Well, obviously it turned out to be a dreadful mistake, but at Pilates, she’d seemed so nice! In retrospect, Patrice might have detected some telltale dullness in the woman’s gaze – the glaucous haze of stupidity filming the pupils like cataracts – or a giveaway glint of cruelty in her smile. Yet in Brooklyn, such creatures were as scarce as white rhinos, and Patrice didn’t have the eye. At least the zoological adventurism was bound to boost her status in Fort Greene.
Dina and her husband had recently moved to the neighbourhood from Wisconsin, and her origins might have raised alarm bells – except that Patrice was under the impression that most of these dodgy specimens were, um, robust. (According to a statistical analysis in the Economist, the leading coefficient for choosing deliberately to make a laughing stock of your own country was “poor health”, and you know what that means in America.) Dina was stringy. A darting alertness to her features, which now clearly denoted xenophobic suspicion and a perhaps-justifiable paranoia, had at first seemed to indicate a playful intelligence. Patrice must have been seduced by that dem, dat, dese accent, too, and Dina’s less-than-thudding dampening of her consonant blends was appealingly subtle. That said, “Mwaukee, Wuh-skaansun” would still have sounded hokey absent Frances McDormand’s likeable performance in Fargo.
Barbarically punctual, Dina was first. Apologising that her husband, not couldn’t come, but wasn’t coming – she’d have to work on her metropolitan excuse-making – she added opaquely that he’d had “bad experience socialising round ’ere”, for good reason, as matters transpired. But then, Patrice supposed it was a toss-up as to whether the couple were bound to be ostracised or would instead get incessant invitations from up and down the block, in the hopes that they’d perform at table like dancing bears, now that Ringling Brothers had been shamed into closing shop.
Dina delivered a plastic bag, and Patrice suppressed a pang of disapproval that it wasn’t canvas, or at least paper. “A six-pack! Oh, great!”
“Spotted Cow, real big where I come from. And you did say BYOB,” Dina said, adding with a half-smile of self-parody, “Yah, hey!”
“Actually, I said BYOD.” Dina looked uncomprehending. “Bring Your Own Dinner,” Patrice spelled out. “I do apologise! I was taking it for granted you’d been in Brooklyn long enough to be familiar with the convention. See, between vegetarians and vegans, gluten-frees, Paleos, Atkins, and Clean Eating, having six people around means cooking six completely different meals, and most of us have given up. You bring your own food, and take turns with the microwave. It works surprisingly well. Oh, sorry! With the wooden floors refinished, we have a no-shoes policy.”
Dina looked around the foyer, lined with matching pairs. “So that’s why it looks like a mosque.” At the time the remark seemed innocent, but now it hinted at bigotry.
“Don’t worry, my husband and I were already going to order take-out, so we can make that for three – assuming we can find one food group we all eat! Though honestly, with this ongoing state of emergency, the diet stuff suddenly seems small potatoes, doesn’t it? Maybe that’s the one thing we get out of it, “ she said, turning to answer the doorbell again. “Finding out what’s really important.”
“I feel almost guilty,” Courtney confessed after kissing Patrice on the cheek, taking off her light cardigan to reveal toned bare arms. “With that dimwit climate denier installed in the EPA like a suicide bomber, it seems positively sinful to enjoy this weather.” She couldn’t have felt that badly about the spring heatwave. That was a killer sundress.
“Take what you can get,” her husband Austin remarked behind her. “I haven’t been able to enjoy an ever-loving thing since the twentieth of January.”
The voices drew Bradford downstairs, and Patrice introduced her lanky husband to Dina, explaining that he was on staff with Transportation Alternatives in Manhattan. “Yeah, currently helping to outfit handlebars with mounted machine-guns,” he added. “The better to mow down pedestrians on the Brooklyn Bridge who zombie into the cycle lane.” He shook hands. “Just joking.”
“He’s not joking,” Patrice said.
