The Jessup house was always too warm, in that way that feels good in winter. The small and friendly living room was typically overheated to the point where it almost felt humid, but you appreciated it when you walked in on a freezing cold night.
I’d been walking into that room on freezing nights for years, but this Christmas eve, when Carl’s parents were away and he threw a party, was as cold as any. There was just silence and snow outside in the Jessup’s neighborhood, no cars, nobody walking down the sidewalk. Inside it was hotter than usual. It was brighter and much louder as well. By the time I got there, the place was jammed with pretty much everyone I knew, as well as quite a few people I had only seen from a distance. The music was loud, but good loud; it was Prince, which meant Carl’s older sister Mary must have been manning the record player. It was one of those small-town high-school parties, on a night when there wasn’t much else to do once dinner was over, where everyone eventually makes an appearance.
I wasn’t used to this kind of crowd at Carl’s. It was usually just a few poker-playing or hockey-watching friends who congregated in the small breakfast room at the back of the house. I made way back there out of habit, past the big blinking tree and the almost-as-big keg, past the football players around the keg, past the cheerleaders around the football players around the keg, past Joe and Josh, two creeps I’d hated since grade school, past a few girls I’d liked since grade school leaning in a doorway—“Hi,” they said; “Hey,” I replied, too coolly; they actually seemed to want to talk to me—and past that weird, nondescriptly nerdish couple who were always staring into each other’s eyes on the bus. They were, naturally, doing the same thing in the corner here.
I wedged my way into the bright back room, where boys’ voices were being raised. “Tignor! Get in here.” It was Bo Setliff, an older roughneck and loudmouth from the country outside of town. He detached the cigarette he was smoking from his bottom lip. “We need some rich kids in here, so we can take your money.”
There was a poker game going on, and the stakes, as I could see right away, were pretty high. I sat down and won a couple of hands. Appearances to the contrary, I knew to play. Then Bo started up a game I hadn’t heard of before, called, appropriately, “guts.” It was essentially blackjack with all skill removed. You were dealt two cards down, and then you bet. “Be careful, jacks will [expletive deleted] you,” Bo said to me, one eye closed against the smoke from his Camel.
I played a few hands and timidly managed to survive as the pots grew. The room went quiet as the $20s began to pile up on the table. On the third hand I looked down to see that I had a pair of jacks. It seemed like a bad hand to me—I would only bet if I had an ace—and I remembered Bo’s cryptically skuzzy words to me about that card. I went out early. When the hand was over, I flipped my cards up and tossed them to the center of the table. Bo saw the pair of jacks. “Jesus, you had a pair! You would have own that hand. How much did you just blow, 300 bucks?” The room exploded; it was the highlight of the evening for everyone there. I felt like bolting into the cold night, but for appearances sake I waited for a couple of hands before cashing in my chips. “Could have made a lot more than that, a lot more than that,” Bo helpfully pointed put.
I got a beer and went down to the basement, the other usual haunt in the Jessup house. There was a ping-pong table, where Carl and I had wasted about a year’s worth of afternoons hitting the ball back and forth (if only we could have all the time we blew in our youth given back to us in our adulthood). The cheerleaders and a few local blow-dryed prom kings had commandeered the table and were banging the ball over the place and leaning dangerously close to each other. The girls’ faces were red and their giggles were starting to get ear-splitting. They were worked up; the prom kings looked pleased. “Steve, you have to be on my team,” one of the girls, Maria, said. “You play tennis, you must be good at this.” I was good enough to win a few games for Maria. The kings looked deflated. Who was this skinny kid stealing their ping-pong thunder? On the last point, I drilled a ball that hit one of them in the stomach.
