The Dinner Party

A Short Story by Christie Marra

“The pain’s almost too much to bear by lunchtime,” the judge says, shaking his head. Back when he was an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, John won cases against him so consistently John sometimes wondered whether he’d lost on purpose.

“I don’t know how you navigate all those suffering families,” John’s wife Eliza remarks, looking at the judge sympathetically and placing her hand on his arm. John hates seeing his wife touch another man, any man. He isn’t jealous; he tells himself. It’s the principle. Why should a woman touch other men when she’s refused to touch her own husband for so long? John averts his eyes from Eliza and the judge and turns to Mayor Larique, seated beside him.

“How’s life on the dark side?” John asks, knowing he’d been a reluctant candidate, coaxed into running by the twenty-somethings who had marched with him throughout the year of protests.  The mayor rolls his eyes.

“This city needs some work,” he says.

John pours him more wine. “Start with fixing that jail, man. Nobody should have to stay in that shit hole an hour, let alone twelve months.”

“It’s on the list, a hell of a long list,” the mayor trails off.

Damn, man, you gave up quick! John thinks, turning away from the young mayor. The restaurant couple sits on his other side. She’s describing plans for her newest restaurant, while he moves his food around on his plate, occasionally glancing and nodding at his wife.

Exquis opens next month, and it’s going to be my most successful bistro yet!” she exclaims. Her husband’s shoulders slump.

“She’s moving you to the new restaurant?” John whispers, and he shrugs. “You should stay where you are, or go back to your favorite. You’re one of the best damn chefs in the city.” The chef smiles weakly and continues shrugging.

Am I the only man at this dinner party with balls? John wonders, looking at the new guy, quiet, almost sullen, directly to the right of his wife.  The new guy laughs suddenly at something Eliza says, and Eliza gives him her special look, glancing sideways and curling her lips into a half-smile. John remembers, bitterly, a time when she looked at him that way.

He studies the new guy, trying to figure out what Eliza sees in him. He wears Clark Kent glasses – always a sign of weak character – and his bald head is too large for his thin body. John’s head is perfectly proportionate to the rest of him. At least it used to be, before those late-night munchies inflated his gut.

“Do you enjoy being a public defender?” a soft voice asks. John looks across the table at the young brunette with a sharp nose and wire rims that match his own.

“I do.” He raises his wine in a toast, wondering if this dark cloud of a dinner party might have a silver lining. The brunette follows suit. “To well-chosen careers!” She smiles with closed lips before she drinks. “And what is yours?” he asks, hoping she won’t say nurse or teacher.

“I’m a chemist.”

“Ah, you must be the new member of Eliza’s team!” John says, and she nods. “How do you like working for The Man?”

The brunette shakes her head. “I, um…I don’t see it that way.” She dips her head toward her plate as she cuts a piece of filet mignon. A very fine wisp of hair escapes from behind her ear, brushing her cheek.

“How do you see it?” John asks in a softer tone. It would be a shame to alienate her so quickly. He still has to endure the remainder of dinner and dessert, and she’s the only dinner guest who even slightly interests him.

“I’m exploring new remedies, new solutions to ailments that plague people.”

“And the six-figure salary’s just a convenient bonus?” he chuckles.

She tucks her hair back in place and takes a long drink of wine. “I don’t think about the money.”

“People who have enough of it never do,” John replies, tiring of her.

Next to the chemist sits a man wearing a red bow tie. John hates bow ties. He wouldn’t even wear one for their wedding, insisting on leaving the top button of his starched white shirt open. Back then, Eliza called such things “quirky-cute.”

“McCain’s gonna have a tough time of it,” John says, looking directly at the man in the bow tie.

“How’s that?” the man asks, shoveling risotto into his mouth. Grains of rice stick to his mustache just beneath his nostrils, like frozen snot, and John holds back a smirk.

“We’ve got our first black presidential candidate, and he’s a good family man who’s smart and has a down-home relatability despite being primarily professorial.”

“Plus he’s cute as a button!” Bow-tie’s wife adds.

“McCain has stellar military and public service,” Bow-tie replies, with a cool, sideways glance at his wife. “Plus he was a prisoner of war.”

“But how can we put the future of our country in the hands of a man who chose a gun-toting, xenophobic airhead as a running mate?” asks the guest across from John, setting his suede patched elbows on the table. “The most important quality of a president is his ability to choose wisely.”

“His?” John asks. He’d bet his last paycheck on Suede Elbows being one of those liberals who valued a man’s statements over his substance.

“Well, um, his or hers,” Suede Elbows replies. “Good catch, pal.”

“Why do you think a little known senator will choose wisely?” Bow-tie asks, pointing his forkful of risotto at Suede Elbows.

“He already has,” Suede Elbows asserts. “Can’t find fault with Joe.”

“Hmph!” Bow-tie grunts. “Anyone who has suffered some sort of tragedy becomes a hero to you people.” 

