I was swimming naked in a pool late on a hot summer night when it happened. The underwater light wasn’t working, so the only illumination came from an eerily flashing, floating disco-ball light--a novelty item which my hostess had procured for the amusement of her guests. I was treading water in the deep end, talking and laughing with a friend and enjoying the luxurious coolness, when suddenly I spotted the unmistakable slithering of a snake. It was gliding along on top of the water, coming right at me--fast. I froze in terror. Before I could even react, it ran smack into my face! (By accident I think--I hope). I screamed bloody murder and thrashed my arms and kicked my legs wildly, and at last made it out of the pool. After I had dried off and stopped shaking (and had stopped moaning “Ohmygod, ohmygod” over and over like Rain Man), a part of me realized that this unpleasant event had a silver (albeit slimy) lining: It was a story I could dine out on.
Technically speaking, the term “dining out on a story” (which seems to have come into usage some time in the first half of the 20th century) refers to having a tale so good, so interesting, that people actually invite you to dinner just to hear you tell it. Now, while I am fairly certain that no dinner invitations are going to result from my recent close encounter of an ophidian kind, the Snake in the Pool Story is the kind of thing that people like to hear. It always adds to a gathering to have someone there with an unusual or entertaining anecdote to share. A good personal story inspires other people’s imaginations and memories, and engages their emotions--and therefore spurs on the conversation.
Good “dining out stories” are ones with one or more of the following elements: shock value or bizarre twists, celebrity encounters, danger or risk, or intense embarrassment or misunderstandings. But the very best dining out stories are ones which cause the listener to be empathetic but very, very glad the thing in question did not happen to him. This is not mere schadenfreude; it’s really more of a vicarious thrill ride--like a scary movie.
There was the time a friend of mine woke up after a long flight horrified to find her head in the lap of a strange man next to her. Another friend got all the way to her office one morning before realizing she had forgotten to put her skirt on (she was in her slip and suit jacket). I heard a thrilling story at a dinner party recently about a man who took part in a wild chase through the Barcelona Metro after his wallet was stolen by gypsies. Yet another friend told me a terrifying tale about her life years ago, about coming home late to her London flat where she was squatting, which had--unbeknownst to her--been taken over by a truly bad-ass Hell’s Angels gang while she was out at a concert. (Oblivious, she slept peacefully through the whole night, got up early and left unscathed.) My stories? I once dated a guy who I discovered one night was really a woman. And once, I swear, I accidentally introduced myself as Erica Jong--to Erica Jong.
Want more details? I’m free for dinner next Saturday night.