At Dinner

At Dinner


John, Andrew, and I have this thing where we try to get together for dinner every so often just to check up on one another.  It started as something we did in college once in a while; five years later we are still doing it.  I join them for dinner at the Indian place down the block from my apartment. My apartment really is just around the block from the restaurant, but I am still running late. John, who knows I am always fifteen minutes behind schedule, has already ordered for me; the table is littered with samosas, naan bread, metal bowls filled with warm-smelling curries.  John stands to greet me, gives me a firm handshake.  Andrew remains sitting, but nods at me, smiles.   John totters slightly before sitting back down, perhaps is already a little bit drunk, but seems happy, animated; he has just gotten a job here in New York, will be moving into the city sometime next month.  Andrew and I are here to celebrate with him.  John orders us a round of Indian beers.

Two different servers work our table.  One, tall and with a round belly half-tucked into his black pants, checks on us once then disappears into the back of the kitchen.  The other, short and with glasses, comes by every couple of minutes to fill up our waters.  Andrew is telling a story about his work, and I am looking at him, but not really listening.  I am really scanning the area of the restaurant to the right of his head, past him, at the other tables.  There are two men with a plate of something that I would describe as sizzling and fajita-like two tables behind Andrew.  An old women and two young kids sit at the table next to them.  The kids are rambunctious, are climbing around their chairs in a somewhat obnoxious way like caged monkeys.  The only other table with customers is a large group in the back corner of the restaurant.  

My focus returns to our table as Andrew’s story finishes like this: And but I go down to accounting with the sheet that the managing director of the other department had filled out for me, and give it to the lady that I was told to give it to, and after all that she takes one glance at it and says, ‘this is the wrong sheet, you’ll have to go get the Form B-8 one and do it again,’ and she shuts the door of her office on me, and I swear I can hear her chuckling to herself as she does it.  After all that, can you believe it?  Fucking crazy, man.

John and I both laugh politely but do not ask any follow-up questions.  My feeling about stories about other people’s work is that they are fascinating if I think what the person does is cool, but otherwise they are usually dull and unengaging.  Andrew’s biggest flaw, something that John and I both agree on, is that we find every single thing about him interesting except for what he does for work.  This is a flaw only because the only thing that Andrew likes to talk about is work, about what’s going on in his office, what the secretary said to him last week.  A couple years ago the three of us went out for lunch, and Andrew spent the whole time talking – John and I hardly got a word in edgewise – about some sort of new policy at work.  And he had been in Italy on vacation all week before that!  We had planned the lunch around the date he got back to the States, he knew this, we all knew this.  But not a word about Italy, not a word the entire time.  Just Three-printed-copies this and Important-to-have-both-a-digital-and-physical-record that.  I turn to John and ask if he is still dating Dana.

“Kind of.  It’s becoming a bit of a problem though,” John says.

“What do you mean?” Andrew asks.

John pauses, pushes rice around his plate for a moment.  He likes to think of himself as a master of building suspense.  In college he would let his stories drag on and on, would always pause, go on long-winded tangents.  Would tell stories that went on for so long you couldn’t remember what the beginning had been about by the time he got to the end.  Terrible, boring stories.  His one storytelling saving grace was, still is, his eyebrows.  When he talks, it’s like they have a mind of their own.  They wiggle around on his face when he speaks in earnest. Like two bushy caterpillars dancing a polka above his eyes.  Like two dashes not sure if they are to become commas or hyphens.  Never distracting, always disconnected but equivalent to the story he tells below them, like a translator for the deaf at a live music show.

“Well, It’s like this,” John says, “We love each other, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Andrew says.  I nod. “But it kind of just feels like it’s going nowhere.  Especially now that I’m here, and she’s down in Nashville.  Not really a recipe for a solid, stable relationship, you know?  When we were both in Stamford it was so much better, so so so much better, but now?  Just not the same.  Kinda sucks.  Kinda feels like a waste of time and that like, bear with me on this, our relationship is turning into one of those stupid-ass snakes you see on the animal TV shows that is so dumb it eats its own tail or some shit like that.  One of those snakes so busy cannibalizing on the back-half of itself and loving every second of it, that by the time that it gets to the end, that’s it, it’s just dead.” John pauses, allows us a moment to laugh at the stupidity of his metaphor, then continues.  

