Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 1

He said …

It was Thursday, November 6th, 2008. The season was autumn. The weather was cold. Thursday night, ritualistically, was the night on which my friends and I gathered to watch The Office … you know, back when The Office was actually a show worth watching? On this particular Thursday, however, Dave, Gabe, and myself were feeling especially antsy—we wanted to do something, but it was too cold for outdoor antics.

“What if we throw a party? Griffin, can we throw a party here tonight?” Dave suggested. We were pretty used to inviting ourselves over to Griffin’s apartment.

“Uh, I guess. Halloween was, like, last week.” Griffin … he always was the voice of reason.

I quickly chimed in, “Just get on Wikipedia. It has that What Happened Today in History thing. See if today is a holiday somewhere.”

As luck would have it, the day was Pyhäinpäivä, the equivalent of All Saints Day in Finland. Or something like that. At any rate, we had an excuse for a party. We sent out a quick message to our friends informing them of the impending festivities that night. Luckily, since we were already planning on watching The Office together, everyone was available. It was already late afternoon, so with the few hours we had until the party commenced, we decided to abuse Wikipedia some more and make up bogus traditions.

As our friends started piling into the all-too-small apartment (there were over twenty people crammed into a living room that was smaller than an average dorm room), the Party Planning Committee had a quick Party Planning Council. We determined that, in order to get everyone into the spirit, one of us would have to do the first tradition. Naturally, I was game.

 

She said …

“I don’t know about this …” I said nervously to my friend Emilie as we hurried off campus to the apartments across the street. I pulled my jacket closer around me to shield the November wind and tried to feel more excited about the Halloween party I was about to attend. “I’m not going to know anyone there.”

“You’ll know me!” Emilie encouraged. “Come on, you’ll like them—I promise.” She linked her arm through mine as we crossed the parking lot of the overpriced gas station next to the apartments we were heading toward.

I wasn’t so sure. I had only been at Cedarville University a couple of months, and so far the closest friends I had were the seven girls I lived with, (of which Emilie was one) and the guys that I played soccer with in the field across the street from my dorm. But it was getting to be too cold for pick-up soccer, and even though I suddenly found myself feeling uncharacteristically shy about the party we were about to walk in on, I desperately wanted to find a group of friends to call my own. Emilie had wanted me to be meet her friends for as long as I had known her, and the Halloween party they were throwing seemed like the perfect opportunity. So, resolving myself to be intentional about making friends with these people, I took a deep breath and we opened the door and stepped inside.

The room was full of people who obviously all knew each other and were having a good time. A few were in costumes, but most were just in casual clothes. They were piled on couches and bean bag chairs, and were laughing and joking as they passed around bowls of chips and plates of cookies. I slid nervously down the wall to sit on the floor next to Emilie. A couple people in the room looked familiar, but most of them were new faces. Suddenly, the music playing in the background quieted.

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen!” A tall guy with shaggy brown hair stood up. He was obviously in costume, dressed in a long black leather jacket and black pants, but I had no idea what he was supposed to be. The room quieted and the tall guy, who introduced himself as Dave, began to speak.

“Welcome to Pyhäinpäivä! The party where we celebrate the little-known Finnish All Saints Day, which just so happens to be today, because we’re tired of Halloween. So get ready for crazy a night of games to reenact the traditions of those Fins!”

I glanced quickly around the room, expecting everyone else to look as confused as I felt. To my dismay, everyone else seemed to be totally tracking with Dave, and I was clearly the only one wondering what sort of party I had just walked into.

I shot a look at Emilie. “I thought you said this was a Halloween party?!” I whispered. She just shrugged and smiled, looking slightly sheepish. She opened her mouth to respond, but Dave had begun speaking again.

“For our first tradition, we need the oldest male present to step forward, who we have determined to be my roommate, Alex Laird.” A guy who had been standing to the side of Dave, a guy I had never met, stepped forward.

“And here he is!” Dave turned and began rustling through a plastic bag, as the other guy, Alex, stood grinning nervously. From my spot in the back of the room against the wall, I studied Alex for a moment. Unlike Dave, Alex was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and had his hands in his pockets. His light brown hair fell a little above deep, brown eyes, and his big, nervous smile made me smile in spite of myself. I couldn’t help but think he was cute.

“Alright, Mr. Laird.” Dave’s voice jerked me from my thoughts. “Long, long ago, in the Finnish blight of 1728, the Fins had to ingest their bedding and pillows to survive. To commemorate this sad time in history, you must eat one cotton ball.” Silence fell over the room as everyone tried to determine if Dave was serious or not.

