Proper Planning and Trepidation
Ryan Everett Felton
Imogene tore a check off an untouched pad and jotted down the name of the clubhouse in the payee line. She would drop off the security deposit tomorrow, but tonight was set aside for preparing the guest list. The party was two weeks away, to the day – her thirtieth birthday party.
“I don’t know,” her brother Neil had said at lunch earlier. “Don’t you think it’s sort of pathetic, throwing a big party for yourself?” In response she’d tossed a wadded-up napkin at him and told him he wasn’t invited, but the first RSVP card she filled out was addressed to him and his fiancé.
Amid the soothing gurgle and aroma of brewing late-night coffee, Imogene worked from the beginning of Letterman to the end of Ferguson, addressing envelopes and sealing them with Pixar character stickers. Fifty-eight invitees, all told: friends, family, co-workers. Eyeballing that stack of invitations put things into a shocking perspective. That she even knew this many people felt unlikely, but then, how many people did one meet over the course of thirty years? A thousand? A hundred thousand? Fifty-eight wasn’t that impressive, when she gave it some real thought.
The Late Late Show ended, an infomercial began, and more coffee was brewed.
The receptionist at the venue took her check with a smile and nothing else, her attention instead focused on a telephone conversation. Imogene smiled as well, but for a fleeting moment she couldn’t explain, she had an urge to snatch the check back and tear it up. Instead she returned to her car and arched her back once seated, holding herself in that inverted C position for a few seconds. The muscles from her hips to her shoulder blades had gone taut and gnarled, like they might do if she was standing outside in freezing temperatures. Now her back held that flexed discomfort, and she kneaded at her spine with one set of knuckles while driving to work one-handed.
She was early for her shift at the café. With the extra fifteen minutes she passed out invitations to the present staff and left the rest in the cubbies where their paychecks were dropped off on Fridays. Beth, a barista at least a decade younger than Imogene, fanned herself with hers after giving Imogene a perfume-doused hug.
“A party?” she said. “Oh, my God, I’d love to go! Where is it?” She flipped a curlicue of hair from her eye and shoved the card up to her nose. “The Badger Lodge? Like, where they play Bingo?”
“Among other things.” Imogene clocked in and Beth – mercifully – punched out.
“I can’t wait,” the girl said, and she was out the door.
“You invited her?” asked Rich the busboy (“bus-man,” he would always say; he was pushing thirty. Together they watched Beth bounce into her car and drive off, bopping her head to Top 40 radio.
“I invited everyone,” said Imogene.
“Everyone?” Rich swiped his time card and grabbed an apron.
“You guys, my folks,” she said, tying her own apron in a knot – right where the pain in her back flared up the worst. “Some college friends, some kids I graduated high school with.”
“Imogene Connor, This is Your Life.” Rich threw up his hands and flicked the invitation up at the ceiling tiles. It landed on the floor and he said, “Y’know, I don’t think I can make it.”
He walked over to the back office to get some cash for the register.
Imogene turned away, her finger caught in the apron knot.
“Asshole,” she said.
“Your father wants to know if there’s a theme.”
Imogene lay flat on the floor at home, talking to her mother on the phone and catching glimpses of her apparent need to go over the apartment with a Dirt Devil.
“A theme,” her mother said. “You know, do we need to dress fancy? Dress like a character? Bring a certain dish?”
“I don’t know,” Imogene said, arching her spine. “Remember, I had that Jem party when I was little?”
“Would it be funny to find some of those things on eBay and try and replicate it? Like, you know, an ’80s kid’s party?”
“No, Genie, I don’t think that’d be funny. I think that’d be strange.”
Imogene rolled onto her side. From this angle she could see onto the balcony. She considered going out there and filling the birdfeeder, but moving seemed too much of a chore.
“So who’s all coming?” her mother asked.
“Well, you and Neil and Sadie,” she said, naming her brother and sister. “Some work friends. Some friend friends.”
“Oh, it’ll be nice to meet all these people you’re always carrying on about.” Her mother cleared her throat right into the receiver. “At long last,” she said.
“Mom,” Imogene said, “I gotta go.”
“Just don’t make it some weird thing.”
She pressed the small of her back into a coffee table leg. “I think it’s too late for that,” she said.
It was something her mother had said on the phone that night. Now Imogene paced the floor of the café, fresh off her shift, mulling it over: that fleeting rush of party-planner’s remorse when she’d dropped off the deposit could be explained. She had arranged for her mother and ditsy Beth to be at the same place at the same time, to maybe even meet. For her high school friends to mingle with her college pals, for her brother to shake hands with her ex-boyfriend. She was in the midst of creating a roomful of people with no connection whatsoever other than her.
