Four women circled the table. No one knew where to sit. There should have been place markers, absent due not to carelessness, or to mischief, or to malice— no, Regis hadn’t designed seating arrangements simply because it was an impossible situation. Maude disliked Emma. Emma disliked Paige. Paige disliked Emma. Kara disliked everyone. Everyone disliked Kara.
Discreetly, Regis ducked into the kitchen.
"So shall we get around to the reasoning behind tonight’s soap opera?" he heard Kara ask, before attacking her drink.
He opened the oven door and examined the chicken, a pale, waxy yellow body surrounded by plump potatoes. He jabbed a finger into its icy thigh.
"I think we can overlook seduction," he heard Paige say. "Even Regis’s erotic ambition has its limits."
He waved his hand around inside the mouth of the oven. The air felt cool. In the rush of their arrival, he must have forgotten to turn it on. He twisted the knob to 500 degrees. The recipe on the package had said to preheat it, but he didn’t have time anymore; and besides, the practice of preheating had always struck him as a scam, some kind of culinary Piltdown Man.
"Maybe it’s self-hatred," suggested Kara.
"Yes, isn’t that precisely where all his past behavior points," Emma said.
"Then again, if it were self-hatred he was after," Kara said, "he would’ve only invited Emma."
Regis grinned while he soaped and rinsed his hands. He had a soft spot for clever women— the pliant fissure in the skull from which joy slips out when you’re a child, until eventually it can’t get back in. And it seemed a strange commentary on intelligence that of the many women he’d invited over for dinner, the four who had agreed were arguably the most clever. Maybe it had something to do with the antagonism of intellect, its worship of provocation. Maybe with how he was defining clever.
But Emma was right: they weren’t there to be seduced, they were ex-lovers, playfully guarded, slightly drunk, and enjoying a mystery. Why had they been invited? It was a nightmare that every man has had, so why had he orchestrated it? What could have motivated him to organize this restlessly insightful collision of women? Even if it was self-hatred, there are all kinds of ways to make yourself unhappy— you can stop drinking, you can get married, you can move in with your parents— why choose this elaborate way to do it?
"Vanity," said Emma.
"Nostalgia," said Maude.
"Hopefulness," said Paige.
"Hopelessness," said Kara.
"Compulsion," said Emma.
"Fear," said Kara.
"Crisis," said Maude.
"Appetite," said Paige.
"Wonder," said Emma.
"Who said crisis?" he asked, as he re-entered the dining room in a red checkered apron warning Underneath This I’m Naked.
"I did darling," Maude cooed. The body, explained Maude, is held together at a certain tension between extremes— hot and cold, dry and wet, hard and soft— and our soul is an adjustment of these extremes. The soul involves correct proportions. "You’re unbalanced," she said, leaning forward to pinch the pink and purple jaws of the snapdragons. "Even your apron is crooked."
He sat across from Paige and Emma, the unfortunate pair, and smoothed his eyebrows.
"And how does one define correct proportions?" asked Emma. Being British, everything Emma said sounded slightly more pretentious. It was an unfair advantage in games of intellectual rivalry and, Regis suspected, one of the reasons that Maude so resolutely disliked Emma. The other reason behind her aversion he attributed to Emma’s thinness. Maude was not thin. When he’d first discovered her in the Barnes and Noble on the upper west side, flipping through Life: How You Can Change the Risky Odds and idly hating her job, he should have noticed the size of her ass. But she had such lovely grey eyes. And she was sitting down. After only eight weeks of her bumping into his kitchen counters, however, he felt as if he’d unleashed a dinosaur into his apartment— one of the smaller yet bulky herbivores.
Warm, affectionate, quick-witted, sympathetic, generous, how could any ass be large enough to overwhelm these wonderful traits? It was a question Regis had kept asking himself. He couldn’t simply be responding biologically, since there had to be an evolutionary bonus, a survivalist advantage in time of famine, to a large ass. To be fair, he recognized that his preference for small-assed women was wildly incompatible with Darwinism. But while his disinterest toward Maude was biologically shortsighted, it wasn’t that socially inscrutable. There was the concomitant power of looks to be considered: prestige, authority, conceit, et cetera. Still, he stuck with Maude for six months, on principle, but what the principle was he could never entirely say. Could longevity be a principle? Or was inertia the principle? And what did principles have to do with love? With anything? How did that get started?
