It was all okay, of course, in the end.
The rain fell fatly and the wipers harrumphed. Last to be picked up, she got the front seat. Small consolation. Three already in the back, three already beside themselves. It was a party. Hip hip hooray! Say hello, I admonished them. Hello, said the birthday girl. Hello, said the other two. They were 8 years old. Friends since kindergarten. But three got there first. It wouldn't have been more than five minutes. But it was long enough. Long enough to stake their back seat claim. Long enough to form a gang. She tried, at first, to join in. Laughed when they laughed, even if she couldn't see what they laughed at. Remember when ... she offered up, but it was only an interruption to their flow. She was excluded, by a seat, by five minutes. Sad and sullen, she slowly withdrew. And the party raged on behind her, while the rain fell fatly and the wipers harrumphed. Later, after they'd eaten the horseshoe-shaped cake that had collapsed in the middle, and been glued back together with whipped cream and chocolate icing, there was Statues, and the losers fought over who would judge. You're so annoying, said one girl to another. And their brutal honesty took my breath away. Movie time, I announced gaily. They jostled for position on the couch, and I noticed a new gang had formed. That it was someone else's turn to be left out.
Afterwards, picking a green Fruit Burst out of the Persian rug, I wondered at how it begins. This fraught kinship. With the exception of misanthropes, we are social animals, seeking out each other's company, endlessly, expectantly. Coming together in myriad ways, joining touch teams and book clubs, accepting invitations to dinner parties and work drinks. Two, three, four times a week, we gather, mostly willingly, sometimes not, with friends, family, colleagues, strangers. We clink glasses, play games, negotiate conversations laced with tripwires, dance around each other. And all of it makes me so terribly anxious.
I was an anxious child. Now I am an anxious adult. It has only occurred to me recently though, that rather than being the wall-to-wall underlay to my personality I had always assumed, the ubiquitous foil to my more appealing traits, my anxiety has a source. That while I am far from shy, my anxiety is triggered and fuelled by social events. By how everyone will get on.
My anxiety does not muck around. It kicks off at the planning stages. Sometimes the worries come thick, sometimes thin. But as soon as I think I've dealt to one, my subconscious opens the door to another, ushering it in. And it is quite the oddest thing, how something so psychical can manifest itself so physically; making me feel both peakily empty, and yet gassily bloated. It would be nice if my fretting served a purpose. That if by entertaining the idea of every possible disastrous exchange, I could pre-empt them all. But even if no one mentions the war, even if by some miracle the friend with an armoury of blasphemous jokes manages not to offend the devout Catholic in the room, even if all is relative harmony, post-match I will find something with which to torment myself. Something I said, or worse, because their transgressions feel like mine too, something my husband or children said. Don't discuss/say/do, I will prep them. Inevitably to no avail. And now that the anxiety is not so much anticipatory as actualised, it will have crawled its way up from my belly, and made itself at home in the back of my throat, my jaw constricting with every breath.
I had thought it would dissipate with age. And sometimes it fools me into thinking it has. But give me a boozy party, a group holiday, and watch it rear its head. So when a friend told me about a wedding anniversary she'd attended recently, where doors were slammed and several of the Goldcard-holder guests stormed off, I knew all I could ever hope for was that it would all be okay in the end.