The other night, I was at what can only be described as a suburban cocktail party. I had a good time, but I was reminded that I should, perhaps, wear a sign: “Warning: Jennifer’s sense of humor is not to be taken seriously.” I horrified seven people, which, in a gathering of about twenty is a fairly good score, beating out last time’s attempt. (Yes, people invite me to their parties more than once. No, I don’t know why.)
I always know these gatherings are going to be minefields, because people assume that your life is a lot like theirs, unless their life is weird, and then they assume your life is not like theirs. So, when a bunch of upper middle class middle-aged professional types get together, they talk about where their kids are applying to college, and how much they like their new Prius, and how the contractor on their home remodel was such a pain in the ass, and like that.
And then someone will say to me with a bright smile, “So how about you? Do you have children?”
And I will say that I have a daughter. I have never known quite how to present this information. When Jessica was younger, I would say, “She has some disabilities, but she does very well and is such a joy,” so that I could forestall the inevitable questions about how many violin concertos she has mastered.
But that seemed like I was defining my daughter by her disability. That is a relevant fact about her, but the older I get, the more certain I am that it is not the most relevant fact. I don’t feel any need to hide it, but I no longer feel the need to bring it up in casual conversation with people I will never see again.
Still, if I don’t, it can lead to awkwardness.
“So how old is your daughter?”
“Oh, a teenager! Is she thinking about going to medical school, or is law her thing?”
“Right now she wants to be a princess when she grows up, and if that doesn’t work out, she’s leaning towards attending Hogwarts.”
No matter how I put it, no one ever knows how to respond. There is usually some forced cheerfulness: “Well, she sounds adorable!” before the questioner wanders off in search of safer companionship.
This is why I prefer to stick with my close friends, with whom the conversation about our children already includes the knowledge of their differences. But I tell myself it does me good to widen my circle: for every deadly dull conversation about celebrities, there’s an interesting one about the pedagogy of the oppressed. For every awkward moment when I have to disabuse someone of an assumption, there is a moment of connection: the criminal defense attorney who says, “Thank you for not bitching at me,” when I say that her work sounds interesting, and good, and necessary.
“Do people really do that when you tell them what your job is?” I ask.
“All the time.”
“People can be such dumbasses,” I say, eloquent as always.
“Stipulated,” drawls the lawyer.
But I wouldn’t do any of this if it weren’t for the reward that comes at the end. You know what I am talking about: sitting around the kitchen table at 1 a.m., when only the good friends are left, laughing until it hurts.
Around the table, we are all people who have loved and lost and grieved and hurt. Outside it is cold and dark and the snow has piled high. But in here, at the end of a night, in a warm kitchen, a magic circle holds the pain at bay for a few hopeful hours.
The most magical thing about that circle is I can visit it in my mind whenever I need to: a week later, holding Jessica’s hand in another hospital room while she tries not to be scared, and I try not to be scared, too. They are there in that room with me, all my friends, laughing in the warmth no matter how high the snow piles on the ground.