A Guide to Dinner with Strangers

The Coil
The Coil
Sep 1 · 11 min read

Fiction by Haley Papa

ake a seat. There will be time to shake hands and exchange pleasantries — if no one has thrown a butter knife through the meaty flesh of your forehead before the end of the meal, that is.

At the start, though, they will be so glad, so pleased, that you’re here and doing well. You are doing well, aren’t you?

Excellent, they will say when you nod and force a smile, that’s what they thought, very good.

It will have been a long time since you’ve seen them so it’s best to make small talk about the years that have passed. You’ve been gone for …

How many years will it have been? They won’t recall; they’ll laugh and declare that it’s hard to remember because time flies when you’re having —

Ah, yes. Three years, almost to the day.

You will not have forgotten, even if they have.

Three years of silence, of empty rooms and empty houses you have not missed. They will shake their heads with twitching lips and say that how you pulled through without them is beyond their comprehension. They are baffled by the very thought, they will say, because it must have been lonely.

Do not respond to this comment. You know they didn’t miss you.

Do not make a scene. Sit back down when they give you a stern look. The waiter is here with the menu, and the last thing you want is to make a scene.

Do not order red wine — you’ve had enough trouble with alcoholism in college as it is, and adding fuel to the fire when you’re in town for dinner, staring down the leering smiles of these sharks before you, is a terrible idea. However, they will both take a glass, sniffing and sipping and thoroughly relishing in the tang that creeps across their tongues. They drink red wine every day — every night, as well — but you already know that. You don’t have to pretend they don’t know you know that. Wine is ambrosia, an aphrodisiac fluttering through colorful veins, sluggish blood, empty stomachs. They’ve called it lovely more than once. It makes them croon and sigh like canaries rather than the predators they are.

Ask for water, no ice. Ignore them when they give each other a look and murmur about your stick-in-the-mud attitude, even as the waiter hesitates and stares.

The waiter will then leave, scurrying toward the kitchen. Notice his nice ass long before they begin to point it out in giggled whispers. It’s rather plump, fat enough for someone to sink their teeth into a cheek each and bite and cling.

Stop wrinkling your nose quickly, before they tell you it makes you look like a constipated rabbit. No, not in a cute way. Never in a cute way.

Then the real interrogation will begin. How is school? What do you study? Do you have a job? Where is said job? Why do you have this job and not a better one? Why are you too stupid to realize you need a better life?

They will declare, often, that they both were lucky enough to get hooked on business and accounting in college, even though they found the prospect of money more enthralling than each other. That’s just how it is, though. Sex and knowledge don’t always go hand-in-hand, and, as they have joked many times, everyone knows love is dead, if it even existed at all. They will laugh at this joke once a month; give up on telling them to stop.

Remember those jokes. Remember those hawklike eyes, the sharp twist of their grins.

They will again ask the question, the one you loathe: you are well, aren’t you?

Reply that yes, of course you are.

Tell them you are studying Creative Writing, that you are going to be a writer when you leave college. They will laugh, eyes still narrowed as they study you through their sniggering, but hold your ground.

They will say, you lie often, you always lie. You will tell us the truth right now, tell us this is a joke.

Tell them you are not lying.

Watch them snort into their wine glasses again, and do not snort into your “dinky little glass of water,” as they will call it. Make sure you watch them laughing, braying like donkeys, the sound rising from deep in their bellies and engulfing the restaurant. The waiters and patrons will stare — pretend not to care if they do.

They will have the time of their lives. They will laugh so hard they cry.

Will you be crying?

Of course not.

Pretend you’re made of titanium, and not the shattered remains of a ceramic childhood plate you smashed on the tile floor when you were six.

You screamed so loud then, right up until you went hoarse, and the strangled cries choked you. Remember how they shut you up when they grew weary of your screams.

Tell them, despite their laughter that will continue, you always knew you wanted to be a writer — a poet, more specifically, and excuse them while they cackle even louder and the woman in the slinky red dress two tables over glowers at you. Tell them about good grades and workshops in class. Tell them about the beauty of language. They will not care or listen or understand, but tell them anyway.

