I was once told that if you’re invited to a dinner party, you have a social obligation to show up content and conversational. Arriving late, complaining about the ‘I’ll eat anything’ meal and constantly checking the smart phone are bad manners but nothing burns the brio like a bad attitude.
For the first time ever my next-door neighbour invited the second floor residents over for an aperitif. She decided to mess with the distant arrangement all three apartments had settled into. Not that we don’t know of each other but our pattern has been to exchange ‘hellos’ in the elevator, smiles on the way in and out of doors and avoid gathering for longer than three minutes.‘There’ll be champagne,’ she said. ‘No need to bring anything.’
Friday at 6pm I rang her doorbell. I wore an ivory sweater and red corduroy skirt. I was armed with chocolate-caramel brownies and some travel tales from my Christmas trip to Australia. I was the first to arrive. While we waited for neighbour #2 I was introduced to the hostess's new boyfriend. How did you meet? Where do you live? What do you do? Two marriages and four children, eh? I was making up for lost time.
Neighbour #2 arrived thirty minutes late. There was shuffling at the door before she sat down in the living room, dark circles, sweatpants and greasy hair.
“Ca ne va pas?”
She told us her husband wanted a divorce.
“You’ll get through this!” we jumped up and said.
And custody of their son.
“But you are the mother,” we assured.
She lost her job.
“You’ll find another.”
Her boyfriend left.
“You're all so quiet,” she finally said.
Sitting around a tray of glasses and a champagne bottle slowly warming on melted ice, she explained that she’s 37 years old, that she needs foot surgery and that maybe, she might be an alcoholic.
It was a lot of information to react to, rendering a mixture of compassion and suspicion. We tried tossing back a few light jokes but were soon pulled into that perverse zone where misery loves company and started exchanging humiliating moments in our own lives, just to make conversation. An hour later we were looking at the walls, desperate to change the mood but unable to work it into the narrative.
“Well,” said the hostess. “Shall we have a toast?”
No one barfed or died but it was the worst party. As we scrambled for excuses to leave I had a visceral urge to thank the hostess. Like telling a widow you had a good time at the funeral, I turned and said, “We should do this again.”
From now on I’m taking the stairs.