Life of the Party
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Earth"
Originally featured on 03-21-2008
As part of our series "Elements of Style"

What’s the strongest muscle in the human body? Anybody know? I ask my third graders, but nobody knows. It’s the tongue. Is that a fact? Probably not. But it makes a good conversation starter at parties. I’ve got an internal Rolodex of sentences that have particularly high ignition potentials, contingent, of course, on context and expert delivery.

This is the second time I’ve run into Robbie Cramer’s mother at one of these get-togethers. The last time I was tactful enough not to inquire about the existence or non-existence of a Mr. Cramer. Tonight she’s already got her talons sunken into me from across the room, behind the punch bowl. She hasn’t looked at me yet, but she knows I’m here, and she and I both know that we'll be sitting on the couch a few hours from now as the party winds down, buried miles down into the warmth of that couch, laughing, baring secrets, discussing all manner of things that should never be the subject of discourse. The way she’s angling her hips in my direction as she pretends to laugh at Mr. Bobwick’s joke—I’ve seen that exact same nuance perpetrated by a hundred women at a hundred parties before. She’s only talking to Mr. Bobwick because he’s running for mayor, and I know she thinks the guy’s a tool, I know because of that gesture she’s making with her left index finger, pinching her blouse and drawing imaginary satanic symbols with the fabric. She’s had that nervous habit since grade school—she confessed this to me over her third glass of wine at that last party, and in a little while I'll be impressing her by revealing that I remember that detail, and recognized her doing it over there.

Robbie is high strung. He’s an only child, and she watches his report cards the way some people watch the stock market. His homework is always turned in on time, and his handwriting is far neater than that of the other third graders. It’s because she never went to college, and has already selected colleges for Robbie. When she talks about Robbie, it’s like listening to a scientist confer data from the lab. When the time comes that I inevitably get drawn into that laboratory, I wonder if I'll be a variable or a control in the experiment.

Patricia. Trish. That’s her name. I didn’t use any stupid witty line on her. Those witty lines are for everybody else in the room, so that I can look busy and in command until we find each other on that couch. So it won’t look like I’m just waiting to talk to the one person there who I really want to talk to.

Those lines are my currency. My fear is that someone will approach me with one that I’ve already thought of, and I'll be just drunk enough to say you stole my trigger, give it back. Really, give it back, motherfucker. Just in case that ever happens, for each conversation starter I compose, I couple it with a witty retort to defuse it, like the equal and opposite reaction force in a physics problem. If I’m at a wine-tasting formal on someone’s balcony, I feel a hand on my shoulder and I turn around to see an elegantly dressed stranger with moonlight glistening in their contact lenses who wishes to inform me—in a teetering manner—that the tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body (a fact which I’m almost certain is false), I'll then say, without missing a beat, Well, I suppose that explains a lot.

Trish does not wear a wedding ring.

It’s easy being the life of the party. Getting a rabble of third graders excited about the reproductive cycles of earthworms, that’s not so easy. Harder still is to explain to them why they should take those state tests seriously, the ones where they fill in those circles, the M-DOG’s, the P-CAT’s, the I-SAT-on-your-sister’s-face’s, whatever they call it. I call it the WGS (for Who Gives A [Smurf]) test. What’s their incentive to do well (Robbie Cramer’s home life notwithstanding)? There’s no accolade for acing that thing, there’s no recognition for an individual’s performance, only for the school district, it’s academic communism, right? Wrong, kids. You want to go to college? You want that new GX bicycle you’ve been eyeing for Christmas? You want to go on a lavish family vacation to Hawaii this summer and bring back a coconut and fabricated anecdotes about consorts with hula-dancing nymphs to make your chums all seethe with jealousy? Then think about the ripple effect your efforts on this test will have on the community. Test scores affect real estate and real estate affects everything. Bare our brains and show the world how smart you are, and the money train will stop as it passes through our town. Mom and dad slave away each day in the office, but your actions in this classroom right now are what’s really winning the bread. On all other school days you're just children, munchkins or whatever condescending term they would use, and you have no power. This week when you sit at that desk and—with many a groan and complaint and a secret transit route of paper planes—pull out those sharpened #2 pencils, you are all adults with adult responsibilities, and our prosperity depends on you. Today you are all benighted warriors on a mission of conquest. Think about coconuts.

The first half of today’s school day took place outside, behind the kickball field, digging up earthworms. I offer bonus points to any student who volunteers to eat dirt. If they actually have a mind to do it, they're crazy, but to volunteer is an act of heroism. That’s more facetious babble for parties. I care about these kids and I care deeply about their education, but at the moment my, um, interests are elsewhere.

"Do you believe that?"

Trish’s arm is draped behind me on the sofa, but not actually touching me. Her question jerked me back into the party, into the depths of that couch from wherever I was a second ago. I was inhabiting the rest of my day, the entirety of its moments all at once…I was simultaneously an earthworm, a nine-year-old explorer and adult me romancing a student’s mother…

I had just been regaling Trish with the bullshit I had been spouting to the kids about those standardized tests. She wasn’t nodding or looking me fixedly in the eye, but she wasn’t drawing pantomime satanic symbols on her blouse either. I wanted to place my palm on her navel and do it for her.

"Do you?" A thick strand of Trish’s hair hung between her eyes. If I cut it in half, I bet it would sprout into two full-length clones of itself, just like the amputated earth worms that were at the height of everybody’s fascination this morning.

I shook my head. "I’ve never had kids."

At that moment we sunk worlds deeper into the cushions. Her expression and my expression both stayed the same, but we were traveling at light years per minute.

I found myself wondering what Robbie would be when he grew up.

She already knew, whether he did or not. I could feel the knowledge in her hand before I felt anything else.

And I'll have you know that I’ve got certain uncharted muscles that can move a mountain or two.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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