We are all surviving the party so far, but the last knock changes everything. Warm conviviality has turned into sniping tension, and that also drains from the room as the door opens and the man bursts in.
The dinner party starts well.
“Here’s to the end of this virus.” I look around the table, through unsober eyes. I stand, raising the glass as red wine sways and swirls in my unsteady hand. Lifted high in the air, it greets the other glasses with soft clinks, sealing the toast in bonhomie.
Everyone is standing.
“To the end.” A low chorus echoes and then a silent moment as the alcohol is consumed. And we sit.
Erica makes an announcement.
“Oh, and please make sure you all sign in. It’s some silly new rule. 1984 and all that. Blah blah blah!” She dismisses the formalities with a laugh, invites the group to fill their glasses, enjoy the canapes.
My wife excels at the skill of choosing guests, and tonight she has sharpened it into a fine point. Although the numbers are limited by a government rule, we need to persist. Before the virus, we take life for granted. A dinner out, the theatre, a movie, a tedious work gathering. Yet since the return of sickness and dying, we crave what we cannot have. Parties are not my thing, small or large, but Erica loves them. The forced sociability, buffered or not by copious alcohol, is wearing.
Scanning the table, I wonder why tonight these people are my closest family, my dearest friends. Tomorrow they will be acquaintances again; smiling and nodding, asking how I am going, how are the kids, stepping past the answers, avoiding engagement. That is the trick to being human, pretending to belong when we don’t, but being accepted because we at least pretend.
The food is almost ready. The guests are nearly all here. My wife is a genius.
To my right sits Cousin Mike. As kids we played sports in the backyard of my parents’ house; football, soccer, wrestling. The Great Mike pounds me into submission on a lawn full of winter thorns and summer bees, as if each game we play is the ultimate challenge, and my tears his ultimate prize. My mother knows, but she does not want to hurt her sister’s feelings. It is hard to acknowledge that her child is a brute.
Mike’s wife, Carol, arrives late again. She is always late and I always ask.
“Is everything ok?”
“Oh… yes, fine thank you.” She says.
She comes late and leaves early, without excuses. I suspect it is intentional, and I cannot blame her. Carol is a mouse, scurrying into the skirting each time anyone tries to make conversation. I think she prefers it that way. But Erica gets annoyed.
Cousin Mike grasps the fragile stem of fine crystal and holds it aloft. An Olympic flame, sparkling red in the candlelight.
“I’d like to propose a toast to Little Petey and his beautiful wife, Erica.” Mike stands as Erica shoots me a restraining look, a reminder not to spoil her fun.
“Here’s to Little Petey. You always punched above your weight. Thanks for the invite.”
Again the echoes, followed by silence and sitting.
To their right are Sam and his new girl. He is anointed as best friend for tonight, for the sake of convenience. I could say he is one of my friends but that sounds reductive of our relationship. He is somewhere on the continuum between best and just a. I have many who are just a friend. They are loyal, reliable and smart. And I have Sam, who is not. But he is the only one I like.
Sam’s new girl, Stella, has a body that makes him do things he should not. He has bought a new car; its cost would make a rap star hyperventilate.
Stella likes to party, but not how we are tonight, sitting around a delicately laid up table in the suburbs, making small talk, pretending we know which knife to use, which wine to drink.
Sam is not a man for saying feelings out loud, but Stella nudges his elbow. He clears his throat and stands as she refills his glass. I can smell the expense of this wine, as it flows freely up the table. Ripe fruit and warm spices of a Pinot Noir fill the air, it reminds us of the bitter wind howling outside.
Sam has made us stand. Again.
“To Pete and Erica. You are good friends, thanks for tonight.”
“No.” I say, “Thank you.” My glass runs over with fake humility.
It is obvious Sam is not happy to be here, just thrilled to spend time beside Stella’s soft, inviting body. I cannot help but envy the guy.
To Stella’s right is my neighbour, Gay Robert. We call him this only to distinguish him from the VP-of-my-company Robert, who is unarguably straight. And for brevity, debriefing after a long and tedious day. Gay Robert is the handsomest man I know. My wife, Erica, adores him to where I could believe they were fucking. If I did not know he is gay. And could do better.
He is mourning the end of his relationship with Gerald, and forgiven for not offering a toast. Bereft of the strength to stand, or the mind for wit, he knows to keep up a pretence with strangers, to be gracious and social, at least for these few tedious hours.
My wife has an evil sense of the absurd, fascinated by the confluence of disparate souls. She is the mad scientist, experimenting with fragile hearts and blustering egos, observing how long they can touch before they shatter. Erica is the weird kid in the playground ignoring the swings to poke in trees at ants, with sticks, but I admit I enjoy it too.
