Dana both looked and felt uncomfortable. The friends who had invited her to this party were separated from her by a sea of strangers she feared having to introduce herself to. She wore thin, cheap leather sandals and aggressively orange hair brushed her freckled shoulders. Her toes felt the grass as she entered the yard– still slightly damp and the air was just beginning to be less humid. She briefly noticed the six-packs on the plastic gray fold-up table against the back of the small yellow house on her right as she waded through the people, eyeing Matt and Quinn.
Quinn spotted her first as Matt had his back turned and was talking to the small circle of people he and Quinn were engaged in conversation with.
“Danaaaa!” Quinn squealed, throwing her hands up and causing heads to turn towards her nervous friend. “I wasn’t sure you’d actually come. Since you’re too cool for us now. You’re such a big deal.”
Dana smiled. “I work at The Central Maryland Chronicle-Herald-Gazette. It’ll be a big deal when I can afford furniture from, you know, Pottery Barn.”
There’s Matt, who was a friend of the sports columnist at The Central Maryland Herald and always got his coffee near the newspaper offices. Dana saw him every morning and paid too much attention to whether he was letting his beard go or had shaved clean. For some reason he never grew the beard out fully, just let it get to an exaggerated five o’clock shadow and then shaved it. Quinn had pointed out before that Matt spoke often but said nothing very interesting and Dana was aware that Quinn was probably right. Although, the sports columnist had mentioned that Matt had recently adopted a dog– a pitbull with a missing eye at that. Dana had always had a soft spot for guys with a big heart. She had hoped that one of these mornings she might see him stroll by with his canine companion in tow.
Melanie swatted at a mosquito before putting her unkempt black hair into a lazy ponytail. Melanie had recently moved to Maryland from Thailand and crashed in the apartment that Quinn and Dana shared before Dana got her big-deal job two months later. Dana knew little about Melanie besides what her toothbrush looked like and that she always forgot to put things back in the fridge.
“I’ll go get you a drink,” said Matt, whose facial hair would probably be completely gone tomorrow, once again not having realized its full potential. His offer surprised Dana, and she requested iced tea. Quinn chuckled at her choice and introduced her to Jacob and Summer, who were dating. Jacob had a loose arm draped over Summer’s shoulder, which pointed to the fact that they had been shamed into submission by friends who complained about possible former levels of PDA.
“Dana and I go way back,” Quinn informed the group before Melanie resumed some very in-demand gossip she was in the middle of spilling before Dana arrived. Dana found it impressive but not ultimately consequential that Melanie had only lived in the states for a few months and already had a better understanding of Gaithersburg’s social scene than Dana had after living in the area for close to three years. By the time Matt came back with her iced tea, which was sickeningly sweet even though Dana specifically asked for plain, the conversation had slowed.
“I hope you like sugar,” Matt said to her with a charming smile.
Dana nodded feverently while her tongue harbored feelings of hatred.
“This, uh, party happens every year?” Dana asked, her obligatory contribution to the group conversation as the new arrival.
“Aaron’s Annual Jamboree is a staple! You’ve missed out,” Quinn said.
“On?” Dana asked with a chuckle.
“What have I missed out on?”
“Uh, some great music, duh!” Quinn said. “Great food and great people too, amiright?”
Jacob offered a whoop of agreement.
“And our… tradition,” Matt added, smiling mischievously.
“What do you mean?” Dana inquired, arousing a chorus of glances from Summer, Jacob, Melanie, and Quinn.
Matt got into some kind of storytelling stance and his face acquired an anticipatory grin. “So like the first year Aaron held the Annual Jamboree everything was going pretty smoothly until just about midnight this very drunk girl– Anna, a yoga instructor or something– got up on stage. She just got up there in the middle of the music, took the mic and loudly broke up with Ted from the Whole Foods checkout.”
“I forget the exact words… but there was one part that was really funny,” Quinn said.
“Oh oh where she said a real man doesn’t have to wear a nametag to work?” Summer suggested.
Quinn laughed. “Yes! And how she said she never really liked his dad’s cooking?”
“Oh man,” Jacob said. “I felt so bad for him.”
