The wine bar where Becky hosted her party was large by New York City standards, which is to say, two people could stand side by side in between the bar and the wall, if those people were okay with touching intimately. There was a separate area in back with couches, rugs, and low-hanging exposed lightbulbs, the kind that indicate that this wasn’t your run of the mill bar, this was a sophisticated bar where you might hit your head on a low-hanging exposed lightbulb, but not even care.
Becky’s fiancé Phil greeted us at the door with large engulfing hugs. Phil went to Yale with me and was in my secret society (don’t tell anyone) so we have a pretty great friendship groove already carved out. Waiting with him was Marshall, my fiancé. Two fiancés in a wine bar! They’ve been known to pal around. Once I witnessed a 45 minute conversation in which Marshall and Phil discussed teaming up for an “Apocalyptic Extraction” business, wherein the super-rich could get flown away by helicopter in the event of a zombie uprising.
“Hello, ladies!” they both said, almost in unison. The four of us retrieved wine from the bartender and we toasted the occasion. Meanwhile, the room was filling with people. Instantly I spotted some familiar faces.
This is going to be a great party!
I believe staunchly in the power of a positive outlook. I’m not socially anxious, but I did go through a couple years when I had panic attacks that seem to come on for no reason. The memory sometimes hangs in the back of my head. But in this case I felt great, so I downed some wine and embarked on my first small-talk adventure, in which a girl named Stephanie explained that she was completely overwhelmed getting her Masters Degree.
White wine is perhaps my favorite drink. I don’t go out often so when I get the chance I like to maximize the feeling that this is a swanky experience. In this way, wine glasses really do it for me. I hold mine daintily from the stem, not only because it is refined, but because I once read that it helps keep the wine cold.
“Felicia!” said a man I sort-of recognized. His name was Ronaldo. We started chatting and I learned that he, too, went to college with me. It was then that I realized I was surrounded by Yale graduates. There was the girl who sat next to me in a seminar but used to play video games on her calculator. And the boy who used to walk into the dining room in a towel and flip flops. I even spotted a guy named Jesse, who was a few years older of me and had led my weeklong pre-orientation, a Freshman camping trip on a farm with no running water, after which I needed to take a pill for my constipation.
By all accounts, this was a Yale party. In theory, I fit in just as much as most people. I gripped my glass’s stem and watched the liquid swirl.
“…and that is when I realized I wasn’t ever going to do ecstasy again,” said Ronaldo. “So I moved to New York City.”
Since I am, by nature, introverted, I like to think of conversations with new people as special challenges. As a downside, I tend to blame myself if they are boring. If only I’d been more interested in hearing about Ronaldo's spiritual walk-about through Napa Valley. But I was doing my best, and everybody seemed to be having a great time.
I regrouped with Marshall at one of the side tables. He’d found a giant cheese plate, so we both ate a bunch of cubes on pita, the cheese sticking to the roofs of our mouths.
“You having fun?” Marshall asked.
“Oh totes. You?”
“Yeah,” Marshall said with a shrug, and I knew we were both on the same page.
We agreed to circulate and meet back for more cheese in T-minus fifteen.
As soon as Marshall had meandered away, I spotted my ex-boyfriend, Matt, sitting at the bar. He caught me looking and waved.
I smashed my head against an exposed lightbulb. Rubbing my scalp with one hand I waved back with the other.
Matt and I had a horrendous breakup, but since then we'd gotten back in touch with the occasional email, phone call, or, when one of us was in town, coffee. It was supremely civilized and much more enjoyable than I ever could have predicted on the day when I told him I never wanted to see him again and threw my cellphone into a sewer.
As I approached the bar I saw Marshall looking at me from across the room. You okay? He mouthed. For a brief moment I thought about his and Phil's Apocalyptic Extraction idea and wondered if it applied to wine parties.
I’m fine! I mouth back.
“Hello there,” I said, sidling up to the bar, noticing that my voice sounded tinny.
“It’s good to see you,” said Matt. “Lots of Yalies here.”
“I feel like I know all of them, and yet know none of them,” I said.
Matt squinted a little. “I think I know what you mean.”
Things weren't awkward. Not really.
“I feel like our group of friends were really separate from the rest of the school,” I said a little bit later in the conversation. “Kind of in a good way. Not that we had only the same friends. You know what I mean.” How much wine had I had? “You know, the theater kids, and the a cappella dorks.”
“How could I forget?”
“I don’t know. Everybody is really nice, though.”
“Yes, everybody is really nice.”
“Hey, you two!”
In swooped Jesse, my pre-orientation leader from many years past. We all hugged.
“This is Harvey,” he said, gesturing to a man with a slight underbite and a furrowed brow. Harvey bowed his head, which I took to mean hello.
“Hi, Harvey,” I said.
“Harvey is a philosopher,” said Jesse.
“Oh! Like as a job?” I asked.
“What do you philosophize?”
Harvey laughed, I guess you could say, but it was actually a screech, a car attempting to peel away on a patch of ice. I was still waiting for him to answer when he walked away.
