What is this odd absence? A ringing echo between the ears, a puff of hot air where the heart used to be, that awful pain that magically appears in the syntactic transaction between the words “dry” and “socket.” All are here tonight, precisely where they shouldn’t be, I should think, as I gather up my remaining pieces and toss them into the superlative super-force that is the annual Best of Orlando party at Firestone. Everything should be great tonight, and yet something – something rather large – is missing.

“Well, your hair looks good,” Karen smooths my void. “Well, I mean, it looks like you have more of it.”

“It’s the roots,” I muffle an echo. “The roots are missing.”

Actually, the past 36 hours of my silent memoir have been smudged into a death spiral by kaleidoscopic pain and gore. An unplanned spit of dental excavation meant to counter my aging decay with surgical proactivity – or: I had a couple of broken molars extracted – has rendered me useless. In short, I’ve been a pill-popping, pump-and-play blood fountain perpetually on the brink of passing out, and therefore haven’t been fit for public consumption. In fact, gulp, I’ve been forbidden to drink or smoke. Which means, for those keeping tabs, I have been both dead and in hell, all the while thinking myself into staying that way.

“I can’t quite figure out why it is that I’m dreading this,” I think out loud as we trudge through the piss-puddles and shiny shirts leading the way into the thumping night-life cavern. “I mean, I should be happy, right?”

“Just keep smiling,” Karen grits her teeth a little. “First of all, you won Best Writer. And if I ever hear you complain about how much hydrocodone you simply have to take and how little you’ve had to eat again, your little literary death wish might just come true.”

At least then maybe I could go to the real heaven, and not some Orlando mock-up of the afterlife that features angels on stilts dancing to a remix of the Outfield’s “Your Love.” Firestone is predictably awash with party-style overstatement of the product-placement variety; its periphery dotted with promotionally bannered tables while those occupying the space in the middle come off like extras for a soundtrack-driven movie about teenage apocalypse, now. I am, presumably, its world-weary protagonist. Crashing beats of cacophony are rattling in my mouth-holes, making my death-warmed-over pallor more believable.

“How have you been?” Firestone party monster Jan Harrold greets me at the door with a concerned look on his face. “You look tired.”

“I’ve had oral surgery,” I doth divulge too much. “Oh, and I’m dying.”

Every year I think I know what I’m getting myself into with this Best Of shindig, and yet every year I somehow forget what it will inevitably be like. The buildup always includes some exclusive notion of invite-only and dress-casual, peppered with the palpable sense that this is going to be a grown-up celebration of people who know each other. But give it precisely one half-hour, and the whole thing has turned into a crashed socialite’s party where the hosts are either indiscernible or sobbing in the bathroom. Dad’s stereo speakers are blown, and somebody, at some point, is going to get fingered in the swimming pool while vomiting. That somebody will be me, natch.

“I’m grabbing your ass,” editor Bob Whitby squints to read his prompter. “This will be the first of seven times that I grab your ass.”

I guess that’ll have to do. Karen and I do our dot-to-dot ADD bitmapping around the room for about a half-hour to avoid actually getting involved in casual conversations with distant acquaintances about dental procedures, but eventually we sift into the melee. “You look tired,” fast becomes the phrase of the night – which does not in any way make me any more self-conscious than I already am – and the alchemy of my prescribed pain medication and unprescribed cocktails eventually give way to a workable smarminess that makes me seem more like a bitch and less like a victim. Plus, it makes me itch, which can only be good in social situations.

Like this one.

Outside in the smoking area, fans are blowing mist at crestfallen hairdos in a manner that suggests a Karate Kid typhoon. There are, in fact, two scantily clad fire dancers performing against it, as if they had just discovered futility. I get lost in it all for a second and forget what I’m doing.

“Why do you keep scratching your nose?” Whitby cocks a brow from behind his glasses, taking a slight reprieve from a too-long conversation with some UCF journalism interns making reference to a “silver fox” for no apparent reason. “Did you do cocaine?”

“Nope,” I sniffle. “Just goofballs. Prescribed ones.”

“OK,” he grabs my ass again. The girls, based on this, decide they really want to be journalists. Amazing.

Alas, the rest of the evening plays out like an annoying overlap of non sequitur narratives with about as much resonance as a plastic xylophone with catchprases for keys. There will be moments – most notably when winsome gadabout Katie Ball identifies herself as Switzerland in trying to negotiate a dancing partner for Karen: “You don’t get a Switzerland every day!” – but mostly it descends into the dreaded me-in-third-person shame I like to avoid. And maybe that’s was missing.

“You know, Billy, if you died, I wouldn’t even want to be here,” crazyface sketcher Morgan Steele catches me on the way out the door, rather prophetically. “Well, you and Jim Philips.

Maybe I was never even here.

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