“I’m sorry,” John interrupts, determined to re-route the conversation before it turns into the same empty analysis he’s heard dozens of times, “I know Eliza introduced us, but—”

“Seymour Gillespie.” Suede Elbows drops his fork, and awkwardly extends his hand.  John reaches across the table to shake it, purposefully shoving his arm straight through Eliza’s flower arrangement. A few petals flutter to the table as he pulls his hand back. He remembers Eliza gushing about how this florist’s arrangements lasted “for weeks and weeks, sometimes more than a fortnight!” and has to fight the laughter. He’s so bored with Eliza’s absurd affectations.

“How long you lived around here, Seymour?” John asks. He feels Bow-tie’s wife’s hand on his thigh and removes it decisively.

“A few months. I started teaching at Roanoke College last semester.”

“Ooo, what do you teach?” Bow-Tie’s wife squeals. John wonders whether she’s trying to play footsie with the professor under the table.

A glass hits the floor and shatters at the other end of the table.

Eliza jumps up and shouts, “Sallie!” The waitress supplied by the caterer rushes into the room with a broom and dustpan.

“It’s Cindy,” the waitress corrects Eliza as she cleans up the glass.

“Thank you,” Eliza says, eyeing Cindy icily and placing her hands on the judge’s shoulders.

“Objection!” John mutters, irritated by Eliza’s classism. The young chemist hears him and giggles, and John thinks perhaps he dismissed her too quickly. He winks at her. 

As the broken glass is cleared and Cindy begins to remove the dinner plates, Eliza raises her glass.

“Friends, it is an honor to host you,” she begins. John glances at the chemist and rolls his eyes. The chemist hides her giggle behind a napkin. “Our little city, tucked in the Blue Ridge mountains, home to a small but stellar college that gathers and nurtures young minds until they blossom and fly away to grace other lands with their wisdom…”

John shakes his head. The chemist catches his eye, tilts her head and raises her eyebrows. John grins at her.

“We have it all here – wisdom,” Eliza nods at the judge, “wealth,” she smiles at Bow-tie and his wife, “and ingenuity!” Eliza extends a regal arm toward the restaurant queen. “And we have a generosity of spirit, welcoming those who simply wander here.” Eliza looks pointedly at the chemist, whose blush is evident in the dim candlelight.  “And of course, we are eager to learn new things.” Eliza nods at Suede Elbows, and she moves closer to the new guy, so close that her elbow meets his shoulder. John watches their body parts touch, disgusted with Eliza and with himself. He hasn’t had a physique as obviously well-toned as the new guy’s in decades. He notices the chemist watching him and forgets about his paunch as he raises his glass to her.

“Mathematics,” Suede Elbows says. John and the chemist stare at him. “I teach mathematics.”

“Oh! You must be brilliant!’ Bow-tie’s wife squeals. Suede Elbows launches into an explanation of how math is everywhere.

“Every road is a plane, every room a cube, every decision based on some inherent mathematical formula!” he exclaims. If Bow-tie’s wife is playing footsie with him, it isn’t distracting Suede Elbows at all. His lecture continues as Cindy serves dessert.

Suede Elbows’ lecture is too much for John. He excuses himself and slips out to the warmth of the back porch. Why does Eliza keep the house so damn cold! He pulls a small glass pipe and a bag of buds from behind the potted fern, and carefully packs the pipe. He inhales deeply, savoring the burning sensation that makes him feel whole. Smoke leaves his mouth and dances in the darkness before it disappears. John watches the moon, high and bright, and the world begins to slow.

“There you are!” The chemist bounces through the door and throws her arms around John’s neck. Over her shoulder, John sees Eliza laughing with the judge and the new guy in the kitchen, placing a hand on each man’s arm. The new guy stares at John, challenging him. John starts toward the door, but the weight of the woman embracing him holds him back. “I knew you expected me to follow you out of the dining room, but I had no idea where you’d gone,” she says.

John puts his hands around the chemist’s waist, trying to focus on her smile instead of his wife touching two other men. The air around them hums as he studies the chemist’s face.

“It’s been so long,” she says, tilting her head back to look up at John. He kisses her hard, moving his hands down to her buttocks. “No, wait.” She removes his hands and leads him into the yard, stopping beneath the magnolia tree. “You remember the magnolia tree, don’t you?”

“Of course,” John says, no idea what she means, liking where it’s heading, and guessing any other answer might change their course.

They have sex on a blanket of hard, dry leaves, their pointed tips pricking John’s shoulders, back and rear. But he doesn’t care. He hasn’t touched a woman since Eliza kicked him out of their bedroom three years ago. The chemist is a good partner, open and vocal and willing to follow wherever he leads, and he takes her everywhere he’s dreamed of taking a woman in the past three years – between her breasts, in her pussy, and in her delightfully tight ass. 

“Ooo, that’s new!’ she squeals beneath him, giggling into the magnolia leaves.

“So it’s okay?” John asks, chuckling. “I’ve never done it before.”

“I like it. It excites me!”

The chemist gets sexier by the second. After he climaxes, John stays inside her a while, sliding his stomach up and down in the sweat of her back, relishing  how the physical closeness makes him tingle with pleasure.

He rolls off her and lies on the crisp magnolia leaves, arms crossed behind his head, hoping to hold onto this new, fresh, wild connection.

“Wow!” the chemist declares, laying her head on John’s chest. “That was so much better than the first time!”

