We're driving along a certain road through Alamo Heights, and we're driving slowly because it's dark. The road winds down a hillside and Bess snatches glances at a map she has displayed on her phone. We pass another road on the left, a junction with bright lights illuminating expensive cars tended by smartly dressed men. The scene suggests valet parking, which is what we're looking for.
'How do we get back there?' Bess is trying to make sense of the directions given by her phone.
'We turn around,' I suggest.
We do so, returning the way we came, passing the junction of brightly lit motor vehicles before taking a right.
'What are you doing?' I ask. 'It was back there.'
'I don't think that was the road.'
'Did you not see all those cars?'
'Yes, but that wasn't their address.'
'No, but if their house is on a corner - as that one was - then it will be alongside a second road other than the one given as the address,' I explain, fully aware of my having begun to sound like Peter Cook. 'I therefore put it to you that we've just driven right past the place we're trying to get to. Turn here.' I point.
We approach the cars and the lights from the other direction.
'This must be it,' I say.
'I don't know.'
'That's valet parking if ever I saw it, and the invitation said there would be valet parking.'
'Okay.' She winds down the window and asks the guy who is about to open her door. 'Is this the Pace residence?'
He smiles and confirms that it is, and tells us he will be happy to park our vehicle.
'No, we just wanted to know we had the right place.'
'Let's just go with the flow,' I say. 'You saw the streets around here. We could end up having to park miles away.'
Bess concedes the point. We get out and a complete stranger climbs in and drives our car off around the corner, albeit a well-dressed complete stranger.
Some years ago, back when I was living in England, I developed a fascination with Mexican culture and by association a taste for Mexican food. I made my own salsa, but more often than not I'd buy a jar from the local supermarket because it would keep longer. I favoured Pace brand salsa, which was slightly harder to find than the better publicised version made by Old El Paso, but actually tasted like salsa; and now here I am, roughly fifteen years later on the other side of the planet, arriving at the home of the Pace family because our kids go to the same school. This is one of these things I could never, ever have foreseen. Pace were bought out by Cambell Soup in 1995, but it's the same family, and that's why they live in such a huge house, and why their parties offer valet parking.
I know that America has a class system, contrary to the claims of the recklessly idealistic, but I was never convinced of it being a direct correlation to anything I remember from England. Alamo Heights is full of what I'm told are the American upper classes, but mostly they just seem to be regular yahoos with too much money. Take away the big house and the superfluous ceremony and you're still left with some grunting knacker stood in Walmart in his pyjamas stocking up on beer and Funyuns; but I now realise I have it wrong. It's Christmas, and the Pace house is decorated with the extravagance of a department store, but it's kind of tasteful with not a ho-ho-hoing animatronic Santa to be seen. Inside the house, the walls are covered with art, actual canvasses - mostly abstract expressionist - and the guests hail from some demographic other than the cigar and face lift set which doubtless still clog up PTA meetings at the San Antonio Academy.
Junior rushes off in search of other kids, and we say hi to Ava, the daughter who knows our boy from school. We always try to encourage their friendship because Ava is intelligent, a good influence, and she doesn't take shit from anyone. She's shot up this last year, tall, skinny and a little awkward, but she's a great kid. Everybody loves Ava.
Bess introduces me to Ava's mother. We've met before but it was brief and a long time ago. As we talk, my initial impressions are proven. These people may have a ton of money, but they read books and are able to converse on subjects other than ball games, taxes, or favourite Disney character. I present Mrs. Pace with a pork pie, introducing it as an English delicacy, which I suppose it is because you can't buy them here, at least not without having to spunk away seventy dollars on refrigerated postage from some artisan mail order operation. I only ever want one pork pie a year, usually around Christmas, but my craving has been such that I've ended up making them myself. This has been quite an undertaking given that the required hot water pastry can be a bugger to work with. As I present Mrs. Pace with the pie, it feels as though I have lapsed into a peculiar east-European accent.
I bring you a gift from my people.
'It's supposed to be eaten cold,' is what I actually say. 'Maybe with pickled onions and some cheese. It's a traditional Christmas morning thing.'
I get the feeling she's slightly bewildered by my offering, but nevertheless hurries off to place it in the fridge.
Bess and I mingle in search of food. There's a huge silver platter piled high with what turns out to be jam sandwiches - a surreal effort most likely aimed at the younger guests. An eccentric cubbyhole below the staircase has been converted into a bar, so I grab a glass of wine, and we head for what seems to be the dining room. Music is provided by professional carol singers in pseudo-Dickensian atire, three of them giving voice in the doorway of what is probably the living room. I suppose it's a little hokey, which is true of most things associated with this particular holiday, but at least its not some fucking soundbar belting out Jingle Bell Rock, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas or any of the usual festive atrocities.
'You remember, Ty?' Bess tells me, propelling me towards a tall, cheery man of a physical type resembling a classical Greek hero and with a proud head of curly locks.
'Of course,' I bellow happily as I shake his hand. 'You have a lot more hair these days!'
He's glad to renew our acquaintance but seems puzzled by my comment, and about ten minutes later I will come to a realisation that actually I don't remember having met him before, and I thought he was Mr. Bertha, our boy's similarly statuesque but shaven-headed teacher. Never mind. It's Christmas, and we've all had a few.
The buffet seems an odd selection, as though some crucial element is missing, but it's smoked salmon and caviar, amongst other things, so I'm not complaining. We fill our plates and head outside into the garden. Ava passes in the dark with an entourage of pouting girls, and the boys are similarly arranged in their own small groups, daring each other to perform retarded acts near the fountain.
We head for the garage and watch Santa doing his thing for a little while. A sequence of small children are ferried to his knee for photo opportunities, and I'm not even grimacing. Maybe it's the wine. I have another glass and we go back inside. We look at the art, and I try to explain abstract expressionism to my wife, about how the painting is a thing in itself rather than a representation of something else, about edge tension and surface and all that good stuff. It's been a while since I found myself having to think about any of that kind of thing, and Bess isn't convinced.
Eventually, we're partied out, and we find the boy wandering around on his own, which is more or less what we've been doing too. We leave and our car is driven around to the front gate for us. We've probably managed about an hour, but I didn't hate any of it, and that's good going for me.