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My friend Minerva is fed up with her cousins. To put it more precisely, she’s fed up with the way they feed each other.
The cousins (let’s call them Calvin and Blanche, since, having actual names of their own, they truly do exist) have been married forever — at least 40 years. All that time, it appears, they’ve been eating off each other’s plates, both at home and in public. I, for one, have actually seen them do it — at Minerva’s house, at their own house, and at fine restaurants in major cities, all across our fair nation.
There appears to be an unspoken agreement between the two of them. Blanche takes a few bites from her entree and then slides her plate across to Calvin. Forthwith, Calvin takes a forkful of Blanche’s poached salmon and shifts the plate back toward her. Being more adventurous of spirit, she then stretches across the table and dips into Calvin’s boeuf bourguignon, holding her napkin under her soup spoon, so as not to dribble on the linen. Then they look at each other and say either “Mmmm…” or “Mmmm?”
In short order, and after a swift swallow of wine, they return to their own dishes. Until the dessert course arrives, nothing else is shared across the course of the evening, except polite conversation.
It drives Minerva crazy. (“Why can’t they just eat their own food?!!?” she’s been known to screech in the cab riding home from a restaurant.) And it would drive me crazy, too, if this weren’t such a ritual for Calvin and Blanche, a rudeness they’ve fine-tuned down to the point of high art. They handle it subtly, and rather elegantly, to tell the truth. Hardly anybody notices, except perhaps for probing eyes who have very little to pay attention at their own tables.
What would drive me crazy, however, would be if Calvin and Blanche — on a first date, or four decades into their marriage — were heard asking each other, “What does that taste like?” “May I have a bite of that?” or, worst of all, “You’re not going to eat all of that, are you?”
Such questions suggest a hunger that cannot be healed by the size of any portion on any plate. They also bespeak disturbing lacks of self-confidence, self-reliance and self-discipline.
In such cases, the fellow diner is perfectly correct in asking — even if it’s something he’s been asking for the past 40 years — “Would you like to order something else?”
The answer, almost inevitably, will be, “No. Of course not. I’m loving my poached tripe on cheese grits. I’m sure the second bite will be wonderful.”
To which the well-thought-out response will be, “Waiter! May we take another look at the menu?”
Even amongst the closest of friends, the trading of tidbits is a questionable practice. Who will know, at the end of the meal, how to divvy up the tab? Who will have been keeping track of the spoonfuls of boeuf bourguignon? Who will be counting the shrimp in the scampi?
Friendships have been parted over smaller things. Reputations have been ruined by considerably less.
Here’s a concern voiced to me, post-Oscar Monday, by a not-overly blond nor excessively slender person, at the gym:
“Last night, I threw my Oscars party. I did all the food, except for the part of it that people brought, just because they wanted to. Drinks-wise, I asked everybody to BYOB. Almost everybody brought wine. [One friend; let’s not give his name] brought a jug of not-so-good Merlot; so it never got opened, all night long. When it came time to leave, he picked up his jug and went home — no explanations, no apologies, no nothing. How rude is that?”
A BYOB invite always begs for mixed blessings, of course.
Not only does it empower people to drink more than they ought to — since they’re consuming their own hooch (so who’s counting?) — it also leads to an unseemly confusion:
Should I — acting like a graduate-school student — scrawl my name on a bit of masking-tape and and stick it across my personal bottle of vodka? (I’d seem chintzy if I did that. Wouldn’t I?) Meanwhile, if I’d really like another cocktail, and, if it’s not all that late in the evening, while unscrupulous others have already emptied my fifth of good Scotch? (I ought to have a right to somebody else’s rot-gut? Shouldn’t I?)
If almost everybody is bringing a bottle of wine for the evening, and if some bottles don’t get opened, it’s perfectly all right for [One Friend; Let’s Not Give His Name] or anybody else, to take home his unopened bottle.
[One Friend; Let’s Not Give His Name] may have decided that his wine was too fine to be wasted on the company at hand. Or he may simply have decided that it’s time to take home his unopened bottle.
This was a BYOB party, after all.
A wrong idea from the beginning; so any judgment calls are iffy.
To make matters worse, the recycling of bottles is unlikely.
It’s not quite March, but already the clanging of wedding bells can be heard in the distance. Already, in some cases, they’re clanging out of tune.
Witness the extremely public example of Washington Post writer Sally Quinn, whose son, Quinn Bradlee, is scheduled to be married in Washington on April 10, which turns out to be the selfsame day when Sally Quinn’s step-granddaughter (which makes her Quinn Bradlee’s niece, for those of you who are keeping score) is scheduled to be married in California.
