The Dinner Party

Photo: © Stefan Hengst. All rights reserved.

I have somehow managed to pull it off again. The table is a masterpiece. The cobalt blue dishes are the exact touch needed to tie in the softer blue candles and set off the delicacy of the wisteria sprigs in the centerpiece. And the handwoven ecru cloth. It’s perfect, adding a creamy texture that makes the setting itself look good enough to eat. Only as I walk around the table for a final inspection do I notice that Sophie has somewhat smeared ink from the last two letters of my name right up into the gold border of my place card. Smack at the head table where everyone will see. Hearing the rustle of material brush the wall behind me, I try not to frown.

“What do you think, Sophie?” I ask, turning toward her. She’s put on the black velvet dress. It’s too long for her, too heavy for her already dark complexion.

“The table looks so lovely,” she says. “I’ll never be able to make mine look like that when I grow up. I’m sorry about your name card,” she continues, staring straight at her white socks.

“It’s not easy to letter well. Even for people a lot older than eleven,” I reply. “Perhaps a child like my friend Ellen’s son Bobby, the boy who is so artistic, well, he might have been able to do it right. You did try. Which was sweet of you. How do I look?” Her eyes are pulling me down.

“You look beautiful,” she says as I dip and grab the edges of my silk skirt, drape swirls of material over my outstretched arm, swoop gracefully just for her. “You always look beautiful,” she adds.

“Thank you,” I say and give her a big smile. “Tomorrow morning during our alone time I’ll braid your hair and pile it high on your head. You may look better with it done like mine now that you’ve grown some.” My eyes return to the ruined card. If she’d just go somewhere else, stay in her room, I could remove it.

“Mom, I don’t want to go away to sleepaway camp.”

“I doubt your father would be pleased to lose that much deposit money,” I say, dimming the chandelier bulbs to a romantic haze, “but if you wish I’ll ask him to come here from the living room now, and we can discuss it.” When I look up she has paled to a sickly yellow in the softened light, her dark eyes riveted to mine, huge, pleading. “Or we can wait, and you and I can discuss it alone. Tomorrow. When I’m not expecting eight people for a dinner party.”

I don’t need to stop arranging the silver salt-and-pepper shakers to know that the sallow cast is gone from her skin, that her eyes have shrunk to their normal size. Her shoes tap away from me, and I glance up in time to see the back of her hair cascading over her rounded shoulders. Camp will be good for you, I want to call after her bowed head, and I will talk you out of being so afraid of new things. Of new people. But there’s no time now to talk to anyone. Bridie still has to prepare the hors d’oeuvres and I need to make sure that all the pots with the food for dinner are warming at the correct temperature.

Making one last check of the living room, I am astonished to discover Gary still sitting on the couch, the Times spread on his lap, calmly smoking a cigarette, as if he’s ready to settle in for a routine evening.

“Gary,” I say, inspecting the rug for signs of ashes that have missed the ashtray, “have you gotten out the ice, set up the liquor?” Not budging until he finishes the article, he finally folds the paper into a precise, skinny column and pulls himself up.

“Didn’t realize it was getting to be so late,” he says, passing me on his way to the liquor cabinet. “I’ll fillet the herring too.” Not stopping to fluff the cushion he has crushed, not saying a thing about my hair, my dress, or the fresh daffodils placed in vases throughout the room, he is almost out the door when I can no longer restrain myself.

“Gary,” I call, surprised at the tremulous breathiness in my voice, “does everything look all right? I mean, are there too many flowers? Should I draw the drapes a little more or open them wider?” Turning, he looks impassively at the drapes that partially screen each gigantic picture window.

“The drapes look fine to me,” he replies. “And the room looks fine.”

“Good. But just stand there long enough to let me shift these two chairs. Does that look better, less crowded and busy?” Watching him as I quickly rearrange the chairs, I see his fingers drumming against the piano top in that way that so annoys me. He’s obviously eager to get back to his newspaper.

“Everything looks fine,” he repeats. “I can’t think of a thing that could make it look better. The chairs are all right either way,” he says, again moving toward the liquor cabinet in the next room.

“You’ll remember to try to draw Grace out,” I say, wanting to remind him of who she is, certain that he doesn’t remember that she is on my guest list. “The young lady who teaches at my school. The one with the lovely face, who is so terribly shy. You liked her when she came to dinner a few months ago, one evening after work. Italian background.”

I don’t add that what I also remember about that evening is how boring it got to be. It had been fine while I was showing Grace around the house; she was so impressed by my lovely antiques. And then Sophie had come in, and shy, sweet, unassertive Grace had gone from me and was all wrapped up in Sophie. Asking her about school, and what she liked to do best, telling her how pretty she was, how much she resembled me. And Sophie just lapping it all up, believing every word.

