Middle Age Masquerade

Dance ContestPhiladelphia at Christmas time is a magical place.  The forty-foot Christmas tree outside of city hall, the Christmas village set up in Love Park, the white lights strewn up and down every center city street, all make me feel like I am character in a modern-day Dickens story.  My partner, Cathy, and I take a long weekend to enjoy it.  “Magical” is not a term one would use to describe middle age.  This time in life is predictable and boring and safe.  We want to believe we are adventurous, but for the most part we color within the lines.  On our “bucket list” (being middle-aged we struggle with this term) is a visit to World Café Live, a venue sponsored by independent radio station WXPN, which offers food and music, much like dinner theater except hipper.  Folk musician Tracy Grammar was playing the “Free at Noon Concert.”  Before day’s end, we ended up crossing two items off of our “bucket list.”

As Cathy and I speed up the street to the entrance of the venue, a Greyhound bus is letting off a fair amount of people and an unfair amount of exhaust fumes.  I don’t know why, but we weave into the line leaving the metallic odors of the city behind us.  Following the stream like cattle through a chute, we are herded down the stairs to a reception area.  I admit I was trying to be inconspicuous.  Cathy will say she didn’t know we had become part of a private party.   I hadn’t planned to crash, but after slipping into that line, it was really easy.

Two women man the sign-in table which T-bones the bottom of the stairs, but there is no signing in.  No paying a fee.  No giving your name to be checked off a list.  Glass coasters engraved with snowflakes, two drink tickets and one raffle ticket complete each of our welcome packages.

While I check my coat, Cathy huddles over her phone researching the name of the company on the door: Elseviere.  “It looks like they do medical journals,” Cathy says.

Entering the cavernous main room, we try to get an idea of how things work.  About two hundred people have come out to celebrate the holiday and are scattered between a lower level that includes the stage, a dance floor and white linen covered tables, a mezzanine level bar and upper level bar that both overlook the lower level.  Dimly lit like a dance club, it’s hard to believe it’s the middle of a workday afternoon. 

Mistake number one:  we are the only women here in jeans and sweaters.  Most of the other women are dressed in pretty holiday blouses and dress pants or skirts.  To make matters worse, I am sporting my new tweed cabby cap.  We order two vodka tonics and produce two drink tickets that the bartender receives without hesitation.

Mistake number two:  the tickets are only for top shelf concoctions and anything ordered after 3:00 P.M.  The bartenders must have been instructed to snatch up tickets from those who don’t understand the system.

Smiling, we chat up the barkeep.  “Hey, can I ask you something?  We’re part of this party but were wondering if we could check out the Tracy Grammar concert upstairs.  Is that possible?”

Even though it’s a free concert, reservations are required.  But reservations are not our specialty today.  While sipping on our free vodka tonics, we manage to find seats.  The cafe includes modern tables and chairs with clean lines, the kind of furniture that is modern because it is retro.  It’s not filled with all hipsters though.  Patrons range from Carhartt-clad construction workers to sixtyish hippies in multicolored skirts yet colorless hair and faces, to college kids in North face jackets half-listening to the performer while texting.  As I allow the strum and hum of the acoustic guitar to lull me into a trance, Cathy downs her drink and buys a Yuengling draught.   We agree to leave after the performance and explore the city or maybe grab one more free drink and then head out.  After all, we’ve already had our escapade and enjoyed free drinks.  It’s best to play it safe.

As we return to the party, the head of the company, Frank, begins addressing the crowd of 200.  Some people are sitting at tables eating while others are standing at the bar like us.  Frank does not stand on the three feet high stage but rather positions himself in front of it.

“You all know it’s been a tough year for us.  We’ve faced some challenges, had our share of struggles…” Cathy and I twist our faces into the most sincere expressions.  Yes, we are nodding, what a difficult year.  We truly feel lucky to be here.  Cathy and I feel luckier than most.

