The Dinner Party
by Masha Rumer
On March first, Natasha had the best of intentions as she set out shopping for her dinner party.
A good meal begins with good bread. But this bakery, with its whole wheat scones and Frangipane tarts, is the one she frequented around the time of her breakup.
And Natasha begins to ruminate on the recent breakup – which was, in fact, no different than most fiascos of its sort: the annihilation of old photos, the gluing of the pieces back together, the talks, the silences, the bloodshot eyes the following day.
Yes, this is exactly where she used to shop last year. The breakup bakery.
She leaves empty-handed, back to her apartment by the highway overpass.
* * *
On the second of March, however, Natasha is undeterred in hosting her dinner party. The feast will set things right. Regardless of it being last minute, she will invite everyone she can think of. Guests will mingle amid the bright lights and downtempo electronica music, their bodies animating her home in much the same way wheat suffuses a fallow field.
Natasha decides to whip up an Indian feast, for the rich sauces of this cuisine can singe away all traces of worry, or at least reroute them from the brain to the gut for a little while.
She enters a local co-op with her shopping list.
But Indian food is what S and I used to eat after his shows, she remembers through the vulnerable haze of the recent months. Back then, she used to pick up extra-large containers of Chicken Tikka Masala, his favorite, on their way home from the train, whereupon they would dip naan and their fingers into the sauce late at night, licking, laughing, S and her. Her ex-boyfriend’s identity has been condensed into a ubiquitous initial – S. S as in Samosa Café, their first date. S as in Stevie Ray Vaughn, whose poster hung over their couch and always crookedly, even when she’d tried to set it straight. S as in separation.
Without buying anything, she trudges out of the co-op and heads home to sleep.
* * *
In the meantime, nights shed a few seconds of darkness. On March fourth, spring cleanups and yard sales are in full force, as people chuck their clutter and carve out space for themselves in which to breathe and to experience spring. Natasha, too, wants to experience it, which is why today she’s at it again, heading to the farmer’s market to load up on ingredients for her dinner party.
She picks up a magazine from a sidewalk sale on her way, a bride with a carnivorous smile and a tiara on the cover. The bride, for some reason, makes Natasha think back to a recent family birthday.
You look just like a princess tonight, she remembers her aunt cooing. Like a princess. Last week, I went to Rabbi Menachem’s grave to pray for your happiness, for God to finally send you a husband. What a beauty wasting away, what a shame, her aunt lamented then.
But look at this bride’s brown eyes on the magazine cover! Look at her corkscrew curls! The bride reminds Natasha of herself. But Natasha is not a bride. As she leafs through the magazine, her aunt pops up on every page, like a genie. What a shame, the aunt shakes her head on page 15, the one about guest invitations. What a shame, the aunt goes again, staring from a De Beers’ diamonds ad. Natasha wipes her hands against her jeans and shuffles back home.
* * *
The following day, Sunday the fifth, is three months since S last called. Three months since little flames danced on her stovetop. She must host that dinner party, for without it, nothing else seems possible. Natasha twists her hair into a bun, a little thinner than she remembers it to be, and sets out shopping at an organic supermarket for her feast.
It’s got to feature something remarkable: a fusion of flavors, colors and textures to astound a bevy of discerning palates. It’s got to be something Thai, she decides, Pad Thai. And if her apartment can accommodate seven guests, then it should also fit fifteen, twenty-five people. How impressed all of them will be.
Succulent cilantro, sweet peanuts, limes bursting with juice plop into the mesh of the grocery basket. The tug of the handle feels new against her fingers.
But for the life of her, she cannot picture her family members at the Pad Thai party, or at any civilized soiree, for that matter. They always eat simple meals, insipid old-world farmer food she’s long written out of her repertoire, the kind of food that always prompted S to give her looks at family dinners and ask her for Tabasco sauce.
Come, let me look at you, sunshine, her grandmother will probably say at Natasha’s feast, like she generally does. Have you lost weight? Here, I brought you some beef tongue with mayonnaise. We’re in America now, and she walks around looking like a war prisoner. Yes, thinned out right around the face, and the backside too. Ay-ay-ay, a skeleton, I tell you, a genuine skeleton!
The possibility of her butt shrinking shatters any hope of reuniting with S, who used to play the blues to honor that distinct curvature of her body. He would encircle her waist as he pulled and bent the guitar strings – blossoming, buzzing, alive under his touch. Now they are both gone. The boyfriend and the ass. Gone.
Natasha reshelves the organic tofu in its neon wrap. She returns cilantro to the misting shelf. There is no way she is inviting family to dinner. Let them gorge themselves on boiled tongue and overdose on mayonnaise, for all she cares. She is not hungry, anyhow.