"We’re assuming our host has a soul," interjected Kara. In a better world, Kara would have been a lesbian. Almost against her will she physically adored men—their arms, their necks, their thighs, the muscled hump of an oblique— and for these hard and marvelous details she endured outrageous behavior. Oh but how he understood! Just the glimpse of a girl’s hand when the sleeve of her sweater is too long, so the delicate fringe lays across her palm like another, smaller hand, had been enough to stop his heart.
"Let’s not be too critical," Paige said. "At least give Regis a chance to explain himself."
"Your opinion doesn’t count," Kara said.
"Because you’re happy."
"I invited you here…" Regis said.
No one spoke. He had counted on being interrupted.
"I invited you here…" He could feel the pulse in his lower lip, dull and flat, and wondered if it weren’t simply his tongue tricking him. Why had he invited them? He knew there was a reason— if you could call an ungraspable, subterranean motivation reason— but what it was, exactly…
"Because you’re dying," Kara prompted. "Like in that movie, the guy who gets cancer. The Italian actor with the terrific eyebrows."
"Cancer?" asked Maude. "He’s thirty-two."
"People die of cancer at thirty-two," Kara said.
"He’s not dying," said Paige. "Look at him. He’s grinning."
"Oh God if you’re getting married," Emma said.
"Excuse me, the chicken needs my help," he said, and rushed to the kitchen.
A moment later, Kara joined him. She leaned against the counter as he kneeled before the oven, staring through the glass, cooking mitts thrust uselessly on his hand. The chicken looked the same to him, a thick scar of pale yellow meat, but he lowered the temperature fifty degrees to appear capable.
"Well?" she said.
"I’m going to make a salad."
When he had met Kara she had been carefully brushing her long dark hair in the tinted reflection of a car window. It was a spectacle of such sincere vanity that he was instantly charmed. The accompanying gestures, however, the way she gazed at herself upside-down in coffee spoons, her insistence on cutting the pockets from her sweatpants because they made her hips seem wide, her refusal to wear sunglasses— she was proud of her green eyes— had quickly bored him; they seemed derivative, almost mechanical. What Kara was, and what she should have remained, was a vision, unaddressed, unacquainted. Now her hair was as short and messy as the five months they had spent together. He had been unhappy, mostly, though he couldn’t recall for certain; the mind and its habit to standardize were always reclaiming the past.
"There’s no plan, is there," she said. "This is just a manipulative whim. What a son of a bitch."
"Carrots," he said, and opened the refrigerator. Bad things had happened inside the vegetable drawer. The lemons had put on blue fur coats. The lettuce had liquefied. In the fruit drawer, however, he unearthed a healthy cucumber and a soft grumpy tomato.
"You didn’t even tell me about the others coming. You didn’t tell any of us."
"I never advertised this as an exclusive dinner," he said, and hooked a finger underneath a bag of baby carrots hiding behind the milk. The refrigerator light shone on the back of his hand.
"I thought this was going to be an apology," she said. "Individualized regret."
"We haven’t even eaten yet."
He emptied the bag of carrots onto the cutting board and stepped on the pedal of the trash can. The trash can tottered excitedly beneath his foot. When were they going to get around to developing real robots? he thought. They wouldn’t even have to do much, just make futuristic noises, converse with the vacuum cleaner.
"This is insulting," Kara snorted, pocketbook tucked deep in her armpit. The arches of her fantastic eyebrows trembled, lost shape. She liked to get angry. She once told Regis about how she’d sent a boyfriend to the hospital in high school when she’d struck him in the head with a skillet. He had called her an angel. Kara, angelic? Maybe he hadn’t yet heard her lament, as Regis had, "It’s sad that something as beautiful as fucking can get ruined by children."
"Aren’t you at least going to contest the charge," Kara said.
He flung the severed tomato stem into the sink. "If you’re going to go, go. I don’t have the energy to call you out on this. That’s part of the whole thing."
"Jesus," Kara said, "is this emotionally incompetent little boy skit getting old." She pushed his arm, the one not holding the knife.
"Hey," he said.
She shoved his arm again.
"Quit it," he said.
"Don’t even try it," she said.
Oh, he thought. So that’s what this is. He put down the knife and reached for her slim dark wrist. He pulled her toward him and kissed her beside her mouth. It was a little mouth, easy to miss, although he had meant to. He wanted to see how close ego was to desire. She nudged his nose and kissed him back. Her lip gloss tasted like windex sprayed on roses. He found the small of her back with his palm and pressed it like a remote control; it made her hipbones move into him. She bit his lip, held it. Then she drew her head back and shook him off too hard.
"Help me finish the salad," he said.