Lisa, Frank’s assistant, sporting a bright red satin blouse and a pleated skirt, begins calling out door prize numbers.  Her excitement contrasts the apathy among many of the partygoers who are only feigning interest.  Twenty-five dollars to CVS, Applebee’s, Michael’s…. “Make sure you’re here at 3:00 for the grand prize – a 2012 BMW!”

Cathy and I look at each other.  “We can’t-” she begins.

“We’ll go to jail,” I say.  “Ok, we need to spend our time finding the most tragic figure in this company because when we win, and I have a feeling we will, we’ll give the BMW to that person.”

I tick off people who do not qualify:  the obnoxious, the young.  Youth provides plenty of time to make enough for a Beemer.  What about the ten percent minority, the gays?  Two guys dominate the scene down at the far end of the bar.   One is wearing a coral-colored fitted silk shirt while the other is practicing for Gold’s Gym commercials, flexing as often as possible.  They don’t need the ride to move up the social ladder.  Wait a minute.   There’s a sister – decked out in cement-colored cargo pants and a long sleeve, hunter green T-shirt under a cream-colored quilted vest.  Comfortable shoes (do they still make Cloud Climbers?) carry her along.  Save for one guy with whom she is absorbed in riveting conversation, she makes no eye contact with anyone.  With her squinty eyes and serious expression, she reminds me of the I.T. genius from college so she is not the lucky one.

Scanning the crowd, I observe two Pakistani little people making their way up to the buffet.  Each woman wears black dress pants, rayon earth-tone blouses, and moderately expensive watches and bracelets – too much for a work party, so I make an assessment.  They are not power-players but their husbands do well.  The other revelers are invisible to them.  They must be elitists and will not be getting my BMW.

“The food looks incredible.  Maybe we should eat,” I suggest.   On white tablecloths sprinkled with red, green, and silver sparkly confetti, twenty silver chafing dishes line up like soldiers from “The Nut Cracker.”  In front of the chafing dishes, we jockey for position with the rest of the buffet line athletes.

“I’m cutting in line,” a fifty-something man announces.

“I’m reporting you to H.R.,” I say.

“I would too,” he jokes right back.

Along the thirty-foot-long bar, party guests watch themselves eat in the mirror that extends all the way to the ceiling.  Cathy and I enjoy Beef Wellington, pulled pork and shrimp but later sit at a half-empty table on the lower level for dessert.  We’ve gathered up dropped drink and raffle tickets like Zuzu’s petals in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Keeping one ticket behind the other, I try to check my multiple tickets during the next round of door prizes.

“We need aliases,” I decide.  “I’ll be Holly Rowe.  What do you want your name to be?”

Cathy looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind and at the same time scans the room to see who may be looking at us.  This masquerade is way beyond her comfort zone.

“Seriously.  It’s safest if we have fake names.  What would you like your name to be?” I nudge her.  She’s not the game player I am.

“Lisbeth,” Cathy gives in.

“Lisbeth?  Lisbeth the lesbian?  That’s not conspicuous,” I say but I don’t push her further or she won’t play.

Cathy heads up to check out the other bar and I head back to adopt a few shortbread snowmen from the dessert table.

                        *                                    *                                    *

“536727!”  Oh my God, that’s my ticket number.  I can’t believe it. I walk across the dimly lit banquet room towards the stage and lean over a heavyset woman in a painful holiday sweater with alternating rows of standing and jumping white reindeer on a red background.  While giving her a sideways hug, I whisper in her ear, “What’s your name?”


“Well, Janet, you’re just going to have to trust me.”

From the stage I look out at the sea of blurred faces in the banquet room.  The spotlight shines in my eyes and I squint.