Since a number of the bodies thrown into this nuptial bed of nettles come equipped with well-known names (Sally Quinn is married to Ben Bradlee, long-time editor of the Post. The mother of the California bride is ABC correspondent Martha Raddatz; the father of the California bride is Ben Bradlee Jr., a high-profile editor at the Boston Globe), a situation that might best be handled entirely by in-house negotiations has become fodder for all sort of unneeded comment, and unrequested input, all over the blogosphere.
This past weekend, Sally Quinn (who’s in a no-win situation, since she’s mother of the groom on one side, and step-mother of the bride on the other) tried to walk the readers of her Post column through this mangled maze, a bootless effort if there ever was one. I hate to tell her, but it won’t work.
Any wedding, no matter how private it intends to be, is everybody’s wedding. Even the uninvited (especially the uninvited) can take aim at it. In terms of public opinion, and bruised feelings, danger lurks at every turn.
The other night, after a committee meeting, I was talking with my friend Claude, whose son, Claude Jr. (familiarly known as “Cloffo,”) is scheduled to be married this coming July. (That makes Claude the father of the groom, the least necessary party in any wedding party.)
Because he is a sincere and caring person, Claude is predictably concerned. The mother of the bride (as is her enforced responsibility) has set a limit on the number of seats at the ceremony — on both sides of the aisle. Rhonda, Claude’s wife and the mother of the groom, is doing her best to understand. She remains uncomfortable.
“Cloffo and Miranda have a lot of friends,” Claude said, leaning against the driver’s side of his Lexus. “If they can’t all come to the wedding, I told Rhonda, ‘Let’s you and me give a big party on our own, for Cloffo and Miranda and all their friends, whether they’re invited to the wedding, or not.’ ”
I said, “That sounds swell.”
Claude said, “Rhonda hates it.”
There was a brief pause, spent mostly by Claude clicking the alarm button on his Lexus keypad on and off. “Rhonda says you can’t invite people to a wedding party,” Claude said, “if you can’t invite them to the wedding too.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Claude said.
I leant against the bumper of my Camry and said, “Have the party.”
“Thank you,” said Claude, as he slipped into his driver’s seat. “I was almost pretty-sure I was right.
“But one more thing …”
“Yes?” I said, taking my own keys out of my pocket.
“If it’s July, and everybody else is wearing white dinner jackets, can I wear one too?”
I said, “It’ll be after Memorial Day. Wear the jacket.” Claude hit the start button on his keypad, and his engine revved.
“It’s all up to you from now on,” I said, “… sort of.”
“I’m rockin’ with it,” he said, watching carefully in all mirrors as he backed out of his parking space. “This should be easy … sort of.”
At no time is it too early to forestall the calamities of an uncoming wedding. Claude is lucky to do his deals in a parking lot, with hardly anybody watching. Meanwhile, the rules should all be the same, for Sally Quinn, or for anybody else, when it comes to the intensitivities of our private lives.
“Except, now I have to go home to Rhonda,” Claude said, as he roared backward out of the parking lot.
Some people simply cannot let it go.
Take, for example, my friend Hiram, who called me, from Minneapolis, day before yesterday. He was busy at his desk. (I could hear the shuffling of papers in the background, and the murmur of people talking on their headsets.)
“You know Lorene and I are divorced,” he said.
I said, “Yes, Hiram. You’ve been divorced for ages.”
“It’s not ‘ages,’ ” Hiram said. “It’s just 26 months.”
I said, “Twenty-six months is more than two years.”
Hiram said, “Can you hold?” I was left alone, for a brief time, all by myself in a void with nobody but me and the Bee-Gees; then Hiram was back with me. “Where were we?” he asked.
I said, “We weren’t any where.”
“Valentine’s Day,” he said. “I need to do something.
“Do you know somebody who could do some flowers? Nice, you know, but not roses. Can you hold?” This time the void was filled by Celine Dion. Then he was back.
“I was thinking maybe the florist could deliver them to Meghan.” Meghan is Hiram and Lorene’s daughter — their only child, except for Hiram, Jr., also known as “Hype.” (Hype spends a lot of his time in a recovery center in Providence, R. I.) “Then she could just take them to her mom, and say, ‘Dad wanted me to give you these.’ ”
“Why?” I asked.
“Sheez,” Hiram said. “It’s Valentine’s Day. I don’t want her to be lonely.”
“But what if she …?” I started to ask. But Hiram took care of the rest of the sentence. “Hate not to be paying attention,” he said. “Major presentation at 10:45.” (I spent the next minute-and-a-half with Barry Manilow.)
“I’m back,” he said.
“What should the note say?” I asked. “What note?” Hiram asked.
“The note Meghan’s going to deliver with the flowers.”
“Don’t worry about Meghan,” Hiram said. “She’ll know what to say.”
