It’s hard to explain what happened to me that night. I hadn’t been myself all day. I know, that’s a curious expression. How can one not be oneself? But things had seemed off.
It wasn’t that I was scattered or irritable. That happens to me occasionally but that would have been familiar. No, this was something else—a distancing, a dissociation, something that split me in two, one of me curiously watching, the other sleepwalking through the day.
How drunk it is possible to be and still function? I don’t really know, never did any scientific research, but I certainly experimented a fair amount. But that day wasn’t about alcohol at all—even though there were very few days during those years when we all didn’t drink a great deal. Was I sick? No, physically I seemed okay. At least I was taking my body for granted in the way I think most of us do.
When I arrived at the dinner party, everything seemed too loud: the ice clinking in the glasses, the hoots of Bill Jacobi as he listened to Marv’s fresh batch of racist or sexist jokes. And of course there was the noisy preparations of the three best friends—that’s what we always called them—concocting the food.
Judy went on ahead to the kitchen to make a token offer of help and I put the salad we’d brought on the groaning board. I was reluctant to join the others—I felt out of place, a newcomer’s shyness taking me over even though these were my best friends, men and women I’d worked with, camped with, slept with, and drunk with for years.
I hung around instead in the dining room as long as I could, looking at the prints on the walls. I’d seen them a thousand times before, but I hoped a study of their detail might reveal a clue as to what I should do next.
I must have moved on into the great room and mingled. I know I fixed myself a glass of tomato juice and uncharacteristically refused all offers to stiffen it up. What few wits I had about me seemed too precious to dissipate. And somehow we all got to the table. I sat across from Judy as always and endured the odd snorting of Vivian on my right. The chair on my left was empty. I don’t remember now who was late or didn’t show. I know it felt odd to have that vacant spot next to me, not liberating and spacious, rather less cozy somehow.
The little side conversations mingled quite naturally with an occasional overriding topic. We were a large group, after all, and nothing could keep us focused or silent for long.
About midway through the chicken cacciatore, I turned to my left and a very old woman was in the chair. She sat tall, spine erect, in a fancy dress that was too large for her. She smiled quite sweetly at me, then reached over and touched my wrist. At the first touch of her fingers, I began to speak, my voice deep, resonant, sonorous. Everyone stopped to listen. For nearly an hour, I told story after story: old Hungarian folk tales, Chinese myths, episodes from pre-Columbian history, Aleutian anecdotes, each with the right accent and the right inflection. My delivery was flawless, spell-binding. At the end of the hour, I wound down like an old clock. People applauded and I turned to my companion on the right and of course the old woman was gone.
Marv wanted to know why I had been on holding out on them; my stories, though copious in the past, had never been so entertaining. I tried to tell Judy later about the old woman. I will say that she listened with kind interest but she doesn’t believe in channeling so I let it all go. It has never happened again.