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How To Survive A Cocktail Party When You're Completely Sober

In this excerpt from Unwasted, Sacha Z. Scoblic explains how Harry Potter helped her get through the battle for the room’s one club soda.

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Sacha photo: Kaveh Sardari

By Sacha Z. Scoblic

09/01/11

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At my first cocktail party in sobriety, I had an epiphany: All that most parties and cocktail hours really are is a bunch of people just standing there. I cracked my back, twisting uncomfortably, and slid one foot out of my high-heeled shoe in a semi-orgasmic release before replacing it and repeating with the other foot. Without a drink in my hand, I was not at a reception; I was merely in a crowded room, hovering for an eternity in ill-chosen shoes. And the cocktail hours that precede an event such as, say, a wedding can end up feeling like some yawning expanse, a meaningless pocket of time designed to crush your spirit early so that the rest of the evening—with its mass-produced chicken entrées and droning emcee—will seem tolerable. What’s worse, the whole point of the hour, to get people relaxed and chatty before herding them into a charmless catering hall, is not only wasted on me but has the precise opposite effect: Cocktail hours drain my capacity for small talk and leave me exhausted for the main event, during which I am likely to zone out and say something utterly honest like “Is it just me or did that rabbi give you the heebie-jeebies?” 

As many workplaces are, my office is fond of holding the occasional cocktail party—a “reward” to the employees that enables the higher-ups to remind everyone that they are still cool and with it and that we are all lucky to work at an office that provides cheese plates and vino in lieu of raises and ergonomic chairs. Sparkling water is rarely passed around on delicate trays at cocktail parties; rather, I often have to fight my way to the bar along with all of the power drinkers—like I used to be—people who can’t wait the whole five minutes for the tray of alcohol to pass their way before getting started. Also, I have the distinct disadvantage of having zero social lubricant, which means humoring whoever is talking to me about, say, budget cuts can sometimes take an iron will and accomplished acting—all while trying to snag the one waiter with the elusive club soda. These are the kind of functions I found fairly intolerable even when I did drink and consider downright demented now that I don’t. That’s why I make a game out of them. 

Brush up on your Harry Potter and start to think of cocktail parties as Quidditch matches. You are the Seeker. The rented room you are in is the pitch; following the caterer into the kitchen is strictly out of bounds. The club soda is the elusive Golden Snitch. The other people in the room are Bludgers, ready to elbow you out of the game, block access to the Golden Snitch, or, worst of all, engage you in dull conversation in a cruel tactical ploy to keep you from the Snitch altogether. Generally, I find, at most cocktail parties, there is exactly one pre-made club soda over ice. It is hidden on one of the several dozen trays of Pinot Grigio being circulated throughout the room, and it is your task to locate this lone icy refreshment before the pregnant woman in the crowd does (there is always one). Like Harry Potter’s Golden Snitch, the club soda—floating along on its island tray of Pinot Grigio—darts in and out of the crowd, behind heads and shoulders, dips and bobs, weaves and swoops in a maddening dance while you try to swipe at it without drawing unnecessary attention to yourself. You get one point for each club soda you can drink before you have to pee. 

I am never so thirsty as when I cannot find a drink. Cocktail parties are kind of like being trapped on a lifeboat on the ocean, surrounded by water with nary a drop to drink. With their endless jibber-jabbering and small talk, they not only induce a kind of ferocity of thirst I’ve never before known, they also make me yearn for something, anything, to occupy my hands and mouth. A tiny over-iced sparkling water with a Lilliputian straw that is drained through osmosis the second my lips touch the sides will do. I just need something that allows me to feel like, in some small way, I am normal, that I am participating in the normal course of things, that I am acknowledging the time-honored ritual of imbibing liquids while discussing the weather (“Hot, right? I mean I need a shower just from walking to the bus stop”), that I am no heretic, no outlier, no fundamentalist, that I am capable of carrying the totemic glass and damp napkin without devolving into an incomprehensible alcoholic panic. 

I also find it amusing to watch the young kids at the office during a cocktail party—the interns, the assistants, the newbies. They gleefully snap up delicate wineglasses like they were two-for-one Miller Lites at the campus pub. They throw back pinot noir as though it were indistinguishable from the novelty beverages of their clan: Malibu coconut rum floats, Mike’s Hard Lemonade, Captain Morgan, Jägermeister shots, Long Island iced teas, Red Bull and vodka, and kamikazes. The liquor companies have pulled off the neat trick of making a perfectly legal and accessible substance subversive and cool. And now I get to watch as the Barely Legals leave their perches at the little kids’ table and join the adults at the big one. They can barely contain their excitement as they beam and think: I am like totally drinking at work right now! And then there is that kid at the office who sneers at his own peers while he channels Holden Caulfield; he swirls and ostentatiously sniffs his wine for the better part of an hour until it is sheer foam, and all I can think is, Stop! I may not drink the stuff anymore, but I won’t stand for it being abused like that. My God, kid, what are you doing, some kind of inane molecular gastronomy experiment? 

The Barely Legals make me feel normal. With their in- securities and overcompensations, their swirling and chugging and beaming, I can feel more like an adult, more like I belong. I am not as awkward as they are; I am more of a grown-up. I blend. Just another ordinary adult playing a mental game of Quidditch against the pregnant lady. 

This excerpt from Unwasted is reprinted with permission from the publisher. Click here to see the Unwasted video. Sacha Z. Scoblic is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the columns editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She was a regular contributor to the New York Times blog “Proof: Alcohol and American Life" and lives with her husband and son in Washington, DC. Her sobriety date is June 15, 2005.

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