Rocket science seems really hard. So does open heart surgery, deep cover espionage, and learning Mandarin. But for me, the complexity associated with each of these activities pales in comparison to something I call “the break in.”

Known by many names—the ice breaker, the introduction, the causal factor behind innumerable severe, public anxiety attacks—the break in refers to the technique one employs when one finds oneself at a large gathering where one knows very few attendees or, in the worst cases, none at all. Whether at a cul-de-sac barbecue in a neighborhood one just joined, a business networking event, or a holiday party where one only knows the host, the only thing more terrifying than the specter of maneuvering one’s way into an in-progress conversation is continuing to stand alone.

So, what is one to do?

I don’t know.

If “one” is me, one scrolls through numbers on one’s phone, won’t eat because he’s overwhelmed by the number of people surrounding the appetizers, and has this weird, raised eyebrow, I’m-easy-going-and-optimistic-if-you-want-to-include-me-in-your-chat-but-I-also-have-a-lot-of-my-own-stuff-going-on-as-you-can-see-from-how-intently-I’m-looking-at-my-phone, look on one’s face.

If one is me, one is unable to properly enact the break in, a break in, or anything akin to breaking in.

If one is me, one knows he needs some help.

To that end, I’ve created a brief list of possible break ins. With a little luck, I’ll be hob-knobbing like the best of ‘em in no time at all.

 

1. Saying “I don’t mean to interrupt” and then introducing myself.

2. Saying “Hi, I don’t mean to interrupt” and then introducing myself.

3. Just introducing myself without saying anything about not meaning to interrupt.

4. Standing outside a conversation circle, chuckling about an inside joke I overheard but don’t understand and then saying “Wildcards!” with a wink and a two-handed finger point.

5. Faking indigestion and asking every attendee for a specific flavor of Tums that only I know has been discontinued.

6. Quoting Hamlet, loudly, to a tray of carrots, until everyone’s private conversation is interrupted and they’re forced to pay attention to me.

7. Leaving the event to buy a bag of apples and then chopping off both my thumbs before returning, making it very difficult to peel said apples, and justifying my requests for 1.) emergency medical attention, and 2.) help peeling all the apples I just purchased.

8. Grabbing asses.

9. Calling in a bomb threat and then standing on a table to tell everyone that I’ve already notified Batman and “everything will be fine.”

10. Calling in a bomb threat and then standing on a table to tell everyone that I called in a fake bomb threat.

11. Asking every attendee “how spicy is too spicy?”

12. Yelling “Abbondanza” repeatedly, in a really bad Italian accent.

13. Renaming myself “Tornado Joe” and not telling a soul.

14. Being really cool about sharing my time on the see-saw, inspiring everyone to want to know a little bit more about my story and how I came to be such a considerate guy (note: this only applies to events being held on playgrounds).

15. Introducing myself as Jeffrey Dahmer — “Not the murderer!”

16. Reading aloud the entire script of Juwanna Mann as if I were R2-D2.

17. Being respectful and open to others’ opinions at all costs, and never compromising my values.

18. Singing at a subtle decibel level the “come on and work it on out” line from the Beatle’s song “Twist and Shout,” but purposely saying “work it all out” instead of “work it on out,” hoping someone will notice and correct me.

19. Committing heinous acts of treason and murder.

20. Worrying less and loving more.

21. Being the guy who brought the kite.

22. Keeping an ear out for people saying “less” when they mean “fewer,” noticing two people make the misstep, and shouting “You dumb fucking idiot!” in their faces.

23. Saying every male attendee looks “sort of Dickensian” and every female looks “good enough to eat.”

24. Talking about talking about my screenplay with “other writers” while I bend down to untie my shoelace and then tie it again as quickly as I can, because I’m trying to show off.

25. Offering up some high-fives after saying “I know a guy who’s looking to unload flamethrowers cheap…a little too cheap.”

 

Wish me luck.

 

Four Years after The Party: A Prelude

Lynnie shared notes and aghast looks with me during French and geometry. We had overlapping circles of friends, subsets of the nerdiest, quirkiest, and smartest kids in our high school. She lived not only outside of the school district’s boundaries but also the city limits. Because our school had a gifted program, she didn’t have to go to the less challenging institution closer to home.

She lived in the boonies, BFE, on the rural edge of a small town. Not that I’d been there. This had come up in conversation a few times.

She invited me to a party at her house. I was most certainly non-committal when I accepted her handwritten driving instructions. I had plenty of reasons why I didn’t think my attendance was a good idea. The most consciously unsettling one–a boy I liked, far more than I wished to admit, might be there. 

