The Dinner Party
I suspect that the trials of Job were nothing compared to the trials of a man at a dinner party. Perhaps Job himself was forced to attend dinner parties. Perhaps Job’s wife invented the dinner party to test her husband’s faith.
Men, and I mean you wretched men enlisted by your wives to assist in the hosting, if you want to know what your guests think about dinner parties, check their eyes when you check their coats.
There are two types of eyes at a dinner party, eyes of anticipation and eyes of regret. Eyes of anticipation are like those of a child on Christmas day. They’re wide, filled with wonder, darting to-and-fro, taking in every detail. They dance with excitement at the possibilities of gossip, husband bashing, and endless relationship analysis. Eyes of regret are like those of a dog who discovers he’s going to the vet, instead of the park. They’re downcast and desperate, with the feral quality of a trapped animal, frightened yet vigilant for an opportunity to escape.
I am one of those wretched men, forced on a wretched, wretched Saturday afternoon to aid my wife in the torment of other poor wretches, whose only crime was perhaps watching a little too much TV or forgetting to take out the wet garbage. On this Saturday, I was given the responsibility of greeting everyone at the door and making them feel welcome. But when the first guests arrived and the first husband crossed the threshold, I looked into his downcast, feral eyes and I despaired.
When I reached for his coat, I saw the man glance over his shoulder at his car parked on the street and I knew he was thinking of escape. When I put the hanger through the armholes of his coat, and smelled the aftershave on the collar, I pitied him because I knew he had been forced to clean himself on a Saturday afternoon. Overwhelmed with guilt, I threw him a pitiful bone.
“Leave your shoes on,” I said after I hung up his coat. But I really wanted to tell him that I would take away his pain.
“Thanks,” he murmured. Then he let out a long sorrowful sigh when I snatched from his hands the sad little six-pack of beer, to be squirreled away in a distant refrigerator in the basement.
“Go on in,” I said. I gestured toward the living room expecting him to move in that direction. Instead, he stood completely still, his eyes pleading with me to not make him go there.
“There’s cold beer in the kitchen fridge,” I lied, knowing there was only white wine. The mention of beer was the nudge the man needed and he began to trudge slowly down the hall toward the living room. I could see his footsteps getting smaller and smaller as he neared his destination. Other wives arrived with their husbands in tow, breezing by the man as he shuffled along the hallway, trying to delay the inevitable.
I hated myself for lying to the man about beer in the kitchen fridge, but I was under strict orders to keep the husbands away from the beer. All men were to surrender their beer cases and report directly to the living room for socialization, and God help me if I let any of them sneak away to the basement where the beer was stashed.
Our living room was brilliant white. White walls, white furniture, white rugs, and a sparkling white dog. Men fear these white rooms, as if their shadows alone might somehow soil the immaculate surfaces. Seated in the living room was a circle of chattering wives and sighing husbands. I have heard men speak of the circle in hushed tones, calling it the circle of fire, because the nearer you get to it the hotter you become. Enter the circle and the heat can be unbearable, suffocating.
I watched the man approach the circle of fire and I could almost smell his sweat. When he reached the perimeter of the circle, my wife called out, “Everyone, this is Blah Blah!” And all eyes turned to face the man. His wife, who was already sitting down, stopped chattering and glared at him with expectant eyes that said, “Don’t mess this up!”
Once the room was completely and utterly silent, my wife proceeded to introduce the man to everyone in the circle of fire.
“This is Blah Blah and his wife Blah Blah-Blah – she’s a lawyer”
“And this is their daughter, Blah dee Blah”
“And this is their son, Blah Junior. He plays football for Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah.”
And on it went until everyone in the circle had been introduced to the man. Then, came the inevitable, gut-wrenching silence that follows these introductions. With all eyes on him, the man stood there, unsure of what he should say next. Even from the hall, I could see the sweat on the back of his neck making his hair clump together and stick up. No doubt, he desperately wished for some witty comment to toss into the circle, but he could think of nothing.
I imagined that if he had spoken his mind at that moment, the man would have said, “I have no idea what any of your names are and I know that you don’t remember mine. Let’s just leave it at that while I go and get a beer out of the kitchen fridge and drink it. And I don’t want anyone to ask me to get them a glass of wine, or a shanty, or a spritzer, or a soda water with ice and a slice of lemon.” This is surly what any man would have said if he were allowed to speak his mind. Finally, he found his voice. “It’s great meeting all of you,” he said.
And then, for some inexplicable reason his wife said, “Let’s see how many names you remember dear!” Oh the misery. The men in the circle visibly shuddered either from a deep revulsion or from a fear that they would be singled out next. I couldn’t watch, so I hid in the bathroom. When I emerged, I saw something I hoped I would never see again. The man was sitting on a tiny white stool, not beside, but in front of his wife, like a purse, or a lap dog, or some other fashion accessory. In his hand was a glass of white wine. Oh the guilt, the guilt, the guilt. None of the other husbands would look at him. The man was broken.
After each dinner party, I try to rationalize my participation in the torment of these men. I like to believe that I had no choice, that I was just following orders, but I know deep down that I did have a choice and my actions were wrong. I saw those men’s eyes, I smelled their aftershave, I heard their sighs, and I did nothing. And then, on this wretched Saturday afternoon, something changed inside me. It was as if a painful gas bubble in my stomach had just popped.
