Welcome to The Potluck

By: Eva M. Schlesinger

         Angie helped herself to napkins and glanced around the packed living room. All the women were busy talking to each other. The napkins fanned like cards in a rummy discard pile. She slid her hand underneath the pile, scooped them up, touching the sleek napkin paper, slithering her fingers along the crepe paper tablecloth. The first few napkins floated into her beaded red shoulder bag, but the others crammed in, smooshing each other, pushing and shoving like passengers on a crowded train. She tugged at the pouch’s zipper. It jerked. It strained against the bulging napkins. Grimacing, she jiggled it, giving it a good yank. Then she peered over her shoulder one more time to see if anyone had noticed.

No one. Just a fly spinning around, zooming in for a landing, skimming the Brie’s outer rim, before crawling along the seeded crackers. Next to the cheese plate, a woman with thin silver bracelets on her wrists stood breathing over the chicken soup. “Nice earrings.” She looked up at Angie. The area around her eyes crinkled.

“Thanks.” Angie cupped the clay books hanging from her ears. In her right pants pocket, her cheat sheet of responses rustled. If someone comments on my earrings, she had typed, say, thanks, I’m a writer and lead workshops. But in that moment, distracted by the woman’s mouth nearly kissing the soup, she couldn’t muster up the words. The soup kisser sounded like she was having a revelation. “Aaaah haaah, aaaaah haaah.”

“Are you okay?” said Angie.

“Just meditating. Meditating.” The woman’s voice echoed a little. “Chicken soup clears my sinuses, especially when it’s so steamy. Want to try?”

“No thanks, I’m going to go meet the others.”

“Nice hangin’ with you.”

‘Nice earrings’ and ‘nice hangin’.’ Angie hadn’t been there that long and already had learned things she could say in conversation. She tucked her new phrases in her mind for safekeeping.

She stopped to slice a triangle of blueberry pie, adding a scoop of minced plums. She hadn’t seen this much food in a long time. She tasted and chewed, licking her lips, as she made her way to the center of the room, where women clutched wineglasses and talked on and on, their voices humming in high and low tones. Every so often, someone laughed. Beeswax candles flickered, and paper lanterns swung above people’s heads.

A woman with dark glasses and polished black nails gestured to her. “You match what you’re eating.”

“Nice earrings.” Angie grinned.

“And you do what?”

Angie finished her pie and dabbed at the woman’s spit that had splotched her wrist. “I lead wor— ”

“Attention.” A tall woman with maple brown hair cascading over her shoulder clinked her glass with lacquered nails. “Welcome to the potluck. My name is Desi Williams, and I’d like to welcome you. Be sure to mingle and introduce yourselves.”

So. The women with the wineglasses were mingling. Angie thought it had looked familiar. She remembered seeing the diagram in Guidebook to Parties. Fluffing up her wavy hair in the style she called the “flying saucer look,” she patted down the sleeves of her blazer, smoothing the wrinkles, and strolled over to Desi.

“Welcome.” Desi smiled, clasping Angie’s hand between both of hers. “So glad you’re here.”

Angie had longed for this moment, even though it went against her writing career—to need people. But part of her attempt to step out of her comfort zone involved launching Business Plan B—being a much sought-after workshop leader. The quiet of her life had been as exciting as a sinkhole, but this potluck held the promise of great success. She had learned about it from the food co-op. The poster displayed a diamond-shaped, yellow sign showing a woman with a platter in her hands and the words, “Slow … Potluck Crossing … Proceed with Care.” Angie had raced home to email the contact person for directions. Not only had she wanted to branch out, not only did she need a change of pace from eating black beans and rice day in and day out, but she was also all out of napkins.

“How are you?” Desi said.

“Oh,” Angie said, as she unsnapped snaps on her purse’s outside pocket. “I’m …” she said, digging around for her fliers and getting a whiff of their inky smell. It was so hard to multi-task—to bring her fliers out with a flourish, meet Desi’s eyes, and say she was new and came to network. To top it off, someone swooped in on Desi.

“Darling,” said a woman with a small, tanned face and tight curls that made Angie think of a troll. “It’s been ages. Are you still writing?” She scribbled in the air.

