I never want to accept any invite to attend any organized event, ever. Yet, I always do accept and I almost always go.

Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking.

For one, saying “yes” feels good. All non-sociopaths want to please other humans to some degree, and accepting an invite usually engenders good will between the inviter and the invitee.

Fear is also a critical component. If I say “no” too much, will I cease to be remembered? Upon my fiftieth declination, will my phone number and email be deleted from every contact database the world over? Will the walls of my silly little bedroom collapse on top of me, as the North American Coalition Against Bad Excuses files away every last memory of my existence? All photos, commendations, and birthday cards slid into a tattered manila envelope containing only Hootie and the Blowfish singles and Palm Pilot owners’ manuals?

“Luke? Luke who? Let me check the Shit No One Cares About envelope. Oh, yes. He was invited to Beth Maloney’s sister’s medical school graduation party and said he had a dermatology appointment. That was number fifty. Yes, I’m afraid there are no more invites for Luke. Not here, or anywhere else for that matter. That scoundrel. That poor, inconsiderate bastard.”

Last, there are my delusions. Time and time again, some scheming agent in my withering brain mounts a dendritic pummel horse and performs dazzling gymnastics routines. After his dismount, I see speed networking events as “useful”, aunts’ birthday parties as “important”, and high school reunions as “chances to reconnect”. I think pummel-horse man operates in the same cognitive space that houses every “getting ready to go out” movie montage I’ve ever seen because, for a split second after agreeing to go somewhere, I picture myself thumbing through rows of fine suits in a cavernous walk-in closet, oblivious to a well-engineered soundtrack that seamlessly blends the din of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City with the street noise of my imaginary perfect Park Avenue block. This will be fun. This is what people do. Who knows what the night holds?!

The thing is: I do know.

There have been very few instances where I haven’t forecast every thing that was going to happen before it did. Speed networking will always consist of sweaty palms, poorly formatted business cards, and allusions to the Cape’s unpredictable weather patterns. Aunt Paige’s birthday will always leave me longing for a time when every woman in my extended family wasn’t divorced and dating fifty-year-old mortgage-brokers who offer little more than made-up stories about how close they once came to qualifying for the American Express Centurion card. High school reunions will always be a lot like Aunt Paige’s birthday, except with soon-to-be mortgage brokers struggling to remember the names of their “favorite” single malts. I know this, and I still go. To everything. Always. In fact, it was for all these reasons that I accepted a dinner invite last Saturday. Little did I know, that acceptance would be my last.

I’d planned on a night in: a hot shower, a jar of Nutella, and a healthy Netflix Instant Play queue.

But my phone buzzed and the plan changed.

A text message from Annabelle, a quasi-work-friend with whom I occasionally grabbed a bite: “Any interest in coming to dinner with me and a few others?” it read.

My psychosis sprung into action. Desire to please? Check. Fear of being forgotten? Check. Fantasy? Maybe. I needed more information.

“Sure, where?” I replied.

Pastis.”

Ah, yes. An overpriced, up-its-own-ass Manhattan restaurant that I can’t afford. But maybe my ill-fitting cardigan will catch the eye of Mike Bloomberg or, better yet, an infertile Russian Oligarch looking for an idiot, American heir. Delusion button pressed. With a “Yes I’d love to” text and a desperate, “Please come with me” plea to my best pal, Sam, I was headed downtown.

Annabelle met Sam and me at the hostess stand and lead us to her table. We sat next to an expansive bar that made me wish I knew how to make even one drink with vermouth in its recipe.

Three others were already seated at the table when we arrived. “The friends.” They seemed harmless. Cornell graduates. North Jersey suburbanites-cum-West Village aficionados who probably clutched their New York Magazine “Best Of” issues like wading remnants of the Titanic’s freshly splintered deck. They smiled, and shook hands, and asked about where I lived, and recoiled when I said Queens. Then, one with a gold Rolex and a puffy red face sympathetically mentioned she had an uncle from Park Slope, Brooklyn. Another mentioned her family’s “small vacation home in Sagg Harbor” in a fine display of counterfeit humility. I let it roll off my back. All was still subtle enough. I pressed my knee against Sam’s, silently communicating my guilty thankfulness.

Then the last friend arrived, and all hell broke loose.

He bent down to kiss the female dinner guests on their cheeks, the shawl collar on his red cashmere sweater flapping against his face with every overzealous dip. I could tell right away that he was something extraordinary, something awful, something for which I never could have planned. Then, he extended his hand to me: “David. A true pleasure.” I looked into his eyes and I knew: I had encountered pure evil.

