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Friends and strangers

I didn't intend to throw a "Risky Business"-style New Year's blowout at my parents' house to ring in the year 1996. It just happened. A lot of things just happen when you are 19 and a sophomore in college; at least that's how it felt to me.

I was home in Baltimore from school in Rhode Island, and my parents, who liked to travel, were away.

When you are not yet 21, the question of what to do on New Year's tends to loom large. All I did was mention casually to the right (wrong?) person — one of the most socially connected guys from my high school class — that my parents would be out of town before it was decided, by him, that there would be a New Year's party at my house.

(You see: It wasn't my fault. It just happened. You can probably imagine how well that line went over with my parents after the fact.)

On New Year's Eve, a few of my friends came over early. They looked around at the china figurines and framed photographs on the mantel and coffee table, at the glass sculpture on a pedestal, at the white couches. "This won't do," my friend Steve said. He had far more foresight than I did.

We began taking breakables upstairs to my dad's office, which had a door that locked. We put sheets over the couches and rolled up the rugs and took them to the basement. There was nothing we could do about the fact that it was a rainy night. No matter what, mud was going to be tracked through the house.

By 9 or 10 o'clock, it was apparent that I was the only person to have attended Friends School in the early 1990s who was home alone that year — or the only one dumb enough to let 100 or so former classmates use her parents' house as the site for their binge-drinking. Either way, my parents' suburban townhouse was packed. People in the classes above and below mine, people I'd never spoken to when we'd been in high school — anyone underage who needed a place to drink — filtered through the basement, the upstairs, even my parents' bedroom.

I must have known they weren't there for me. Even so, I was a little bit flattered. I'd been fatally shy growing up, and I gratefully took to drinking toward the end of high school because it was the only way I'd ever been able to overcome my shyness, however temporarily. This party had felt, in theory, like it would offer an opportunity to rewrite the past and, more important, rewrite myself. Instead of looking back on high school and thinking of all the awkward moments — the times I'd said the wrong thing or more often simply blushed and said nothing, the embarrassing crushes — I'd have the story of the legendary party I'd hosted. That would have retroactive power: It would make me sound social, well-adjusted, healthy, like a kid in one of those teen movies I'd loved in the 1980s.

I don't remember too much about the party itself. As always at parties during those years, I spent the evening hoping for something, or someone: some magical encounter both romantic and intellectual, a soulful conversation about books or music or life. After enough drinks, my standards went down. There's a good chance I made out with some guy at midnight, though almost 20 years later, I really don't remember. Safe to say, the soulful conversation did not take place.

What I do remember are fleeting moments of panic: a glance at the stairway, whose white carpet was caked in mud; seeing a jockish guy from the class above mine smoking a cigarette in the family room. At those moments, I did the only thing that seemed sensible: got another drink. I needed, I thought, to stay in a festive mood.

The police came around 2. The sound of their voices in the front hall sent most of my "friends" fleeing through the back door, like cockroaches running from the light.

I woke up on New Year's Day not only hung over, but depressed — at the mind-boggling vastness of the mess and at the feeling, worse than having been used, of having let myself be used, of having invited it. Yay, 1996.

A little while later, I got a call from Steve. Then Dan. Then Alexis. Then Myles. Did I want help cleaning?, they all asked. I did.

That afternoon, my actual friends — the people whom I had spoken to in high school — helped me bag hundreds of plastic cups and beer cans. We mopped. We scrubbed. We vacuumed. We ordered pizza. We laughed as we worked. I didn't know it then — I was too young, too immature, too prone to value the wrong things — but that was the real party. It wasn't actually a bad way to celebrate the new year.

And we did a pretty good job cleaning. Regardless, when my parents returned from their trip, it took them about five seconds to figure out something had happened. "Why is that glass statue facing the wrong way?" my mom asked. "And how come you moved our wedding photo from one end table to the other?"

Her eyes narrowed. "Did you have a party?"

"It wasn't my fault. It just happened …"

Baltimore native Adelle Waldman published her debut novel, "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P," in July.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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