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A Dinner Party

This isn’t how it happened, but it is how I wish that it happened.


January 16th


This was the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was very convenient for me. I was at a dinner party for some friend’s birthday I guess. I can’t exactly remember which friend’s birthday it was. But I do remember that it was MLK weekend.


It was convenient that it was MLK weekend because dinner parties mean talking. And I hate talking.


I shouldn’t say that actually. I’m very good at real deal conversations. Uber drivers never want me to exit the vehicle. I’m great at stewarding high level philosophical discussions. In fact, people usually ask me to be a table middle during dinner parties like these. So I can talk.


But I hate the pleasantries and the small talk, and not in the way that everyone says that they hate the small talk. It actually freaks me out. Real stress. I start shaking my head back and forth, making intermittent eye contact with different points on the ceiling, and before long I do foam at the mouth and require medical attention – and this ruins most parties.


So I spend a lot of time preparing for any possible social gatherings, arming myself with off-the-wall questions that act as my own personal defense against idle conversations.


What does MLK mean to you?’ would be a perfect line for this particular dinner party because my actual friends would laugh it off as one of my classically strange one liners, while true strangers attempting to get to know me would be paralyzed by the weightiness of the question and therefore forced to skip directly into a complex conversation about civil rights or democracy or just at least anything that had nothing to do with me.


So I walked into the friendly apartment with a relaxed coolness, knowing that I was prepared.


 

The first thing that I noticed, or at least the first thing that I remember noticing, was a huge Oak dining table. 10 feet long and the top was like 2 inches thick. Probably weighed 200 pounds. I appreciate these sorts of things.


Next I quickly found refuge in a small circle containing my close friend Tom, as well as a couple whom I didn’t know as well. Tom and the boyfriend from the couple were talking about a mutual friend Greg: a tall, handsome, eligible bachelor.


Tom: “No, I’ve seen it. Greg has an Excel spreadsheet of every girl he’s ever slept with.”

Boyfriend: “I’m surprised he knows all of their names.”


Around this time the girl from the couple – Girlfriend – started to really listen in more intently.


Tom: “Oh, he doesn’t. Some only have the date and location. One of cells was labeled ‘Cheesecake Factory #2’”

BF: “#2?!?”

Tom: “I said the same thing. He says cheesecake is an aphrodisiac. I don’t know. You know Greg. He just has a way with girls I guess.”

BF: “Yeah I know. I mean I love the guy. He’s hilarious. But he’s also the kinda dude that you wouldn’t want to be alone in a room with your girlfriend.”

Tom: “100 percent”


Girlfriend’s eyebrows jumped up towards the ceiling, eyes now wide. BF was still looking at Tom but could feel GF’s eyes on him. Tom could feel that BF could feel GF’s eyes on him, so he stared at me and pursed his lips. GF broke in with a stern tone but also like she was genuinely confused.


GF: “You’re friends with a rapist?”

BF: “What? No, no.” {Shaking his head and looking at Tom, who now looked back at BF and they began shaking their heads in sync.}

Tom: “Oh, no, definitely not.”

BF: {Now looking back at GF} “He’s not like that. Not anything like that. He’s just, you know, flirty.”

GF: “So you wouldn’t want me to be alone in a room with this Greg guy?”


And GF somehow raised her eyebrows even higher than they were raised before, like she had some extra subset of well developed muscles in her forehead for this specific purpose.


BF: {Chuckles} “Well no, definitely n– well I mean, no, not you.”


GF looked at BF askance. Tom looked at me and was starting to break character, showing his white teeth through an uncomfortable grin as the tension built.


BF: “Or, what I mean is– yes! You could be alone in a room with him, if you wanted to be! I know that you wouldn’t do anything like that. Not you specifically. No, of course not. I just mean like ‘girlfriend’ in general. The Collective Girlfriend.”


GF refused to cut the tension with any response.


BF: {Rubs GF’s shoulder} “I know you wouldn’t do anything like that honey. Here, come on, let’s get a margarita.”


GF was clearly a veteran girlfriend. I think she and BF have themselves been together for about 4 years, and so the subtext here was pretty clear to make out. GF didn’t really care about BF’s initial comment at all, she immediately and intrinsically knew that he was indeed referring to the Collective Girlfriend – that soundless and formless and in this case easily persuaded young woman that men conjure up for thought experiments like these. Yet, having had so many years of service under her belt in the Girlfriend Industry, GF was sharp witted and therefore instantly able to detect the smallest sliver of strategic opportunity that could blossom into a full dispute, which she could eventually benefit from. So she seized the moment, knowing that by blowing up BF’s clunky word choice and allowing it to ruin her night she would squeak out just the right amount of leverage to require BF to faithfully listen to one of her political dissertations or permit her to neglect shaving her armpits for like 3 weeks, and if she really played up the bit – maybe even both.


Tom and I were left alone, and it was a smallish apartment, so we couldn’t fully break into debriefing laughter just yet, but we gave each other a look that translated to “Oh boy, he’s screwed.”


 

Tom: “So what’s your weird, like ice-breaker or whatever today?”