Once Ray and Melody arrived, all the shoes were removed, and multiple bags unloaded – canvas – Patrice made further introductions: Courtney was a fundraiser for NYPIRG, and could take partial credit for the ban on fracking in New York State. Her husband Austin was an immigration lawyer who helped central American families apply for asylum. Melody, a wispy, physically fragile woman with the pale colouring of Gwyneth Paltrow, was a gynaecologist with Planned Parenthood, her burly husband Ray a psychotherapist for transitioning transgender children. “And I volunteer for NYC Animal Rights,” Patrice added. “My, with so much virtue in one room, this brownstone might explode!”
“Well, I work for a real-estate developer,” Dina said drily. “So that should make your house a little less combustible.”
Shooting a side glance at the one guest new to their circle, Patrice recognised that calculating expression: an organiser of five-borough cycling tours and a volunteer charity worker would only have bought a brownstone in this neighbourhood with inherited wealth. Secrets three storeys tall were difficult to keep.
As they settled in the living room with drinks, Melody remarked to Patrice, “Have you noticed how weird it’s getting every time you turn on your iPad? It used to be, once in a while, if David Bowie died or something, you’d get a headline notification. Now it’s like, every morning, before you enter your password, there’s a list of this-is-what-went-wrong-while-you-were-sleeping from CNN and the Times that’s long as your arm!”
“I actually have trouble getting out of bed,” her husband Ray said. “I wake in a state of unremitting dread. Anything could happen, and as Melody says, it probably has happened, and before coffee. It’s like living in a disaster movie, in that latter part where they have to keep ramping up the action, and there’s a new, even worse turn of the wheel every minute or so, and then every half-minute. Bam, there goes the State Department.”
“Yeah,” Austin said. “Except after the Muslim bans, and the mass deportations of the undocumented who aren’t even criminals —”
“Our cleaner Margarita is terrified,” Melody said.
“She should relax,” Courtney said firmly. “De Blasio is fully committed to keeping New York a sanctuary city, even if we have to take a hit in federal funding.”
“And all these nightmare cabinet nominations, Sessions and the Russians, the Flynn debacle —” Austin had a bad habit of booming on about what everyone else knew already. Ever since the beard – all the men had beards – he’d grown more pontificatory. Maybe that wasn’t a word, but for Austin’s sake alone, it should be.
“I’m suffering this bizarre affliction with that yoghurt ad,” Courtney intruded. “The one that chimes something like, It’s Dannon! Except now I always hear, Steve Bannon!”
“The assault on the media, the judiciary, and the electoral process,” Austin continued obliviously. “Offending China, Germany, Mexico, and even Australia. The fake news about Obama bugging Trump Tower. How can this disaster movie possibly escalate any further, without his starting a world war?”
“I can’t believe he’s still president,” Bradford said. “I expected that he’d have quit or been impeached by now.”
“I can’t believe we’re still alive,” Ray said. A doomsayer even among fellow doomsayers, the psychotherapist pulsed with a barely suppressed rage that must have built up in poisonous quantities after all that sensitivity with his patients. “I can’t believe we have physically survived two solid months with that fat, twitchy finger on the button. Thank God, last I checked, you still can’t fire nuclear weapons by Twitter.”
“My problem,” Patrice said, “is I can’t hold it in my head how thick he is. How crude, how poorly spoken. So I turn on the TV, and you wouldn’t think so, but I’m surprised. I go into shock, all over again. I hear this, We’re gonna have great, great health care, believe me, the greatest health care anybody in this country has ever seen, really really great . . .” Patrice was pleased to raise a laugh.
“I assume you guys saw SNL last weekend?” Courtney asked.
“Of course!” Bradford said. “Those Sean Spicer skits only get better.”
“I bet he can’t stand being parodied by a girl,” Austin said.
“Woman,” Melody corrected.
“Sean Spicer doesn’t even sound like a real name,” Patrice said. “Like, whoever’s writing this spoof can’t even think of a faintly plausible name for a press secretary. I swear, this whole administration feels made up.”