“Poetry, fiction, and the occasional essay.”

“Busy bee,” the troll squealed. “I have a start-up in social networking. We’ll have to have coffee.”

Angie’s stomach somersaulted each time they cooed at one another. Inching closer to them, she craned her head forward, a bird looking for crumbs.

“In my spare time,” said the troll, laughing, “I’m also writing a novel, but I procrastinate a lot. I guess,” she whispered the rest of the sentence. “I need help with being alone. You probably know all about that,” she said, nodding in Angie’s direction.

Was she that transparent? Angie’s heartbeat thudded in her ears. She was holding her breath underwater, waiting for a chance to come up for air. She swayed. Now was her chance. To say “You’re absolutely right, I do know. I’m a workshop leader and leading expert in being alone. Check out my fliers.” But should she first hand out the fliers, then speak? Should she not even mention being an expert? She racked her brain, trying to recall the e-mail’s fine print.

“What do you do?” Desi said.

Angie’s breath rushed out. She couldn’t believe Desi was including her in the conversation. “I’m also a writer, and I lead …”

“Do you make your living as a writer?” the troll said.

“I’m living.” Angie’s legs ached and ached, and her shoulder muscles tensed. Networking was hard work.

Desi examined her fingers as though scrutinizing for calluses.

“Oh, I’m legit, very much so. I wrote two books and I have this work …”

“We’re going to visit with the others,” Desi said.  “Nice chatting with you.”

They had been chatting. She received confirmation. Mingling required stamina. Her guidebook had not reported that. It had no footnotes on potluck protocol, and the email had not come with instructions.

She needed to keep her strength up. As she meandered toward the other women, she lingered at the table, where the scent of newly arrived peanut butter cookies greeted her. Dark brown with tiny blond peanut chips, they had homemade written all over them, and looked like they were playing leapfrog with one another. Come on, they lured her.  Join us. Well. It had been awhile since her last peanut butter cookie.

“How do you do? My name is Angie.”

Nice to meet you, the cookies chorused. No one is paying us attention. You’re the first.

“I know the feeling,” Angie said between nibbles of thick, chewy cookie. She put a second in her side pocket for later. Crumbs dribbled down her blazer. She filled a paper cup with sparkling water, counting the bubbles fizzing over the rim, and used tongs to lift wedges of roasted red peppers and onions onto a small paper plate.

“The plates are the compostable kind,” said a woman who introduced herself as Kir. She was about five-foot-five with an outfit resembling a fried egg. “Either sugarcane or bamboo.”

Angie blinked to show she heard her. Spearing a pepper sliver with a toothpick, she popped it between her lips.

“I know, I tried,” Kir said.

“The peppers are good, aren’t they?” said Angie. “I never make these at home.”

“No, the plates. I tried to eat them once. Just to see if they were edible. You’d think because they’re sugarcane or what have you.”

“So true.” Angie wished she were still talking with the peanut butter cookies. But maybe she could work this into an article on unique potluck behavior for Bon Appétit.

“I was thinking that’s how I could get the most for my money. Eat my meal and plate and no harm to the environment. But that plate made my throat so raw it bled, and when I ate the bamboo silverware, I nearly choked.”

“I’m glad you didn’t and could come to this party.” Angie wished she had worn her sneakers, instead of her clogs, for a quick getaway. She swiveled, facing a chair, then thought, potential workshop member.

“But enough about me.” Kir leaned forward, so she was breathing over Angie’s plate. “What do you do? We’re supposed to network, right?”

“I’m a writer.”

“How exciting.” Her eyes brightened. “Have you written anything I might have read?” She positioned her ballpoint over a notepad.

Angie threw her head back, trying to imitate the women with their wineglasses laughing and laughing without a care in the world. It must have been a neat trick they practiced because when she did it, the vegetables flew off the plate blending into the Oriental carpet.

Kir searched the floor. “Or is it a secret? I know some writers don’t like to talk about their work.”

“No, it’s fine. I wrote two books.”

“Memoir? It’s all I hear about these days.”

“These are more like how-to manuals with a personal twist. Temping Your Way Through Friendships and Surviving on One Friend a Year. Your Bookshelf carries them.”

