Sunday Stories: “Before Dinner”


Before Dinner
by Jeff Gabel

After Mavis Gallant’s “In Transit”


Perched on a hillside overlooking Vevey, there is a pension the size of a small chateau. The translated version of their website boasts of the most romantic view of Lake Geneva, nestled above Switzerland’s quaintest town. On a late September evening, the view from the lounge offers something like this. The rooftops of town are like a quilt, the color of burnt orange and cider. A cathedral tower rises high above, its bell ringing in the hour. Across the lake, the French Alps are capped in snow after an early frost. To the west, a setting sun marries the horizon line, cutting the pension’s lounge into pools of hard yellow light and long dark shadows.

Dinner is being served in the dining hall. Two American couples are sitting in the lounge, by the fireplace, waiting to be seated. Above the fireplace mantle is a framed print of Absinthe by Edgar Degas. In the painting, a man and woman sit together on a café bench, neither of them paying attention to the other. The woman’s eyelids are heavy as she stares past her drink, disconsolate. The man smokes a pipe, mildly intrigued by something happening out of frame.

The older couple, both in their seventies, arrived early and are planted in a pair of wingback chairs. They have watched, helplessly, as three other parties have been shown to their tables. The elderly woman’s arms are folded across her belly, her feet are planted on the floor. One of her knees swings left to right, as if compelled in both directions at once. Her husband stares at the liquor shelf behind a small bar, reading aloud the labels of various spirits. “Redbreast, Teeling, Tyrconnell Single Malt…”

The younger couple, Natalie and Jonah, share a small settee. They are on the seventh day of their honeymoon. Starting in Paris, they rented a car and drove all through the Loire Valley, then down into the Ardèche. Last night, they were out late drinking in Chamonix. Jonah is drowsy, nursing the tail end of a hangover. Natalie, feeling fine, sits with her legs folded in, feet tucked between the cushions. She props her elbow on the back of the settee and twirls a curl of her husband’s hair.

Jonah and Natalie are fluent in French, and up to now the maître d has joked with them and made small talk, ignoring the elderly couple’s agitated glances toward the dining hall. When the elderly man makes a show of clearing his throat, asking the maître d how long it will be until they are seated, the maître d looks at him vacantly, then answers in his native tongue, not caring whether the elderly man understands.

As the sun sinks, it shines directly on the elderly woman. She blinks and pinches her face, oppressed, as if unwillingly singled out by a spotlight.

“What I want to know,” she says to her husband, readjusting herself, “is what I’ve meant to you all this time. And don’t say wife.” Her voice trembles. “I really want to know.”

“Don’t worry,” the old man replies, irritated. “When you’re reincarnated, you’ll find someone else.”

Jonah perks up. He gives Natalie a meaningful look. They must assume we don’t speak English, he almost says, in French, to talk like that, in front of us—complete strangers.

The elderly woman’s lower lip quivers, her hand registers a tremor. She struggles to remove her glasses, which are fogged with the moisture of tears.

Instinctively, Jonah feels his breast pocket for his pen and notebook. A week before their wedding, he was rejected from a Fulbright Scholarship, and has been using the honeymoon as unofficial research for his novel. They’ve been unhappy for years, he thinks. But she has early onset of Parkinson’s. He takes care of her. To leave her now—he’s not a monster. And he won’t make himself into one this late in life. Aware that he has been staring, Jonah forces his gaze around the room before writing any of this down. He notes a pair of suitcases in the far corner. Pinned to one of them is a pink ribbon. Maybe she’s a breast cancer survivor. After the chemo, they thought they could patch things up. But now they have the same problems as before. Every day they find another reason to resent each other.

Natalie, unlike her husband, is not in disbelief. But she is deeply saddened. How can it be, she wonders, that they have come all this way, across the ocean, to this beautiful place, and this is what they say to each other. Jonah is writing, feverishly. His getting distracted reminds Natalie of a few days ago, in the Adrèche, when a pretty young woman, wading into a river, caught his eye. She stops twirling his hair, folds her arms.

The elderly woman pulls a handkerchief from her shirt pocket and dabs away tears. The man frowns and glares, even more intently, at the liquor shelf. “Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, Teasmith, Hendrick’s…”

The maître d crosses the room. Looking past the elderly couple, he smiles broadly at Natalie.

