shoulders makes it safe
in the sub-altitudes
is a very good party, the kind you don't want to leave when it's
time to rescue the babysitter who is sitting on your couch, miserably
watching Saturday Night Live and battling a virus.
It's the kind of party where you actually collect phone numbers
of new friends and promise to call. Which is a nice thing, even
if you don't. Live music, you know, does the trick every time. Loosens
It's always very hard to loosen up nowadays, now that you're not
who you once were the earthsuit never does seem to fit properly
anymore, and you feel it tighten and restrict at all the wrong times,
especially when you're in a small, dark room filled with unfamiliar
There's really no reason to panic about that. After all, you're
not so claustrophobic that you wig out or anything, and you're not
agoraphobic by a long stretch. A little pep talk sometimes is all
You look okay not great shrouded in the kind of velvet
campshirt that 15 years ago you wouldn't have been caught dead in.
Better to go naked, you said to yourself, back when you
were a sexy size six. But tonight you won't attract attention. You
don't need to. Now you are not desperate and looking. Now you can
always finagle a date.
Okay, he's your husband who loves you. He's a great date, a real
anchor. Not only does he take you out to dinner before, but once
you get there, he buffers you from the hysteria that rises up whenever
there are more than three people with you in a small space. Touching
shoulders with him makes it safe.
Walking in late to a party is hard to do. There was no choice.
The restaurant you went to was a new one. Six-thirty on a Friday
night and already the bar was out of every kind of beer. Many apologies,
someone had broken in (or planned poorly) but you felt indulgent
and made sympathetic sounds. The menu was expensive. The waitress
was overwhelmed and curt. No water. When the food finally arrived,
it tasted like it came from a can.
You played with the rice until it spelled "Y-U-K," but
you should have messed it up again before the waitress came for
it, because your non-verbal belligerence really just a free
expression of opinion, after all; valuable feedback if you choose
to look at it that way caused the check to take an unbearably
long time, until it finally arrived with the entrée deducted.
Then you felt guilty, and your skin started to shrivel around you
and you felt small, ungenerous. Your thoughts went to Mexicans foraging
for food at garbage dumps or to Afghan refugees shivering in the
cold. Fortunately your date made up for it with the tip. He's classy
that way. No waitresses shivering in the cold tonight, anyway.
you're late to the party, and discombobulated before you even get
started. You've missed things introductions, a chance to
talk to your host and hostess, entire sets of music probably, maybe
somebody got naked early. There's just no telling.
You don't go to many parties anymore.
The upper reaches of the house are deserted, but food has been
lovingly prepared and laid out. Woman's touch. Fireplace, stoked,
beckons invitingly. Maybe later. Real music pouring out from below
tells you that the party is in the basement. Very male down there,
but not so male that there's no style again the woman's touch,
maybe. A nice balance.
It's a subterranean dive-bar heaven, complete with pinball machine,
wall-mounted TV, sports paraphernalia pinned attractively to the
wall, and a buxom bomb of a blonde in a retro red-striped bikini,
who winks mischievously from her pin-up over an actual booth. Personal
concert snapshots of The Boss adorn the walls. Dark and loud down
there, glowing with chili-pepper lights and semi-anonymity.
This is good.
You feel cool just standing there. You've stopped thinking
about starving African children with bloated bellies and someone
gives you a beer. Everybody's friendly and has something to say,
with a refreshing lack of wariness or attitude. But it's the music
that absorbs and gives focus, and unless you want to shout to be
heard over the music, which you do not, you are surrounded in an
isolating cushion of sound that protects you from too much contact.
You look around and wonder why after all this time living
here, you don't know so many intriguing people yourself. Then you
pat yourself on the back and say to yourself you're here,
you must be interesting, too. You pretend to be kindred, but you
Tonight you are a visitor, no avoiding it. Just parking.
But let's face it, all parties are difficult for you these
days. You just don't know who you are anymore. It didn't always
used to be that way. You think back to your obnoxious days, when
you greeted the masses at your door with a shot of mescal and insisted
they do it before entering the fray. You were younger. The young
knew how to party. Still do. You have forgotten. You would never
do that now.
