“You’re the first teenager to be invited from this province,” said my mother, trying to sound cheery.
I looked at her, then down at the new dress spread across my bed. It hurt my eyes with its shiny newness and bright color. I didn’t even like the texture – the material felt stiff and unyielding, and I knew it would be uncomfortable. I had only ever worn soft cotton pants and t-shirts in grey. “I don’t want to go,” I stated to the dress.
“You must,” my mother said sternly, and she stood to help me put it over my head. “It’s a pretty dress,” she explained, “Suitable for the tea party. It came by drone especially.”
“Introductory Resocialization Event,” I corrected her.
She just shrugged, “The invitation said tea party.”
I knew I had no choice. The world was safe again after so long, and the government told us we needed to learn how to interact with other people again, face-to-face. They told us that it was now safe to be in the same room with lots of people, maskless, breathing the same air. People my age were told to attend a series of organized social events, the first being a tea party. I hadn’t been too worried about it until the horrific dress arrived along with a laminated card of suggested ‘ice-breaker’ phrases. Even my mother looked confused at those, and she was old enough to remember socializing.
“Isn’t the weather warm today?” I read out, “Why would I say this?”
My mother opened her mouth, but it took her a few moments to say something, “Maybe if it was warm?”
“So face-to-face social interactions with strangers involve stating the obvious?”
“Sometimes,” answered Mum.
Younger kids had appointments to play at a playground. I had seen a gathering at a newly constructed playground in our province just the other day. About 10 kids had appointments there to play with each other but the slide was empty and only a gentle breeze rocked the swings. Most kids were just standing behind an adult, heads butting their bottoms. The adults looked none too comfortable either, hissing pleas for their kids to show their faces and shooting each other sympathetic looks. These forced interactions seemed unnecessary to me. We interacted already. I spoke to old Mary at the store only two days ago when I picked up our allotment. She asked me if we got any meat, I told her we didn’t but had got some last week. My mother speaks to people regularly by video chat for work, sometimes every day and I also speak to teachers every now and again when I have to.
I put on my usual grey running shoes with the hideous dress because no alternative had been sent. I looked like a giant egg yolk walking on two sticks. I had only just reached the front door when the bus pulled up. My mother practically shoved me out the door, “Quickly,” she admonished, then grabbed me back and hugged me fiercely. “It’ll be fun Yvette.” I nodded and climbed up the dirty stairs past the expressionless driver. The bus was already half-full, so I dipped my eyes to avoid making eye contact with anyone, but I had already seen that everyone looked as ridiculous as I did. Boys were in suits, girls in dresses, all clothing was ill-fitting and in every garish color you could think of.
I jumped when an older lady I hadn’t spotted, sitting in the third row spoke - shouted really, in a fake kind of sing song voice, “Hello there! You must be Yvette.” She then ticked a list, but did it so flamboyantly, I thought she was going to hit the head of the boy sitting in the seat in front of her.
The tea party was held inside a vast room that had beautifully intricate ceilings and gold light fixtures. It was shabby but must have been a building that survived the quarantine. Due to looting and neglect, many non-residential structures hadn’t. It wasn’t the setting I had expected for our tea party. In Old World history, I had seen pictures of people drinking tea at social events, but it was usually old people sitting in a garden, or cultural ceremonies in what used to be China. We were faced with large round tables, seating 10 per table. In the centre of these were big tea pots, some patterned, some plain, no milk or sugar of course, dainty teacups with saucers, and multi colored wobbly looking slices on tiered platters. As I neared the tables, I could see that the teapots and teacups were faded, chipped, and stained and none of the saucers matched. No doubt the wobbly squares were simply the usual algae gloop that accompanied most of our meals but colored with something. The tiered platters were rusty around the metal bits.
I was startled for a second time that day by a loud noise and looked up to see some skinny black-haired guy tapping a microphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, and we all looked around confused, did he mean us? He smiled and showed the kind of gleaming white teeth I had only seen in old Hollywood movies, “You will find your names are placed in front of a seat, please sit there so we can begin.”
We all shuffled around until we found our seats then pulled chairs out with much scraping and sat, hunched, most of us looking straight down at our chipped, white plates.
The skinny guy spoke again, reading from his notes, he can’t have been much older than us, “Now, please help yourself to tea and food. You could also serve your neighbor! To start a conversation, you could use a phrase from the suggestions we sent with your glorious clothing or look up at the screen for ideas!”
None of us did anything. A girl sitting in the seat next to me gave me a sideways look and muttered, “This is so defective.”
I grunted in agreement and added, “He so needs an update.”
This caused a few others at the table to giggle and one boy opposite me looked up at the screen and said sarcastically to the girl beside him, “What a lovely dress you are wearing.” She snorted.
After a couple of hours, they bussed us home again. My mother was waiting anxiously at the door for me. I brushed past her as she said, “How did it go?”
“Waste of time,” I replied, and headed for my computer, keen to add some of the kids I had met to my contacts list.