Arthur Russell Comes to Dinner
A picture of the scene without you:
Seven ugly people in a heptagon around a table, chopsticking spaghetti out of a burner-blackened pot, four bottles of Tempranillo deep. A heavy dent had been put in the weed cornbread. We passed around one dinner napkin (dishtowel) stained orange and purple. I am a mostly incompetent hostess, but these were good friends.
“Someone said, Some of the noodles are al dente, others are mushy, others are hard as twigs.”
“That’s because she didn’t break them in half when she put them in the pot.”
“I don’t like the sound it makes, breaking them in half. I like to put the whole noodle in.”
“But then they don’t all fit in the water.”
“And so they don’t cook evenly.”
I said, “Eat more cornbread.”
“John Cage and Allan Kaprow used to cook a big pot of rice and beans and have all their friends come over and eat and hold a kind of salon or have a happening or whatever. It was a very cheap way to do things.”
“You talk about everything like you were there. It’s infuriating,” Jackie said.
“To have a happening,” Ben sighed. “The grammar!”
“Al dente means to the tooth.”
Can you really have a group of seven good friends? If I stepped outside the room, seven seemed excessive for really truly good friends. Besides, I suspected that tomorrow night they’d restage this dinner at your house, criticize and complement your own lacking one-pot meal, yours white and with broccoli instead of red and with cornbread.
Kara, who is southern, had brought both a deck of black cards with white text on them made to spark conversation when conversation fell to a lull, as it had just then. Kara was always trying to formalize us like this—forcing us to play games, or suggesting that we do something productive and as a group in a way that made everyone uncomfortable. She cut the deck and read the first card out loud. “You cook a beautiful dinner for two. You may invite anyone in the word, living or dead. Who would be your ideal guest?”
“Oh God,” Ben said.
Alex said Nietzsche.
Rob, Basquiat; Kara, Simon de Beauvoir; Ben, that astronaut who died in the Challenger.
Jackie said a young movie guy who was very hot just then. Jon groaned, “Give me a fucking break! A: he’s too young for you, and B: you’re basically wasting your choice if you choose someone living.” Jon chose Rimbaud. Jackie changed her answer to me, because I had just sliced her another hunk of cornbread.
I thought, of course, of you. Love is Overtaking Me was on the record player, sounding far away and old under a needle that had gathered dust. I couldn’t say your name—my friends would throw their forks at me or have me committed, so I said Arthur Russell. I tried the decision out in my voice; it felt right. Then with a hostess’ self-consciousness I rose to clear the bowls and stack them in the sink.
It can begin to seem shallow, as we get older, to make and keep certain friends based on something as flimsy as their taste in music. But when Rob raised his glass and said, “Here, here,” and Jackie said, “To Arthur,” I felt the blessedness of mutual understanding. We sank into the comfort of the first-name address. The night turned toward séance. The candles on the shelves and sills and side tables, of various heights and tapers, luxuriated in their pools of wax.