Kir stared with what Angie assumed was rapt attention. All she had to do was present her fliers, and she’d have her first customer. “Inter-rest-ing.” Kir drew out the word so Angie felt worthy. “I’ll stop by the bookstore on my way home.”

Angie beamed. She was so close to getting her to sign up for the workshop. “Do you want to see my fliers?”

“I’d love to, but,” said Kir, her voice dropping like she was confiding something big, “my stomach’s rumbling. I haven’t eaten anything today, not even a plate.” She headed over to the hummus and pita chips. “But it was nice meeting you.”

Wow, Angie thought as she dawdled, helping herself to more vegetables, just think, Kir called my books “interesting.” She’ll look me up. She wants to see my fliers.

She took a sip of water and a bite of roasted onion.

“Whenever I see you, you’re always eating,” Oona said.

Angie recognized her from the stay-at-home-writers collective. “It’s what I’m known for. That and my wo … Whoa,” she said as someone jostled her, splashing water everywhere. Whoa, she thought. No one wants to hear about my worksh …

“Hi, I’m Leigh Lohn.” She squinted through cat’s eye frames on the tip of her nose. “We met in a writing class. How are you?”

Angie liked that someone was talking to her, even if she had no idea who that person was. Maybe Leigh needed her expertise. Reversed, her name was Lohn Leigh. “I’m good. How are you?”

“Good, how are you?”

“Good.” Yawning, she snuck a glance at her watch. It was only 6: 40 p.m. “Please excuse me,” she said. “I have mingling fatigue syndrome.”

“Hope it’s not contagious.” Leigh’s eyes narrowed in concern. “Should I get Desi?”

Angie gave a half-hearted shrug. She was better off alone. It enhanced her professional rating. Besides, Leigh would never sign up for a workshop. She was cheap. On the table she had stacked American cheese singles, the fake orange highlighting her yellow plastic hair clip and gold cupcake pin inlaid with jade and emeralds. Before closing her eyes for a catnap, Angie thought, note to self: pitch article about mingling fatigue to women’s health magazines.

“Is this seat taken?” A woman coughed.

Angie’s eyes flew open. “All yours.”

Bea F.F., her name tag read in turquoise italics, shimmering like her eye shadow. She touched Angie’s knee. “It’s nice to sit down.”

The warmth from Bea’s hand swirled through Angie. Workshop potential. If Bea touched her, that meant she liked her. Angie just needed the perfect segue. She cleared her throat, filled with static. “Do you ever wish you could just go off by yourself?”

“Sure. Oh look, there’s my friend. See ya.”

Angie flinched as though stung. She tried to stay positive. Chatting: check. Broached the A-word (aloneness): check. Bea had said yes: check.  But she zipped off, leaving Angie by herself. Her plan had backfired. Maybe she had gone about things the wrong way. Maybe Bea thought Angie was inviting her to leave.

More women gathered, thronging and talking in the hallway and crowding the living room, bumping into the forget-me-nots in a crystal vase on the coffee table. Some women rested their plates on the white built-in-bookshelves, while others stooped under the geraniums hanging by the French doors. They spilled out onto the patio next to the greenhouse. Women hugged and their lips danced do-si-do. “How are you? Oh, you like Suzy’s Café, too? We ought to do lunch. You live at the corner of Lincoln and 43d? That’s my neighborhood. You should join me on my walk.”

Tearing at her thumbnail, Angie scowled. Why wasn’t anyone inviting her for lunch or a walk? If she had extra attention, or even a morsel to feed her, it would mean everyone loved her. How did meeting people transform into deep friendship in the blink of an eye?

Someone in khakis left the inner circle. “Nature calls,” she said over her shoulder. “Be right back.” Her friend sauntered up to the table to rummage for more food. Forks and spoons clattered as she searched for the right chocolate pudding utensil.

What would make the greatest impression? Angie tiptoed toward the center. Should she say she was an expert in her field? Her right eyebrow twitched up and down, and her fliers rumpled as she folded them in half and half again. She took a breath. “Hi. I wanted. To. To. Announce,” her voice was shaking so hard she could barely speak, “a workshop. I’m leading this workshop. Me, Angie.” Oh god, had she said “me?” A woman with her baseball cap on backwards and fang-like lip piercing was giving her the eye from across the room. No doubt cursing her poor use of language. Better get on with it. She said the rest fast so that the words ran together: “One of a kind opportunity, and I invite you, yes, you, to sign up to take a class in being …”

“Angie,” said a woman circling her in a bosomy hug. “Do you remember me?” Her terrycloth nightshirt smelled like saliva.