“Yeah,” Matt finished. “So then it happened again the next year with a different person and it’s happened every year for six years. Someone gets up on stage, usually while inebriated, and ends a relationship. Last year it was Lydia who dumped Jacquelyn.”
“Oh, you told me about this,” Dana realized, gesturing to Quinn. “I didn’t make the connection when I decided to come.”
“Yeah,” said Quinn. “Every year by midnight someone’s just feelin’ it.”
“And now you’ve gotta be here for the whole night,” Jacob added. “It’s a real shitshow.”
“Does Aaron try to stop it from happening ever?” Dana asked softly, disturbed with the simultaneous certainty and uncertainty of the de facto tradition.
“You know Aaron,” Summer chimed in, pushing some blond hair over her shoulder, “very go with the flow. Plus, I mean, I think he likes it. Now everyone’s just waiting for it to happen.”
“I don’t really know him,” Dana pointed out, “but I can take your word for it.”
“Nobody knows him,” Matt laughed. “He’s the host. Nobody here’s someone he originally invited. I only know who he is because he goes to my gym.”
Jacob said he was bored and suggested that everyone play cornhole. Dana was hungry and said she’d join them after getting something from the grill. She vaguely recognized the man flipping burgers near the fence on the left side of the yard just like she vaguely recognized all the 20-somethings in her area. Friends of friends of friends. So far she had reasoned that she could neglect to familiarize herself with the Olympic-games-logo-like social circles in her area while keeping some meaningful friends, like Quinn. Although for someone Dana spent a lot of time around willingly, Quinn made some pretty inadvisable decisions, attending this party every year being one of them. Dana enjoyed keeping in touch with some friends from college with whom she had had many a thoughtful conversation while everyone else was at the frat house testing their alcohol capacity. There were many ways her generation entertained themselves that Dana found to be a waste of time. And yet here she was, asking for a burger while in the background a local band shared a deafeningly bad guitar solo with the world.
After minimal ketchup and dumping her sweet iced tea over the side of the fence in favor of water, she pulled up a chair in front of the cornhole game and watched Jacob show Summer how to throw a beanbag. Matt and Melanie were on the other side, Melanie winding up aggressively and Matt smiling confidently.
Dana tuned out Summer’s laughing and the soft rock band playing under a tent by the house and tried to guess who might dump who tonight. However, she soon realized she didn’t know who was in a relationship besides now Summer and Jacob and a coworker of hers who was there with a man whom she suspected was his boyfriend based on a smiling photo on his desk. Come to think of it, Dana didn’t know why people had to make their relationships so goddamn public anyway. She had no obligation to know who’s going out with whom. If she ever lost her mind and dated someone — she glanced at Matt, who is playing a very mediocre game of cornhole– she would practically move to a bunker in order to keep it from being discussed. She felt it would be difficult to be honest in a relationship if everyone around you had an opinion on the way it was going. In a twisted way, she liked this drunken barbecue breakup tradition because no one would get up on a stage at midnight at a packed party and dump someone else and wouldn’t mean it. At least these people were being honest.
Quinn stood against the back fence, her brown hands wrapped around and loosely gripping the links. She was booing Matt.
“Hey, why don’t you play?” Quinn asked Dana, who disembarked from her train of thought to hear Quinn’s follow-up statement. “You’re going to come to one party the whole year and just sit around watching everyone have fun?” To avoid further pestering and insulting statements about her priorities, Dana joined Melanie and Matt and Quinn the other team. Quinn, a former star softball player, quickly took the brunt of the athletic work while her other team members tickled each other. Dana pretended to listen to Matt over a very loud rendition of “Wagon Wheel.” He was talking about cornhole strategy even as she scored more than he had in the last half hour and she continued to nod when the topic appeared to become his entrepreneurial ideas about making shirts that are easier to tuck in.
As Dana watched Quinn fling perfectly-angled bean bags into her team’s board she saw a confidence that she wished Quinn could permanently grasp.
After cornhole was no longer adequately entertaining and everyone was beginning to get tired, the friends refilled their drinks and commandeered a group of lawn chairs.
When they had sat down, Matt turned to Dana and asked how her job at the paper was going (he got the name of the publication wrong two times but Dana almost didn’t blame him).