"I’d rather watch a dog fuck a cat than sit at the table with them," she said. She stole a carrot and left.
Maybe I could have fallen in love with Kara after all, he thought, and reached for the paring knife.
"Listen," Emma said. "There’s disappointment built into the game. You said it yourself. You shoot for eternity, you get five years. You shoot for five years, you get six months."
"I said that?"
"Verbatim. I would never mix my metaphors like that."
Emma had come into the kitchen to ask Regis to stop hiding. They were very hungry. After hearing his assurance that dinner would be served momentarily, she had responded with her opinion about the necessity of calamity.
"Nothing as brazen as forgiveness," continued Emma. "But acknowledgement, naturally. A nod to the failure of aspirations. Regis, people wouldn’t make promises if they didn’t need to be made. Slowly, one learns what one can endure."
He nodded. Outside an ambulance raced hysterically through the streets.
"The salad’s ready," he said.
He carried the gigantic wooden salad bowl, a Christmas gift from his mother, into the dining room. In his absence, someone thoughtful— or smug— had folded Kara’s chair and propped it against the wall.
"Salad," said Paige, glancing up from her discussion with Maude about central heating.
Regis watched the three of them work together to distribute the clumsily tossed salad, blot the olive oil with napkins, pass the bowls along. Emma tucked a carrot into the pink floral whorl of her mouth. Paige cradled the wineglass with her exquisite narrow fingers. The ancient Egyptians had believed a single vein traveled from the third finger on our left hand to our heart; how did he know this; and what did it matter? More importantly, can you be in love with everyone at once? Or is that just philosophical cuteness?
Emma asked Paige to pass the salt. When Emma reached to take it from her, Paige shook her head. She placed it on the table. "You never hand salt to anyone," Paige said. "Very bad luck."
Except he had never been in love with Paige, so how could he be in love with all three of them? Of course it was cuteness. It was nothing but cuteness. Here he was flirting with himself while they ate a terrible salad. As for Paige, let’s forget about her wonderful fingers for a moment, he thought, and remember the way her breasts sat on her chest, inches apart, what often seemed like meters apart. To hold them simultaneously felt as if you were swinging from one vine to another. And yet for the first few weeks— weeks!— he hadn’t even noticed. He had admired her aristocratic collarbones, her tiny knees, the sexy trickle of strawberry blonde hair whirling beneath her navel… until one night he noticed the space between her breasts, that brutal gulf, and then… well, then it was impossible to carry on. It was a shame, but what could he do, lie to himself?
He was tired of that moment, and all too familiar with it, the startling moment when something— the subconscious, the gut, the divine— warns not her. When she crosses her legs on the couch and for the first time he notices the mangle ballet has made of her feet. When she adjusts her earring and the motion reveals, at that new drastic angle, the buried line of a second chin just beginning. That single, ruinous hair on her chin. That flat pink mole buried in her neck like a landmine. The uneven hipbones. The sweetly stale breath. Critical, fanatical, unreasonable maybe, but never senseless; these are vivid physical flashes. They astonish him, mostly, because they herald the end, and while naturally he knows that it will end some day— he’s not a lunatic: things end— from then on the jittery sweetness of denial absents itself.
But why is unhappiness so imaginative? Regis wondered. Why so resourceful, so observant, so innovative? It was unbelievable to think that in Manhattan, in the summer, where luscious, slick girls bottomed like apples rolled past every moment, when once just the sight of them could compress the air in his chest, he now no longer cared. It was true, he’d lost that giddy little stab of breathlessness. Before he couldn’t last longer than a week without seeing a woman on the street who would have him following her for blocks, just to get a better look at her, and now. . . now he didn’t even follow women up the subway stairs.
Something terrible had happened. That moment, the instant of cruel revelation, had become instantaneous. He no longer enjoyed the weeks and months of anxious courtship with their blind exhilaration, the novel nights of foolish, eagerly unfamiliar sex. Upon meeting a woman, he didn’t even have the first fifteen minutes of light-headed astonishment. No, immediately he noticed the extra centimeter of jaw, or that she flared her nostrils when laughing. What had happened to him? He could remember swooning over Joan a decade ago because she imitated a Tyrannosaurus Rex whenever she got drunk— swooning for a girl with bad skin! He remembered melting for Marianne, easily fifteen pounds overweight, as she ate a peach in her bra and underwear. And Allison, who used to announce "I have to itch a scratch," who repeatedly clogged his toilet and stumbled shamefaced into the hallway with water drooling at her feet, Allison with all of her physical imperfections— a mouth crowded by yellow teeth, a thin shiny nose, breasts like tulip bulbs— what would he think of her now? Would he instantly dismiss her too, or might she have some special immunity?