The things that came out of David’s mouth were stunning. His pretension seemed limitless. It was as if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced David’s brain with the entire contents of This Side of Paradise, and then destroyed the concept of irony.

 

-“I can’t believe they gave us this table. I’ve been back from Hong Kong, and in New York City for over a week. I’ve been to Pastis four times already. I should think that’s enough to get a decent table. I mean, we’re at Pastis, not M. Wells for Christ’s sake.”

 

-“Waiter, waiter, I’m not sure what this is, but it’s certainly not lamb. Grace, try this. Please. Does this taste like lamb to you? Well, does it?!”

 

-“There’s nothing quite like owning well-positioned retail properties.”

 

I couldn’t be sure anything David said was true or even factually accurate, but I guess he knew that. And that’s why he kept going.

 

-“Sideways be damned, I don’t mind Merlot. What else would you drink with a filet mignon…if trying to adhere to a certain price point, that is? Oh, Lizzy, I’m sorry. I know you’re a Chardonnay fan. No, no. Enjoy it.”

 

-“I swear, sometimes this city makes me wish I were an American.”

 

He clapped his hands, and laughed the way I imagine Boss Tweed would have, if he were pretending to be a foreigner. Inappropriately timed, forced blasts. I asked David what he did, and he replied only, “I deal in the markets.” Soon after, he referred to Zagat guides as “dining papers of the proletariat”.

I looked around the table to gauge my companions’ reactions. Surely, even this group of tip-toeing braggadocios would show some shock. None. Only Sam, my loyal friend, looked back at me terrified, his suddenly sunken eyes beaten in by the endless barrage of David’s insanity.

I became numb. Claustrophobic even. I feared that if I listened to David much longer, my exploding skull would ruin the steak tartare he ridiculed me for ordering. Like a panicked soldier foolishly lured over enemy lines, I resorted to desperate measures. I put down my water glass, placed my napkin beside my plate, took out my phone, and conquered my crippling desire to please.

“Sam!” I said, grabbing my confidant’s shoulder in manufactured alarm. “I just got a text message from my landlord. A pipe broke in my building and my entire apartment is flooded. We have to go. Now!”

“Oh God, let’s go. Oh God, do you have renter’s insurance?!.” His reaction was pitch perfect. He knew.

No goodbyes. No extended explanation. Just a lie. A well-placed lie to extricate myself from the worst commitment I’d ever made.

That dinner was rock bottom, and it changed me. My desire to please is gone. My fear of being forgotten, a thing of the past. And the allure of my movie montage, “getting ready to go” fantasy? Fin.

Sam and I left the restaurant and hopped in a taxi.

 

I turned toward him. “Are we sociopaths?”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.” He opened the cab’s window and let in the blare of a passing fire engine. I breathed deeply as I let it drown out my last regret.

 

“Oh well,” I exhaled. “There are worse things to be.”


The other day I was walking down Market Street, enjoying a rare day of calm winds and clear, sunny skies, when a stranger approached me. His hair was brown and coarse, like horsehair, which he clearly hadn’t washed in weeks. Maybe months. He was short and swarthy and wore a thick, bushy moustache and a black trench coat that was too big for him. I tried to walk around him, delete him from my life, but he swerved to intercept me. This is what always happens. You can’t get away from these guys.

My Rolex

By Don Mitchell

Humor

I put on my forty-year old stainless steel Rolex Oyster Perpetual when I need to impress someone. I take it out of the drawer and shake it a few times to get it running, snap the metal clasp in place, trying not to catch any arm hairs in it, and I’m cool. Guys nudge each other – check out the old dude with the Rolex. Wonder what he deals.

It’s a potent artifact.

A few years ago a woman friend dragged me to a Unitarian convention in Rochester, and since I wasn’t a Unitarian I figured I might as well wear my Rolex and be even more out of place. I’ve heard that if a Unitarian is caught wearing a Rolex there has to be an exorcism.

On the way to Rochester we stopped at Sonnenberg Gardens in Canandaigua, a place with an old mansion, some formal gardens, and an unusually hot and wet amphitheater. My friend, a Buffalo Philharmonic violinist, wanted to show me where her violin imploded in the amphitheater during a summer concert. She was playing, and it just crumpled. Instead of doing air violin she sat there with spruce, maple, and Evah Pirazzi strings in her lap, until it was over. She knew it could be rebuilt.