Angie skidded to a stop, forgetting the rest of her sentence. She scrunched up her nose.

“Tina, friend of Diva, sister-in-law of Stevie, cousin of Emi, friend of Vivian’s niece.”

“Okay.” Angie charted a family tree of friends in her head. They were friends in a distant kind of way. She flashed a winning smile, one she had practiced in front of her mirror. It lit up her eyes and lips. “Do you want to grab some food and chat?”

“Sounds great,” said Tina. Her Band-Aids were rings around her fingers. “Meet you in the corner.”

Angie heaped her plate with lasagna, spaghetti, shredded mozzarella, and spinach salad, readying herself for a long chatting session. Maybe they’d be like the women in the center, catching up over food and drinks. She stuck a bottle of water under her right arm, and snagged a fork on the way back to her chair.

Catching a glimpse of Tina, who was gabbing to someone in a frilly pink blouse and high heels by the lemon pound cake, Angie waved, trying to get her attention. Yoo-hoo. You’re supposed to be talking with me. She snapped her fingers. Tina twirled a strand of her strawberry blond hair as she jabbered on and on. They smiled and laughed, laughed and smiled. Angie couldn’t remember when she had been that happy. And how dare Tina laugh? Angie shuddered. What did she have to talk about? Hadn’t they just met? Wasn’t Angie’s connection with Tina more important? They were family.

Sort of.

Staring at her, Angie willed Tina to make eye contact. When Tina gave her a quick look, Angie mouthed, “It’s me, your fourth friend, thrice removed.” Tina gaped at her. Was it because Angie had said it in between bites of salad? Or maybe she shouldn’t have said, “It’s me.” It is I. She scolded herself for her second infraction of the evening. Her fork played with the spaghetti, wrapping it around the tines. What if Tina reported her, saying she had no business leading workshops?

When she peeked up after chewing the noodles fifty times, Tina widened her eyes in a “How do I know you again?” look.

Fine. She wouldn’t talk to anyone. She’d lie low. Stretching her hand, cramped from gripping the fliers over an hour, she eyed the inky marks marring her skin. She patted her bag, communicating with her napkins. “Just checking to see if you’re okay,” she said under her breath. They were helpful when she needed them. When she wiped her mouth, they absorbed what she could not say. When she dried her tears, they soaked up the pain. When she discarded them, she felt cleansed and pure.

“Is this seat taken?” The woman’s voice was scratchy, like it was gritty with sandpaper. Lines like tree roots spread up from her nose across her forehead.

“Of course. I mean, no. You can sit there.”

“Whole Wheat Fig Bar. That’s my spiritual name. I go by Whole.” Her hand crunched Angie’s with a click-click sound. “I heard your speech earlier.”

“My speech?” Angie wriggled her hand away, shaking it a few minutes.

“You said something about leading a class in being.” Whole’s eyes were gray-blue like the polka dots on her cardigan.

“Oh that. That was about something I’m doing.” She hesitated. To mention her workshop again seemed dangerous. A girl could take only so many interruptions. “I’m Angie. Writer.”

“Hello, Angie Writer.” Whole smirked like she knew something Angie didn’t know.

Angie’s face felt hot. She was certain she had made a mess of things.

“I know what you mean,” Whole said.

So, she had ruined everything.

“I’m a workshop leader myself.”

“That’s what my talk was about.”

“Well, they say two’s company, but three’s a crowd.”

Look at me. Angie wanted to shout and run around the room, telling all the women, I’m chatting.

“Where do you lead?”

“I’m just starting.”

“Oh well.” Whole looked at her from head to toe, like she was sizing her up. “I’ve been doing it for years. It’s how I make my living.”

“What are your workshops?” Angie’s chair lurched, quaking and squeaking every time she bounced.

“I’m an expert in the field of …”

Angie held her breath. What if Whole had her job? What were the chances? As far as she knew, she was the only one in her field.

