It was a dream. It had to be a dream, and I desperately wanted to wake up. Midnight had come and gone - it seemed like ages ago - and my guests had dwindled down to a manageable nine. The visitors from earlier in the evening were but a vague memory to me now. Perhaps the punch I was drinking was more spiked than I had imagined. No matter. These nine stragglers would soon be gone, and then I could rest.
It had been a successful party - I guess. The guests had been well fed and entertained. They all appeared to have enjoyed themselves. There hadn’t been any rowdiness as in other house parties. Everyone seemed to have gotten along. So why was I feeling unhappy, as if something was amiss, as if the whole party had been a failure?
Something was definitely off - and it wasn't just my equilibrium.
Troubled, I listened tentatively to the melodic sounds coming from the stereo. New York, New York, ole blue eyes' signature song, was playing - a sure sign the night was ending. It was time for everyone to go home, but would my remaining guests get the hint?
I was alone, standing in a corner, doing my best impersonation of a potted fern. The numbness in my fingers - from holding my chilled glass too tightly - had spread throughout my body. Why wasn't I mingling?
With mixed fascination, I watched 7 maintain a captive audience, despite his slurred words. 8 and 9, the girls with him, hung onto his every word. Maybe his Kiss Me, I'm Irish tie was more charming than I thought.
My curiosity piqued, I found myself gravitating towards them like an apparition.
9 rolled her eyes when she saw me coming - huh? - and whispered something in 8's ear. 8, in response, pursed her lips to suppress a grin. 7 was more accepting. With a raise of his glass and a wink, he welcomed me into his circle before continuing with his off-colored joke.
"Ah señor, you have excellent taste!" 7 continued, sounding like Speedy Gonzales. "Those are bull testicles from the bull fight this morning. A delicacy!"
I had heard this joke before. It was about a Spanish waiter and an American tourist. For something risqué, it wasn't so bad. Although 7's exaggerated accent was almost criminal.
"There is only one serving a day since there is only one bull fight each morning. If you come early tomorrow and place your order, we will be sure to serve you this delicacy!"
The lingering odor of 7's cologne, a strong musk, made my nose itch.
"The next morning, the American returned, placed his order and was served the one and only special delicacy of the day."
Adding to my irritation was 8's pervasive perfume. It was like chemical warfare on two fronts.
I felt a sneeze coming on.
"After a few bites, and inspecting the contents of his platter, he called to the camarero and said, 'Hey, these are much, much smaller than the ones I saw you serve yesterday!'"
Should I try to get away? But I had just joined them!
Maybe if I pinched my nose.
"The waiter promptly replied, 'Si señor! Sometimes the bull-"
I got my arm up just in time, unable to suppress my sneeze any longer.
Both 8 and 9 frowned at my disruption.
"Sorry," I said, in a voice barely audible.
7 wiped his tie in a slow and garish fashion, as if I hadn't covered my mouth. 8 and 9 giggled at his pantomime.
"Well, any punch-line I give now would be anti-climatic," 7 said, maintaining his Speedy Gonzales persona.
The smirk on his face made me cringe.
Apologizing once more, I excused myself from the group, using my empty glass as a pretext to get away.
Before I could escape to the kitchen, the jarring sound of shattering glass caught my attention. It had come from the basement.
I descended the stairs warily - and it wasn't because of the few empty beer bottles littering the steps – as if I expected to stumble upon a den of vipers.
Grunts, groans and excited cries came from the Games Room - sounds more suited to an R-rated movie.
Of course it was none of that - so why the hyperbole?
2 and 3 were nearing the end of a heated match. They were playing FIFA Soccer on the Xbox.
For all the damage they had done, I think I would have preferred the slithering snakes.
The remains of a crystal vase lay scattered on the tiled floor. The vase's usual resting place - when intact - had been on the wooden side table next to the futon. I imagined 2, during vigorous game play, not being very vigilant with his protruding elbow.
The beer stains on the futon - I had picked up the old thing at a garage sale - didn't bother me too much. As for the overturned chip bowl ... well, I guess I'll have to do a lot of vacuuming in the morning. But the broken glass needed to be attended to.
With a sigh, I grabbed a broom and dustpan from the nearby closet.
"Can you guys be a bit more careful, please?" I asked, while pushing the debris together into one pile.
"Huh? ... Yeah, sure," 3 quickly replied, barely giving me a glance.
There was no response from 2. The tight scowl etched into his face prevented him from communicating.