“This has to be one of those films that end, ‘And then I woke up, and it was all a dream,’” Austin said. “Plot-wise, there’s nowhere else for it to go.”
The communal despair was starting to feel too jolly, and Patrice inserted more soberly, “So who’s going to the rally next Saturday? It’s important we’re not all talk.”
“I’ll go,” Ray said sullenly. “But I wonder if protests aren’t all talk by other means. What difference do they make?”
“Apostasy!” Bradford exclaimed. “Look, the alternative is sitting on your ass, which appears to everybody else like being fine with this shit – with being complicit.”
“Rallies and marches are still mostly about making ourselves feel better,” Courtney said.
“Well, Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with feeling better?” Bradford said. “Speaking of which, let’s open another bottle of red.”
Patrice reminded her husband that Dina – who’d been terribly shy so far, though she hadn’t seemed this passive at Pilates – had misunderstood the evening’s dining format, and Bradford suggested ordering a broccoli pizza for the three of them.
“I might have a slice of that,” Melody said. “So long as you have them leave off the cheese.”
Which would make their main course broccoli on a cracker. But Patrice reminded herself that the whole idea of BYOD was to de-emphasise the food. Why, she wished they’d come up with the protocol ages ago. It eliminated everything trying about the dinner party – the agonising over the menu and worrying that everyone will recognise the Melissa Clark recipe from last Wednesday’s dining section; the performance anxiety; the missing out on the main conversation in order to make sea foam.
The pizza arrived by the time the line for the microwave had dwindled. (Melody was last, because she wouldn’t be in the kitchen when the microwave was running, and she had to warm her dinner in her own pot, coated with a special non-toxic surface.) With everyone sitting around with separate Glasslock containers, the atmosphere was on a par with having bag lunches in a school cafeteria, but at least they all got to sit at the cool kids’ table. Still, there were complications. Melody had to rearrange the seating in order to be maximally distant from Austin’s spiced beef, which “made her a little sick”. Thanks to Melody, too, the pizza was dry, and then she didn’t take a slice after all.
“It’s so regressive,” Patrice told Courtney. “After Michelle! She’s so timid, such an airhead.”
“But don’t you get the impression she’s afraid of him?” Courtney said. “She stands there rigidly at attention, as if terrified to move a muscle. I wouldn’t put it past him to slap her around.”
“I’ve read his whole staff is afraid of him,” Austin said. “They treat him like a grenade with the pin out.”
“The sole thing that gives me hope,” Bradford said, “is all these people look like dreck. Like Bannon! What’s wrong with his face? He looks like someone took him out back and beat the crap out of him. He looks like roadkill.”
“They must all eat horribly,” Melody said.
“None of them gets any exercise,” Bradford said. “Christ, in comparison to Obama! Aside from Himself, who glows like a life preserver, their skin tones are all grey. They sweat from the effort of standing up. I could see the entire administration dying of cancer and heart disease within the year.”
“Not before taking the country down with them,” Ray growled. He’d been hitting the Shiraz pretty hard, and alcohol made him gloomy. “I tell you, I could personally throttle all these puristic prisses who couldn’t bear to sully their perfectly clean hands by voting for Hillary.”
“But do you notice there seems to be nothing he can do that alienates his base?” Patrice said. “It’s like he said during the campaign: he could go out and murder someone in the street —”
“I voted for Trump.”
Though she hadn’t spoken loudly, the silence was sudden, and total. Dina must have been working herself up to this assertion for the last hour and a half.
“Seriously,” Patrice said at last, since it was her fault this – person – was in their house, and someone had to say something.
“As sure as God made little green apples.” This time the Wisconsin-ism was tinged with defiance. “My husband thinks I should keep my mouth shut. But that seems cowardly, and – what one of yous said a ways back – complicit.”