“I like it,” Dana replied. “I really would like to write for a bigger city paper or magazine one day though. I’m keeping an eye out for openings in Annapolis.”
“What about like a family though?” Matt asks.
Dana laughs. “I’m 26. I’m only just starting to think about that.”
“I think I’d be a pretty good dad,” remarks Matt in the dark, illuminated slightly by the lights under the band’s tent.
“How do you know?” Dana asks.
“I have a dog,” Matt replies. “I do a pretty good job with the dog.” Oh good, he really did have a dog.
“Oh a dog? Pretty similar to a human baby right?” Dana laughs.
“Yep,” says Matt, completely serious. “Yeah I think so.”
“A lot more expensive though,” Dana says, “babies I mean. You have to buy all that soft food.”
“That what?” Matt asks. “Soft food?”
“…yes,” Dana replies. “Babies can’t eat hard foods until they’re a certain age.” Matt furrowed both eyebrows and rested his hand on his chin contemplatively. “Huh,” he said quietly.
A few drinks later it was approaching 11 o’clock and some of the original 200 or so partygoers had gone home but most hung around in anticipation of a possible public dumping. Dana came to find that having friends at all is much less fun when all of them have slipped into a slightly tipsy stupor. By midnight she was ready to leave even though she had yet to see the promised pinnacle of the annual party. No one had seized the mic, no heartbreaking announcement had been made, not even a minor friendship had been loudly ended. But she was tired. And bored. And disappointed that the book Matt had read last was an overhyped romance novel. Dana had assumed before that she needed to “get with the program” as Quinn put it, and finally come to a party she did not care about. As it turned out, “the program” was not so much greater than the track she had chosen before. That is, the track of a loner who just wanted to relax at home after a busy day. Hell, the happiest she had been this week was when she was making pasta alone in her apartment and an X-Files rerun came on. Plus, she needed to call her parents, who could actually make more interesting conversation than Jacob and Summer, who had told her how they met – twice- without her prompting. Why was she even here? She didn’t like beer and there was a deadline for her feature tomorrow. It was long past time to go.
She wished everyone goodnight and they murmured in reply, except for Matt, who as she stood up to leave said “stay” in a pathetic voice and placed a hand firmly on her butt. Dana suddenly fully understood what might motivate a person to drag a friend or partner through the mud in front of a crowd. Every harmless but disappointing thing Matt had done or said was so acute to her. His lack of effort was astounding. And yet he didn’t seem to recognize this. Somehow he felt entitled to Dana’s attention and arguably her body after spending four hours with her and clearly showing that he could bring nothing to her life save for the dog which he was “pretty good’ at caring for. It was likely that no one had ever told him how utterly average he was because it was simply not worth it. But now he had crossed a line. It was time for a small wake up call.
Dana knew what she needed to do. She left the group of chairs, pushed through the crowd of people lazily dancing on the lawn to a slow country song, and stepped onto the short wooden stage. Completely lacking inhibition now, she said “I need this” to the lead singer and pulled the mic from its stand, feedback whistling all eyes to the stage. The band gradually came to an unceremonious halt, two members looking annoyed and three looking relieved.
“This is dumb,” Dana stated, utterly sober. “This is really not where I was meant to be tonight. Also Matt, you are bad at cornhole and have a thirteen-year old’s taste in books. I’m not even going to get into your misconceptions about child-rearing. For the love of God either grow out the beard or don’t. Why can’t you make a concrete decision about the simplest thing in your whole damn life? Thank you.”
“Hey!” Quinn yelled from the back of the yard. “Are you crazy?”
“Maybe a little bit, yes,” Dana shouted back. “It’s better than sitting on someone else’s lawn drinking crappy beer and trying to be likeable.”
“I thought you said you needed to cut loose!”
“Well it turns out maybe I can’t. Maybe I’ve never needed to. Because I’m happy.”
With that Dana exited the yard, walked to the sidewalk across the crushed grass, crossed the street, and got into her car. The Honda sputtered awake as she turned the key and she drove home, stopping only at a fast-food drive-thru to get an unsweetened iced tea.