“Wow.  Thank you so much.”  The microphone shrieks and my voice sounds unnaturally loud, shrill.  “Some of you know what kind of year we’ve had.”  I pause to get my breath and see Frank, the boss, wearing a quizzical expression – the way a dog will tilt its head and furrow its eyebrows when it can’t comprehend what is happening.  The red exit sign flickers from the far corner of the room, beckoning me.  It’s too late for that now.   “Three trips to Guatemala and red tape and wondering if we’d ever get little Esme….” I let out a breath and forcibly swallow.  “But we did and here we are.  I know many companies wouldn’t support working from home but without that option, I don’t know where we’d be right now.  Esme is the greatest blessing in our lives and Lisbeth and I cannot be more grateful.”  I look at Cathy/Lisbeth and smile and nod as if to say, you know what we need to do.  “What Frank said earlier is true:  at the end of the day, it’s about family and loved ones.  Through everything, it was Janet who stuck by us, who would take the late night, hysterical phone calls. It was Janet that offered support, Janet who knew when to just listen.”  I pause and look Janet in her wide-eyed face.  “And it is Janet that is getting this BMW!”

People gasp and I hear “Oh my Gods” all over and I’m waving her up and everyone begins clapping and pushing her up to the stage and her mouth keeps opening and closing as if she is trying to say something.  I give her a quick hug while handing her the raffle ticket.  Before returning to the safety of the darkness of the crowd, I say as honestly as I’ve ever said anything, “You deserve this so much more than I do.”

                        *                                    *                                    *

But that’s not how it played out.  My ticket didn’t win.  There was no BMW, just travel vouchers and we didn’t win those either.  The speech that I rehearsed in my mind a thousand times never took place.  The woman in the reindeer sweater may not even be named Janet.  It’s probably just as well.

“Dance contest,” I text to Cathy.

“You in?”

“Not without you.”

“Probably not a good idea,” I say with some relief when Cathy returns from the upper level.  Initially I was going to jump up on stage with sixteen other dancers and then realized each contestant has to be introduced by name and perform a solo.   Half a vodka tonic stood between me being up there and hiding in safety among the masses.

As soon as the contest ends, people move to the dance floor.

“We’re dancing,” I announce.  The group of 30 moves with a pulse of its own, with a collective rhythm, the Elseviere beast writhing after a year of torturous toil and office politics.  If not valued, at least the creature gets free food and booze for three hours.  “Every day I’m shuffling…” pounds from the DJ booth.

“I’m not feeling it,” Cathy says.

“I’m not looking back on this someday and regretting that I didn’t squeeze everything I could from this experience.”  Before I can say anything else, Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” comes on and we’re up.

Clusters of people dance and cheer each other on.   I bounce up and down to Lady Gaga and try to catch people’s eyes to see if they invite us into their circles.  What drunken strangers don’t acknowledge other dancers?  Like at weddings – it’s a code, isn’t it?  Dance floor fission begins as the cell of dancers split to form two lines and pairs of dancers bounce and jiggle like Jello elves down the center aisle.  Mistake number three:  making ourselves noticeable by dancing.  I don’t regret it.  “You only go around once,” Cathy’s dad always says.

Around 3:15, Cathy fights through the throng of people and I wait for her to ransom my leather jacket.  I calculate totals for the day:  coat check tip -$2, tips for bartenders – $10, Yuengling – $2, checking “successfully crashing a party” off our bucket list  – priceless.

“What’s your name?  I don’t think I know you and I know just about everybody in this company.  Where do you work?” says an African-American woman in a tan burqa.

Distracted temporarily by her makeup (I didn’t think Muslim women were allowed to wear makeup), I respond, “Karen (So much for my alias.)   I work in Philly.”  Mistake number four.  When Cathy researched Elseviere on her phone, she saw there were many offices including one in Rockville, Maryland.   Initially we thought this was a regional office party.  If pressed, we could say we work in the Rockville facility.  Obviously this is a party just for the Philadelphia office.  Philly, really?

“What department do you work in?”

“H.R.,” I say.  Every company has an HR department.  I wouldn’t have to know anything technical.  I toy with saying I am an elf – one of those people companies hire to spy on fellow associates as a quality assurance measure.  Would an elf be invited to an office party?

Burqa, whose name is Tia (Spanish aunt?) turns to another African-American woman and says, “She must know Salena,” and without waiting for an answer turns back to me and says, “You know Salena?”

“No,” I say, “I don’t really know many people.  I haven’t been with the company that long.”