You barely know the host who invited you, this guy who barely
knows you, this guy who is himself shrouded in mystery. That's what
one of the other people at the party said about him hadn't
seen him in two years, he said. Invited out of the blue.
He really is elusive. You wonder how he's doing. The party's
a reschedule because something had happened to his father. You want
to ask how things are with him, but there's no chance and you're
too shy, and you might bring up something sad that he's trying to
forget by having a party.
Besides, he's busy playing guitar with his band. You have to assume
that things are already to a new norm, or there wouldn't be a party
now, right? You hope that's right.
all been collected here. That's how it is with any party, of course:
"these are all my friends here, you should know one
But these are people you really do want to know and do want to
come to your own parties, if you only knew them better, if you should
ever again throw a party yourself some day. There's an ephemeral
thing in the air, as if you're here for something more important
than a party. Which must be the mark of a good party. It's been
so long since you've ...
Well, these days, you go to functions that masquerade as parties.
Some don't even bother to call them parties and come right out and
call them what they are: functions. Parties you once swore you would
never attend. Shadowing your husband as you're introduced to coworkers
and colleagues. Shaking so many hands. Everyone is careful not to
drink heavily or chow down too hard on the hors d'oeuvres. Best
behavior is de riguer. Everyone is so clearly not having
a good time, and arrives with no such expectation almost
as if it is something everyone else has forgotten, too. Or perhaps
Or, most horrifying of all, maybe the need to have fun is just
something people grow out of. For one thing, you've got to be able
to trust everyone around you. Forced laughter bursts from little
groups, and people talk shop. Good thing your husband doesn't run
for office. You'd be dead meat.
But not here. Heady feeling.
You are an alien in an oddly familiar land, as if you've spent
a great deal of time here once upon a time, but no more. And now
you are back for a visit because you've been homesick. It's intoxicating
and nostalgic, but your earthsuit keeps you from flying out in all
directions like you want to. Perhaps the earthsuit settings are
wrong, still screwed up from the restaurant. Perhaps it's just gotten
too old and wise to the effects of the morning-after sun rising
on it for so many years.
And it's all too much. Better drink more than you had originally
resolved. Always a good strategy. At least it used to be, from what
you vaguely remember. And listen to the music.
The music is really good. Urban. Brainy. Muscular jazz-rock. Not
that you'd fling any terms around and risk sounding like an idiot,
but it's not pretty or trite, or in anything that could be called
a major chord. It's very real and comes from a source that's authentic.
It makes you feel good, like you are in a movie about your life
and this is the soundtrack. Sax, bass, drums, rhythm guitar.
The host must be the one who got them all together there
he is, on lead, riffing with the drums, if that's what they call
it. You start to feel bigger than yourself as you listen. There's
room in the earthsuit to allow some sway, and your chest opens.
You rise to match the music. You can look around now.
You do look around and realize that you're all visitors: the nice
friendly glasses guy from Minnesota and his wife, or the young mountain
guide from Nepal who is trying to figure out how to work the pinball
machine, pondering its overall purpose.
In an unlikely coupling, he's married to a young girl from L.A.,
who is just as hungry to talk as you are. You latch on greedily.
She commiserates at how closed-off Portland can be, how insular,
as if no one wants to expand their heart-friends beyond the circles
they formed in junior high. You lament together and wonder if there
is a secret code that cannot be deciphered, that may not even be
worth it once it's cracked, if ever. And you vow to be friends until
you realize that she's leaving the country soon with her husband,
for good, far away, to unreachable Nepal.
And that's it. But that's the way it has to be with people who
are open and dynamic and alive, so you swallow hard and take down
the number and promise to call anyway.
You wish you were leaving the country, too. Leave the kids, the
dog, the cats, make your husband quit his job and go with you and
if he won't, go by yourself. You scare yourself when you think in
such directions, so you leave off talking and have some more beer.
the old days, in your 20s, at this point you'd listen by dancing,
even if no one else was. But there's no room for that, and who really
wants to see a tipsy 40-year-old woman do that anyway? A 70-year-old
now that would be a whole other thing.