Not only did it seem downright self-centered when she thought of it like that, it felt so awful to imagine that it made her muscles tighten again.
She sat at a table and shouted for a coffee, and Rich brought her one on the house. Under the pretense of wiping down the decorum with a dishrag, he sat down and made sudsy swirls around the table.
“Hey, when’s your party again?” he said.
“The thirtieth.” Imogene blew on her beverage, wishing she had a half-dozen or so packets of sugar.
“Thirty on the thirtieth. Okay, I can remember that.” He stood up and flung the washcloth onto his shoulder.
“I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I might,” he said. “As a rule I avoid these things, but everyone else is up for it, so there you are.”
Imogene sipped. The house blend was terrible. “I haven’t had a birthday party since I was ten,” she said.
“That’s sad.” He sat back down.
“All my cousins came, and my best friend from class. They hated each other on sight. I felt like it was my fault.” A customer entered and approached the empty service counter. Rich looked at them but didn’t move. Imogene said, “My friend got me this bracelet, this hideous stupid thing a kid would pick out. I told my cousin I hated it and she ran right over to Grace and repeated what I said.”
Rich flared his nostrils to the size of grapes.
“Grace never talked to me again,” she said.
He stood back up and waved a greeting to the waiting patron. “Can this therapy session wait?” he said. “I’m working here.”
Imogene dropped her cup – nearly full of hot, shitty coffee – into the wastebasket and went home, where she took a nap that extended into her full night’s sleep.
It wasn’t until about a week later – after having had plenty of time to really stew about it – that Imogene’s pre-party jitters became full-fledged anxiety. It hit her at the party supply outlet as she dropped several rolls of streamers into her shopping basket. In her mind’s eye her sister Sadie had been judging her friends based on dress and appearance, each commentary more cruel than the last. When she at last realized that the awful things imaginary Sadie was saying about her friends had to have, in fact, come from her own mind, the full weight of the thing landed. The thirtieth was going to be a disaster – for Imogene, if for nobody else.
What had she done?
The streamers cost her twenty dollars, or just about. The guy at the counter rang them up and asked if she was planning on having a party, or if she just really liked streamers.
It was meant to be a joke.
Imogene sat at the kitchen table, a variety of colorful homemade Chinese lanterns piled high before her. With a dull pair of scissors she cut a long piece of string with frustrated difficulty and began to thread it through hooks glued to the lanterns. In the apartment next door, somebody was hanging a painting on the wall that joined them. Or she thought they were hammering a nail to hang a painting on, but the loud banging had been going on for at least fifteen minutes. Perhaps her neighbor had just lost his mind, was pounding his fist into the wall until knucklebones were exposed.
Assembling the first of many decorations for the impending party, Imogene listened to her neighbor pound the wall and did her best to remember the guest list in its entirety. Aunt Karen will be there, she thought, and Sadie. They haven’t spoken since Sadie refused to attend Karen’s second wedding.
The slamming got louder. Or seemed to. A trembling sigh escaped Imogene’s throat and she got up to switch on some music. She turned it up as loud as she could bear, but it didn’t matter. Even though she couldn’t hear the ruckus next door now, she could feel it. Each pound on the wall was punctuated with another dreadful what-if scenario.
Nobody’s going to like each other.
They’ll all know what a fake I am. How different I act around all of them.
Mom might get drunk. One of the girls might post a picture of her online.
I’ll have to watch my language around Dad. No sailor-talk like at work.
The barricades she had built around the individual aspects of her life, of her Imogene-ness, were about to be obliterated. Her social undoing was to be her own doing. The RSVPs were all in. The deposit was paid. This damn lantern garland was half-finished.
There was no stopping it.
She jumped from her seat, banged her knee on the table, and yelped. The spherical paper lanterns tumbled to the floor and she crushed one with her foot, tromping over to the wall that still shook every three seconds. Flailing like a shameless child, she wailed on the wall with kicking feet, with pounding fists.
“Stop it!” she yelled. She pressed herself flat against the wall. One last wail from the other side reverberated against her cheek. She slammed back. “Stop it!” she said. “Stop it, stop, stop, stop it!”
The noise stopped.
Imogene went onto the landing outside and filled her birdfeeder with suet. For fifteen minutes she stood there, leaning on the railing, waiting on a woodpecker or a hummingbird to flitter up to the fresh delicacy and partake. She only wanted to watch it for a minute, but no birds appeared.
It was a bit late for that.
The thirtieth arrived, and with it a ghostly gray overcast that made Imogene wish she’d booked an outdoor venue, someplace that could be rained out. Out there somewhere, fifty people were waking up thinking of how they had a party to attend that night. All of them would be thinking they’d better come up to Imogene Connor at some point and say “hi.” There was no way she’d have time to carry on a conversation with all of them, but they’d just keep marching up, one by one.
