John Singer Sargent, A Dinner Table at Night, 1884
Last week, I was invited to a fancy dinner in honor of a personage in the international art scene who had curated an interactive installation in an urban high school. More specifically, my rather more impressive friend was invited, and he asked if he might bring me. Not being much of a personage in the international art scene or otherwise, I was both excited and nervous. The night before, I tried on and rejected several dresses before deciding on a black lace vintage frock I had picked up at a thrift store some months before, and had altered but never worn. Having had a haircut four days before, I decided to eke a little more mileage out of my increasingly mangy blowout, and I put on my old denim jacket as a sort of security blanket.
The dinner was held in the private room of an austerely chic downtown restaurant. It was already filled with people when we arrived—some recognizable, many beautiful, all looking like personages. The room contained several long tables bedecked with place cards. I accepted a glass of wine and tried to look less anxious. But when my friend went outside for a cigarette, I went with him.
When we returned to the room, everyone was seated. Someone called to my friend to come sit next to her; he had been placed near some famous people in the center of the table. I looked around, but I already knew: there was no place card for me. Everyone else was seated. A waiter murmured in my ear that someone hadn’t shown up; I could sit in her seat for the moment.
“You work at the high school?” said the very elegant gentleman to my right. It seemed the person whose seat I was borrowing worked at the high school. Her name was Lisa.
“No,” I said apologetically. “I—”
But he had already turned away. He and the person on his right spoke in German about the Frieze Art Fair. The seat to my left was empty. I sat and sipped my wine in silence. I was blessedly relieved when the waiter took my order; I decided I would try again with my neighbor.
“What did you order?” I said. “I think it’s pretty bold, making veal an option.”
“I’m a vegetarian,” he said. And turned away from me again.
I sat in silence for perhaps ten minutes, trying to look like I was having fun. When my friend caught my eye, I smiled gaily. His neighbors were all laughing and talking.
A woman several seats down took pity on me. “Lisa,” she said. “I understand you work in the high school.”
“No,” I said.
“Well, what do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“Do you write anywhere I’d have seen?”
While I was deciding how to answer this, someone else engaged her in French and she too turned away.
My veal came and I ate it, doggedly, in silence.
I felt tears threatening. I would have excused myself, but I knew no one would care. I got up and went into the bathroom, where I went into a stall and cried for several minutes, then splashed water on my face and repaired my eye makeup.
I told my friend I wasn’t feeling well and left during the toasts. When I tried to claim my denim jacket from the coat check, I found that I had lost my ticket stub. The young woman working there said she couldn’t let me have my jacket without the manager’s approval. It was a new policy. I stood and waited for about ten minutes.
“May I please have my jacket?” I said. “It’s just a jean jacket.” I told her the brand name and the size.
“This is definitely yours,” she said, “but I can’t let you have it.”
We waited for another five minutes. Then the manager arrived and released the jacket into my custody.
“Try not to lose your ticket next time,” he said.
“I won’t,” I muttered.
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