As I bent down to sweep the broken glass into the dustpan, my right foot accidentally brushed against 2's ankle.
"Hey! Watch it?" he whined, disproving my previous claim. "Can't you see I'm in the middle of a match here?"
I looked up to find myself almost flattened by his disparaging eyes.
What's he so mad about? It's only a game.
At that moment, 3 scored.
"Goooooaaal!" he crooned, imitating a Latino sportscaster.
"See what you did!" 2 grumbled. "Thanks a lot!
"Don't mind him," 3 said. He gave me a thumbs up for my interference. "2's always been a sore loser."
"Says you, asshole!" his rival snapped, but then, with a slow sneer broadening his face, he asked: "So ... what do you think? Best 2 out of 3?"
Wh ... what?
My world reeled. I became unsteady on my feet. It was like a dense fog had risen, and I didn't know which way was up.
Closing my eyes, I waited for my head to clear.
When I opened them again, I saw 2 and 3 playing FIFA Soccer once more.
Looking down at my empty hands, I briefly wondered what had happened to the broken glass. Had I disposed of it? Dismissing this thought, I looked at the still overturned bowl on the coffee table. For some reason, it bothered me - almost obsessively so. After grabbing it, I headed for the stairs. I didn't want to stick around the basement anymore - especially not after my dizzy spell!
"Oh, hey!" 3 called out. I paused at the bottom of the steps. "Since you're on your way up, can you get us another round of drinks?"
As I ascended the stairs, I felt a bad taste in my mouth, as if bile was rising in my throat. Being a good host, I picked up the discarded beer bottles on the steps.
From the top landing of the stairwell, I had a clear view of the hallway leading to my bedroom. The door was ajar.
A nerve pulsed erratically in my left temple.
Access to my room was forbidden – that’s why I always kept the door closed.
I set the bottles and bowl down on the ottoman in the hallway.
While imagining many different scenarios - none of them appropriate - I traversed the length of the hall. Fuming, I grabbed the doorknob with an unsteady hand. The pulse in my temple grew stronger.
I only relaxed once I heard the soft, incessant snoring emanating from my room.
Chancing a peek, I glimpsed 6 passed out, lying spread-eagled on my bed - too much drinking and dancing I suppose.
I didn't relish the idea of sleeping on the couch - assuming the rest of my guests eventually went home - but there didn't appear to be another option.
Shutting the door behind me, I retraced my steps. While retrieving the items from the ottoman, I heard lively chatter coming from the kitchen.
I was heading in that direction anyway, so it's not like my curiosity got the better of me.
My entrance, though, was unexpected. Sitting on bar stools by the kitchen island were 4 and 5. Their eyes widened once I came in, and their dialogue abruptly stopped.
Strange ... my ears weren't burning so they couldn't have been talking about me - or was that just an old wives' tale?
"Didn't mean to startle you," I said, amicably. "Just dropping some stuff off."
Their silence weighed heavily on me like a plague.
"I hope you had a good time tonight." I said, trying to get a little feedback.
A glance passed between the two of them before 4 answered. As she spoke, a slow grin spread across her face.
"Actually, I was gonna write about your party on my blog tomorrow ... let all my friends know what a blast we had."
"Really?" I tried to recall her last posting but came up blank.
"Sure. Before you joined us, even 5 was marveling at what a great host you were."
For some reason, I wondered if 4's comment was tongue-in-cheek, but even before I could complete the thought, 5 snorted, almost spitting into her drink.
Frowning, 4 chastised her friend.
"I told you not to drink too much! Now you're drunk!"
"Am not, bitch!" 5 hiccupped, before laughing at her own inebriety.
"Seriously," 4 continued, turning her attention back to me, "I'm gonna rate your party on my blog." She paused for dramatic effect. "... and give it 4 out of 5 stars." 4 could barely contain her laughter.
My world, as before, teetered but only for a second. The realization that I was being toyed with - again - bothered me more.
My hands clenched at my sides, as a troublesome truth finally came to the surface - one I was hard-pressed to admit.
My party was a sham!
Overcome with dismay, I felt a cold chill pass through my body, like a ghost had touched my soul.
OK ... calm down ... think this through.
Why did I invite 4 and 5 to my party? They weren’t my friends. Why did I invite any of my guests to my party? At best, most of them could only be called acquaintances. And why was I being treated so poorly? Didn't everyone have a good time?