The air feels like a rich, complicated broth. A thick, quivering
connected thing is inhabiting the atmosphere. So unlike the hard,
cold air of higher altitudes, where things are simple. The young
mountain guide from Nepal has been saying that there is no worse
sickness than mountain sickness, though. Makes you feel dizzy, claustrophobic,
short of breath, nauseous and exhausted when you're not used to
it. Now, if you're used to mountain air, you feel like Superman
when you're not up on the mountain, but if you stay in the lower
atmosphere for too long, you can lose your acclimation over time.
It's not like the mountains here but rarified nonetheless.
Everyone is so smart. You're smart, too, and getting progressively
smarter and nimble-witted. You feel very happy to be here, and it
truly has little to do with beer, when it comes right down to it.
You've had two, maybe three tiny short ones, that's all. But things
are floating and spreading out anyway.
And over there's the host, who is physically here but still somewhere
off a distance but here all the same, in the middle of the
room in a way that is very very much so. More so than all the others
even. He is the party's hero. The rest of the band is sidelined
now. The music is cranked down a notch as he sings alone. Singing
for everyone there, like an open present with all its wrapping ripped
He's singing about being in love maybe. About being afraid.
"I scare myself ... " he sings, with his guitar, while
someone else sits on the floor with a guitar, and a respectful sax
also backs him up. And you know just what he means, and your husband
knows what he means, too, but in a different way as he looks at
you when you're not looking, and the couple from Nepal hears this
in their own way, and even the babysitter at home is thinking "what's
going to happen to me?" as she sits brooding about her virus
and her grades and how she wished she had the guts to put "Body
Heat" into the VCR.
And he's singing this naked song very softly, standing in a crouch
behind his guitar. The volume on the guitar is so loud it almost
drowns his words out all together, but he's brave to sing for everybody.
He's good, too. His song makes everyone else feel relatively safer
inside their own skin, for the moment anyway, because they themselves
are not singing, but the song is uncomfortable enough to call forth
a longing to do something.
This is where you are supposed to be right now. For full moments
your breath disappears and you have no body and that is when you
And you find yourself looking at the woman off to the side who
loves him, the one who laid out the food upstairs, you realize.
One bare shoulder away. The one he doesn't look at, ever, not that
you'd catch him at it, anyway. But you know she loves him with everything
she has, but she doesn't know that anyone knows it, and you even
wonder if she knows it herself. Maybe she does. Maybe he knows,
too. Hell, maybe they are secretly married for all you know about
it. She doesn't look at him either, just listens very intently.
It's all swimming around in the thickness of the atmosphere.
Could all be in your head, anyway. You're just a visitor after
all, no inside scoop. Would she just say, "Oh no, we're just
very good friends"?
You look away it's too loaded.
And you have some more beer and reach around from your husband's
back and idly wonder if he still loves you passionately as you hug
his head and shoulders and chest as he concentrates on the music.
You wonder if he knows who it is he thinks he loves after all these
years, and whether or not it makes any difference anyway. Maybe
he does. You indulge in the "what if he didn't?" sort
of thing just for fun. It feels like he does, or could again some
day, but there's really no way to ever really know. Just flashes,
really, wordless exchanges that you capture and play back later
when you're separate and trying to keep busy on your own so as not
to suffocate him or ruin his chances for career advancement.
only you could do that during dream time, in the dark, when you're
running in slow motion, trying to find him. You've been abandoned,
knowing that you can't catch up, knowing it is the end of your world
and you can't wake yourself up. Just to be able to stop the dream
and replay the waking moments when you knew you were loved and you
saw yourself as bigger than yourself in the other's eyes
that's a survival skill worth having.
Dreams must lie, though, and it's with relief that you turn over
and he's there, solid, like he is now at this party. It gets a bit
scary when he leaves the party room and you are forced to return
to your own skin. To be yourself without him, without anchor, without
ballast, but soon he returns to make the room safe again. He's kin.
You used to get completely trashed at parties with him a long time
ago. You've both grown out of it. Can't take it anymore. It's easy
to forget how to let oneself go and not worry about whether or not
you'll ever be invited back.
you might be very very close friends with everyone here. Or not.
