We’re at a tea party, it’s the second tea party in a month, only this one at least includes wine, even though it’s served in teacups; as a vessel for wine, bone china seems to lie somewhere between a juice glass and one of those awful Tupperware cups that our children drank from for years. Our children have their own sets of wineglasses now, and those Tupperware cups still look like new. This will apparently be our children’s legacy: four foul-tasting but otherwise perfectly good plastic cups along with the rights to an essay that simply won’t die and that has in fact paid for several very nice bottles of wine.
The sort of wine that I will never buy for a party, should I have this particular crowd at my house. Actually, I love the hostess, who teaches at my small college; she’s a sculptor with an excellent sense of humor and a very sweet husband and two small adorable children. I could do without her artist friend, though, who is always invited to the same parties that I am, because the city where we live is small, hardly a city at all, and there are only so many creative types to fill the guest lists for these things. At every partyâ€“dinner, cocktail, teaâ€“she strides toward me, saying loudly, “Do I remember you?” I remember her, and I always have a witty comment, ranging from the cheerful, “I remember you” to the testy “I don’t know. Do you?” to the even testier, “I certainly don’t remember you.”
Which makes it all the more annoying, in the intricate dance of sitting, standing, and claiming an end of the one comfortable couch, to find myself in the company of the husband of the artist with no memory. I even know his nameâ€“Melâ€“although he has no idea who I am. He sits down in the painful looking chair on my right, a granite replica of a hand; the base is a wrist, the seat a palm, the back five elongated fingers. It looks like the sort of chair that you might have found in Purgatory, or Heaven’s waiting room, as Sr. Mary Trinitas liked to call it. Neither Sr. Mary Trinitas nor Purgatory still exists. I read about her deathâ€“peacefully, in her sleep; it seems to be the way modern nuns always go (as opposed to the older methods of wheel and rack), at least in the newsletter that the order sends me in exchange for my sending a check every December. This is my charity of choice, something that I cannot entirely explain even to myself, although it has to do with learning that the nuns who taught me in grade school could not accept a pair of new gloves until the old ones had been darned beyond repair. It was enough to make me forgive them for all the abuse, emotional and physical, they showered on me. As for Purgatory, it’s gone the way of Limbo, it’s simply been vanquished, and now the stakes are higher. It’s either/or. Pass/fail.
The essay that is for better or worse (mostly worse) my signature piece is a throw-away composition about student excuses that became the academic equivalent of a rock hit. It’s my “White Christmas” and Fourth of July and birthday celebration rolled into one. My essay, which took forty-five minutes to write (after devoting years to poetry), has been translated into seven languages and has been taught in hundreds of high schools and colleges; it paid for the trip to France that netted those bottles of fine wine and inspired one death threat, from a student in Holland who believed that it was all about him. When I was young, I believed that being a writer could change your life, and, indeed, it has changed mine. For one thing, I can never offer an excuse for not attending a party; hosts simply laugh and say “good one” and “see you at seven.” Or four. For tea.
I loved a boy once who looked something like Mel. My boy had long dark hair and Mel’s close-cropped spiky hair is pale yellow-gray, and my boy clearly seemed to be among the living, whereas Mel’s complexion is cadaverously pale, but the height and the fabulous cheekbonesâ€“they’re the same.
I have time to think about all this while Mel adjusts himself in the chair and I valiantly polish off a tea sandwich, consisting of two tiny triangles of hard, gritty white bread and a single slice of cucumber.
“There should be clotted cream,” I say.
Mel simply looks puzzled.
“A proper tea would have clotted cream,” I explain. I don’t actually know what clotted cream is, and, in fact, it sounds dreadful, but if you’re going to have a tea, and apparently everyone is, then you should get it right.
“Ah.” Mel looks, for a moment, as though he has something more to say, but then I see his face shut down.
The hell with them, I think, Ms. Amnesia and her very odd husband.
He tries again, though. “So, are you British?”
“No,” I say, and take a hearty swig of Pinot Grigio from my teacup.
“I didn’t think so. Your tea is very pale.”
“Very,” I say, and look around to see if there’s someone else, anyone else, I can latch on to.
“Does my wife know you?”
“Ah, that is the question. She may know me, or she may not remember me by now. It’s been a good half hour.”