The remainder of the evening could have gone one way or the other. They might have twisted uncomfortably in their chairs, acted hypocritically apologetic, and changed the subject, as if there were any other subject. (Really, what else could they talk about, Brexit? Which you could bet the mask of the red death at the end of the table also thought was wonderful.) Then they could call it a night on the early side. The very early side. Or . . .
“What you’re complicit in,” Ray said slowly, rounding on the obvious alternative to discomfiture, “is bringing your own country to its knees in the course of two miserable months —”
“Dina,” Patrice intervened diplomatically. “Do you mind telling us why you voted for Trump?”
“I think any country has the right to enforce its own immigration laws.” Her voice quavered a bit, and she was probably shaking. “I believe in tax reform —”
“What, tax breaks for billionaires?” Ray exploded.
“We need to bring back manufacturing jobs —”
“They’re never coming back, don’t kid yourself,” Austin cut her off.
“I don’t see how any self-respecting woman could vote for that man,” Melody said, “after the pussy-groping tape. He’s a misogynist and a bully!”
“The soul of intolerance —” Patrice said.
“A racist, an Islamophobe —” Austin said.
“A trans-phobe, a homophobe —” Ray said.
“I don’t remember his saying anything anti-gay —” Dina said.
“He mocks the disabled —” Bradford said.
“That gesture was misunderstood,” Dina said. “He just meant the reporter was dumb —”
“Are you happy with his performance so far?” Ray charged.
“It’s only been two months,” Dina said. “I’m willing to give him a chance.”
“But doesn’t he embarrass you?” Courtney said. “He’s incoherent, and he just makes stuff up off the top of his head, like that fantasy terrorist attack in Sweden —”
“He was referring to a report on Fox the night before about immigration in Sweden,” Dina said. “He never said anything about a terrorist attack.”
“Fox is his only source of information!” Bradford said. “I’m not even convinced he knows how to read!”
“I’m just trying to understand,” Patrice said, “what the attraction is. He’s boastful. He’s a blowhard. He’s poorly educated about foreign affairs. He can’t talk. So why did you want this rich, spoiled lout of all people to be president?”
“He’s a regular person,” Dina said. “I know he’s not polished —”
“Understatement of the century,” Austin scoffed.
“I thought that speech, to Congress,” Dina said. “Was OK.”
“One speech,” Ray said. “He managed to get through one speech without making absolutely everyone’s skin crawl —”
“And the Supreme Court nominee,” Dina said. “He seemed OK, too.”
“I wouldn’t count on that,” Melody said. “It’s yet to be determined whether Gorsuch would overturn Roe v Wade —”
“I’m pro life,” Dina said meekly.
“So, what,” Melody said, in a voice that in her tiny terms was screaming, “you want it to be illegal to abort your rapist’s baby?”
“How can you support a man who idolises a thug like Vladimir Putin?” Austin said.
“I think Trump just appreciates,” Dina said, “that Putin isn’t ashamed of sticking up for his own country’s interests —”
“I don’t think you were taking your own country seriously!” Ray fumed. “Putting this whacko at the helm? It’s like a whim, a whimsy, a ha ha. It’s having contempt for your nation, and your nation’s history, and for everyone else who lives here and is still trying to take it seriously. It’s turning your own country into a joke. The rest of the world thinks we’ve become some – running gag. The rest of the world can’t tell the difference between a Trump press conference and a Saturday Night Live skit!”
“It’s worse than that,” Austin said. “The United States is one of the most important political experiments in human history, and now it’s going to end in ignominy, in not only farce but fascism —”
“It’s going to end in civil war, if this keeps up,” Courtney said.
“I could live with that, if it resulted in partition,” Bradford said. “That’s where we need the walls. Along the east and west coasts, to sequester the morons in the middle —”
“You wouldn’t have enough food,” Dina said.
“We’d buy it,” Ray said. “We’d have all the money, and you could keep your purple waves of grain —”
“That’s amber,” Dina mumbled. “Amber waves of grain.”
