A Dinner Party 

I am at a small dinner party with my wife Jean in the Heights. The host is a friend of mine named David, together with his wife Linda. David is involved in tech, and he has made a killing. Linda has a yoga blog that is also wildly successful. There is another couple present, who I have only just met, Eugene and Sally. They told me what they do professionally, but I already forget what it was. I think they are schoolteachers or something. I can’t remember why they’re friends with the hosts, given the obvious gap in salary, but I’m too embarrassed to ask again because I clearly didn’t listen the first time. David and Linda probably just keep them around to elevate themselves a bit. Perhaps to some extent we all have friends for that purpose. 

I am talking to Sally about the brand-new top-model Tesla I just bought. She is listening intently. I tell her, “It’s fast,” and I give her a look to show that I am not exaggerating. She is pretty cute, in a meek sort of way. Her husband Eugene seems like kind of a turd, especially with that early 40s paunch of his. I wonder how he managed to get her. I’m more of the kind of guy she should have ended up with. She’s probably thinking that too while I am telling her about my Tesla.

But then my wife Jean interrupts me because she is having a separate discussion with David and Linda (Eugene is sitting there quietly nursing his beer, trying to be a part of their conversation by simply nodding and letting out a brief chuckle here and there in response to something one of them says, but adding nothing to the conversation). 

“Honey,” Linda turns to address me, “tell these guys about that patient of yours, you know the one who’s the cousin of, well, I don’t want to ruin the surprise…” She glances back at David and Linda and smiles mischievously. 

I’m annoyed for a couple reasons. One, I can see the look of yearning in Sally’s eyes, and I was really starting to enjoy that until this disturbance. Two, there’s this thing called HIPAA which does not allow me to talk about my patients with any sort of specific identifier. So that’s a two-for-one strike one. I look at Jean to make sure she knows that this is strike one, but she’s looking at David and Jean so I can’t directly let her know how annoyed this makes me. I relax a little, understanding that the silver lining here is that I can impress Sally a little more by talking about my work (a doctor), which she will inevitably compare to her own husband’s lame job (teaching geometry to middle-schoolers or whatever).

I have the stage. I give a power pause, a technique I learned from a speech and debate class back in undergrad, which I often attended while tripping on acid. “Well,” I begin, “I happen to be treating a relative of—before I go on, let me just ask that this information stays in this room, yes?”

All assent with anticipation.

“…a relative of the Brookfield Mangler,” I continue.

Eugene’s eyes light up and he says, “Ohhh. Interesting…”

“I can’t say too much,” I respond.

“Well, what can you say?” David pries. 

“I can say that this patient is a bit of a nut hers— him or herself.”

“Honey, tell them what she said about The Brookfield Mangler!”

“Thanks, Jean,” I say through clenched teeth, “but I don’t know how appropriate that is for a dinner party.”

“C’mon tell us!” David and Linda are both saying.

“Yeah, I want to hear,” Eugene says. 

I look over at Sally’s bunny eyes. Do I burst her innocent bubble?

Jean keeps pestering me to tell them what my patient said about her cousin. It’s something that wasn’t explicitly covered by the news, nor the crime documentaries that followed (surprisingly, though perhaps out of respect for the families).

“He had sex with the severed heads of his victims,” I say.

A collective gasp of horror is heard throughout the dining room. 

“What?!” Linda says. She and David do however seem somewhat amused in a morbidly curious way. Sally and Eugene look stunned, but Sally wears it better; Eugene just looks like an idiot.

Honey,” Jean rasps, “that is not what I was talking about. I meant tell them about how The Brookfield Mangler proposed to his fiancé from prison.”

That?” I ask. It’s not an interesting story at all. Hardly noteworthy, mere tabloid, if anything.

“Yes, that” Jean says. “I can’t believe the first thing that came to your mind was… Oh god, I’m so sorry, Everyone.”

“No, no,” Linda says, “it’s not a big deal. Here, help yourselves to more food.”

Sally wipes her mouth with her napkin and says, “I think I’ve lost my appetite.”

“Are you okay, sweetie?” Eugene asks her. 

God damn it. Now I look like an asshole who ruined the whole evening.

“I’m sorry, let’s change the subject,” I say and smile. “You have to understand, some of the things my patients tell me can be very intense, and I have to bear that weight myself. I take it home with me each day and I’m forced to keep it bottled up inside. Again, I’m really sorry.”

My explanation has sent a wave of relief over the dinner party. Jean is less pissed off at me after that heartfelt explanation, and I can even see Sally’s eyes warming up to me once more. She’s probably thinking, wow, what a man. Not only is he successful and in good shape for his age, but he is earnest about his feelings.