“And that’s frustrating.  Cause I don’t want to just say, ‘Dana it’s been great and awesome and so much fun dating you, and I love spending time with you and being around you, but it’s also just not working out and I don’t think I can keep doing this’.  Like who wants to hear that – what a shitty way to break up.  But at the same time, isn’t that so much better than dragging it out to the point where both of us are so fucking miserable that one of us just stops, just can’t, isn’t able to talk to the other anymore.”

“So what are you going to do?” I ask.

“I guess break-up with her, there isn’t much else I can do.” Then to the short waiter who is walking past, “another round please, for the whole table.”

“Hmm.” Says Andrew.

“Would you rather only be able to eat Indian food or Mexican food for the rest of your life?” Says Andrew.

John can be frightening when he drinks.  His face, which is already naturally reddish, glows with a deep in-season-gala-apple hue after around the third beer.  In college one night when we were all hanging out and drinking, he punched Andrew in the face and knocked out one of his front teeth.  What precipitated this was that John and Andrew had spent the semester together in an Intro Statistics class, and Andrew was tired of John cheating his way through the whole thing.  What Andrew had said to John that night was that his method of plugging the answers (which John had gotten from an older friend of ours) into his calculator before their Statistics tests was not a good way of learning and that he was only cheating himself.  What John had said before that was that Andrew was an idiot for not plugging the answers into his calculator like him, that it was foolproof, that how could he get caught.  Andrew was still getting good scores on the exams, but not 96s like John was, who was smart enough to answer every question correctly, to leave some room for error.  What Andrew had said before John called him an idiot was that he was tired of living in the same dorm room (They were roommates that year) with someone who clearly didn’t care about the work that he was doing and was just in it for the grade.  The thing that Andrew had said to John right before John punched him and sent his tooth careening out from his mouth onto the shitty rug they both stood on right up in each other’s faces, was that John was a faggot with bushy-eyebrows who will amount to not just zero in life, but will actively make the world a worse place to live in.

Andrew keeps checking his phone.  The first couple of times he does it, neither I nor John say anything, but after about the fifth time in as many minutes, I can tell that it is pissing John off.  John hates when people sit on their phones with others around, and especially not tonight with the three of us here together after so long.

John broke up with one of his girlfriends in college because he had kept asking her to put her phone away one night at dinner and she wouldn’t, or really, couldn’t, just had to keep checking it, In case I miss something you know important, she had said.  But what John had done, which Andrew and I had both seen, could verify the truth of it, as we had been just then walking in the door as it happened, (Andrew, John, and I were living in a house a couple blocks off-campus that year) was snatch the phone from Andrea last name Topman’s hands, which were propped up by the elbows on the table in supplication to the device in front of her, and unceremoniously jam it into the pot of spaghetti that was sitting there in front of the two of them.  We had walked in the front door the exact moment it had happened, had caught Andrea’s face purple with rage and confusion as she whipped around to see who was coming in.

John says, “Andrew what the fuck could be so important you can’t put your phone down for two seconds.”

Andrew makes the mistake of finishing what he is doing on his phone before he responds to John.  Before he can look up, John slaps him across the cheek, hard.  Harder than he would have if he wasn’t drinking.           

“Hey, look at me when I’m talking to you, asshole,” John says.  “What the fuck is that?  We’re here together for dinner, something we never get to do anymore just the three of us, and you’re gonna pull this shit?  This sitting on your phone all night shit?  Have some damn respect dude.”  Exhales loudly, satisfied with himself.

“Fuck you,” says Andrew, who finally puts away his phone and looks up at John.  For a second real anger flashes across his face.  Both Andrew and I are pretty good at putting up with John’s for lack of a better word bullshit, but Andrew is still way worse than I am.  Sometimes John gets under his skin.  “It’s work stuff.”

We sit in silence for a minute.

