June 2012

Dinner Party

listen to this story
 

There is a certain uneasiness when the phone wakes you.  Even if you don’t have children and your family is in good health.  Even when it is nine in the morning and any reasonable caller would expect you to be awake anyway.  My wife, better at masking the sleep from her voice, reached over me to answer it.  “It’s Tucker[1],” she mouthed.  “He needs a favor.”

Tucker was a professor at the university where I had received my master’s degree.  We were lunchtime friends, gradually working up to something more.  It was a difficult time in my life.  I had a one-year appointment teaching at the university and applications in the mail to doctoral programs across the country.  My semi-transient situation discouraged deeper relationships, and my wife and I, insular, still young and still mostly in love, were happy enough not to put down roots.  Friendships, we reasoned, were as fragile as love affairs, and to commit to one now would be foolish.  Months later, when we moved across the country, Tucker and his wife were among the only people we would miss, and the sadness we felt was at not having known them earlier and more closely.  In keeping ourselves apart from them we had gained nothing and lost a lot.

So Tucker and I were lunchtime friends.  The calling on the phone, the asking of a favor signified something new.  “I need you and Julie to come to dinner tomorrow night,” he said.

“That’s not a favor.  Watering plants is a favor.  A lift to the airport.  Dinner is a treat.”  On the other end of the line, Tucker was silent.

“What should we bring?”  I asked finally.

We came bearing gifts.  We brought a bottle of wine and, since it was near Christmas, books for Tucker’s two young children.  The older of these, Beth, answered the door with a curtsy.  “It’s nice to meet you,” she said.  She was six years old, in crushed velvet, with the gravity and long face of an early Christian Saint.  The skin under her eyes, when she looked up at us, was so thin that you could see the blue of her blood moving around her face.

Tucker and Sara lived in a nice, slightly antique home in a wooded enclave in the middle of a decaying city a hundred years past its prime.  When we moved to the area two years earlier, my wife and I came to the campus by taxi and even the driver seemed dubious.  “Here?” he said, his hazards flashing.  “Really?”  At the required international-students orientation, a worried-looking lady explained to our increasingly matching faces the ground-rules of campus living.   Foremost among these was ATM protocol.  She explained that across from the dental school there was a cash machine with an armed guard.  This guard will escort you back to your car.  If the guard is not present, do not attempt to extract money from the machine.  “Stay in a brightly lit area,” she warned us, “and remain alert.”  The earnestness with which she spoke compelled me to take her seriously, although I had been living alternately in large cities in Canada and the U.S. for all of my life.  I cannot imagine what the other international students, those with culture shock and expectations borne of American television, must have thought.

But expectations or no, the city was terrifying.  My Californian wife started crying when we departed the plane. I promised her that we would begin driving and wouldn’t start looking at rental properties until she stopped crying.  And this was how we came to live in an antiseptic suburb a scant hour from campus, three major highways away.  The first of these highways, a north-south artery piercing the city’s heart, the second a beltway like a great city’s walls, and the final one of these an afterthought, a glancing parry.  This last is where we lived.  Our apartment complex was brand new and advertised as “deluxe” during our first six months, downgraded to “luxury” as the staples popped from the walls in the second year, and finally, in the weeks before we moved–the carpeting pulled up and rotted from water runoffs, the broken pipes–the signs were taken down and new ones affixed offering “affordable housing.”  It was like watching the decline of a city in fast-forward.   The neighbors too changed.  The quiet computer programmer left after a few months in favor of a beefy, seemingly unemployed man who threatened violence should I dare use the parking spot nearer to his door.

Tucker and Sara’s house was pre-war and well-built.  Because the ceilings were low, and because there were trees outside the windows, it felt nothing at all like the airport efficiency we had bunkered into.  It felt like a home.  Of course, that might also have been the children, the scatter of art projects and Barney videos and the smell of dinner cooking.  We handed Sara the wine and I talked to Tucker while Julie and Beth read one of the books we had brought her.  I thanked Tucker for inviting us and he nodded, looking over his shoulder to the door.  “My friend Cheever is coming,” he said.  “With his wife.”

