Barbarella
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This wasn't just plain terrible, this was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it.

-- Dorothy Parker

It's not fair to say I was dragged here. The embarrassing truth is that I came willingly. I gave this day away with an optimistic smile; apparently I'd forgotten that events like this never live up to their potential for fun. "Fun." Now that's a laugh. I must have left that word in my sister's minivan back on the mainland, along with the book she told me I "wouldn't have a chance to read." Where is she now? Nowhere to be seen, as I sit, alone, at one of several dozen round banquet tables, staring at a young bartender whose vapid gaze makes me wonder if he just snuck a green puff. He flips an empty wine bottle into the air -- not very far -- and catches it. Flip, catch. Flip, catch. Flip -- OH! Okay, catch. I want him to miss next time. I want to hear the crashing of glass, see the jerking of heads and the reddening of his face. I want him to drop it. Because that would mean something interesting has happened.

Oh, no, what's this? Not these two. They're walking toward me with that look of determination and there's nowhere I can --

"Hi! Are you a spouse?"

Such a strange question requires a cautious response: "No," I say.

"Oh. Do you work here?"

"Nope." Those faces, staring at me, so expectant. Okay, fine! "I'm here with my sister, Jane. She works with the company. I just came along for the ride. You know, free food and wine and all that."

They nod in unison. "I'm a sister-in-law," volunteers the pudgy one. The other one, tenuous of figure and disposition, lifts her head in agreement -- a practiced, gentle motion; her slender neck, I suppose, cannot support any sudden moves.

"Well, it's been great talking to you both, but I need to go...uh...over there." I rise to my feet and make my way, with no small amount of effort, past the dynamic duo -- the thought of stepping aside clearly does not occur to them; they watch in silence as I squeeze between their immobile bodies and the table.

I stand at the bar and count seconds as Mr. Flair demonstrates his bartending prowess. When I reach 23, he catches the neck of the bottle and says, "Oh. Sorry. I guess I'm in my own world."

"Aren't we all," I say. Then, handing off my empty glass, I mutter, "Red. Please." I throw a buck in the fishbowl of dollar bills and, wine in hand, I turn to face the room.

The upside to being a family member at a gig like this is that I am allowed to lack enthusiasm. Coworkers greet one another, their smiles too wide, their laughter too loud, their voices heavy with strain. Employees present their families for display -- the children, mimicking their parents' behavior, take measuring glances, noting differences to which they automatically assign either pride or shame. Mostly it is pride. As with school reunions, people attend these things to parade their accomplishments, be they children or designer handbags, gauging their general happiness via comparison to the rest. The women are especially good at this.

In keeping with the Southern California manifesto, blonde seems to be all the rage on this three-hour tour of the Newport Beach harbor: a short bob of dark vertical stripes between ashy straw; there, a flattened helmet the yellow of urine; a veil of bleach-damaged beige down to the waist; ooh, a 300-dollar do, you can tell by the golden shimmer of it! If only she'd spent a fraction of that on her lipstick -- grocery-store pink pills on collagen-deflated lips like the fuzz on my childhood blanket.

"Are you having fun?" Jane asks, out of breath. "Bella's up there with the pirates, she was running in circles and ran right into a pole. Smacked her face. She's okay now. Did you want to eat?" Jane gestures at the spread -- chicken, fish, rice with almonds and raisins, two types of salad, and a basket of buns, all packed onto a white tablecloth. "You can eat first."

"What? You're not going to eat with me?"

"I can't. Just...if you start, if you eat now, then maybe you can keep an eye on Bella while I eat. I'll only need 30 seconds." As quickly as she appeared, my sister vanishes in the direction of the platform at the front of the boat. I don't see, but can hear the squeals of at least two-dozen children, including my niece, delighting in the antics of pirates, those costumed professionals paid to entertain the employees' progeny with props and a puppet show.

I look to the banquet table just in time to see a girl drop a ball of bread from her plate, chase the bun across the carpeted floor, and finally retrieve it from under a table. She rejoins her mother at the buffet and I am terrified she might plop the bun back into the basket. Don't do it , I silently will her. My eyes do not leave her plate, her hands that are all over that bun -- I'll have to intervene if she makes a move. There's no way I'll be able to tell which is the tainted bun. And even if I could, how will I know how many others it's touched? I sigh with relief when the girl reaches the end of the table, the bun still in her sticky grasp. To avoid another near miss, I grab a plate and get in line.

Back at my table, I am joined by Ed; for the first time today I am happy we were all made to wear nametags. Ed's wife, Regina, is keeping an eye on their son up on the platform.

"She wants me to 'switch off' when I'm done eating. I told her I wasn't coming along to baby-sit," I say, aware of the shrill defensiveness in my voice. "I mean, I love my niece, but I don't want to be, you know, responsible right now. I just want to chill. Drink some wine, eat some of this...," I look at my plate, "chicken." Ed nods, smiling. Like me, he's family. He knows we shouldn't have to do anything but eat and drink and smile when we're introduced to company folk.

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