It didn’t matter, not just because she had moved to San Francisco over four years ago— taking with her half of his books, their couch, and their etched silver sake bowls— but because he’d just felt the horrifying click of a baby carrot lodging into his throat.
He coughed. He smacked his chest. When that accomplished nothing, he smacked the table. The silverware jumped and all three women looked over at him with varying expressions of distaste. What was the international sign for choking? He pointed at his open mouth. He pretended to slit his throat. Maude smiled politely. This was ridiculous, he could remember the public service poster in the Mexican restaurant, the little cartoon man whose face turns blue, but not how the blue man explained his plight. Or did the blue man die? Oh God.
He made a grabbing motion at his throat and Emma shrugged. "Is it too oily? You’re the one who put on the dressing." Struggling to inhale, he suddenly coughed, and the carrot tilted enough to let a trickle of air penetrate; frantic, grateful, he drooled into his hands.
This got their attention. Quickly they were up and circling the table— Emma careful not to spill her drink— and saying they wanted to help. Oh but we all want to help each other. He was standing now and uselessly striking his chest, wondering why he wasn’t feeling more regret about his death. It was a humiliating way to go, but why not? Then he felt Paige’s arms circle him from behind and the clasp of her fist against his lower abdomen. She jerked back. He sputtered and coughed but the carrot remained in place. Paige tried again, and then Emma took over for her. This is like a parable, he thought, whoever saves me can have me. Maude’s stronger arms seized him next, and he sunk back into the flesh he’d once discarded; it was perfect, it was almost poetic, the fat girl is going to win for once.
He gasped and arched and drooled until Maude, at last, released him. The three women shook their heads in confusion. The carrot had been displaced slightly, allowing a leak of air, just enough to make him furious. Kara! She’d break my ribs but she’d do it, he thought. There’s your fucking poetry. But Kara was gone.
Just as Maude reached for the telephone, Regis remembered that in the lower right hand corner of the poster, the blue man saves himself! With a lunge he drove himself onto the edge of the chair, the cluster of nerves comprising his solar plexus flaring in shock and launching the baby carrot onto the floor. He gagged into his sweaty, slick hands and stumbled toward the bathroom, where with the door half open he washed his face in the sink.
"Are you feeling okay?" asked Maude. She was standing in the doorway, rubbing the brass hinge with her finger. It was Maude who had told him about the Egyptians and the vein leading to the heart, he remembered. Anything ancient, trust Maude to know it.
"I almost died," he said.
"You need to chew."
He increased the hot water and washed his mouth out again.
Emma and Paige peeked around the corner. The shadow from the hallway light made Paige’s cheeks look like bruised plums. One day motherhood is going to destroy that face, thought Regis, though he didn’t suppose she’d mind.
"Is that your phone ringing?" Emma said.
"No. I turned off the ringer," he said.
"Well something’s ringing. Did you install a new doorbell?"
Regis turned off the faucet and dried his hands on his pants. He shut the bathroom door with a slam. As he passed through the dining room, he scooped up the soggy carrot from the floor and pocketed it. He opened his apartment door without checking the peephole and found a young, dark-skinned guy smoking a cigarette.
"Is Emma here?"
"You can’t smoke in the hallway."
The guy nodded apologetically and put his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe.
"Who are you?" Regis said.
"Jason. Who are you?"
"You don’t get to ask that question when it’s my door."
"I’m supposed to pick up Emma," he said nervously. "I’m, uh, a few minutes early."
Regis shut the door. He heard Emma approaching with her mean little shuffle, and blocked her way.
"That’s for me," Emma said. "I’m off."
"Yes, he’s come to pick me up."
"Why do I suddenly feel like your father."
"Because you won’t open the door for a good-looking boy?"
"Emma," he said, "I’m good-looking."
"Of course you are, darling. I’m sorry to run and miss the main course. We have tickets for the ten o’ clock show."
"You had him pick you up here just so we would see each other," he said. "To make him jealous. I can’t believe you. That’s why you agreed to come."
"Him jealous?" she tinkled. "That’s rather funny. No, I came because I was being kind. It’s why we all came."
She pushed past him and opened the door. Jason smiled at her. He waited until she’d stepped out into the hallway to kiss her cheek.
"Sorry I’m so early," he said.
