It was her birthday again, but she was hoping that it would be different that year. Maybe also because she was turning eighteen now, and that was an age worth remembering. The past anniversaries, whenever she recalled them, seemed to her long, tiring soul gymnastics. It had been a real problem all those years to work out who she could invite or to be sure that those she had invited would really show up. As if it wasn’t a party, but god knows what boring natural science club.
The thing was, she didn’t have many friends to invite and so she had to resort to the ‘chic circles’, that is, the groups who often met up at parties. It looked a bit like if you wanted to call some friends for a few tapes of music, you had to hire the fashionable friends too. The result was always the same: her true friends, a few, would sit apart, quietly looking on the whole night, while the others went on about their business, which generally had not much to do with the host.
This year, it’s true, she had found close friends to call and she hadn’t had to persuade anyone to come. She had been like anyone her age, who on their anniversary called friends to have fun together. But the fears lingered on. It had always given her insomnias and headaches to organise a party. That was because among that group of hired friends of the past years she had never managed to be a good host, she felt all the time like everything was going wrong because of herself. She had the same fear now, and was thinking of the guests coming as of the gunshot signalling the start of a race.
And they all did come, seeming to say that every one of them wanted to be with her on that day. First Ovidius, who brought the music. O my god, can it be true that music would be plenty this year? The boy started to set the equipment in place, carefully considering the best audio effect, while she was looking on feeling happy and a bit proud: there, now she really had awesome stuff!
Then came the others. Only Daniel wasn’t there yet, as well as the mysterious ‘somebody’ who was supposed to come with Ada.
She kept going from one room to the other, between those who were dancing and those who were chatting, trying to spot whatever was wrong. She didn’t find anything wrong, but she kept searching hectically, like a watchman checking and doublechecking his ground before external inspection, for she did fear Daniel’s arrival. She had long considered whether to invite him too, she knew he didn’t have anything in common with the others, not so much in terms of nature but as an inhabitant of this planet – he didn’t know any of them and they couldn’t find common subjects to talk about either – but she had still invited him, because she hadn’t been able to think of this night without Daniel. This didn’t take away her fear, though, of what he would say, and most of all, of what he would not say. Last year, for example, because he didn’t like the atmosphere, he had started reading some magazines with excessive attention. And to her that had been more than enough. Daniel didn’t need to talk, when he didn’t like something all it took to notice this was simply being around.
She popped into the room where they were sitting and talking. There was some political joke being said about Ceausescu, the beloved President, she fringed instinctively and switched off, not listening, only looking around to make sure things were ok. They weren’t dancing, they weren’t eating or drinking, so there had to be something wrong… No. Restrained amusement, but for Ovidius’ loud laughter, as the joke came to an end, so people were fine here in this room, even if there was no dance, no eating, no drinking. What mattered was that no one complained or looked like they were bored.
There were a few common fears about a party. One, that the tape recorder wouldn’t work – and there were several ways it could fail, like knotting up the tape, not starting or starting with a pitiful squeal, or simply sounding like an empty bucket, which her small Grundig, a present from her father a few years before, always did when the volume button forced its capacity beyond its limits.
Related to this was of course the fear about the music. You simply had to have Modern Talking, or CC Catch, or Bad Boys Blue, the disco hits of last summer. Some of the songs were already one year old in the West, but you had to take into account the time they took to land in Romania, to be borrowed and copied over and over again on the tenth or fiftieth AGFA tape. What mattered about the music was that it had to be what was played at the parties of the season, sometimes of the year. Her own tapes with John Lennon and Beatles, recorded in a more than rough manner from the weekly radio broadcasts of the ‘Music of the Youth’ show, together with chunks of the presenter’s words at the beginning or end, one song louder, the other fainter, or the tapes professionally recorded by a connection of her father in the National Radio Station with Abba, Hot Chocolate, Jackson 5 or Bee Gees were not really the thing.
From music came everything. Once the tape recorder started bellowing, or the music slid towards silly ‘old mamma’ trends, the atmosphere lost any sexy quality and the folks sort of dropped on chairs or sofa like dead leaves getting ready for long-term hibernation. Funny comments were also made, to make things still worse. Of course everyone laughed, including the host, but the fact was that the spell was gone.
