Dinner with George and Martha: a short story

Stan and Laura were the perfect hosts. Their dinner parties always felt prepared and planned, as if they had the assistance of an event planner. We always left with door prizes and we talked about their evenings for days afterwards.

Laura’s favorite thing to do with dinner parties is to introduce new people to each other. So often whenever I’m invited, I know I’ll probably  meet someone – sometimes the people are interesting, and sometimes they’re not. I just never know.

As much as I like Laure, Stan’s my friend. We went to college together and kept in touch, despite our different lifestyles. He and Laure moved off to the suburbs, happily settling into a life of domestic certainty, while I decided to stay in the urban chaos of the city.

At the door, Cary reminded me to be social with whoever I get seated by. “You have to be nice,” he reminded me. “At Stan and Laura’s last party, you hardly said a word to the guy you were next to.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” I said. “We had nothing in common. He was a driver for NASCAR.”

“Be nice,” he admonished, as Laura opened the door. She was dressed head-to-toe in ivory cashmere. She loved to dress up. To her life was a long, infinite drawing room comedy, where she got to wear different costumes for different scenes. When she puts on her hostess hat, she sort of melds into Martha Stewart-lite. She adopts a serene, evenness to her carriage and demeanor that is affected and unnatural to her usual, slightly nervous true self.

“Boys,” she said. She loves referring to gay couples as “boys.” We’re always “the boys.” Whenever she wants to invite Cary and me to a double date with Stan, she’ll say, “I wonder if the boys want to come along.” As she ushered us into her house, she called out over her shoulder, “Stan, honey, the boys are here.”

“Hey guys!” Stan’s disembodied voice called out. “Hey Stan,” we answered to the general direction of the voice.

“You must try some of these veggie rolls I made,” Laura seized me by the arm and dragged me to the living room. I grabbed Cary, and we made our way, like a catepillar toward the dining room table. We saw that the other guests already arrived.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “are we late?”

“No, no,” she laughed, “it’s fine, really…” Her “really” though sounded faintly terse and I reprimanded myself for having to watch the whole episode of Parks and Recreation instead of leaving earlier. Cary reminded me that I could DVR it and watch it later, but I told him it’s different when I watch it live. He then pointed out that Parks and Recreation isn’t filmed live, but taped and the broadcast. The point was moot, because by the time he decided not to bother getting me unglued from the television, the episode was over.

Cary was seated next to an older woman wearing a rather alarming shade of green – the kind you see on a 7-Up can. Her hair was a fluffly crown of pink-tangerine and her makeup was so vibrant and colorful, it looked like Kabuki stage makeup. Her outfit was accented by ropes of chunky gold jewelry with gumball-sized stones in various candy colors and the whole effect made her look vaguely like a Christmas tree.

I was seated next to a mousy woman who wore enormous glasses – the kind I remember seeing Dixie Carter wear on the 80s episodes of Designing Women. The frames literally seemed to frame her face. She had a thick fringe of banks that guarded her forehead stubbornly. The rest of her salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back and held together with a banana clip she wore horizontally.

“That” Laura said “is Dr. Abrams…” She then added, “Dr. Abrams is a botanist with the Chicago Botanical Society.”

“Oh,” I said turning to her, “I go to the Botantical conservatory all the time.” Dr. Abrams didn’t seem to enjoy being the center of attention – like a chameleon, she changed colors in front of me and turned to a beet-red flush as she shot me an uncertain smile and turned her attention to her salad.

“Stan,” Laura called again, “everyone’s here.” She laughed for our benefit, “He’s like a kid, isn’t he.” She then called his name again. And again. And again.

Stan finally appeared and went over and gave me a hug. “Sorry I was taking so long – I had some work stuff to do,” he said to the group as he sat down. Laura sat down and looked around the table, like a queen surveying her subjects. She then cleared her throat, “I thought it’d be great if we went around the table and introduced ourselves…I’ll go first…My name is Laura.”