Sara announced from the kitchen that dinner would be ready in fifteen minutes.  “You’ve got to meet Cheever,” Tucker said.  “He’s really something.”

And he was.  He came in loudly, stomping snow off of his boots, brandishing presents for the children.  He was somewhere between a Maine fisherman and a Dandy.  Tall and weatherbeaten, but prissy as a fop.  He was the sort of man who carried an antique pocketwatch chained to faded jeans.  His wife, Harriet, was quiet and pretty.  She had brought flowers for Sara, who had emerged briefly with wine glasses and then retreated to put the bouquet in water.  There was, Sara informed us, a minor catastrophe with the Brie pastry.

When Cheever came in, Beth moved closer to Julie on the sofa and lowered her head into her book.  Her younger brother, meanwhile, rocketed out of the bedroom where he had sequestered himself, and threw himself into Cheever’s knees.  Cheever picked him up and slung him over his shoulder.  The boy, Henry, red-haired and now red-faced, looked down at his sister and smiled.  We, he seemed to be suggesting, were missing a lot of fun.

But Henry’s affections were tested by Cheever’s gift to him, which had come fully wrapped.  “I didn’t want to bother with the wrapping,” Cheever said grandly, “but Harbo insisted.”  Harriet, behind him, nodded.

Three-year-old Henry went to work on the wrapping paper and soon pulled out a box.  “It’s a car!” he shouted.

We all bent over it.  “It’s a model,” Cheever explained.  “T-Bird.  1965.”

By now Henry had the box open and was scattering the tiny pieces across the living room rug.  Many of the smallest parts were attached to a die cast and Henry was detaching these with his pudgy fingers, sending them across the carpeting.  “Careful,” Tucker warned him.  “You’ll need those later.”

“Remind your dad tomorrow,” Cheever counseled Henry, “when you’re done with the engine block he needs to run a rubber band through it and that’ll make the whole thing work.”

“Really?” Henry asked.

“Sure,” Cheever said.  “Just ask your father to help you with the little parts.”

Sara, who had been collecting the discarded pieces into the basket of her hand, said, “Thanks, Cheever.  This ought to take care of our weekend.”

“I’ll help him with it after dinner,” Cheever promised.  He picked up a plastic piece near his foot and dropped it back into the box.  “It’ll be great.”

“I’m sorry,” Harriet said, although it wasn’t clear to me who she was saying it to.  “I sent him to the toy store by himself.”  She had brought Beth a bottle of sparkly nail polish, which pleased the girl greatly and her mother not at all.

Cheever picked up the model box and peered down at it.  “What’s wrong with it?  T-Bird.  It’s a classic.”

“I think it’s a bit advanced for a three-year-old is all,” Sara explained.  “There are a ton of small pieces.”

“It says ‘3 and up,’” Cheever replied.  And immediately we all moved closer to look down at the box.  He kept pointing to the instructions in the corner of the box.

Finally I said, “I think that says ‘8 and up.’”

Julie, who was still sitting next to Beth on the couch, shot me a look.  “Don’t expect any help from Michael,” Julie warned Henry.  Then she revealed to the group my incompetence with tools of any sort.  “The two leading causes of divorce,” Julie joked, “are infidelity and IKEA.”

It is true that shortly after each move we’d purchased unassembled furniture, and also true that I have no capacity either for parsing the unintelligible directions or assembling the plyboard.  It is also true, and less of a joke, that these failures led to bitter fights with Julie, my deficiencies in this area suggesting more fundamental weakness.  We were getting ready to move, and to fight, again, I suppose is what it came down to.

“Seriously,” Julie nodded solemnly to the boy, who nodded back shyly.  “You’d be better off lighting the whole thing on fire than trusting it to Michael.”

For a while no one said anything.  Then Sara dumped the pieces from her palm onto an end table.  “We’ll save it for him,” she said.  And over Henry’s cries of protest Cheever promised again to help him with it after dinner.

