I once saw a movie called ‘My Dinner with André,’ starring Wallace Shawn and André Gregory. The whole movie consisted of nothing but a conversation over dinner in a restaurant. You don’t need a snake-tongued Voldemort to pump the action when you have a dinner conversation that’s come alive.
Elsa’s 82, a literary agent and TV producer, long retired, still plugging books. She has black hair that bobs down in a short pageboy; she looks like she stole a wig from Agent 99 of CONTROL. Everyone she knows would know who that was. She probably knew Barbara Whoever, Agent 99. She knew everyone in publishing, television and film. They all came to drink at her house. Now she knows me, and I come to drink at her house. Right now, though, we’re at a Vietnamese restaurant in Toronto. Her Jewish atheist roots have led her to a deep conviction that eating pork and shrimp in Asian restaurants is the right thing to do. She’s flexible – today she’s after some cow, or phò, as they call it. You say it ‘feuh.’ It’s soup of rare sliced beef with vegetables. I’m having vermicelli with sugar cane stalks bearing balls of minced shrimp. I bite the shrimp mince off the stalks, chew the sugar out of the cane and put the remnants in a discard dish.
“I never eat broccoli in restaurants,” she says, forking up a startlingly emerald-green bouquet out of her broth, “except in Asian restaurants. They’re the only ones who don’t overcook it. Everyone else makes it mush. Thank God for Asian restaurants.” Her eyes sparkle as she nibbles a lobe off the vivid vegetable. I wince slightly.
“I know, I know,” she says, looking at the stainless steel fork embedded in the greenery. “I just can’t get used to chopsticks no matter how hard my daughter tries to teach me.”
In Toronto, we’re semi-civilized. We know that eating East Asian food with ‘doe cha’ – knife and fork – is like trying to play a Stradivarius with a comb. All those metal things piercing the delectables. There’s an air of medieval torture about it all. Elsa knows my views. But she’s not afraid to be different.
“What about that partner of yours?” she asks, getting back to what’s really on her mind. “Don’t you think he needs help of some kind? Is he going crazy?”
My same-sex partner of 35 years has become increasingly eccentric, and is now officially an unemployed genius, spending much of his time in his bathrobe, hair frizzled, sitting at the computer revising Wikipedia articles on particle physics and modern math.
“I should put him in a show. I know he’s brilliant and he’s certainly articulate, but what would he like to talk about? He could talk about anything, but we need something he’s interested in. And why is he working all night and then sleeping on the couch? His hair looks like it has no luster, I’m worried about him. What can we DO for him? Don’t you ever tell him he should find a job? He’s a creative person. Why don’t you tell him that he needs to find something to accomplish with the rest of his life before it’s too late, which will be soon enough?”
“He’d find that a depressing thought. Sure, I’ve tried to talk about those things with him, but he’s very touchy about them. Doesn’t want to discuss them with me.”
“Doesn’t he have any friends he could talk things over with? Someone he could talk with about his strengths, his weaknesses, what he really wants?”
She’s a friend of us both, but clearly she means someone closer to the proverbial bosom of companionship, whatever that is.
“He’s not really a ‘friend’ person,” I say. “He has one friend, Valerie, but he doesn’t see her very often. And my theory is that he never introspects, on principle. I think he feels that if he did – if he started questioning in there – he’d look too deeply and make everything fall apart.”
“I know, that’s a problem, I can see it. Well, maybe he needs to have an affair. That’s an idea. What do you think? Would it be good for him to have an affair?”
I look at her. She knows perfectly well she’s raised up this conversational tidbit with a big metal fork. She looks back without a trace of tease. The true literary person does the outrageous with grace.
I pick up her tidbit with my verbal chopsticks and ever so delicately put it into my discard dish.
“That wouldn’t really be his style,” I say.