You arrive a bit late, trying to be polite, giving Margaret extra time to prepare, but you are last and your carefully selected bottle of cabernet franc will not be enjoyed. Twin bottles of Bogle chardonnay and merlot are already open on the buffet, and mellow Margaret greets your entrance with enthusiasm. Adam, at last! Now we can eat! And oh, I don't think you've met Harriet. Harriet nods a perfunctory hello; she's carrying a platter of sliced bagels to the table. She'll get back to you when she isn't busy with something important.
Margaret has told you only two things: Harriet was her first college roommate and Harriet is divorced. More can be quickly surmised: Harriet is in her mid-fifties and not just unmarried, but dumped. Watching her flutter about Margaret's kitchen, rattling through the silverware drawer looking for serving spoons and rearranging the condiment dishes on the buffet, you just know that she drove some poor guy crazy. But you were dumped too, so perhaps Margaret thinks you have something in common.
You fill your plate with whitefish and lox, but only half a sesame bagel because you're watching your weight. An extra twenty pounds settled around the waist puts a man in danger of a heart attack. Most women will ignore it if you have a great personality, but a few years living alone can result in quirks. Not everyone eats string beans with their fingers and dips them into ketchup as if they were French fries. There are no string beans on the buffet. You take the second half of the bagel and head into the dining room.
Margaret’s husband Howard is already at the head of the table and waves you toward the seat to his right. You've already heard all of Howard's war stories of courtroom derring-do, but he doesn't usually launch into them until after his second glass of wine. You're just settling in when you realize the seat across from you is empty. But not really. Already you imagine it filled by a tiny, twittering woman with intense brown eyes rimmed with kohl pencil, a nose so sharp it could open your mail, and a pixie haircut, unnaturally black and oddly threatening. Harriet approaches and her corporeal form merges with your fantasy. I think I'm meant to be here. Her lips, already thin and pale, stretch into a tight smile; half of her bright coral lipstick is smeared on the wine glass she is balancing on her plate.
You understand your role, your duty as a polite guest. Travel is a safe topic. Any interesting trips recently? These are the last words you speak for a very long time.
By the time Harriet completes her story about tapeworms, no one at the table is eating much. She is looking from face to face, pleased with herself, expecting laughter. You try to fill the awkward silence. Are you a doctor? No, but my husband was . . . is . . . ex-husband.
Margaret abruptly stands. I hope you all saved room for dessert! She begins to gather the dinner plates. The half-eaten food makes the plates stack awkwardly in her hands, and bits of tabouli salad tumble into your water goblet as she passes your chair. You watch the grains float for a few seconds, then slowly sink to the bottom of the glass.
Howard is reminded of the ice rink case. He represented the rink in a slip-and-fall lawsuit. It turned out the way you might expect, though in Howard's telling it is always a thriller. You quietly leave the table and find Margaret in the kitchen, head bowed, staring down at a plum torte. She hears you behind her and turns, then gives a little shrug. I'll bet you're still jet-lagged from that trip to Vancouver. Why don't I slice a piece of this for you to take home? If you want to cut out, I can say your goodbyes.
You take your piece of cake and kiss Margaret's cheek. You start to leave through the back door, but you have to ask. Is she always like that? Margaret pauses. Her eyes close and you can almost see her kindness battling her candor. I've known her for almost forty years. You would have liked her back in the day.
On the drive home, you feel a bit queasy. Can whitefish salad harbor tapeworms?
The liquor store on the corner is still open. They'll have a medicinal bottle of cabernet franc. You turn into the parking lot, then swiftly pull right out, back onto the street.
The plum torte, cradled in its Tupperware container, slides from the passenger’s seat onto the car floor. The seat is now empty, but not really. You imagine next to you a slender young woman with piercing blue eyes and a gently reproving smile. Margaret, back in the day.
About the Writer
E.B. Axelrod lives and writes in New Jersey. This year her fiction was long-listed for the 2016 Bath Short Story Award, and she participated in L’Atelier Writers Retreat in Villeferry, France, where she expanded her collection of short stories. In 2014, she was selected to participate in the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, where her fiction workshop was led by Meg Wolitzer.