Four people. Two women, two men at the dinner table. An outside observer might see it as a war between the sexes, the way they sat across from each other, yet it was nothing of the sort. It was just dinner—overcooked chicken and uncomfortable quiet. Feeling pressured by the sound of forks stabbing her dried and rubbery poultry, the woman in the red scarf cleared her throat, prelude to a request.
“Someone please pass me the salt,” she said, gripping the stem of her wine glass with the conviction of someone who really wanted salt. The man diagonal from her slid it over to her without looking up from his plate. She swiped the crystal salt shaker—a relic of her dead grandmother—and shook it absently over her own. She slammed it back down on the tablecloth and, realizing what she had just done, silently apologized to her Nan. The woman in the mustard-colored dress next to her let out an audible sigh and reached for the half-empty bottle of chardonnay, nearly knocking over the stout pillar candle, the flame quivering until it straightened out again. The man across from her, Salt Shaker Man, attempted to intercept her hand, but it was too late. Instead he defeatedly shoved a broccoli floret into his mouth. The man with the gray eyes next to him fixed his gaze on the woman in the mustard-colored dress.
It’s so obvious, Ben, Red thought, her eyes boring two perfect holes through his heart. As though he had felt this, he shifted his eyes back to the congealing pool of alfredo sauce before him.
We’ve only been here an hour and she’s already drunk, Salt Shaker Man thought, glaring at his wife. Mustard didn’t notice. Or, maybe she did, and that was why she took an extra long swallow of wine and smiled in that self-satisfied way of hers.
I wonder if I can get her alone tonight, Ben thought, already tasting Mustard’s slippery pink mouth on his.
“Pass the salad, please?” Salt Shaker Man looked to Red for an act of reciprocity. She obliged him with a tight smile, but only to appease her Nan.
She was still pissed off at him.
The anger that should have dried out years ago had only just reached a fine boil; she would never forgive him for leaving her at the altar. No one else at the table knew that they had a prior knowledge of each other. It was a sheer and stupid coincidence that Ben ended up working at the same office he did. When he came home one evening and suggested they have “a new colleague friend and his wife” over for dinner, she did not know she would be in for this: yet another reason to despise Ben.
“So, Ben,” Mustard purred, twirling the pasta with her fork, “my husband tells me you are new to the city.”
Let’s go into the baby’s room, Ben thought, feeling himself getting hard at the thought of bending this strange, drunk woman over the empty crib.
We’re hardly new, dear, Red thought. Your asshole husband told you wrong. Salt Shaker Man split a crouton with his teeth, perforating the new silence. Mustard returned his glare from before.
I don’t know why I ever married you, she thought, stuffing the mound of linguine into her mouth.
“Just new to the neighborhood,” Red interjected, hoping to sever any possible exchange between her husband and this woman who, based on the timeline she gave over pre-dinner small talk, must have married Salt Shaker Man not long after her own wedding bouquet was reduced to a heap of petals on the church steps. She narrowed her eyes at him, hoping he could taste the bile in her own throat.
“We’ve actually lived in the city for a long time. We just needed a bigger place because—” His voice trailed off when Red cleared her throat.
“Because?” Salt Shaker Man said.
“It’s nothing.” Ben could not bear to look at his wife. The entire room seemed to be holding its breath.
Like it’s only been hard for you, Ben thought. Mustard glanced across the table at her husband, whose gaze was on a painting behind Red, a print of Van Gogh’s Road with Cypress and Star. His mouth lifted into a slight smile. Ben was still looking down at his plate. Red dabbed at a tear with her cloth napkin.
“I’ll be back. Left the other bottle of wine in the car,” Mustard said.
I remember the day we bought that, Salt Shaker Man thought, Vincent’s spindly moon somehow the most towering figure in the painting, despite its smallness. Despite the largeness of everything else: the sky, the tall yellow canes, the tree itself.
Mustard returned, trailing in a river of air tinged with cold and the musk of decaying leaves. Ben followed her into the kitchen, staying in there just long enough to reach up her dress and feel her warmth while she uncorked the bottle.
“I’ve missed this,” she breathed into his ear. She disentangled herself from his hand and headed back to the dining room a few seconds before he did. Red and Salt Shaker Man were still sitting like sad statues, unmoved by the gust of their bodies.
Red placed the napkin back on her lap. Nan, I’m sorry. But you were there that day. In a countermove, Salt Shaker Man devoured the rest of his chicken. Ben and Mustard both poured themselves another glass of wine.
Outside, the wind was baying, primal. The fine rain that had been falling all day suddenly seemed loud, intrusive.
Time has this way of expanding in the face of silence, contracting with noise. And then there are moments in which it is suspended—moments like this— when the silence and the noise seemed to be competing with one another.
I’m sorry, Salt Shaker Man thought. I am so, so sorry. He believed that if he rehearsed the apology enough times in his head, it would somehow manifest in Red’s ears, pulsing in and out like Vincent’s star. Instead, it only reached the frayed edges of his thoughts, where things caught like a mouse in a trap, left to slowly decompose.
Ben finally looked at his wife. She met his gaze, not with vitriol but vacancy.
Mustard sighed into the air again, heavy with drink and lust.
Van Gogh’s two wayfarers remained on that idle street, forever in brushstroke.