“Anyway,” I continue to Gary, who is lost trying to remember Grace, “I’ve fixed her up with that charming man Wayne I met at the Philharmonic. Try to talk to them both. I doubt she’s smart enough for someone like Wayne, so he may feel uncomfortable.” Gary slips away to get the ice and the glasses.

The doorbell rings and I greet the Thornes, old friends from the ’30s. Actually, they were the ones who introduced me to Gary. They have brought me a watercolor Gene did a few months ago. Thrilled to have another original, I give him a big hug and almost forget to greet his wife, Rita, because I am so caught up discussing the best spot to hang the picture. Rita looks overweight, as usual, and of course her blouse really doesn’t match her skirt. But I smile and admire the earrings she says she picked up on their last trip to Europe and I ask about their three girls. Jessica, their oldest, the one closest in age to Sophie, has become seriously interested in painting, and Teresa is doing something with dance.

By the time she gets to the third child, I’m busy trying to catch Gary’s eye so he’ll get up off the couch and come relieve me. It’s hard to believe that anyone, even Rita, could be impervious enough not to understand how boring it is to listen to anecdotes about children. However, I must admit that all our friends seem to have exceptionally talented offspring. Why doesn’t Gary look this way? He’s still reading the damn Times and I’m pretty sure he isn’t even aware that our company is arriving.

“Rita,” I say, hoping I’m right in assuming that her momentary silence signals the end of her story. “Go over and talk to Gary. He’s dying to hear about the documentary you’ve started on Greenwich Village artists.” As she paddles toward Gary, I’m praying he remembers what I told him last week about the film project. It’s always so hard to know when Gary is really listening.

David and Clare Biren arrive next. Clare’s hair is showing hints of gray, but I tell her I’ve never seen her look better and soon decide, after she remarks that I never appear to age as much as a day, that perhaps it’s the light that is giving her hair a silver cast.

I turn and find Grace and Wayne in the doorway, looking rather like sheep who suddenly realize they have wandered in among the wrong herd.

“Don’t you two look charming,” I say, taking a gaudy platter out of Grace’s arms so that she can remove her coat. “What have you brought?” I ask.

“Oh, just some ravioli my mother made for you,” she says. As ever, she speaks in such a tiny voice that I can barely discern her words.

“But you shouldn’t have,” I say, attempting a smile, clutching the dish more firmly to prevent anything red from oozing onto my clothes. Wayne takes the plate of pasta from me, exchanging it for a bottle of wine tied with a bow.

“Something to toast our delightful hostess. My, your apartment is beautiful. It’s so you,” he continues, “so tastefully done.”

“Thank you,” I say, smiling. “Any wine you have selected will be marvelous, I’m sure.” I wish everyone would disappear, most especially Grace, so I can be alone with Wayne for a few moments. Instead, I sigh and lead them into the kitchen.

“I’ll save the ravioli for dinner tomorrow,” I say as I spy Sophie standing in the corner staring wide-eyed at Grace. “Sophie really loves Italian food. Right?” I nod in Sophie’s direction.

“Um hum,” mumbles Sophie, still smiling just for Grace.

“How are you sweetheart?” Grace leans down to give Sophie a hug. “I love your dress. Is it new?”

“Kind of,” says Sophie. “My mom has a rich friend who lives in Arizona and who sends me all her daughter’s outgrown clothes. I wish they looked more like Mom’s, or like the things my friends wear.” She is suddenly silent, sensing from my frown that she has said more than enough. Tomorrow morning, during our special time, I must remember to explain to her that people really don’t care about such trivial details, don’t wish to hear about all the doubts you have about yourself. Just act self-assured, I keep reiterating to her, much as my own mother also often repeated to me, and people will believe that that’s how you feel.

“Am I going to get to hear you sing tonight?” Grace asks Sophie, just before she and Wayne move toward the living room. “I hope so. And I hope that your mom will also play the piano.”

Aware suddenly that Sophie has shared her secret ambition to be a famous singer with Grace, I study her carefully, realizing it has been ages since she’s discussed this desire of hers with me. She does have a sweet little voice, but not the kind of voice that she’ll be able to do anything with. Nothing that will help solve all her problems. I had thought that she clearly understood that long ago. Why is she talking about it again now, and with Grace, not with me?

“Keep an eye on the beef Stroganoff for me,” I tell Sophie. “And try, this once please, not to be right on my heels the entire evening.”

