I was seated next to the host. I wore a pink wig and black boa; he wore ghoulish makeup and a faux knife through his head.
I wasn’t happy about it, at the time. He was expounding, directly to me, on religion and why it was all bad, and why it was ridiculous to believe in God.
Didn’t he know me, after all these years? Why were we having this conversation, especially in this manner?
I couldn’t face it. I felt grumpy and worn out. I felt the doors of my mind slamming shut, as in a darkening tunnel.
—Je suis décu, I said to him. “I’m disappointed.” I thought you knew me better than that.
—“Nadine, no one ever truly knows another,” he replied (in French, of course). Then, looking me right in the eye, he added, “What’s my favourite colour?”
— J’imagine que c’est… noir, I said.
He paused, surprised, but only for a moment.
—Bien joué, bien joué, he said. “Well played.”
I’d actually meant it literally, since he always wears black; but now that I’m writing it, I see he probably took it figuratively, thinking me wittier than I am.
Célestine watched us warily, from across the table.
—Poulet, riz, courge-orange, she said, carefully serving out the main courses.
Célestine—ever the perfect hostess. She and I could sit at the kitchen bar, pounding crémant de Limoux and shouting old French tunes at the tops of our lungs; then, while I’d be dancing coyote ugly, she’d be preparing the meal; five courses, one after the other, serving them on her beautifully decorated table.
Now, at the table, my wig slid forward sadly. I was glad for the tactful subject change. I inhaled deeply. There was the aroma of chicken gravy, buttered rice and orange squash.
—C’est parfait, I exclaimed, clapping my hands, as I admired the arrangement of food on my plate. Always eager to confer gratitude; years of training.
—Nadine, écoute moi, said the host, pointing at me with his steak knife. “Listen.” But I covered his knife with my hand, pushing it away.
—Arrête, I said.
Husband was on my other side. Brown afro wig, now-ragged-and-sleeveless plaid shirt I’d made him twenty years ago — dressed as himself in the nineties. I wanted to giggle when I looked at him. But it would have been inappropriate in that moment.
Later that night we did the dishes, Célestine and I, after everyone else had gone home or to bed.
We lingered, taking our time; she collecting up all the different plates from around the table and counters— entrée, plat, fromage, dessert — me washing and rinsing. Then she dried the plates. She put everything in its rightful place.
Normally it’s not allowed for guests to wash dishes, but I’d insisted, and she’d finally given in.
I felt honoured; part of her inner circle. It takes years to build this kind of friendship, here in France’s zone of emptiness.
We talked about marriage; the intricacies and difficulties of it. Finally, we were nearly done.
Célestine shook her head wryly, clicking her tongue.
—On est deux poules, nous, she said, when I was putting the last wine glasses in the rack. “We’re a couple of hens, puttering and chattering away.”
—Oui, on est deux poules, I agreed, one corner of my mouth turned up in an agreeably wry smile.
Inwardly, I was ecstatic.
It was a cosy little bundle of words. They worked like a digestif on my palate.
Image: Dieu et Deux Poules: Duality Triptych, by Nadine JL.
Edit: title changed 2019-10-31 from “the dinner party”
Nadine inhales & exhales words & images from her current vantage point in the Zone of Emptiness, France. Thank you for reading. 🖤