I turned to Emilie in alarm. “He’s not really going to eat that, is he?” She shrugged and laughed. I tried to think back to high school biology and wondered whether or not a cotton ball could be digested. Cute or not, this guy was crazy to try and eat it. If he didn’t choke, he’d have a heck of a stomach ache tonight.

 

He said …

I stood next to Dave, confidently awaiting my cotton-ball-sealed fate. Dave fished around in the large bag of cotton balls, trying to find “just the right one,” which I later learned meant “the biggest one in the bag.” Finally, he whipped out a cotton ball and held it in front of my face—everyone in the room gasped and then laughed. I took the cotton ball, studied it intently, and then popped it into my mouth like an oversized gumball. It did not taste like a gumball. It did not chew like a gumball, and thus I could not get it down to a manageable size like a gumball.

I salivated as much as possible, trying to soak the cotton ball enough to where I could at least be confident in swallowing it. Unfortunately, it was a very large ball of cotton, and it was not soaking well at all. I grabbed the counter, trying to stabilize myself, and I gave my best effort at swallowing. For a second, I felt confident with this decision. Right up until the cotton ball was half way down my throat, where it effectively lodged itself and refused to budge.

I darted a big-eyed look at Dave. Everyone in the room was quiet, waiting for me to show some sign of victory (or maybe it was death). Frantically, I looked around for any form of liquid. I grabbed the nearest cup, threw my head back, and downed its entire contents: Mountain Dew. Much to my relief, this was finally enough for the cotton ball to slide down into my stomach. I could breath again!

 

She said …

Alex finished the last bit of Mountain Dew and raised his arms triumphantly, to the relief of the rest of the party as a shout of joy went out in the room. I folded my arms across my chest in disgust and amazement. What a weirdo. At least I could just sit in the back of the room and not be a part of all of this. I was suddenly feeling less motivated to make friends with these people.

“And now, for our next tradition!” The guy sitting next to me, dressed head-to-toe as Spiderman, handed me a carton of eggs and through his mask, instructed me to take one.

“What? I-I …” I turned to Emilie jabbing me in the side.

“Just take one!” Her eyes were excited and mischievous. Reluctantly, I reached in the carton and pulled out an egg, regretting ever agreeing to come to this ridiculous party.

An hour later, I was completely convinced I was sitting in a room full of crazy people. I had played some strange rendition of Never Have I Ever using spinning eggs and lost miserably. With every eye in the room on me, I had been forced to describe to a guy dressed in a karate outfit, whom I had never met, what I would give him for Christmas, all while holding a stick of butter. In honor of some Finnish king, we all stood up and sang the theme song of The Fresh Prince Bel-Air, a song that I did not know, which meant I just awkwardly mouthed the words. It had been the most ridiculous night I had experienced so far at Cedarville. If nothing else, at least I could rule these insane people out of my options for a group of friends. Just when I thought the party had to be over, Dave stood up again.

“Our final tradition! The conga line!” Before I could protest or even comprehend what was happening, I found myself being dragged into a wild, dancing line. After circling the apartment a couple times, we burst out the front door and began winding through the parking lot, and finally into the door of the neighboring gas station. I ducked my head in dismay and hoped no one there recognized me. We were definitely attracting a lot of attention. I was relieved when the party finally ended.

“Wasn’t that crazy?” Emilie asked excitedly as we headed back to our dorm a little while later. I rolled my eyes.

“Crazy? That guy who ate the cotton ball is lucky he didn’t choke. I can’t believe he’d do that on a dare.” I answered smugly.

“I meant the party.” Emilie said, amused.

“Oh, that. Yeah, it was pretty crazy. Your friends are kind of … well, strange.”

“Yeah, I know.” Emilie said matter-of-factly, “But you’ll grow to love them.”

I laughed to myself at Emilie’s last statement. I had no plans of growing to love a bunch of crazies who parade around gas stations in celebration of obscure Finnish holidays. In fact, I was pretty sure I would be just fine going about the rest of college without hanging around a bunch of cotton ball-eating weirdos.

 

He said …

For the record, Jess was right—I did have a horrible stomachache the next day. If you care read of my suffering, or if you just want to know more about the party at which Jess and I first met, click here to read the blog I posted the day after the very first Pyhäinpäivä.