I used to like dinner parties. I used to like them for the reasons I am dreading the one tonight: the chance to dress up (not that I ever felt beautiful, but at least I didn't feel like the beast), the chance to get to know other people (as a journalist, chatting was easy), the chance for them to get to know me (I was an associate producer at 60 Minutes, which prompted people to say something flattering when they heard this). But that was a very long time ago.
I scrounge up a plum dress I bought when I was three months pregnant with my first son and busting out of all that I owned. I put it on. I feel relieved. I head downstairs to kiss the boys goodbye. Aidan, my younger son, leaps into my arms and brushes his cheek against mine. Then he throws up all over my dress.
I head back up the stairs, angry at myself for failing to get out of this dinner as I have managed to get out of every other we've been invited to in the past year. But the woman inviting us—Nancy, an American I know from the playground who had her third kid when I had my second—was persistent.
I take off my dress and wipe myself with a washcloth, determined not to feel discouraged. But it's hard. I am tired. I miss my job. I put on the blue tent dress, which makes me look like I could sleep four.
Leaving home, alas, doesn't turn out to be half as bad as arriving at Nancy's party. Though our home very much reflects the fact that we have little kids, Nancy's looks more like a spread in a magazine. In the center of the perfect room stands perfect Nancy, looking resplendent in gray pants and a long maroon jacket. I suck in my stomach and walk over to say hello.
Nancy extends before us a platter of flaky triangular pastries. "Try one," she says. "They're stuffed with spinach. I made them myself."
She made them herself?
Nancy starts passing around red ceramic bowls filled with cold cucumber soup. I am in awe. Don't you have to puree for that sort of thing?
It's delicious. Everyone says how delicious it is. Nancy stands up to start clearing bowls. I get up to help her. "Please don't," she says. "Just sit down."
Nancy and I gather the bowls and carry them into the kitchen. As I load them into the dishwasher, Nancy whips up a fluffy white sauce and pours it over the green beans. She opens the oven door and pulls out a roast.
"Wow!" I cry. "That's beautiful!"
"No," Nancy insists, poking the meat, prodding it, and lifting it up to examine underneath. "This is not beautiful. It's overcooked. I wanted the center rare. I'm sure Joe would want it rare, too. People who care about their meat like it rare. But I screwed it all up." She is standing at the roast and shaking her head like it was the family pet that just died.
"Nancy," I say, "everything about this evening has been so beautiful—the way you look, the way your home looks, the way your food tastes—that it's intimidating to watch you."
"Right. You're one to feel intimidated…You're so smart," she says. "You had such an interesting career. You happen to be taking time off to take care of your kids, but still you have that professional skill. I was 24 when I quit my job to come here, and all I've done since is have kids. The only thing I know how to do is cook, but look, I can't even do that!"
I have been feeling intimidated by a woman who is in fact intimidated by me. In the kitchen, where I have come to escape how bad I've been feeling, I find myself mopping her ego off her (stunning slate) floor. How can this be right? What in perfection's name are we doing to ourselves?
The roast is, of course, delicious. Everyone says how delicious it is.
Nancy looks at me. I look at her. We burst out laughing. It's a big, raucous laugh, completely out of keeping with how well-mannered we've been the rest of the night. It's a laugh that will resonate in my ears for years to come, reminding me of a very important thing: I am not the only one failing to live up to my ludicrous expectations of myself; we all are. So maybe we all should relax. And instead of feeling bad that the roast tastes so good, I decide to simply enjoy it.
Lisa Wolfe now lives in New York with her husband and two sons. She is working on a novel.