The party was on Saturday, as parties are wont to be. Vanna had sought me out and told me to go. I usually do what people tell me, unless I can’t, so I asked Vanna what to bring.
“Let’s see… we don’t have a cake yet. Ye-es, you should bring the cake.”
Do you know the social ramifications of a cake? Somebody has to be the person who cuts, the person who says “Let’s cut the cake!” and then follows through. Nobody wants to be that person. The number of cakes that are wasted this way is staggering.
Cookies, or cupcakes even, are better. They’re subtle. You can grab one off the plate with absolute nonchalance—nobody even has to know. There is no strategy to cupcakes.
More than that, cakes are showy. They’re low, ditsy things that scream for your attention. When you bring a cake to a party everybody stands around to look at it and pick and prod it and praise and criticize it. It is, I think, easier to be a politician than a cake.
I come to the party late, as I always do. Going into a party and leaving a party are snares, like when your sweater catches on a nail, that obstruct the natural progress of things. The smoother I can make it, the better. This party is especially troublesome because it is at Vanna’s apartment with all her honors program friends and I am always a little afraid that they will say something terribly intelligent and I won’t know what to say and they will find me out for a fraud. As it is, I move too smoothly for anybody to catch me.
I get there late enough so that the kitchen counter is already covered with food. This is another trap. You have to get rid of what you brought as soon as you get to where you’re going, everybody knows this. There is nothing that makes me feel more stupid than having to carry around some sickening plate of hot food because there is nowhere to put it. I imagine it looks as though I didn’t even plan it out beforehand, as if I decided to make some madcap cake without even checking and now there’s no place for me because of course there isn’t.
I decide to put it in the fridge.
If anybody asks me I can say, well yes, of course, Vanna asked me specially to make the cake and she said she would save a place in the fridge just for my cake so it wouldn’t spoil on the counter. But she didn’t, really.
She did ask me to make the cake, although even that seems distant now. Did she just mean to bring a cake? Like someone else’s cake? Vanna’s got an awfully refined palate, now that I think of it. Everybody else bought fine things from fine places, like avocados and flan and those funny red fruits that look all grey inside. I’ve brought a wobbly mass of butter, for all purposes.
I feel strange, like when you come out of the ocean water and your skin feels salty and off.
Everybody has started talking without me. This is better, because it means I don’t have to start a conversation, but now I have to enter one, which is a trick of its own. I choose a group huddled by the window. Vanna, who likes me, is there and everybody seems to be having a just uproarious time. It is easier to join a funny conversation than a pleasant one or a sad one because once people are laughing it takes very little to keep them going. I go and stand by them.
Do you know what it is to be the quiet one in a group of people talking? Being silent is more of a statement than actually saying anything, in situations like these. There’s always the moment when people start to realize you’ve just been standing there watching like some kind of creep like some kind of social voyeur and they look at you because first they assume that you must have come over to say something very urgent and you were just waiting for a lull but then you don’t speak and they realize oh god no she thinks she’s a part of this and by then it’s too late for you to say anything phenomenally clever because they won’t laugh because they’re all just a little bit afraid of you now.
Jonathan, who is wonderful, catches my eye and says, “So, did you make that cake in the fridge? It looks great.”
I go all hot. I am trapped by the cake again.
“In the fridge?” asks Vanna, “Why would you put it in the fridge? Put it on the table where everybody can see it!”
It’s not Vanna’s fault. She doesn’t know that the cake is a secret. She is trying very hard to be good to me.
Everybody looks at the cake when I put it down. I don’t like people looking at things. Everybody looks at things too much—we have made a habit of it. It is a silly, base thing to look at something so carelessly and decide right away what we think of it. It is sacrilegious.
I especially hate for people to look at me.
I should have been a vampire, in the proper way of things. I should have been cloaked and pale and reflection-less—I should have been able to disappear. I like to imagine how it would be if I could run my hand over my face and leave melt in the progress, how it would be to slide away my eyes and nose and teeth until I was a worn, rounded thing without any points. To look like anything at all is so intimate. It seems wrong that just anybody should be able to see me.