"Do you want to go ahead and explain who I am, Emma? Jason doesn’t look like the kind of guy who can decipher subtext easily."
"Jason, this is Regis. He’s very unhappy."
"Nice to meet you," Jason said.
Regis ran to the kitchen and threw open the oven door. He yanked out a slice of potato and tried to eat it, gagged and spit the cool hard chunk into the trash. He took his knuckle and dug into his eyesocket until the sharpness subsided, and then he went out to find the girls.
"Dinner should be ready any minute now," he said, feeling better.
"This had better be good," Maude said. "Paige’s boyfriend is a chef you know."
"A sous-chef. And I’m sure it will be delicious," Paige said.
"He cooked her saffron risotto. Real risotto," Maude said. "Do you know how long that takes? All that stirring?" Maude sighed and dropped her hand on the brown knit placemat.
"He’s sweet," Paige said.
Oh God, thought Regis, now I have to endure someone else’s happiness. I never should have freed the carrot.
Maude whispered something and Paige let out an intoxicated giggle. She was newly in love so everything seemed laughable to her. That euphoric incredulity of the beloved. It’s like being on fire— except you live through it. She adjusted her cashmere sweater and rotated her finger around her ear.
"Love is crazy is right," she said.
He squinted at the two of them pleasantly cornering the table. The scar on the underside of Paige’s jaw, from a bicycle accident as a child, seemed to be migrating up toward her chin. Her narrow pointed chin, he noticed. And winter had been unkind to Maude, broadening her shoulders, thickening her back. He knew, of course, that these observations sounded contemptibly superficial, but maybe they weren’t just petty physical observations, maybe they were also… emotional. But then again, why should they be? Why does something have to be anything but what it is? Why add some sort of emotional valence when Paige’s chin is clearly mutilated and Maude’s ass is no longer the only enormous thing about her.
"How much longer?" asked Maude, what must have been a half hour— two glasses of wine— later. "I don’t mean to be a pain, but I’m starving."
"If you’d like some help…" Paige said.
"I don’t need help," Regis said.
"Isn’t that the doorbell?" asked Maude.
"Isn’t that it again?"
"Aren’t you going to get it? It keeps ringing."
"I don’t mind answering it," Paige said.
"It’s probably for me. Alan is supposed to pick me up after dinner."
"It’s my fucking doorbell!"
"Let’s just let Regis answer his door," Maude whispered.
Regis finished his glass and left the dining room. When he opened the door, however, there was no one in the hallway. He searched in both directions, following the gloomy diamond pattern of hall lights, but there was no one to be found. All the bodies that had strode along this drab industrial carpeting, the red high heels, the black stockings, the countless bright contributions, were gone.
"Hello," he said. "I’m right here. Hello. I’m right here."
"Regis," said Paige, placing her palm on his shoulder, "I just checked on the chicken. It’s raw. What’s going on?"
Regis spun around and knocked her hand off of him. She teetered backwards, landing against the wall. He could see her vividly: the vicious scar on her chin, the blackheads buried in the bridge of her nose, the creases on those aging hands; what was there hidden in this hopeful decay, in this ready flesh, what could be trapped behind the imperfect breasts that would make any of it worth the compromise?
And then she was gone, and he was safe in the kitchen again, the chicken pulled from its cool oven, sweaty in its yellow pimpled skin. He moved its legs, manipulated them between his fingers, listening to the joints pop, the cartilage roll over. Maude came in and stood behind him, beside the oven. He could smell her skin, like the mist from an orange peel as it’s twisted against itself.
He tugged hard on one of the legs and the entire casserole slid closer to his chest. A faint line of butter imprinted itself against his shirt pocket.
She knelt to open the broiler, built into the base of the oven. He hadn’t even known it existed way down there. "Your pilot light is out," she said. "You could have blown yourself up."
"Out?" Maude dimmed the gas.
"You’re going to have to re-light it," she said.
"You can re-light it?" he whispered.
"Of course you can. But be careful. This is serious."
He wiped away the liquid on his hands that wasn’t just blood and knelt beside her. She pointed at a skinny metal pole running like a spine along the base of the oven. There were black marks along it where it had gotten scorched, but it worked. It still worked. She handed him the lighter and he reached into the darkness with his hand. He turned his head away. Then he depressed the bright plastic button that keeps the children safe and he raised the flame, until blueness rushed to fill that great empty space.
PANIO GIANOPOULOS has published fiction and non-fiction in Tin House, Nerve, Northwest Review, and the Hartford Courant. He is currently at work on a novel.