My parents have always matched their dinner party guests with the meal itself. When I was young, it wasn’t necessary to hang around the kitchen to find out what was cooking; I’d simply squint through the window at sundown to uncover the night’s menu. If the O'Donnells pulled up in their dented blue Prius, that meant we’d be eating pink salmon with avocado salad. I knew the adults would loudly debate whether Michael Moore’s latest film was offensive or ingenious while Maya braided my hair at the end of the table. Those nights were long and meandering, and eventually someone would bring out a carton of raspberry sorbet and eight spoons and we’d pass it around until only the glacial parts remained and the crickets were singing outside.
On the other hand, if the Grants drove up in their champagne colored Camry—always at precisely 7 p.m., always with a bottle of Napa Valley wine resting between their two daughters in the back seat —I knew we’d be eating steak, well done. Dessert would be brittle sugar cookies, followed by coffee—decaf, of course. I knew that if the topic of politics came up, Mr. Grant would get very tense and suddenly remember that it was a school night and they would drive home early and forget to take their Tupperware of leftovers. The Grants were Republicans. Up until I was eight, I thought that meant they were diseased.
If the Blakeys came over, it was risotto and whatever vegetables were in season. Aunt Lucy and Uncle Rick brought botched attempts at trendy Latin American cuisine, which always meant we’d end up ordering Chinese food and eating it straight from the cartons. If Dad’s alcoholic friend Roger came over, my sister Laura and I were supposed to go eat leftovers in our rooms and try to ignore the warbled shouts echoing in the dining room and maybe go to sleep early.
Back before I was responsible for entertaining my own guests and adding to the conversation in any significant way, it was exciting to watch out the window and see who would pull up. My whole evening was dependent on the car in the driveway, and especially in the summer when dinner guests flowed through our house regularly. The car in the driveway indicated not only what I’d be eating, but also what the conversation would be like: dull and muted, or boisterous and embarrassing, or long-winded and political.
By the summer I turned 11, I had memorized the birds-eye views of the dinner guests’ cars and their implications. Each couple and their children —although the children didn’t really matter, they were simply dragged along like gratuitous party favors —brought a dynamic, a taste, and set the mood in the house for not just that evening but also the morning that followed. If the Grants left early, my dad would also retire early to his office downstairs and the next morning at breakfast he would shake The New York Times in my mother’s face.
“Do you see this crapola? I told Bob just last night that Bush was making an ass of himself on that estate, and look, there he is, making an ass of himself. What does he do up there in Camp David, help this goddamn country? No, he shoots animals. That’s all he does.”
My mom would mutter something about the laundry and hurry off to the next room.
After Aunt Lucy and Uncle Rick left —usually long after they had worn out their welcome, after cousin Andrew had used his utensils to drum out “Stairway to Heaven” on the polished oak table—my mother would rant about their parenting techniques. “If Lucy wants to let Andrew get away with that sort of thing at their house, well then, that’s fine. You know, I’d just appreciate a little courtesy.”
Yet despite the stiff air left in the house, the dinner guests were always invited back. They were always tended to and entertained, and wine was selected with caution. The hour before their arrival would be hurried and deliberate —we each had a role. Laura set the table, folding the nice silk napkins into floral patterns if the Grants were coming over, or arranging hydrangeas in a cracked blue vase for the Meissners. My mother chose her outfits with care: yoga tops and gauzy skirts if the O'Donnells were coming over, but nothing too low-cut if Dan the alcoholic was on his way. Loud jewelry for Aunt Lucy. My dad’s role was more private; he seemed to retreat into his thoughts before the guests came over, quietly preparing himself for the most appropriate line of conversation.
My role was to help my mom out in the kitchen, where I donned a smaller version of her striped apron and chopped carrots, onions, and bruised red tomatoes. But more often than not I felt that I was expected to perch on my cushioned cream windowsill and peer down at the road as 7 p.m. drew nearer, waiting for a car to stop and pull into our shade-laced driveway, designating the night’s meal and its aftermath. I sometimes pretended to read or make up word games as I sat on the windowsill. My parents went along with it.
One August evening, we were in the midst of preparing for the Grants had put on a dress and a J. Crew cardigan, my mother was finishing the steak—when the kitchen telephone rang. “Grab that, would you, sweetie?” My mother glanced up from the oven and wiped her hand across her brow. I held the phone to my ear and put on my most professional voice. “Delman residence, Stephanie speaking.” My mother had told me I could just say hello, but I preferred this.
“Oh, Stephanie, hi. It’s Donna here. I’m afraid to say that Bob has come down with something—we’re really not sure what it is, but he’s coughing terribly and I just think it’d be best to postpone tonight. Don’t want you all to catch what Bob has got, that would be just awful. I hope you haven’t gone to much trouble for us, now. You haven’t, have you?” I looked over at my mother, clad in her sticky striped apron and pearls. She was humming as she sliced equal portions of steak onto eight plates, finishing off each plate with a clove of garlic.