“Say,” David says to me, helping himself to more scalloped potatoes, “Jean tells me you’ve been having issues with your hot tub.”

“Yup,” I reply. God damn it, strike two. I look at Jean so she will know that I’m irritated, but she doesn’t realize this is strike two, since she was looking away when she committed strike one earlier. Doesn’t matter, it’s still strike two; I don’t want anyone knowing that kind of private detail about our lives. I just bought the damn hot tub. “Top of the line,” the guy who sold it to me said. It was functioning for about a week before it completely crapped out. I know nothing about hot tubs, so now I have to call some maintenance guy to come out, see the Tesla in the driveway, look at our massive house, and then arbitrarily hand me a bill for his repairs that’ll cost about as much as my left nut. I don’t want to talk about it, least of all in front of another couple I’ve just met.

I continue saying, “Yeah, I don’t know what the deal is. But as soon as it’s fixed, I’ll be sure to have you all over for a soak. Eugene, Sally, we just met, but you two seem great, so you’re invited as well!”

I imagine Sally in her bathing suit, alone with me in my hot tub, and I feel a little aroused.

“Oh, thank you!” Eugene says, agreeable like a buffoon being sold a timeshare condo. 

In my fantasy, he is not there. Or maybe he comes in while Sally and I are in the middle of it and we laugh at him. He’s got some ridiculously festive beach towel slung over his shoulder and he looks down at his pooching belly in defeat.

“Well, I, for one, look forward to it,” Linda says, breaking my concentration. “These yoga videos I’m doing for the blog are wearing me out.  I’m just dead-sore. I’ve had to compete with all these other v-loggers by upping the intensity of my sessions. Subscribers are just constantly looking for the newest trend. I’ve had to get so creative.”

I imagine Linda doing yoga creatively in the hot tub with Sally and me.

“Show us one of the positions!” Sally says to Linda. 

“Yeah, show us!” Jean pipes in.

“Oh no, now? No, I couldn’t possibly—”

“Oh, come on!” we all plead.

“Well, okay,” Linda gives in, rather easily I must note. She steps away from the table and in her casual evening wear puts her body into a position that looks like a frog in heat. Although it looks kind of painful, I have to admit it’s got me kind of excited.

“So, you can imagine,” Linda says with a laugh as she’s relaxing from the position, “I get quite sore from this kind of thing, which is why I could use a hot tub myself.”

“You’re welcome to use ours anytime,” I say, my voice failing ever so slightly. I’m still imagining Linda in that bizarre, kind of hot position, even though she’s already coming back to the table.

“When the hot tub is fixed,” Jean corrects me. She looks at me for an uncomfortable moment the others are unable to perceive.

“What brand of hot tub do you have?” David asks.

I tell him.

“I see. Well, it sounds like a piece of shit if it stopped working after a week. I’ll make sure to get a different brand, then,” he mocks.

“Ha, ha,” I say, annoyed again.

Over dessert, Eugene looks at me a few times. I’m thinking, just spit it out, you idiot. He says, “Hey Darren, I’m sure you get this all the time, so I apologize in advance, but I wanted to ask you if you could, um, take a look at this thing on the back of my shoulder.”

Oh, here we go again, I think. What a cliché. Of course, Jean comes to the rescue with her unsolicited opinion, “Oh, Eugene, Darren is not that kind of doctor. He’s a psychiatrist.”

“Oh,” Eugene says, “I’m sorry, I assumed you were like a primary care doctor.”

What?! Does he think a primary care doctor can afford a Tesla? And if he even knew the house that we live in!

“I’ll take a look at it,” I say, surprising Jean. This will be sure to pique Sally’s interest, at the very least.

I can tell Eugene is already less confident in me. The rest of them probably are too. But all of their eyes are on me as I get up and walk around the back of his chair. He partially lifts up his shirt to reveal his blanched-appearing flesh, which truth be told I find kind of revolting. 

“It’s right here,” he points out. “It’s itchy sometimes.”

You don’t have to be a doctor to know that something’s not right here. This mole on his skin is what people in the profession call a “bad actor.” I stifle my initial reaction. They are all awaiting my response. I should have known better than to make this about me. Now I have an audience. How to tell someone they probably have melanoma in front of a dinner party. 

“Well, I’m not sure what this is, but I would definitely recommend that you see a dermatologist and get this biopsied,” I say.

Eugene and Sally look at me with concern. “Does it look bad?” Eugene asks.