“You see,” the elderly man interrupts himself, turning to his wife. “How he looks at them? And you said they’d be less prejudiced than the French.”

Natalie nearly snaps at this man. “We’re Americans too, you know,” she imagines saying. “And your wife? She’s human, turns out. Show a little compassion.” She grows warm with anger, fantasizing with satisfaction the look on the man’s face, discovering that she also speaks English.

Jonah is still scribbling away. She gives his shoulder a hard pinch. He flinches and holds down a sigh, keeps writing. It is the fifth or sixth time she has done that since Paris.

At times Natalie feels selfish, but it bothers her that he has this thing he pours so much of himself into, and which she is not part of. Jonah is not yet published but has written a handful of stories—all of them about the same thing, without realizing he’s doing it, and certainly without realizing, each time he asks Natalie to read a draft, that she sees it.

Jonah quietly tucks away his notebook and pen. Natalie, wanting to know what he has written, recalls one story in which the break-up with his ex-girlfriend is especially transparent.

“Why did you leave her?” she asks, suddenly, in French. “What’s-her-name.”

Jonah bristles. He knows there is no chance of dodging her question, lest he spoil the whole evening. Still, he decides to take a moment before answering.

“She said she didn’t believe in love,” he replies, also in French. “And that she always saw herself, eventually, living alone and away from people, in a cabin in Vermont or Maine.” He pulls in a breath. “A person like that—. I knew I had to end it, I guess.” Annoyed that she has brought this up, here in Vevey of all places and on their Honeymoon, he feels justified in this lie. But his palms are clammy; there is sweat on his brow.

“So, is she, like, a hermit now?”

“No,” Jonah replies, frowning thoughtfully. “She’s married.”

He recalls a few of her Instagram posts from over the years: laughing in bed with her husband, who is taking the selfie, her shoulders bare above the comforter. Standing in yoga pants and tank-top, on a mountain peak, baby strapped to her chest while clouds plume behind her.

Shirt pulled up above her swollen belly, accompanied by the caption: round 2. “She has two kids,” he says.

“You did leave her though, right?” Natalie asks, lowering her chin and thinking how reliant Jonah can be, how jealous. It is difficult to envision him leaving anyone.

“Yeah,” he replies, fiddling with his shirt pocket. “I was kind of cruel, actually.”

“How do you mean?”

“I just took all my stuff from our apartment and left. She called and texted. I never answered. I’m not proud of it.” The lie is easy. All he does is reverse their roles. “But it’s the only thing I knew how to do. We were babies, both of us.” He shrugs. “That’s how I dealt with things back then.”

“Ghosting people?”

“Yeah. If you want to call it that, sure.”

She breathes out, through her nose. “That doesn’t seem like you.”

Jonah wipes the sweat from his brow. “We all grow,” he says, thinking how lame this sounds.

“We all grow,” she echoes.

In a rare moment, he cannot read her tone.

“It’s not right, how I treated her, and totally immature. But it was safe,” he adds, a direct phrase from his ex. The muscles in his face tighten, and he suddenly fears that his imagination has reached its limit. His head is throbbing. He desperately wants a glass of water.

“She had a weird name, right?”

“Payten,” he says, trying to sound unaffected. “She always had to spell it out for people.” “Did you really love her?”

He acts like this deserves consideration. “I thought I did. But really I was just infatuated.” “What do you mean?”

“Infatuated, I guess, with the idea of being in love with someone like her, not her.” He likes the sound of this, is impressed with his own maturity, the courage and willingness it takes to talk of such things. Many couples, he thinks, glancing at the elderly man and woman, hold onto these things for years, decades even. He will not, he decides, selflessly, prod her about her own past loves. The guy from college, for instance—now a successful journalist and selling his memoir.

“She didn’t believe in people,” he says, profoundly.

Natalie is silent for a few seconds. “How do I know you’re not just infatuated with me?”

By now the elderly man and woman are staring. Natalie, pretending that she does not notice, revels in this—the audience she has drawn.

“It’s our honeymoon,” she says. “You’ve been drinking—a lot. You stay up late and get weird and shifty when I ask how your novel is going.”

Jonah is about to ask what this has to do with love and infatuation but decides to keep quiet.

At almost that exact moment, the maître d comes in. “Your table is ready,” he says to Natalie and Jonah, wearing his broad smile and looking past the elderly couple.

