A Dying Man’s “Going Away” Party
croquet, giant paella, and an unexpected guest
On a sunny weekend morning I slide into a white bodycon dress, pull on a white crochet poncho top, add a straw hat, and a pair of white strappy heels. I am not proud of the outfit. My mom and I went discount shopping to follow the white dress code on a dime and my dress is sheer on top, hence the poncho. The getup feels and looks alien on me because I rarely wear white. In fact, I may have too many opinions about wearing white in San Francisco. Cities are dirty and white clothes are ruined if something splashes my ankles as I cross the street, or if I sit in scum on the bus, or if I enjoy a burrito on the grass at a park. Living in San Francisco, really living in the city means being out and about where one gets dirty. Wearing all white in San Francisco is the same as living in New York City and never riding the subway. It is reserved for the upper echelon who have drivers, and the naive. Also, once the fog comes in the people in all white look bizarre, like nouveau-riche ghosts. But it doesn’t really matter how goofy I look in my room, because my mom and I are going to wine country for a croquet party. I am cosplaying the wealthy residents who I suppose buy more clothes if they spill their wine.
My mom gets behind the wheel of our little silver car and we pick up two of my friends. All of us have sun hats. The feeling of looking strange persists, but I doubt anyone on the road notices. There are much larger dress-code related debates going on in San Francisco specifically, the city supervisor with the last name Wiener fighting to ban public nudity. We cross over the Golden Gate Bridge, red pillars flashing by, segmenting the bright blue sky, over the dark bay water. On foggy days in the city, you may be surprised to find the sky other side of the bridge is crystal clear. It feels magical to me, though technically it is just microclimates in action. The bridge is a palpable force, even though many visitors say it is smaller than they imagined. San Francisco residents don’t talk about it much, but we all know people jump. We know that person whose family member jumped off three separate times because the first two didn’t have the desired result. We know not to talk about it because it’s contagious. We know about the netting, the cameras, and escorts there to dissuade and prevent jumpers. We know that people travel here just to jump. And yet, to me I know the Golden Gate Bridge as comforting, a beacon in the fog, a living glowing thoroughfare in the night sky, a reminder that I am home.
I grew up in San Francisco criticizing North Bay residents for being wealthy and out of touch. However, at least in my case, these remarks were tinged with jealousy because I was surrounded by cement. As we approach the end of the bridge, a blanket of bright orange poppies smile and wave atop the sharp rusty red chert bluffs. It’s breathtaking in all seasons. Our car breezes through the rainbow arch tunnel into hills, past houseboats and the seaplane I’ve never seen leave the cove. There’s San Quintin Prison. Wind turbines swing in heavy circles, and birds shoot across the precious marshlands. We chat about nothing in particular.
My mom has a way of leaving out important pieces of information, burying the lead, so to speak. Around the point in the drive where we start to see cows she mentions that the party is for a dying elderly German man named Heinrich. I don’t know Heinrich! I express how wretched I feel for bumming an invite plus two. The host is a longtime family friend, but it still feels extremely inappropriate to crash a dying man’s “going away” party. My friends and I are around twenty, having just finished our freshman or sophomore years of college and had assumed the party would just be croquet, cocktails, and gourmet food. My mom assures us that the host wants us there, to create more of a crowd and explains that Heinrich is the host’s former hairdresser who moved into her guest house when his health began to rapidly decline. Disoriented by the news, my eyes roll around the car, making contact with each of my friends. They hold their lips tight in bewilderment. Vineyards rise from the hills, with large houses set back behind them, and signs on the roadside offering wine tastings.