They will say, you always did have a way with language and yes, what a filthy potty mouth you used to have.

Stare as they laugh again, this time more subdued. Look relieved when people start to turn back to their steaks and salads and shake their heads.

Do not sip at your water. It will make you look lazy, dazed, and everyone at the table just knows you’re itching for a beer, or perhaps a ten-foot-tall glass of wine just like theirs that you’d down in a heartbeat to escape this meal.

Do not confirm that those suspicions are correct. Never confirm that they are right, and you are wrong.

Sit calmly while the waiter brings the salads, and do not roll your eyes when your father grumbles and gripes about the olives lying half-hidden under the greens. He hates olives, and you have been subject to many a rant about the folly of using olives on pizza, salads, sandwiches, anything deemed “inappropriate” for a measly black olive’s presence.

Watch the waiter shrink in on himself as the rant progresses, growing louder and louder while the smile of false pleasantries on the man’s face shrivels. Watch them sneer when he takes the criticism like a man — a pimple-covered, stubble-faced, fat-assed man who likely hasn’t finished his second year of college, but a man nonetheless. Watch him scurry off when the rant finally ends, plates in hand, and disappear into the kitchen with pursed lips.

Do not shoot him a grateful look when he returns two minutes later bearing three olive-less salads, sweat beading on his brow. You know what kind of impression meaningless politeness brings, especially in front of these strangers who pretend to love you.

Enjoy the few minutes of silence granted by the satisfactory salad. Keep shoveling greens into your mouth, and don’t look up from your food to see if they’ve drenched their salads in Italian vinaigrette, the oil seeping into each flimsy leaf and onion. Do not cringe at the thought of the warm, onion-tinged breath wafting over your face by the end of the meal.

Pretend you are doing well. Pretend you are doing just fine in this crowded restaurant facing these strangers you know like the back of your hand.

Give the waiter your order when he returns — do not laugh at the fool like they do. They will whisper under their breaths that he is so inexperienced he forgot to take these orders prior to the appetizer course, how foolish of him, isn’t he foolish? Hold your tongue as they order hearty sirloins and one of them makes a joke about how there better not be olives on the steaks, too, or they’re calling his manager.

The joke is not hilarious, so do not laugh. Instead, watch how the waiter flushes and laughs nervously as if he cannot tell they are serious.

They are not joking. You know this and will say nothing as he leaves.

Speaking of jokes, they will address you with eyebrows climbing their wrinkled foreheads, you do not think becoming a writer will pay well, do you? You believe in wasting that leftover money you have tucked away into your college fund, don’t you?

Shake your head “no” and remember how they called you a fat, fucking liar the first time they brought up this “concern.”

Tell them of your part-time job again because they insist on knowing for some reason. Tell them of learning to pay your own bills and taking care of your own apartment. Laugh for the first time that night and recount the hilarious story about how you met your roommate years ago, on the day of freshman orientation when you were all alone at the top of the bleachers in the gym, and a pink-haired girl with a crooked grin flopped down next to you and asked if you wanted to skip the orientation and smoke outside instead.

You wanted to, so you both skipped. The fact that you almost got caught by a passing professor out on his smoke break makes you laugh even harder, throwing your head back as you stifle the sound with a hand over your mouth.

They will ignore the fact that you live off-campus this year; the idea of you in an actual apartment is unfathomable given that you never remembered to clean your own bedroom when you lived with them at home. Or, so they say. They hardly went into your room after you turned ten, after all.

They will ask if they usually let boys and girls room together.

Do not stiffen and go silent. Do not stare at them with white lips, looking eerily like the waiter had earlier while hurrying away to amend his faults. Do not clench your fists around the fork in your hand and dream about stabbing them in the jugular.

Explain that they do have coed dorms at college, but they let girls room together regardless. Explain that you have your own apartment, though, so none of that matters. It just doesn’t.