I excuse myself and go to the bathroom. I must know what the inside of the bathroom looks like in every place I’ve ever been. If there was any other place I could go to be alone in public, I would. But there isn’t, so I sit on the edge of the toilet and feel terrible.
This is a fine way to pass time. Sitting in the bathroom can pass hours, if need be. Sometimes, when I’m in a bathroom, I like to open the drawers and see the things that are hidden there, but then I feel very guilty about it. It’s like those magazines by the grocery checkouts where you don’t want anyone to see you looking but you want to look so dreadfully and read about how the Queen tried to kill Kate Middleton. Other peoples’ secrets are exhilarating.
I have secrets, myself. I have certain darling secrets that I hold to my chest and curl around. There are dreams that falter under scrutiny and hopes that rust in fresh air, so I keep them close. I know intimately what it is to hide, yet I take a perverse joy in dragging out everybody else’s hidden troubles. It makes me feel awful, but I can’t stop. It’s like Catholic sex, in that way.
I have to go out eventually, because another girl starts knocking and asking if I’m okay. If there’s one thing that really upsets me, it’s people asking me if I’m okay. Especially when I am okay. Then I start thinking why they would ask me that and do I look not okay and am I really okay and should I be more talkative or less talkative to seem okay and have people been telling you I’m not okay? Who?
Probably, she just thinks I am terribly sick. I reassure her, and go back to the party.
I go over to a low table behind the couch in order to make a drink. If I move very slowly, I can make the drink mixing last quite a while. What you have to do is take a napkin first, and put in under the glass like you’re just nervous about making a ring. If you do this you’ll need to fold the napkin, of course, and then you can fuss with it under the cup for awhile. Then you take the caps off the bottles like they’re made of very thin tissue paper and you’re afraid you’ll just crush them up with your big oafish hands. The more bottles the better; if it looks like you’re making a big scene of it people won’t want to come over and make their drinks until you’re done.
Pouring slowly is an obvious but impractical solution. If you pour too slowly it won’t ever get going and just run all down the side of the bottle and you’ll have to ask Vanna for some towels and will have wasted money to boot and you will look as though you’ve never done anything before in your life. No, it’s better to pour quickly but spend a long time looking at the side of your glass and muttering things about fingers. It helps too, to look up every now and again as though you’ve just had the most absorbing thought and you have to gaze off distantly for a moment to do the thinking justice.
I have been told I think too much.
I try to think as little as possible. I’ve heard of people with hearing aids who can turn them off when they don’t want to hear something. I try to do that with my head. It’s a lot easier than it seems. If you read while watching TV, or listen to music while reading a book, or I suppose if you get very drunk, then you can do it too. I have always been an excellent sleeper for this reason; I am adept at filling my head with Things That Are Not Thoughts.
When I talk to other people, I can’t help but think about myself. People are mirrors. TV or music or books are independent. You can know them without them ever knowing you. But I guess that’s not quite fair.
Tonight, I’m trying not to think about my exam tomorrow. It’s in calculus, which is no good because calculus makes me feel dull. I don’t like to feel dull so I haven’t studied. I’m supposed to study because I’m on probation because I’m dull.
I’m just so sick of having to prove I’m worth something.
I’m so sick of being measured and formulated and examined, of having to wear my value on my face. There’s this awful pressure in school to not just be perfect, but exceptional and sometimes the realization that I am not, in fact, a professional cello player wakes me up in cold sweat. I wish people could know me as I know me right at the start of things, without talking or tests or looking, but through some kind of spiritual osmosis and then we could just leave it at that.
I take my drink with me to the couch. Arthur, who is devastatingly smart, jumps out of nowhere and corners me.
“Nervous for the test tomorrow, then?”
Arthur is not on probation.
“I guess I’m more nervous for whoever is going to have to grade my test,” I say, with all the nonchalance of a deathbed confession.
Arthur laughs. “Don’t be modest, you’re gonna do great.”
“C’mon, I can’t do calculus for shit. But don’t tell me you’re nervous? Mr. All Math Department Award?”
