When I was 12, I threw a new years eve party, and no one came.
That’s not entirely accurate. My friend Ellen came, dropped off by her parents around 8pm. When she walked into our modest, suburban home I greeted her warmly, still unaware that no one else would turn up.
I had spent all day prepping for my big party debut. I had an early knack for thinking through the details (budding young gays of the world, unite) and had carefully chosen 4–5 different kinds of tasty chips, pretzels and even some cheese puffs.
Earlier that week my mom, sister and I made our regular trip to the discount supermarket, called No Frills. It was, as you’d imagine, completely devoid of frills. But it was also devoid of most name brands, instead focused on selling their cheery but traumatizing house brand called “No Name.” While cheaper, the products were packaged to elicit maximum status anxiety: bright yellow everything, with Helvetica titles that shouted “You’re Poor” regardless of what was inside. As we walked the aisles, I started putting stuff into the cart.
“Honey,” my mom said, “we can’t afford those fancy potato chips.”
She thought Lay’s were fancy, bless.
“Ok mom but I don’t want the kids to know we shop here,” I said, sweeping my arm around like a miffed Liberace.
“Sweetie, there’s nothing wrong with getting a good deal.”
I was sunk.
A rare sale on Coca-Cola however meant that I could have the name brand soda. I was grateful, because I knew my classmates would see the labels when they poured drinks, but I could hide the embarrassing snacks in a cupboard and refill them on the sly.
By the time Ellen arrived, our kitchen and coffee tables were heaving with the evidence of my parents’ concern about moving me to a new school. And I was filled with excitement at having my first cool kids party.
The TV was on in the den, I had music to play out of a boombox I artfully arranged on the shelf, and there were party games galore just in case people got bored. I had thought of everything except making enough friends to invite to the party — a small, yet important oversight.
After spending the preceding 6 years in Hebrew School, I had fought vigorously for my parents to let me out. I hated Hebrew School. The teachers were mean, they constantly pressured me to do more and be mistake-free, and I couldn’t have the bologna-and-cheese sandwiches my non-Jewish friends were allowed.
My parents, who wanted us to have the Jewish education they were denied after the Holocaust and under communism, were dead set against me leaving Associated (whose price tag also belied its nearly No Name-level branding). But I persisted, and they relented, and so without much thought, I joined the hormonal circus of a feeder middle school in my neighborhood, already one year into the three year program.
I wasn’t popular at Associated — chubby, loud and opinionated even then. Though I had low expectations of my social prowess at Baythorn Middle School, I could not have foreseen just how hard it would be to make friends. All the other kids had come from one of 3 elementary schools, and this was the first time they were put together. They stayed largely in their own cliques, and for those of us not already blessed with a posse, life was tough.
I had also started to go through puberty a lot earlier than most of my peers, and I was taller and much hairier than the average student. I even gave the Armenian kids a good run for their money. As the year progressed, and my status didn’t, I developed gynecomastia — which is the condition where boys grow breasts. Despite the fact that I was chubby, they were prominent enough to warrant some serious taunting on the school bus and playground. And because they developed slowly over time, I didn’t realize that I needed to take immediate medical action.
I was generally mortified by my body, and all the crazy things it was doing. There were conflicting thoughts and feelings every day (boys are cute! girls are cute!), and in every context where I got rejected by my peers. On one hand, I had been brought up to believe that I was supposed to be strong in myself, to be proud of who I was and to always respect the core sacrifice made by my family. On the other, I really wanted to fit in, and honestly I’d consider any positive social interaction (even a smile) as a sign that the person wanted to be friends. Put simply, I was needy AF.
Into this mess entered the lovely Ellen. She was the only child of two successful Asian parents, and first-generation like me. Unlike me, she had money. Her family did really well for itself, as her father was a doctor, a well paying profession even in Socialist Canada. They lived in a nice new home they could actually afford, had new cars, and she had spending money for everything she needed. She wore Benetton and Roots gear almost exclusively and had amazing hair. I was never really sure why she befriended me, but during that first year in middle school, she probably saved my life.
It could also have been that her parents liked me.
When I first met her father, Mr Chu looked me up and down and said, “Ellen has said good things about you.”
Despite only being 12, I knew what the right response for an older person was, even then.
“Thank you, Mr. Chu. Ellen is amazing and you must be so proud of her.”
