A few months ago, I learned something that was hard to believe. I immediately phoned Tom the Butcher, who is my editor and one of my closest friends.
Me: They're throwing you a retirement party tomorrow. I wasn't invited.
Tom: Right. I was asked to pick the guest list, and I didn't include you.
Me: Everyone I know will be there.
Tom: Are you okay?
Me: I'm choking up a little here.
Tom: Me, too. It's okay, man. It's what friends are for.
Tom's decision not to invite me was an act of extreme graciousness, the crowning moment of a friendship that has lasted a quarter-century. And not even telling me about it? Even better. Tom knows not only how much I hate to go to parties, but also how much I dread the approach of a party I have to go to, and how much neurotic self-loathing I suffer when I know there is a party I really should go to but won't. Tom had spared me all of it.
As the holiday party season swirls around us again, as though we were eggs and it was a giant ostrich trying to hatch us beneath its unclean personal toilet area, I am reminded, once again, of the hideously deformed thing that passes for my soul.
I know there are people — decent, normal people like you — for whom parties are a welcome opportunity to reconnect with old friends, interact socially with co-workers, flirt, gossip and otherwise enjoy the company of other humans in relaxed, convivial surroundings. To me, parties are as relaxing and convivial as a job interview; I feel intense pressure to perform. And that turns everyone else — even people I like a lot — into steely eyed, thin-lipped personnel from Human Resources.
So, for me, parties become an exercise in strategic escape — figuring out a way to extricate myself from one little clot of awkward small talk and move to another without seeming rude until, finally, at the earliest semi-reasonable moment, often without stopping to thank the host because that would entail more passing encounters with clots, I stealthily vacate the premises like a saboteur who has stashed a bomb behind the sofa.
Of course, not all parties are like that. Some are worse. As a journalist, I am often invited to "book parties," which are joyful celebrations of the publication of a colleague's book, which, by the date of the party, has usually established itself as a disastrous commercial flop. (Almost no book sells well today unless it is about teenage vampires in love.) This means that all the awkward small talk at the party is also poisoned by false cheer. What can you say?
Me: Hey, great book!
Proud Author: Thanks!
(long, difficult silence)
Me: Too bad it's gone right down the pooper like the chicken salad entree at the National Bulimics Convention. Tanked like a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Went south like a groping teenager at the drive-in.
Proud Author: What?
Me: Wait. Did I say that out loud?
Because I am usually able to project a facsimile of a normal person having normal conversations, very few people know of my partyphobia — only my closest friends, who find this disability amusing. They are not always kind about it. Just now, as I was writing this, I got an instant message from my close friend Pat, who is hosting a holiday party in her home.
Pat: I assume you don't want me to invite you?
Pat: Yeah, you would have hated it anyway . . .
Pat: . . . Because I know you disapprove of swinging sex.
People can be very unkind.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can chat with him online at noon Tuesdays at www.washingtonpost.com.