Having the party catered was a mistake, she decides moments before the guests arrive. The food smells great, but the caterer herself is nothing if not awkward. Passive little digs about her kitchen layout have just about worked Vivien’s last nerve. Still, the woman surprises her by offering, last minute, to stay and help serve at no charge. The original agreement had been that she’d lay out a buffet and return in the morning for her dishes.
“I can keep the trays full and help you break things down quickly when things start to taper off.”
Vivien, busy checking the flowers and plumping up the pillows, pauses to soak in the suggestion. She doesn’t want it to look like she’s got hired help. It might seem pretentious. She prides herself on cleaning her own house even when friends who make less than her have people in once a week to do it. If anything, Vivien’s hypersensitive about coming off as elitist. Her formerly wealthy stepmother wove that into her character. The tiny diamond tennis bracelets; the little digs at her father about his income.
The woman shrugs. “Well, I just thought it might be helpful.”
“Oh!” Vivien lets out a breath, says, “I appreciate it. Yes, thanks.”
The caterer, whose name is Cassandra, laughs and nods. “I can tell you’re distracted. Don’t worry. It’ll go off great.”
Vivien smiles. “Thanks.”
Putting a finishing touch on a marble slab stacked high with salted caramel somethings, Cassandra says, “You got some funny gay guys on your party list?”
“They’re a party must, in my humble opinion.”
Vivien isn’t sure how to answer. She does have some funny gays coming. Well, one really witty one and one who isn’t that funny but who says shocking things for laughs. The former once described the latter as a ‘comedy ninja meets shock jock’.
“Everyone laughs when someone says ‘fucking cunt’ all out of the blue like that,” George said. “It’s like screaming when you see a mouse. But it isn’t really scary, is it?”
Then, tired of the sandwich he was eating at the time, he tossed it onto his plate heavily and said, “Anyway, Sheldon isn’t funny. He’s just a fucking cunt.”
When she laughed involuntarily, he gave her a raised brow that seemed to say, ‘See what I mean?’
A few minutes later, Cassandra disappears into the garage where her van is parked for unloading. When she returns, she’s wearing a sparkling red tube dress and gold stilettos. She is all peanut butter legs and sun-spotted shoulders. Vivien turns her frown toward the empty living room; obviously Cassandra came prepared to stay. Now at least her full makeup and hair makes sense. This is the moment when she is sure it isn’t going to work out.
If anyone is to blame for the presence of the leggy blond in her house, it’s her hairdresser, who used to be named Jennifer and who now goes by Astra.
“It’s part of my personal ascension,” she explained loudly over the blow dryer a year ago. “I can’t be confined to the name my earth parents gave me anymore.”
“Sure,” Vivien said without glancing up from her magazine. In situations like this, she prefers not to ask questions. As a matter of fact, she takes a dark delight in withholding curiosity when she gets a needy vibe off someone. Jennifer’s ascension notwithstanding, she really is a talented hairdresser.
Three weeks ago, as Vivien was unfolding herself from the styling chair and wondering if an ache in her ankle was an early warning sign of cancer, the bell on the salon door chimed as someone else arrived. In a moment, Jennifer was making introductions.
“Vivien, this is Cassandra. She’s pretty new to the area, but the best caterer in the world. Oh my god, what were those things you brought to that thing at the black box opening?”
Cassandra laughed off the praise. Dressed in jeans and a floppy t-shirt, she seemed pretty unassuming. “I just finished working in my garden,” she said. “Sorry I look a mess.”
Vivien hates it when people deprecate themselves. It always begs kindly reassurances that only make her feel awkward. Jennifer filled the void in the conversation.
“Vivien’s a graphic artist. She did my cards.”
This irritated Vivien for a split second. In truth, she designed beautiful cards for Jennifer, but after a lot of back and forth and too many inexpert opinions, the style had been dumbed down so much, she hated to even look at them. At that moment, she cast a glance down at Cassandra’s ugly white Crocs and decided it didn’t matter about the cards. No one would be a harsher critic of her work than herself.
Jennifer said, “Vivien’s throwing a party in a couple of weeks to raise money for the local democrat. O’Henry or something, right, Vivien?”
“Henry Dover,” Vivien said, fishing through her purse for her credit card.
“That’s right. You should cater it for her, Cassandra. It would be the best networking.”
