Bad Dinner Guest

set dinner table with cutlery fruits bowl bottles and flowers nino f scholten photographic print 04 070

Photographic print by Frank Scholten, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

I ruined a dinner party ten years ago in Phoenix. Among the guests was a judge who said abortion was an issue that reasonable people could disagree on, and I opened my mouth.

At that time, Richard was teaching at the sprawling university in Tempe. We were at the home of two people who we were lucky even talked to us. The woman in the couple was a brilliant sculptor. She built whole cities out of clay, where invisible inhabitants take refuge from the “everlasting no” I often represent. The man was a tenderhearted and sexy archaeologist, who was heading a big fat famous institute on human origins and the kind of primate behavior that accounts for actions like mine. He was, like me, a Jew from the East Coast, and he recognized in me a collegial form of urban unrefinement he liked.

Throwing a dinner party where strangers meet other strangers shares the same risks as social media; wolves and chickens may find themselves seated next to each other. Before the judge said the thing about abortion, I was having a great time talking to his wife, who led the education department of one of the local art museums. The drinks were good. The starters were good. These people knew how to lay a spread.

The hosts had come to our house a few months earlier, and I’d served meat loaf as the main course, and to this day Richard says the meat loaf killed that evening. Something was off in the chemistry of the group. We’d invited another couple we liked, and the couples knew each other. The thing that was off might have been in their history, some kind of disappointment or weariness, or a fleeting, weird energy.

Richard was sure it was the meat loaf. He thought it had seemed lowly to the guests, and this delights me to report, because he might be right, and if so it’s hilarious, my meat loaf is incredibly delicious. Never mind what’s in it. Thick-cut bacon is involved. Still, an expectation of lavishness and culinary daring might have floated into the minds of the guests before arriving, and all they could think to themselves was, Meat loaf, are you kidding me?

At the dinner party I ruined—not with the meat loaf but with the judge—I wanted never to host another dinner party again. To do it right, the way the potter and the ape specialist were doing it right—with gorgeously roasted meats and vegetables and God knows what was in the salad—to do it right you needed to donate your life to planning, and shopping, and prepping, and cooking, and hosting, and washing up, and returning your house to the state where you have erased all traces of other people. To do it right, only a lot of money could tempt me, and in that case, it would be a job and I wouldn’t have to make people feel comfortable and welcome, whether or not they were interesting.

The other day, a writer interviewed me about female friendship. She wanted to know why some of my friendships had fallen apart. I said it was owing entirely to me. She said why. I said I wasn’t trained to take other people into account, and people get worn out by that aspect of me. She said how, as a woman, did you grow up without being drilled to take other people into account? I said that’s an excellent question, and all I can say is I wasn’t trained to do anything. It was the glory of my growing-up years. Parents let you out to run like a dog, and if you came back, they gave you food. No one cared about me, because they had decided that whatever I would need in life I would figure out how to get it, and they were right. I have to tell you how much I love my parents for forgetting most of the time to tell me how to live.

When the judge said that people of good will could disagree about abortion rights, everyone was seated around the large wooden table. He spoke to the group, and I said, “Yes, it’s an issue people of goodwill can disagree about, like whether the Final Solution was the best way to murder all the Jews of Europe. Other suggestions for murdering all the Jews of Europe could have been entertained.” The judge looked like he had been shot, but not immediately. You know how, in movies, when someone is shot they stand there for a few seconds with a surprised look on their face? The judge didn’t fall down dead, unfortunately. He pushed back his chair, shot up, and shouted that he was leaving. He couldn’t be at the table with a person who could speak to him that way.

Next, things happened with the kind of speed that breaks time into single frames from a surveillance camera. The potter and the ape specialist looked like they were watching a play. The judge motioned to his wife to tell her they were leaving. She looked trapped. The ape specialist asked the judge to calm down and stay. It took some persuading. The judge sat down again, and for a few moments I thought it was interesting that he had changed his course. He talked about what had happened. He was feeling something, and he kept going. He was not a happy sort of person, and he wanted something of me. He was the man at the bar you don’t want to talk to who won’t stop giving you information.

Recently, I watched two documentaries: Regarding Susan Sontag (directed by Nancy Kates) and The Disappearance of Shere Hite (directed by Nicole Newnham). What’s arresting in both films is the way the women believe they owe men their full attention. In the Sontag film, she’s jousting with Norman Mailer at the famous during the Q&A 1971 Town Hall event where Mailer set himself up to debate a panel of notable feminists. Sontag was in the audience, and she speaks to Mailer with a shit-eating expression on her face—fake laughing, playing the part of a good sport, assenting to the preposterous and at the time generally unassailable premise that what Mailer thought about anything was important.

In the Hite film, we see the revolutionary sex researcher appearing on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, where Oprah thought it was a good idea to have Hite speak about women’s sexuality to an audience consisting entirely of men. Hite is placed in a position where she has to accept the confrontation or be considered weak, insufficiently prepared, or a bad sport. Of course she has to fail, because the setup is exactly the setup of the world she’s trying to change. Women must show that they care what men think about them—and about everything else!—or men will get angry and do what angry men do. What I’ve learned in the subsequent fifty years is that men change if they are going to change the way we all change, not because someone convinces us to see the world differently but because we become bored with being the way we are.

After the judge talked for another twenty minutes, I looked at him as he was looking at me and said, “You’re still taking up all the space in the conversation.” This time when he bolted, he flew out the door and onto the street, calling to his wife to follow. I said to her, “I’ll drive you home if you want to stay.” She shook her head. I never spoke to her again.

What about the potter and the specialist in apes? They said they didn’t know the judge that well and hadn’t known his views on abortion. Had I ruined their evening? Of course I had ruined their evening. Did they care that much? They said they were surprised by nothing I did. From their perspective, to be upset with me would be like expecting the wolf not to eat the chicken in one bite.


Laurie Stone is the author of six books, most recently Streaming Now: Postcards from the Thing That is Happening, which was long-listed for the PEN America Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. She writes a column for Oldster Magazine and the Everything Is Personal Substack.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top