Alexander passed behind me at the sink, squeezed my shoulders and then patted them. Everything will be ok, his action said.
Yes, I thought, we are doomed. Doomed to get a beer.
He tried to hand me the first plated entree but I had a wet bowl in my hands and the dishrack was full. As I looked for a place to put the bowl he finally set the entree on the counter. I felt as though I’d failed. I reached the bowl into the cabinet, picked up the chicken tenders freshly plated over green beans and drizzled with savory blue cheese sauce, and sailed into the living room.
“Ayala, you’re first,” I announced. “Then it goes counterclockwise. Line of dance!”
As I was shuttling to and from the kitchen, another guest arrived, Jonathan, bald and short, but fit and well dressed and young and kind of sexy. “Oh, I thought you were Spanish,” he said to me.
“What a nice compliment,” I said.
“What do you mean? America is the best country in the world,” he said.
During the meal Jonathan described the personality indicators he’d used during his stint as a manager. He sat between me and Ayala; we asked him questions about his hiring philosophies. I only had my experience managing Blues Cafe volunteers as comparison, and Ayala cried passionately, “I just learned more from that conversation than all semester in Human Resources classes!”
Alexander brought out the cookies I had baked, as well as the Ben and Jerry’s contributed by Cesar. The guests’ exclamations of delight dominated conversation for the next ten or so minutes. Ryan’s frequent leaning over, taking a cookie, and slathering it with Chunky Monkey led one of his colleagues to exclaim, “Basta!” (Enough!) His wife Isabella turned to me triumphantly, saying that the two of them always argued over who had the bigger sweet tooth. Clearly he had the greater weakness for sweets! Couldn’t I see that?
“They’re soft,” Xavier said approvingly.
After all this adulation I had to try half of one. I didn’t like it much.
Peter had liked his cookies crispy. Maybe I secretly prefer them that way as well, though I make it a point never to eat the cookies I bake. They are strictly for those I love. Certainly Alexander’s fellow students, who were babies or young children during the mid-eighties, grew accustomed to Soft Batch or Home-Style Brand cookies, pseudo-soft fake-home-baked chemical-ridden nightmares.
Alexander also liked my cookies, though. “That’s high praise, coming from an expert like you,” I’d said to him earlier, in the kitchen. As a child he’d been fascinated with the mechanical and chemical process of homemade chocolate chip cookies, and to this day probably harbors some anger at his older sister for continually getting the lion’s share of the results, though of course he can make his own, with molasses and extra grated chocolate or anything else he cares to add. Still he thought mine were commendable.
“Come on!” he’d protested. “You know I always like your cookies. I think there was only one time you made them when they were not so good, kind of flat and crispy.”
As the guests took my pillowy cookies and made ice cream sandwiches, I stood up and reached across the table toward Cesar. “Good teamwork,” I said, and high-fived him. I liked the looks of him. He had an open, present expression, amiable, engaged, unlike Ryan who guzzled sweets and didn’t talk about his bass playing.
Now Alexander had brought out Robert’s guitar and was gallantly passing it to me, over Sera, the L’Oreal rep, and her guy John.
“Oh no,” I said, not reaching for it. “I’m not ready yet.”
Among the guests there ensued a babble of protest such as I had not heard in a long time, probably since I worked with kids two months ago.
“Play something! It doesn’t matter! We want to hear you! Oh, you are a musician! What will you play?”
“I don’t play guitar,” I answered simply.
They didn’t listen. They kept on. I kept quiet.
After another minute, I piped up. “OK, let me see. How can I say this?”
Suddenly the room quieted down.
Into the silence, I uttered one syllable. “No.”
Even I had not been prepared for how bitchy and mean that sounded. The silence that continued confirmed my fear.
Fortunately they then switched their attention to Alexander, for he had begun to play a few notes on the guitar, which, after all, I’d brought for him to play. For some reason his mother had refused to send him his guitar from Massachusetts. He started fingerpicking Robert’s guitar quietly, warming up.
“Play Guns N Roses!” roared the business students. “AC/ DC! No! No! What do you know? Do you sing too? ‘Knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door!’”
Alexander smilingly deflected their comments. I listened to him warm up.
Several more minutes elapsed without a song to please the masses, now full of sweets but hungry for distraction. “Maybe you could just play us one song?” Ryan’s wife Isabella said, looking across at me.
I smiled at her. “Darling. You are so sweet. I wonder if you can understand. I. Don’t. Play. Guitar.”
This was entirely the wrong approach. How could these nice, intelligent, gorgeous people understand that I had brought a guitar but do not play guitar? That it belongs to my friend Robert who is now in Berlin visiting his girlfriend, that I have only this week begun to practice and I absolutely refuse to play in front of anyone? I should have validated their confusion: “Of course you expect me to play. I came in here bringing a guitar! I should play, right? I know it doesn’t make any sense! Here’s the situation…” and then I could explain, as patiently and slowly as possible. I’d forgotten to do that. They were my responsibility and their mild horror was now my fault.
Alexander played Mike Doughty and some Will Dailey. I sang. His friends reacted strongly when I reminded him of chords, laughing and joking and pretending to yell out chords to him as well. Although the rift between them and myself had been my fault, they were losing favor with me.
At least they finally seemed satisfied.
As we were all standing up - the metro was about to shut down, and no one wanted to spring for a cab, least of all me - Ayala asked me why I was in Madrid.
I finally had a chance to test my fairy tale!
“Well,” I began, “I dance a very obscure form of dance. It’s called the lindy hop -”
“Oh, I know that dance! My sister does it!”
“Really!” I gushed, and let her talk about the lindy hop for a while. Then I continued, “Anyway, these folks from Madrid found me on Google, so they emailed me to ask if I would come here for a little while and train them. I wanted to get out of Boston anyway, so I did. When I got here, I just fell in love with the city! So, I teach English to pay the bills and I train people to lindy hop!”
Now I am safe. Safe from Alexander, safe from his friends, safe to learn how to keep from offending people, to stave off their confusion, to decide when and whether I want to go that extra mile. I’m safe to be myself, to preserve my sensitive constitution for the next man who truly knows my heart, and safe to decide who gets to read about it.
I realize in a flash anyone can cook for Alexander, can send him peanut butter, but only I can write my truth about him.
This truth, in turn, generalizes to the world. Many can make squash soup for the world, can teach English to the world, can even teach lindy hop to the world. Only I can tell my truth. The world needs it from me.
If somehow this in turn is not true, if my writing is boring and overstuffed with adjectives and already has been said a thousand times before, then the people who make this judgment implicitly understand me already; let them come and be my real family, or my friends, or my lovers.
Either way, I write, I win.