justpaperskater and I exchange stories by giving each other a word which is the seed for the next correspondence. This is my response to her choice of “Key.”
It was 1988 and I had just moved to Salt Lake City. For someone from the Northeast, Salt Lake City was as exotic as Asia and as full of confusion as a Wes Anderson movie. But despite the state’s oppressive and bizarre religious overtones, Salt Lake City serves as an oasis of counter-culture. Here is where you’d find the Bohemians, intellectuals, and slackers—the real people.
It was among some of these folks that I found myself at my first Utah party.
I’ve never been a party person, and in this group of strangers, I was completely at sea. Wandering from conversation to conversation, I tried to understand the game of mingling and small talk, but with little success.
When I find myself unable to repair my ability to be social, I tend to seek refuge in fixing something else. I’ll find something broken, and just tinker with it until it’s working again. It’s a desperate substitute for purpose that I find lacking at parties.
On this occasion I was in the house of someone I didn’t know very well, and I knew I couldn’t attack the stove light with a pair of pliers (I noticed it was out) or check the tires of the VW Rabbit in the driveway. So I just sort of stood there, listening to people talk in ways I couldn’t.
And then my moment came. There was drama. A man was frantically sorting through beer bottles and pizza boxes with a friend in tow.
“Dude, I can’t believe this. I need that key.”
“You had it when we got here. I saw it. It was right in your hand.”
“I know that! It was in my pocket, and now it’s just… gone. It must have fallen out in the backyard somewhere when we were smoking.”
He was about 25, blonde, with a distinctive surf demeanor. He turned out his pockets.
“Dude, it’s not here. I can’t fucking believe this. I’m dead.”
“Well, we’re never going to find out there tonight.”
He gestured to the blackness beyond the sliding glass door.
“Maybe we can break in tonight, and find it tomorrow.”
Overhearing this, I perked up. My purpose was found. I had something to fix.
The backyard of this modest suburban home wasn’t very large, but it was utterly black on this moonlit night. There wasn’t enough light shining through the slider to see much of anything, and finding a single key in the grass seemed an impossible task, if that’s even where it was. It could have just as easily been between some couch cushions or in the cooler.
Excellent, I thought. I can spend some time on this.
“Well, let’s take a look.” I said, with an unearned air of confidence.
I slid the door open and walked out back with surfer boy and his friend following.
“Does anyone have a match?”
It was the age before cell phones and miniature flash lights, so a match was what you used when you needed some impromptu illumination.
A guy in a group who looked liked they would always have a match gave me a whole booklet.
I walked 10 paces into the backyard, and lit the match. Crouching, I cast a dim light on about a square foot of uneven fescue.
Directly between my sneakers was a single, silver key. One match, one stop, one key. The entire search lasted three seconds.
I picked it up, and showed to the displaced surfer.
“Is this it?” I said, considering the possibility that I had just pulled off a miracle.
He took the key and went towards the door to get a better look. Perfect teeth erupted from between his lips.
“Dude! What… thank you! Yes, that’s it! But, how did you do that? What the hell? You just saved my ass.”
“I just looked for it.”
“Well damn, thank you. Let me get you a beer.”
In between exclamations of astonishment, he pointed to his beer and explained to me why this particular pre-microbrew was the best beer ever. I sipped mine, wondering if it was supposed to taste like rust. But sip it I did, because that was my new job. I had to fix my understanding of beer. In his eyes, I was magic. In mine, I was just damn lucky.
I’m still uncomfortable at parties, and I find that I often cope by acting as emcee, facilitator, clown, or server. I become someone with a defined role. For whatever reason, I can’t do what other people do. But I can cope, and coping is a key that opens many doors.
Other posts by Jeff Wagg and justpaperskater
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