Then John takes a long sip of his beer, swishes it around in his mouth for what feels like an eternity and swallows, staring at Andrew the whole time.  Andrew’s fingers fumble with the gold cross that he wears on a thin chain around his neck.  The chain itself is gold-tone stainless steel, but the actual cross is real gold, Andrew had told me one time.  He plays with the cross when he feels uncomfortable.  I THINK JOHN DRINKS TOO MUCH… was the subject line of an email that Andrew sent to me a couple of months ago.  I try not to think about it, that like Andrew’s email outlined, it is always John wanting to get the first drink, always having another, then another, then another.  That any time he calls us together for a celebration, for really anything, it is with alcohol.  I try not to think of this.  John is taking another deep drink from the glass in front of him. Andrew is nervously fingering the cross around his neck.  The repeated motion of Andrew’s fingers up and over and through the chain, then wrapping and unwrapping it, makes me think of two things.   

The first thing I think of is that one time when John got really mad at Andrew in college, he up and swallowed Andrew’s gold chain.  Andrew had said something to the effect that John was a burnout loser who couldn’t do a single fucking thing right, and in response John had ripped the chain right off of Andrew’s shirtless chest and with one over-exaggerated pelican-like swallow, John digested the gold cross and its dangling chain right there in front of all of us present.  The two fought after that and John had whooped Andrew’s ass, beat Andrew so bad that he went to class for the rest of the week with a mean black eye and a bruise that looked like an infected hickey from an elephant on his neck.  The worst part of the whole thing was that three days later, John shit the chain out, rinsed it off really good with soap in the bathroom sink till it sparkled, and placed it on Andrew’s pillow all nicely curled up.  Looking at Andrew now, I can’t remember if the chain he is wearing is the same one or if he got a new one after that.

The other thing I remember is when I visited my grandmother in her hospital room last year, back when she was really sick but not quite dead yet.  We (my two sisters, Dad, my aunt, and I – Grandpa was already long gone at that point) were all standing around her, acting like she wasn’t dying, like everything was all good.  Like she would be out of there in a week or two.  Dad kept pretending to mess with the buttons attached to the creepy little remote that controlled the elevation and plushness of Grandma’s, his mother’s, bed, kept scribbling out the names of the doctors and nurses on the whiteboard by the door and writing in ridiculous fake ones.  Dude couldn’t be serious in a hospital room. 

Grandma kept clutched in her right hand a plastic cross suspended on a white beaded necklace.  The skin around her fingers was so taut you could nearly see the bones of her digits.  I remember that she kept trying to raise the hand with the cross wrapped in it to her chest.  To rest the hand there with the cross atop her heart.  My aunt Nicole, who was also a nurse at the hospital where Grandma was staying, who had taken care of her for years when Grandma was pretty sick but not yet really sick, kept stopping her unconsciously patriotic motion, saying that it was bad for her circulation, that she had to keep her wrist straight by her side.  Because my aunt was a pushover, Grandma kept ignoring her, kept silently raising the hand back to her heart when Nicole would look away.  Eventually Nicole got frustrated and left the room.  I could see that she had tears in her eyes when she left.  Dad, who was never serious, especially around Grandma, said this to her: Mom, you have to do what Nicole says, she knows what’s best for you.  Please.  And as he was saying this, he took her tiny bony little hand in his and pressed it back down prostrate on the hospital sheet by her side.  After that my Grandma kept her arm straight.  I might’ve been crying too at that point.  I don’t remember.

I remember both of these unpleasant things and my stomach begins to feel queasy.  It is as if someone is driving a saw down my center.  Andrew and John are now really getting into it now about an old fight that Andrew brings up every time the three of us are together.  That senior year of college when we were living in the place just off campus I had paid the electric bill every month and Andrew had paid the gas bill, but John had only paid for the Wi-Fi, which was way less a month than either of the other two bills.  So why, Andrew continues as I am half-listening and half-floating away, up and away from the table, did John never offer to pay for any of the other bills, or at least part of them.  And John is responding that Really, Andrew’s going to bring this up again, five years later, AGAIN, that he still cares about this enough to ruin a nice dinner like this with this petty money bullshit.  That if Andrew cares so much about the GD difference in the bills that John owes, owed, why doesn’t he write up an invoice for how much John is supposedly indebted to him and send it right over to John’s new place, on 3rd Ave. and Fuck You.  John doesn’t actually say this, but he says something like it, which the part of me that is still at the table half-listening hears.  And this fight, which I have heard reenacted so many times to the point where I can’t even tell if they are actually upset with one another or just going through the motions as if it is some sort of weird symbolic ritualism, continues ad nauseam at our table.  The part of me that is half-floating away has now come to a stop at the ceiling, and looking down does not know who John and Andrew are, can see what may or may not be their faces but only as they are abstracted by the view from the ceiling down, as the bird sees.  What may or may not be a fight continues below and the part of me that is half-floating away wonders just exactly how many days it has been since my sweet sweet grandmother has died.  Then