“Didn’t you say you moved here in December from Wisconsin?” Ray said. “If you’d at least moved here first, you might have harmlessly exercised your lunacy within the protective confines of New York, like – like throwing a fit in a padded cell. But no, you voted in a swing state! So our current swing state – swinging in the wind, like the victim of a lynching – is your fault. You and yours did this to us —”
“I haven’t heard yet,” Dina said, “how Trump has hurt any of yous personally.”
“Wait until the Atlantic Ocean is sloshing around the top floor of the Empire State Building,” Courtney said.
“If you’re right about climate change,” Dina said, “then four years of a sceptical administration in one country won’t make that much difference, ’n so? Or even eight.”
“Ooh, baby,” Ray said. “After eight years of this we’ll all be long dead.”
“I think maybe you’re exaggerating a little,” Dina said.
“I think maybe it’s impossible to exaggerate,” Ray said. “This is the worst thing that’s happened in our lifetimes. Worse than 9/11. Worse than Vietnam —”
“Who’s died?” Dina asked. “That Navy Seal, OK. That’s the only person who’s died. Our lifetimes. That includes Pol Pot. That includes Rwanda.”
“This is a different kind of genocide!” Ray said. “It’s a slaughter of a whole country conceptually, of a whole political system. It’s the death of an ideal. The shining city on the hill becomes just another slum with open sewers!”
“This is all – too upsetting!” Melody said tearfully, and gestured towards Dina. “I simply can’t listen to any more of this. Ray, I think we should go.”
“Somebody’s got to hold these people accountable!” Ray ploughed on. “Bringing the American presidency this profoundly into disrepute – it’s institutional vandalism on a staggering scale, and I’m not convinced the office will ever recover! And real, individual people did this to us, people like her, not some – anonymous mass!” Ray seemed unsure where to take the diatribe.
The while, Dina remained sitting, hands clasped. Only a slight slump to her shoulders and an increasing reluctance to raise her gaze from the dining table indicated being gradually worn down. Bradford was more easygoing, but the other two men were on their feet, while their wives had pushed back their chairs as if to dissociate from a piece of furniture that Dina was still touching. Reconstructing the conversation in her head the next day, Patrice would be uncertain about Dina’s replies, since the clamour from other parties around the table heavily overlapped. Mercifully, the ignorance and prejudice that had plunged America into darkness didn’t get much of an airing.
“No, please.” Dina motioned for Melody to stop snapping together her Glasslock containers, then stood and straightened her skirt with surprising dignity, considering that she was a complete fucking dolt. “I’ll go, and leave you to it. I’m sorry to have caused yous all so much distress. Thanks for the pizza, Bradford.” She let herself out.
They waited for the latch to click.
“Lucky she left, I guess,” Ray said, still breathing hard. “If this were an Agatha Christie show on Broadway, the lights would have gone off on stage, and one of us would have murdered the bitch.”
“Except I’m not sure we’d have eked our way through a whole second act,” his wife said affectionately. “The audience would know right away that you did it.”
“Honestly, Patrice, you really should have warned us,” Courtney said. “Guess who’s coming to dinner.”
“We barely touched the economic stuff!” Austin bemoaned. “Bowing out of TPP, threatening trade wars with Mexico and China . . .” But once the object of their edification had slipped off, the outcry felt less invigorating.
“Come to think of it,” Bradford said, “I’ve never met a Trump supporter before. Not wittingly, anyway. How about you guys?” There was a universal shaking of heads. “It’s strangely thrilling.”
“It may be thrilling for you, but now I have to find another Pilates class,” Patrice said. “Still, that could be for the best. It’s bothered me that group is so, you know, white and well off. I might try to find a class with more diversity.” l
Lionel Shriver’s novels include “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (Serpent’s Tail) and, most recently, “The Mandibles: a Family, 2029-2047” (Borough Press)
This article appears in the 05 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue