Aerial View of a Dinner Party
By Kate Sutherland
Evangeline sits at the head of the long, oak table. Traditionally, this is where the man of the house ought to sit. But Evangeline, though she considers herself very traditional, is not willing to cede control of the table to her husband, Steve. She sits very straight and surveys the steaming array of dishes with a smile: chateaubriand, scalloped potatoes, garlic green beans, honey-glazed carrots, and an orange and walnut salad.
Evangeline is magazine-perfect and so is the meal. The colours, the textures, the flavours are all calculated to complement one another. Steve’s friend Gordon, from his vantage point halfway down the table, notes the way the carrots and the green beans perfectly echo the mandarin oranges and the lettuce. He thinks that someone ought to take a picture before they dig in and ruin the effect. He nearly voices this thought, but realizes before he does that it’s the sort of thing someone’s mother would say. The rest of the guys don’t laugh at his expense quite as often as they used to, and he’d like to keep it that way.
Evangeline is known for her culinary skills. Steve’s friends reminisce about the meals she’s served them with an ardour similar to that with which they recall their teenage conquests. “No wonder you’re getting fat,” they tease Steve, and jab him in his softening belly, a prelude to the drunken tussle that sometimes follows the dinner party, once Evangeline has gone to bed. The fact is, however, that Evan-geline only cooks for company. The rest of the time Steve cobbles together dinner out of boxes and cans, or orders it from fast food windows on his way home.
Belatedly, Evangeline remembers to raise her eyes and direct her smile at her assembled guests. Though most of them have dined here often, they’re unwilling to take the initiative, to help themselves to food. They sit staring at one another, cradling their heavy wine glasses, until Evangeline elbows Steve, sitting to her left, and hisses, “Serve.”
In high school, Steve was Evangeline’s prize. The most popular of the popular boys. An accomplished athlete in all the sports that mattered. The lead in school plays, so long as the lead was an appropriately masculine role. Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, or Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Now, he’s a struggling entrepreneur, slightly gone to seed. He’s not bald, but balding. Not fat, but a bit paunchy. These developments had provided considerable comfort to the other men in attendance at their ten-year reunion last year. Each man had gone home feeling a little bit more attractive, a little bit more successful than Steve.
Steve grasps the serving tongs awkwardly and begins to serve a slice of beef to Carol, on his left.
“Not her,” Evangeline says. “The other side first.” She wrests the tongs from him and places the slice of beef on Paul’s plate, to her right. She fills Paul’s plate, then Deirdre’s next to him with a bit of everything before instructing the rest of the guests to help themselves.
Paul and Deirdre are this month’s featured couple. Each month Evangeline introduces a new duo to the crowd. She collects them at the upscale boutique where she works half days. She chats up the wives as she helps them select designer outfits and accessories. Once she discerns that the husband is a doctor, a lawyer, or something equally important, she invites them to dinner. Evangeline is charming, and sufficiently authoritative that the wives believe her to be part-owner of the boutique, not just a salesclerk. No one has ever turned down her dinner invitation.
Paul and Deirdre are already proving a disappointment. It turns out that Paul is not a corporate lawyer, as Evangeline had thought, but a professor who teaches corporate law. He no longer has the whiff of the big money deal about him. And Deirdre has a disconcerting interest in current events. She even seems to be enjoying Gordon’s ramblings about the state of the Canadian film industry.
Paul and Deirdre only recently moved to Saskatoon from Toronto.
“What brought you to town?” Carol asks Paul. “I mean, it’s usually the other way, people moving from here to the big cities, not the opposite direction.”
“No one we know.” Steve cuts in before Paul can answer. “Well, hardly anyone we know. None of our real friends.”
“We probably would have stayed in Toronto if I’d been offered a teaching job there,” Paul admits. “Not that I have anything against Saskatoon, it’s a nice town, but Toronto’s home, you know.”
Everyone else is quiet for a moment. It never occurred to them that Toronto might be home for anyone. Steve breaks the silence. “Why couldn’t you get a job in Toronto? There’s a big law school there, isn’t there?”