“What if Meghan gets out of this equation? What if she has a date of her own?” I asked. “What if you just had the flowers delivered tomorrow afternoon?”
More than a trifle aghast, Hiram said, “What do you think Lorene wants? A bunch of dead pom-pom mums on Valentine’s Day?
“I still have a great deal of respect for that woman,” he said.
“Can you hold?”
I spent the next three-and-a-half minutes with ABBA.
When he came back on the line, Hiram said, “And would you make sure they don’t send roses? Anybody could send a bunch of roses. I could have ordered a bunch of roses for myself.”
He took a quick, short breath of hesitation. There was a flustering of papers in the background.
“Hate to do this to you” he said. “But can you hold?”
“You still may have time to make a reservation,” I assured him yesterday.
“Oh, no,” my friend Cecil gulped. “There’s no table, anywhere, where she’d like to eat.”
I asked, “Well, what does she like to eat?”
Cecil said, “I’m not sure. She has tattoos.”
“Tattoos?” I asked.
“Yes,” Cecil said, “Three intertwining cobras, tatooed up to her left elbow.”
“Do you know what they mean?” I asked.
“No,” Cecil said, “but I thought she and I might have dinner.”
Valentine’s Day is not the time for this sort of first date, or any sort of first date, I can assure you. It is not a time for testing the waters. It is not a time when two people who hardly know each other should be left standing in line, waiting for a table, talking about their tattoos, while a hostess calls out “Briggham? Are you Briggham? Are you the table of three?” It is not a time when the hostess finally turns to them and says, “Oh yes, you’re the Grisgow party, aren’t you? The ones with the intertwining cobras.”
By that time, all romance has certainly been sapped out of any evening.
On a Valentine’s evening such as this, a gentleman is much wiser to serve up some take-out cannelloni, at his own place, spooned up on nice plates, even if they’re borrowed from his mother. (Candles always help.) Quiet is good. (So are flowers, trite though they may seem.) A 90-minute wait in line is never impressive. If it leaves two people with nothing to say, for an hour and a half, it can easily last for a lifetime.
I asked Cecil, “Are you sure you want to spend an evening with tattoos you don’t understand?”
“I don’t know,” he said, in a hesitating sort of way. “But it’s just a first date.”
I said, “But Cecil, It’s Valentine’s.”
Cecil said, “Maybe we’ll just do pizza.”
My friend Brick just broke up with his girlfriend, Tristina — via a text message.
I said, “Brick, that is just about the lowest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
Brick and I were standing in the snacks-and-nuts aisle at the grocery store. (Brick was wearing a baseball cap, turned backwards.) “Hey man,” he said, “at least I signed it. It’s not like she didn’t know where it was coming from. It’s not like I just tweeted her, or something.”
I said, “Brick, it’s less than two weeks until Valentine’s Day.”
“Yeah, I know that,” said Brick. (He was breaking open a pack of pork rinds.) “That’s why I thought I’d give her a heads-up.”
Then he paused, just long enough for a confused little furrow to work its way across his otherwise untroubled brow. “Whaddaya think I am?” he said. “Stupid?”
I said, “You could at least have called her. You could at least have talked to her in the parking lot at the gym. You could have at least have stopped by her condo. ”
“Oh sure,” said Brick. “And then she would have started crying.”
I said, “Brick, you could at least have faced this like a man.”
Brick tossed back a fistful of pork rinds. “Jeez,” he said, brushing the pork-rind bits off the front of his sweatshirt. “That’s what I thought I was doing.”
Some messages seem horrific enough, even written by hand on the best quality card stock; but they certainly have no place being left on somebody’s voice mail, much less on the screen of an iPhone. It’s bad enough to send along a last-minute “Sorry. Got tied up. Maybe you can take a cab to the airport,” or a conflict-avoidant “Thought you ought to know. We just decided to give your office to Eustace.” But, when it comes to passing along certain messages, the biting of bullets is still required. Among those messages are, “I’m really sorry I ran over your dachshund,” “Sorry for the remark about the woman in the two-piece. I didn’t know she was your mother,” and “Great 18 months. It’s OK if you don’t keep my toothbrush.”
In some situations, the music must be faced, face-to-face. In some cases, there is no easy way out, no acceptable escape hatch — at least, not for a gentleman.
So I said to Brick, “I guess you’re open on Valentine’s Day.”
“Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I could still get a table at Cafe Cozy. Girls like Cafe Cozy a lot.”
Standing there in grocery store aisle, I looked at Brick and said, “Are you going to pay for those pork rinds?”
Brick looked back, scratching a flake of something crispy out of one of his eyebrows. “Hey man,” he said, “Whaddaya think I am?… “a jerk?”