Barbarella
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When the wine goes in, strange things come out. — Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller

David opened a second bottle of wine and circled the room refilling glasses. Our guests were neighbors from the building next door whom I had ogled through binoculars and with whom, while passing by on the city streets, I’d shot the breeze. It was surreal to see such familiar strangers sitting in my living room. The conversation had followed the usual getting-to-know-you lines, with each person delivering a brief history of themselves. After learning about Eric’s new job as the manager of Neiman’s, a lull settled over the party. I was about to offer up more of David’s homemade rum cake when Kimberly jumped to a standing position, set her glass on the table, and exclaimed, “Hey! Y’all want to see my party trick?”

Rare is the person who would refuse an offer of entertainment. All heads nodded emphatically. While Kim prepared herself mentally and physically for her demonstration, the rest of us discussed the concept of the party trick.

“I’ve never heard anyone actually refer to them as ‘party tricks,’” I said. “Usually, someone just says, ‘Yo, look at what I can do.’”

“I can put my fist in my mouth,” said Shawn, Kim’s husband.

“Yeah, so can I,” I said. “But does that count as a ‘trick?’”

“Of course,” said Shawn. I wondered why the fist-in-the-mouth thing was so enthralling to people. The first time I did it, in response to a dare, those around me were astonished. As Kim removed her charm bracelet and set it on the counter, I pondered the possibilities: Is the fist-in-mouth a sexual thing? No, too bizarre-looking, and then it would be weird for Shawn to be doing it. Maybe a comedy thing. Yeah, that must be it.

“My friend Mary has a party trick,” said Robert, interrupting my thoughts. “She pulls her underwear up over her shoulders.” Before I’d finished wincing at the mental image of an extreme Melvin, Kim dropped to her knees and a hush fell over the room. She placed her splayed hands on the rug, and situated her head equidistant between them. Then she rocked forward until she gained enough momentum to hoist her legs above her. The feat of upside down balance was dazzling enough, but Cirque du Kimberly wasn’t over yet. Slowly, she spread her legs apart until she was nearly doing the mid-air splits, and then she dexterously scissored her legs forward and back. The room erupted into applause as everyone marveled at the demonstration, save for Shawn, who was familiar with his wife’s offbeat ability.

When Kim returned to her seat and snatched up her glass, the air in the room seemed more buoyant; by displaying her lighthearted trick, she had shattered what was left of the ice between us. After Kim’s one-woman talent pageant, the talk was all tricks. Kim explained how her trick originated during a visit with her sister-in-law. After a few drinks one night, Shawn’s sister Stephanie asked Shawn and Kim to reveal their party tricks. Shawn went about cramming his sizeable fist into his not-so-giant muzzle. Kim, however, confessed she didn’t have anything. Stephanie, who hypocritically had no trick of her own, told Kim she’d better think of one fast or see herself to the door. Kim balked at first, but when Stephanie pulled the ol’ “It’s my house” routine (and, as Kim remembers, there was plenty more party to be had), it struck her that, as a child, she had been able to stand on her head. After a failed attempt or two, and with Shawn holding her skirt against her legs for the sake of decency, Kim succeeded, and was granted another drink. The scissoring was a recent flourish.

When one displays a unique ability, it surprises and delights a crowd. Or grosses them out. At a few parties in high school, I’d witnessed people risk injury by attempting (and succeeding) to ignite gas expelled from their buttocks. Sometimes, tricks can take on a freak-show quality, as is the case with those who are double-jointed or minored in circus arts.

When asked what he could do, David shrugged. “I don’t have a party trick,” he said with a frown. “But I do have a super power,” he offered hopefully, and explained that if a party at someone’s house ran through the night, he could prepare a gourmet breakfast from whatever foods he found in the fridge and cupboards the following morning.

“That doesn’t count,” I snapped, perhaps a bit defensively. Aside from wiggling my ears and raising each of my brows independently — both pathetic facial twitches that paled in comparison to headstand scissors — I had nothing. If the rest of my friends had tricks, they were holding out. I began to wonder about all the delightful, lull-busting amusements I’d been missing out on.

Outside the party context, I asked around. I learned that my friend Janet used to press a thumbtack into her big toe. This earned her a lot of free drinks for a while, as people bet she wouldn’t puncture her piggy (what she hadn’t told them was that, due to a childhood accident, all feeling in that toe was lost). But, tragically, during one such performance at the age of 28, Janet’s toe tingled back to life, and she was forced to retire the trick. My friend Sarah, a paragon of maturity, said goodbye to her trick long before she became a high school teacher. Sarah used to wow friends with her aptitude for eructation — she could burp the entire alphabet without pause, and without the aid of a carbonated beverage.

Ollie said he could sing like Kermit, after which I made a mental note to give him some extra wine at my next gathering. Next time I see Al, I plan to throw him three random objects à la the Flying Karamazov Brothers — apparently, Al can juggle anything. I’ve seen Ron make the monkey face, but that ape-dance thing he mentioned sounds a lot more exuberant.

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