(For John Rybicki)

John, I’ve been holding in the howling.
It wears me out to parties and dinner;
a cheap evening jacket, its pockets bulging
with receipts and bent daisies and freight
trains and God and nickels and it spills
from me, John.  The animal sneaks
through the tears in my seams,
it opens my mouth and it spits.
The stain on the sidewalk,
it looks like my face, John.

Used to be, I would bleed on command.
Now I’m chasing rivers with a spoon,
trying to save something for later.


The summer I was twelve, our neighbors, the Lunds, went on a cruise for two weeks while their college-aged son, Toby, stayed in their house. The Lunds were as friendly with us as anyone else on our hilltop cul de sac, waving at my parents when they pulled up in the driveway, chatting with my brother and sister and I when we trick-or-treated at their house. The most neighborly thing my parents did was to pass on the surplus of fruit that grew from the trees in our backyard. My father would throw some lemons in a brown lunch bag, hand it to me or my sister, Becca, or my brother, Josh, and say, take this to the Birch house, or the Lund’s house, or the Krone’s. And we would.

With his parents gone, Toby had a party that lasted a couple days with overnight guests and one giant, ox-like black lab who made giant dog turds on our lawn.

My father was a tolerant man. He tolerated basketball in the house, unbathed kids, moths laying eggs in the kitchen pantry. But he could not tolerate dog shit on the lawn that he alone weeded. A lawn that, without the use of pesticides or herbicides, had the soft, velvety texture of a plush carpet.

Dad scooped up the dog droppings with a trowel, put them in a brown paper lunch bag, handed it to my sister and told her to deliver it to the Lund boy.

I went with her. Toby opened the door. He seemed so large that it was hard to imagine him as someone’s boy.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Becca and I both said.

“You’re Becca and . . . Becca’s sister right?” Toby grinned wide and slow.

“Yeah,” Becca said. Of course she wasn’t going to tell him my name. My sister was fifteen and lately had been categorizing guys into two groups: succulent or gross. Toby was definitely succulent, and surely my sister could think of no reason for him to know my name.

“This is from my dad,” Becca said, and she smiled coyly.

My lips shook and made a pittering sound as I held in my laughter. I wanted Toby to open the bag right then so we could see his face. I wanted him to say something snarky and fantastic that we could deliver back to Dad—something that would keep the entertainment going. At the time, I could think of few things less funny than dog doo in a brown paper lunch bag.

“Okay. Thanks Becca and . . . whatever!” Toby laughed and shut the door.

It took us a while to realize that the Lunds, and all the other families on Azalea Way had stopped talking to everyone in our family. And so my father stopped passing on the lemons. I assumed they shunned us because Josh often left his Big Wheel in the street, or because my mother twice backed out of the driveway in high speed and ran over the Lund’s mailbox, or because someone had climbed the towering eucalyptus trees that bordered our yards, peeked down onto our redwood deck and witnessed my parents’ parties where marijuana was smoked in tight little cigarettes that were butted out in abalone shell ashtrays. Or maybe they were mad because we were the only people on Azalea Way who didn’t put up Christmas lights. Viewed from the bottom of the hill, our cul de sac could almost look like a Christmas tree in December, a tree without a glittery star on top where our dark, unlit house sat like a poor sport.

All of my friends’ mothers hung out together. They played tennis at the club down the street, alternated houses for coffee and showed up at school together doing whatever it is parents did at schools back then. My friend Corinne’s mother had a sharp tongue and probing eyes. One day, Corinne’s mom looked me up and down, glared at the rolled bottoms of my jeans and said, “Doesn’t your mother hem your pants?”

“No,” I said. A couple years earlier my mother had declared that she “quit” being a housewife and we three kids were to tend to the house and fend for ourselves. I never did figure out how to use the Singer sewing machine and Becca, who could whip together a sock puppet or Barbie clothes on the machine in a matter of minutes, was unwilling to hem my clothes for me. I was short, so all my pants were either rolled or jaggedly cut with a pair of scissors.

That same day, Corinne reported to me what her mother had recently heard at the neighborhood coffee.

“Do you know why everyone in the neighborhood hates your family?” Corinne asked. We were in her perfectly matching green and pink room. She had a bed skirt and a canopy, both of which seemed “fancy” to me.

“’Cause Josh leaves his toys outside?”

“No,” Corinne said. “Because last summer you and your sister delivered a bag of your poop to the Lunds and told them it was lemons.”

“No we didn’t!” I had forgotten about the party, the dog shit collected from my father’s then-perfect lawn (he later abandoned lawn care and our plush, green carpet turned into a thigh-high field of straw).

“Yes you did! Their son was there and he left a note on the counter that said, ‘The Blaus sent these lemons over for you.’ and when they came home from their trip they opened the bag and it was full of poop. My mother would never make up something so disgusting.”

