A Whole Thing
A dinner can’t be a dinner, a real true dinner, unless there’s a thing made of it.
As in: I’m going to dinner with Marla and Paul and Sue-ji and Moona. We are having a dinner. We will gather, together, in a predetermined location where foods, usually hopefully fine, are served. It’s never really about the food, though. Or, it’s kind of about the food but that’s really only a small part if you consider the everything that leads in and out and swirls around this experience of feeding yourself the last meal of the day.
So you and Marla and Paul and Sue-ji and Moona have an email conversation. More a battle of restaurant-recommending and date-dropping and yay-ing and nay-ing. Let’s not get into that — it only causes nausea and harried senses of foreboding. Finally a decision is made: A Tuesday, the 6th, at 7:45 because it’s the honest earliest Paul can make it there from Inwood. Honestly, we all think, just move downtown already. But so. You leave the apartment and make your way to the train, walking brisk but not winding yourself. It’s got 6 minutes on the timer, but after 10 there’s nada, and then a wonky voice says no trains in either direction, so you walk to the other line, which is a real sonofabitch because you’re going to loop the city in a wholly unnecessary direction before winding back around to where you need to be, though still 6 blocks further from the restaurant, and that train is awfully slow so you’re 12 minutes late.
The L was down, you say to Moona and Sue-ji and Marla.
Paul is still not answering, says Marla. Probably underground.
I don’t know how you date him.
We did — won’t seat us ’til the whole party is here.
Moona and Marla take out natural cigarettes in blue boxes.
Can I have one?
Flick. Fuump. Phoooo.
What is this place?
Didn’t you read the menu? It was in my email.
It’s Francophile-Brooklyn, but approachable.
Sue-ji points up the street and almost hits a small hunched Korean woman walking her pouf white dog with similar slow gait in the face. There’s Paul.
Paul is sweating and his cap is astray.
The 1 was down.
So was the L.
We sit. Round table. Lacquered wood. Driftwood, maybe, probably reclaimed. Middle of the restaurant. Noise is somewhere between large elementary school recess and amusement park in peak season. Sounds like new old-school hip-hop and the clang of an open kitchen and a ringing reservation line and three Tinder dates and two couples laughing and one couple not at all and a family of college kids and two businessmen groups and one birthday party of thirty-something women.
Water, tap, arrives, with menus.
Wine and cocktails on the back, says the petite server bulked with tattoos and made taller by a beehive. The beer list is on the wall.
I hate when they do that, squints Marla. I guess, wine?
Wine for all?
Wine for all!
I was thinking of a rum cocktail. Look, frozens!
No, Paul. Grow up.
Let’s split two bottles? Red and white.
We’ll need more.
So we’ll get more.
Everyone okay with —
Whisper whisper scanning eyes over menus again, hmmm, well, ah no, I don’t do white, yes, as long as it’s dry.
Hi, two bottles? The Pinot Noir and a rosé — the French one.
Glug glug glug glug glug. Top me off. Yes. Ahhh. Cheers, all!
We made it!
Good to see you guys!
Menu: Toasts; Toast Boards; Bowls of Grains; Small Mammals; Large Mammals; Fancy Fowl; Del Mar; Brunch for Dinner; Pig Parts; Pig Parts Platter; Pig Parts Platter with Sides; Sides (Small Things); Add an egg to everything: $2.
You’re supposed to do the pig, says Sue-ji. It’s the thing to do.
Many nods of agreement. No one says no to pig. Marla pines for rabbit. We acquiese. Paul just wants toasts. Everyone looks side-eye because he always orders the smallest thing and eats the leftovers and doesn’t put enough money down. The looks say wonder why we invited Paul. Everything is made with butter. No, you can’t get egg whites, the eggs are too expensive and humanely raised to throw away their yolks wily-nilly. Cornbread? Not cheesy, the regular one. Oh, it has jalepeño? That’s alright. There are no substitutions unless of allergies or celebrity diet endorsements. We are not a vegan establishment and will never become one. The server takes the menus. The server never returns. A small Hispanic man brings a whole pig on his shoulder and carves it tableside. His Hispanic partner, a woman, hands out the plates. We may not touch the pig. Or the plates. Sides — no, small things — arrive too fast and there’s nowhere to put the water so we get rid of it and finish the rosé and shriek for another, yes, please, quick before we must converse sober. Sue-ji and Moona titter over double-blanched garlic greens. Pink meat flies into pink mouths chased by pink wine. Paul’s toast with a cow’s cheese is scanty and burnt.
Serves you right, says Marla.
Can I try your pig?
Can you pay me for it?
Friday. When the check clears.
Then no pig for you.
So how’s the job?
Though who isn’t?
How’s the apartment?
Renewing? What rent?
That’s not bad.
Thinking of quitting.
But where will you go?
Thinking of going freelance.
No, a start-up.
It’s a co-working space.
Beer on tap. Lots of snacks.
Ping-pong is overrated.
Did you see it yet?
Binge-watched in one weekend.
Took me 8 hours.
We don’t have cable.
Not looking to be tied down.
Heard Portland is good for that.
I deleted them all, but I got OKC back last week.
Yes, we’re finished. Delicious. Stuffed, to be honest.
Who gets dessert?
Shall we get the check?
I only got toast.
Calculating on phones. 5 cards in the small black booklet. 10 flimsy strips of paper and 5 pens. Scribbling signatures. How much? That’s twenty? Okay. She disappeared though! It was good, I guess. I liked the pig. Pig was good. Good pig.
5 chairs scrape back, shuffling of coats, wandering out the door, vague goodbyes, effusive hugs to make up for distance and inevitable long period of time before this happens again. No one goes the same direction, not even Marla and Paul. He whispers hot and Marla blows smoke in his face. Sue-ji and Moona cut across traffic and run to a taxi. The sun has set. Buildings light up. The train is still down. You sigh and call an Uber.
How was dinner? asks the roommate.
Fine, I guess. It’s always such a thing with them.
A Whole Thing is a tribute to Donald Barthelme, the third installment in a series of short stories imitating the styles of great authors.