Switch with me to another table on an evening out of balance to begin with. But I know my friends mean well, or do they? Isn’t it a one-up to invite me to a dinner where I don’t belong, not being a transplanted European, a prominent physicist now retired, at the MIT of the West, or even the wife of one? It’s a birthday party given by my good old friends for P’s former 90ish “boss” and mentor, a Holy Day of Obligation to which I have been appended, who would otherwise be dining alone on a Friday night. I sip my wine, which is plentiful and good. I listen politely, taking in the old professor, nearly blind, wearing a pink shirt; he fell recently. Both he and his wife are cardiac patients; she walks with a cane, but is younger, coifed, manicured, bejeweled. “He doesn’t eat,” she worries, herself putting away 3 pieces of rather tough schnitzel. “I read your paper from beginning to end,” his old boss tells P. Is there another way? A welcome pat on the head for this good student, this 80 year old child.
The food isn’t (to my taste) very good, but there are other comforts: perfectly composed and positioned floral centerpiece, Bavarian china, shades of pink, full spectrum. The highly polished good silver, along with some jewelry, has been fetched from the safety deposit box. This detail I gleaned many years ago, again at this table, when wealthier wives than I complained about trials in their lives, one of which (astonishingly) turned out to be this schlepping of valuables back and forth from the bank.
Indeed, what unites us is not career or country of origin, but the Valley of the Shadow, stages of advancing age, finding ourselves ignored, on the shelf. Emeritus doesn’t mean much, it turns out, short of the Nobel, won by no one here, and even then... I wonder, can we ever be pumped up enough, since every triumph fades? How do the older couple spend their days? Back and forth to exercise classes, post heart attack support groups, visits to the emergency room. I’m not there yet, but close enough to sympathise with the old professor’s heartache, which isn’t physical. He was important, he was Somebody, and now he isn’t, though his wife remains devoted. Calls him by a pet name. In the past I have found her dour, disapproving, see now she’s in a bad position, not helped by being Swiss.
Lived and suffered and died, my mother used to say in quick summation of just about anybody’s life. I don’t know enough about the older couple, but I can say unequivocally that my friends’ sufferings between them include: Theresienstadt, loss of a kidney, flight from then-Czechoslovakia with young children, in 1968, with concomitant prolonged separation from brothers and sisters, aging parents, friends, livelihoods, apartments and dachas, along with every accoutrement, every scrap of worldly good larger than an emerald. Now that they are old, they have simpler problems like the rest of us, hip replacements, skin cancers, cataracts, pacemakers, the standard slings and arrows.
As dinner progresses, foreshadowing filters in. Grim reference to a black girlfriend or daughter-in-law. Not sure I got that right. But quite clearly burqas and headscarves are garbage. “They will sink, they will drown.” But who are they? It occurs to me that I am breaking bread with people who may have voted for Trump; certainly, they are the white, wealthy, educated, brilliant even, conservative immigrants he champions, while persecuting those he deems undesirable.
I make my meager contribution -- silly of course, literary of course. Haven’t they recently discovered, not sure what they call them, some creakings, some noises the planets make in their elliptical revolutions? Circular or elliptical, which is it? Couldn’t these be the angelic symphony imagined by Milton in On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: Ring out ye crystal spheres/ Once bless our human ears/ If ye have power to move our senses so? What about giving a little credit to poetic visions of worlds invisible? More things in heaven and earth, and so forth. The physicists smile weakly, not really their branch of things. It’s early days. Probably a fluke. They may be dead before real proof arrives. In short, they don’t believe it. Perhaps they prefer bombs to music. There were trips to Los Alamos in the heydey of the past, I remember.
It’s over at last this interminable dinner to which I should not have accepted an invitation. Still, I showed up, I added what I could, floating on sympathy for bad hearts, for infirmity, on a glimmer of humanity detected in the dour Swiss wife, now making a career of taking care of her formerly distinguished husband; as far as I know, she has had no other. Career, that is. On gratitude to my friends for thinking of me, for including me. It’s all coming to a graceful end, stone-stepping as well as we are able towards our cars in the driveway, two of us with canes in hand. “That’s how they are, that’s how they get.” Shifting from side to side on her artificial hips, my old friend and hostess jabs away at a young, black, woman astrophysicist whose name has suddenly come up between the women , just here, away from the table, at the last minute. This anonymous young woman, who is (apparently) pushy and self-important, thinks she’s God’s gift, has been queening it around on campus, in the sacred wood of the faculty club, rubbing shoulders, helping herself to buffets. Where Einstein spent the night once. You heard it right: EINSTEIN.
All the way home I berate myself. For saying nothing, for failing to call them out, as the saying goes. This person you’ve just called an uppity nigger is first of all one of us, an effective, powerful, brilliant though black, unmarried woman who has, by whatever means, and certainly more than one, penetrated a formerly all male, all white, mostly Jewish, world. She lives in the upper reaches, she listens to the Music of the Spheres.
What must we do? What must I do to be a better person? To achieve balance, order, and harmony, virtues of the Renaissance. If not past and present suffering, then past kindness, whether at or away from the table, must be brought to bear. My friend hosts have been kind to me for forty years, particularly since my husband died more than twenty years ago. They have looked after me, checked up on me, remembered my birthday and the day Ernst died, more than other friends closer in temperament, in tastes and inclinations, political alignment. Only this will stop my heaping scorn on women I don’t know and on those I do. On eminent scientists who continue to pollute the cosmos, flying from one continent to another to read interminably their “papers” to each other. Perhaps one of them will discover something, have a breakthrough, and the world will go on. Without them, without me.
Of course it is possible that eating and drinking are no less convivial, exclusive, gossipy, or venomous than they were when cavemen (inventors of the paleo diet) squatted around the campfire, when Greeks reclined, or Romans kept a feather handy in order to vomit to make room for more. We flatter, tease, insult, social climb, celebrate, harass, pay off debts, show off, lose inhibitions, say what we should and shouldn’t, more than we meant to, or mean. And bias on the rampage among us muddies friendships, cannot be rooted out. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies...My cup runneth over.
We need mercy, we need help. With just about everything: Scrabble words, crossword puzzles, what to wear when and with what, how to find a presentable plus size dress for a daughter’s wedding, how to leave a smaller carbon footprint, how to avoid flossing and other stress at home and at work, how to be a better reader, raise a baby Mozart, do smarter laundry, sleep, breathe. Perhaps you read, as I do daily in the NYT, something called Here To Help.This absurd column often anticipates vexing questions related to every aspect of eating, together and alone, in a restaurant or at home, shopping for ingredients, ordering in or out, raw or cooked, meal after meal, day after day, on and on and on. A recent title: How to Know If A Meal Planner Is Right For You. Too little, too late. There is no food on the plates at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party. Techies in Silicon Valley chug Soylent, sludge to obviate the need to chew so they can work without stopping.
What is this but the table dematerialized, where having a seat doesn’t mean what it used to. Bless this food to our use and us to Thy service, my grandfather’s grace. Let us break bread together on our knees, lines from what used to be called a “Negro Spiritual.” Sitting down together around a table at the end of the day was a break from the profit motive, an occasion for praise and thanksgiving. We saw ourselves as beggars. Blame it on betrayer Judas seated with the other disciples at the Last Supper, which may or may not have been a Passover seder, on Leonardo Da Vinci. Blame it on TV dinners. Flimsy trays resting insecurely on rickety legs, to each his own. Blame it on the symbolic nature of language. On words. Whoever we are, but especially if we have been left unseated in the past, we want to be invited, our voices to be heard. Our object is not nourishment but the acquisition of position, influence, power and money.