the matter of which he spoke. Perhaps it was his fancy that caused him to feel this, but his left leg trembled somewhat more, and he could not register what was being said to him. He tried to respond and knew he had responded, but he didn’t know, or hear, what it was that he had said. He awaited the moment when he could walk away from this person, to be left with his own feelings of ill-boding.
These feelings persisted, at times subsiding so that he could join some of those present, at other times causing him to feel an urgency to leave. At no time did he feel totally at ease and enjoying the moment. How could he enjoy himself, for he could not know the subjects of their conversations that stopped when, by chance, he entered their spheres. They stopped for him, because of him, and were he not there they would continue without him. No doubt the conversations recommenced what it was he had interrupted once he left, and this feeling caused him to hesitate to join them, and hastened his departure.
He thought the room warm. Was it, with all the people and a fire in the fireplace? Or, was it due to the preparations for the reception, followed by the reception itself and the efforts he felt he had made when with the others? No one else appeared to be uncomfortable, or if they were, they didn’t give the appearance of being so.
He left the reception, the room with the food and the wine and the guests, and opened the door—the same door where he had stood before, greeting those invited to the reception. He walked out, down the steps to the street and, without looking in either direction, followed the night.