This goes on for a while. People who say civility has disappeared from today’s young people should see two students talk. There’s more courtesy in a conversation about calculus than in an entire Jane Austen novel. I bet you could prove it scientifically, too. I bet if you put me and Arthur in a padded room to talk about this one calculus test and you came back a hundred and one years later, our corpses would still be complimenting each other. Arthur will never admit to his intelligence, and he will never let me admit that I’m dumb. It’s exhausting.
In the entire system of American schools, you will never find one admitted smart kid, even if you search for the rest of your life. We all know Socrates, and we all want to be wise.
Jonathan comes over and asks Arthur if he wants to smoke, so I excuse myself. They probably would have let me join if I’d wanted—they probably would have thought it was sort of funny—but I don’t like that stuff. I don’t like to feel out of control. I like to be perfectly aware of what I’m doing at any given time. I don’t even drink, really, it’s just something to hold on to.
I don’t mind other people doing it, though. High people like me better because they’re less discerning.
I go to help Vanna in the kitchen. Kitchens at parties are excellent places to be if you are a creep. You seem very nice and self-sacrificing by offering to do the dishes, but really you are just pulling off the escape of the century. There’s so much to do in a kitchen at a party that you don’t even have to move slowly and you still won’t be done with every task until three in the morning. Offering help is a practical thing for the everyday freak, although I don’t really like it much. Scrubbing bits of food off of other people’s plates makes me gag a little.
Freshman year, I had this roommate who loved to eat eggs. She loved to eat eggs when they were “juicy” she said, so she’d undercook them so much that when you cut into them they would leak globs of clear raw egg white. I started saying I didn’t like eggs just so she wouldn’t make them for me. There isn’t anything you can do to stop other people from eating what they like, though, so I’d be working at my desk and I’d hear her slurping her gooey half-fried eggs and licking her fingers. It made me just sick, but I never did say anything. That’s an evil thing to say, “I don’t like the way you eat”. It’s like saying you don’t like the way a person lives or breathes. There’s no justification in the world for something like that.
She asked to move at the end of the semester because her friend’s roommate dropped out. I stayed awake for nearly three nights wondering if it was because she knew what I thought of the eggs. I’m not who I thought I was, to think this way about eggs.
Kitchens are also excellent for eavesdropping. If we have learned anything at all from sitcoms, it is that all important conversations start with “Can you help me in the kitchen?” and a knowing look. I don’t know why you would want to tell somebody something groundbreakingly upsetting in a room full of knives and cast iron pans, though. I guess because it’s a sitcom, and the worst thing that will happen is maybe the audience will gasp while Monica pauses for effect.
“You really had to invite her?” I hear Vanna whisper to her friend Mina. “You couldn’t say anything?”
Vanna invited me, I remind myself.
“Jesus, Vanna, I didn’t want to be rude. Arthur was talking about it right in front of her, how am I supposed to walk out of that?”
“It’s fine,” says Vanna resignedly. Then she laughs. “What an Arthur thing to do, god. I don’t know what to do with him.”
“Such a dumbass,” Mina says, lovingly.
“Alright Mina, but she’s your responsibility when she gets here. I’ll be nice, but if I have to nod along while she tells me all about how bad she’s got it, as if we haven’t all got our own—but, no. No, I’ll be nice. I swear.”
“I don’t totally believe you,” grins Mina.
“Shut up. Hey, bring this out, will you?” Vanna hands her a platter with little slices of something on it. We won’t eat dessert for a while then, I guess.
Vanna turns around to wipe her fingers on a dish towel and sees me at the sink. “Oh! I didn’t even know you were there.”
People don’t usually, I think. I move slowly and live within myself and you can only see me when I want you to.
“Listen, don’t go repeating what you just heard okay? I don’t want Lucy to hear and feel bad.”
“Of course,” I say with conspiratorial warmness, “I am an expert secret keeper.”
Vanna laughs. “Shoot, I don’t doubt it. You’re so quiet, you probably know more about me than I do.”
“Nah, I barely even know myself.”
Vanna chuckles and turns back to her slicing. I turn back to my dishes.
