Lisa Kogan
Illustration: John Ritter
"I'm thinking of throwing a little party," I tell my pal Karen as I hold the phone with one hand and fold a mountain of laundry with the other. "No big thing, really, just a few old friends getting together for the holidays," I persist over the dead silence on the other end of the receiver. "Maybe you and Daniel, me and Johannes, and four or five other people who—"

"Daniel and I can't make it," she answers before I can finish.

"But I haven't given you the date."

"Look, Lisa, you know I've had health issues," she counters nervously. I explain to Karen that the American Medical Association has yet to classify "exceedingly dry cuticles" as the kind of condition that requires actual bed rest. "Still..." she mutters as her voice trails off.

That night in bed, I turn to Johannes (love of my life, father of my child, official party co-host). "Darling, I was thinking it's time we throw a little party," I venture.

"That sounds great, sweetheart."

"Really, pumpkin?"

"Of course, angel. I do have one small request, though."

"Anything, honey." He lifts his head and hands me his pillow. "Put this over my face and then hold it there until, oh, I don't know...let's say, I stop moving."

There are lots of areas in which I excel. As I've already mentioned, I can fold laundry with one hand. I'm also quite capable of catching the cold of just about anybody living within my zip code, I have the kind of magnetism that wordlessly beckons a guy wearing half a cantaloupe on his head to come sit next to me during long subway rides, and, though I'm hard-pressed to explain exactly how I do it, I possess an almost mystical ability to purchase appliances, furniture, and clothing approximately six minutes before the extremely pricey item goes on sale.

The thing I can't do is host a genuinely wonderful party.

I attempt to invite several other friends, but one has elected to schedule elective surgery for that date (you know you're in trouble when a friend would rather have her hammertoes corrected than have dinner at your place); one claims our last brunch was like "a hostage situation with lox"; one—and you know who you are—pretends to be her own housekeeper, repeating, "I sorry, no English" over and over; and two different people choose not to attend but still make me swear that I won't flambé anything it's my fault they couldn't get their eyebrows to grow back after the crêpes Suzette incident of 2005.

I crawl into bed that night a broken woman. "Why do I suck at parties?" I ask Johannes.

He narrows his eyes. "Is this one of those trick questions like when you ask me if you need to lose weight and I say, 'Well, I suppose we could all stand to drop a pound or two,' and you spend the next 36 hours likening me to Satan?"

I make a mental note to explore why I suck at relationships on some future night. "No," I insist, "I really want to know what I'm doing wrong. Give it to me straight, Doc, I can take it."

He smiles and puts his book aside. "That's just it; the only thing you're doing wrong is constantly striving to do everything exactly right. You want the prettiest cocktail, the freshest flowers, candles lit, music playing, dinner timed, conversation sparkling, and you drive yourself and everybody else nuts trying to achieve it."

I would like to be the kind of person who receives this information with an open mind and a grateful heart. But my first instinct is to take my boyfriend of 15 years up on his previous offer and smother him to death with his own orthopedically correct goose-down pillow.

The problem is, I know he's right.
I am part geisha girl, part drill sergeant, with just a soupçon of control freak thrown in for good measure. I want everyone to relax and have a good time, but that has to start with me, and I'm about as laid-back as a caged hummingbird guzzling a can of Red Bull while awaiting biopsy results. You can keep your meditation, your reflexology, your gin, your tonics—I'm just not the mellow type.

I approach a petite Jewish woman from the Midwest to figure out when this started. "Mom, have I always been a perfectionist?"

She attempts diplomacy. "Well, let me put it this way—you used to like to dress up in my clothes when you were maybe 3 or 4 years old."

"What does that prove? Lots of little girls play dress-up."

"True," she says, "but you tried to bulldoze Grandma into tailoring the clothes to actually fit you."

"Well, excuse me for realizing that a skirt should hit just above my knee." We are quiet for a minute. "So how do you throw a really fun party?" She reminds me that they used to hire Magical Marv for my birthdays. I remind her that Magical Marv chain-smoked and seemed to hate children.

"Yes, that's what your dad and I always liked best about him," she deadpans. "Anyway, the only thing I know about giving a party is that we can never get the extra leaf into the dining table and I usually forget to serve one of the side dishes."

This leads me to a new theory: "Maybe bad parties are hereditary, like green eyes and diabetes," I say to Johannes.

"Okay, that's it," he announces, grabbing the phone. Before I can lunge at him, he has dialed our neighbors Paul and Cheryl and invited them to come for dinner "in about 15 minutes."

"Are you insane?" I shriek as I stuff everything littering the floor and coffee table under the sofa. "This is grounds for divorce," I bellow, only to be reminded that we never got married. "That's because I don't know how to throw a wedding," I hiss as I pull off my stained Sunday night yoga pants and rummage through the laundry bag for my slightly less stained Saturday afternoon yoga pants, marveling all the while at the fact that I don't do yoga.

Needless to say, Cheryl and Paul are four minutes early. "Hey, guys, can I offer you..." I do a quick scan of the refrigerator, "a dollop of mayonnaise?" I have hit rock bottom. Somewhere Martha Stewart hangs her head in shame. Johannes gives me a hug. There is no place to go but up. Our neighbors split a diet Snapple, we order in Thai food and proceed to talk and laugh and pass chicken satay for three straight hours.

What can I say? It is, to date, our most successful dinner party.

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