“Really?” he laughed. “You’re the only person I’ve ever been with who could have an orgasm that way.”

“What?” The chemist sits up and looks at John, confused.

“I mean, you know, from the back.”

The chemist shakes her head. “I didn’t enjoy it that much.”

“But you said it was better than the first time.”

“I meant better than the first time we, well, you know.” She kisses him. “Can you believe it’s been three years?”

“What?” John asks, feeling a little queasy. How could she know it had been three years since Eliza banished him from their bedroom so she could fuck every new man in town? Did Eliza tell everyone?

“Did you ever get my note?” the chemist asks. “I’d thought you’d make up some excuse to come to the lab as soon as you knew I was there, but this was much better.” She laughs an uncontrolled, almost maniacal laugh.

“What…what note?”  John stands up, his legs wobbling. The chemist holds her hand out to him, and he pulls her up quickly then pulls his hand back to his side.

“The invitation, my dear!” the chemist replies, grabbing his hand.

Invitation? What on earth is she talking about? As she smiles at him, John sees that one of her teeth is missing. Where’s her tooth? He could have sworn she had all her teeth at the dinner table.

He throws the chemist her clothes and hurriedly puts on his own. Before he can start back to the house, she grabs his arm.

“Kiss me like you did the first time on the lawn, under the low yellow moon.” She rises onto her toes and lifts her face toward his. “Kiss me. Baby!” Trapped, John leans down and brushes his lips softly and quickly against the chemist’s. She pulls him closer, forcing his lips open with her tongue. He tries to resist, but her lilac scent makes him forget the missing tooth, and his body responds to her scent and her tongue. She pulls away first. “I’ve saved myself for you, you know,” she drawls, and John starts trembling again. Lilacs be damned!

“It’s late. Don’t you need to be in early tomorrow?” John walks rapidly toward the house.

“Don’t worry! I won’t tell anyone!” the chemist promises, following him. “You know, I took the job to be close to you.” She laughs her maniacal laugh again. The chemist makes less sense every minute. How did she know about him before meeting him tonight? Eliza never acknowledges his existence outside of their house these days. But what if this time she did acknowledge him? What if Eliza had more than acknowledged him? Perhaps she’d actually advertised him as part of the position, subtly communicating a surprise bonus, an exciting, illicit twist to taking the job. Eliza would do that to get rid of him, especially after he’d told her he’d never leave their marriage without squeezing every last penny out of her.

The house is empty. Were they outside that long?

“Looks like we have the place to ourselves,” the chemist says, putting her arms around John’s waist. John removes her hands and backs away. She doesn’t seem sexy anymore, now that he knows she’s missing a tooth and may be an unscrupulous bargainer who chose John over a corner office.

“It’s so late,” he says. “And I’m so tired.”

“I suppose I should head home,” the chemist admits. “But tell me – when can we see each other again?” She grabs his sleeves, and John fights the urge to back away again. If he can just get her to her car—“When?” the chemist asks again.

“Soon,” John says. “I’ll find a way.” Seeming satisfied, she follows John out the front door.

Eliza is in the circular drive staying good night to the judge. She hugs him, and stands with her back to the yard as his car pulls away and heads down the driveway. When she turns around, she’s wiping her eyes. She sees John and the chemist and smiles brightly, dropping her hands to her side. “Did John give you a nice tour of the house, Eleanor?”

“John and I made love in the yard, Eliza,” the chemist says.

“Really?” Eliza asks, and even as focused as he is on trying to escape whatever the chemist has in mind for him, John can tell Eliza is surprised.

“It had to happen, Eliza. We knew from the moment we met at Oxford three years ago that we were meant to be together.”

Oxford? John’s confused. He’s never been to Oxford. He hasn’t even been outside Virginia except for his honeymoon to New Orleans.

“Oxford?” Eliza asks.

“I was working on my Ph.D., and he was a visiting professor at the law school.”

It was just a case of mistaken identity! John’s heartbeat begins to calm down, and he sighs.

Eliza looks at John and shakes her head. She approaches the chemist, takes both her hands, and says, “Eleanor, my husband has never taught at Oxford. He couldn’t even get into Oxford.” Eliza’s dismissive tone stings, and for a moment the sting overshadows his relief.

“That, that’s not true!” the chemist says. “He was an instructor there. We met at a cocktail party. We made love in the Botanic Garden!”

“I’m sorry, Eleanor,” Eliza says.  “My husband isn’t a very nice man.” She puts her arm around the chemist. “Come, let’s have some cognac and get to know each other better.”

The women turn and walk toward the house, the chemist taking one final look at John before following Eliza inside and closing the door.

John watches the door close, and the final traces of his fog dissipate while the brightness of the moon illuminates his solitude.   

Christie Marra is a legal aid attorney who writes, dances and poles in Richmond, Virginia. Despite her diverse interests and activities, she’s frequently vexed by her inability to maintain a clean house and cook without burning something. She blames this unhealthy obsession on the Enjoli commercial that seemed to play constantly when she was growing up. Christie’s short stories have appeared in various publications, including Little DeathThe Write Launch and Pangryus.

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