After parking on the side of the house we mill around the patio with iced beverages, nibbling hor d’oeuvres. The guests arrive, grinning, but reserved. Am I overthinking Heinrich dying and its effect on the party? The sunlight ignites the white outfits to brilliancy. I gossip with my friends; we wonder if there are more attendees who do not know Heinrich. I’m not sure which one of the elderly men around the garden is Heinrich or if he is even out. We are told it is almost time to assign croquet teams. In addition to the croquet setup, there is a three piece jazz band and a chef under a tent with a gargantuan paella dish. The host grew up in a traveling circus which means she values pizazz. I’ve never played croquet and there aren’t normal croquet rules here. The losing teams have choose one of two punishments: eat a roasted cricket or have a shot of cheap tequila in an electric-guitar shaped bottle. I resign myself to eating a dry-roasted cricket, knowing they don’t taste like much and won’t be squishy in the center.
My friends and I are the only attendees under forty, besides one late arrival. He is tall, muscular, and quiet. The combination of an off-white safari hat, cheap white linen suit, and ugly white faux-crocodile Oxfords make for an awkward and discombobulated outfit. I had no idea that anyone earnestly owned a safari hat. I turn to my friends and whisper about how strange he looks and start positing reasons why he is here. My mom and her female friends could be described as the derogatory term for “middle-aged or older women who have an abundance of homosexual male friends”. For identifying as someone who doesn’t like people, my mom has made countless friends on planes, at the opera, at bars, at dinner parties, etc. These friends vary in age and country of origin, but are generally transplants, which makes my mom an ideal person to show them around, set them up on dates, and help them build a community in San Francisco. Based on the man’s body composition and terribly coordinated outfit, I posit that he is an ex-marine, military, or other armed force member who met the host at an event. The host puts us young people together for a game: me, my two friends, and the oddly dressed man.
We start the game, and as I suspected, I am subpar at croquet. I have never been talented with games that involve hitting a ball with a stick. Croquet is like small slow golf, with a more pendulous club, and even though my mom invested in golf lessons and camp, I was never remotely good. When I try to hit my ball, swinging the club feels out of control because of the weight distribution. It feels like the handle will slip out of my grasp and the mallet’s head is dragging the club down to flip over. Neither of my friends are particularly good either. The oddly dressed man does okay. I’m paired with one of my friends, and my other friend is paired with the oddly dressed man. Their team is bad, but our team is worse. I eat the cricket, my teammate takes the shot, and as the games continue I don’t see anyone else choose to eat the crickets. Perhaps folks want to be drunk because Heinrich is dying. Based on everyone’s faces, the cricket is hardly as foul as a shot of electric guitar tequila. After the final game everyone retires to the outdoor furniture, relaxing and standing around conversing in groups. Heinrich appears at the other side of the pool, seated in a chair and talking with party goers. He is stout, white-haired, with a strong nose and pale skin. He looks happy but weak and tired. I consider walking over to greet him, but he looks preoccupied and I don’t know what to say anyway. — “I hope my presence is welcome at this, your final party before you die…”
A boombox appears on the patio, club music bumping from it’s small round speakers. Clues reassemble and snap together in my mind. I look to my friends to see if they have had the same realization. My mom leans over.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you, [the host] always has a stripper before dinner.”
Our eyes widen and our faces freeze. The oddly dressed man is here as an entertainer, to strip. Pink rushes to our cheeks. All three of us are embarrassed, not just because a man is now making too much eye contact with us while he strips, but also because the oddly dressed man had tricked us into thinking he was a regular party guest. His silence, awkward wardrobe, and low-energy demeanor, had led us to assume his profession didn’t involve grinding on people. We had been duped. Now, his combination of clothes was so obviously a safari costume mixed with crappy formal wear. The host’s idea to place him in the party and mix him with the only other young people as a plant was way beyond a fake police officer arriving at a bachelorette party with a “noise complaint.” The host had needed at least a few young people to hide him amongst, which is what I had provided. The crowd cheers and claps at the reveal. My mom can’t stop laughing.
He removes his hat, shirt, pants, and then the little white shorts underneath the pants. I’m incredibly uncomfortable because I do not like attention or people touching me and this is a combination of both. My heart races and I feel like a puppy in one of those photos where it is getting its head squeezed by a toddler. The white shorts come off, revealing a small black banana hammock.