The small smile that begins to appear endears him to me, and it occurs to me that while I know what his wife does (very large, very bad drip paintings; very small, very bad art classes at the university where she is tenured), I have no idea, after all these years, all these parties, what Mel does. I offer him the cucumber sandwich left on my plate, which he picks up and studies carefully, before balancing it on the edge of the leather hassock in front of his chair. We both study this arrangement, and then I ask him, “What do you do?”
“I do nothing.”
Splendid. It must, at least, make it easy for his wife to remember. “Sounds good to me.” And it does.
He nods, and repeats, “Nothing.”
OK, got it. Nothing, nada.
Now this is interesting. And it makes sense. I would probably go mad as well if I lived with Mrs. Mel.
“Everything,” Mel says solemnly, “makes me anxious.”
“Everything?” Now I’m the one who’s repeating.
“Everything. Even that sandwich you gave me.”
Once again, totally understandable. It’s been making me anxious, suspended as it is on the edge of the hassock where, just a little earlier, Tony Jones had been perched, hectoring a young woman about Italian cinema before rising and striding off manfully, in search of a slice of “moist cake” (good luck with that).
“Why don’t I just take care of it?” I say, picking up the offending triangle and dropping it back onto my plate, which I neatly skim to the other end of the coffee tableâ€“some sort of tree trunk topped with an oval of glass.
“Thank you,” Mel says, and we both sit back.
I can overhear two other men talking about “moist cake.” One wants to know why that’s always the highest praise for cake; the other says that he just knows what he likes.
Another local painter asks if she may join us. The more the merrier, I think. She is, I calculated once, well past seventy. She wears her gray hair in a short spiky do like Mel’s, and she’s dressed all in black except for her red stilettos and enormous sliver earrings in the shape of birds. I don’t know how she manages to avoid having her cheek slashed by a wing. I greet Brea (short for Brianna, which she stopped answering to some sixty years ago, I’ve heard all of her stories, at least she remembers me), and after we’ve exchanged air kisses, I risk a look at Mel. He seems alarmed and is making faint gestures toward flight, lifting and falling back against the five fingers. I take a chance, for all I know he’ll bolt from the chair and make a run for a door or window, but I take a chance and lay my hand on his arm, saying “Stay.” I mean it to be kind, even though it sounds as though I’m chastising a dog, and one of the moist men looks over. I smile brightly at him and turn back to Mel, who doesn’t seem offended. That is, I realize, all that matters. How can his wife bring him to these things and just set him adrift?
Brea asks me how my book is coming. I tell her fine. It’s a study of a novelist who’s turned to writing parodies of detective novels; my working title is “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Coda,” although I’ve written only three chapters and may never have a coda of my own. Then I ask her how her work is going, for I can be socially adept when I want to be, and Brea talks about her latest project. She’s gone from wall-sized abstract paintings to nature dioramas, which helps to explain the earringsâ€“little waterfall scenes and rocks and origami fowl, her words, not mineâ€“and she’s having a little, again Brea’s word, show in February, “but not with tea, I don’t think,” she says, and laughs. “You must come.”
Mel and I have been nodding seriously through all of this, just two fellow patients on a break from the institution, out for an afternoon of good cheer. When Brea says that she must be off, she sees someone she must speak toâ€“it’s one of the moist menâ€“I know he’s bought her work in the pastâ€“we all nod some more. I know that the man Brea’s heading for owns two of her early paintings, from her Frida Kahlo period, because I saw them when I was at his apartment one afternoon. (It was all very long ago and very chaste, with just one glass of wine and, at the end, one awkward kiss.)
I really did believe that I loved the boy with the cheekbones, although looking back, it’s clear how much lust played a part.
“Do you have a husband?” Mel asks. He doesn’t say, as anyone else would, “Are you married?” He makes having a husband sound like owning a pet.
I nod again, thinking that I have to stop this, and make a large waving gesture in the direction of the kitchen. He’s back there, I’m sure, chatting up the new creative writing teacher at Mel’s wife’s school. My husband, the former bright boy with the cheekbones, much older and heavier now but still lusting, can and will always find the youngest woman in the room. When I wave my arm, Mel rears back; even his rearing back is a fairly minimal gesture, but I seem to be developing a preternatural sense where Mel’s psyche is involved. I think how I need to be careful here (be careful, my parents always said; it was their mantra, driving me to distraction and to being the very opposite of careful), and I pat Mel’s arm again. “It’s OK,” I say, and he looks me in the eye for the first time and nods.
I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. “So what did you do?”
“Before.” Before everything shifted slightly and became impossible.