* * *
A week passes. Her remainder of Cheez-Its and something canned in the pantry dwindles by March twelfth, leaving just the hot sauce that S liked to add to every dish.
The need for a party – for anything, really – now seems more dire than ever. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to throw a sushi-making extravaganza for friends and coworkers, wowing everyone? And to serve it up in her unopened designer dinnerware?
Natasha dons a loose-fitting dress. She dabs her mouth with lipstick. This time, she’ll drive far away from her memories toward the suburban box-marts, to stock up on the freshest, most expensive ingredients for her feast.
But as Natasha trails up and down the fluorescent aisles, she gets to thinking about her friends. At the dinner party, Annalise will probably inform Natasha that last night she and Boris had a fight about something inconsequential again. I wish I were you, girl, Annalise will probably say. Single and independent. Free to set the room temperature as you please and not worry about his majesty over there getting a sore throat, she’ll say. But when we had makeup sex this morning, Boris grabbed me very rough, you know, like this, and he finally gave in and said he’s okay with us using toys. And oh my God, let me tell you about that thing! Annalise will add. Oh, I’m sorry. That’s insensitive of me. You’ll find someone soon. Real soon. Brunch in April? And Annalise will sprint toward the lap of Boris, her balding prince.
Perhaps it’s not a good idea to invite friends either. To hell with wild-caught Alaskan salmon asparagus rolls. To hell with organic homemade wasabi. Natasha’s got a bitter taste on her palate, and a stomachache just thinking about it.
Natasha drives back to the city, missing her highway exit. She doesn’t even notice the throng of honking cars in her rearview mirror. Only when scrambling down a gravel road does she realize that it is already dusk, and that she is lost.
* * *
On late afternoon of March 17, Natasha crawls out of her bed. Over the last few days of staring at the ceiling and folding and unfolding an empty Cheez-It box, she’s come to realize that she is just one of those people who aren’t meant to throw dinner parties. Not for many, not for two. There will be no bubbling reductions in her kitchen, no laughter, no whistling tea kettle, no empty wine bottles piled by the door. Plenty of people live this way. And they seem just fine.
She pulls on sweatpants crumpled by the bed, steps into a pair of sneakers, and goes out. It is noisy and bright. She shields her eyes from the assault of the late winter sun. A child in a stroller looks at her, contorts its face and begins to bawl. She should probably pick up something to eat for herself. But it’s no use. No use, she mumbles aloud, lightheaded, her feet distant and unfamiliar, as if a stranger’s feet. Why even bother? Who cooks for themselves? Who needs it? Who needs anything? It’s no use. Nothing is.
As Natasha wobbles down an alley, a sudden movement on the corner makes her turn. She sees a bodega she’d never noticed before, entirely too small to carry anything of interest. Inside, a woman is shelving onions, her face round and bronze-skinned, like a large onion.
And the woman’s hands are dancing. They pivot and leap, they vanish and reappear, each time with a new glistening sphere in their grasp. The hands are building rows, walls, castles out of these onions, hundreds and hundreds of onions assembled in perfect symmetry. Their skins shuffle like silk against the woman’s fingertips. The smell is bitter, overwhelming. It smells unclean. It smells like dirt.
“Te puedo ayudar?” the woman queries, looking up at Natasha. “Can I help you?”
And that’s when something stirs deep within Natasha’s belly.
Suddenly, Natasha picks an onion off the shelf. Then she sweeps another. From the freezer with cracked glass, she digs out a chicken. She realizes that this is common food, embarrassingly inorganic, probably not even local, without rave reviews or a distinctive story. But she cannot stop, and she grabs the carrots, the veiny celery stems, tossing a bill onto the cash register and forgetting the change.
With the heap of groceries in her arms, she runs home and begins to peel, to slice, to chop. The kitchen hasn’t been used since S came over to pick up his TV back in…oh, who gives a damn.
A few tears fall onto the cutting board – but it’s just the onion tears. She wipes them against the sleeve and picks up the chopping pace. Faster, faster.
Two hours later, Natasha is staring into a large pot of chicken soup. The broth has got no spices, no kick. Uneven chunks of vegetables are bumping into each other amid the golden swirls on the surface. But the steam, salty, warm and oddly soothing, floods her nostrils and seeps through her limbs.
“Please eat, Natasha,” she says to her reflection in the pot. “Don’t mind if I do!” she says. She plops down on the floor in the center of the room, the pot by her knees. And dipping the ladle to the very bottom of it, Natasha begins her dinner party.
Masha Rumer was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and is an avid writer, blogger and award-winning journalist. Her writing has appeared in The Moscow Times, Dow Jones Newswires, SFWeekly.com, The Huffington Post, Vestal Review and The Fabulist. She teaches college writing and is currently a graduate student at Georgetown.
Art by Margarita Korol.