I knew the Rolex would withstand the Sonnenberg Gardens because “200 meters-660 feet” was printed on the face, along with “Submariner.” I’ve never heard anybody sound that out so I don’t know if it’s sub-mariner, as in a superhero, or submarine-er, as in Navy. If a submariner needs a watch good for 200 meters, something’s wrong, like the hull’s imploded or the other sailors, offended by his pretension, have compressed air into a torpedo tube and ejected him and his Rolex.

In the Sonnenbeg Gardens mansion we met an ex-nurse docent-hostess who said unflattering things about Buffalo for no good reason, as people around Rochester will do. She had trained at the County Hospital in Buffalo, where she had encountered ethnic groups that had been new to her. Those were her words: ethnic groups. The code wasn’t hard to break. I didn’t think she meant Basques looking for sheep or Tuvan throat singers looking for a recording studio or Hmong or Sea Dyaks.

I got my Rolex in Fiji, speaking of ethnic groups, in 1968. In those days if you wanted a truly waterproof watch your choices were Rolex or Omega. I wanted a Rolex because of Apollo 8: Boorman, Anders, and Lovell orbiting the moon, Christmas 1968, reciting Genesis. I screamed Church and State you fuckers! Church and State! at the TV, but the Omega-wearing bastards kept reading from the Bible on my tax dollars.

I wasn’t worried about the vacuum of space anyway; I was headed for the rainforest, hot and wet, and wanted a watch that wouldn’t fill up with water and stop.

As soon as I landed in Fiji, on my way to Bougainville, I got a cab over to Suva to look for a duty-free Rolex.

I thought I might have to bargain for it.

When I was eleven my mother took me to Juarez. She told me in Mexico you had to bargain for things, that it wasn’t like the Kress Store in our town where the marked price was the price and you paid it.

I wanted to buy a sheath knife – that’s what I told my mother. In fact I wanted a dagger, because I had read Macbeth: Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle towards my hand? Come let me clutch thee.

I wanted a horn-handled dagger with the Mexican eagle at its end, and a tooled leather sheath to put it into.

I didn’t do well in the first small shop, where no price was marked.

“How much?” I asked, pointing, and when the man said “Two dollars” I blurted out “One” and ran out. My mother suggested that saying “Would you take a dollar?” and waiting for an answer would be better. She led me along to other shops and I got a palpable dagger for fifty cents off, as I remember.

Bargaining in Mexico seemed more thrilling than trading toys and pogs at home in Hawai’i. I might point out that we kids played with pogs in the fifties, then forgot entirely about them until they reappeared in what, the eighties? Our simple childhood game, hijacked by collectors, Mainland kids who have never seen a pog doing its traditional job, capping a milk bottle, its little tab asking to be pulled. Which you do. Then you play with it and lose it. Then your mother grabs the bottle without looking, the milk splashes out, and you’re in trouble.

Modern pogs are made in Smithville, Ontario, a place I have visited because an Englishman I used to do some consulting for lives there. During the first anniversary dinner of my second wedding that man from Smithville took advantage of a conversational lull to announce that he and his brothers used have contests in which the object was to force a condom over your head, yes, to pull it down over your face, and to breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose, being careful of the mucus, though that added a certain note of reality to the trick, using reverse circular breathing, inflating the condom into a conehead, until it blew. First one to bust the rubber won.

I went upstairs for some condoms and we sat around the table, men and women alike, trying to force them over our heads. I was glad the curtains were drawn. I turned my condom inside out hoping the lubricant would help, but it didn’t. No one, not even the aptly-named instigator Peter, could do it. This made me doubt his story. No condoms broke but the marriage finally did, which led to considerable dickering: I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

I hoped I wouldn’t have to dicker for the Rolex because by then I was out of practice. I told the cabbie to wait and went down the line of Indian shops. Each shopkeeper – No Sir we have only the Omega watches, they are very nice – directed me to the next. Finally there one was, in a fly-specked display case, next to silver Zippo lighters and short-wave radios – my Rolex, in a green box with a red wax seal.

How much, I asked.

For you, sir, one hundred thirty dollars US.

I was not eleven anymore and understood who had the power in that shop, so I gave him traveler’s cheques and, heat-oppressed brain and all, emerged into the hot dusty Suva street with my Rolex, as in the world is my, Oyster. Perpetual.