Dalia noshes on a piece of cauliflower steak and spits out her opinions.
“Eggs rolls aren’t even from China.”
“I found this great park in the South end.”
“But, it’s like you have to vote Democrat.”
Daniel makes eyes with me and my wine glass. He pours without waiting for a response.
“It’s really fantastic how you’ve broiled the cauliflower,” Leah is saying to Dalia. “The rosemary adds a lot. I think it would pair well with a kale salad.”
“I should’ve thought of that!” says Daniel.
“You know to massage the leaves, right?” asks Leah.
“Oh, of course,” says Daniel. “I like to do mine with an olive oil and lemon vinaigrette.”
“That sounds wonderful,” Leah says. She winces a knowing look.
Across from me sits Dalia, and behind her head hangs a painting of a mangled face splashed across the canvass in bright reds and oranges. The face snarls with a gaping black mouth and pointed, bright white teeth. Maybe it’s the wine but I begin to feel as if the room is slowly spinning.
Margaret turns to me, offers, “So how do you know Daniel?” Her tone is polite, but the politeness colors me as all the more pathetic. But she hasn’t been talking either.
“We went to school together.”
“No,” I am saying, looking at Margaret’s mish-mash of neon cancer charity bracelet, oversized glasses, homemade seashell necklace and throwback floral dress. The party seems a mix of business casual and thrift-fancy. “I, uhh, studied abroad with him.”
Daniel turns to Margaret, smirk aglow, and offers some French gobbledeegook. She reciprocates.
“No, uhh, Hong Kong,” I say, but Margaret and Daniel are fully engaged in their French-talk.
Dalia forks a sauteed beet wedge, then doubles the fork back for a clove of garlic, spins into some beet greens, and mouths it.
“How’s your job, Matt?” she asks.
“Sucks,” I say. “Waiting tables is waiting tables.” The tone of my response has dissuaded her from pursuing any further. She stares at me for a moment, chewing.
“I know, right!” says Leah, with a little chuckle. A peace offering. “With the internship I feel like I don’t even have time to breathe.”
Dalia lights up.
“Oh, but New York! I’m so jealous.”
“Don’t be. It’s just nice to be back home for a little while.”
Leah and I went to high school together. Now her parents pay the rent of her Brooklyn studio to support her wageless, entry-level internship.
“But.” Daniel has turned to me, leaving Margaret to eye the upholstery. “You do like your other job at the school, no?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s great. Baking cookies, playing kickball.”
Margaret smiles me some pity.
“But it’s part-time.”
“Good money at the restaurant, though?” Daniel asks. His demeanour has changed—straight business.
Daniel is a self-employed carpenter, whatever that means.
“Yeah. Saving a lot.”
“Good,” he says, relaxes. Daniel reaches for the wine and finds it nearly empty.
“Say,” he says. “Where is Lauren tonight?”
“She had to work,” I say.
“I could’ve sworn you said she’d be coming,” Daniel says. Dalia seems to be glaring at me.
“She was going to come but she had to switch shifts with a co-worker.”
Lauren, my girlfriend, hates these parties. I check my phone. Lauren had said she might make it late.
“She might come a little later,” I say.
“How much later?” Daniel asks. The force with which he asks the question is a bit surprising.
“I have no idea.”
Daniel says nothing.
“They have to wait for everyone to leave and then they clean-up, and lock up, and then she has to wait for the bus.”
“Can we count on her for dinner?”
“I’m gonna guess no,” I say. Daniel forces a little smile and pours what’s left of a bottle of wine into my glass.
“I try to buy Tilth,” Dalia is telling Leah.
“See,” Leah says and shakes her head half-assedly. “You can’t even get Tilth back east.”
It seems the lights have been dimmed. My head throbs red wine.
“How much do Tilth groceries set you back?” I find myself asking Dalia. Briefly, possibly instinctively, she flashes her teeth at me and her lips and cheeks twist up in disgust, then she returns to Leah.
