The smell of cooking meat filled the house, Fran rushed around, trying to get everything ready. The table was covered in a white cloth, perfect, pristine. She hated having to use something so clean, knowing how filthy it would get throughout the evening. She laid out cutlery and plates, the silver sparkling in the soft light of the candles, empty wine glasses gleamed, waiting to be filled with dark liquids. She was rolling napkins when the oven timer went off, she left everything where it was and went to the kitchen. Donning a pair of oven mitts she slid the tray from the oven, placing it carefully on the counter.
She peeled away the tinfoil, moving back to allow the cloud of steam to go past. The meat looked perfect. Using two forks she stabbed them deep into the soft, tender flesh, juice squirting, then flowing from the entry points. She lifted it, allowing drops of grease and liquid to slide from the meat and drip back into the tray. When the meat was safely on the plate, she returned her attention to the juices, carefully siphoning them off into a jug, perfect.
The potatoes were already cooked, now they just needed to be roasted, she poured oil into the pan, then some of the fat from the meat, mixing them together before tossing and basting the potatoes in the juices. Quickly, she slid them into the still hot oven, she was running out of time. This always happened. She left the kitchen, returning again to the dining room, intent on finishing her napkins. When they were all rolled she carefully laid them out and surveyed her work.
Back in the kitchen, she cooked the vegetables, then sliced the meat, thin succulent slices that almost cut themselves, parting so easily before the blade of the knife. The soup was heating in a pot on the stove. Everything was almost ready. After cutting the meat, she took out six bowls, ready to be filled with soup, beside the stack, she placed a pile of plates, ready for serving. As she ran over her mental checklist, the doorbell rang. The first of the guests was here. They never arrived together or in pairs, they always came alone. She opened the door for her lone visitor, allowing them entrance to her house. They handed her a bottle of wine and they stood for a few moments, chatting, before she led the way into the dining room. Once they were sitting, she offered them a drink and uncorked the bottle they brought. Everyone preferred different vintages, it had seemed easier if everyone brought their own. As the first guest was taking a sip, the doorbell rang again. The process continued until all five had arrived and everyone was seated at the table, chatting softly to one another.
After excusing herself, Fran returned to the kitchen where she carefully ladled soup into bowls, the dark liquid filled with unidentified floating lumps. After dishing it out, she carried everything into the dining room, passing it out. Once she was seated again, everyone started to eat. She tried not to look at them distastefully, sure that they were looking at her the same way. The sounds of slurping filled the air as they spooned mouthful after mouthful into their hungry maws. A few cooed over how delicious it was, their voices never going above a murmur. She accepted the praise gracefully, smiling thanks, sipping delicately at the soup on her own spoon. It was always the same, these evenings. She watched as drips fall here and there, landing on the table cloth, spreading outwards slowly as the drops soaked in and stained. Occasionally a napkin is lifted and pressed lightly to the mouth to clear it of any debris, but they mostly go unused. She watches as thick lips close around the spoon, almost unendingly large, or thin lips looking as though they might crack and split under the pressure of opening wide enough to allow the spoon entry. She does well at keeping her appetite, looking at the displays her fellow diners are presenting. Once everyone is finished, she collects the bowls and again leaves them to their hushed conversation.
She fills the plates with meat, potatoes and vegetables, though there is gravy, she doesn’t add any to their dishes, she knows from experience sauce is usually best left optional. She carries the plates out to them, placing them down and going to get more. After three trips, everyone has their food and a fourth allows her to return with gravy. Again there are murmured exclamations over the food, again she accepts graciously. She picks up the gravy after a moment of hesitation, then pours it generously over her food. She hears the cracking of potatoes as the crisp outer skin is broken open, she watches salt being applied generously over the food, obscuring all taste. She isn’t offended, for she has done it too, once or twice. She picks up her knife and fork and begins to eat, trying to ignore the smacking, rolling, squelching, chewing noises. She sees jaws working mechanically, up and down up and down, most have their mouths closed, but Mike. She can see the food rolling around, being crushed beneath his teeth, the sound, magnified, seems to fill the room. She considers saying something but that would be rude. He swallows, then takes a gulp of his drink. Around her conversation continues, low, civilised, she occasionally passes a remark, but mostly she stays silent, allowing the dull sound to wash over her, punctuated by the noise of metal clicking together as the knives and forks continue their co-ordinated dance. The noise is almost soothing against the actions she’s seeing. Food falling from mouths, bits falling here and there, sticking to lips, chins, clothes. She could almost cry, though she had already known her table cloth would be ruined. She always needed to get a new one once they were done. She cuts a thin sliver of meat and pops it into her mouth, chewing delicately, allowing herself to enjoy the flavour of it, shame washes over her as she realises it does need a little salt. Fran tries to salt her food nonchalantly, trying to look as though she had left salt out on purpose. She could always claim it if it was said, that some people didn’t use salt these days.
When everyone is done eating, she offers more of everything, as expected, and they decline, as expected. She gathers the plates and leaves them alone again. Dessert is a simple affair, cheesecake that has been sitting in the fridge. She cuts it into slices and places each one on a plate, carefully drizzling red sauce from a bottle across the pale white tops, moving it back and forth, trying to create a graceful design, but mostly succeeding in making it look as though someone had slashed the top of the cheesecake, and has left it to bleed to death. She looks at her work, then decides it will do.
They again remark on the food, this time she just smiles politely, she can hear one of them running their tongues across their teeth, sucking slightly, it‘s distracting and slightly nauseating.
Once dinner has ended, they don’t stay long, each making their excuses and leaving with promises and platitudes of how they can’t wait to see each other next week. Once everyone has gone, she looks at the damage they have wrought. The table cloth is ruined, covered with stains and blotches she didn’t notice falling. The washing machine would never get those stains out. Not in a million years. They had each taken their drinks with them, she wasn’t surprised or offended, that is what always happened. A few never seemed to drink what they brought, she wondered what drink was so horrible that even the group would consider it taboo. The glasses would clean, eventually, but most would need a few washes and maybe a few days soaking before the stains would truly go away. A few of the forks were dented, one was even missing a tine, but most were ok.
After clearing the table of the plates and cutlery, she gathered up the cloth, careful to allow the napkins to stay in the centre. Those would be burnt with the table cloth. A few stains had soaked in to the table, slightly pitting it’s surface, luckily it wasn’t too noticeable.
As she watched the table cloth burn, occasional flickers of bright colours dancing amongst the orange flames, she wondered what the point of such parties were. She knew they were supposed to foster friendship and build comradery and help them all feel less homesick, but to her and she suspected the other felt the same, they were such an ordeal. It would be easier to fit in if they could all just hide properly. But maybe that was the problem, maybe they’d blend in too well and never return. Once the fire had gone out, she stirred the ashes, making sure nothing remained. The ingredients were so hard to procure sometimes, was it really worth the risk. Still, they were gone now and she was free for another week, then she would have to go to another’s dinner party, bringing her own preferred drink, eating their food which could be pleasant but never more than that, joining in in banal conversation in which they tried to discuss nothing and everything at once.