Friday, March 16, 2007

Burning down the house

In my music collection, I just discovered a copy of Burning Down the House by Talking Heads. I hadn't listened to it for a long time, but fired it up, turned up the volume, and ROCKED.

That brought back some memories!

One specific memory it brought back was from when I was about 21, living in Dunedin. I was involved with a drama group for a while. I've never really been interested in acting, and for me it was one of those things you get into without really thinking. I used to go out to drink (lime juice – I had no money) at my local pub, where one of my drinking buddies was a slightly demented Dutch ex-opera singer who was into drama and involved with a local amateur drama group. He got me to agree to do something with his drama group, and it was late and he was drunk and I thought he'd forget. He didn't.

Anyway, I'd ended up acting in one of their productions, and one of the other actors was a guy I'll call Alan. The other women in the group and I had been teasing him a lot. He was the most experienced actor of us all, and was actually very good, but had no confidence in his ability. He said he wanted to be a professional actor, and took his acting very seriously, but for three years running when audition time rolled around for the drama school, he'd get drunk and miss the audition. He was one of those self-sabotaging types, but a lovely guy and very talented. I don't know why we teased him so much. Probably we all fancied him but didn't want to admit it because he was so obviously hard work. We weren't mean, exactly – we encouraged him as well – but he was pretty hopeless when it came to self-esteem. In retrospect, I think he was painfully shy, a strange thing for an actor to be.

Anyway, Alan decided to hold a party, and in his usual self-deprecatory way invited me by saying it probably wouldn't be very good because he was hopeless at parties but please come. It was such an odd, almost furtive invitation that I asked one of the other women in the cast if she'd been invited too. When she said yes and so had a few other people, I figured it was safe to go.

So on the very cold night of the party I walked to his place, using a map he'd drawn for me. He'd told me I should take a taxi, but I had no money, so walking was my only option. It took more than an hour, but I was young and full of energy. Still, by the time the road started going uphill (which hadn't shown on the map) I was pretty well worn out but stubbornly determined that having come this far I was not going to turn around and go home again. So I slogged on.

When I finally got to the house, which was in a respectable area of town I was unfamiliar with (as opposed to the student area of town I lived in) I was unsure at first whether I was at the right place. The house looked pretty dark, and suspiciously quiet. Most of the parties i went to in Dunedin were detectable for several blocks. The student area of town was a 'let's go and find a party' sort of place. (I don't know if that's what it's still like, but it certainly was back then, at least on Friday nights. I didn't go to very many parties, but I certainly heard quite a few.)

So I stood for a long time outside the very quiet house, puzzled. Was I at the right place? I listened for a while, but couldn't hear any music. Then I tiptoed around the house trying to peer in the windows. I couldn't see anything because the curtains were drawn. I listened at the windows, feeling like a spy. There was somebody in there, but no music and I couldn't hear much. It certainly didn't sound like a party to me. I waited, hoping someone else would come.

Nobody did, and finally, after about half an hour, I worked up enough courage to knock on the door. Actually, I got cold and tired of sneaking around outside, and was afraid that someone would see me and report me to the police.

Alan answered the door.

"Oh, hello! Come in," he said, sounding exactly like a normal, somewhat nervous host.

"Have I come on the wrong day?" I asked anxiously. "I thought the party was tonight."

"It is," he said. "Not many people are here yet, that's all."

I followed him in, still doubtful. I was at least an hour later than he'd said the party was starting. Was this some sort of a trap? I didn't really know Alan that well. And the house looked wrong. It was not student housing. None of the people I knew lived in houses like this. It was ... NORMAL. I can't think of another way to describe it. It had nice wallpaper, and carpet that wasn't threadbare, and normal things like that. It looked like the kind of house our parents would live in, not us. How come Alan was living in a normal house?

He took me through to the living room, and I looked around. It was a normal living room, too. There were normal pictures on the wall instead of cheap prints, and good furniture. It did not look like an Alan place, except for the party guests. Also, it was eerily quiet.

The party guests were all guys. There were about six or seven of them, and none of them were sitting together. They were all over the very large room. Most of them were sitting or lying in various postures of abandonment, smiling at the ceiling or walls and saying "Wow!" in a dreamy way occasionally, except for one who was sitting bolt upright on a pouffe (a pouffe? Alan wasn't a pouffe person, was he?) and rabbiting on about model planes. Alan tried to introduce me to them, and I shook hands with a couple but then gave up when the third one didn't respond. The model plane guy gazed at me and went on for a while about model planes, and I decided to talk to Alan instead. He seemed to be the only coherent person there.

"Sorry," he said, awkwardly. "Some of my friends are a bit strange."

"Never mind," I said. I was feeling equally awkward. I wasn't quite sure how to behave. I was still learning how to be a normal person myself, and wasn't good at party small talk. Most of the parties I'd been to until now hadn't required small talk, or else had been small groups of people I knew already. Student parties were usually loud and lively and you could be a fly on the wall and not worry about doing the right thing. But Alan seemed to expect me to know how to behave, and I didn't have a clue.

"Would you like a drink?" he asked, politely.

"That would be nice," I said. "You know, it's awfully quiet. I didn't hear music when I came. That's why I thought I had the wrong house."

His face lit up.

"Oh, yeah, music!" he said. "I knew something was missing! The tape ran out and I forgot to change it. Can you do that while i get you a drink? The speakers are in here but the stereo is in the other room."

"All right," I said. "What do you want me to put on?"

"Oh, whatever's there," he said vaguely. "Anything you like."