I looked at the glass screen door that separated the kitchen from the patio outside, and saw my reflection. Seeing my familiar round shape, I finally realized my problem. I was a zero … a nothing … a zilch … nada. The revelation came to me unexpectedly: I felt a sudden shortness in breath. I had to step outside. Going out onto the patio, I could hear - or was it my imagination - 4 and 5 laughing as I closed the screen door behind me.
I sat down in one of the patio chairs quickly, afraid that my legs would give out. I was that rattled.
Looking up into the cloudless night sky, I wondered how I could have been so clueless to my dilemma. No wonder I couldn’t relate to the other numbers. I bet some of them didn’t even consider me to be a number. I was a big joke to them. Sure, I was good enough to hang out with when I was throwing a party. Who wouldn’t accept an invitation for free food and drinks? But when was the last time I got invited to a party?
None of these numbers were my friends, I finally had to admit. A friend was someone you could rely on and feel close to, and I didn’t have any. Maybe that’s why I continually held these parties, with the hope of finding a true friend. After enough time went by, I’d forget how much of a dismal failure my parties were and try again. Feeling rejected and alone, I unexpectedly heard a voice coming from the patio swing across from me.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” The voice asked. “I love looking at the stars at night, especially when it’s this peaceful and quiet.” I couldn’t tell who it was due to the darkness. The moon wasn’t out, and I hadn’t turned on the patio lights. The voice, sweet and friendly, was definitely female.
“You can sit beside me if you like,” she continued. “We can look for the constellations together.”
I walked over to the patio swing and sat beside her. It was 1. I had forgotten about her, although I couldn’t imagine how. Now that my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I was able to make her out. She looked so striking sitting there next to me. She also seemed genuinely glad to have me near her.
Unlike 8, 1's scent was gentle and pleasing like a freshly picked nectarine. And its lingering presence, like an underlying feeling of déjà vu, was subtle.
1 began to point out the visible constellations, cheerfully explaining how each one could be identified. I was impressed with her knowledge. As for myself, I could barely make out the Big and Little Dipper on most nights.
“Before I forget,” she began, “I wanted to thank you for inviting me to your party. It was very thoughtful of you.”
My world tilted sideways.
Is she for real? I wondered, increduously.
Thankfully, 1’s gaze was still heavenward, and she didn’t see the puzzled look in my eyes.
Frowning, a wave of guilt washed over me. When had I become so cynical that I couldn’t even recognize bona fide gratitude?
Incoherent words wanted to tumble out of my mouth, but 1 suddenly pointed to the night sky. She grabbed my left hand in excitement with her right, and my heart did a back flip.
“Look!” she exclaimed. “It’s a shooting star. Quick! Make a wish!”
Barely glancing at the glowing apparition above, I knew with all my heart what to wish for. She sat there, without saying a word, looking at the miracle above. I could barely take my eyes off the miracle before me.
Once the cosmic event passed, I noticed she continued to hold my hand. Was this forgetfulness or something more?
“That was exciting,” she said, looking at me at last.
“It's the most exciting thing that's happened to me this evening."
Oh, geez! Did I say that out loud? It sounded sarcastic.
1 gave a little shake of her head, implying she didn't understand.
“To be honest,” I quickly explained, “This night has proved very disappointing for me - until now!"
“Why? The party was amazing!" There wasn’t even the hint of a lie in her voice.
“I’ve recently learned most of the other numbers think I’m a big joke, someone to laugh at.” I couldn’t believe I was opening up to her, but I wanted her to know I was sincere.
“Why would you think that?” she asked, furrowing her brow.
"So far tonight, you’re the only one who has thanked me for her invitation. No one has ever done that before. And just once, I'd like to be the jubilant invitee instead of the beleaguered host.”
1 laughed unexpectedly, as if I had just told a funny joke.
“You Silly!” she said, but not in an insulting manner. “Don’t you know? You’re the only one who ever throws a party! The other numbers couldn't be bothered putting in the time and effort
needed for a successful gathering. They all lack the patience and dedication, and no way would they want an array of guests in their home. They’d be too traumatized by the cleanup afterwards.”
I felt blindsided. Why wasn't I aware of this? All this time I've been lamenting for nothing - well, almost nothing. I still had the little problem of being friendless.
1 saw my bewilderment and explained further.
"A good host has to be considerate and selfless - none of the other numbers have those traits."
“But…” I stammered. “I’m a zero.”
“Don’t ever feel sorry for who you are,” she said, crossly. “Only feel sorry for the things you do out of spite or anger. Everything you’ve done tonight reflects your caring and giving nature. There’s no shame in that.”
