Logan began looking for his friends as he waited to make a left turn at the gate. The corporate headquarters stood behind a gleaming white iron fence that stretched for furlongs. He followed four black Navigators down the long-curved driveway.
The parade of cars stopped at the valet, which gave him time to scan for the one belonging to the people he knew. He did not recognize any of them and briefly considered whether there was room for him to make a U-turn and head back out the gate and home to safety.
There probably was, but he did not. He sat in the line, inching forward until it was his turn and then he got out of the car. A valet in a white coat came running along with a pad of tags. He looked at Logan’s car and scribbled on the tag. “Grey Ci-vic,” he said, just like that, and jammed the ticket into Logan’s hand.
Logan watched (somewhat sadly) as his little car drove away, dwarfed in both directions by giant vehicles.
The die was now cast.
He walked into the foyer. People—strangers-—were everywhere, men in suits (like his) and women in fancy dresses with bare shoulders and narrow straps, walking on high heels and carrying purses they could hold in one hand. Usually the women had an arm looped inside the crook of a man’s arm. No one but him seemed to be able to go two feet without recognizing someone.
He reached the barroom. Logan spent a long minute looking for his friends in the crowded room (occasionally on tiptoe), but he did not see them and he felt a small drop in his stomach. Maybe, a drink will help, he thought.
He stood in line and watched cocktails go upstream. When he got to the front he leaned across the bar.
“How much for a gin and tonic?” he asked.
Two or three other patrons turned and looked at him. The bartender leaned across the bar and, with discretion, said, “It’s an open bar, sir.”
Logan nodded and might or might not have heard a stifled giggle. Can you hear an eye roll?
“Gin and tonic, then” he said.
He took his drink and waded upstream, bumping like a rowboat in a crowded shipping channel.
Once he got clear of the bar area and into open water, he continued to look for his friends.
The event space was a string of three tents. A comfortable and casual search of all three led him to this conclusion: apparently, he was the first to arrive.
He tried to find an inconspicuous place to wait. The least populated area was in the very back tent. There were four eight-seat round tables, each with seats available. But it wasn’t that simple. He was alone, and if you were alone and you joined a group of people at a table...well, it was the kind of thing where they would stop talking and look at you.
There was one table with only three people, but the three people were young women with brightly colored floral spaghetti-strapped dresses. Sitting at that table—as an unescorted male—would be as awkward as anything he could imagine.
He tried to stand by their table, with his back against the tent, but he felt twice as conspicuous. He was sure he was getting side-eyes, whispers, and even giggles from the girls.
Then he tried to stand in the doorway instead, but people kept excusing themselves to get to the grazing station. He felt like a gift to anyone who liked to “people-watch.”
His friends had to be there by now. He worked the tents backwards this time, snacking, bumping, and excusing himself through the crowd, first one tent then the other and the other. He found no one.
Logan walked with hope into the bar area. Surely they were just waiting for a drink or had a drink and were waylaid by a chatterer. Alas, as he looked (careful to continue to appear casual) he realized they were not there—and neither was a single person he had ever met.
He walked back through the building and all the way to the drop-off area, with each step being more sure he would see them—the laws of probability favored it (with a constant of their arrival and a lessening supply of times they could arrive).
With each step, he saw only strangers. He went outside and stood right on the edge of the steps and looked at the line of cars.
He had an urge to reverse course and just hand his ticket to the man in the white coat and leave. In his mind, though, he could only picture this: just as his car came back—passing the procession of inbound cars alone—a car would pull up to the valet station and his friends would pile out and see him standing there with his dick in his hand, as it were.
A man in a white coat asked if he needed help. He said he did not.
He walked back in. He was struck again by the conviviality; that this was a place of joy. There were handshakes and hugs and pecks on the cheek and air-kisses. There was how have you been, how are the kids, I heard you’re a grandpa, and how’s retirement treating you? It made him feel all the more alone.
He passed people walking in other directions. He made eye contact, a nodded greeting. People nodded back but avoided making too much eye contact with him.