“I gotta go home for dinner,” I said. Sometimes it seemed that in showing me everything in her life—the two Christmas trees with miniature villages tucked below each (one in the family room, one in the living room), the two whopping pink Easter baskets she got each spring because her mother couldn’t fit all the candy into one, the new school wardrobe that was so inexhaustible she didn’t have to wear a repeat until sometime in late November—Corrine was pointing out deficiencies in my house, my parents, my life. And just then, when Corrine made it clear that there were two kinds of people in this world, those who give their neighbors bags of poop and those who don’t, I couldn’t stand to be near her.

I ran out of Corinne’s house, past the house where the neighborhood perv hosed his bushes in his bathrobe, the flaps always flying open to reveal what my sister and I called his turkey gobbler; past the Richter house where Mr. Richter was surely sitting in his blue wing chair in the living room staring out at nothing; past the house where neighborhood children were only allowed into the rumpus room or the garage, as if we were stray dogs with fleas and weeping, over-licked sores; up the center of Azalea Way and past all the homes where no one would even look in my direction.

I wanted to cry, but there wasn’t time for that. Becca had just made tacos and she needed me to set the table, open a bottle of red wine for my parents, and fetch my brother who was perched on the platform that was fifteen-feet up one of the eucalyptus trees in the backyard.

By the time we all sat down to eat, a cry was still hovering somewhere on the edge of my throat.

“Remember last year when we delivered the dog poop to the Lunds,” I said, staring down at my taco.

“Can you believe a kid would let a dog that big just shit wherever it wanted?!” My father was still outraged by the crime.

“Well,” I said, “their son put the bag of poop on the counter and left a note for his parents that they were lemons from us. Corinne’s mom told Corinne and she told me. That’s why no one will talk to us.”

There was a moment of silence, and then we looked at one another and each of us, including Josh, who never even knew about the poop-in-the-bag-incident, started laughing. And laughing. And laughing.

My parents never apologized to the Lunds. They never said a word. My mother hated that neighborhood and was happy she didn’t have to do small talk and chit chat each time she walked to her car. And my father was so caught up in his head, often talking aloud to himself about whatever he was working on, that he probably just forgot we were being shunned. I am certain that none of the neighbors missed us when we moved.

It was the night of my dear friend Clara’s birthday party. I can’t quite remember if it was a momentous year–round number, the beginning of a new decade–but I do recall having party nerves and that I’d be going solo. I wasn’t seeing anyone at the time or, if I was, it wasn’t serious. Or maybe I was seeing Mark but he was out of town. None of these details matter, really. This essay is about me and how good I looked at Clara’s party.

During this time I’d been introduced to a man my cousin Daphne referred to as “The Genius.” She called him that because of his remarkable ability to transform. “The Genius” AKA Coleman was an African American man in his, mmm, I’d say late forties at the time, who chemically straightened Jewish girls’ hair. He probably also straightened the hair of women of other persuasions but my breadth of knowledge of his doings only went as far as my cousin Daphne, me, whomever might’ve been sitting in his beauty salon swivel seat when I’d arrive for my appointment, and anyone who’d show up as my final touches were being bestowed.

Actually, our relationship was deeper than that. This picture is bringing about a flood of memories and I’m remembering that Coleman and I would have many a heady conversation. He was a teacher for special needs children and did hair on the side. Hair had been his main career for many years but then, it would seem, he needed something that felt more meaningful. I can’t think of many things more meaningful than making a girl with unmanageable hair feel beautiful, but different strokes, am I right? So we’d talk about his teaching and a little bit about his family. We also tended to talk about controversial situations involving race. I can’t recall anything verbatim but I do know we tended to be on the same page. I worked in TV at the time and I’m pretty sure things came up about the lack of roles for African American actors and, if I’m not mistaken, whether or not Eddie Murphy meant to pick up that prostitute or if he was simply being a nice guy.

Alas, Coleman is no longer. In my life, I mean. As afar as I know he’s still alive. He ended up making a permanent move to Sacramento and I made a move to try to accept my natural curl. But during the time that Coleman was around, things, and my hair, went rather smoothly. Suddenly, I had control. Straight hair made me feel like my life was together. I felt pretty.

So the night of Clara’s party while I had, like I mentioned before, party nerves, and was rocking it solo, I knew my hair looked good. I mean look at it. It’s all straight and shiny. But not too straight… there’s still some body to it.

 



I guess that’s it. I know it’s kind of vain to pick a picture just because you think you look good, but trust me, these days if you get a picture of me, most of the time one or both of my eyes is closed, my hair is suffering from frizz, and what I mean as a knowing or smartass smirk comes off as looking bothered. Here I’m clearly enjoying myself. I’ve spent some time with good company, had a glass of wine or two, and celebrated a great friend. Sometimes it’s the small moments that need to be remembered.