As they pulled away from the school curb in their new Honda Accord, I saw Ellen look back and me, smile and wave. I had done good. As my family’s “little golden boy”, I had been groomed to be polite and engaging with adults from a young age, and I knew how to impress. I had, however, very little experience relating to people my own age, so this made the situation even more remarkable. Ellen was always close to her parents, a good child who got straight A+s and never got into trouble. Ultimately, her parents were instrumental in her decision to come over on New Years eve.
For this major party, which I expected to be my social debut, I strongly opposed having my “old” parents linger around us. So I broached the subject.
“Mom, can we be left alone when my friends come over?” I asked. I had waited until the last minute to make this request to maximize my chances of getting a Yes.
A look of disappointment flashed across my mom’s face. I now know this to be the kids-are-getting-older sadness that all parents experience the first time their child rejects their presence in favor of their peers.
“Of course, honey,” she said — trying to hide her ennui, “you and your friends have fun.”
They insisted on being home during the event, but had agreed to leave us alone in the TV room so we could be just us kids. My parents were pretty social people. They had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, and throughout my childhood — up until the divorce — I remember them regularly getting dressed up on weekends and going out to clubs and bars with their amigos.
Now I understand what a huge ask I made of them. Normally, they might have gone out with their friends for NYE, but because I wanted to have a party, they needed to stay home. And then I asked for some space from them, which must have been an extra turn of the knife — and to this day I don’t know what their original plan was for the night.
I do however know what it ended up being. As the night wore on, first 9pm, then 10, it became obvious no one was coming. I found myself regularly going to the front door, opening it and looking outside as if I had somehow missed hearing the doorbell. Those couple of hours moved as slowly as an immigration line after a long flight home.
I didn’t know what to do. I felt anxious about looking like a loser in front of Ellen and wasting my parents’ big soda splurge. I knew they were concerned about my making friends, and I couldn’t help but feel that I was letting everyone down.
As we sat on the couch in the TV room and the pre-pre-NYE show started, Ellen mentioned my favorite topic, Duran Duran. I thought this was a great opportunity to show I wasn’t a loser, so I got increasingly animated as I spoke about Simon Le Bon’s dreamy hair.
I was gesticulating wildly, jumping up and down to simulate everything I had seen in the Duran Duran Rio video. Ellen and my sister clapped along and laughed, knowingly egging me on to create a distraction. What I lacked in ability to hum a tune was matched only by my lack of coordination, and I almost fell down and broke my arm at least 3 times.
I didn’t care. I was air guitaring and dancing for my life and my reputation. And I just wanted to ease the pain of the moment. So I got louder and louder and crazier and crazier, until my parents came into the room. Sensing something was deeply wrong with me, they sat down, each grabbing a bowl, and began to calmly chat with us kids.
My parents, Ellen and even my 8 year old sister, instinctively knew how painful this was for me. They played along. We sat together in the den like this was always the plan — just the 5 of us together. We talked about the new year, the ball dropping in Times Square and the latest TV/movie gossip. Eventually I calmed down enough to start enjoying myself, and time began to move quickly again.
We drank the brand name pop, and devoured the no name chips until it was 1230 am, and Ellen’s parents came to get her for the night.
“Thank You,” I said to her carefully, “for coming. I really appreciate it.”
“Happy New Year,” she said happily as she walked outside hand in hand with her dad.
As they receded they were enveloped in the dark, swirling snow. Standing on the threshold, feeling the warmth of my home while the cold, dark night raged outside made me feel suddenly grateful. Like things could have been worse: I had a good friend, a loving family and a warm place to sleep.
It would be a couple of weeks before I went back to school, and by then my shame and embarrassment had mostly subsided. Things were the same, but it filled me with some resolve to change the situation. I never mentioned my hurt to anyone — not even my parents — as I methodically worked to connect with and befriend folks in the school. I knew that if I didn’t want to be an outcast, I’d have to work for it.
That summer, I had breast reduction surgery, and when I came back for the final year of middle school, I was thriving. I was named valedictorian at graduation, and when I threw a party to celebrate that moment, everyone came.
I’ve never stopped worrying that people won’t show up to my parties. It’s mostly a background anxiety, but every time I entertain or throw a bash, I know that fear is there and very real. I now know how to calm myself down. Hungry Like the Wolf still works wonders.
I also know that when the chips are down (and budget-friendly), the ones who care about you are ready to help. And even if they are sad, embarrassed and impoverished by your failure, they’ll find the right way to be there for you.
Sometimes, all you need is someone — just one person — to pretend nothing is wrong, to make things right.