In the living room my guests, all holding cocktail glasses, are engaged in conversations, and after a quick scan of the room I feel relieved, less tense than I have in hours. Everyone looks so relaxed; everything must be fine. When I think I overhear Clare using the word “pretentious” and then giggle as Rita adds “boring,” my stomach knots and I sweep the room again to see what could be out of place.

That’s when I spot Sophie clinging to the wall. And it all makes sense. Clare has been talking about her, is laughing at this child who is always hovering about as though she is on the verge of disclosing something vitally important. Only by using incredible self-control do I keep myself from dashing toward Sophie, grabbing her and hiding her awkward inadequacy from everyone. Pressing my moist palms together, I stand absolutely still and glare at Sophie. After I blink she is indeed gone, and ease and confidence flood back through my body.

And then hands reach from behind to encircle me, crisscross over my hips and press me into broad shoulders, reach for my fingers and knead them gently, caressingly. “Jack,” I say, giggling, freeing myself to face him, “Jack, you silly sweetheart. You frightened me half to death.”

“But never to death,” he whispers in my ear. “Without you there’d be no one to know me better than I know myself.”

We laugh, in unison, and he whirls me once around and gives me a bear hug. I hug him back so tightly that for a moment it is hard for me to differentiate myself from him.

“I’m so glad you’re finally here,” I whisper to him. “Everyone else is so boring. Working so hard to impress.” We chuckle, and I close my eyes and wonder why this isn’t the man to whom I am married. Only Bonnie May’s southern drawl humming from somewhere terribly close makes me pull away from Jack with the sharp realization that I was married to him. Once. And not that long ago.

“Bonnie May,” I say, “I love your dress. You look stunning.” It’s true. She’s an exquisite woman who always manages to look like an ad from Vogue. As I peruse her simple dress, her willowy figure, I am struck again by what a suitable second wife she has made for Jack: my choice for him when it became apparent I couldn’t live with his obsessive jealousy.

“I always head straight for the basic black and gold,” she intones, resting her fingers on the hip of her silk sheath and laughing.

Smiling with her, I massage my brow, rubbing at the impending headache I feel moving up from the base of my skull. I’m convinced she can talk without that twang. No one can really be as insipid as she appears. Immediately I feel ashamed; I’ve slipped and have been thinking for a moment like our less insightful friends that she is feigning all the sweetness.

“But Eve,” she drones, “it’s you who looks simply luscious out of this world. When and where did you get that pretty little skirt?” I look up skeptically, but her large charcoal eyes are shining sincere admiration.

“Oh, it’s just a little something I picked up last…” Gary is standing at my side, handing Jack a tall scotch and soda, and his face is alert. I promised him just last month, when the cherrywood antique desk was delivered and he unexpectedly picked up the invoice, that I wouldn’t buy another thing without consulting him. I understand, I’d said over and over as I followed him around the house as he slammed ashtrays to the floor, kicking at the wastebaskets. I really do appreciate the difficulties of our financial situation. Both children in private school, the housekeeper, a summerhouse, sleepaway camps. Yes, of course, I repeated, I could see the problem.

That was the same afternoon Sophie got so upset. I remarked to Gary, as he banged shut a door, that Sophie had mentioned to me that she was frightened by his temper. Not that she had any justification, I quickly added, careful not to get too close to his flailing arms. I knew how much he did for us, for all of us. But I thought he would want to know about her feelings, would want to try to work it out with her. He stopped smashing at everything in sight for a moment, looked puzzled, a bit hurt, and then he was back to raging, stomping around near Sophie’s room now, having his characteristic twice-, perhaps three-times-per-year tantrum. He bellowed for Sophie to come into the living room that instant. From the foyer that separated us, I could hear him demanding to know what this ridiculousness was all about, this stuff about her being afraid of him; could hear her rasping breath, his sharp insistence that she cut out all the nonsense immediately. He never did say another word about the antique desk.

“… an old outfit that I picked up for practically nothing years ago,” I say, indicating my skirt, smiling to Bonnie May, to Jack, and finally to Gary. But Jack is telling Gary a joke and Bonnie May continues to beam her total belief and trust.

“Can I help set dinner on the table?” She checks to make sure Jack has everything he needs, could possibly want, and pecks his cheek as he gives each of us an affectionate pat on the rear. As we leave Jack is telling yet another story to Gary, a story that had me in stitches when he’d told it to me over the phone. I glance at Gary, but he remains silent, phlegmatic.

“Don’t y’all think this looks too scrumptious for words?” Bonnie May asks, garnishing the platter of wild rice with snips of parsley. “I think we’re ready to serve.”

