I had decided to go to the event because it was about religion and politics, and hey, that's what I'm studying, and hey, that's what my internship is all about, and hey! It's always good to meet new people, right?
For starters, I got off the Metro at Archives/Navy Yard or whatever it's called and immediately realized that there were three streets in front of me that all had signs that vaguely resembled "Pennsylvania" (which is where I was supposed to go). I squinted, I put a hand over my eyes to shield them from the quickly fading sun, and still, I couldn't tell which was which. The only solution was to walk across the street, get right up under the first sign, realize it said "Indiana Ave" and move to the next one, which said "D St." So it was the last street that I could have chosen. Great. I thought to myself. I've now managed to make it look like I'm the biggest tourist wacko since Mr. Smith first came to Washington, looking at these street signs like I've never seen anything like them in the whole world! Just great. Now, I may have been exaggerating just a smidgin, but after a long day of work, don't we all deserve a little hyperbole in our lives?
So I found Pennsylvania. And the Newseum. Check, check. I even entered the right door, gave them my name, saw a black pen make a big check mark to say that yes, indeed, Hilary Sherratt has arrived, and proceeded into the main lobby of the museum to the spreads of cheese and crackers. And it was here that my agony really began.
No one really teaches how to stand awkwardly in a reception where you know no one and you can't see another person who's by themselves for about three hundred miles, and your shoes are scuffed, your raincoat is dripping slightly onto the floor, and you are sweating profusely at the pure lack of recognizable, nameable faces. The reason they do not teach us how to do this is because we don't need to be taught! I managed the awkward standing, checking my phone every 35 seconds as if I was really waiting for an important call from President Obama, when really I'm just praying that they start the movie 55 minutes early. I managed to get the hang of that all on my own!
The minutes inched by from 6:06 to 6:11. It was like watching a kettle boil, or ice melt, or even just your little gray cat find a place to sit down without being attacked by your loveable but wild black lab. In other words, it felt like I was stuck in a very special kind of purgatory: the purgatory of wondering if there was brie in my teeth, taking a glass of water from the bartender who looked at me and said, "Well yeah hunny, you don't look 21", eating a cracker loudly while trying to remain invisible, and finally being noticed by an extremely awkward man eating little pickles who turned to me and said, "You look like you don't know anyone."
This man proceeded to introduce himself as Paul, and upon finding out that I did not know anyone, asked me what I was doing in DC. I was prepared for this question, and explained with all the confidence I could muster in my sweaty, scuffed shoes about the ASP program and being from Massachusetts. He shot back, "What's you major?" I said, "Religion, Ethics and Politics." Now, readers, I have to tell you, that's usually a conversation stopper. People either say, "Oh, yes?" and immediately start looking for the nearest exit so they can go vomit at the sheer "academic-ness" of it, or they say, "Well, those don't really seem to go together, do they? You've got your work cut out for you" and proceed to tell you why really, it's much better to go to law school than pursue a PhD. But Paul immediately hit on the ethics idea, and quizzed me on the Constitution, the ethics of euthanasia and abortion, the "religious test" required to hold office in South Carolina, and whether or not it was appropriate for religious views to be present in policy discussions.
Not only was I not ready for his questions, but I was also not ready to be as completely inept at answering them. I fumbled, I nearly spilled my icy water on him, I got redder and redder until you could have served me as a garnish to the little pickles and brie on the hors d'oeuvres table. Paul caught me so off-guard that I forgot to be embarrassed at knowing nobody and was just embarrassed that I was so obviously ignorant about my own subject matter.
Paul departed after about 15 minutes, and I sought refuge on a bench next to some bored-looking college sophomores from Marymount College. They were gossiping about people's shoes and eating mini-cheeseburgers and doing all this while keeping one hand on their cell phones in case, you know, a dire emergency in someone's wardrobe struck. Then it was 6:56, and the film was going to start.
At this reception, I realized a few things that I want to pass on to you, readers:
1. Do not, on pain of stomachache and mortification, try to eat prosciutto wrapped ricotta cheese and a mini-cheeseburger AND some semi-warm truffle macaroni in quick succession.
2. Enjoy the awkwardness. There is nothing like standing in a room full of people you don't know who look at your gray tights and headband like you would look at moldy bread (which I found today in my cabinet... so sad) to get your adrenaline pumping and your heart racing. And if nothing else, that reminds you that you are alive.
3. Introduce yourself to the quiet 40-something woman sitting next to you in sub-zero refrigerator of an auditorium. She might be soft-spoken and have heard about the event on facebook, and she might not say too much, but shake her hand anyway. It will bring a small smile to her face - and that is always worthwhile.
4. That pesky, "What are you doing here?" question might make you think that you don't belong. Honestly, I am always tempted to say, "You know, I don't know! I'm in the WRONG PLACE! AAAAAAIIIIIIIEEEEE!" and then run screaming from the room and onto the nearest train bound for Boston. But "What are you doing here?" is actually the most wonderful opportunity to find out. Answer the question in different ways when different people ask you. But don't fear the question.
5. When you are contemplating going to a reception by yourself, and are tempted when you get on the metro or the bus to just go home and can the whole thing, don't chicken out. Go. Observe people. Stand in the middle of the room and look anxiously at your phone. Do the brave thing and lean into the experience. Trust me. Aside from the mini-cheeseburgers (which were SO weird), I'm so glad I went.