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Rethink Passing On (and Passing Out at) the Company Party

I’ve just shared an article, here with the DivineCaroline community, about valuing yourself and not identifying by occupation. There are times, however, when it’s totally appropriate to ask where a person works. Those are moments when you find yourself singing the melody of that cautionary Jackson Five song (but with the lyrics slightly altered): Stop, the life you save may be your own.

Some years ago, I reluctantly attended a company party at an upscale jazz club-restaurant on the East Coast. Of course, the event took place at night and in the middle of a week that didn’t contain a payday. That meant—for the non-promiscuous among us—going home alone by subway, not by taxi. I say that I reluctantly attended the shindig because I knew most of the co-workers would be talking out of their rear ends the way they did back at the office, except they’d be even more full of crap after taking advantage of the open bar. (I was right.) But I also knew that we’d be treated to a sumptuous buffet of New Orleans Creole-style food.

Ah, but there was yet another reason I’d decided to go to the bash: Just as I know that all of us humans have twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, I knew that my upcoming performance review hinged on how I navigated the testy waters of the company party. I had my eye on a promotion, and since I wasn’t willing to “sleep” with my manager, or his, the company party would be my last opportunity for advancement.

The grapevine gala was going on its second hour, with voices growing louder as bottles of differing shapes and sizes emptied faster than a well-serviced drainpipe during a torrential downpour. By then I’d already stretched the rayon of my little black dress by going for thirds of fried spicy wings, jambalaya and cornbread. Meanwhile, a live band took a break from 1970s disco tunes, and lots of silver-haired folks ambled toward the dance floor upon hearing the opening strains of the American standard “I Remember You.” The change in pace prompted them to channel the confidence of “Dancing with the Stars” competitors and deliver their best imitation of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—and when the rhythms switched to swing, their best impersonation of Frankie Manning and Freda Washington.

I knew a little tango and a lot less Foxtrot, so I had no inclination to join the brave on the dance floor and glide amid the royal blue and lavender spotlights. My exuberant co-workers, however, began goading me to “get out there!” because they knew I’d begun taking lessons at a dance school. (Actually, I had been dancing for many years, but not ballroom dancing.)

I ignored their girlie chanting, holding my purse to my chest, and bearing my weight into my shoes and into the chair. They laughed loudly, perfuming the air with mingled spirits—and I don’t mean joie de vivre, either—as they attempted to pry my purse from my tight embrace. I must’ve flattened my “D” cups to a set of “B’s” that night in a fierce attempt to fight off those drunkards. In contrast, I was chain-drinking sodas. This was like one of those pseudo-lesbian scenes from a bad 1980s women’s prison flick, except we remained fully dressed. (Come to think of it, were there any good movies of that subgenre in the ‘80s?)

Out of nowhere stepped a rather charming, handsome man. He wasn’t dressed to the nines like most of the employees at the party. But he smiled so widely and his teeth were so bright, that he had us blinded from his purpose. Then again, our company was quite large, and we couldn’t possibly know everyone there. The guy stood about six feet, had a lanky physique, and reddish-brown complexion, and he kept smoothing back black, wavy hair brushed close to his head. His smile appeared a bit fake, as if he was contemplating: Which of you sisters will I be bedding tonight? I thought: Not this one! And just as that thought passed through my mind, his gaze zoomed in on my face.

Mr. Charm extended his hand and grinned under his thin mustache. I played coy because I was embarrassed as hell. Staring up at him, I said, “Merci, monsieur,” while shaking his hand. I’d just returned from Quebec and was still feeling Frenchified.

“Excusez-moi, mademoiselle. Êtes-vous française?” he asked before raising my right arm higher to give my hand a slo-mo peck.

Smiling, I replied “Non, je suis americaine.” Then I snapped myself into my non-French reality and re-answered, “No, I just came back from vacationing in Montreal.”

“Montreal, eh?” he said, pronouncing his beloved city “MAWH-ray-YAHL.” He raised an eyebrow and smiled back at me before practically dragging me tango-style onto the dance floor.