He began to have a fantasy—one in which he was not the man he was. Instead, he was the kind who could walk up to a stranger with his hand out and say, “I wanted to introduce myself.” More than that, a man who could then carry the conversation, parry his solitary status with wry, self-deprecating humor and then slide into a conversation about something—who knew—but he felt like it might be golf or grouse hunting or art or a vacation home in Florida. He dreamed about being a man like James Bond, or a man who drank Dos Equis, when he did drink beer.
He made his way to the front of the bar line and acquired a second free gin and tonic. He began to think: why can’t you be that guy? The only difference is one guy does it and one does not. Why not me? Why not now? Motivational bromides raced through his head; his blood began to pump.
His fantasy started with him introducing himself, and then he figured the man would answer, politely, and then what would he do?
“So, Bob, what do you do?”
Which felt like being in college and asking a girl what her major was. Which hadn’t worked out that great for him.
And then the answer. What if it was someone everybody knew? “I’m the Mayor” or “I’m the CEO of the company here.” And then the man and his wife would walk away and they might laugh at him. “Who was that weird guy?”
And so his resolve disappeared like stream above a kettle.
Surely his friends had to be here by now.
He made the rounds again. There were no familiar faces. The spaghetti-strappers were gone, but now the back table was filled with four young couples looking classy and familiar.
Logan was trapped. He regretted every decision he had made. He regretted agreeing to come, he regretted not finding a date, he regretted not calling off sick, he regretted getting out of his car, he regretted not getting back into his car and he regretted being such a social imbecile.
These regrets were not helped by the 100% certainty that he could have left when he first wanted to and not run into his friends.
The even weirder thing was that he wanted to leave now more than he had the first time, but every second that he didn’t leave (or hadn’t left) increased the chances that he would run into his friends at the entrance.
He couldn’t sit. He couldn’t stand. He couldn’t leave. He could only walk around, like some kind of low-watt socialite Sisyphus.
Then he saw a lifeline. Not his friends, but a man he knew casually through business. The man—Steve, maybe fifteen years younger, strong, stout, worked out, and, as Logan recalled, tried to sell him outdoor advertising—came toward him.
Logan felt a wash of relief. He’d stop Steve, shake his hand. Enquire. Flatter. Then Steve would be with people. Hey, have you met Logan? Really? This is Logan. And then Logan would meet Steve’s people. Who needed friends? All he had ever needed was one crack, this one little crack. People liked him, once they met him.
And what do you do? Have you ever met so-and-so? Oh, he’s wonderful. How is business? I hear it’s growing.
Logan stepped directly in front of Steve as he walked by.
“Steve! How are you.”
Steve reached his hand out and shook it. “Logan, good to see you,” he said.
Steve did not stop walking and Logan did not let go.
“Still working out?”
“You know it,” Steve said over his shoulder. He winked and pulled his strong hand free as he headed away. Behind him was a line of about five people—Steve’s people—who followed him off into another tent.
Logan looked quickly around; no one seemed to notice what had happened.
He walked over to one of the food stations and assembled a plateful of mini meatballs—made from free range, artisan lambs from New Zealand, he was informed. He saw an open high top and headed for it. It had a white tablecloth tied to the post so that it angled sharply down.
He put his drink and his plate down and did his best not to look like a recluse.
A moment later, a man came up to the table.
“Hello,” he said. “Do you mind if I join you?”
Logan pointed to the empty space at the high top as if he had been welcoming people all night. “Of course,” he said.
The man reached his hand out and gave Logan a firm shake. “George,” he said. “George Fradenburg.”
“Logan, it’s good to meet you. How are you enjoying the evening?”
A lot better now, Logan thought. For the first time, he no longer felt like everyone was watching him.
“Having a good time,” Logan said. “Nice people.”
“Oh, completely. Totally. Nice people.”
Logan took a second to look at George Fradenburg. George was wearing a tie, but he could see that the collar was unbuttoned behind it. He looked to be about fifty-five years old with grey hair around the temples and very thick hair on the top of his head. Although he appeared to be alone, it did not seem to bother him in the least. He was a bear at home in any forest.