I played dumb.


Me: “What do you mean?”

Tom: “You know, that thing you always do when we’re with people. You ask them if they believe in Helen Keller or like – sometimes it’s a geography question. You just go up to people cold and ask them.”


I was trapped.


Me: “Like that time at New Year’s when I asked everyone what they would be if we made a TV show?”

Tom: “Yeah, some stupid BS like that. I don’t remember that one, but whatever. What is it today?”

Me: “Do you really want to know?”


And Tom just looked at me with a blank stance that told me to stop beating around the bush, so I held up a finger and backed away a few feet, signaling to him that I was going to give the full theatrics. For the ice-breaker to work, for it to actually skirt any notions of small talk, you have to be fully charismatic. High energy, loud. The would-be small talker has to be so entranced by the spectacle of this question that they forget all notions of jobs and living situations and their repetitive, real world. Obviously, I didn’t need to sell Tom with any of this, but it would be good practice.


Me: “Ayyyyyyyye what’s goin’ onn?!!!! Alright I’ve got one question for you, one question.”

Tom: “Oh god I forgot about this shit.”

Me: “I’ve got one question for you, and it is…….. ‘What does MLK mean to you?!’”

Tom: “.....?”

Me: “.....!”

Tom: “Are you serious?”

Me: “Well yeah.”

Tom: That’s your one-liner today? Is that this weekend?”

Me: “Yeah.”

Tom: “You’re an idiot.”

Me: “Hey, it’s not designed to work on you. It’s gonna work, I guarantee it.”

Tom: “Yeah, well why don’t you go try it on that little guy over there? Have you talked to him yet?”

Me: “Which guy?– no, I haven’t talked to anyone yet. That was my first dry run.”

Tom: “That little 5 foot guy over there. His name’s Austin. I was stuck talking to him half an hour ago. He tried to ask me if I was on LinkedIn so I faked that I was choking and ran to the bathroom.”

Me: “Dang, that is a 5 footer.”

Tom: “All 60 inches of him.”

Me: “A 5 foot man. What’s his deal?”

Tom: “No clue, maybe his parents bound his feet when he was a child. Can really wreck a kid.”

Me: “...?”

Tom: “Oh but he’s an auditor. An IRS man. Total square. So yeah, go try your MLK line on him."


He was so tiny that I had nothing to lose, and Tom tends to kind of pump me up anyway, so I figured I would give it a shot.


Tom: “Oh, and if he asks, tell him that I threw up.”


 

So I mosey on over to the guy. Austin. And we get into the vicinity of each other where we make introductory eye contact and just as I am about to leap up into the air to begin my ice breaker routine I am incapacitated by the sudden realization that in the 8 seconds that it took me to walk over to him, Austin had significantly grown in size. He was like average height now, our eyes meeting each other on a level angle. And this left me especially confused because I had spent 6 of the 8 seconds of my commute wondering how I would fit deftly worded questions about juvenile foot binding practices into our inevitably deep and fulfilling Martin Luther King Jr. conversation, and now it seemed that, in light of his recent growth spurt, those questions would be totally inappropriate. He capitalized on my awe and seized hold of the conversation with a slimy smile and firm handshake and a left eye that looked like it could slip into a filthy wink whenever he saw fit, which would probably be often.


Austin: “Austin Roberts, at your service.”


I knew that I was in deep, deep trouble. I didn’t introduce myself, and Austin was not uncomfortable with this silence, but rather emboldened.


Austin: “It’s truly a pleasure to meet you. What was your name?”


I instantly hated Austin. I always get slightly irritated when people ask what “was” my name, with the past tense. It just doesn’t even make any sense. They usually ask this after I’ve already told them my name, so for some reason they feel like it’s a good idea to admit that they didn’t listen to the most basic thing I could have told them, and to also pretend that my name exists as something from a long ago past. Amateur. Be an adult and find strategic ways to avoid using my name to my face, and then ask other people at the party what my name is behind my back. It’s only polite.


Me: “Benedict.”

Austin: “Oh, like the eggs! Bet you’ve never gotten that one before! Well look, I’m kind of terrible with names, so don’t hate me if I have to ask you for it like three more times tonight.”

Me: “I’ve never asked for it in my life.”

Austin: “........?”

Me: {Nods approvingly}

Austin: “Well alright so, what do you do Benedict?”


And here we had gotten to the lowest depths possible, and so quickly. He had asked the question. I hate the question just so, so much, and yet it’s still everywhere. I don’t feel like anyone likes the question and yet they still mechanically have to ask it, like it’s as ingrained as please and thank you. How badly I wanted to reply back diabolically with “well I don’t really do anything, but if you think about it, neither do you!” In my mind I’ve built up this notion that if I actually just said that to everyone then I would be free, all stresses would fall away – the universe would become this orderly, pleasant little thing. Yet for some reason I just can’t say it, least of all to this guy that just sprouted a foot in front of my eyes.


Me: “I’m a cleaning lady.”

Austin: “Oh, cleaning lady. Very nice. I’m actually in the IRS. Pretty high up you could say. Yeah, it may not look like it, but these skinny arms have been climbin’ the ole ladder.”


