Story Time


Dinner Parties

“Un Joyeux Festin.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CCO 4.0.

There was a time in my life when I went to many formal dinner parties. Were they parties, exactly? They were dinners orchestrated to celebrate something—a book, or an exhibition—or to raise money. Older and better-off friends often invited us to these events. I was young and newly married to my second husband. We had three and then four children, and pennies slipped through our fingers. For winter I owned a black dress with a keyhole neckline, and for spring a thrift-shop chiffon skirt and an embroidered tunic the color of spilled tea. I imagine our friends thought we would enliven the table.

As I said, we went to many of these dinners, but one evening put a stop to it. It must have been springtime, as I was wearing my skirt and tunic. My husband wore his tuxedo. Before we left the apartment there was the usual brouhaha about his bow tie. In the movie version of Peter Pan, starring Mary Martin, Mr. Darling (Cyril Ritchard, who in an thrill-inducing about-face, also plays Captain Hook) cannot tie his bow tie properly and the scene devolves: he must tie his bow; he must go to this dinner; if he does not, he will lose his job, and the family will be in the poorhouse! He practices by tying it around a bedpost, but, after all, the bedpost can’t go to the party! My children had watched this movie perhaps fifty times, and whenever we went out to these dinner parties they would circle their father as he tried to tie his bow tie, chanting, To the poorhouse, to the poorhouse! As usual, in this grim ambience, we left them to their very tall babysitter, Ann, a Barnard student who looked like an elongated Alice; in the afternoons, she often took them across the park to the Met to see the mummies.

The dinner was at a converted warehouse in Tribeca, a vast high-ceilinged room swathed with gray silk; the effect was a tent of fog. Large vases on each table were covered with moss—from them leapt silver branches entwined with fairy lights. At each place, a tiny silver vase held two or three flustered pink anemones. The party was to celebrate the installation of a huge winged metal sculpture that commemorated—I can’t recall. There were drinks, and hors d’oeuvres on trays. As usual, I hadn’t had time to eat during the day and ate too many of these too fast. I had also turned my ankle on a cobblestone when we arrived, so stood on one foot, regretting my stiletto heels. Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, had just opened, and the dim room buzzed with conversation: “And what did you think of Mouth Wide Open?” I heard one woman say to another, her diamond bracelets snatching the light.

I found my place card. The seat to my left was empty. It was to remain empty all evening, but the chair, with its ghostly inhabitant did not then fill me with a sense of foreboding, though it meant I would have to talk to the person on my right, exclusively. It transpired that my dinner companion was a man in his mid-eighties. He introduced himself. We established that we were both friends of so-and-so. He was immediately recognizable to me, even then, as a man who had lived his life adjacent to power. His evening wear was immaculate; he wore a forest-green brocade bow tie. He preferred the country to the city, he told me. It was wonderful to muck around in the garden. Recently, a friend had said to me that if she heard the phrase country house one more time she would scream. I thought of that. Which country? I asked. He had a place in Connecticut. His wife—was her name Patsy?—grew roses. Sad she couldn’t be here tonight, laid up with a cold. Prone to them. We agreed something was going around. Here on your own? he asked. I indicated my husband across the table, engaged in animated conversation. It was a large round table for ten people, and I could just make out his voice, as distant as a ship-to-shore radio. We moved on. Did I write, or paint, or what? he asked me. I admitted that I wrote for a magazine. Amazing what girls get up to, he said. His own daughter had gone to law school. How many daughters did he have? It turned out we both had three.

Off to the races. Fifteen minutes slid by. The first course, a cold soup, came and went. Never liked cold soup, he said, can’t see the point. In between the soup and the main course, the light dimmed. Slides of the huge metal sculpture with its lethal-looking wings glimmered on a huge screen. Applause. The wine was handed around for the third time, the tiny lights on the bare branches like embers. My companion leaned toward me. Did I like stories? I seemed, he said, very sympathetic. He wondered if people often said that to me. I had given up trying to catch my husband’s eye. It was too dim, and in any case he had his “I’m making a new friend” look on, which meant that later I would need to peel him out of his seat.

Tell me, I said. He leaned closer. When he began again, his voice had changed. He spoke more slowly, each word a glass bead. When I was a boy, he said, a boy away at school. He paused. In college, that is. My aunt and uncle had a place on Long Island. It was a big place, more of a farm, really. Big places, back then. Hedges, fences to be mended. This was in Easthampton. I’d come down to lend a hand. It was my father’s idea. Thought I needed to do something with myself. Could have been right. It wasn’t too bad really. I liked being outside, and there were parties at night. Swimming. Lots of drink, lots of young people around. I met Patsy at one of them. How nice, I said. He glanced down at my plate. Eat up, he said in his former voice. Then he returned to a whisper. Patsy, he said, not the point. I asked after the point. Never told her, he said. I looked inquiring. Not Patsy. When I was there, that summer, that July, he said, a terrible thing happened. I waited. One morning, I was taking the truck out from the hangar where my uncle kept the farm vehicles, and I backed up. You backed up? I asked. He nodded. He said, It was a Ford truck. It was a hot day. I waited. I backed up, he said, and there was a thud. He continued. There was a thud, and I stopped the truck and got out of the car. He paused. Then he said, In the road was a child. I had seen the child before.  There was a cat that he liked to play with, a black-and-white cat, and I’d seen him playing with the cat the morning before. He was two years old, and he was the child of one of the farmworkers on the place. I said nothing. With the fingers of my left hand, I pleated and repleated my chiffon skirt. The child was dead, he said. I had hit him, and I had run him over. And then I drove off down the road, and I didn’t tell anyone what I had done.

I listened to this story with the rapt attention that was expected of me—as I had been brought up to pay attention, to be deferential to my elders, and to indulge the fantasy lives of men. This training had been a boon to me as a journalist. This particular evening, however, I stood up from my chair and walked around the table to my husband, and I said, in his ear, We have to go now. To his credit, he did not protest.

Later, removing his bow tie, he asked me, Did you believe him? For several months afterward, I spent a few hours every couple of weeks trying to find out whether a two-year-old child had been run over in Easthampton between 1930 and 1935, the span of years I calculated might be in play, but I found nothing. But it was the end of those parties, for me.


Cynthia Zarin’s most recent book is a novel, Inverno. Next Day: New and Selected Poems and a novel, Estate, are forthcoming from Knopf Doubleday and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, respectively. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, she teaches at Yale.