Watch them roll their eyes and laugh at the absurdity of you calling yourself a girl. Wait it out — they always laugh extra long and hard when they think the sound will become contagious enough for you to catch on and laugh along. They love to laugh at your expense, and you will not miss this.

Luckily, they have not missed you, either. But you already knew that.

They will ask if you are on drugs again, if your roommate has addled your brain, too, just like those friends of yours who said they “supported” you and pretended that you knew what you were talking about.

Remind yourself that said friends were not pretending, as you often have to in times like these, because you still keep in touch with them. You even offered to take in one of them when they got kicked out of their own house last semester after they came out to their aunt.

Tell them the truth. Tell them you are a girl — a woman, thank you very much — and nothing about that has changed. Ignore their scoffing and tell them you are accepted and out at school, and even the professors know to call you the right pronouns with little reminding.

Do not tell them you have a girlfriend. Do not tell them she is your roommate — the very one you mentioned moments prior — and her lips taste like cotton candy when she wears that chapstick you bought her on your first date to the mall, and she laughs at all your jokes and hugged you tight and didn’t let go when you told her you were going home to visit your parents for the first time since senior year of high school.

Do not tell them you love her more than you love them, because they will latch onto the last part and mock you for loving them at all. They will laugh and sneer more than they already do. So, take baby steps and do not rip off the Band-Aid even if some part of you wants to.

Do not get drawn into the argument they will start of whether you are delusional or playing a game for no one’s entertainment but your own. Ignore their snickering up until dinner arrives. Ignore their goading and questioning from here on out because any response will kindle the fire anew, and if they taunt you much more, you will crumble further like the fool you are. Bite into your steak with a ravenous appetite you do not possess, finish two more glasses of water before they reach the end of their steaks, and settle for only murmuring your quiet gratitude to the waiter when he returns to fill your glass with uncertain, fumbling hands.

He is like you, for better or for worse: a puppet tugged this way and that on strings that are so tangled and intertwined that you’ve both forgotten where one end begins and the other ends, yanked off your wooden feet by their clammy hands and pinned in place by beady eyes.

The difference between you both, however, is that one of you has a chance to never see them again, to cut yourself free.

Ponder which one of you is the probable convict for several minutes.

Do not let them order dessert, even if they gripe and complain about your stinginess (which will make no sense because they are paying for the entire meal, as they always do). They will want to order chocolate lava cakes and soufflés for the table and goad you into trying them, but you will be exhausted and you leave for your flight back to school tomorrow morning at eight a.m.

They will give in not because of your obstinance but because they are tired, too. Remember this, because they will not admit it. They will blame you.

But you already knew that.

Do not hug them when the check is paid and you are all outside, hands tucked into coat pockets away from the cold gnawing at your flesh. Smile wanly when they declare dinner was splendid, even if the service could have been better, and do not correct them when they say you are not as ungrateful as they assumed you still were.

Say goodbye and make false promises to call, as you always did before you ran from the house the first time years ago, back when they chased you out with screamed obscenities and called you a problem child, a deviant, for not bending to their will.

Drive away before they can drag you back like they almost did back then. You will already see that telling gleam in their eyes that proclaims you may be well enough for them to take in once more.

Hum the lyrics of the song on the radio to yourself in the rental car as you drive back to the hotel, ashamed of your own shaky voice, and check your rearview mirror unconsciously for any signs of headlights gaining on you, any sign of those puppet strings winding their way around the wheels of the car.

Park and sit in the empty car for a long moment, whispering “I’m fine” to yourself out loud until the braying laughter no longer snuffs the words out like the flickering flames they are. Listen to the rumble of the cars passing by on the street outside the hotel, and for a moment, you will almost believe yourself.

HALEY PAPA is a Creative Writing major at Eckerd College, working toward her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and double-minoring in Literature and Sociology. Her work has also appeared in journals such as The Eckerd Review, AZE, and Bending Genres.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.

The Coil

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The Coil

Indie press dedicated to lit that challenges readers & has a sense of self, timelessness, & atmosphere. Publisher of @CoilMag #CoilMag (http://thecoilmag.com)

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.