I flick the antique silver bell and stand smiling as all the chatter stops; all eyes turn toward me. On their way to their seats several people comment on the perfection of the table and Clare proclaims, “So Eve. Exquisite enough for royalty.” Only Rita says nothing as she walks by in search of her place card. It will be a long time before I invite Rita and Gene again.

As people find their cards, I glance back to the living room and find Wayne and Sophie huddled in a corner, talking. “Sophie,” I call, working to keep my voice low, “Sophie, it’s grownup time. Go find your brother and Bridie will give you both something to eat.” Her eyes, black and lost, dart around the room as she becomes aware that everyone is looking at her and shuffles off, head bent to her Mary Janes.

“Sophie says that she keeps a journal and that she loves to write poems,” says Wayne as he finds his place card. Jack pulls out my chair, and everyone sits. I smile at Wayne, a smile that denotes I know all about the journal. When did she start the writing business, I wonder? Poor child, always floundering around to find the thing that will fill her up, solve all her problems. “She has a way with words,” Wayne adds, “that reminds me of you. She has your kind of quick intelligence.” I look directly at his eyes, smile and radiate a special warmth meant just for him and think to myself, Of course she’s quick. She’s my daughter. I just hope Sophie hasn’t heard Wayne. She’s having enough trouble knowing who she is without incorrectly assuming that being bright is the thing that will solve everything.

While we eat Jack tells a funny story about the summer the Thornes and I rented a house in Vermont. Jack’s story is about the time he and Gene got stranded in the middle of the lake, but as he talks I am remembering this was the same summer the Thornes introduced me to Gary, and also the summer Jack could only get away from Bonnie May for occasional weekends. Late in the afternoon Jack and I would sneak off to the woods, and walking through leaves dried just to the point of crunching, we’d start to giggle about the idea of me and Gary, until we’d be laughing so hard we’d clutch at each other in pain.

One Sunday afternoon, I was in my room getting dressed for a cocktail party. “September Song” was playing on the radio behind me as I brushed my hair so that it shone in the dimming sun, and I thought about my mother and made my decision. Past thirty, I knew that it was time. Time to give my mother the grandchildren she wanted, time to live by rules I could still make. And with Gary I knew that at least there would be very few rules. He would be appreciative of someone who took an interest in him and who provided him with a warm and attractive environment. When I proposed marriage and children to him, he had looked startled at first, then flattered, and had finally raised his eyes long enough to smile and nod his assent. Then he’d retreated into his customary silence.

Jack finishes his story and everyone stops laughing and goes back to earnestly eating. I draw out Grace for a moment, allowing her a few lines about how Italians acclimate to a new culture. Clare wonders if I’ve seen that the building on Fifty-Seventh near Carnegie Hall is being torn down. The building where she had often met me for lunch after I finished my piano lesson. It’s when she asks whatever happened to old Mr. Meyerhoff that my mouth is suddenly dry, and I can’t swallow the beef I’ve been chewing. Mr. Meyerhoff, a teacher who reputedly only had time for those destined to be great, had agreed to take me on as his pupil when I was eighteen. I went to those lessons faithfully each week. First against Mama’s wishes, later against Jack’s, I waited eagerly for Mr. Meyerhoff to tell me I was ready for a concert tour, especially anticipating his announcement after my most challenging recital, just after I graduated from college. Instead he had handed me a list of artists who might be looking for a good accompanist and recommended I look into teaching.

Clare’s eyes bore into me, waiting for me to speak, when Gary saves the day by requesting seconds of rice, and I concentrate on him as I pass the platter to his end of the table. After dessert and coffee have been served, I suggest we finish up in the living room.

Wayne is in the middle of telling me about a marvelous little antique store on Third Avenue when Grace interrupts to ask if I’ll play the piano for them. She also asks me to let Sophie sing with me, giving everyone the double pleasure of hearing us both. Deciding that persistence is her most pronounced trait, I sigh and get up to look for Sophie. In the darkened foyer just outside my bedroom I stop to brush back a few loose strands of hair and recognize Jack’s step behind me. He puts his arms around me and holds me close for several minutes, and I shut my eyes and feel so young, so pretty.

“You are still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known,” he whispers. I turn to him and he strokes my neck, lightly circling my nipples with the tips of his fingers. Eyes still closed, I reach under his shirt and wrap my arms so deep into him that there’s no space between us. Only now, clinging to him in this way, do I begin to feel real, full.

“It’s the words that get us into trouble,” I say gently. “You’re lucky to have Bonnie May,” I add, before he kisses me hard on the lips.

“And you’re lucky to have Gary,” he says, cupping my face in his hands and lightly grazing my forehead with his lips before stepping back. We giggle, but deep down I know he’s right. He silently slips past me on his way back to the living room. I step into my bedroom and notice Sophie standing in the shadows.