“What do you do, Logan?”
“I’m in advertising,” he said.
“No kidding,” George said. “You know, I’ve always thought I would have been pretty good at that.”
“You don’t say,” Logan responded. He heard that a lot. He hated it when people said that.
Still, he wanted to keep George...maybe until his friends arrived, which really had to be any minute now. Didn’t the odds increase every minute? Anyway, he said, “So, George, what’s your big idea?” (Not bad, he thought. Smooth).
George kind of grimaced and then laughed. “I don’t know,” he said. “You know. More boobs. How about that?” He stuck his drink out and Logan clinked it with his glass.
“And what do you do, George?”
“Well, Logan, I’m with Manhattan Life. Been there about eighteen years. You heard of us?”
Logan felt his balloon deflate. This is what it has sunk to, he thought. He was not only talking to a life insurance salesman, but he didn’t want him to leave.
“Oh sure,” Logan said. “I’ve heard of Manhattan Life.”
“Most people have. You help people as long as we have, you’re going to get some name recognition.”
“Everything I’ve heard was good,” Logan added.
“Well, that’s good to know. Word of mouth is the best advertising,” George said. “Of course, that would put you out of business. Am I right? Just kidding.”
George continued. “Logan, we’re not so different, you and me. What’s at the basic level of what you do?”
“More basic. More basic than that.”
Logan scanned the room for his friends.
George slammed his palm onto the table, jolting Logan’s gin and tonic into bubbly chaos.
“Storytelling. Am I right?”
“Storytelling. Don’t sell. Tell stories. Am I right, Logan?” He was leaning across the table in non-threatening avuncular earnestness.
“You’re right, George.”
“Logan, let me tell you a story.”
“You know what, George,” Logan said. “I think I see my friends. I’m going to let you go. Enjoy the evening.” He reached across the table and shook the man’s hand. He stuffed George’s card into his pocket.
He walked toward the entrance, where he had not seen his friends.
He was out of tricks. Now he not only had to avoid the imagined scorn of the social set, but now he felt the need to preserve George’s dignity by not letting him find out that he hadn’t actually seen his friends.
He walked through a flap in the tent, stepping over a thick mound of electrical cords. It felt good to have a layer of canvas between him and the party. A woman was standing and leaning against a telephone pole smoking a cigarette. She had a long, branded apron on.
He nodded at her and she nodded back.
“Hey,” he said.
She nodded back, exhaling.
“Do you mind if we talk? I need someone to talk to.”
“Good. Thank you. You probably come to these things all the time. Right? Not me. Not too often. You know. Once in a while. So what do you do?” He looked at her. She stared blankly back and he felt dumber than he had all night.
“Of course. That’s what you do. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a good job. You know. Hard work. I was a busboy in college.”
He let loose with a long and deflating exhale.
“I was supposed to meet friends here. They’re not here. That was the plan. Anyway, it’s been like one of many junior high school dances.
“You see a lot of people,” he said to her. “What does it take? What does it take to be a person who fits in? What does it take to feel at ease? What does it take to be smooth?” He took his hands and made a smooth motion off to the side. “I want to walk into the room like I’m James Bond. How do people do that? You know. Go up and talk to people and make them glad you did?”
He looked at her.
“No habla inglés” she said.
He moved back inside the tent. He spied an open round table in the corner. He walked up to one food station and filled a plate. Resting it on his arm, he went to the next station and did the same. And again and again.
When he had six small grazing plates filled, he walked to the open table. He put one plate in front of each chair, along with a cutlery set up. He moved all the chairs to different angles and then he sat at one of the seats, like a man whose friends were temporarily gone. When he finished a plate, he wadded up a napkin and threw it on top and then moved over to the next seat.
When all the plates were empty, he wiped his mouth off and walked through the tents and back to the front steps, where he handed his slip to the valet and waited for his car to emerge from the long line of headlights stretching into the twilight.