An older gentleman to her right seemed to be startled to attention. “Oh, I’m Robert Charles…” He looked at Laura who nodded with her head indicating he go on. “Uh, I’m the provost of the visual arts department at Illinois State University.” He then turned to Laura to see if she was satisfied. She wasn’t. “Uh, I collect antique chess sets,” he was searching through his brain for more to share, “I like watching the opera on PBS and,” he was running out of things to say, “I play squash every Thursday at my gym.”

Laura clapped and then nodded to Dr. Abrams. “I’m Sylvie Abrams. I work at the Chicago Botanical Garden.” Laura interrupted her with a trilling, “what do you do there?” This startled Dr. Abrams who continued, “Uh, I’m in charge of acquisition and research.” She then looked at Robert and continued, “Oh, and uh,” she stammered, in agony because she was on display, “let’s see…I have three cats,” I gave an immediate, knowing look to Cary, “I like watching old movies on TV…and I like cooking?”

It was my turn and I had the benefit of being third, so I had time to plan out my patter. “Hi I’m Peter…I work as a teacher at Williamington College, and I write a column for The Chicago Chronicle.”

“A column?” boomed Robert, interested, “what about?”

I could tell Laura was annoyed that her “Getting to know you” was being interrupted, but I didn’t want to be rude to Robert, so I tried to answer as quick as possible. “Uh, I write about politics, pop culture, reviews…humor stuff…”

A prim and proper woman, dressed in an excessively sensible outfit piped up in an intelligent tone. “My name is Jean, Sister Jean, and I am part of the Sisters of the Better Word. We work with the St. Barnabas Church in Bucktown.” Like me, she was prepared. “I play the guitar. Do missionary work in Hawaii and I write pious poetry that sometimes gets published in our church newsletters…” She then added, “and I like to read Stephen King.”

Stan was next and he was leaning back in his chair looking down at something in his lap. We all waited. Laura cleared her throat a couple times to get his attention. After the fourth time, he said, distractedly, “Laura, you should get a drink of water.”

“It’s your turn to introduce yourself, Stan,” she answered trying to maintain the forced gaity in her voice.

He looked up, “Oh, yeah – sorry…” He stole one more glance at his lap and then nodded, “I’m Stan…I’m a pharmacist…I like sports…” He started looking at his lap again, “and my buddies and me are in a band.”

It was Cary’s turn, and Stan immediately went back to looking at whatever was terribly fascinating about his lap. “I’m Cary…I’m a gynecologist and have my own practice…I rehab cars for a hobby and I used to be a competitive ice skater when I was a kid.”

His last comment drew an interested buzz from the room. It was also a lie. Cary always did this whenever he was called upon to meet and introduce himself in a social setting. He would always lead with two things that were true and then end it with a lie. The thing was, he always made sure that the lie was ridiculous enough for him to get his jollies at others’ expense, but not so ridiculous as to make people suspicious. This time he introduced himself as a former kid skater. Another time he told a group of party goers that he was born in the South Pole where his parents were doing research; at a different dinner party he told people that he was a former child star and was the youngest Oscar nominee in history. He knew people would probably forget or not bother to Wikipedia any of his claims, so he continued to tell people nonsense like this to amuse himself at these soirees.

The bejewelled redhead was next to him and introduced herself as Cora Charles, wife of Robert. “I worked for years as an opera singer, but have since retired. I now am known for my homemade jewelry and crafts, which I sell…” In fact, she said, standing up and modeling for us, “I’m wearing some of my creations right now.” Laura led us in a round of applause for our creative fellow guest.

Cora’s neighbor, a tall man with a waxed mustache introduced himself. “I’m Paul Arnold…I’ m a chef and own the British Hooligan in the West Loop…I’m in the middle of writing a cook book, and love football.” He then added, “Not American football…”

“Wonderful,” Laura said as she settled, “Well, let’s get to know each other a little better while we eat this salad of…” her voice trailed off as if she were waiting for a drum roll, “dandelion greens.”