He pointed me to another door, across the hallway. "Through there," he said, and went off to the kitchen, all elbows and legs. He seemed even more uncomfortable than I was.

I crossed the hall, feeling a little nervous. I was the only woman there, and those guys were all off their faces. What was going on? Were the others from the drama group going to come? Also, I didn't have a clue what sort of music I should play. What was the right music for this sort of party? What sort of party WAS it? What music would Alan have, anyway? Maybe I wouldn't know any of it, and would make a terrible choice. Perhaps I should just go home. I was far too straight for this sort of thing.

I opened the door, walked into the other room, and froze. I was in another normal room, this time a dining room. This room had a dining table, a TV, and, shockingly, three completely sober people sitting and watching a rerun of Dallas. (Or maybe Dynasty - one of those American soaps from the early 80s.) When I barged in they all turned to look at me. There was a hostile silence.

"Er, excuse me," I said. For a panic-stricken moment I wondered if somehow I'd walked into the house next door by mistake. "Um, I've come to change the music...?"

They stared at me, their expressions blank.

"Er, where's the stereo?" I asked.

Someone pointed.

"Sorry," I said. "I'll just, um ... " Feeling totally intimidated I grabbed the first tape I found, stuck it in the stereo, hit play, and left hastily. After I closed the door I turned and stared at it. Had I just hallucinated that? Did that room really contain three people sitting grimly and silently around a TV, watching Dallas? Had I taken something weird by mistake? I hadn't had anything to eat or drink yet, had I?

Back in the living room Alan wasn't there, so I went through to the kitchen to find him. He was in the process of making a very complicated drink.

"Alan?" I said, somewhat tentatively. "Er ... who are those people in the other room?"

"Oh, them," he said, as if he'd forgotten. "They're my flatmates."

"But ... but ... why are they in there?" I asked.

"They don't like parties," he said. "I don't think they're very happy about it."

"I noticed," I said. "You could have warned me! They're a bit unfriendly, aren't they?"

"Oh, they're all right," he said. "It's probably not easy, living with me. I don't think they like me very much."

"That's terrible!" I said. "Why do you live with people who can't even be polite to your friends? Why don't you move?"

"I can't move," he said. "This is my parent's house."

We went back to the living room, where the model plane guy was still talking to empty space about model planes and the others were still lying around being unsociably happy, and that's when I realized that the music I'd put on was Talking Heads. Burning down the House was playing, not very loudly. In fact I'd never heard it played so quietly. It sounded wrong.

"Good song!" said Alan. "I'd forgotten that one." Then he went on, thoughtfully, "Actually, the last time I had a party the house burned down."

"Ha ha ha!" I said, and when he didn't join in added, "Er, really?"

"Yeah," he said. "Fire engines and everything. My parents weren't very pleased to come back and find nothing left."

"It actually burned down?" I said. "Right down? How? What happened?"

"Oh, you know," he said. "A fire started."

I probably shouldn't have had any of that drink, because even the next day the rest of the party was a blur. I remember that Alan said he was kind of surprised that his parents had trusted him to take care of the new house, and he was so grateful he had chosen the straightest and most boring people he could find as housemates. He didn't exactly like them, but he thought they'd be less likely to burn down the new house. He didn't trust himself. And I remember that eventually the others from the drama group arrived, and the party became more lively and probably less puzzling. But I didn't stay very long. I was feeling too not-normal. I remember deciding to walk home but the next morning I couldn't remember the walk at all, or getting home, where I suddenly metamorphosed into a non-stop comedian.

My flatmates (there were eight of us) told me about this the next day, and at first I didn't believe them. I didn't remember anything about it, but apparently I kept them entertained for several hours. They said I kept them up way past their bedtimes because I made them laugh until it hurt, and they never knew what I'd come out with next. They had never seen me like that before, they said, but when I asked them what I'd said they claimed they couldn't remember exactly. "Everything!" they said, and started laughing again, and then doubling over and moaning, "Ouch, my stomach still hurts." They said I was brilliant, totally off the wall, and on a roll that went on for several hours. Jokes, stories, imitations of people (I can't even DO imitations) and more, they said, but couldn't (or wouldn't) remember anything specific. Whenever I tried to prod them they got that remembering look and started laughing again.

(One thing I suddenly remembered the next day was that I was on the last day of a course of antibiotics and wasn't supposed to drink. Was that what did it?)

But how could I forget something like that so completely? As far as I was concerned I had got home and gone straight to bed – I had no memory of it AT ALL. This made me terribly anxious about the party as well, but later my drama group friends told me that at the party I'd been boringly well-behaved, had only one drink, done nothing outrageous, and left early, so I decided not to worry about it too much.

However, I vowed that from then on I would mix my own drinks and not eat the cookies. And perhaps I shouldn't listen to "Burning Down the House" at low volume, either. It had probably done something funny to my brain.

You never know.


Paula said...

Great story - and I agree BDTH should be played loudly.

Pkchukiss said...

Where I live, my neighbours WILL burn my house down if I play that too loud. Not very nice to give them such suggestions if you want to play LOUD music.

Lippy said...

BDTH was played on the radio yesterday morning. I am going to Dunedin in a few weeks (for work).


However, I *will* be staying away from party places. Why? Cos I'm old. Just need to find a good bar to prop me elbow up on... yup.

Cheryl said...

Wonderful. I am so glad you blogged this!


Antipodeesse said...

Your blog inexplicably disappeared from my bloglines account, so I lost track of you and am just catching up now.

I loved the foreboding development of this post and you had me gripped all the way through!