Mr. Charm looked to be fifteen years my senior. I didn’t understand why he selected me, but then I rationalized that he didn’t want an inebriated dance partner who would spill her guts when he spun her. That thought caused me to look back at the giggling dingbats at the table. Whenever I wanted to glance over at them, he would pull me in closer to him. I think he really was trying to cop a feel, desiring the sensation of my heavy bra on his muscular chest. Whatever.

It was difficult to place my right palm in his as my hand was still limp from his light kiss in front of my colleagues. I made up some fancy footwork that I’d watched on those dance championships which aired on PBS every year. Oh, but he was quite the dazzler, displaying smooth footwork of his own. And those darned chalk-white teeth. He dipped me so sharply at the end of our twanglo (it wasn’t the tango; but it was twisted), that my left shoe nearly flew off. A rather embarrassing moment, yes, but one about to be outdone by a horrifying sequence.

When Mr. Charm and I returned to the table, I reclaimed my purse, checking for any missing currency inside while my co-workers asked my dance partner within which department he worked at our company. The assumption was that everyone at the bash was an employee. “Leave the man alone,” I urged the intoxicated gaggle. But no, they insisted on imploring further.

Mr. Charm complied. Retrieving his scuzzy-looking backpack from beneath the table, he matter-of-factly revealed, “I don’t work for your company at all.” Then he smiled widely. That night, he explained while zipping up his windbreaker, he had landed at the Port Authority bus terminal after a 10-hour ride from Montreal.

The other women acted as if his admission was artistic and bohemian. He said nothing about just finishing an avant-garde installation at a gallery in Montreal; he wasn’t distributing flyers for his upcoming high-wire act in Mont Royal; and he didn’t magically produce an easel and palette to do our portraits there in the club-restaurant. No, this man had just held my waist, danced cheek to cheek with me, touched my palms with his, and now I was learning with the subtlety of a Band-Aid ripping the hairs off my arm that he was some kind of vagrant!?! I was terrified that he’d crashed our company party and was even more of a stranger than a co-worker on crystal meth sliding by on HR’s second written warning.

When another co-worker at the table had the gall to ask him how he earned his living in Montreal, he casually replied that he handled cadavers. Oh, great! I thought to myself while sneering over at her. At this point, my colleagues were giggling nervously, but I wasn’t. My jaw felt locked and my pupils must’ve been as dilated as a comatose patient’s. When the intruder reached into a pocket at the front of his backpack, I held my breath. What, is he going to retrieve a knife or gun now? I wondered.

Looking around at the other women, I could tell they, too, were having a cardio-pulmonary event. Any trace of laughter was replaced by grim silence. Still grinning, the mysterious stranger whipped out a company I.D. card that contained his photo, the name of the hospital, and the department where he worked: the morgue.

I’ll never forget how “The Addams Family” theme flitted through my mind and how this interloper’s increasingly weird vibe crept through my bones and over my flesh. I’d just danced toe to toe with a man that tagged toes. A part of me struggled to escape out of my skin, but I caught myself midflight. I was above discriminating against anyone’s occupation—unless it was serial killing, rape, armed robbery, etc.—and I didn’t want him mistaking me for one of those paranoid, post-Patriot Act Americans who assume that all foreigners are terrorists. Still, for all any of us knew at the table that night, Mr. Charm could’ve been a murderer of Ripleyesque or Ripperian proportions.

The next day, I made it a top priority to communicate discreetly to the appropriate department at our company that there had been a security breach at the party. Perversely, the cliché about “no good deed ...” echoed in my head when I was placed under surveillance for having danced too intimately with a company-party crasher. Yeah, where was the videotape when I was getting groped in the mailroom earlier that year for committing the sin of hand-delivering my manager’s last-minute package after hours?

Alas, the moral of this true story is: Go with your gut instincts and ask crucial questions because, if you don’t—and especially if mind-altering libation (or another kind of drug) is involved—you could wind up as some morbid statistic.