“Who you know then?  How long you been with the company?”  This burqa is relentless.

I look around to see who is listening.  People walk by the deserted sign-in table and make their way to the stairs.  I wonder how quickly I could scramble up those stairs and extract myself from this situation.  I hem and haw and lean in conspiratorially,

“Here’s the thing…” I look around again.  “I’m a lesbian-”

“So?  Nuthin’ wrong with that.  So?”  (Muslim community embracing the gay community?  In my head, a South Park episode is developing.)

“See, the thing is, my partner and I just adopted a baby from Guatemala.” Discarded raffle tickets litter the hallway.  What are the chances we’d be confronted in the last five minutes of our escapade?  “I’m not supposed to say anything and despite what Frank said today about the importance of family, I know they aren’t big on letting employees work from home… but they’re allowing me to.”  I pause for a split second to let this sink in.  “I conference call when necessary but that’s about it.”

“Oh, no, they don’t like that.  Don’t say anything about it,” Burqa says frowning.

“So I don’t really know anybody here and I think they’re letting me work from home because they worry I’m going to go all ACLU on them or something.”

“You been to the gatherings?” this is the other woman, Nita, speaking now.  Although she stands at 5’9 or 5’10, she commands little attention.   “They have gatherings like monthly or something.  There are a lot of people in the company…”

“I don’t know about the gatherings.  I haven’t been out of the house in months,” I say.

“How old you say the baby is?”  Burqa’s in charge again.

“Four months.  I haven’t been out in four months. This is the best I’ve looked in four months (to explain mistake number one), I’m sleep-deprived and you’re lucky I don’t have sputum on my shoulder.” I gesture.

The duo appears stunned.  Cathy approaches, hands me my coat and tries to get away when Burqa rebounds, “What’s your name?”

             Cathy doesn’t stick to the plan either.  “Cathy,” she says.

Panic begins to rise within me.  Run, run, run, run, takes over my thoughts along with concerns about Cathy destroying my story.  What if they ask to see pictures of the baby?  What will I show them?  A cat?  Deliberately remaining planted, I try to appear casual.  I extend my hand to shake for the second time.  “Tell me your names again, it’s Tia and…”

“Nita,” says the second woman.

“Nita,” I repeat.  “It was so nice meeting you and thank you for being supportive.  Please don’t say anything about what I told you.  I hope to see you both again, maybe next year.”  I smile my most sincere smile, looking each of them in the eye while shaking their hands.

Up the stairs to the street level, out of the bowels of the building and into the winter sunlight, down the street and around the corner we go, restraining ourselves from running.  Steam rises up around us from the subway grates providing a smoke screen of escape.


Apology letter

Dear Beetle,

Today Cathy and I were writing thank you notes for our wedding and we talked about our regrets – what we would do differently next time.  One thing I would do is invite you.  It seems ridiculous now – the rationale behind why you didn’t make the list.  The event began small 20-40 people and ended up ballooning to about 90.  I know you’re thinking how could you not still have been in the top 90?

Here’s what I was thinking:  number one, I didn’t want to invite anyone to the wedding I had not kept in close contact with.  You have said yourself that parties are not the place to play catch up as the hostess never has any quality time with anyone.  Yes, most of our other girl friends from high school would be there but I know you aren’t crazy about all of them.

Two, I didn’t want it to seem a ploy for a gift.  But we both know that is a joke because the expense of a wedding is nowhere near offset by the gifts.  As Nam says, “It’s not about the gifts, it’s about celebrating your special day together.”  I wish she had piped in sooner.  This tidbit of wisdom she gave me at Candice’s wedding.  I know, can you believe Nancy’s little girl is married?  This Nam drops on me as I run into Sandy, who I also didn’t invite to the wedding for the same reasons.  Sandy looked like I had kicked her.  She put on that plaster polite face and said, “Oh no, I understand, I’m happy for you both.”  Which of course means I have disappointed her to the point she can use that face and tone because there exists now a distance between us.  She has detached herself from me.