Jonah stands and makes a performance of gesturing for Natalie to go first.

The elderly husband and wife readjust themselves and glare at the maître d. For an instant, they seem almost united in their indignance.

Natalie walks behind the maître d, confidence showing in her stride. Jonah blows out a pocket of air and straightens the front of his shirt. He stands and follows his wife. The fogginess brought on by his hangover prevents him from thinking of the right words to curb her interrogation. He wipes his brow again, wondering how on Earth he’ll make it through dinner. Watching Natalie’s backside, the mistakes he has made all week come into focus.

In Orléans, for instance, she wanted to buy a feathered hat from a street vendor and asked his opinion. He thought it girlish, a little clichéd, and said so. Her face drained and she grew

silent, as if he had stained an image of the kind of person she would like to be. A few days later, they picnicked in a gorge, along the Ardèche River. He briefly watched that young woman, wading in knee-deep water. She wore a vintage sweater that transported him back to an early autumn morning, when he and Payten had just had sex. Payten, chilled, put on a sweater similar in color to the Frenchwoman’s. He was happy back then, convinced that his life could be an unending thread of such happiness.

In the gorge, Natalie had been massaging his neck. Noticing him leer at the Frenchwoman, she stood and marched off. He called after her. “I have to pee,” she called back, half-turning. She was gone for nearly half an hour. The rest of their time in the Ardèche, he had been sure to pay close attention to her. Ever since, their days were intentionally full, almost running from quiet moments, from stillness.

The maître d seats them at a small table, next to a large window with glass so old it is warped, distorting the twilit sky. Candlelight flickers. A waiter comes by with menus and takes their drink orders. Natalie, listlessly reading the few options on table d’hôte, cannot shake the memory of that young woman in the gorge. Ever since, she will become irritable and set off at the slightest thing. Like when Jonah insisted on haggling with a baker in Amboise over the cost of a loaf of Boule, or happily debated with a bartender in Vogüé whether Flaubert or Henry James had more influence on the modern novel.

Three days from now, she will have her moment, when a waiter at Café Sperl in Vienna mistakes them for French. Winking, boldly, the waiter will tell Natalie that he thought she was the film actor Lea Seydoux. Her face will glow, triumphant, and she will lean over the table, looking at her husband of ten days. “He thinks I’m famous,” she’ll say, not sure why this excites her so.

From Café Sperl, they will walk down to the Naschmarkt and share a plate of veal shank.

Delirious from travel and lack of sleep, she will laugh at herself while chewing, not having realized how tough the meat would be.

Jonah, watching her, will be overcome with an immense loneliness. He will remember a time when Payten’s eyes settled on him from across the room at a party, how grateful and content she seemed, knowing he was there. If this is not nice, he had thought, looking back at her, I don’t know what is.

He will not remember much of Vienna. Later that same day he will imagine Payten, rising early in the predawn light to breastfeed her second child. Her eyes bleary, skin pale, the way she used to look in the early morning, amused at herself, desiring only to go back to sleep. He will imagine Natalie, long before they met, laughing into the chest of that journalist, young and in love for the first time.

In the pension dining hall in Vevey, the excitement Natalie got out of questioning her husband collapses. She remembers where they are, why they are there, and is struck with an acute misery. Their wedding feels like a lifetime ago, or belonging to a different life altogether.

Their waiter appears, and through a Swiss accent he applauds them on their marriage, tells them they are a “fetching” couple.

Only after they finish the first course does Natalie take in the dining hall. It is a stately, historic room that suggests the music of harpsichords and violins, powdered wigs and extravagant clothing, courtship and celebration. The hearts of young gallants pliant as they vie for the affections of young ladies.

A dozen candles burn on the centerpiece of each table, and the entire room is cast in a wavering, golden hue. Natalie’s eyes settle on her husband, sullen, dabbing his brow. He feels his shirt pocket, as if fretting the notebook has somehow fallen out on their way from the lounge. Above him, the vaulted ceiling is covered in baroque paintings of men and women, naked, making their beds among clouds.



Jeff Gabel is a writer from Denver, Colorado. His fiction has appeared in Aji Magazine, Literary Orphans, Litro Magazine (Online), and Agapanthus Collective, and is forthcoming in Valparaiso Fiction Review. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and is a candidate at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Image source: Katsia Jazwinska/Unsplash

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