It's just not something most normal people worry about at parties,
so it's best always to keep these things to yourself. But these
aren't most people these could possibly be the people you
could be hanging out with in a different kind of life instead of
the ducks-and-bunnies soccer-mom crowd who are perfectly happy to
hang blue silk flower baskets on the wall and talk endlessly about
bargains and other people.
Strange things never happen to them, and if they do, they don't
want to tell anyone. What's it like to daily be around misfits like
yourself who think about things most normal people wouldn't bother
Oh, to just be inspired to do the things that will make you happy,
with soulmates who give you impetus! It is a very very very good
party. You look for a clean cup because you've crushed yours now.
And it all becomes later than you think and the time has already
made its own exit. The young mountain guide from Nepal, the top
of the world, is tired. He's been answering your questions
over the music about how Mount Everest is holy and shouldn't
be climbed by tourists, or by anyone. How the guides have to go
through all kinds of cleansing rituals and protection rituals before
Sounds like a good idea. You want to ask him if he ever did that,
and what it felt like, and what is it he believes in exactly anyway,
but it's hard to yell over the music.
He knows he's not saying exactly what he means, and he's exhausted
from yelling and talking so much English. He looks excited to be
here. Having lived all his life in the higher altitudes, here when
he runs, it feels like walking, and his physical energy is enormous.
But for him, right now, the shock is psychological. He's overwhelmed
here in this basement party. He's overwhelmed and thinking about
his village and his recent heart-pounding trip to Las Vegas that
his new wife thought would be fun for him. He remembers the way
people in Vegas hurried everywhere to get away from the place where
they already were but didn't quite see. That same hunted look here,
even in sleepy Portland, even here at this party. He remembers the
days of waiting for hours for a bus in Nepal and hanging out, enjoying
being in his own skin. Something to eat, something to wear, a roof
over one's head. What else is required? His wife wants that
to chuck her American ways and move there with him. It seems noble
and hard and simple.
She rails against the computer age when you ask her if she has
an e-mail address. Suddenly you feel very old, and bask a bit in
her youthful idealism. You think, Yeah, you're right! Why can't
people just talk face to face? Why do things have to be this way?
Why can't we all be more like them?
You want to be 20 again and feel these things deeply and
passionately again. You're definitely going to run away to someplace
remote, too; maybe go with them, to sing with sherpas around campfires,
to abandon your family for a year to the laundry and the bills
but without regrets or mountain sickness or being uncomfortably
cold, or having to carry anything too heavy, and have plenty of
good food to eat and not be uncomfortable in any way whatsoever
yeah, right, go to Nepal. That's the ticket.
wonder how this couple will do, and your heart sends out hope for
them. He's talked more here than he has in his entire time in the
U.S., his wife says. But he looks tired he may already be
acclimating to the lower altitude, like Superman with a hunk of
Kryptonite around his neck. Wait, it's like that song and
she is his Kryptonite! She doesn't want to be but she just can't
help it; she's an American and always will be, doomed to outsider
status in Nepal ... the tune goes through your head and you just
barely manage to stop yourself from actually articulating this terrible
thought to them, which is probably dead wrong anyway.
You go find the keg.
The music is beyond good. Drums, bass, sax, rhythm, with the hero
on lead. Moody, literate, driving. It makes you want to do something
with your life. Go climb Mount Everest, or something. In Nepal.
Wait, they don't like you to just go over there and do that, that's
what he was saying, wasn't it? The time has come to dance. To dance
The band takes a break. The music is canned from the '70s, but
if you don't now, you won't ever. Others are dancing. It's safe
No, this wasn't a good idea. Your earthsuit is rebelling. It can't
find the beat. The music isn't loud enough. You are not drunk enough.
Everyone dancing looks uncomfortable, too. Pretend-dancing, that's
what this is. An homage to the idea and convention of dancing, a
memory of days when you used to know how to really dance. Better
no-dancing than pretend-dancing. But you're committed. You'd feel
just as stupid stopping now as you would if you continued.
But it's too exposed. Better sit, you're about to lose your balance
trying not to touch anybody.
You can always save looking like a drunken idiot for the American
Trial Lawyers of America convention dance party where it doesn't
matter you have license because your husband is married to
his job like everybody else and all the wives are even older than
you. But if you fall down from dancing so hard to forget, fall down
on the floor in your expensive dress, they will judge you, and that
makes it worth it.