So Erica’s place is next to me at the table, and beside me in the Covid World. We survive so far in the new abnormal of disease and lockdowns; me with my fears and foibles, her with the patience to keep me grounded as the walls close in. I repay her with these god-awful dinner parties.
I hear the first knock and open the door to a Covid Officer.
“Good evening. Just here to check everything is in order.” He says.
Words flow over my left shoulder as he cranes around me to check on our gathering. I step outside and pull the door nearly shut behind us.
“Yes Officer,” I say, “We are having dinner. My wife, me, and our guests.”
He reaches past, pushes the door wider, and I turn to see what he is observing.
There is nothing unordinary, nothing illegal; the flickering glow of candles, the faintest whiff of hot bread and pasta, roasting beef and garlic, the clinking sounds of glass and gossip. Six people seated at the table, and me at the door.
“And everyone has completed the permit? Serious consequences now, you know.” He says.
I nod yes, trusting Erica to be the diligent one. This is her affair, after all.
“Good, good.” He is amicable as his device loads, shows the completed paperwork. “Yes, I see it here, all ship-shape and correct. A permit for seven. Have a good evening,” he says, and leaves.
Authority always makes my stomach cartwheel into my mouth, even knowing I have done nothing wrong. Back inside, at the table, Erica shoots me a questioning look as I gulp the last of my drink and reach to pour another.
“Just the party police, checking on us.” I tel her. “He has the permit. For seven.”
And then Carol catches our attention; she is walking back from the bathroom. Erica turns to me, eyes wide and cheeks ashy.
“Oh damn,” she says, “There are eight of us. I didn’t tell Carol she had to sign in. She came after I warned everyone.” She sounds nervous, her hands shaking. “She is… illegal.”
“Ok,” I say, “It’ll be alright. She wasn’t at the table. The cop counted seven.”
We are stage whispering now to be heard, above the drunken squabbling of our guests.
“Excellent.” Erica nods, smiles and disappears into the kitchen.
Cousin Mike is obnoxious and loud. He wants to refill Sam’s glass, but Sam is looking across the table to Stella, happy that his evening will improve when he leaves this place.
Gay Robert is alone, watching as wax runs down, drips, lands in small puddles on the table and solidifies into tiny stalagmites. He resists the temptation to scrape it away, remembering how Gerald hated mess. And candles.
“Mee-ow, mee-ow” Cousin Mike makes the sound of a cat and gestures a cracking whip.
But Sam is a grown man and knows how to deal with playground bullies.
“Fuck you. You’re drunk.” He says and turns away.
Stella ignores both men, knowing Sam will defend her because he needs what she is promising. She leans across the table to Carol, now sitting, sipping lemon water, and asks her if Cousin Mike is always such a dead-shit, but Carol does not answer. The only sober person at the party squirms silently on her chair, desperate to ignore Stella’s loaded comment.
After a while, Erica reappears from the kitchen smiling, plates in hand, and announces our meal. She loves the drama, the theatre of food and conflict.
Music drifts underneath the bickering, filling in any gaps, but Gay Robert hears the second knock. He stands without warning, longing for it to be Gerald returning and contrite, and hurries to the front door.
“Oh, shit!” I say, watching as the Covid Officer pushes his way into our house yelling, taser drawn.
The arguments come to a sudden, screeching stop. Heads turn as the man enters, along with a blast of icy wind through the open door. The candles flicker and extinguish, spiralling vanilla smoke into the air. A white beam from the officer’s torch clicks on, plays around the room, over the table, spotlights each person caught in its glare.
“Stand. Hands in the air.” His shouts are muffled by a mask, but we hear well enough to comply. “When I call your name, sit down. No talking.”
It feels as if we are playing a kid’s game. He searches his device, checks each of us off the list, one by one, until only Carol is left standing.
"What happened?" I ask through the dark.
"There was a call." He says.
“I am really sorry, guys.” I hope Carol and Cousin Mike hear me. “Erica should have warned Carol to sign in. It’s the new rule.”
But Carol is gone, handcuffed, pushed out the door and into the freezing night. The squad car kills its lights and drives away into the snow.
“Oh my God,” Gay Robert peers through the blinds, out the front windows, still shocked, unable to believe what just occurred. Disappointed it was not Gerald.
“Mike, I am so sorry.” Erica dabs at her eyes.
I want to chastise her mistake, say I told you so, but she seems sufficiently upset.
We stare at Cousin Mike, who finally breaks the solid quiet.
“It’s ok, Pete,” he shrugs. “No significant loss. Let’s open another bottle.”
“Shit-head!” Stella snarls across the table. Sam fills her glass, while Erica re-lights the candles.
“Anyone for dessert?” She asks and heads back to the kitchen, quietly congratulating herself on a remarkably entertaining evening.