At first, there was the beginning of a thought and as the minutes passed, the thought grew into something wonderful, a plan. And the plan blossomed into a strategy so simple yet so outrageous it scared me. I had decided that I would assert myself in front of my wife and all of our guests. I would march into the living room and declare that all of the men were going into the basement and we would not be coming out of the basement until we were done! Oh, I knew there would be consequences for my insolence. There would be no cooked meals for months, but that didn’t matter. It would be worth it to see the glimmer of hope in the men’s eyes, especially the one on the stool in front of his wife.
To this day, I have trouble explaining what happened next. It was like magic. I remember standing in a corner of the living room, peeking out from behind a lamp near my wife.
“Honey!” I squeaked.
“Yes?” she said without looking at me.
“The air conditioning isn’t working very well. Would it be all right if the men went downstairs? It’s going to get very hot with so many bodies in one room.”
As I watched in horror, my wife slowly turned her head and cast a withering glare filled with such malice that I felt my knees coming unhinged. She slowly rose to her full height and moved toward me until she was within an inch of my face. I now knew that a lack of cooked dinners would be the least of my worries. I would soon learn the true meaning of pain inflicted by an angry wife.
“What did you say?” she asked, with a look that I feared would turn me to stone.
“Would it be all right if the men went downstairs, because of the heat?”
For several seconds, my wife stood rigidly in front of me, as if she were frozen solid, not moving, not blinking, not breathing. I feared that I had pushed her too far and she had retreated into a catatonic stupor, or worse, she was marshaling her internal forces to unleash such a raging fury that I would be laid waste and utterly destroyed.
All of a sudden, to my amazement, she snapped out of her paralysis, blinking a few times, then swiveling her head, and surveying her guests, paying particular attention to the husbands. The husbands! In astonishment, I watched while she turned her attention to the men, one by one, gazing into their of eyes, as if somehow sensing their sadness, then sniffing the air as if catching a whiff of aftershave, then cocking her head as if hearing the faintest of sighs. She stared for the longest time at the man on the stool, in front of his wife, trance-like, unaware of the dog lapping up the wine from his glass.
Now this was when the magic happened. As she continued to stare at the broken man sitting on the stool, my wife’s face began to change. It was like watching time-lapse photography of a thistle blooming. The hate-filled creases on her face began to soften. The narrowed eyes began to widen and the jaw began to un-clench. Her face continued to transform until it had created an expression that one could only describe as pity.
She said one word, “Fine,” and then began talking to one of the wives as if nothing had happened. Bewildered, I gathered my wits and started waving my arms frantically at the husbands to follow me. I managed to catch their attention and herd them down to the basement before my wife had a chance to change her mind.
When they entered the recreation room, the husbands gasped. They stared wide eyed at the sight of the pool table, the dartboard, the plasma TV and, oh god it’s true, the beer fridge. At first, they simply wandered around, afraid to touch anything for fear it might all vanish. Then one-by-one they began to lean against the bar, sit in the chairs and pick up the darts and cues. As I watched them explore their new surroundings, a faint feeling of well-being tugged at my consciousness, yet there was still something not quite right. Although I had achieved my goal of liberating these men, the feeling of wretched misery refused to leave me.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, the broken man appeared beside me and said, “May I have something to drink?”
The moment I heard those simple words, spoken with the tiniest bit of hope, I knew what was wrong, and at the same time, I felt the wretched misery fleeing my body. I knew at that moment, I would no longer remain a miserable wretch. I was going to become man again. A real man in full control. A loud, obnoxious, pool playing, TV-watching guy. I swung open the refrigerator door with all my strength and the door handle crashed against the wall. I bellowed at the top of my lungs, “WHO WANTS A BEER?” Murmurs of “I do” quickly rose to shouts of “I Do … I DO… I DOOO.”
They rushed madly toward the bar. Shouting men grabbed bottles of beer faster than I could open them. They downed them in a single gulp and reached for seconds, thirds, and fourths. Soon their shouting turned to swearing. How long had it been since I had heard that beautiful sound? Men were swearing in five, six, and even seven syllables! Some were swearing so hard they weren’t even forming sentences. Oh the ecstasy. The swearing eventually gave way to laughing, not giggling or chuckling, but uncontrolled, maniacal, beer-out-the-nose belly laughing. When I asked if anyone would care for a glass white wine, I was greeted with shouts of “Off with his head,” with the broken man shouting loudest of all.
Men threw darts and missed the board. They dueled with pool cues. They slipped and fell in spilt beer. They belched without saying, “excuse me.” They screamed at the hockey game until they were hoarse. These were no longer the desperate dogs on their way to the vet. These were real men, happy men, with eyes like a child’s on Christmas day.
There are a few golden moments in your life that you remember as clearly as yesterday. This was one of those moments. And I truly believe that Job was smiling down on us that Saturday afternoon as we reveled in our glorious man-freedom. For this reason, I was glad that I had propped a chair against the basement door, because the pounding from the other side was getting louder and louder.