My wife’s phone gave off a strange sound and, after she’d looked down at its screen, she said “Oh no,” and not in a cheerful way.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“It’s Pam Footnote,” she said as she picked up her mobile device, the better to see the full text of the message that lay concealed beneath the placid green screen. “They want to have us over for dinner.”
I groaned, inwardly and outwardly. “I thought we were done with them,” I said, recalling my Reverse Triangular Strategem for Getting Two Annoying Couples Out of Your Life With One Fell Stroke; I had invited them to dinner with our most liberal friends, hoping that the latter twosome’s strident political approach to all issues great and small would cause them to permanently break off our friendship, and that the former’s indifference to anything other than conspicuous consumption–golf, decorating, travel, etc.–would constitute a bridge too far for the leftie couple.
“Your brilliant idea completely backfired,” my wife said, and with more than a little smug satisfaction. “Both couples left congratulating themselves on how tolerant they were, and how they’d made friends of people who were totally at the opposite end of the spectrum from them.”
“It was worth a shot,” I said, as I stuck my nose back into my glass of Malbec, hoping the vapors would send me to a place far, far away, where scents would overrule sense and the irrational would ride astride the rational mind like a child on a supermarket mechanical horse. “So, do we have to accept?”
“I can hardly say no,” my wife said. “I saw her in the grocery store the other day and let slip . . .”
“The dogs of war?” I asked, reverting to Shakespeare, the last grip I had on Western Civ before I fell asleep.
“No, silly, that we were in town for the weekend and didn’t have any plans.”
“You know, if this were a World War II movie, I would have you prosecuted for treason, and maybe even shave your head.”
“Like Sinead O’Connor?”
“A little. That’s how they punished the French women for sleeping with Nazis.”
“The Footnotes aren’t that bad,” she said as she tapped a reply to the distaff half of the couple.
“History has yet to hand down its judgment,” I said as I finished my wine and toddled–as if I were the City of Chicago–off to bed.
I should provide some backstory, as they say in Hollywood. The Footnotes–Pam and Dave–go by a different surname, which shall remain undisclosed for fear of libel claims and social retribution. We gave them their nomme de whatever after sitting through too many dinner and cocktail parties with them, and enduring their dreadful conversation. They are a mutual perpetual emendation machine, hitting on two cylinders at all times to refine, improve, expand or correct each other’s bland and boring statements. If Dave says they joined the Woronoco Country Club in 2002, Pam immediately jumps in to say no, it was 2003, that was the year her mother died, she remembers it well. If Pam says their favorite restaurant Estella’s is at the corner of Clarendon and Newbury Streets in Boston, Dave swoops in like a red-tailed hawk on a field mouse to insist that Dartmouth is the cross-street, don’t you remember, that’s where that parking lot is located.
“Oh yes,” Pam will say, and they’re off, pulling each other further into the Labyrinth like Hansel and Gretel off to find the Minotaur. A private conversation in a nearly-private language ensues while everyone else sips their drinks, too polite to change the subject, too embarrassed to try and direct them back to the main path of the evening’s discourse. After awhile the Footnotes emerge back into the sunlight, like cheerful kittens kept in the basement overnight, and blurt out “So how’s work going?” to the first male who catches their eye, or “What’s new with Chloe/Caitlin/Chelsea?” to the first female. By then the rest of the crowd is too deep in their cups to say anything other than “Fine.”
In short, they are a walking illustration of Noel Coward’s gibe about footnotes: “Having to read footnotes resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love,” and so we thusly christened them. In fact, I have often wondered what love-making might be like at Chez Pam et Dave:
Pam: (. . .) What are you doing?
Dave: But . . . you like that.
Pam: Since when?
Dave: Don’t you remember? That time in Bermuda, right before we were married?
Pam: At the little inn that was once a provincial courthouse?
Pam: No, that was the time we went down with the Palmers, we didn’t have sex that vacation.
When the night for the Dreaded Encounter came, I steeled myself ahead of time with a rye on the rocks, like some character out of a John O’Hara short story.
“You’re drinking before we go?” my wife asked.
“It’s the only way I’m going to get through the evening.”
“Just let them talk, eventually they’ll wear themselves out.”
“Easy for you to say,” I said. “You can always go fuss in the kitchen over the pre-fabricated Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres you bring.”
With the ground rules thus established, we found ourselves soon enough on the Footnotes’ doorstep and, after the obligatory exchange of air-kisses, made our way into their overheated living room, whose walls are covered with the sort of conventional prints a conventional New England couple inherits from their conventional parents when they suffer the end to which we are all headed by nature, not convention: sail boats, a Cape Cod sunset, one vaguely experimental painting purchased on a madcap weekend in New York and, off to the side, the poorly executed work of a relative whose sense of perspective could trigger an LSD flashback.