Thinking I might as well quit while I was on top, I walked back upstairs and looked for a girl named Becky who I had asked to come to the party. She was a professor’s daughter with black hair and black glasses who lived in the country. She’d been in classes with me in the past, but she didn’t belong to any identifiable social group. Becky wore dark clothes and seemingly had a brain, and she had spent some time on the school’s literary review, such as it was. She kept to herself a lot; I saw her mostly from my seat on the bus, as she waited for a different one. She held her books out in front of her, cradled in her arm, the way girls held them years earlier, before anyone strapped a dorky book bag over their shoulders. There was something retro about her that I liked. For some forgotten reason, I’d asked her to see a minor-league baseball game that summer—there wasn’t much else to do, I guess. She’d agreed to go, then seemed profoundly uninterested once we were there. I;d had to tell her that the people who were batting were the same people who would go out in the field in a few minutes. Afterward, we’d stood face to face outside her parents house in the sticks, next to my car, under a thick set off stars. “I didn’t realize you were such a jock,” she said just before going inside. But she had said it with a friendly smile rather than a scornful smirk. I held onto that.
Instead of Becky, I ran into Dan, a semi-friend, a literary-review guy, and a fellow music lover, though his tastes ran hipper than mine. He was our high school’s only Taking Heads and Sonic Youth devotee, while I was a Springsteen and Stones guy. Now he said, “You must have a tape we can put in, right? Did you bring your Walkman?” Of course I had, and of course I had a mix tape ready. We managed to slide the needle off “Little Red Corvette” and plunk the tape in. The first song, “The Closer You Are,” by the doo wop group the Channels, drew Dan’s ire.
“Did you steal this from your grandfather’ record collection?” Dan asked, as the Channel’s five-part harmony soared around the room.
"What, you don't like the Channels, you don't like doo wop?" The voices mixed with the blinking colored Christmas lights to create a kind of blur around the room. It was like slow motion to me. The streets of 1950s Brooklyn, where the Channels had sung together on the corner, was here in 1980s Pennsylvania.
“You now the name of the group? That's sad, man. That’s the problem with you, you only like music that makes you feel good.”
We went on to other subjects. I moved around the party some more, with that feeling of intimacy and alienation that comes with the territory. Leave it to a party to turn you inward. Leave it to a party to feel like the most serious thing you can possibly imagine, where everything is somehow at stake.
I ended up on the couch next to the Christmas tree. It was a glorious fake, fully lit and tinseled, beautiful in an overdone way, like the heat in the room. I looked up; there was mistletoe all along the couch, thoiugh the only couple I'd seen occupy this spot were the staring nerds. My tape continued, and people were dancing sloppily to it in the middle of the room, slipping around in their socks on the thick brown carpet. Becky walked in the door. Dan, her friend, walked up right away and started talking to her. Was there something between them? She saw me, and they came over. Becky say next to me, and Dan went to get beers.
“A real jock party, I see,” she said, smiling and taking off her gloves.
“Yeah, these are my people.” I looked at Bo Setliff, who was arm wrestling one of the prom kings. She followed my look and laughed. Dan brought the beers back, but he seemed to feel like he was intruding, so he walked away, a little surprised.
“Are you good at arm wrestling?” Becky asked. She pulled off her coat and flipped her black hair from underneath her dark turtleneck. Falling over her shoulders and down her arms and back, it was longer and more unruly than I’d remembered it, less 50s and more 70s-style, but still safely outside the Pennsyalvania norm. She put her lips together as if she were forcing down a smile. She was in a good mood.
“Champion thumb wrestler. Didn’t you know that?”
The tape flipped over. The Channels came back on. “The Closer You Are.” I leaned back and automatically relaxed; the world was suddenly right. The dancers in the room didn’t agree. They stopped sliding on the carpet, disappointed. I waited for someone to change the tape, but no one seemed to have the energy.
Becky laughed under her breath. “What?” I asked.
She kept her head down and nodded a little, not looking at me. I took in the room, the torn gold wrapping paper on the floor and the blinking Christmas lights and mistletoe above me. Becky shook her head and laughed again. She seemed amazed by something.
“God I love this song,” she said.
See you next year.