The night Earl left behind him as he was ushered in to the foyer was uncharacteristically rainy. He had no idea, not that it was rainy, as he closed his dripping umbrella (which he had brought for good luck, he said to himself with a grumble), but that it was unusual for Los Angeles, where he had only moved to a month ago. No, the doorman let him know immediately after his polite hello, with the usual agreement seeker attached to any polite English sentence that nonetheless assumed his agreement before the fact. Earl gave the doorman a blank stare as he surrendered his umbrella, but was stopped by the same man before he could remove his raincoat.
—No no, shake yourself dry.
Earl raised an eyebrow, not sure if the man was joking or serious, and unsure which option he would prefer.
—Go on, shake. Like a dog.
Another awkward stare from Earl. The man let out a gentle laugh and nod, realizing that some explanation was in order.
—It’s my weird, my kinda weird thing. I have two dogs at my place and my favorite thing ever is walking them out in the rain, and getting soaked from them shaking their water at me. But the rain, you see, it’s like I was saying, it’s almost never rainy in LA, so you know… I never really get to do my thing. But tonight… well, it’s almost like tonight was made for me… So, you know, if you wouldn’t mind…
—Er… thanks, but I think I’m gonna pass for now.
—Yeah, no, you’re right. The night is young, eh?
His raucous laugh and vigorous back-pat was mercifully cut short, if not prevented altogether, by another buzz from the building’s front door. The man pushed the button to let the man through, then, as he did with Earl moments before, stood beside the door slightly ajar (almost like how the wary women in old movies do before gaining the trust of the leading man, shutting the door, removing the chain and letting him in after all), until another lonely man entered. There the doorman proffered him with the same greetings, the same amateur local LA weather statistics, and the same entreaty to indulge in his kinda weird thing. The moment Earl removed his sopping raincoat and prepared to hang it on the coat rack beside him, the new invitee declared with a shrug what the hell, I’ll try anything once! It figures, Earl noted to himself, that I even bothered to wear this damn coat and bring an umbrella, only to get rained on indoors.
Nor was he any more comfortable upon viewing his surroundings after that incident; despite his hydrophobia he milled about in the rain under his umbrella for as long as he could to avoid the moment he would have to step inside for this… he couldn’t even say it. Then again, the whole affair was peppered with euphemisms that made him even more uncomfortable. An “anything goes” party, the Google hits described it. Do you have a “weird thing” you’re into, do you feel like nobody gets you? A party for guys so terminally bankrupt in their social skills accounts they have no other recourse for the familiar touch of another one of their kind. He hated walking through the groups of sad guys milling around, offering meek introductions and welcomes, asking if he was a regular or a newbie, describing how wonderful the weekly affair has been for his self-esteem or whatever. He felt like he was in an old-age home full of staff taking great pains to convince the old people in their care that they weren’t just trapped in a sad lonely shared space with other sad old people because their children are either too poor to take care of them, or else don’t care to. Even the décor was in on it: every room in the place was lit by only a single night light, as if they were helping the partygoers hide their faces, their sad-sack pathetic expressions, like a documentary fuzzing out talking heads to protect their identity. No beauty or ugliness to notice here, only your thing and your lack of shame.
This went on for some excruciating minutes until he noticed someone standing behind a table set up blocking the walkway to the kitchen, apparently a bartender of sorts. At least if this party is a bust I can get drunk, Earl consoled to himself as he went to the man.
—Hey there! Welcome stranger, the name’s Alex. Can I get you a soft drink to start?
—Earl. Nice to meet you. Booker’s if you got it, anything brown if you don’t.
—Booker’s? Never heard of it.
—It’s 125-proof bourbon.
—That’s a soft drink to you?
—Don’t ask what kind of hard drinks I like.
Alex laughed at Earl’s little joke, harder than Earl would have liked, and offered him a red solo cup of something. Earl, assuming it was at least the aforementioned anything brown, took a sip and grimaced.
—Like it? It’s butterbeer!
—Yeah. For my day job I work at Harry Potter World, I’m a butterbeer vendor at the Three Broomsticks. The managers let me take a bunch for tonight.
