Since I left employment six years ago I have never missed the parties, whether official or un-official. I love the one-on-ones that remained though, now with just a handful of people with whom I have made lasting connections that outlived the convenience of being in the same office, friendships which I find very fulfilling and heartwarming.
In the past few years I have also lessened attendance to family reunions where the only thing people knew to talk about with me are either my weight or my being unmarried. It was a relief to be spared from all of it. Looking back, I realise that parties have never really been fun for me. I was just always going through the motions because I felt I had to.
Parties, for me, were generally open stages waiting for a plot, an act, a scene. Something exciting, something good, something hopeful. I try to look for something, a trail to follow, whether for myself or for someone who interests me. Small talk bore me. Parlor games I detest. Compulsory participation in performances and programs are troublesome. Costumes should be optional. I am allergic to alcohol so I cannot drink to "loosen up" and "let go". Too much noise and movement exhaust me.
I looked for story as a way to make meaning within that gathering, to find my footing within such a containment where I am expected to be other or more than what I usually am within the daily routines of life. I guess my own expectation was for things happening in other or more ways than they usually do in the daily routines of life. I need a focus, an anchor of some sort, otherwise I would drown. I needed layers, interweavings, threads, sparks, eurekas, seeds. Always something positive. Something that could grow. But everything tended to be too fleeting, too fast, too temporary. I cannot grasp fun in a scenario where there are too many stimuli and one is somehow expected to be everything and everywhere all at once, and where the same things happened over and over again, every single time.
I also have a string of not-too-pleasant memories from parties.
My oldest memory was a family reunion where, for some reason, there was a tradition of having all the gifts given and opened in front of everyone else. My own family, our household, was not well-off. All the other households were better off than we were. I knew we were living at a minimum, and that we were getting by with the occasional help of my grandmother, and by the sheer resourcefulness of my parents outside of my dad's regular work. So there was this particular Christmas, and gifts were piled on the floor, at least half of them as big as, if not bigger than, my five-year old self. My grandmother would preside, calling out the names on the gift tags, and the gifts would be mostly for the children, and the ritual would take the whole afternoon. And in all that long time my name was never called because my parents chose to have our own family ritual on Christmas eve so their gifts to me were not in that pile. It would not have been too bad except I noticed that the aunts and uncles, godfathers and godmothers, also gave extravagant gifts to nieces and nephews and godchildren, older siblings gifted younger ones (picked and paid for by the parents, of course). So every child had multiple presents, mostly expensive toys, some still smelling of the foreign country from which they were imported or brought home from. By the time my name was called I didn't want to take the gift because I knew it would not be the same. I was embarrassed. But I was pushed and forced to abide by the ritual. So I opened it and it was a set of practical children's underwear. I held back my tears. I was called twice again, my gifts among the last few pieces on the floor, having been buried beneath the pile, like afterthoughts. I refused to open the next ones, feeling ashamed and pitiful. My parents took them home and I opened them at home and I no longer remember what they were but there were no toys, nothing spectacular or magical or amazing. No impractical simply pretty things. I did not understand then, at that young age, why there was such a difference, why there was such a gap. I never felt like blaming my parents but I did feel like there was something wrong with that whole display of abundance as if everyone was on the same playing field.
There is this one distinct memory of coming home from a classmate's birthday party when I was in high school and I went straight to my room and I cried. There was an inexplicable heaviness in my heart that needed to come out. Now, years later, I know what it was. It was loneliness. I came from a party and came back feeling even more lonely than before I ever went to that supposedly fun gathering. There was food and there was dancing, and I remember there were the boys I had crushes on. But I also remember I was not all there, either to myself or to others. I was a caricature saying what should be said, behaving as I was expected to behave. I was invisible - hidden just beneath the do-gooder class president and valedictorian was the self that wanted more to happen, more to unfold. I felt constrained and stifled. This is it? This is all there is? were the unarticulated words that crept through my dismayed heart. I saw through the eyes that were looking at me but weren't really seeing me. I heard through the words that were thin with meaning and intention. I have been reading too many books and was hoping that this outer world would mirror more of what was inside me. Why was there so much clumsiness, so much difficulty to express oneself? So much hesitation and uncertainty? I remember trying to make myself look smaller and weaker than I was, more delicate, to look just a little bit more vulnerable and sensitive and innocent so the boys would not find me intimidating.
I was a wallflower. I still am. In company parties I was brought to the dance floor by girlfriends as an act of solidarity. A few times I have been asked out of kindness, because I was so obviously a wallflower that clung too fondly to the wall. I was a project, a snail to be coaxed out of my shell, which was supposed to be for my own good and benefit. There was one instance when the office heartthrob singled me out and tried to pull me to the dance floor at the urging of our friends. His hands were holding mine, and it was but a single thread of reason that held me back. Self-preservation kicked in. I knew myself well enough, I could not pull back the tide if I released it, if I allowed myself to indulge. It was just a dance for fun, to celebrate the spirit of the season, it was just a party thing. But I knew there would be a part of me, that old familiar self that was always grasping for more, more, more. That self I could not quite control with its wild impulses and insatiable longings and its powerful dreaming. I could not risk it. That self would fall in love unreasonably in a heartbeat, make a mountain out of a single grain of sand, whip a storm out of nothing. Dance for days long after the party itself had ended.
There was another Christmas party, when I was half in love with one of the new young artists in the office. I was a "veteran" by then, at least nearly a decade that boy's senior. I was an old maid by society standards, way past my due date once my age left the days of the calendar months. I was beginning to self-preserve better then, which meant leaving the party early as soon as the obligatory presence has been fulfilled. I did not want to linger just to repeat the same patterns of discontent. So I made my way through the dance floor to get to the exit. And along the way goodbyes had to be said because people asked questions why I seemed to be heading out. There were the usual free and casual holiday hugs and kisses. Many were half-drunk with alcohol or happiness or both. I was, as always, too dead-sober. And then he was there, that young artist, smiling warmly, so quick to take my hand and press a cheek and half a mouth to my own cheek, to say Merry Christmas. So sweet, oh so sweet. I wanted to cry. I wanted him.
And of course there was that one party where I was a wearing a small sparkly crown to comply with the party theme, a crown I won in a beauty pageant when I was in third grade, and I was watching the one I loved then choose someone else over me, someone who happened to have just betrayed my deepest trust.
I went to all those gatherings hoping and hungry and had always left unsatisfied. I heard a different drum that no one else was dancing to. I looked around the room, eager for a kindred spirit who would look back in recognition, and found none.
I don't know why these thoughts and memories are surfacing now, of all the years I have carried them sleeping inside me. Why they are stirring now, wanting space and light?
These days I have learned to say no instead of just going for the sake of going. My time is even more precious now.
I would rather spend my hours until midnight barefoot in the garden, growing new stories.