One other thing that could work against spontaneously chic parties was that the guests might all dance in a circle, in a voluntary decision to ‘save the party’. That is, everyone resolved to contribute to the good mood and stood up in a sort of ‘let’s dance’ comradely enthusiasm, (people did dance at parties, didn’t they) and came together in the middle of the room, which often meant just half a step away from its borders, so tripping against chair legs or bumping into cupboards was another common misfortune. But the silliest thing was to be dancing in that neatly designed pattern, where you had nothing else to do in fact than watching the others and as a reflection watching yourself, while pretending you are moving to the inspiration of the music. The real parties, either experienced in real life, or seen in the few American films on TV, brought people to dance spontaneously, in a chaotic tumble across the room, elbow to elbow, back to back, casual, swirling and inventing crazy movements as they went.
The reverse of this was that people might not be dancing at all, but sitting passive wherever they could, and small clubs of two or three would at best be formed, where school was discussed. But even for this less fortunate possibility there was something that could still make things worse, and that was the seating and the whole room. One of her ever-present fears was that dust under the furniture might be visible, that some crack in the walls or door panels might look ugly, and that the awkward, stiff design of her living or bedroom might be obvious to the others too. She saw it all dusty, grey, uncomfortable, cold, unwelcoming and worn off. It wasn’t the house for a party, everything was simply functional and nothing more. The other living rooms where she had been, with other people, had a comfy air and some even a fine velvety touch, coming from the colours of the furnishings.
Her own living room consisted of 2 massive cupboards, dark brown, with wood carving ‘by hand’, as her mother said, but taking up one and a half walls, an equally large and dark brown book case with old-fashioned glass windows, a large, massive table sprawling from one wall up to the middle of the room, surrounded by high-backed, upholstered dining chairs; on one side was a simulation of a couch, that is, her old childhood bedcouch, slim and upholstered in light blue. Actually, she would have preferred the couch to be fat and the other furniture slim, but as it was, if sitting on the bedcouch one had the feeling that the rest of the furniture could crush one underneath.
The doors and window panels were cracked and grey, no matter how minutely she would wipe and brush them before any event. The walls and ceiling, once blank white, were now blank grey, here and there paint coming off, and the high corners tended to still produce till then invisible spider webs, but visible right when the guests were there and the celebration on. There was also the cold in the bathroom, kitchen, or hall, where there was hardly any heating, it being an old house, so that the whole environment inspired anything but spontaneous fun.
There were other, smaller fears, like the snacks and worse than all, the drinks, were all too soon gone, but that was not so terrible, if the mood of the crowd was up. Of course, that too had a reverse, which is that the guys might, from so much good mood, get drunk, and that was the sign that they were enjoying your party, but the outcomes were a dirty and continually busy bathroom, or dirty jokes replacing the political ones, and painfully ‘dirty dancing’ budding out with some willing young lady of the gang.
But overall, after the several attempts to give a real party in the past, it now seemed she had found the right solutions. Ovidius, an absolute god of audio equipment and the latest music in the Western charts, had made sure she and her guests had nothing to complain on these points. The living room was impressively filled with huge loudspeakers, cables and a ‘bad’ black hi-fi system. The music resounded from the floor, from under the furniture, from every corner of the room, surrounding you with its basses. The snacks and drinks had been carefully planned and procured over the past few weeks, with moderation on alcohol, which was anyway not going to be in excessive demand with her friends. The milieu of guests also seemed to have worked out this year, with that one exception of the worries on Daniel, but otherwise things looked like they were on the right track.
In her feverish patrolling, out of impatience and tension, she even opened the entrance door to make sure Daniel was not waiting there to be let in. She opened her eyes wide, for in front of the door someone was indeed waiting, but it wasn’t Daniel.
“Good evening! Mrs. Alexe?” asked the young man.
“Good evening, yes!” she answered automatically and instantly realized it must be Ada’s partner. She bid him to come in and then left him at the wardrobe asking fleetingly “I guess you want me to call Ada, right?”
She didn’t wait for the answer. When, after a while, she saw the stranger (she recalled he had introduced himself as Matthew) talking to Ada in the hall, she felt giddy. Such a lousy host she was, she had left these two on their own and hadn’t taken care of them.
“Why are you standing here, in the hall, do go in, either to this room or to that one”, she bid them as naturally and kindly as she could. She was relieved to hear him say
“No, that’s ok, in there I can’t meet the others, but here it’s quieter and I meet them one at a time, as they come out.”
