The decision to attend the dinner party was one I made in the pretext of unchoice: my ex girlfriend Katie. I have never been happier than with her, and love is never a choice, but an order you are happy to obey. Of course no one chooses to fall from grace, but the closer you get to someone the more graceful choices must be. The same goes for death. Till this day it amazes me that a connection so strong could be broken by things so flimsy. How hugs so tight could be pried open with the feathered crowbars of morals and dogma.
--I feel like I can’t talk to you: everything I bring up is some ‘mode of control’ or whatever. It’s so depressing.
--Well, I don’t want you to be depressed.
--You make me feel so good sometimes, and then others...you’re so negative. You don’t think I’m as smart as you. How can I be with someone who doesn’t even respect me?
--That’s a reductionist point of view. I don’t think intelligence works like that. Smart, dumb? That’s...
--No, I...that’s not that I meant.
--It’s always got to be some...argument with you. Why can’t you just be nice?
--Koe...I love you, you know that. I don’t think I’m a mean person...I’m trying to be honest. Not just with us, but with everything.
--Yeah well maybe you shouldn’t!
--Katie...please...don’t say things like that.
--Maybe you should go.
I went, but not far. These days, with the shift of communication everyone’s just a touch away. It wasn’t until several years later we would talk again, online. We would exchange a few words when my heart could spare it, or when liquor came into the equation. She is married now, as that’s where she felt she needed to be around the time we were together. As it turns out, she married a doctor, following in her mother’s footsteps. I did not attend the wedding; I could not bare to. I do not remember that night, but I did phone to congratulate her eventually -- land line. The husband’s name is James, and to this day I have found no evidence of humility from the surgeon. One time I encountered him by chance at the Toronto hospital, waiting to see a specialist. I don’t think I would have spotted him out of the crowd, but he approached me. Seeing him in his white coat, a shining symbol of security, I had a visceral moment of clarity.
--Um, it’s James right?
--Listen loser, you need to move on.
I guess I am a loser. I lost her. I probably don’t deserve her. I’m a social deviant. As I said though, I’m a writer now. That is, unlike before, I have more money. Though, a few other things have changed which money cannot fix.
So it was that I, already in the city, accepted her offer to attend their small gathering. I’d see her one last time, perhaps. Just in case.
--It’ll just a couple friends over to chat. Nothing serious.
My rental vehicle turns into the entrance of the Glendale Estates suburbs where Katie and James’ house is located. I glance in the rearview mirror at my face. I do not look healthy. I stare at the bags under my eyes for a while: bruised muscle; purple tears where there are none left to cry.
The beige house in question comes into view and I notice several cars already present. I do not recognize any of the cars in the large driveway. They must have gotten a new one. The SUV? I take my time parking on the street, preparing myself. Walking up past the cars of the other guests I see a rather expensive one. Looking into the passenger side window I spot a small mirror sitting on top of one of the cup holders with trace amounts of some white powder on top. Interesting. The vehicle closest to the house is the SUV. It looks fairly new. Before ringing the doorbell I take a moment to listen to the quiet neighborhood. Somewhere kids are laughing, but mostly silence. Like the calm before some generational storm.
I knock on the door.
I can hear noises faintly through the polished wooden wood; two sets of footsteps are making their way to the forefront. After a barely perceptible pause, the door opens to reveal the pair, pretty much as I expected: both of them smiling politely, James with his hand around Katie’s waist, wedding rings secure on their fingers. She speaks first, with a controlled smile.
--Hi Mike, it’s good to see you.
She breaks free of James for a moment to give me a quick hug. I suspect this is an act of defiance on her part. The embrace is something reminiscent of a father watching his daughter at the end of the first date. She smells wonderful. For a second our bodies remember another time, but James steps forward.
--Hi Mike. How are you? Here let me take your jacket...I just made some coffee if you would like some. You...look a little tired.
--No, thanks. You both look amazing though. More so you, James. You look shiny; brand new. Have you been tanning?
Katie fights a smile I feel something within me being resisted as well. She is beautiful, always. I hand James my jacket, doing a mental double-check, making sure there is nothing incriminating in any of the pockets. He walks around the corner and I can hear the sound of clothes hangers being moved. I envision the closet as full of white coats. Turning my attention back to Katie to catch her looking away from my eyes.
I keep the conversation rolling.
--He’s such a helpful guy.
--Yes. So...well, congrats on the book! That’s really quite wonderful. I always knew you had it in you.
Her response is calculated, but genuine: I know she means what she says, but still I wonder about the legitimacy of the comment. I smile, thanking her, and we reminisce on the days when I would send her my drafts.
James comes back, and I can sense he does not like he has nothing to contribute to the exchange. James is far from a secure man, but then again so am I. We make our way into the living room at his suggestion.
The living room is modern and stylish. The first thing I notice is an unfamiliar book on the coffee table, along with a couple of wine glasses. The second thing I see is a man in a pink shirt with his sleeves rolled up. He is chewing gum. An attractive blonde sits next to him on one of the two couches.