People think that it’s better to have the last word in conversations, but that’s a lie. The power is in the person who eventually chooses not to reply anymore. Having the last word is needy. I’ll always have the last word because I’ll always keep responding until the other person gives up on me. I don’t understand how people stop talking so smoothly without just seeming like they’ve run out of things to say. Vanna never seems like she’s run dry, she always seems as though she has a hundred clever things sitting just under the rim off her skull that she can pull out at any moment but she chooses not to because she’s got such vital things to do and she can just talk later.
Sometimes I try to think back to a time when I was easy like that, because I must have been once. When I was younger I played games and made up stories and it was so easy I don’t even remember how I did it. But I was never really open like that. I’ve always been a ghost. I just don’t know what to do with myself. My talk is clumsy. My mind is all gangly.
I’ve filled up the dishwasher, but I’ll let Vanna turn it on. Now I can start hand washing.
Plates are good for shutting out your mind. Vanna has the ones with little scenes on them, little people who walk over bridges and sit in front of little houses. No matter what you put on top of the plates those little people are always the same, they don’t notice when you drop meatballs or anchovies or big juicy eggs right on top of their heads. If I focus very hard on their antics I can forget the crust of old food above them and all the noise Vanna is making with the pans behind me.
I get to times when I really hate noise. There’s awful noises in this world, noises that draw and pucker through my skin like a threaded needle. The noise of pans hitting each other, or liquid slurping, or phlegmy breathing are all violence. I think sometimes that if I ever were to hit somebody, it would be because they were banging pans together.
“Hey, Vanna?” I ask, “Do you think Arthur might give me a ride home tonight?”
“I think I’m probably driving everybody home, but you’re welcome to join.”
They think I haven’t got a car just because I don’t have enough money. It’s true, but even if I had money I’d still bum rides off of people because I can’t drive for anything. I tried to learn once, when I was younger. I was making a left hand turn onto a busy street a little too slow and there was this man on an electric scooter coming my way and he wasn’t slowing down even though I was pulling out so slow and I was young and stupid and afraid so I hit the brakes right there and just sat there paralyzed out of my mind watching the pavement as the front wheel of the scooter slowed down about three inches from the car. He wasn’t even angry or anything, although it would have been his right, he just looked at me like he thought I ought to get a lobotomy.
Sometimes I’m in a car, and I look out at all the other drivers, and I wonder how they all do it so well. So many drivers, shouldn’t there be at least one maniac in the mix?
The doorbell rings, and I drop a plate directly on the ground. Vanna comes over to help me salvage the pieces while Mina goes to the door and lets in Lucy. I am too preoccupied with the plate to notice her, I just keep thinking how confused the little blue people must be to be broken and different. I try to send comforting thoughts to them before I throw them away and shut them up in the dark underbelly of the sink cabinet. Then it occurs to me that that must be a very safe place indeed, and I begin to open the door to crawl under and nestle by the pipes like a snake when I hear Vanna recalling me.
“Now that Lucy’s here, it must be time to cut the cake!”
Vanna has put the cake on a blue people plate, instead of the one that I brought. I worry for a moment that they are suffocating under it. Cakes are terribly dense, and those fellows have got such little blue lungs.
Everybody is sitting at the table.
I know how people are supposed to be in situations like these, in stand-offs like these, where any false move can mean a hostage shot. I nod and smile and go sit down.
“Here, honey, why don’t you serve it?” Vanna hands me a freshly washed knife.
But I know, I know you don’t take the knife that the negotiator hands you. Then they’ll get your picture with the knife and say “madwoman threatens negotiator with knife” and you’ll be tied up with it forever. Vanna is just trying to distance herself from all of it. She doesn’t want to be the one who does the deed, so she’ll get her way through tricks and traps, like we all do.
“No, no, I already made it. Jonathan, why don’t you cut it?”
Jonathan’s far gone now. His face is all soft and warm, and his mind is mush—he’s not kept sharp and forward leaning like the rest of us. He takes the knife and cuts the cake into eight slices. I find myself a little surprised that it doesn’t burst when lanced.
“Mmm, looks like there’ll be leftovers,” breathes Mina.
I must get out before they give me the cold grease leftovers because nobody else wanted them.
