M a r c h   2 0 0 2

Guest Writer

Touching shoulders makes it safe
Earthsuit in the sub-altitudes
by Joan-Carrol Banks

his 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 everybody up.

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 people.

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 it takes.

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.

o 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 know better.

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.

You've all been collected here. That's how it is with any party, of course: "these are all my friends – here, you should know one another."

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 never learned.

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.

n 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 off.

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 can see.

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.

If 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. He knows.

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.

omeday 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 with?

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 they go.

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.

You 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 is holy.

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 to try.

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, after all?

nd 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.

Your 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 … babysitter … 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 home.

See more from Joan-Carrol in our archives.

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