“Dandelions, huh,” I said eating the spicy leaves. “I always thought dandelions are weeds.”

“Taraxacum,” Dr. Abrams said suddenly.

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Taraxacum,” Dr. Abrams repeated. “That’s the name for dandelions…They are a weed…a beneficial weed, but a weed nonetheless…”

I nodded and continued to eat. Stan started to mumble something under his breath, while looking at his lap. Finally, I called out, “Uh, Stan, whatcha doin’ down there?”

“Oh,” his face broke out in a smile, “I’m playing fantasy football.”

“Oh,” I said not sure what he was talking about. “Fantasy football? Is that like football only wizards and fairies are playing?”

Thinking I was joking (I wasn’t), he laughed and said, “No, it’s interactive and virtual. You get to be a player and play against other people.”

Laura then piped up, “But do you have to play now?”

“I think I might be traded,” he answered. And he looked sincerely concerned.

The rest of us shrugged and started talking and Laura tried to engage Stan into a conversation with Robert, but Stan was too wrapped up in his football game. He would periodically erupt into sustained, but audible curses, at what looked to be unfavorable developments in his faux football status.

Finally Laure picked up her plate and slammed it down on her plate, dandelions bouncing everywhere. She then stood up, knocking over her chair and marched into the living room. None of us said anything as we waited. I thought she might’ve forgotten something, like salad dressing or butter. Because she didn’t get a response to her action, she then shouted, “I guess if you’re going to be on the phone for the evening, I’ll eat dinner from here!”

Stan rolled his eyes, “Come on, it’s not that big a deal – I just needed to make sure that I wasn’t going to be traded to a team I didn’t like.”

“It’s not real!” She shrieked. “I worked like a crazy person to make this a nice evening, and all you’ve done is play on that damn phone.”

“Wait a minute,” Stan said, standing up so that he could be heard better through the shut door of the kitchen. “I work all day, so I think I deserve a break once in a while!”

“And I don’t work?” She asked.

“Well, not really,” He answered. I winced at his stupidity.

“Well, I’m sorry,” she said, “But I don’t know how you think everything in this house happens or gets done, but guess what – it’s not magic!”

“Really?” He asked, “that’s funny because every other woman I know on the planet seems to be able to work and keep up a house, so I don’t know why you’re having such a hard time of it!”

Laura answered the last volley with a wordless scream before she continued, “Maybe, since you’re so obsessed with fantasy football, you should get yourself a fantasy wife! Do they have an app for that?!”

“Oh, yeah,” Stan said, getting up and throwing down his napkin, “I bet my ‘fantasy wife’ would be a lot easier to get along with than my real one!”

“Go to hell!” She screamed back.

“My mother was right,” He answered, “I never should’ve married you!”

“Don’t talk to me about that shrew,” she shot back.

I shot a look at Cary who looked stunned as well. The rest of the party became very interested in their dandelion greens as this conversation took place. The two were screaming over our heads, saying hurful things that they’d never get over. At one point Stan called Laura a “living nightmare” who turned “nagging into a fucking art!”

We started gingerly getting up and gathering our things. Cary leaned over the table and whispered, “we don’t have anything in the house and we didn’t eat dinner yet.”

I nodded, “you’re right.” I took two chicken breasts and wrapped them in paper napkins. We skooted out and called out a meek, “bye guys- thanks for dinner” as we ran to our car. We settled in and I looked at the glowing numbers on the car radio. It read 7:40. “Huh,” I said, “we were there for a total of twentyfive minutes.”

We drove home. Before I went to bed I texted Stan. I didn’t know what exactly to type so I remained vague and general. “Sorry we had 2 leave early.”

He got back to me immediately (probably because he was still on his phone, playing football). “Yeah – 2 bad. U shld’ve stayed. We should do this again! Nite!”



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