I am not all that often invited to dinner parties. The main reason – that is what I tell myself – is being single. It is a control issue, where couples seem to balance each others presence. Cancelling would be a better word than balancing, but it is too early for misanthropic moaning. A single, a loose cannon, can be invited alright, by really good friends who are willing to take the risk. In my experience the presence of a single on a dinner party displeases half of the inviting couple. More likely is a strategic invitation, matching an other single soul. That is how I got invited to Massimo and Laura’s dinner.
I used to work with Massimo. And I was invited to his wedding. That was a long time ago, when he still had thick red hair and he fitted in a regular size jacket. The project we worked eventually failed miserably and we all went our way. Massimo straight up, me meandering. Just as his father, uncle and cousin, he became a university professor. Students like him and the nearby restaurants adore him. For old time sakes we play pool now and then, before having a bite.
For some time she pretended to tolerate me. She uneasily laughed at my idiosyncratic behavior, even talked to me once in while. That lasted no longer than a couple of months. It must be said that I kind of liked her. Under the urge to control every detail in life, she was a tender person. I knew she didn’t actually hate the waiters who were slow, nor despised me for getting divorced. Massimo told me she had the tendency to over-externalise her feelings. And he always winked when he said that.
I was truly surprised when Laura called me. We had met in several occasions lately but never got any further than small talk. Long before I had given up asking Massimo about her. Her friend, a desperate case, was coming to the dinner party. Desperate cases ask for a desperate solution, she told me, not laughing. It struck me how the last layer of kindness toward me had vanished. Objecting was useless because Laura would not be listening, she was clearly only conveying an unpleasant message. Instead of asking whether I’d come, she told me when and at what time I was expected.
Flowers for Laura
One of the things I keep on appreciating in this city are the late evening flower shops. Until well after eleven they expose their merchandise on the pavement and street. Flowers are a universal appreciated and neutral gift for a dinner party. The alternatives are wine and sweets. But both have flaws: what if your wine is far superior to the one they serve? Sweets instead require a thorough knowledge of what to buy in what place. Setteveli at Cappello’s, mimosa at Oscar’s, Basile at Sampolo’s. No, flowers are just great for simple souls.
The flower stall was well stocked and while waiting for an old couple to be served, I had the time to look around. The idea of getting a cactus somehow amused me. A huge phallus shaped thing with nasty spikes. It cost way too much and the seller assured me there was no fun in bringing it to a dinner party. He tried to foist an ornamental house plant on me. Nice, but again, too expensive. I bluntly explained my situation and he lighted up. A bouquet of red roses. Don’t surprise her he told me, knock her down. No woman can resist red roses. He even offered me a no success, money back policy. Did I know that ten roses cost that much! Then the poem by Dorothy Parker came to mind and realized Laura wouldn’t be upset I had not bought her a limousine.
I arrived early. I always do. And it would have been embarrassing early without me walking around the block twice before ringing the doorbell. Two girls glanced at my bouquet and then to each other, dreamy. Their boyfriends could have killed me right then and there. Laura was pretty pleased with the flowers. While she was looking for a vase, Massimo poked his finger in my ribs. He understood the damage I caused him immediately. It would take ages to get them roses out of her head.
When all guests had arrived, three more couples, Laura came out with the appetizers. Some home made, some ready bought. Apparently we all knew we had to praise her caponata. It was good, a trifle sour, but kept that to myself. The usual rosticeria came from a fancy place everybody seem to know and frequent. I was struggling to get a fork in an olive when Massimo introduced me to Monica. And he was clearly pleased the occasion for revenge had come so soon. He deliberately called her Monica La Rosa, well knowing that was not her surname. You should have seen the grin on his face when she corrected him. I served her a bruschetta and a glass of sparkling wine. And engaged in a gentle conversation.
About five minutes later I regretted not being deaf. Or dead. This Monica woman was quite a number. She did not like my looks, manners nor tone of voice. She was just being honest. You can’t blame anybody for being honest, right? Neither deaf nor dead, biting my tongue so hard, I was mute. At last Massimo ushered us to the dining table. Laura, smirking, placed me next to her desperate friend. The pasta with swordfish and aubergine was good. A pity for that hint of sulphur. Massimo smiled, Laura just glared. Monica seemed glued to her plate and I was mentally ready to see her lick it clean.
Four filled fish
Laura had outdone herself. That is what the guests agreed upon. Before even tasting the quartet. Four fish rolls nicely arranged, as seen on tv. Monica asked what the thing next to the sardine, swordfish and tuna was. She strongly doubted it was really goldfish. Although it looked like that. Not the ordinary type, I assured her. No, this was the expensive Japanese version. She left it untouched on her plate. And it made me happy. Sad, right?
When you have guests asking what they should bring, better be clear. Answering there is no need to bring anything is useless. Everybody had brought pastry except me and Monica, who hadn’t brought anything. She’s a consequent and honest person after all. The ice cream was served first. What followed can only be defined as overkill. Cakes and pastry, coffee and amaro. Standing up nausea mixed with guilt. I thanked Massimo and Laura, and lied how nice it was to have met Monica. And I wondered what was the first to be digested, the dragon or the meal.