I nodded politely, reassured to be off the hook. He clearly didn’t actually care to hear my answer, rather just wanted to skip to his turn. This was good.


Austin: “Yeah I actually didn’t think I was going to be able to make it to this, it being tax season and all. We auditors are burnin’ the midnight oil around this time, you could say. Can’t let anything slip through the cracks! I like to say that we’ve got owl eyes. HOOT! HOOT! We see everything.”


“This fooking guy is actually hooting right now. This is a grown (growing?) man hooting.” I thought to myself.


Austin: “I tell all my new hires, ‘Be Owls Out There!’ And it really resonates with them.”


He went on like this for ten minutes. Finally, someone yelled that the food was ready. I would be saved.


Austin: “Well listen here, you seem like a really sharp guy, and we could always use more hands on deck, more eyes in the forest if you catch my drift, so if you ever want to work for me, here’s my card.”


And he handed me a completely unremarkable one.


This hurt me. The condescension. The affectation. I now had one lone goal for the night, and that was vengeance – to find some way to publicly humiliate Austin. The dinner table would become our battlefield.


 

I assumed the middle position at the large Oak table, outwardly situated as the conductor of the meal’s conversation, while inwardly I was looking for the most vicious way to turn it all against Austin. He sat across from and to the left of me, and had now grown several more inches so that he could look down at all his peers around him. I didn’t want to fire the cannons too soon. I knew that through salad and appetizers I could display my charismatic qualities to the table audience, harboring a greater envy and rage in Austin with each successive smile and laugh, all the while in the back of my mind I would be crafting just the perfect thing to say to mortify him in front of this suburban jury. And then, nearing the end of the main course, just before the cake-cutting festivities softened the mood, I would select my weapon and unleash it with aims of maximum destruction. Socially speaking.


Our entree was chicken and waffles. A hell of a dinner party offering. Not only was this tasty, but it offered a built in meal timer of sorts, so by the time everyone was onto their third waffle triangle I knew that it was my moment. I waited for a pause and pounced.


Me: “So, Austin, you said IRS right?”

Austin: “That’s the one.” {He turns to the rest of the table} “I like to say that we’re the ow–”


Tom broke in.


Tom: “–the owls! Just a bigggg bunch of hooters down there in DC!”


Man, I love Tom. The whole table cracked up. Austin was visibly hurt. We had him on the run. I couldn’t let him get away.


Me: “Very funny Tom. No, let’s show a little respect to our friend Austin here, doing the lord’s work…fighting the good fight! It’s important work.”

Austin: “Well, yes, yes it is! Thank you. And just one thing that I would actually like to explain about the ow–”


I cut him off, and his face lost all traces of emotion. He knew he was caught.


Me: “–matter of a fact, I propose a toast! All of us, glasses up, glasses up. This one’s for Austin, our friendly neighborhood owl!”


And glasses clinked.


Austin’s face soured and there was a pleasant blush coming over his cheeks and everything was going according to plan. I couldn’t stop myself even if I wanted to.


Me: “But I do have to ask a question. I’ve always been meaning to ask an IRS guy this but you’re the first one I’ve ever met actually.”


Austin’s face looked hopeful, like this might truly be a genuine question about the finer details of auditing.


Me: “So did you celebrate Christmas growing up?”

Austin: {Looks confused} “Well, yes.”

Me: “Good! Good! See I wasn’t sure if you IRS guys had childhoods.”


There were some laughs, and I could tell that I was breaking the man. He kind of shook his head as if to tell the laughers that my comment wasn’t actually funny. The set up was now nearly perfect. This was about to be my moment.


Me: “Okay, okay, so my question is – well, I feel like we all have our own favorite parts of Christmas growing up. You know, maybe being in the snow, the gifts, seeing family.”

Austin: “Yes.”

Me: “Well do you know the song Santa Claus Is Coming To Town?


I started singing the classic tune.


Me: “You better watch out…you better not…”

Austin: “Yes, I’m familiar with the song, how does this have to do with the–’

Me: “Oh I’m getting there!”

Austin: “...”

Me: “Well so my question is, when you were growing up, when you were just a little kid with your whole big IRS life ahead of you – was your favorite part of Christmas the fact that Santa makes his naughty list…or was it the fact that he checks it twice?”


 

The table’s laughter was hearty. Deafening even. There were multiple snorts. My weapon proved powerful. Austin was defeated. I had won.


And just at that moment, at the peak of my powers, Austin rose from the table – rose from that combat zone where he had been so thoroughly defeated, and now standing straight up it was clear that he had grown again. I saw before me something that much more closely resembled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar than any IRS man – and yet I saw a loser all the same. My smirk must have been the most offensive thing that he could have seen, because after we locked eyes for a few seconds (mine now at a heavy angle of inclination) I could tell just how worked up he was, and so I shot him back a playful little wink out of my own left eye. And that’s when he lost all control, and with his new superhuman size he lifted up that big Oak table and spilled it and all of its uneaten waffles all over me. And life was delicious.