The wine before dinner transitioned into the wine of dinner and then the wine before dessert.  I didn’t drink much because I don’t like wine.  Julie didn’t drink much because Cheever, who was sitting next to her, kept knocking her glass onto her lap.  Julie is an awfully good sport and when he tipped a glass of white onto her lap she handled it like a diplomat.  “Excellent,” she brightened.  “That will stop the red from setting in.”

At one point Cheever excused himself to the bathroom and his wife moved into the kitchen to help Julie with the dessert.  Sara was tucking the children into bed and Tucker moved up to me.  “Cheever was one of my students a lifetime ago,” he explained  “He’d been talking for ten years about this book he’s been working on, one of those things you think’ll never get finished.”  He kept looking down the hallway to the bathroom door.  “Last month he finally sent it to me.”

“How was it?”

“Good.  Thank heavens the damned thing was good.”

If I had expected something more about the guest I didn’t get it.

At some point during dinner Cheever lifted his glass to praise our hosts.  “Everything,” we all agreed, “is delicious.”  Cheever had been telling stories about his family.  His mother, it seems, was a true New England matriarch, a more or less functioning alcoholic in a house that deteriorated at a set rate—a room every two years, a floor a decade.  “Now,” he relayed to Tucker, “she confines herself to the living room and the kitchen.”

“She seems like a literary character,” I offered, although I didn’t offer which one.  Tucker nodded.  He had spent a week with Cheever’s family earlier in his life and was fond of the woman.  They still exchanged phone calls.

“The food is great,” Julie said.  Sara blushed.  She had been quiet throughout the meal, up and down in her chair, shy.  Later, when we got to know her, we recognized that this was out of character but for now we just assumed she was one of those angular, birdlike women who flit in and out of scene.

“So’s the wine,” Cheever said.  He was looking at us through his wineglass, swirling the wine inside, Julie staring warily at its rim.  “I was going to bring a really good bottle…” he started but then he trailed off.  When he spoke again, it was to tell us about a bottle of champagne his mother had bought him and Harriet on their wedding day.  “It’s for our tenth wedding anniversary,” he said.  “We keep it in the cellar.”

“How long have you been married?” I asked Harriet.

“Seven years,” Cheever said, his hand snaking across the table.

“Three more until the champagne.” I smiled.

“I hope I can find it,” Cheever said.

“You already drank it,” Harriet blurted.  Everyone turned to look at her and she reddened.  “Last summer.”

It was a story.  Cheever had been at a bar until closing and then walked home.  On the way, he had passed a group of men on a street corner.  He had said something, they had said something.  They chased him back to his house and he narrowly beat them home, locking the door behind him.  Harriet woke to the sound of the men kicking the front door in.  “I thought something terrible had happened,” she remembered.  “Something to Cheever.”  Cheever was fine but the problem would not solve itself.  The men, after all, knew where Cheever lived since he had led them to his home.  So Cheever, drunk and charming, went outside with cups and the bottle of champagne his mother had bought him.  The men drank the champagne and woke up the neighbors singing songs.

Suddenly Cheever’s head jerked up in recognition.  “They taught me Spanish soccer songs.”  Then: “They were very nice guys, actually.”

I pictured the scene.  “Wasn’t everyone mad at Cheever?” I asked Harriet.

“Oh, the neighbors know Cheever pretty well,” Harriet said.  “Nobody stays mad at Cheever for long.”

Cheever reached across the table to his wife and hugged her.  “Harbo,” he told me emphatically.  “Harbo.”