“Well, you have to go to farmer’s markets, you know.”
“I should try that!”
Dalia lives off her trust fund. She owns the house we dine in.
“I discovered a wonderful farmer’s market on Tuesdays in Harlem,” Dalia says.
“I had no idea!”
Daniel is refilling my wine glass again. He ladles another portion of beets onto my plate, smiles.
The room is now flushed with candle light. The electrics seem to have been turned totally off.
Margaret leans in towards Daniel and mutters some French niceties. He grins.
“It’s all Oregon Pinot!” I hear, and the voice belongs to Carl. When did he get here?
“How’s the marketing world?”
“We have a great mushroom guy.”
“Pretty soon McDonald’s will have salted caramel.”
“I actually really liked the new Michael Bay.”
It seems to go unnoticed when I excuse myself for the bathroom, or maybe I don’t excuse myself at all. I move in stumbling bursts down the hallway, sweeping a full circle of the house, and find myself in the kitchen. I would like a glass of water.
Opening the overhead cupboards, I find huge strings of garlic and red potatoes. In another there are bags of fresh carrots and celery.
“Can I help you?” Daniel asks me. I didn’t realize he had entered the kitchen.
“A glass of water.”
“Sure. Uh-huh,” he says, clearly annoyed.
“Sorry,” I mumble in between sips, “to inconvenience you.”
Daniel watches me drink, says something about people needing to avoid too much water weight.
“Where’s the bathroom?” I ask.
He leads me back into the hallway and a door is opened to reveal a wood staircase. We head down into the basement and he points me to the right room. Chipped white paint on a door that doesn’t seem to quite fit the frame.
“Oh,” I say. “Okay, thanks.”
Daniel watches me go into the bathroom. My head throbs. I shut the door.
My piss sprinkles the toilet seat and goes off into the corner behind the toilet before I can get things back under control.
Through the floorboards I can hear the party chatter. It sounds like someone has put on music, probably the girl who layers her own autotuned Cro-Magnon wailing over house beats, but I can’t tell for sure .
I grab some toilet paper to wipe up the mess, do. It still stinks.
Daniel is waiting when I leave the bathroom. He leads me back to the party.
“Well, I had been trying the raw food diet,” Margaret says.
Dalia beams and she shoots me a look. She smiles and I’m not sure why.
“I try to only eat meat on special occasions,” Leah says. “But, raw, wow. Did you ever try paleo?”
“Paleo is such a load of shit,” Margaret says.
They all laugh.
I reach for my glass without looking and it takes me a moment to find it. The party is now standing and mixing. While I was in the bathroom, the group must have grown quite a bit, or maybe I just hadn’t noticed when these people came in. When did Carl get here?
I check my phone and there’s still no message from Lauren. I text her asking when she think she might make it.
“There is,” Dalia says commandingly, grabbing the party’s attention. “There is a fantastic new coffee shop right next to the cupcake place. They serve, like, actually fair trade coffee. All single origin, shade grown. The baristas pull great shots. I’m pimping it out to everyone these days.”
“Oh yeah?” Carl says, a big smirk on his face. He looks around the room, at me, back to Dalia.
“Well, actually,” Dalia is saying, “they require their baristas to only serve lattes that score at least an 85 on the cupping scale.”
“And how do they measure that?”
Carl looks at me again, licks his lips. That’s strange. Are they chapped? He is a very tall man. We’ve known each other a long time, since he, we, were both dorks. Now he works out, but he’s probably still a dork. Carl wears a smile that suggests he’s about to say something really silly, which he does often and in a strained, high-pitched voice.
“Excuse me,” Carl says, “but I believe this cappuccino would score an 82.”
“So how do you know Dalia?” someone is asking me. I don’t recognize the voice. It is female. The candlelight is failing and I can’t quite discern her face, but maybe I’m just too drunk. Things would have that pleasant buzz and blur, or, rather, they do, but the spinning uneasiness from before is stronger.
I look at the teethy painting, respond, “I studied abroad with Daniel.”