“I can’t say for sure. But I do think it warrants a biopsy, or tissue sample, that another type of doctor can look at under a microscope and make a diagnosis.”

Poor bastard. If this is what I think it is, this thing on his shoulder is just the tip of the iceberg and he is in for a long road. Suddenly I don’t see Eugene and Sally as the people I saw a few minutes ago. I see her faithfully accompanying him to endless clinic appointments, the two of them hopelessly lost in the quagmire of physician subspecialists and their conflicting opinions, trying to make sense of Eugene’s disease and the many follow-up CT reports describing it in opaque terms, this cancer which will spread all over the body. It will try out the lungs, try out the liver, and then of course make itself at home in the brain, where all the interesting things happen. This cancer will be unrelenting and evil (although to be honest, not any more sinister than you or me; it just happens to be another shrewd opportunist in a world that’s full of them). 

And every thought and intuition I had about this meek couple until now is erased, and I just feel sad and, yes, maybe even a little guilty. I make pretend through dessert and one more after-dessert drink. Linda wants to play Cards Against Humanity, the game for lobotomized adults with no creativity, which sounds like the worst idea to me right now. I’m sober and mumble something about being tired and it’s probably about time we retire for the night. Everyone pretends to boo like clockwork, but I know they are probably just as exhausted as I am of going through the motions, so the dinner party comes to an end.

As we leave, I thank the hosts for a wonderful time. Jean makes plans with Linda for next time. I tell Eugene and Sally that it was a pleasure meeting them, hope to meet again. Eugene thanks me for looking at his mole. I look away and say, “Don’t mention it. Make sure to see a dermatologist, perhaps sooner rather than later.” 

Jean and I are driving home. I am not in the mood to talk, and that’s when Jean lights into me. 

“We need to talk,” she says. 

“About what?”

“Where to even begin… First, what made you think it was appropriate to talk about that thing with The Brookfield Mangler?”

“I thought that was what you were referring to. You kept egging me on. I wasn’t planning on bringing any of that stuff up in the first place.”

“No. Why on earth would I want you to tell everyone that that guy was fucking a bunch of decapitated heads?” Jean shouts.

“Look, it was a misunderstanding.”

Jean scoffs.

“Is that it?” I ask.

“No, that’s not the least of it. Don’t think I didn’t see how you were ogling over Sally like that. Gloating about your stupid Tesla.”

“I was not ogling over her,” I say.

“Oh, come on! It was so obvious! And how humiliating for me! Not only that, but when Linda started doing her yoga routine, you could barely keep your tongue in your mouth! I mean, Jesus, Darren. What an embarrassment. Then, oh wait, then, the cherry on top, you play Dr. Cool and look at Eugene’s skin tag, like you know anything about that stuff. You get them all stressed out and—”

“It looked like cancer,” I say.


I say it again. Jean doesn’t say anything for a while.

Then she says, “That doesn’t mitigate the fact that you’re an asshole, and that something needs to change. For all intents and purposes, that’s three strikes in one night. I’m serious. You need to start working on yourself or we are going to have much worse problems in the future.”

I don’t disagree with her. I don’t say anything. I pull into the driveway and park.

“Are you listening to me?”

“Yes,” I say, and I guess that’s all she needs to hear right now. There’s so much more I want to say, but my unhappiness over the years has been baked solid.

Jean goes through her nightly routine alone, which includes an Ambien and television to fall asleep. I sit in the living room with a glass of wine looking at all the supposedly nice furniture. We just keep buying more and more of it. The wine is offensively expensive too, but at the core, it’s the same chemical structure as the malt liquor the gas stations sell to bums. I finish the glass, let out a sigh, and step out onto the patio where the hot tub sits. I open the cover and dip my arm in. It’s still not working. The water is lukewarm. Normally I would be furious, but right now I don’t care. I take off my clothes and lower myself into the water. 

Out here, under the moonlight and shed of my semi-formal dinner wear, my body looks alien to me. The longer I gaze at my skin, the more it looks like that of a chicken tightly wrapped under cellophane. My thin legs are distorted under the water. And my own belly is starting to slip ever so slightly. Jean is right. I am an asshole. I submerge myself under the water and hold my breath for as long as I can. I do this as a sort of meditative exercise, hoping that when I re-emerge, I will have a reset, a clean slate. But when I do rise to the surface, gasping for air, I realize that I am who I am, and cannot confidently say that much will ever change. And the lukewarm temperature of the water sends a wave of anger over me once again.

1 thought

  1. Ethan Andrew Zimmerman Author

    I really enjoyed this story. I love the character arc from narcissist to normal guy. Well done.

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