She filled her car with boxes full of candles and centerpieces, stacked wall décor and inflated balloons on top of those. An old dress that she’d never worn was tossed onto the whole mess, and on her way to work she found that seeing out of her rearview mirror was impossible with everything stuffed into the backseat like that.
Beth told her during her shift that she “totally couldn’t wait” for tonight on multiple occasions. Brent, the store manager, said his schedule had cleared up and he’d be stopping by with his wife.
Great, thought Imogene, maybe one of my mouthy friends can tell her I used to have a crush on you.
She took everyone’s optimistic words with a grin she hoped looked genuine. It was, after all, kind of them to show interest.
There was no time to stop off at home after work. She would have to attend her own party smelling like bread and coffee. In the process of sniffing her hair outside her car, the phone in her purse buzzed like a mini-jackhammer against her hip. Once it had been fished out, she answered.
“Ms. Connor?” A woman whose voice she didn’t recognize drew her words out on the other end. “Imogene Connor?”
“Yes.” A single drop of rain landed on her shoulder. The gray clouds had gone a shade darker.
“This is Kat, at the Badger Lodge? Listen, I don’t know how to tell you this. I’m afraid I owe you an apology.”
The lock on her driver’s side door was stubborn and required the force of two hands to wrest open. For the time being, so long as the phone was in her hand, Imogene was stuck out here in the looming rain.
“What?” she said.
Badger Lodge Kat cleared her throat. “I’m so sorry. I was just looking over our calendar for tonight, and I’m…” The woman sighed. “I double-booked for this evening. We can’t host your event, not tonight.”
Imogene just stood there. The wind tugged at her hair, wrapped it around her face.
“Of course you’ll be given a full refund,” said Kat.
Beneath her veil of hair, Imogene smiled.
“Ms. Connor? Are you there?”
“Yeah. I’m here.”
“Again, I’m so sorry.”
“We can offer you a discount on your rescheduled event.” Some papers were shuffled on the secretary’s end. Another phone rang in the background. Here, in real life, the wind slapped Imogene’s ear. She felt it blow into her ear canal and shivered, still smiling.
“Okay. Can we talk about this later? I need to let everyone know about tonight.”
“Of course. Of course. Ma’am, I am sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. Thanks.”
She hung up and got in her car. The first thing she did, once inside, was turn her phone off. The second thing was to take her car key and pop all of the balloons in her backseat.
An hour later, when her thirtieth birthday party would have been getting started, Imogene sat at the bar of a nearby Italian restaurant and drank her second craft beer.
She wore the party dress.
“Thought I saw your car out there. You know your window’s down, and it’s raining?”
It was Rich, from work. Lingering behind him were two other guys, friends of his, Imogene guessed. It was odd to see him outside of the café, as odd as it would have been to see him at the Badger Lodge.
“Oh, shit,” she said, scooting her stool back.
He held up a hand. “It’s cool. Your door was unlocked. I rolled up the window.”
“That’s a little weird,” she said, resuming her seat.
“Or ‘thank you’ will work, too,” he said. “Aren’t you supposed to be at a party?”
She arched her back. It wasn’t acting up tonight, but the habit had formed now. “Aren’t you?” she said.
Rich didn’t quite laugh, more just said, “Ha.” He waved his friends over and they sat down, leaving a spot for him next to Imogene. “What are you having?” he said.
She tapped the bottle in her hands.
“Fine choice,” said Rich. To the waitress, he added, “Two more, please.”
“You don’t have to.”
“No, I don’t.” The drinks arrived with a forceful clink on the hardwood. He lifted his. “Happy birthday.”
She tapped her bottle against his.
“Many happy returns,” he said.
The venue, the lodge, was right on her direct route home. Passing it, she saw the vague shadows of people dancing through the window, through the rain. She got about one block north of the place before deciding, on a bizarre whim, to turn around and park out front.
She cracked her window, turned the radio down. Loud, rag-timey piano music filtered out from the Badger Lodge toward her. Mixed in were laughter and cheering.
Her hands went to her knees, clutched onto the smooth veneer of her dress. When she closed her eyes, it was clear that those beers had had more of an effect on her than she’d thought.
The rain had slowed. She got out of the car and tied her hair in a knot with a rubber band from the cup holder.
She went into the Badger Lodge.
The banquet hall was full of people she’d never seen before. The dance floor was covered in total strangers wearing dress clothes and stupid grins. There wasn’t room for another soul on it.
They’d be able to squeeze one more in.
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