“No,” I say. “Daniel just lived, you know, lived there. We studied abroad in Hong Kong. I had a stipend”
“Raising the minimum wage won’t fix anything,” some tall, backwards-hatted man tells Margaret.
Daniel is at the front door greeting a new guest.
“Lawrence!” Daniel says. Hugs.
“I brought a little something for the party,” this Lawrence says, holding out a bottle.
“Bulleit bourbon!” Daniel says, “That’s fantastic.”
“I like the rye better,” the faceless girl next to me is saying.
I’ve been ignoring how lightheaded I am and find that I’m leaning on the dining table for support.
Margaret grabs a chunk of cauliflower off the serving dish, pops it in.
“It’s like so hard to do anything," she says. "Anything good. For people."
Backwards-hat is nodding.
My headache seems to have stretched back into my neck and there’s a devastating knot to the right of my spine.
“God, I’m hungry,” faceless tells me.
“You haven’t eaten yet?”
“No…” she says.
“Excuse me,” I say. It’s time to make the rounds and head home.
I find Daniel schmoozing with a couple I’ve never seen before.
“Matt!” Daniel says. “This is Tony and Julia.”
“Nice to meet you,” I say. Julia offers her hand and shakes warmly. Tony just stares.
“We’ve been holding out all day!” Julia says. I can’t make out her face, exactly, but I think she’s blonde.
“Hey,” I say, turn to Daniel. “My head’s killing me. I think it’s time to go.”
“Nonsense!” Daniel says, tries to hand me his glass of wine. “The party’s just starting!”
“Nah, I’m sorry man. Not tonight.”
“Well, you’re too drunk to drive back, anyway. You wanna nap on the downstairs couch for a bit until you’re ready to join us?”
“I bussed today, but thanks.”
“Well you can’t go!” Daniel says, and uses two hands to put his glass firmly into mine. “We’re eating you!”
Tony is still staring. Julia seems to have frozen.
“Ha!” I laugh.
Julia unfreezes. I slap Daniel on the back.
Daniel turns to Tony and Julia and I make for the front door. With some drunken difficulty, I get there. My cell phone says I can still make the last bus. I bet Lauren went straight home from work, at this point. I fumble for the knob, turn it.
The door doesn’t budge. The deadbolt is locked and it needs a key.
I make my way back to Daniel.
“Hey, man” I say, turning him around and then leaning on him a bit to help myself stand. “Can I get the keys for the front door?”
Daniel’s face is blank.
“Or, could you help me open the door.”
“No,” he says, “We’re eating you tonight!”
I laugh, so does Daniel.
“So, can I get the keys or something?”
Daniel laughs again and then walks off toward the hallway.
Dalia doesn’t seem to notice when I ask for the keys. Her and Leah and a few others are talking.
“I mean,” this short tubby guy is saying. He wears what must be a thrift store cap. It has the Shell logo and a bunch of Chinese letters. “We live in the worst fucking country in the world.”
Dalia doesn’t like this.
“Here we are fucking drone striking children in Pakistan and trying to stick our dick into every other country in the world while a country like China—and, don’t get me wrong, they’re fucked too—but a country like China doesn’t go around fucking the third world to make its citizens’ lives better. And—”
Dalia sticks a finger in the guy’s chest.
“Yeah, but not supporting Obama is not supporting women’s rights,” she says. “You support this legitimate rape bullshit!? You want Planned Parenthood fucking shut down!?”
“That’s ridiculous,” the guy says. “I don’t like A or B.”
Dalia whips around to escape the argument, sees me.
“Can I get the keys for the front door?”
She turns back around.
“I mean…” Leah cuts in, trying to mediate. “Right. Ok. What I think Dalia is saying is, right, it’s fucking awful, of course we don’t like children dying, but what can you do? There’s nothing we can do about it.”
I tap Dalia on the shoulder and she turns around to face me.
“Can I get the keys?”
She glares at me and shows her teeth again.