“Being.”

“Being what?”

“Just being. It’s very existential. Being. And I’m on loan.”

“Alone?” Angie shrieked, as women turned to look at her. She wasn’t the only one in her field.

“Two’s company,” Whole said.

Maybe they’d form their own company called Company.

“Not ‘alone,’ on loan.”

“Oh.” The air whooshed out of her like a deflated tire. “Are you a temp?”

“Hardly.” Whole’s breasts shook with laughter. “People enjoy me so much they borrow me to fill their homes with goodness, love, and harmony.”

Slumping against the neck rest, Angie wished she hadn’t eaten all the shredded mozzarella, lasagna, spaghetti, spinach, pie, plums, roasted vegetables, and peanut butter cookies because they reeled inside her like Tilt-a-Whirl at the amusement park. You couldn’t borrow someone for love, goodness, and harmony. That had to come from within. She relied only on herself. It was better that way. Maybe Whole didn’t know that. Maybe Angie was more enlightened about that kind of thing.

“’Without You’ is my business,” Angie found herself saying.

“Without me?” Whole dropped a piece of corkscrew pasta, followed by smoked salmon, into her mouth. “No one can bear to be without me.” She smacked her lips. “Mmm.”

“The general you. Anyone who wants to be alone the rest of her life,” she said. Her voice cracked as a wave of longing hit her. She bit her lip, trying to brush off the feeling. Her longing ballooned over them, a huge, oozing sore. Really, it was none of Whole’s business what her business was. She was doing her best to start anew, since her friends had vanished into thin air. They had stopped calling after her father died, didn’t wish her a happy birthday, and didn’t invite her to get together. When Angie ran into them, they said, “Talk to you soon,” and let the silence swirl like mist between them. Yes, it was better to be alone. She wanted to shave need off like it was an extra layer of fat.

“My friends love me. Why should I hire you?”

“Say your friends disappear and you can’t find them again, the old ones or replacements. You try and try and no one accepts your offer. So, one day, you decide you have to move forward. My workshop provides tips and tools of the trade.”

“How’s it going so far?” said Whole.

“I thought I’d announce it tonight and see what kind of response I get.”

“What kind of response are you getting?”

“Everyone’s interrupting. I can never finish my sentence.”

“There’s an art to it. A science. You need to make sure the plants are in alignment.”

“Plants?”

“Look, around you. Do you see anything out of the ordinary?”

Angie surveyed the room. “Geraniums, forget-me-nots, bamboo …”

“But note their positions. No symmetry. No balance. Watch this.” She strode over to the begonia on the bookshelf and moved the pot so that it was in line with the African violet on the mantel, directly across from the bamboo and spider plants on the coffee table.

“So, what?”

As Bea F.F. came toward them, Whole said, “Want a flier? You can have one.”

“Thank you,” she said. “What is your name?”

“Whole Wheat Fig Bar, workshop leader. I’m in the field of being.”

“Being. That sounds so meditative. I’ve needed a workshop like that. I’ll check out your flier, then call you to sign up.”

Angie cringed as Bea strode away, not rushing to get anywhere, just going at her own pace. If she told people her name was Whole Wheat Fig Bar, they’d probably say they were wheat-free. She looked at Whole. “You’re right. There’s something to be said for plants in the right place.”

Whole started to get up, knocking over her cup. Water engulfed her left sandal. “Crap,” she said, falling back in her chair. Her neck flushed.

“Want a napkin?” Angie said, scooting her chair closer to her.

Whole ducked, her cheekbones red. “No, no, I’m fine.” Her toes squirmed, shivering, as the ice melted.

“Sure you don’t want one?”

Whole shrunk back. Her arms formed a fence, shielding her face.

Angie pulled her handbag’s zipper as though drawing open a theater curtain. She extracted a napkin, blanketing Whole’s foot. She lay another and another.

She had wanted napkins to be her friends, but they never talked. She had yearned to have someone to relate to, a BFF to support her. Without a BFF, she had felt hollow, emptiness she couldn’t fill, no matter what she ate at the potluck.

She released more napkins, flinging them into the air. Fluttering like doves, they

soared.