Matt, Jesse, and I talked a bit about our lives, where we were now, what we had accomplished in terms of marriages, jobs, cities traversed. The Reader’s Digest version. I thought about how after college you still maintain a kind of resume, and I wondered if that was good or bad. At one point I left to forage for some more cheese, all the while wondering, was this what college had actually been like? Or had it been different? Many of the same people were here, and maybe none of us had changed. Or maybe we had changed too much.
When I returned, Matt and Jesse were debating the question of: could every single thing in the universe be quantified or expressed by a mathematical equation?
I couldn’t decide if I should laugh or cry, so I laughed.
“What do you mean quantifiable?” said Matt, hunched over. “Using what criteria?”
“Described by a numerical value,” said Jesse. His tie was loose, his hair mussed. "Think about it. It's impossible to find something that isn't a number."
Being amongst Yalies it was simultaneously unsettling and comforting to see we had reverted to our roots: talking about something detached from reality, purely hypothetical, a topic that was interesting on paper, but failed what I call the “gut-test” (if your gut says something is ridiculous, it’s probably ridiculous).
(My gut had some highs and lows during my four years at Yale.)
Somehow Harvey had returned without my noticing, but there he was again, directly to my left, his underbite somehow more pronounced now.
“Okay, name one thing that can’t be expressed mathematically or through a quantity,” said Jesse, smirking, and Harvey smirked too, but bigger and crooked, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. I think this meant everyone was having fun?
“Friendship!” said Matt. “Color! Anything!” Matt was borderline frantic. He was in graduate school for the humanities; Jesse was a mathematician. (What’s that saying about how anyone will argue for things that affirm their beliefs?)
“Felicia, back me up here!” Matt rallied.
“Okay.” This was easy; I knew where I stood.
“I mean, you’re both right, to an extent,” I said. “But c’mon Jesse. You can’t quantify feeling. You can certainly decide to describe something complex with a concrete value, but it takes away the experience of it, so it isn’t equivalent.”
“I disagree,” he said.
I charged on. “For example, a number can stand for a life, but it isn’t the same as a life. Does life equal one?”
“For the purposes of my argument, it does.”
“A note of music,” I replied. “A note of music vibrates at a certain frequency, but that isn’t the same as music.”
“I just think that it’s so important to be able to quantify everything, to know for certain,” said Jesse, his hair waving in the air like a flag. “You can do that with anything and it’s right. That’s how progress is made. That’s how civilization advances.”
Harvey made another noise, a grunt, which I think indicated agreement.
“Okay, what if I brushed your arm? Could you describe that with a value?” I ran my finger along Jesse’s arm and he tugged it away. “Sure you could try, but it would be entirely different from the act of observing it. You can intellectualize something all you want but you’re taking away the joy and beauty of living. And what would be the point?”
Jesse took a long pause and looked at Harvey, the impenetrable being that he was. Then he exhaled and turned back to me.
“Harvey is so bored by what you’re saying right now,” he said.
I felt a small explosion in my brain. The explosion ignited a fuse down my spinal cord, which ended at the tip of my toes, and my feet caught fire.
“What?” I whispered. I cleared my throat. “No seriously, what?”
“Ha ha, I’m an asshole,” said Jesse. Harvey was still smirking.
“Wait, what? I’m sorry, I’m just not sure I heard you correctly.”
By which I meant to say: I can’t believe one human would say this to another human at a wine party.
My feet would not stop tingling. I could feel part of me wanting to shut it down -- to just forget it -- maybe this was the part of me that could quantify things.
But the other part of me…my heart…my body on fire…
“But why is Harvey bored, Jesse? Are you saying what I’m saying is boring?”
“Hey, Felicia, whatever.”
My head, my heart…
Just forget it.
Stay strong, Fel.
“It seems really whack that you decided to insult me because I disagreed with you. It’s really rude.”
“Hey, I’m an asshole. I’m going to the bathroom.”
In moments, he was gone. Somehow Harvey was too. For a philosopher who believed staunchly in the quantifiable, Harvey had the almost mystical ability to evaporate and materialize at will.
“What the hell was that?” I said to Matt after a moment or two.
“That,” he said, “was the part of Yale that I’ll never understand.”
“Cheers.” We took a couple more sips of wine.
I could feel my feet still tingling. It was a another familiar feeling that was slightly unsettling.
Sometimes feet tingles would descend before a panic attack, when I used to get panic attacks. But this time, it was different. It wasn’t a signal of frustration, or fear, or a general sense that I had to run away. It was like a positive charge on a battery. A surge. In numerical terms, somewhere near 1,000 volts.
Maybe I would never feel entirely comfortable at sexy parties. Or maybe it was better not to feel completely comfortable, as long as I felt like myself.
“Hey, it was good to see you,” I said to Matt when it was time to go and Marshall beckoned to me from near the exit.
“Yeah, good to see you too.”
“Happy birthday, boo!” I said to Becky. Her hair still looked amazing, even after three hours.
“You good?” Marshall said as we got our coats.
“I have a lot to tell you,” I said.
“Oh, same,” said Marshall.
Marshall and I clasped our hands together, and I appreciated how it felt, the experience of observing it. My feet were still on fire, but it made me feel...period.
It made me feel.