So it wasn’t her poor hosting skills, but their wish. His answer made her happy, especially as it was funny too: watching for people as they come out and then catch them and shake hands with them!
“What should it be?” she asked him, as he had arrived later.
“Nothing for me, I’m fine, thank you so much!”
“But you can’t just stand here with nothing to eat or drink!”
“O yes, that’s perfectly fine, you know, I was ill and I’m on a diet.”
“And what can you have?” She listed everything there was in the house and at last he answered:
“OK, if you insist and if it’s not too much trouble, some bread and butter.”
A few minutes later she was back with a full plate and handed it over to him. She stayed on with the two of them, wondering why she was doing that, since the real celebration, which she had so much looked forward to, was in the living room, but she had stopped here instead, not knowing why, fumbling for a pretext in her mind: it wasn’t nice to leave her guests unattended! Of course, that was it…
Ada kept quiet, Matthew instead kept talking unrestrained, although he didn’t know anybody. She caught the beginning of a joke with an elf that he was telling, but she had to stand up and go to the living room. She couldn’t sit still. In the living room, however, the others were drinking, dancing and eating, you couldn’t hear anything from the loud music, so she got back to the bedroom, where she had managed to bring Matthew and a few others. He was telling about a practical joke that his colleagues had made to a female colleague, she laughed and then invited them to join the party in the living. She was more successful this time, since Matthew stood up, behind him the bedroom remained empty and she could turn off the light and close the door.
She turned the light on in the living instead, found some room and got some air for the nonsmokers (she had no way of objecting on this point, Matthew wasn’t eating, drinking, or dancing, but he was smoking a lot), and everything felt better instantly. Great, as a matter of fact, as everyone was close friends with her, and, to her amazement, things were going just fine, she seemed to be what is commonly understood by a good host, helping them to do what they wanted, in the most natural manner. She could feel she was at the centre of all this celebration, as everyone wanted to talk to her, even for a few seconds, all their good mood seemed to be addressed to her.
Suddenly she saw Matthew drawing near and refused to think of some invitation to dance, for fear her premature satisfaction might drive this possibility away. She pretended she couldn’t see him and that she was looking somewhere else, so as to get the chance of experiencing the nice surprise when he should address her. And he did address her, and they did start to dance.
Matthew was now very close. She heard herself talking about her relief seeing the party was nice, and about her feeling no longer clumsy and awkward as in the past. He gave out a complimenting exclamation, but she interrupted him, assuring him she was happy she was no longer so silly as to fail to have fun. Then she confessed she had been anxious that nobody would be satisfied and she was at the same time wondering to herself why she was talking to him about this, but his way of bending to her, listening, prompted her to keep on talking about things that only concerned herself.
Then the song was over, he kissed her hand and she felt self-assured again. A few other minor things happened before Matthew asked her to dance again. She noticed now that he was a bit of an old-fashioned guy, by the formal way he had taken her hand and asked her smilingly if she would dance. She also noticed that Matthew was pretty tall and his shoulder drew her cheek nearer and nearer. She told him at one point that her birthday had actually been on the Thursday before, and felt he was startled, but he let her finish.
“My birthday was also last Thursday!” he said after she was silent and seemed she had said everything she had to say.
‘At least he wouldn’t forget about my birthday’, she smiled a bit bitterly to herself. ‘Do you remember when you kept asking me why I was so keen to buy cookies for the next day, you asked what it was the next day and I answered just think, and you kept guessing wrong?’
Probably by contrast, she suddenly found Matthew very gentle and warm.
Too soon afterwards Ada and Matthew were standing in the hall, ready to go. She tried to persuade Ada to stay longer, until the end, but suddenly she thought this persuasion might have a transparent reason, and then she turned to him and challenged him:
“And you? Don’t you have anything to say in this?”
“I do”, he said gently, stroking Ada’s hair, “but it’s Ada’s decision”.
Yes, he was Ada’s cousin, although she couldn’t remember where she had heard this, anyway she was sure, and for a second she envied Ada for having someone like Matthew around all the time.
She finally gave up and the two got ready to go. Ada went out first and Matthew turned around in the doorway:
“I hope we see each other again” he said smiling, then he reached out his hands, she put hers into his like a goodbye between old friends, and he kissed them both, like a goodbye in a medieval ballad.