Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

A Woman’s Place

by Joanna Beth Tweedy

A woman’s place remains uncleared for the twenty-three seconds it has taken us to decide on ordering two of each appetizer as well as a mess of entrées from tonight’s menu and sharing until we are glutted, then divvying up the leavings (except for Alexi, who despises leftovers to a degree that prohibits even bottled condiments from occupying her fridge) for tomorrow afternoon when we’ll laze around in pajama-type attire, sweatshirts, and happy-pants and have lunch together without each other being there.

I know it was a woman, not by the lipstick on the empty wine glass, but by the way the raspberry-vinaigrette-dotted napkin has been folded and placed atop the empty plate in the shape of a Pilgrim’s hat. I don’t know a single guy who has ever executed the post-meal inclination to fold a cloth napkin into a minor work of banal art. Much less a Pilgrim’s hat.

She is gone when we come in and take up residence at a table for eight, shedding custody of coats, carryings, and concerns and piling them into the extra chair. Without thought attached, the four chairs on one side of the table are scooted closer to embrace naturally the same sum of space as the three on the other.
But I’m not paying attention to this detail when we sit. The eyes of my awareness are focused on where she’d been sitting. I see her hands as they gently, deliberately crease the folds of the napkin she’d used to dab the corners of her mouth after mixed greens had grazed them on their way inside. See the corners of that mouth bend up into a private smile as she places the napkin on top of the place where garden leaves had been presented as though they were worth the money charged to arrange them. See her fluff the hat in the middle toward the back, where it sags.

A lovely smile. A satisfied self.

A damn fine Pilgrim’s hat.

A busboy crushes the creation as he stacks the table’s china.

My focus shifts back to our table where myriad snippets of conversation are going on all at once, part of a larger understood design that I too would grasp if I’d been paying attention.

“Evie, what in the name of my ass is going on with your hair?

“Buddhist, hell. You can’t candy-wrap the Dahlia Lama, suck on a few sweet platitudes and then call yourself a Buddhist.”

“Yep. Five hundred of them. Right there. Just like that. I nearly wet my pants.”

My focus shifts to Evie. Evie. The first and middle initials E and V spelled out to harmonize their union. Coalesced, just like the words each letter stood for had merged into the person they branded: Élan Vital Trotter, whose parents had named her with the hope she might live up to the christening in the face of the five boisterous brothers preceding her. It was their singular gift to their only daughter. And it had taken root.

Evie’s most recent love interest had told her Élan Trotter sounded like a Derby horse. But that was only part of the reason we now referred to him as her ex, even though they were still dating. She suffered no pedigrees. And she was no stallion. But she was world-class.

Rinker’s cheeks are filled with laughter, and they flush as Evie finishes the story I’d been listening to as well, but without paying attention. I doubt I would have blushed, though. Evie had sunken in years ago. Rinker Wave Tatum, so-named for the runabout her parents had been rolling around the ski-slogged bottom of the night she was conceived, was prone to redden at any mention of sex, so I assume that had been the subject of Evie’s tale. The boat was an outboard. Mr. And Mrs. Tatum now own an inboard and a pontoon. And three more children with less inspired names.

Appetizers had arrived so long ago that in any other company, the gap of time elapsed since physical proof of our waiter’s existence within this lifetime would feel stagnate. Instead it’s entertaining. There are rumors of his materialization at tables near ours, but to us, he remains a shade.

Alexi – who Evie had renamed Sexy upon their introduction to one another a year ago by Rinker, who had blushed then, too – claims his disappearance stemmed from my use of the word vagina just as he’d placed in front of me a plateful of petite puffy creations I vaguely recalled should erupt with pulverized falafel beans and pureed sprouts when prodded to do so.

Not that this was a declaration I typically employed upon the arrival of hors d’oeuvres. It was merely a mid-sentence manifestation that happened to coincide with his approach from behind announcing rotolo! at the exact moment the other three-syllable word left my mouth with more crescendo than I would direct had I the opportunity to re-orchestrate the brief duet.

Our eyes had met. Mine grateful and thrilled at the arrival of my spriggy-looking stuffed masterpiece. His repulsed at the evident shock of confrontation with an unanticipated body part. The rest of the appetizers were delivered without introduction and the intensity of his disregard since that time has shown no signs of tapering.

At first I felt bad for having accidentally thrust the word upon him, as it seems to have apparently been a terrible distress to him. But it’s only a word, after all. Perhaps not typical dinner conversation, but not so unconventional. We decide he must have issues.

“I’ll bet if you’d used the ‘p’ word instead, he’d be all over us right now. Why do they all love the ‘p’ word?”

True to form, Evie trumps Maggie, “Just imagine if you’d said cun– ”, but the table drowns out the rest of her sentence with a burst of protestations against the word that prompted it. As the table erupts, concerned patrons lean and crane to determine the source of the flare-up, surmising the possibility of a stray, baked-in hair and then alive with stories of unidentifiables discovered in cuisines du jour across the city, country, ocean.

Our waiter remains in shadow, as I suspect would stay the case were a three-toed sloth to burst from my rotolo and wrestle me to the floor. Satiated by the first round of food, no one is in too much of a hurry for the second, but when Maggie starts sweating gin, Sarah moves toward the bar to collect another double martini with a side of cranberry juice, bottle of wine, and three margaritas, extra salt.

“What gives? What the hell does waitboy think we’re going to do, whip out our – ”

“Evie, don’t say the ‘c’ word.” Colleen interjects.

“I’m not, Coyster,” acting annoyed but not really. “What I wonder is why he has to act like we have the clap just because Texas said vagina.”

“Not so loud. My grandparents eat here. It’s just not right.”

“See? That’s exactly what I mean. Why does it cause everyone but your gynecologist to flip when you say anything like that? Like you’re some kind of militant she-ra blazing sex maniac or something.”