So who cares weren't they all party animals anyway? They
were the hippies of the '60s, weren't they? Now they're locked inside
their stuffed shirts and skins, these lawyers who stand around the
dance floor, finally tired of talking about cases, now with nothing
better to do than to get drunk watching you dance your slinky sex
dance and thinking, lucky him ... he's going to get some tonight.
Here, now, you don't want to be like that. But there is way too
much eye contact to avoid. As you casually sit and nod to the music,
you see a bearded guy behind the bar frankly staring at some parts
below the woman's bare shoulder that is moving to the music in front
of him. You know that he knows there is no bra there, not with one
bare shoulder, and why should there be isn't this a party,
you suddenly realize that you've lost track of your own date, your
safety blanket, your covering; the one whose presence lets you be
yourself. Left the room. But you are fine. Everything's still fine.
You are practically invisible here anyway because of your extreme
age, and your black velvet shroud. It would be fun to be stared
at again like that, but really, what a relief not to be anymore.
You want to expand, your suit restrains you. Where is the real
music? What to do? Was that a cat in the doorway? If there was a
cat, you could pet it and be inconspicuously occupied. You look
around. All the corners of the room to hide in are taken. The buxom
bikini blonde retro-thing is staring you down in a way that is not
so cute anymore. That's okay. Probably used to go to sock hops.
Developed too early. Might be dead by now.
No more beer or that would be bad. You may have had more than you
thought. Dizzy. Short of breath from trying to dance invisibly.
No, that was the other party. The function.
husband appears. He's at the bar was he there all along?
He always knows the time. Look. He proves it to you with his watch.
"I know, it's impossible but true. The babysitter ... "
But the real music is starting again.
You make your way to thinking about leaving the music, and
visually wander about the room, procrastinating. The guy who was
singing, the same elusive one whom you barely know but invited you
anyway is back. He's mid-song. Can't leave now. Does he sing to
anyone in particular? Who can you look at when you're singing in
such close quarters? Maybe she's just too close and that's why he
can't see her. All wrong he doesn't have to look at her because
she's actually holding him up and giving him courage to sing. That's
it. That's romantic.
The bearded guy very definitely sees her though, and you
see the bearded guy see her, gazing at the bare shoulder or is that
you doing the gazing? Nobody knows your secret confusion, or that's
what you think, anyway. The earthsuit has disappeared and you're
not sure where you piled it. It's not cold. You are superhuman now
and you don't need it. Everything is getting fascinating now.
Stay to the bitter end. Maybe you can help clean up and
get to know these people.
Propelled from behind by your wiser half, you go to thank her,
the woman who loves, and make sure she hears the word "babysitter"
so she knows the exit is not by choice. You love her, love the party
and you don't want
everybody here is lovable
hard to leave.
It is hard to leave.
You're going to miss something wonderful, you just know it. Someone
else might get naked, too. Wave to the band hero, sending love and
gratitude and wordless apologies. Look around in vain for the lovely
young girl from L.A. and her handsome young husband from Nepal and
walk up the stairs with your hand out for balance.
The walls give a little. Your coat is in the dark somewhere. The
fire is still there, beckoning. Maybe later, another time, if you're
ever invited back. You hold on to your husband and let him help
you out and down the walk. There's no question of who will drive.
It's bitingly cold and hard outside, and your suit adapts immediately
as you realize that you are still trapped inside it after all. Trapped
until it completely wears out. Dizzier. You will not throw up. You've
forgotten how. No. You will be back to yourself soon.
The route your husband takes is a blur. It's important to hurry.
After all, the regular babysitter is sitting miserably on the couch,
having gone through all your videos twice now. She's wishing that
she could have gone out with her friends tonight and would have,
even though she felt crappy, but she's saving money for camp.
She's trying to stay awake and wondering if she will ever
be well again and wondering if there's a better way to make money.
It's not a bad way to make money, kind of boring and lonely but
that's not it. It would have been nice to go out with some guy tonight.
It's not so difficult, things like the flu or virus or whatever
it is. That's not such a big deal. It's just that the couch is uncomfortably
not hers, but what can she do, it's not her place, she's not at