“Yes,” Paul concedes. “Two of them, actually. But it’s impossible for a white male to get a job at the big schools these days. They all have affirmative action programs. Guys like me are shut out.”
They all shrug in sympathy, except Deirdre, who frowns. She has a budding interest in feminism that she hasn’t yet voiced, not to Paul, not to anyone. Deirdre doesn’t have any women friends in Saskatoon and she’s lonely. She’d hoped this dinner party would be the beginning of something, but so far it’s not what she expected.
Paul is equally bewildered by the gathering. Even without a tie, he feels overdressed in his houndstooth jacket. All the other men wear golf shirts and light-coloured cords or khakis. Large, loping, and sandy-haired, they’re oddly interchangeable, apart from the skinny, blond fellow who’s holding forth on Canadian film.
Deirdre peers earnestly at Gordon through elegant tortoiseshell glasses. She’d fished them out of her purse and put them on before dinner, as if she was in a restaurant and needed them to read the menu. Evangeline found this odd until she noted that Deirdre looks better with the glasses than without them.
Paul’s lip curled a little when Deirdre put the glasses on. He doesn’t like them and he doesn’t believe she really needs them.
Carol eyes Paul tucking away the perfectly rare slice of beef that had almost landed on her plate, and tries to decide whether or not she’s jealous of Deirdre. He’s very handsome, in a Ken-doll sort of way. Carol is Evangeline’s best friend and this responsibility seems to have crowded out anything else she might have done with her life. She dates with some regularity, but she’s still single, not yet having met a man of whom Evangeline approves.
If Carol could have the man of her choice, it would be Steve’s friend Dave, but Evangeline says she can do better than a washed-up high school athlete. Evangeline has seated him safely one place over from Carol at the dinner table. Carol leans forward and tries to catch his eye, but succeeds only in getting some cheese from the scalloped potatoes stuck to the ends of her hair. No one is looking at her, so no one notices.
Carol and Dave had once shared a romantic moment on Evangeline’s back deck. It was February, and Carol stood shivering outside with a cigarette; she hadn’t quit smoking yet. Dave came out to get wood for the fireplace, and the two of them collapsed into a kiss without saying anything. Carol is five feet eleven inches, nearly as tall as Dave, and the kiss was perfect. But Evangeline has a sixth sense about these things, and she appeared at the kitchen window at that precise moment. She opened the frozen-shut window with an ominous crack and shouted at them to come back inside. Carol kept hoping, but nothing like that ever happened again.
Gordon is shoehorned in between Carol and Dave, clearly the ninth person at a table for eight. This disruption of the symmetry of the table disturbs Evangeline. She’s tried leaving Gordon off the guest list, but Steve always insists on including him. Steve is very loyal to his high-school friends. The only times he stands up to Evangeline are the moments when she provokes him to come to their defence.
Gordon has always been a little different from the rest of Steve’s friends. He was never punk, but flirted with new wave in the eighties while the others remained resolute jocks. He’d sported a Flock of Seagulls haircut and skinny leather ties. He still thinks of himself as the artistic type, but he’s learned to fit in a little better by talking about the business end of art. Hence, his current monologue about how the low Canadian dollar is luring American film projects to Canada. This is the topic that’s caught Deirdre’s interest. Gordon preens a bit under her steady gaze, unused to such attention.
“Surely that doesn’t affect Saskatoon,” Paul interjects. “There can’t be much of a film industry here. Not like in Toronto anyway, I mean, on account of the size.” Paul squirms in the hostile silence that follows his remark. He hadn’t meant to remind them again of his outsider status.
Steve finally speaks, feeling Evangeline’s elbow poised at his rib cage directing him to do something before her dinner party falls flat.
“Hey, Dave, remember what we did to Mr. Toronto at that party?”
Evangeline rolls her eyes. This isn’t the sort of diversion she had in mind.