“No,” she says. “Don’t you know? We’re fucking eating you.”
Daniel is at the front door greeting another batch of guests. I hurry toward the door and trip on something, land flat on my stomach. A hand helps me up.
“You okay? Bruised?” the hand’s voice says.
The front door has been vacated by guests, Daniel, by the time I get there. It’s locked again.
Daniel is nowhere to be found. My head is throbbing. The party is circling, spinning.
I find myself in the kitchen and a few guests are chatting over whiskey. The windows appear to be bolted shut. Carl walks in.
“Hey man,” I say. “Can you help me get outta here? I don’t wanna miss the last bus and the front door is locked.”
“So unlock it,” Carl says, and gives my right bicep a squeeze. “No fucking meat,” he says, walks away.
In the bedroom I find a window that isn’t bolted, but it only opens about six inches. There doesn’t seem to anything solid or light enough to break it. Maybe in the kitchen.
Daniel has removed the garlic and other vegetables from the cupboards and is cleaning them.
The teeth from the painting have found their way into everyone’s mouths, appearing as two-dimensional jags of white given texture only in clumped paint. Swelling and dancing, the room careens from side to side.
I find a knife in my hand.
“Whoa, buddy,” I hear some teeth say.
I break for the bedroom, tripping, but collecting myself, and I get there without falling. I turn the knife backward to try and smash the glass.
My legs are swept out from under me.
I am being dragged on my stomach into the living room, and then I’m left there, knifeless, as if nothing has happened. I fish around my pockets for my phone but it doesn’t seem to be on my person anymore.
Dalia is still arguing with Chinese Shell Hat, and they’re shouting.
“I do my fucking part!” she says. “I buy fucking organic and volunteer twice a fucking week.”
“I can’t afford to fucking volunteer or to buy fucking organic,” Chinese Shell Hat says, “and correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t we both have Bachelor’s degrees?”
I stand up, dust off my hands. My head doesn’t seem to be throbbing quite as badly and someone has turned on the lights. There is a hand on my shoulder. I turn to see Margaret.
“Where is your girlfriend tonight?” she asks.
“At work,” I say. Again she smiles pitifully.
“She’s gonna miss you,” Margaret says and my stomach sinks into a lump.
Carl asks me about the World Cup.
“When did you get here?” I find myself asking him. It now seems like I’m watching myself from the back of my head. Things are misted, hazed over, and my eyes hurt with a dry, protruding pain like they might pop out the sockets.
“Had higher ratings than the World Series or the NBA finals,” he says.
I think about Lauren. I think about our apartment and sitting in our underwear, eating nachos and watching Star Trek. I think about the look on her face the first night after starting her cashier job, about smoking on our dorm porch and talking about Godard and Marx. I hope she’s not on her way here.
This is it, my stomach is telling me. But first, more meaningless conversation.
Daniel slinks up, gives Carl a warm slap on the back.
“Picklebacks tomorrow?” Daniel asks him.
“Okay,” Daniel says, laughs. “The day after tomorrow?”
Something has occurred to Carl, and he’s donned his smirk.
“Have you tried picklebacks?” he asks me.
I find myself stumbling off toward the bedroom with the loose window, but I’m tackled before I can get out of the dining room. I feel my arms and legs being tied up, hear Daniel’s voice. Lying on my back now, I see a pepper grinder crackling away above me and salt sprinkling down. Margaret opens her mouth and flashes sharp jagged teeth. Daniel and Carl follow suit.
Leah is actually the first to pounce and tears at my right arm flesh. Maybe it’s the wine, or shock, but it doesn’t feel like much.
“No meat up there!” Carl says, and I see him ripping at one of my calves.
“Don’t eat too much!” Dalia says. “Save some to roast.”
Daniel tosses rosemary and thyme onto my belly.
“Best meat’s down here!” he says, and tears off a chunk. “Good fat content!”
“Oh, but how rude,” he says, and he gestures to another guest I hadn’t yet been introduced to. “Help yourself!”