The old woman at the table behind Andrew rises from her chair and begins a slow shuffle to the bathroom in the back corner of the restaurant.  As she passes our table, she slips and falls hard.  There is the sickening crack of head on hardwood floor and everything changes.  Time speeds up.  Time is the noise of her head making contact with ground.  With solid ground.  The same horrible smacking noise, over and over.  She is screaming and there is red everywhere.  It is dark red pooling on the floor.  Her hair is matted with sticky liquid that is the red of blood.  It is blood.  The part of me that was half-listening to Andrew and John fighting is frozen there in my seat, unable to move.  The part of me that is up by the ceiling is still here too, but observing abstractly.  That part of me is deaf, cannot hear anything, does not recognize what is going on down there on the floor with the blood and the cracked skull.  That part of me watches as she is bleeding all over the floor and the children are twisting in their seats, screaming and we are screaming too and the waiters are nowhere to be found.  John is yelling at me, yelling at the part that is half-there at the table, Morgan call 9-1-1 right now.  The part of me that is half-listening at the table can hear the words that John is saying, or at least words that sound like his words, but is unable to move, to lift even a finger.  Do it Morgan God Damn it.  Call, Morgan.

The old woman is bleeding on the floor.  He face is getting paler and paler like a time-lapse of a dog’s coat discoloring with age.  The children are still in their chairs, sobbing; John had shouted at them to stay there.  For me to call 9-1-1.  For someone to go get water, ice, a heavy, clean towel.  John is red on the floor now, on his knees, nearly genuflecting.  He has both hands on the old woman’s shoulders keeping her still.  She is bleeding everywhere.  There is blood pooling on the floor near our shoes; John is looking at the part of me at the table, saying something like, Morgan you fuck call 9-1-1.  John was a volunteer firefighter for four years. 

When the part of me on the ground twists my head, everything is blurry.  I can hear the waiter’s shouting at one another in the back of the restaurant, but am worried if I turn to look at where I can hear their voices coming from, the blurriness will stay forever.  But what that part of me can also hear, and this time I am sure of it, is John, who is whispering to this old woman over and over and over that it is okay, it is all going to be okay, and that the kids are fine no need to worry about them just focus on staying with me right here right now please.

And then the part of me up on the ceiling finally recognizes John, remembers who he is, remembers that every day for a whole week after my Grandma died he had texted me.  Even though he wasn’t a big texter, admitted openly that he couldn’t really stand the always-on-your-cell-phone bullshit, he had texted me every day stupid shit that he thought was funny or about if I had seen anything that looked promising in the last Knicks game the night before, or one night when he was really high about a business idea that he had had for distributing refurbished salt lamps found in dumps across America to White suburban moms.  And seven days after she had died, on day seven of the streak of the Most Exchanged Text Messages With John, Ever, he had sent me this text: Hey, heard your Grandma passed.  Real sorry to hear that man.  She was a great lady.

And that part of me up on the ceiling comes rushing back down to our table, where my two halves are reconnected.  I find that I can move my hands again, can draw the cell-phone out of my front pants pocket and shakily dial 9-1-1 on it.  I am there and present and telling the operator that the address is here on this cross-street and we need an ambulance quick, ASAP, and I think, can’t say for sure, I never actually bothered to check, but I believe I saw it scrolling by in the morning on the local news the next day that she lived.  I think in the very end she was okay.  

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