God knows it’s made me insane. Not the actual classroom part, the politics part.
“What did you teach?”
“Art . . .” He trails off, before rousing himself to say, reluctantly, “I used to be a sculptor.”
“There’s one piece you might like.” Mel sits up straight and looks directly at me again. It’s the most animation he’s shown since following his wife in through the front door. “It’s a womanâ€“a mannequinâ€“sitting in a wicker chair.”
“You did that?” I ask him. He’s nodding away now, very pleased.
And then I say the line that’s both the biggest cliché and the one thing everyone at this Mad Hatter’s tea party wants to hear. “I know your work.”
And I really do. I saw that piece in a little museum with a big name a few years ago. I must have gone back to look at it five times in that one afternoon. I loved it. The woman sitting in her pale green wicker chair was like a long cool drink of limeade. We even tracked down the docent and got her permissionâ€“my aging boy used his charmâ€“to take a picture. “The photograph’s hanging in my study,” I tell him, and he smiles.
“What happened? What happened to you?” I want to say, although I really don’t need to ask
He answers anyway. “The world is too much with us now and then.”
I’ll drink to that, although I’m not certain I agree with Wordsworth’s next line. He seemed to think that Milton could somehow turn things around.
“And I couldn’t do something like that piece now,” Mel says. “It’s the drugs. They’re good and bad.”
I get that, too; I remember the cocktail our family doctor prescribed for me, over one Christmas break, when I was in undergraduate school. Librium and Valium. I don’t know how I managed to walk to my classes.
“I know,” I say. Then I lean toward him. “I struggle with that.” My husband doesn’t like to talk about it, beyond asking, “Are you feeling better now?” “Yes,” I tell him, although taking antidepressantsâ€“new and improved as they areâ€“makes me angry sometimes; why should I take a pill just so that I can deal with all the people I have to spend time with at work, at tea parties, at home?
Mel nods as I tell him all this.
I want to do something for him. “Listen,” I say, and he leans toward me. “Would you like a piece of cake?”
He considers my question seriously; he gives it more thought than my students do essay questions. “Yes,” he says. “Thank you. Cake would be nice.” He unfolds his cocktail napkin with the same consideration he gave my question and spreads it over his lap. Then he lays his hands on top of the napkin and looks at me for approval. I nod.
I could keep going. I could walk past the table laid out with those awful little sandwiches and an assortment of cakes, some looking wetter than others, I could pick a different room, I could walk out and drive away, leaving my husband to find his way home, following a trail of crumbs.
Instead I cut a slice of the prettiest cake; it’s sitting on a doily and its white icing is festooned with tiny real flowersâ€“violets in late Novemberâ€“I wonder if Brea made it. I can imagine the woman in the wicker chair leaning forward to take the plate from me. I pick up another paper napkin, too; it features a detail from a William Morris chair. I’m looking forward to seeing a tiny flicker of pleasure on Mel’s face.
But Mel’s gone. Vanished. I might have dreamed him up, imagined the whole thing. In his place, firmly ensconced in the palm of the granite hand, is Tony Jones, who lectures me on De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. And although I’ve heard it all before, I nod pleasantly while eating Mel’s slice of cake. I scrape up the last bit of cake, organize the flowers into a tidy pile, and crumple up the William Morris napkin. Memento mori. “I’m still a Truffaut girl,” I tell him. “See you, Tony.”
I find my husband, sitting on a kitchen stool, talking to the creative writing teacher and a young man I met when we first arrived; he’s a friend of the hostess’s husband and is in town to spend a week as a visiting artist at our college, and maybe now he’ll get it on with the poet, maybe, when the tea party’s over, they’ll drink lots of wine and fall in love. I give my husband the look that says “I’m done,” and he gets it, our old code, old roles perfected over the years. He stands and says, “Well, it’s time for us to go,” and we kiss the hostess and thank her, and Mel’s wife shakes my hand and says, “I’ll be sure to remember you,” and I laugh cheerfully and say, “You’d better.”
I couldn’t find Mel in the house, but as we walk down the drive, I see him. He’s standing in the front yard, contemplating a yew tree and smoking a cigarette. Good for you, Mel, I think. “Hey,” I call softly.
His body stiffens, but he turns, and when he sees me, he smiles. He lifts one arm in a sort of a wave. It feels like a benediction.
“Who’s that?” my husband asks.
But I’m not telling. I think of the inscrutable woman in her wicker chair, and I say, “I don’t remember.”