“Three ladies on a chaise lounge, how could I resist?” he says.
And then he is all around us, writhing and rolling his body. His skin is tacky and the stubble from shaving his entire body rubs against our arms, legs, and faces. There is an inconvenient hole in his underwear right in between his junk and his butt. As he dances on my friend, my field of vision is all perineum. I’m hoping this will be short and he will soon move on to Heinrich. Surely he knows that we are not the terminally ill German man he was hired to entertain. I grip myself in the plastic recliner as he scoops up one of my friends; the crowd goes wild as he throws her around his shoulders. Heinrich is smiling and everyone but us is having a grand old time. I simper, because the surprise still hasn’t worn off and while I understand that the spectacle is funny I still feel violated. The way he has zeroed in on us like targets doesn’t help. It is possible he has decided to pick on us because we are the physically smallest people at the party and are light enough for him to do swing-ya-round tricks, but his performance commentary and private whispering quickly becomes predatory.
“How old are you?” he asks my friend.
“20,” she says.
“20 and doesn’t look a day older than 15!” he announces to the crowd.
Was this a joke about trying to compliment women by telling them they look younger than they are that just didn’t land right? Was this man admitting he was attracted to fifteen year-olds? The stripper continues manhandling my friend like a ragdoll. Then he moves on to my other friend. Soon she is up in the air and he is swinging her around. He tilts her body over the pool teasing that he will drop her. He leans in and whispers something. She is returned, paler than usual, not because of the aerial tricks but because he told her that she was “his favorite.” Yikes. I had just wanted to go to a fancy party to play croquet with my friends, not a stranger’s literal final hoorah with an undercover stripper who needs a lesson about personal boundaries. Thankfully, whatever face I am making deters the stripper from trying any funny business with me.
The stripper’s attention finally shifts elsewhere in the crowd. He body rolls on other attendees and motorboats a woman. Luckily, she was excited about the endeavor. All the guests whoop and holler. After what feels like fifteen minutes of bargain-basement Magic Mike touching boobs, Heinrich gets his lap dance. I’m scared this excitement might kill him before dinner. Heinrich beams while the stripper slithers around and on him, appreciating the young muscular man. At that moment, my friends and I didn’t mind being tributes in service of Heinrich’s joy. We can’t deny the hilarity of making foolhardy twenty year-olds bewildered.
The show ends and the jazz trio starts. The stripper collects his ugly white crocodile shoes and departs. The mood of the party changes in an instant. Caterers appear out of nowhere and set the tables up for dinner. While I had noticed the size of the paella dish before the stripping incident, I failed to really take it in. The paella pan is so large I could climb on top of it and use it as a disk for sledding. I watch as the chef tends to the yellow rice. If a person arrived at the party now, it would seem like a formal summer event with an all white dress code. The stripping interlude almost feels like a hallucination. I’m reminded of Aaron Carter’s 2000 hit song That’s How I Beat Shaq, where he dreams of winning a game of pickup against Shaq and then wakes up to find a Shaq jersey he did not have before. We don’t have a jersey to prove what happened was real, but my pale friend’s arms and legs are reddened and splotchy from the stripper’s aggressive grinding. Everyone sits down to eat and we toast Heinrich.
On the drive home, I pull the electronic toll pass out of the glove compartment and set it on the dashboard. I do not know why, but Golden Gate Bridge only has a toll southbound towards San Francisco. I think about how I had not noticed anyone speaking German at the party which makes me wonder if any of his family was present. A person has to be profoundly alone to move into their old client’s house for their final days or have a party thrown for them filled with guests they do not know. My heart strains even imagining my life being so painful and out of my control. I hope he laughed enough at the party; I hope he laughed so hard his eyes watered. When we cross the Golden Gate Bridge going to the city, we get a different view. Instead of the sailboat filled waters and Alcatraz island or the city skyline standing pretty behind the Ferry Building, we see the ocean welcomed in by the land’s fingertips. The water charges forward, vast, dark, and violent all the way to the horizon.