The Daily Telegraph - Review

The Dinner Party

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On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness. And he would say, “Why do this to yourself?” He wanted to shield her from being hurt. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband. But after a few months the rift would heal and the friendship return to good standing. He couldn’t blame her. They went back a long way, and you got only so many good friends.

He leapt four hours ahead of the evening and saw, in future retrospect, that he could predict every gesture, every word. He walked back to the kitchen and stood with a new drink in front of the fridge, out of her way. “I can’t do it,” he said. “Can’t do what?” The balls were up in the air: water coming to a boil on the stove, meat seasoned on the butcher block. She stood beside the sink dicing an onion. Other vegetables, bright and doomed, waited their turn on the counter. She stopped cutting long enough to lift her arm to her eyes in a tragic pose. Then she resumed, more tearfully. She wasn’t drinking her wine.

“I can tell you everything that will happen from the moment they arrive to the little kiss on the cheek goodbye, and I just can’t goddamn do it.”

“You could stick your tongue down her throat instead of the kiss goodbye,” she offered casually as she continued to dice. She was game, his wife. She spoke to him in bad taste freely, and he considered it one of her best qualities. “But then that would surprise her, I guess, not you.”

“They come in,” he said, “we take their coats. Everyone talks in a big hurry, as if we didn’t have four long hours ahead of us. We self-medicate with alcohol. A lot of things are discussed, different issues. Everyone laughs a lot, but later no one can say what exactly was so witty. Compliment­s on the food. A couple of monologues. Then they start to yawn, we start to yawn. They say, ‘ We should think about leaving, huh?’ and we politely look away, like they’ve just decided to take a crap on the dinner table. Everyone stands, one of us gets their coats, peppy goodbyes. We all say what a lovely evening, do it again soon, blah-blah-blah. And then they leave and we talk about them and they hit the streets and talk about us.”

“What would make you happy?” she asked. “A blow job.” “Let’s wait until they get here for that,” she said. She slid her finger along the blade to free the clinging onion. He handed her her glass. “Drink your wine,” he said. She took a sip. He left the kitchen.

He sat on the sofa and resumed reading his magazine. Then he got up and returned to the kitchen and poured himself a new drink.

“That’s another thing,” he said. “Their big surprise. Even their goddamn surprises are predictabl­e.”

“You need to act surprised for their sake,” she said.

“Wait for a little opening,” he said, “a little silence, and then he’ll say, he’ll be very coy, he’ll say, ‘ Why don’t you tell them?’ And she’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and he’ll say, ‘No, you,’ and then she’ll say, ‘Okay, okay, I’ll tell them.’ And we’ll take in the news like we’re genuinely surprised – like, holy s---, can you believe she’s knocked up, someone run down for a Lotto ticket, someone tell Veuve Clicquot, that bastard will want to know. And that’s just the worst, how predictabl­e our response to their so-called news will be.”

“Well, okay,” she said. “When that happens, why don’t you suggest they have an abortion?”

He chewed his ice and nodded. “That would shake things up, wouldn’t it?”

“Tell them we can do it right here with a little Veuve Clicquot and one of the bedroom hangers.”

“Delightful,” he said. “I’m in.” The kitchen was small. He would have done better to remain in one of the other rooms, but he wanted to be with her. She was sautéing the garlic and the onion.

“He’s okay,” he said. “They’re both okay. I’m just being a dick.”

“We do this, what – at most, once or twice a year. I think you can handle it. And when they have the baby –” “Oh, Christ.” “When they have the baby, we’ll see even less of them.”

“How much you wanna bet they buy a stroller?” “A stroller?” “Yeah, a stroller,” he said. He put cheese on a cracker. “To cart the baby around in.”

“I’m going to wager the odds of a stroller are high,” she said. “But you, if you had a baby, there’d be no stroller, am I right? Because it would be oh so predictabl­e to have a stroller, wouldn’t it.”

“I was thinking we could duct-tape the child,” he said. “It would be cheaper.” “Like a BabyBjörn, but duct tape.” “Exactly.” “Would the baby face in or out?” “If it was sleeping, in. Not sleeping, kind of kicking its feet, wanting to see the world, duct-tape it out, so it has a view.”

“Allowing the child to be curious,” she said. “Feeding its desire to marvel at this new experience called life.” “Something like that.” “The child must be so relieved that I’m barren,” she said.

He left the kitchen. He stood in the living room with his drink, listening to the sounds of her cooking.

When he returned, the kitchen was empty. Her wedding ring and the one with the diamond were on the counter, where she always put them before starting to cook. The sink had filled with dishes. On the stove, the big pot and the smaller one unfurled steam into the rattling vent.

“Amy?” he said. No answer. Where was she? He turned and walked back the way he came, through the apartment. Then he returned to the kitchen, to the animated appliances and stewing ingredient­s. She came in through the front door. “Where’d you go?” “Took the garbage out,” she said. “I would have done that.” “But you didn’t,” she said. He had come into the kitchen with a whole new approach to the evening, but after she went missing, he was no longer in the mood to provoke her. Instead, he set his drink down and went up to her at the stove. He threaded his arms around her waist as she stirred one of the pots. Years earlier, they’d had a name for this hug. He couldn’t remember what it was now. He kissed her neck, then the back of her hair. Her hair smelled of steam and shampoo and fake wildflower­s. “What can I do?” he said. “You can set the table,” she said.

He set the table. Then he stood with his back to the refrigerat­or and with a new drink.

“You know, they’re good people,” he said. “Ultimately.”

“She’s my oldest friend,” she said. “And he can be very funny.” “You’re right, he can be funny.” Later, he came out of the bathroom just as the toilet was completing its roar. She was no longer in the kitchen. He took another cheese and cracker. He walked past the dressed table to the living room. She sat on the sofa reading the same magazine he had been reading. He stood in the middle of the room and held out his hands. “Where are they?”

“If there’s one thing that’s predictabl­e,” she said, “it’s her running late.”

“Sure, but it’s going on forty-five minutes.”

“They’ll be eating some very cold appetisers.” “Have you cooked the meat?” “Everything but.” She casually flipped through the magazine. There was no outrage or impatience. She seemed resigned to waiting as long as it took.

“You should maybe call her,” he said.

What happens when you’ve laid on a feast for guests who never turn up? A poignant short story by Joshua Ferris His wife spoke in bad taste freely; he considered it one of her best qualities

“Isn’t this what you wanted?” she asked. “Something unpredicta­ble?”

She was on the phone, calling around. It was nine o’clock, and then it was ten, going on ten thirty. She tried to reach them a dozen times in a dozen different ways. She sent texts and emails. They didn’t pick up and they didn’t reply.

“Not when it interferes with dinner,” he said.

“Nice,” she said. “Magnanimou­s and humane.”

“Listen, don’t worry about

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