Par-tay, if you can stand it!

Life of the party Do people really enjoy hobnobbing at parties?

The last time I went to a party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I was in my twenties. Well, wait, there was one time in my thirties I went to a fundraising party for Tikkun, where I got to hear some literary luminaries talk about creating a progressive Jewish magazine, and where I saw Michael Lerner expatiate about, well, I don’t remember. I know he talked for a long time and said he had just shaved off a very big bushy beard because it was scaring all the eligible women away. But other than that, I had not been to a party since my twenties.

So, when a writer-pal of mine invited me to his housewarming party on West 108th Street, I wagged a stern finger at myself and urged myself to go. I implored my friends Andrea and Charles Rabinovitch to come with me. I couldn’t see walking into a place where I might know only a couple of people, if that. I am incredibly maladroit.

“You’re going to owe us big time,” they said.

Here I was, well past forty, thinking the way I used to think before I went to parties long ago: Go. Tonight may be the night you meet the love of your life. If you don’t meet him, maybe you’ll make a literary contact. Those things never happened. Never, not once.

Why, then, do I persist in believing — to paraphrase Samuel Johnson — that hope will triumph over experience?

Michael Suarez, one of my Fordham University literature professors, once urged us to take away at least one memory from each book we read. If I apply Professor Suarez’s philosophy to each event in my life — that is, if I try to walk away with at least one memory of the party I went to — I will want to remember the conversation I had with Noah,* a balding middle-aged psychiatrist. (*not his real name)

Noah was one of the few people I knew at the party because I had gone out with him when we were in our twenties. Back then he was thin and adorable, with a mop of curly black hair, and that mad Jewish look I used to love. His parents were from Poland, Holocaust survivors, and first cousins who, according to Noah, had long since fallen out of love with each other. He intimated that his father, a diamond merchant, used to have affairs, especially on his trips to Belgium and South Africa. From what I could tell, Noah came out of his family unable to commit himself to anything — not to a woman, not to any serious course of study. Too bad. Something in him was broken. Life is harsh.

I remember Noah saying many years ago that a child wants to walk in his parents’ footsteps. If your father had a bar mitzvah, you want one too. If your father served in the army, you want to serve too. If your parents survived the Holocaust, you want to survive the Holocaust too. Only you can’t because the experience is, presumably, not replicable. Consequently, children of Holocaust survivors always feel deficient because they cannot prove themselves the way their parents did. All of this made sense to me.

Going out with Noah was boring. I couldn’t make plans with him because he slept until one or two in the afternoon. When he finally made his way to the street, he had to go have a hamburger at Burger Heaven, somewhere, if memory serves me, in the West ‘seventies. I think I managed to get him to see one movie, which he complained about as being inauthentic because it was set in the 1920s and dealt in part with some feminist issues. He was smart enough to TA in math at Columbia, but otherwise knew next to nothing about history or literature. I remember too that he referred to black people as behaymes — animals. I thought he was parochial and crass and I was completely turned off. After a couple of months, I contrived an argument with him and fled.

I ran into him at a Children-of-Holocaust-Survivors lecture in the 1980s, and then in 1989 at a supermarket in White Plains. I was shopping with my son, who was about eleven months old at the time, and with my soon-to-be-ex. Noah came up to me and called me by my Yiddish name. I had no idea who he was. Five years had passed since I’d last seen him and now he was a paunchy, gray suburbanite with the wiry hair of a 60-year-old man. He told me who he was and said he had become a doctor at the psychiatric institute in White Plains. I said to him, “Who would have guessed that sleeping until one and eating at Burger Heaven were prerequisites for getting into medical school?”

I didn’t tell him I was getting divorced because I didn’t want him to think I wanted to see him again.

When he walked into the party, I recognized him right away. He had arrived with his son, a beautiful ten-year-old boy whose intelligence and love for his father lit up his little face. Noah used his hand as a rudder on the child’s shoulder to steer him through the doorway. That guidance showed a fatherly love that you do not expect to see in men who live their entire lives in a state of confused melancholia. And yet there it was: Noah, the n’er-do-well psychiatrist who, I cannot help but suspect, does not actually have a practice, ennobled by the love he and his son have for each other.

“What have you been doing for the past twenty years?” I asked Noah.

He didn’t mention a medical practice, but he did say he had gotten married late, in his forties, to a woman also in her forties. They tried to have a second child, but they were too late. “One is better than none,” Noah said. Another hint of late-in-the-day wisdom.

“I knew I had the choice of ending up as a patient or a doctor on a psychiatric ward, so I opted for doctor,” Noah said.

“If I hadn’t known you back then, I would say, ‘Oh, Noah, you are too modest,'” I said. “But I knew you, and you’re right.”

Both of his parents were gone now. I remembered that his brother’s name was Chaim. “How is he? I asked.

“We don’t speak anymore,” Noah said.

That meant a dispute over the will. I surmised, but I did not inquire.

A couple of times Noah put his hands on my shoulder so that he could squeeze past me to the snack table. It was a movement so effete, so insincerely delicate, that my old revulsion-attraction came over me. I couldn’t think of anything more to say to him. I found Andrea and Charles sitting on a low bench desperately bored out of their minds.

The three of us went to a Starbucks in the neighborhood and enjoyed each other’s company as we always do. It occurred to me that Noah hadn’t asked me anything about myself. That’s OK.

“Just in case you are wondering if there is a God,” I told my friends, “tonight is evidence that there is: He kept Noah and me from marrying each other.”

We agreed that we should go out more often, but next time we’re going to skip the party, if we’re ever invited to one again.

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