--Everyone, this is Mike -- Mike, this is Brendan, Courtney, Eric, and Janelle.
The crowd welcomes me warmly.
I recognize James’ younger brother Eric sitting in a chair next to the couch. Courtney, the blonde, has the body of a model and an evolved sense of fashion. She is one of Katie’s friends, and she sits with Brendan (I presume they are the users) on the couch. Janelle, an older brunette woman sits alone on the love seat. I join Janelle and she tells me she teachers with Katie at the same school. Katie takes her place on the other couch, and James asks my drink choice (whatever he’s having) before continuing through the other exit to the family room to get the drink, and presumably to check on the dinner I smell. He’s not a bad cook, judging from the smell wafting into the family room from the kitchen.
Brendan chews his gum in thought for a moment, looking me over as he gets ready to say something.
--So, first book right? You make much off of it? It’s fiction, right?
--Honey...it’s art, not some....transaction.
The comment from Courtney takes me by surprise. He smirks off her surprisingly refreshing stance, looking back to me for a response.
--Um, more than I expected, to be honest. I had sort of given up on writing in a way, but a publisher happened to get a hold of some older stuff. Yes, it’s fiction.
Janelle takes a sip of her wine. I glance over, smiling politely. She is around forty; quite attractive, and has a single vibe. She is not out of place by any stretch, but James is the oldest at thirty-four. She asks me what the book is about. Eric is drinking beer and he takes a sip, looking over in interest as well. The phone rings and I glance to the kitchen for a moment: I see James answer it, and I notice it’s on the land line; he stands there twirling the cord with his finger as he talks to someone and I find this curious for some reason.
--Well, it’s about this couple: for no reason, they just start to loose things in extremely unlucky ways. They lose...you know, their car, their house -- even their cellphones. In the end, all they have is each other.
--Oh, that’s so sad!
James comes walking back into the room with a rum and coke for me and I thank him. I take a sip, wondering if perhaps there will be more of these.
He nods, announcing to me and the rest of the room that dinner is ready. We make our way into the kitchen (Brendan goes to wash his hands) where we help ourselves to the various dishes before sitting down. I a vegetarian so I skip the meat, but I am not so hungry, so I take only a bit of caesar salad and mashed potatoes. I notice Brendan and Courtney select fairly sparingly, while Katie fills up. With our selections and plates in hand we all finally sit down at the table.
Despite my efforts to keep things innocuous the conversation falls back to me, partly due to Brendan’s insistence. He sits across the rectangular table from me with Courtney beside him, and Eric on the other side. Janelle is beside me (advancing her intake of wine), and James and Katie sit at either end. There is an empty chair between me and James; there is Janelle between me and Katie.
--So you said work earlier, but what exactly brings you to Toronto, man? Book signing, something like that? You must be busy. You got a smart phone? You want a smart phone?
--Uh, I just had to meet with a couple people...
Janelle takes another sip of wine before jumping into the conversation.
--I haven’t read your book, but from what I heard it doesn’t sound all that sad. I mean, if the couple still has each other then....you know, what is everything else but secondary?
--Yeah but do they even stay together?
I explain that they do, but eventually they both die by the end.
--Oh, that’s so sad!
--Listen, love is fine in the books --in theory-- but it takes money to make it work. You can’t just be broke and expect a relationship to function smoothly. Most divorces are because of money problems.
--Money, the root of all evil.
--Money is the root of all pleasure -- it buys me everything I want. Check out this new smart phone: it’s essentially a full-on computer and a phone.
--Brendan, that’s not what he means.
I explain that the book is kind of a comment on society, and again to my surprise Courtney is the one nodding like a succubus at my words: the absurdity of fiat banking; the failing economy. The more I talk, the more I can feel that Janelle, perhaps disillusioned with her own view of society, starting to flirt with me. I move onto my second rum and coke and she starts to become more appealing. I watch Katie notice all of this, sipping on her water quietly. James has had enough.
--What’s the point in worrying about all of this, though? Is anyone of us here going to change any of it? No, of course not. It’s all just...academic airy talk.
Eric smirks at his brother and sends me a glance, but says nothing. He sips on the same beer as in the living room, quietly eating his food. Everyone stays quiet for a moment.
--What do you want to talk about?
James has no follow up suggestion so I ask Brendan what he does for a living. Courtney sends Brendan a quick glance before answering for him. She tells me he is in construction. The rest of the table chimes in telling me that he a ‘Jack of all Trades.’ After all of this he just sort of nods at me with a chemical security as he takes out the latest smartphone to check a message. Courtney, it turns out, comes from old money, and doesn’t really work, but has been on three different TV game shows; she is very good at trivia. I know already that Eric is an engineer.
Katie takes another sip of water, and then finally speaks, as if following my line of thought.
--There is a lot of bad out there. I think that the best we can do is just be present with each other. It’s like you said to me one time, Mike, the more you stare into the abyss, the more it stares back, right? I think James is right; we’re never going to solve any of the big problems, so we should try and solve the small ones -- just be happy.
