‘The Dinner Party’

By Erin O. White
Excerpted from “Given Up for You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief

It was eight o’clock and everyone at the party wanted to know where she was. “She’s running,” Jen said when one person and then another came into the kitchen to ask for Chris, who was, I quickly gathered, the guest of honor. Chris was always running in those days, although I didn’t know that then; I didn’t yet know anything about her. Later I would learn she often ran for two or three hours, and on hot nights like the one of the party she set out in the cooling dusk and ran until long after dark.

She finally arrived just before nine, wearing cutoff jeans and a white T-shirt, her short blonde hair still wet from the shower. From the kitchen I heard a loud welcome and then a chorus of teasing for her lateness, and even from where I stood at the counter, slicing baguettes and trying to appear as though I belonged, I could see the teasing was a beloved ritual; they had been waiting on her for years and—running or no running—they would wait again.

“She’s been in New York,” Jen said, motioning to the porch with her paring knife, “but she joined a Philly firm last month, and she’s back in the neighborhood.” She reached for a beer bottle and took off the cap. “Let’s bring her a beer,” she said, “and I’ll introduce you.” I followed Jen out to the porch. She held open her arms, then stepped back. “Is that shower or sweat?” Jen asked. Chris didn’t answer, only took the beer bottle and walked into the embrace.

“I’m Chris,” she said as she pulled away from Jen and turned toward me. She put out her hand and smiled at me in a way that seemed to turn her eyes into small suns, the skin around them folding into thin rays. She was taller than me and her hand was strong; I could see the muscles in her tan arms, in her shoulders. She wore a red string around her wrist, and when I looked down I saw that she wasn’t wearing any shoes. I didn’t understand how it was possible for someone who looked like her to be a lawyer.
I had been invited to the party to meet a man. The man was a poet, and he was quick-witted and wiry in the way of many poets I would later meet. The introduction was a kind gesture on Jen’s part, the sort of thing a married woman did for a friend who had, at the tender age of twenty-three, broken up with her live-in boyfriend and moved to a downtown studio apartment. I was lonely in those days, although I didn’t recognize what I felt as loneliness. I thought I was just becoming an adult.

Eventually we all made our way to the table. I sat next to the poet and across from Chris. There was a toast to her return and she inadvertently drank from my wineglass. I toasted her with water, and when she turned away I took back my wineglass and emptied it in one long swallow.
Later Jen would tell me if she had known about me she wouldn’t have bothered with the poet. I told her not to worry. What I didn’t say was how could you have known when I barely knew myself? I only dated men, only sought men. But I noticed women. Occasionally I would meet a woman and her hand would linger against my palm when we were introduced, her gaze would seek mine at the table. I came to understand the wordless, daring question she was asking me: Am I right? I learned to answer with my own lingering hand, my own glance away and back again: Yes, yes, you are. And although I learned to not be afraid of my wanting, I also did not act on it. I turned away, I took back my hand; I waved my good-byes from the door. I was’t interested in what came next. My desire was simply too quick to cool. It was moody and adolescent, but because I was not an adolescent I didn’t let myself begin something I couldn’t keep aloft.

Which is why I did not expect what happened at the dinner party. I did not expect that the flicker of wanting I felt at the sight of Chris on the porch would not fade, and that I would, again and again over the hours of the party, meet her gaze and seek her attention, pass her bowls of food and keep my hand on them too long, waiting for her hand to press against mine. That night I felt my desire bloom heavier than it ever had before, which had the mysterious and miraculous effect of allowing me to see her desire, to see her watch me and speak to me in a way she was not watching or speaking to anyone else.

When it was late and I had clearly missed the last train back to the city, someone at the table said something to Chris about a girl and Chris smiled and took a long drink from her beer bottle. And I knew then what I could do—what I could make happen—and I knew it with a novel and heady certainty.

I stood from the table and went upstairs to the bathroom, went upstairs to look at myself in the mirror. I wanted to see my face; I wanted for a moment to be alone with the truth of what I knew was coming. And when I came down the stairs again and stopped on the landing to see Chris’s laughing face, to see the light around the table in a house that was otherwise entirely dark, I couldn’t catch my breath. Not because I was afraid, but because I was—finally, fully, hopelessly—lit.

Excerpted from Given Up for You: A Memoir of Love, Belonging, and Belief  by Erin O. White. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved. Order from local or online booksellers.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)