“But I’m no one special,” I started. “Look how popular 7 is. Compared to him, I’m just a shadow.”
“7's a narcissist who loves the sound of his own voice,” she retorted. “And he’s not special, although he likes to think he is. He can fool other numbers into thinking he's unique but his charms have no effect on me.”
My head felt numb. This was a lot to absorb. Why hadn’t I had this conversation with 1 before?
I tried to remember if we ever had the opportunity to be alone.
“You’re the only one who is truly unique,” she continued. “The rest of us all have our negative counterparts but not you. In fact, you separate the positive and the negative. How special is that, huh?”
“I wish we had this talk earlier,” I said. “It would have cheered me up immensely."
“I’m usually the solitary type but don’t take offense. That’s just my nature,” she explained. “I tend to shy away from crowds. I’ve wanted to talk to you a number of times, but you were always so preoccupied looking after the needs of your guests."
“You don’t seem shy to me now." I gestured towards our clasped hands.
Embarrassed, she smiled a little, and then gently squeezed my hand a little tighter.
“Come, let me show you something,” 1 said enigmatically, as she motioned for us to get off the swing. Curious, I walked with her across the patio stones, and felt a mild breeze beginning. The breeze hinted at a change in weather. Perhaps, it also marked a change for me as well.
We entered the kitchen through the glass doors to find 4 and 5, still seated at the kitchen island, sipping their mixed drinks. When they saw us together, their mouths dropped open in unison.
I wondered briefly, what 4 would put in her blog now, but decided it didn't really matter anymore.
1 continued to lead me through the house, passing through the living room where the other numbers were. They were surprised to see us together. Even 7 paused in the middle of his story - another joke perhaps? - to glance our way.
We arrived at the end of the hallway and entered the bathroom jointly. Simultaneously opening the lights and closing the door behind us, 1 asked me to face the broad mirror before us. Standing behind me, so her image wouldn’t appear in the mirror, she asked me what I saw.
“It’s just me,” I said, slightly confused. It was a common occurrence to see my own reflection.
“I don’t see anything remarkable,” I continued.
“Well, I don’t agree,” she said, a little annoyed, but then she instructed me to close my eyes.
“Huh? How come?”
“Just humor me, okay?” She was definitely up to something.
Doing as she instructed. I could hear her step to my left side. At the same time, she held my hand once again.
“Open your eyes now, and tell me what you see.” Her voice trembled just the slightest.
Looking at my reflection once more, I tried to imagine what she wanted me to notice. Okay, I thought, so maybe I wasn’t such a loser. I began to see beyond the image, and realized I did have appreciable attributes. Is this what 1 wanted me to realize, that I was special and unique? If I was special, then so was she for making me feel this way. I was about to say this to her when suddenly I saw it. How could I have been so blind? 1 stood next to me not saying a word, patiently waiting to see if I would catch on. In the mirror, I saw the two of us together. We were now more than the sum of our individual parts. Jointly, we enhanced each other but we were, at the same time, still complete unto ourselves. This connection is what she was striving for. I looked at 1, hoping I hadn't misread her motives. Her shy, expectant eyes were the only answer I needed.
Leaning forward - and pushed by a new feeling of bravado - I brought my lips close to hers. To my delight, 1 quickly closed the gap, and the taste of her cherry lips was intoxicating.
1’’s rosy cheeks turned a darker shade once we pulled apart, but that didn't stop her from beaming a warm, radiant smile.
When we left the bathroom, she switched to my right side so we could match the image in the mirror.
Our entrance back to the party caused quite a few turned heads. We were now the center of attention.
The other numbers surrounded us. We were trapped by our newfound popularity. Even 7 was awestruck.
When it was most convenient, we politely excused ourselves from the group and retreated to the patio. Once more on the patio swing, we spent the night talking with each other, enjoying each other’s company. The other guests must have sensed we wanted to be alone. They soon left, one by one. Even 6, when he awoke with a hangover, managed to phone a taxi to take him home.
When 1 and I were sitting on the swing, I marveled at how the night had changed … and in my favor, too. Was it just luck, an after-effect from wishing on a shooting star, or was it something more? It didn’t really matter. At long last, I had someone to feel close to, and that someone also felt close to me.
Since that day, 1 and I have been inseparable.
It’s a story I tell our grandkids often. They never get tired of hearing how a zero, who wasn’t really a nobody, become a somebody.
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