“How long have you been standing there?” I ask, wincing. Her eyes are enormous, even in the dim light of a single desk lamp. The headache I felt creeping up the back of my neck hours ago has become a tight band pulsing against my eyes, beating into my ears.

“Just for a second,” she says too quickly in a tiny voice that squeaks through barely parted lips. Her eyes, obscure and murky, stray to everything in the room except my face until they finally fall on an angry scab near her elbow. She curls her fingers and begins to dig at it.

“Stop that,” I say sharply. “You’re going to leave a scar. And everyone will notice if it bleeds.” She drops her hand to her side, lowers her head toward the floor. “Grace wants to hear you perform. And Jack came back here to ask if you would accompany me. But before you come out, go and clean up. Your fingers look like they’ve been wandering around in mud puddles.” She doesn’t move, doesn’t speak as I turn to go back to my guests, and I know that she will never say anything about what she has seen, will soon believe herself that she has only imagined the whole thing.

Arranging my skirt so that it won’t crease from sitting on the wooden bench, I sit down at the piano and listen to the room get silent as I run through several embellished chords. I warm up with a Chopin étude, playing until I feel everyone gathered around me.

Then I let go and reach into a Brahms sonata. My left hand stretches easily so my thumb can land on that seventh note and produce chords of the fullness, the resonance necessary to provide the background for the melody woven by the fingers of my right hand. At first the melody is deceptively simple, and it’s easy to play as well as listen to Mama talking with the relatives gathered around me. “Isn’t it a beautiful piano Papa bought me for this room? And just look at Eve. Even prettier than the piano.” Then the melody expands, grows to subtle texturing. Mama’s whispering behind me is louder now, and I have to concentrate hard to hear her and also to play. “She sits like that for hours,” she complains to Aunt Elizabeth. “Forgets to eat. Bangs the keys and has a terrible tantrum when she doesn’t play it perfectly.”

Soon the melody teases through the treble and bass. My fingers arch and spread, find those exquisite notes and rhythms that fill the whole room and my entire body with music enough to drown out Mama’s chatter. It pushes away the longing to let my eyes stray from the keyboard to see if at last Mama is actually looking at me.

Everyone claps for a long time as I finish the sonata, and I smile graciously and ask for requests. Rita wants to hear a tune from a new Broadway show, South Pacific, and after she hums a few bars the tune and the accompaniment come to me easily. Soon everyone is encouraging me with applause and I improvise jazz harmonies to one of the pieces, and then my fingers are skimming the keys, imbued with a strength and will of their own.

Grace is suddenly standing in the middle of the room with Sophie right next to her.

“Look at what happened, Mom.”

Gigantic eyes yank at me, demand I stop her blood from spilling to death all over my beautiful carpet. I want to rush ahead of all the people, the noise, the gasps. Reach her first. Press my lips to her ear. Whisper, tell me, Sophie. No. How to solve all my problems. Fast. Then I can love you. Get you away from this place. But she never lets me near her, slams me back. Laughs at me. Other hands gather her up, protect her from the terrible cacophonous chords thundering from the keys. “See what I can do,” she shrieks. “It’s disgusting. You don’t need her. Watch me.” Gary and Grace don’t want her to hear me. They mutter louder and louder. A hospital. An ambulance. You must look at me Mama, I’m screaming, and Sophie is beating on my back, pulling me down to her so that Mama can’t see me and I can’t find Mama, Sophie. Now Bonnie May is holding my hands, and finally I rock against her saying get her away from here, poor Sophie, get her far away from me. Bonnie May is holding my hands too tight now, and they can’t reach the piano keys, and I see in her eyes that it’s Sophie she’s thinking about, Sophie’s side they’re all taking. Why is everyone rushing around? I can’t be expected to concentrate and play as a concert pianist with everyone distracting me. And still Jack holds my breasts as Gary uses my best linen napkins to wrap her sliced wrists and Rita and Grace help him carry out that poor, sobbing child, staging her performance. It’s hard to pull away from Jack, Bonnie May, to clear the filthy dessert dishes cluttering the room, ruining my party. My stomach clutches my throat as my eyes catch the pool of blood Sophie has left for me. I hammer louder and harder till I am released from all of them: Sophie and Jack and Gary and Mama, and I’m all alone where no one is working against me. And then I’m laughing. Playing the first song I ever learned. In lots and lots of variations.

Judy Locker graduated from Cornell University and then attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Although she published a story and several poems years ago, she took a long hiatus from writing and worked as an educational therapist. Currently she is back to writing and is working on a first collection of stories as well as a memoir.

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