“But they do love the ‘p’ word.” reminds Maggie and then adds that there’s nothing wrong with blazing sex maniacs or militant she-ras, thinking of her experimental college years. “By the way, were you going to say ‘whip out our uteruses and start waving them around?’”

“Yeah, why? Have I used that one before?”

“Yep. Pitch night at the Legion last Thursday.”

“Damn.”

“You said that in front of veterans? In front of Maggie’s dad?” Colleen’s head is in her palm. Rinker is saturated crimson. Alexi is thinking about germs.

“That’s why he insists I bring her along.”

“Unbelievable.”

Sarah returns bearing drinks and a large platter of artichoke tapas as well, compliments of the bartender. Sarah is a magnet for freebies – one of the reasons she has become the official candidate for these types of tasks. Colleen calls things like this brazen, which is why Evie has dubbed her Coyleen.

Later, after we’ve officially given up on the arrival of out entrées, and after another round of drinks is delivered from the bar, this time with three bowls of garlic-, gorgonzola-, jalapeno-stuffed olives in addition to a plate of dolmas, it has become far too late to ignore that we are probably going to be late for the performance of Summer and Smoke to which Sarah had been bequeathed seven free seats three days before they went on sale.

There are several appetizers left, but since our waiter has officially vanished from our sphere of existence, we forgo any expectations of a respectable wrap-up and instead swathe what food we can into the paper napkins that came with our drinks. We’re not at all hungry now, but no one will feel like cooking tomorrow. Alexi excuses herself from the table briefly. Tomorrow, she’ll have crackers and individually wrapped slices of cheese for lunch after a breakfast of fresh fruit salad and two granola bars.

She’ll spend part of the morning scrubbing microbial bacteria from all surface areas occupying her kitchen, including the neck of the milk bottle inside her fridge – the one and only item aside from a jar of French mustard (somehow, that condiment received a bye) allowed to be reconsumed after its initial visit upon the premises. Though she’s not necessarily comfortable with the milk reuse, she hasn’t found another way around it aside from pint-size cartons, but milk stored in paper repulses her more than milk stored in large quantities over time, so she’s just accepted it. No other way around it. Nature of the beast and all. No one had asked about the mustard yet, though its retention was seen as a breakthrough.

Then, for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, Sexy Lexi will study for the PPE. Evie will sleep late to fantastic dreams. Rinker will reply to the fifty-three emails she’s already read and then marked unread to remind herself to go back and compose replies. Maggie will spoon mashed foodstuffs into her very loud and pink child’s mouth, then clean them up as they run their course. Sarah will contemplate bundling up in at least three layers and listening to R.L. Burnside while she takes her mammoth hounds to the park, where she’ll probably come across a twenty-dollar bill laying in the withered grass; but instead she’ll just put the dogs out in the yard for a while and find the twenty there. Colleen will do yoga and then call her mother, aunts, grandparents, and sister-in-law while she works on crosswords. None of us will want to cook.

Around noon, each of us will still be wearing whatever sufficed for pajamas the night before, and minus one, we’ll rummage around for last night’s stash of leftovers, unwrapping and reheating tamale cakes, spring rolls, strombolinis, and whatever else could escape neatly enough in a cocktail napkin.

We’re out of the paper coasters, but there are still several breaded raviolis and seasonal wraps left unclaimed, not to mention honey rolls and parmesan pepper bread. Sarah is about to make a trip to the bar when I suggest a Pilgrim’s hat as the perfect take-away container, especially for olives.

Evie calls it a capital idea, bugger-all, which offhandedly reminds me how she despises the British for no real reason. Colleen’s coat pockets and Maggie’s mom-purse are almost large enough for our spoils. Rinker places the remaining two napkin hats inside her big blue fuzzy one she carries all winter, everywhere. Alexi is back. She has the hiccups and tallies what we owe for what was delivered, plus a sizable tip for the bartenders. She places a pile of money on the table for the bill and hands the rest to Sarah for transport to the bar.

Just as we are leaving, invisiwaiter makes a surprise appearance, ignoring us still, but hovering nearby to fill the water glasses of our neighbors, his eyes glancing toward the wad of cash on our table. We stare at his lack of acknowledgement that we are doing so. Evie smells fear and swoops in to execute the coup de grâce. He places the silver pitcher of water in front of his chest, like a shield. Smiling her words, Evie tells him, slowly and deliberately, that the food was positively wonderful and the atmosphere divine. He stays fixed and silent.

She winks then turns toward the door, predicting the precise moment he will move uneasily to count the money we’ve left behind, then looks back over our shoulder with a casual “Oh. But I forgot to mention, the cervix was horrible.”

Alexi guffaws and hiccups at the same time, a sudden sound that makes our waiter start and people turn. Rinker has totally missed the exchange and is trying to figure out what was said because Colleen is melting into the floor. Maggie grabs Evie’s hand in hers and then pulls toward the door while I tug Sarah away from the bar and its tenders.

In the crammed car we blaze through yellow lights, and five separate packs of gum are passed among bodies piled on top of one another – cinnamon, bubble, something fruity, spearmint, and god-awful mouthwash-smelling sugarless purposeful gum. I choose bubble. We’re late and have to wait to be seated until after the prologue about eternity, which lasts about as long.

Tomorrow I will ignore laundry, dishes, bills, and the unpainted wall so I can finish two overdue books. At lunch I’ll find the playbill on the counter where I left it. Thumbing through, I’ll discover it’s not mine. The wad of gum pressed into the center folds of a two-page advertisement isn’t bubble. I’ll smell its spiciness as I flip through last night’s unread pages, and I’ll know exactly whose program I have.

Read Joanna Beth Tweedy’s bio »