—It’s really sweet…
—Wow, I can’t believe you’ve never heard of it. Most people really like it, in the books it’s described as “not as sickly-sweet as butterscotch.”
—Oh, I never read the books.
Earl, with this off-hand declaration, almost stopped the entire party. While Alex didn’t betray any sort of shock that offset his constant bartending amiability, Earl could notice the agape jaws of nearly every partygoer around him.
—I just, I don’t know, never really got into them. It just really took off with so many other people that I kind of wanted to stay away from it. Didn’t really see what all the fuss was about, you know wizards and shit. But I mean I read other stuff, I like the thing out now with the dragons or whatever…
Alex never let his attention shift from Earl as he offered a red plastic glass of frothy butterbeer to another partygoer. As Earl’s explanation dwindled away Alex nodded understandingly and put down his bottle of the stuff before motioning to follow him.
—Alright, mister. You look like you need some TLC.
Alex led Earl through the not-so-wild party of long silences and gazings into one’s drink mid-sip, and led him to a room with another man setting up a bar. The man greeted Earl and offered him another red cup.
—Howdy, stranger. Care for something with a little bit of kick?
Still wincing from the oppressive treacle of the butterbeer, the answer to that was a silent but overwhelming yes. Earl took the glass as the man prepared one of his own, while Alex looked on and smiled as if a plan of his had just come together.
—Rock and Roll! Now on the count of three, no stopping till it’s down the hatch, and after that just roll with whatever happens next. Okay?
Earl responded with a meek nod that said sure, I guess, as long as you’re not gonna roofie me, but if so I guess there’s not a whole lot I can do about it now anyway. The man counted down and Earl took a sip, and in hindsight told himself he might have preferred that roofie after all. Red hot sauce. He gagged and tried to spit the stuff out, but someone who he couldn’t see through the cup held it tipped into his mouth. His throat ached and corroded with peppery fire as he was compelled to swallow whole what should have been a condiment to maybe put on some chicken wings. Finally he reached the bottom of the cup, finally there was no more liquid fire to suck down, and in the next moment the same man, his mouth on fire as well and screaming in ecstasy, grabbed Earl and chomped his lips onto his, sucking down on his face to offset the pepper burn. Earl was horrified and his first instinct was to shove the man off, until he realized that the face-sucking was actually helping his burning mouth, and simply had no choice but to stand there sucking face and waiting it out.
After a few more moments of the worst make-out in Earl’s life his mouth finally started to burn a little less. Earl gently pushed the man away, giving him a moment to unclamp his lips from his face.
—Thank you. That’s uh, it’s my little thing I’m into.
With a smile the man moved on to the next willing victim, opening a new bottle of sauce and squeezing it into another red cup. Alex patted Earl on the back and gave him a small ciabatta roll as he ushered him into the next room.
—Here, this’ll help. Whatever you do, don’t drink water.
—What the hell was that all about?
—Oh, you know, everyone has their own little thing. That’s what the host is all about.
—The host, huh? Who’s he?
—Well, that’s the funny thing. No one’s ever seen him. He’s a master of SEO, you see, and somehow everyone who has their own little thing Googles it and inevitably stumbles upon his party. It’s this idea, you know, that you come out once, and then telling another person about your weird little thing, it can be like coming out again. That’s what he does, makes everyone comfortable, so no one has to be ashamed of who they are and what they like. But no one ever meets him. He could be any of us, in fact, joining us in one of our little things.
Earl met this with a frown. Humoring us, you mean.
—Who knows, maybe he could be you.
—Maybe he could be you.
Their silent stares at each other were cut off by the sound of raucous laughter behind a closed door. Alex ushered Earl toward it and peeked inside.
—Oh! I think even a sourpuss like you could get a kick out of this one.
Inside they found a gathering of men sitting around another man, who was laughing so hard that tears came out.
—It’s his little thing, he’s into…
—Yeah, I can see that.
—Go on, tell him a joke.
—I don’t, ah, I’m not sure I can get him to…
—No, that’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be a joke. It can be a terrible joke and he’ll find something to laugh about.