The third reason, and the biggest one was that I felt responsible to find lodging for everyone.  This stressed me out to no end.  Because we live in a resort town and the wedding was in June, no hotels were willing to block rooms or work with us.  The more expensive hotels required a two-night minimum which came in at around $400-600.  Most of our cronies can’t swing that.  I looked for houses too.  They all required a week commitment and were thousands of dollars.  I tried to figure out who would be comfortable bunking with whom.  We looked into renting friends’ houses and all.  The high school girls stayed at a condo in Lewes that belongs to a friend of Cathy’s mother.  I thought you wouldn’t be comfortable with that.

Who else didn’t make the cut?  Sandy, Colleen O’Connor, Jeannie, Janice.  A couple of acquaintances and work associates.  But my regret lies with you and Sandy and Colleen.  I was in all of your weddings.  Jeannie, being in Alaska, I didn’t want to put her in the position to have to decline.  How could she afford the plane fare and the lodging?  I haven’t heard from Janice in years and Jeannie says she is living in Florida with a new husband.  Each year on her birthday I facebook her and I send her a Christmas card every year but haven’t gotten responses to either in the past few years.  I imagine her ex is monitoring her fb page.  I don’t even now what her last name is.  Something happened two summers ago where she and Jeannie were both going to come and spend a week with me in June and Janice began driving from Texas, she was still with Joe at the time.  Anyway something happened and she panicked, her one daughter played a part in it but I don’t have the whole story.  In any case Janice freaked out and turned around and drove back to Texas.  Jeannie cancelled too.

I am in contact with Jeannie.  She calls me a couple of times a year.  It’s funny but there are people I feel like you meet and they are a huge part of your life and then your paths change.  But I still feel like I am connected to certain people on a soul level.   That each of us, in our own way are out there fighting the good fight and making the world a better place.  It’s a spiritual connection.  You may not believe this but you are one of those people.  Even though I haven’t seen you in a couple of years, I think of you every year on your birthday and I send Christmas cards.  It’s ok you don’t send back.  There are people who could call me in the middle of the night and say, “I need you to get here.”  And I would without question.  You are one of those people.  I know you probably wouldn’t call but I’d come.

I think of our childhood.  How inseparable we were.  How in girl scouts they were worried about us forming too exclusive a friendship.  I laugh at that now.  I should write them and tell them to leave those girls alone.  Yes, I turned out to be a lesbian but that had nothing to do with it.  You turned out straight despite our intense friendship.  I remember how in sixth grade we shared a boyfriend, Ronnie Brown, and at the end of 8th grade we had those matching suede hats.  Yours was a sand color to contrast your dark hair and mine a chocolate to offset my dirty blonde hair.  We looked good.  I can see us fishing in the creek in grade school using paper clips for fish hooks and catching crayfish but scaring them backwards into plastic Big Gulp cups we found in the creek.  How I loved those Hush Puppy shoes and what was I thinking to wear them into the creek?  We were smarter going barefoot.  I remember when I realized I might be too old to slosh through the creek.  It was during high school or maybe even college and I was in Glenolden Park and I could feel people looking at me and I cared.  That’s one of the crippling effects of adulthood.  I hear you lose that when you get much older but I’m not quite there yet.

I remember how close we were when I was in college.  Bradley was a toddler and I remember telling my mom that if something happened to you I would want to raise him.   I remember being on the stairwell in the old junior high and you telling me that if I never found a husband it would be because there was no man good enough.  I said the same thing back to you.  Or maybe I said it to you first, I don’t know.

There’s a girl in my third period class that resembles you.  She has long brown hair parted in the middle and brown eyes and freckles.  She’s bright and creative and in fairness, probably more outgoing than you were at that age but she makes me think of you.

My mom sees your mom on election day so I know you got divorced.  I remember last time we talked you suggested that was how things would go.  I hope you are happy.  I so want you to be happy.  When I hear the CSN and Y song “Our House,” it makes me think of you.  I have two cats, by the way, but they are indoor cats.

Just so you know, I am happy.

Love as always,