Janelle leans into me, whispering to me that she thinks books can change the world. I agree, so long as they get read, and written. She laughs, putting her hand on my arm for a moment. As the liquor goes down my connection to Katie becomes apparent: there is so much now, all around. Lives.
--I think sooner or later you need to look at the big picture, though. Like you said there is a lot of bad out there.
--Fucking terrorists. What’s the deal, you know? Why don’t they get with it?
--They probably see us as terrorists.
The conversation starts to slip back into politics and I exercise what knowledge I have on the subject. As much as I seem to be impressing Janelle, Courtney, and even Brendan in his alpha male way, show a remarkable display of knowledge on a range of topics. So much to the point that I am curious as to how they are so at peace with the rampant evils they describe. I knew Katie and James did not care or know anything about politics (They would claim they do, of course), but I did not expect their friends to be so learned. I am having some fun, admittedly. Looking to either end of the table I see that James and Katie are not. I am not surprised.
--See, the elites of today are world citizens; they do not think in accordance to one country’s politics, and I think people are beginning to realize that: globalization hides a lot of meta-ugliness.
More drinks ensue, and souls start to bend under the weight. We move back to the living room, where Janelle is now leaning on me, trying her best to stay awake for whatever she thinks might happen. James keeps making comments to me about finding a cab. Things turn sour as Katie starts to get into our past. I urge her not to go there, but on another layer I am still angry and so allow her to. Brendan and Courtney, like all the topics tonight, soak the agitation up like another liquor or drug. They are seemingly unfazed.
“Yeah well, I said to myself: If he can’t at least phone me, then yeah...it is over. He’d go on about cellphone ‘dangers’ as some excuse, but the fact is he’s just immature and scared. He’s smart, but not when it comes to a lot of stuff. I was growing up and he wasn’t. I was just looking for a normal life. I didn’t want to have to spend my whole lifetime like that. It’s ridiculous. You’re ridiculous, Mike.”
--Look around you Janelle; everything is the internet, you just haven’t realized it. You’re so vain, always holding onto these aesthetic judgements -- thats what I always hated, but I accepted you. You know it’s not that I didn’t want to talk to you. You knew that but you let the others reproach. So fuck you and your conformist dribble.
The otherness of anger takes over, and I watch someone else command the words from my mouth. The yell echoes around the room and I can see Courtney rewording what I said silently with a red grin.
--I hate you.
Katie’s quiet, seething response. She is trying not to get mad.
James swears at me and Brendan laughs like a Prince, nodding at something. Janelle leans off of me, glancing up at Katie, then to Courtney.
I raise my voice.
--Do you know why I said I wasn’t going to make you choose me or James? Because I don’t give ultimatums; I just want you to be happy. So then, what do you do? You turn around and give me an ultimatum. You’re such a transparent coward. The last thing you ever said to me for two years was ‘Going to New York.’ Surely I deserved a goodbye at least? After all we had been through...to just ignore me? That’s so cold.
I shake my head as the pain starts to swell inside. At the end of the day she has someone and I don’t. I look up to see James paralyzed in his chair with a look I cannot read. Katie almost seems surprised at my words.
--It’s not worth it. I should have ignored this whole...whatever this is. Fuck this, fuck all of you--
Early into my previous tirade I had expected either James, or the tweaky Brendan, to at any minute stand up and order me out of the house. James sits on the couch staring forward, and Brendan, like a terrible infant, is almost giddy as the prospect of a fight; he looks between me and James with thoughts towards this end. Much to my surprise, is it Eric who stands up. I had forgotten about him. He looks at Katie with a curious concern before speaking.
--I think you should leave, now.
He does not sound angry, he sounds logical. The crowd looks at me as if perhaps I truly don’t understand something, some secret. I hear the clicks of intuition behind the raw bellows of flailing, pent up emotion -- just barely. I consider: fighting Eric, the whole room, the whole world, welcoming the floods. I consider the days I used to hold onto logic, and where it’s taken me. I consider pain.
The phone starts to ring: none of our cellphones, but the land line for the house. It rings nine times and none of us move or say anything. The answering machine finally kicks in and we can hear someone hang up without leaving a message.
Eric repeats his thoughts about leaving and I nod slowly, turning to go without saying a word. Janelle offers me a ride and I refuse, trudging out into the foyer alone. I take the time now to glance upstairs and I see paint cans and the colors of youth. The pangs in my heart rip through years of careful bandaging and the bitter excrement of gut-wrought pain spills forth into every fiber of my being. I want to make some sort of sound; a goodbye, perhaps. I cannot. I cannot control my voice. While I had suspected she might be pregnant I am sure she does not know about the brain tumor. Perhaps James will hear about it someday, or perhaps I will phone and leave a message. In all likelihood I will walk out the door and never come back. We’ve all had enough, and they have each other. We’re different people now. Yes, it all seems to end right around here.