—Glass is half full kinda guy huh?
The others waited for the man to take a break in his laughter before they turned to Earl the newcomer, who cleared his throat and hesitated before telling the only joke he told anyone.
—Um, okay. So three people who were born with a horrible disfigurement die on the same bus crash. They go to heaven and are met by Saint Peter at the pearly gates. Saint Peter tells them that because they suffered so much from their disfigurement he can grant them each one wish while they’re in heaven. The first man says thank you Saint Peter, my one wish is to experience what I had been denied my whole living life. I’d like to have a beautiful face. Saint Peter instantly grants his wish, and meanwhile the third person stands behind the others, smirking and laughing to himself. The second man tells Saint Peter, I can see how much my friend’s new face has affected him for the better, and I must say I’d like to experience it for myself. I’d also like to have a beautiful face. Again Saint Peter grants his wish, the man becomes beautiful and meanwhile the third man can hardly hold in his laughter. Finally Saint Peter turns to the third man and asks him what his wish is. The man says, I want you to make them both ugly again.
To Earl’s lack of surprise no one in the room laughed, not the laughing man, not even Earl thought it was actually funny. The man in the middle rose from his seat and left the room with a sigh. Alex nodded to himself and led Earl away.
—Well, I’m sorry no one here seems to be your type.
—Ah, I dunno. My type is just vanilla, you know, so normal it’s weird? Is there anyone here into that?
Alex said nothing. As if Earl could tell himself his answer was bullshit he let out a deep breath and went on.
—I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I hate seeing other people happy, and then I end up trying to ruin it. Not because I’m jealous but… more like it’s just tedious to see. I’m sick of it. Like, before I moved here I was a tour guide in New York. I did tours of the park. And I’d say things like, like how the Metropolitan Museum building has these outer walls made of glass panels, and the panels tilt in a way so they’re non-reflective, and the birds can’t tell they’re about to fly into glass. It’s someone’s job every morning to sweep up about a hundred dead birds below the glass walls on the Met. Like they made a cost-benefit analysis and it was cheaper to hire a bird sweeper than replace the glass and not kill thousands of innocent birds every year. Who cares, right, they’re just pigeons. See what I mean? There’s a grimy and shitty part of every good thing in the world and I’m always pointing toward it. It’s my thing.
Without even realizing Alex had given him another, Earl took a hard gulp of his cup of butterbeer.
—It’s not like I don’t have the social skills, I just can’t stand mostly everyone, and they can’t stand me. It’s not fun, it’s like a job interview that I fail every day for a job that I don’t want, that I’m only applying for because I can’t get unemployment. I wish I could find someone who’s exactly like me… but… also better than me, and okay with me.
—Interesting…Do you want to know what my thing is?
Earl responded with another gulp of butterbeer and a silence that didn’t exactly say no thanks, so Alex continued.
—I really like seeing guys pushed out of their comfort zone, pushed, that’s right, and finding something out about themselves they never knew before. My thing is massive personal change for the better, and the more of a challenge, the better.
—So… wow, it’s weird you say that. I mean, this host, he set up a whole thing full of guys happy with their own weird little quirks, and he must have known I’d be miserable in a place like this, but also known that misery for the sake of it is my thing. And then you stumble upon this place, and among everyone obviously happy with themselves and nothing to offer you you then bump into me… is this, was this whole thing for us?
Alex frowned, and Earl could tell whatever the moment was building up to he had ruined it again in his usual way. The thing was, he earnestly didn’t mean to this time.
—What? What’s the matter?
—It’s just that solipsism is a huge turn off for me. Not one of my things.
—Oh, I’m… I’m sorry, I didn’t…
—Nah, it’s fine. Let’s continue with the tour, shall we? There’s a secret passage that leads to an abandoned building that used to be a massage parlor that’s haunted by the ghost of a hooker who was murdered there. There’s a guy who has this thing where he likes to get naked in front of the ghost hooker and have the ghost hooker humiliate him all naked and stuff, point at his tiny dick and weird balls and laugh a weird ghost hooker laugh at him, anyway I think you’ll really like him…