“Wow, this looks great,” says Lucy, peering down at her rancid slice.
I don’t remember Lucy getting here. I imagine she must have just slid in through the heating vents.
“How are you, Lucy?” asks Mina, looking pointedly at the wrong side of the table, “I just feel as though I haven’t heard from you in ages.”
Vanna gives Mina a disapproving but amused look.
“Well, I guess I’m as well as I can be, considering,” Lucy begins.
Lucy attracts tragedy. She is one of those people who seems very proud of being sad, like it is a competition to be won. No matter how many therapists she sees, or how many illnesses she gets, or how many people wrong her, she never elicits even a little bit of sympathy from anybody because she is too loud. People like their martyrs stoic.
I like to listen to Lucy talk. I listen to the strain of her heavy voice and the bound way people reply to her and for a moment I feel very, very proud of myself. When the feeling goes away, I just ache.
Jonathan giggles into his cake.
“What?” asks Lucy.
“There’s a hair in here,” he says, and pulls it out with all the bravado of a doctor lifting up a newborn baby, still stuck with blood and frosting.
Mina gasps, and everybody else drops their forks.
“Are you sure it isn’t your hair, Jonathan?” says Arthur, always so scientific and high minded. He doesn’t understand it doesn’t matter whose hair it is. It’s sort of stupid of him to ask, really.
Besides, it couldn’t have been Jonathan’s. He picked the hair out of the inside of the cake. It has to be the hair of the cook, to be embedded like that, to be a part of the cake’s chemistry. I wonder, half crazy, if the heat made my hair DNA unravel when I cooked it and the little denatured bastard things sunk and spread throughout the cake into an infestation.
“Never mind,” says Vanna, “There’s ice cream in the freezer.”
She begins to clear the plates. That seems cruel.
“I’m so sorry, Lucy, what were you saying before?” I ask. It’s good to ask people to keep speaking after they’ve been interrupted. Jonathan was wrong to interrupt.
“I don’t know why I even bother,” says Lucy, loudly, “nobody seems to care.”
“How’s your new therapist working out?”
“He hates me, I can just tell. He looks at me like he thinks there’s nothing at all behind my skull. He thinks I’m fat and stupid, and that’s coming from a man who talks to fat, stupid people all day long.”
I watch her neck as she speaks, watch as the chords of her neck jut in and out of her throat. I watch her voice push against her skin and wondered how long before it tears, from chin to chest, just from the absolute force of it.
Do you remember—god do you remember—those old problems they would ask us in school? Like would you save three men if it meant throwing over one? Well, it’s all a trick. Whether you watch three men die or kill one man by your own hand, you’ll be wracked with guilt for the rest of your life. I would think very hard about these things when I was younger, really put myself into that train and look into those doomed faces and search every mean crevice of my soul. When it came down to it, when it was up to the very moment of deciding, I thought that I’d probably just die. I always thought that if I had to make a choice like that I’d probably just keel over from the weight of it. I’d lose my mind or something, and then none of it would be my fault.
I’m just awful with hypotheticals.
“I mean, God, nobody even cares at all what I’m going through,” Lucy was telling me. “I didn’t even want to come to this party, I felt so terrible, but Mina invited me and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I’ll just make a quick getaway, I guess. At least they didn’t ask me to bring anything so I won’t have to stay behind and help with the cleaning up.”
“Mina invited you?” I feel as though I am on the precipice of something Not Human.
“Yes?” answers Lucy, half questioning.
“Oh, I just thought she seemed a little surprised when you came in, was all.” How did Lucy come again? By way of train?
Lucy is silent. People are at times like these, is what I’ve heard.
“I guess maybe she did expect you to bring something, and that’s the reason she seemed surprised.”
Lucy looks around. She is deliciously quiet. “Did everybody bring something?”
I shrug, examining the room as though this had only just occurred to me.
Lucy is quiet. She sees the cakes and the sliced things and avocados and eggs swelling around her.
I yawn half-heartedly and sweep my gaze around. “Oh, hey, Mina, hold on. I have something to tell you!” I cry, a little loudly, a little madly, and I walk away.