“Mr. Toronto?” Deirdre asks.
“Allan Smith,” Carol explains. “He graduated with us then moved to Toronto right after. He’s a doctor there now.”
“He couldn’t drink for shit,” Steve says.
“Worse than our boy Gordon,” Dave adds.
“He tried to keep up with us, I’ll say that for the guy.”
“But he was out cold pretty quick, before midnight even.”
“So we gave him the magic marker treatment. The Groucho Marx thing—glasses, a moustache, the whole nine yards.”
“Oh, sure,” Paul says. “We did stuff like that in high school.”
Deirdre shoots him a look.
Paul shrugs. He doesn’t want to be one of the guys, but he doesn’t want to be Allan Smith either.
“It wasn’t in high school,” Dave says. “It was last year, after the reunion. That’s what made it so funny. That stuff doesn’t wear off for days, so he had to fly back to Toronto and go on rounds with “DOOFUS” written on his forehead in big, black letters.”
Prior to this exchange, Dave had nearly polished off the whole main course without raising his head. He’d been on almost every team in high school, and though his exertions are now limited to the occasional weekend Frisbee game, his bulk has not yet turned to fat. He’s usually dating a girl five or six years younger than him, but he never brings the current girl to Evangeline’s dinner parties.
People often dismiss Dave as not very bright because he’s big and quiet. Paul and Deirdre have, Dave could tell from the glance that passed between them when Steve drew him into the reunion story. They’re wrong, though. Dave may not say much, but he notices everything.
He could diagram the whole party, like pages from a football playbook. Most of the exchanges are set plays, they’re that predictable, at least among the home team. Steve fakes left with the roast beef, hands it off to Evangeline, who passes it to the new guy. Beginning at this point, and continuing through the evening, Evangeline telegraphs her disappointment with Steve through a series of gestures: a flicker of her eyelashes, a particular tilt of her head, an occasional jab of her elbow. While Evangeline is thus occupied, Carol tries to catch his own eye in front of or behind Gordon, depending on how far back he’s leaning in his seat. Gordon talks on and on, trying to capture anyone’s attention.
The visitors are a bit more of a challenge, but Dave is beginning to figure them out as well. He saw Deirdre bristle when Paul started in about how tough it is for white men these days, then he caught Paul curling his lip when Deirdre put on her glasses. They don’t seem at ease with themselves or each other, but they’re a united front against the rest of the party.
Nancy and Jeff round out the table, Nancy at the foot of the table and Jeff seated to her left. As soon as Evangeline leaves to get dessert, Carol asks after their baby, Sarah.
“She’s great,” Nancy says. “She’s fabulous.”
“She’s got a new word,” Jeff adds. “‘Computer’ . . . actually, ‘compewtaa.’ That’s how she says it.”
“That’s right,” Nancy says. “When I ask her where daddy is, she says, ‘compewtaa.’”
Gordon shakes his head. “‘Computer,’ eh? Straight from ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ to ‘computer.’ That’s a nineties baby all right.”
“Compewtaa.” “Compewtaa.” Steve and Jeff mimic the baby back and forth between guffaws. Carol sits smiling idiotically, as if the baby is there in front of her.
When Evangeline returns bearing a gorgeous tiramisù, she’s dismayed at the turn the conversation has taken. Ever since Nancy and Jeff got pregnant without consulting anyone, Evangeline has cut short any discussion of, first, the pregnancy, and, now, the baby. Not that Evangeline was surprised at Nancy’s secretiveness. Nancy has never really been one of them, though she’s been part of the crowd for twelve years now, ever since she and Jeff started dating in eleventh grade.
“Do you have any children?” Nancy asks Deirdre, as Evangeline begins ladling the tiramisù onto dessert plates.
“No,” Deirdre says.
“Not yet,” Paul adds, leaning forward in his chair.
“We might soon,” Deirdre volunteers.
“We probably will,” Paul says.