“How have you two been, it’s been ages!” my wife asked with an air of conviviality that, God love her, sounded sincere.
“Oh, puttering along,” Pam said, and I hoped Dave wasn’t going to make some stupid pun about golf, a subject that always sets off my narcolepsy. “Have you two taken any vacation lately?”
On my scale of Universal Weights and Measures of Boredom, the surest sign that two couples have nothing left to say to each other is when one side asks the other this question, but that may just be me. My wife pounced on it like a duck on a June bug, as they say where I come from.
“We went to Saratoga Springs last summer to see ballet,” she said, and we were off to the races.
“Oh, I love dance!” Pam said. “I wish Dave would take me.”
“I took you once,” her worse half said.
“No you didn’t!” Pam countered, with mock outrage.
“Yes I did, that time with the Nugents.”
“At that big auditorium.”
“The Convention Center?”
“Not the new one, the old one, on Boylston Street.”
“That wasn’t ballet, that was some Chinese cultural thing.”
“You said ‘dance.’ There were dancers on stage.”
“You had to go because of work, it was free, so that doesn’t count.”
I stared down into my drink and, seeing that it was both half-full and half-empty, got up to refresh it in the kitchen. I figured by the time I got back the Footnotes would have reached the intermission of the long-forgotten event, and we might have a chance to get things back on track.
Sure enough, when I returned the Footnotes had stopped for re-fueling, and had turned over the conversational driving to my wife.
“How are the kids?” she asked innocently, perhaps thinking that it would be hard for any couple to disagree as to the basic facts of their children’s existence.
“Oh, Jeremy’s fine but he quit his job at the consulting firm and is working on an ‘app’–whatever that is.”
Risky life decisions by offspring–while rich fodder for conversation among our other friends–struck me as a cue for infinite regression on the Footnotes’ part, so I quickly interjected with something less sensitive, and more quantifiable.
“Where’s he living now?” I asked.
“In South Boston,” the husband said.
“It’s not South Boston where he lives, it’s something else,” Pam corrected him. “The South End . . .”
“That’s not the South End,” Dave said. “The South End is way the hell over on the other side of the Turnpike.”
“Well, it’s the Seaport, or the Innovation District, or the Waterfront or something, but it’s definitely not South Boston.”
“South Boston is trendy now, they should stop trying to name it something else,” Dave said in a voice devoid of defensiveness. That’s how the Footnotes are; never contentious, always dry, academic, just-the-facts-ma’am, the Joe Fridays of social chit-chat.
“Well, I think he calls it something else. Fort Point Channel?”
I looked at my watch, and I didn’t try to hide it. I felt as if we were trapped inside an encyclopedia, and were only halfway through the volume with Aa-As on the spine.
“What’s that I smell from the kitchen?” I interjected. No one’s ever actually died of starvation at the Footnotes, but I didn’t want to take a chance.
“I’m making noisettes du porc au pruneaux,” Pam said.
“Sounds yummy!” my wife said. “What’s that?” I’m the Francophile in the family.
“It’s a six-day bicycle race in France,” I said.
“Oo, you’re bad!” Pam said to me, then to my wife, “It’s pork with prunes.” To my shock and surprise, the next words out of Dave’s mouth didn’t include a correction.
“We tried it when we took a tour of the Loire Valley in 2005,” he said.
“It wasn’t 2005,” Pam replied, “that was the summer right before Jeremy graduated from college, so it would have been 2004.”
“It wasn’t 2004, I would remember. That’s the year the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.”
I was tempted to jump in with some sports talk and break the mind-forg’d manacles that always seemed to lock up the Footnotes’ talk, but I hesitated and was lost.
“It had to be 2004, he graduated from high school in 2000, so . . .”
“You’re forgetting,” Dave said, gently reminding her. “He got that F in biology on his junior year abroad, so he didn’t graduate until 2005.”
Pam was, for just a moment, speechless; there it was, out in the open, for all to see, like an upchucked chipmunk from their cat Mitzi on the rug in front of us. The shame, the embarrassment that our children can cause us, we who like to present a placid exterior to our social equals, betters and inferiors. I could detect in her face the hot flush of blood rushing to her cheeks. It took her a moment, but–like the dinner party trouper she was–she shook off the blow and in a second had her wits about her again.
“It wasn’t biology,” she said finally. “It was organic chemistry.”