When I open the door to my house, a shirtless guy welcomes me. Some dude I don’t even know, who’s petting my dog. There are bottles of beer and vodka everywhere in the living room, on the coffee table, atop the television screen. I can smell Tostitos and salsa. The A.C. is on but the glass doors leading to the back porch are open, and three shirtless guys are having a heated conversation outside, their voices competing with the music, their torsos coated with thick sweat, their eyes red with alcohol. They have an audience of three or four people, giggling like Kindergarteners.
“What’s going on?” I ask my roommate Paola.
“Christophe’s birthday is today, remember?”
An impromptu party for her husband. Oh, great! Exactly what I need after hours of teaching French grammar to eight graders, and later taking a strenuous final exam at the university. I look at the heap of bottles in the garbage can – Buds and Heinekens and a couple of Corona Lights tossed in for good measure. Guess one of the guys is counting his carbs. Paola is sober, Alleluia. So are Mona (the only female guest) and her fiancé, Jacques.
“I’m gonna get in trouble with the Home Owner Association,” I say. “They sent me two warnings.”
My name is the one on the rental agreement. It’s the one etched in solid black ink on the letters of complaint. I’m okay with parties, just not after nine o’clock on a weekday, just not after the police has been called on us twice already by disgruntled neighbors. For two years, I’ve been the only one worrying about such petty party spoilers.
“Good evening, guys,” I say cheerfully to the shirtless men. “What about we bring the party inside?”
“It’s not nine yet,” Christopher says.
“It’s thirty past ten.”
I’m not really feeling in a diplomatic mood, but I’m trying really hard to play the part. Christophe’s cousin, Jonas, is here. And Jesus, this guy can bring the worse out of anyone–all noise and silliness. He seems highly intoxicated.
“Fuck your neighbors!” he says, doing a jig. “We’re trying to party here–military style!” (whatever that means)
Christophe laughs. He seems to love hearing Jonas curse, though he would never say an off-color word himself in front of us, ladies.
“I don’t want the police here,” I insist with an uncomfortable smile. “What about we go inside?”
“Let them come,” Christophe says.
“Those bastards!” Jonas says.
The other men are chanting like drunken sailors chasing a runaway keg of beer.
“Come on, let’s go in,” Mona says, empathizing with me. “Jessica is going to get in trouble.”
Jacques unplugs the speakers, while I gently push the guys inside, one by one. But the shirtless army is slippery. As soon as one shirtless man is inside, another one is on the porch again, and I am going back and forth as if running after baby chicks.
“Inside,” I say.
“We’ll be quiet,” Jonas says – loudly.
Christophe raises his elbows. “You need to lighten up,” he says. “The night is still young.”
“Please, help me,” I tell Paola.
“I’m trying,” she says.
“Guys, let’s go inside,” Jacques says.
“We’re smoking,” Jonas says.
“We don’t need to all smoke at the same time,” I say.
I am sure that the lady who lives in the house behind ours is already on the phone. Last week, she stopped me by the mailbox. “I wake up at five to go to work, you know,” she said. “You have barbecues on Sunday nights, and it’s pretty unusual. Some of us work for a living, you know.”
Finally, we are all nicely installed in the living room. The men have calmed down, using their “inside voice” like we say at school–and the chairs are arranged in rows, like in a nicely run classroom. The music is on again, but it’s mellow and the glass doors are tightly closed. I’m starting to relax, nursing some cider, when suddenly Jonas is standing in the middle of the room, eyes bulging, holding a leather belt with one hand, his falling pants with the other. Christophe and his other guests are carrying on with their chit-chat as if there’s no menacing, half-naked man obstructing the view.
Jonas slaps his thigh with the belt several times. “I’m gonna beat the shit out of you, Christophe,” he says. “Just like you did on my birthday. Military style.”
He’s talking with a slur and his hair is disheveled. I look at Christophe, who’s standing near the CD player – nicely shaven, square chin, a definite hint of drunkenness in his grin. Paola’s husband smiles and leans against a chair; his butt becomes a pronounced curve.
“Go ahead!” he says, sticking it out a bit more.
I’m thinking they’re just humoring me. I tilt the bottle of hard apple cider to my lips. Jonas watches me steadily. It makes me uncomfortable. I hear a swift whack on Christophe’s jeans, and it prickles at my mind, the vague notion that we’re going to be in trouble, that something bad is on its way. The belt accidentally hits a couple of our glasses, and they shatter on the floor.
“Stop that,” I say. “You’re in my living room, for Chrissake.”
Jacques pinches Jonas’s arm. “Hey, take it easy,” he says. “This is a party. You’re not supposed to beat up on the host.”
“It’s okay,” Christophe says.
“It’s a military thing,” Jonas says.
“There are ladies here,” Jacques says while Mona is using a Styrofoam cup to clean up the pieces of glass on the floor.
“I don’t care,” Jonas says.
He looks dangerous, like one of the bad guys in an episode of Cops. I can feel both fear and anger knotting the muscles in my arm. I’m afraid somebody’s going to get hurt.
“Stop this immediately,” I say.
“You’re overreacting,” Christophe says.
An empty bottle of Vodka hits the floor. Paola only frowns.
“Stop,” I say again.
But there’s another whack. Christophe is trying to hold a face, but I can see that he’s starting to feel in pain, despite the jeans covering his bottoms. I say I’m gonna show Jonas the door if he doesn’t stop right now, and what about I call the police and get his ass in jail tonight?
“Jonas, I think you should stop,” Jacques says, grabbing the belt.
Jonas resists and the silver buckle accidentally hits Paola, who starts cursing until Christophe takes her to a corner, trying to “talk some sense out of her.” I’m in a daze, looking for my cell phone. Everyone is shouting. Someone needs to do something before this situation gets out of hands. I can’t find the phone. Jonas is still yelling nonsense as Jacques is trying to calm him down. Christophe is giggling like a school girl. The sliding doors have been open and the racket is reaching the neighboring houses.
I start up the stairs to get to the phone. Paola follows me.
“You’re overreacting,” she says, grabbing me by the shirt.
I hear something else getting broken downstairs. “Yeah, so you always tell me.”
“And I’m always right.”
“This guy is giving me the creeps. I’m calling the police.”
“I think they’re here.”
Somebody is ringing the doorbell. I think I can see the gyrating blue and red lights reflecting on the windows, but I’m not sure. Maybe the neighbor was quicker than I. Maybe more shirtless men are standing behind the door. Whatever it is, I might need to reconsider living arrangements.