“Yes, we probably will,” Deirdre agrees, and Paul settles back into his seat. “I think that I want to,” Deirdre continues. “But I don’t feel like I have to. I wouldn’t feel as if I’d missed my life’s purpose or anything if I didn’t.” Paul leans forward in his chair again.
Now Carol is sure she’s jealous of Deirdre.
“Well, I couldn’t,” Evangeline says. “I mean, I wouldn’t. A child would ruin this place. Imagine a baby drooling on the Italian leather sofa or spitting up on the white, wool carpet.”
Gordon, who’d once spilled a little red wine on the carpet and hasn’t been allowed to forget it, imagines. He’d like to see it. Then again, he and Dave probably wouldn’t get to hang out with Steve much anymore if he had kids. He’d disappear the way Jeff has.
Evangeline passes round the dessert plates, making sure that Nancy gets a smaller portion than everybody else. “I know you’re having trouble with your weight,” she says. “I don’t want to tempt you.”
Nancy is not the least bit concerned about the twenty pounds she gained during her pregnancy. Small and round and energetic, she feels that she now looks exactly as she’s supposed to look. She’s come into her own. She loves sweet things and is partial to Evangeline’s tiramisù. She particularly appreciates the unorthodox addition of raspberries. After a suitable pause, Nancy and Jeff swap plates, then Steve passes the leftover dessert down to Jeff so that he can top his plate up. Evangeline pretends not to notice.
Before she got pregnant, Nancy worked as a bank teller, and she happens to know that Evangeline and Steve don’t have nearly as much money as their showy dinners would lead you to believe. She knows they’re up to their ears in debt. But she’s very professional; she’s never told anyone, not even Jeff. She thinks about it though, when Evangeline starts in on the subject of her weight.
As soon as dessert is done, Nancy and Jeff say their goodbyes. They have to go; their babysitter will be getting anxious. Nancy thinks to herself on the way home that one of the best things about having a child is getting to leave these dinner parties early. She’d prefer not to turn up at all, but Jeff insists. He remembers high school more fondly than Nancy does.
Paul and Deirdre also beg off early. Paul has papers to mark in the morning. Driving home in their Lexus, they’re already plotting excuses in case Evangeline invites them again. (They needn’t worry. She won’t.) Still, Paul thinks, it wasn’t a total waste of an evening. His account of it will entertain his colleagues at the faculty club.
Steve, Dave, and Gordon refill their wine glasses and file out into the garage for an after-dinner cigar. Evangeline would be horrified at the cheap cigars Steve offers round if she knew. The trip to the smoke shop is the only aspect of the party preparations that she lets Steve take care of on his own.
With the strangers gone and Evangeline out of earshot, Steve relaxes. Slouching in an ancient lawn chair between Dave and Gordon, puffing on a stogie, he feels suddenly like himself. He’s once again the centre of something. The three of them wave the cigars around in the darkness, like lighters held aloft at a rock concert.
“Remember that Trooper show in ninth grade,” Steve begins.
“You mean the one where you and Dave nearly pushed me over the balcony,” Gordon says.
“Nah, you almost fell all on your own,” Dave says. “You never could hold your beer.”
Carol carries the last of the dishes out to the kitchen. Evangeline lingers for a moment, brushing a few stray crumbs off the table. She catches sight of something pink underneath Nancy’s chair and retrieves a small, perfect pair of socks. This is typical of Nancy, she thinks, always leaving behind a scattering of children’s toys, children’s clothes, children’s everything wherever she goes, even when she doesn’t bring the baby with her.
Evangeline unfurls the pair and touches one soft cotton sock to her cheek. Then she scrunches them up again and stuffs them down the back of the sofa.
In the kitchen, she finds Carol licking whipped cream off her fingers. This strikes Evangeline as weak. “You were staring at Dave again at the dinner table,” she says.
“I know,” Carol says, looking out the window instead of at Evangeline. “I’m sorry.”
Together they rinse the plates and fill the dishwasher.
Out in the garage, the men light another round of cigars.
(Originally published Christmas, 2001.)