Long after the kids had gone to bed and the plates had been cleared, we got talking about books.  One of us, and for the life of me I can’t remember who, forwarded the opinion that for a book to be great it must have b great een written by a writer.  The other argued that if the book was great, that was proof that the writer was too, no matter how mediocre the rest of the writer’s output.  I was one of the debaters and Cheever was the other.  Tucker took my side, whichever side that happened to be.  Within seconds the argument escalated and Cheever was standing over the table threatening to hurt Tucker, kill him, threatening all measure of terrible things.  Tucker was leaning back in his chair and I, to his right, was finally realizing why I had been asked to dinner.  I was seated between the two men and started measuring angles, anticipating Cheever’s next move.  He was a pretty big guy, and dangerously out of control and I hadn’t been in a fight since high school.  But there it was.

And then, as quickly as it started, it ended. Cheever sat back down, laughing, and told us about a story he was publishing in Playboy.  Sara finished clearing the table.  Harriet finished her wine.

Our car was parked in front of the mailbox and Cheever’s car was parked directly in front of it.  Cheever was slow in saying his goodbyes and I had time to ask Harriet, who was getting into her driver’s seat, whether she needed any help getting home.

She shook her head no.  “This time of night, it’s less than an hour to our house.  The problem is that because I’m driving I can’t beat him upstairs and I think I might have forgotten to hide his book.”  She was tilting the rearview mirror, staring backwards to Julie waiting for me in the car behind.  She explained:  “Before we go out I have to remember to hide his telephone book.  Otherwise late at night he races me upstairs and locks himself in our room and starts phoning, alphabetically.”  I didn’t know what to say to that.  “All of our friends joke that when you become friends with Cheever you learn to turn off your ringer at night.”  I didn’t know what to say to that either, and anyway Cheever was already out of the house and coming down the driveway and getting into the car.

What could it have been about the man that inspired such loyalty among his friends?  After all of this, that is the question I can’t give up.  Friendships are fragile, after all.  They are as fragile as marriage.  Moving away will kill one, as surely as an intercepted glance or a breach in etiquette.  Cheever gave etiquette a glancing parry, missing each time by the same distance as my suburb from the city, yet never lost his grip on his friends.  In spite of everything, they continued to orbit him.  It didn’t seem fair to me then, nor does it now, that such a thing should be allowed.  Relationships are hard, Julie and I were just starting to remind one another daily.  Especially when you are always moving.  I have always found new friendships to be as tricky to assemble as any plyboard furniture.  What could have prompted Cheever’s friends to stay with him, learning to turn their ringers off, when I know in my heart that every friend I’ve ever had, even Tucker and Sara themselves, would have learned only to stop being friends with me?

I have never spoken to Tucker about this evening.  I have always been told I am good company.  But my role in this evening and the evening’s retelling wasn’t that of Falstaff but of Pistol—an attendant too unimportant even for hanging.  This is something hard and bitter to learn about oneself.  But Tucker must have known this about me long before I did.  Also, he must have been aware of how Cheever could act, or else maybe I have always misinterpreted his motives for inviting me.  Perhaps he thought simply that I would enjoy meeting Cheever—find him interesting and fun or even find between the three of us shared interests.  It has taken years of thinking about this story and I still don’t understand it all.  Different parts stick out to me at different times.  As I write it now I am moved by Tucker’s loyalty to his friend, at the relief he showed at Cheever’s novel having been truly good, and also at Tucker’s priestly discretion in that moment when the two of us were alone.  Tomorrow I might be drawn instead to something else, some smaller moment, Sara’s look as she ran her hand along her soiled tablecloth, or else the heavy snow that came and covered our suburb that night and left the next morning, as considerate as any good houseguest.

By now, Julie and I have moved twice more, the Bedouin existence of the fringe academic.  Julie and Sara are excellent at correspondence and we have pictures of their children on our fridge and perhaps they have kept the pictures we send regularly to them.  Tucker and Sara don’t know their legacy in our family, how when Julie was pregnant with our first child we would see horribly misbehaving children and bickering parents and recoil, as fearful of people at their worst as the international students had been years earlier.  How we held our future, our marriage, together with the thinnest of hopes, pushing away all our fears of the unknown with the promise of something better, of a single moment, like a young girl curtsying at the door, welcoming us in.

 


[1] All names have been changed save mine and my wife’s.