“Okay. Thank you for calling.” I hung up before Donna could ask to speak to my mother. “What was that all about?” I suddenly felt itchy in my thick wool cardigan, and I was mad at the Grants. I would have worn a t-shirt if it hadn’t been for them, but now my cardigan was sweaty and would have to be dry cleaned anyway. “The Grants aren’t coming over anymore. That was…Bob. He was coughing really horribly. He said he was really sorry and that he was really sick. He also said that he wants to have dinner when he feels better. He says he’ll cook next time, because we always do and he feels bad.”
I don’t know why I lied to my mother. Bob would never end up cooking for us. The Grants would come over again in two weeks and not mention that night, and not apologize. I knew this would all happen even as I lied to my mother in the kitchen, but I wanted her to feel appreciated, and I didn’t know how to tell her I was sorry she had gone to so much trouble for the type of people who would wait until 6:45 to cancel a 7 o’clock dinner.
My mother turned on the spot and untied her apron. She sighed and rubbed her greasy hand over her eyes, and blinked as it stung. She didn’t say anything, but grabbed each of the eight plates, and, one by one, dumped the steak into the garbage. We made sandwiches that night, and ate them in front of the television even though the dining room table was already set with linens and our finest silverware. The table was set for the Grants, not for us.
At some point after that summer, my parents stopped inviting so many guests over for dinner. They had excuses—my sister and I were getting older and could no longer be bribed into staying at home on Saturday nights, my parents themselves had more work to attend to—but I think my parents were just exhausted and wanted to wear t-shirts to dinner, and eat things like lasagna and talk about the weather.
We slowly sunk into our own routine, crafted and delicately built over the years between my fifth grade summer and the summer I left for college. My father drifted upstairs more frequently in the early evenings and set up his electric guitar in the living room and pretended to be Eric Clapton or James Taylor until the sky outside darkened. My mother recognized her love of cookbooks, and she bought them all; Martha Stewart’s, The Joy Of Cooking, Mario’s. Death By Chocolate was her favorite, and sometimes we ended up sitting down to plates of gold-flecked German chocolate cake when we had expected chicken salad. This happened a couple of times, once on my sister’s birthday and once on a slow rainy day in March, and we certainly didn’t complain.
Dinners became leisurely in the summer. My mother began to bake her own pizzas—she’d start on the dough in the morning, and recruit the rest of us throughout the day to help chop artichokes, mix the sauce, and thinly spread the parmesan cheese. We drank iced tea at dinner and my father would quietly regale us with tales from his youth, like the time he and his brother tried to take a road trip from St. Louis to San Francisco and somehow ended up living for three weeks on an Indian reservation in Nevada. Dinner was rushed and loud in the winter, when my mother had charity cocktails to rush off to and my sister and I had homework and applications. We ate stew and turkey meatloaf and ossobucco, and tried to relay all the anecdotes of our hurried days.
When I first stepped onto my red-bricked campus one blistering day in late August, I didn’t realize the full weight of the word “context.” Of course I knew what it meant in the literary vocabulary, but it took me several weeks and a spiraling sense of displacement to realize I was out of my context. For three months I drifted from group to group, awkwardly severing ties with girls on my hall and desperately trying to create a dynamic with the people I happened to sit next to in the cafeteria. With the girls across the hall, I talked in a baby voice that sounded screechy to even my own ear, and cuddled and talked about romantic comedies. I dated a lanky, frenetic, self-declared “unsentimental” Writing Seminars major for a month and tried to pretend like I always read Philip Roth and wore long scarves. I was never comfortable. I was a swamp of anxieties, and I was easily confused when I had to entertain more than one set of peers at a time. I often went to my room, turned off the lights, and pretended to nap for 20 minutes. In reality, I was just ruminating over whoever I’d just been, and whoever I’d have to be that evening.
I don’t blame my parents for my inability to establish my own context. It may seem like I harbor resentment, and if I do, it’s only for the fact that we never discussed what happened that night with the Grants, and how it affected the next several years. When my parents stopped being chameleons and became fully, unapologetically, Michael and Allison Delman, I was too young or too naïve to learn that I should never repeat their mistakes.
The night I returned home for winter break, we ate turkey meatloaf and drank red wine and talked in hurried voices about our stresses, our social habits, our various climates and how the winter made us feel. I spent three weeks in my natural context, however newly minted it was, and felt settled again, and reminded myself of that night with the Grants, and realized how much energy I’d wasted repeating my parents’ mistakes. On the five-hour plane ride back to the East Coast, I closed my eyes for a long time but didn’t fall asleep. I told myself not to go to trouble for the type of people who would wait until 6:45 to cancel a 7 o’clock dinner.
Stephanie Delman is a student at Johns Hopkins University.