Vivien froze for a second, fingers curling around her wallet, but when she peered up through her bangs, she could see the caterer looked just as surprised and uncomfortable. That relaxed her for a moment and somehow she’d walked out five minutes later with an agreement between them.
Cassandra steps in front of the foyer mirror to reapply lip gloss just as the buzzer goes off on the oven. Because she’s closest to the kitchen, Vivien rushes to take out a tray of bubbling bruschetta. Then the doorbell rings and because she is closest to that, Cassandra answers it.
“Hi there!” she says. “Welcome.”
‘Like she owns the place’, Vivien thinks, peering out through the kitchen door.
Luckily, it’s George. Giving the red sparkly tube dress a mild glance, he spies Vivien in the distance and throws her a wink. Turning back to Cassandra, he says, “I think I’m at the wrong house.”
“Not in that fabulous outfit, you’re not,” Cassandra says. “Come on in. Viv’s just getting something out of the oven.”
Rolling his eyes as he moves past her, George gives the house a once over. He notices things like flower arrangements and new things, but his personal pet peeve is straight people saying words like ‘fabulous’ to him. He explained it to Vivien once.
“It’s like talking loud to foreigners.”
She hadn’t needed more information.
“I get it.”
Dropping the cookie sheet on the island counter, she makes her way out to greet him just as the door bell chimes again. Cassandra reaches out quickly with her speckled arm and Vivien starts to step forward, but George puts his hand on her elbow.
“Let her get stuck at the door,” he says. She should have known he’d read the situation in a single beat.
“Do you know her?” she asks into his ear.
“She was at an art show downtown a week ago and pretty much installed herself.”
Vivien laughs. “Oh, hell.”
“Astra fob her off on you?”
“Jennifer? How’d you know?”
“Those two are thick as thieves,” he says.
It’s an older couple at the door, two donors that Vivien hardly knows. The woman is elegant, wearing tiny pearls and sensible heels. Already Cassandra is tapping the husband’s arm and throwing her hair off her shoulder.
George feigns a yawn. “Well, I hope Astra’s getting a commission. She’s hooked that thing up with everybody and her cousin recently.”
Vivien feels like she might have to go to the bathroom.
George laughs softly.
“Don’t poop yourself. Just keep her away from the wine. I’ll help.”
Despite their best efforts, the caterer manages to keep a constant stream of pinot running to her insides. George says it has something to do with her having more tentacles than they have hands. Still, she does occasionally refresh the trays, as she had promised, and once the party is in full swing, she sort of blends into the fray.
About ten o’clock, Cassandra latches onto a handsome, silver-haired journalist who Vivien knows from her former, married life. Cornering him on the sectional in the den, she folds her dark, golden legs up over the arm and lets her hair fan out on the pillows while he tells her about reporting from Kosovo back in the nineties.
As Vivien passes the doorway, she hears Cassandra’s breathless, “War is so intense, right?”
She wishes George were with her to share a giggle.
When the party begins to taper off around midnight – after all the toasts and speeches and when the oldest and wealthiest guests have trotted off home – Vivien decides it’s high time she find the caterer and have her help with the clean up. That was definitely part of the deal and the buffet looks disgusting; shrimpy bits have fallen onto chocolate cakey bites; everything dairy is leering at the remaining revelers threateningly.
Cassandra and the widower are nowhere to be found. They aren’t upstairs in her room or the thinly-furnished guest rooms she hardly ever uses. They aren’t in the basement, where the unwanted pieces of her past life make only a small stack of boxes near the stairs. When she comes back to the kitchen, she sees George standing with Sheldon at the door into the garage.
It must be later than she realizes, because the two men are getting along famously, something that only happens when the buzz is high and the party thin. She slips up beside them to find out the mystery of their smothered laughter.
“Your catering monster and the reporter are getting it on in her van,” George says.
Vivien presses back a frown. In truth, she always liked the journalist. He was smart and funny and when his wife was dieing, he put his entire life on hold to nurse her through to the end. Then a year of thinness and isolation before the slow climb back into the land of the living. Now he’s out banging weird Cassandra with her freckled shoulders, the bleached teeth and the forced laughter.
Sheldon leans in and drapes a hand on her arm, “Where did you get that cunt?”
Vivien takes in a breath quickly.
“I don’t like that word,” she says. She sounds preachy in her own head, but she’s thought about it a lot. Unlike George, who’s so good with words, she takes longer to know how to talk about some things. “I get that you think it’s just a campy thing to say, but it puts my teeth on edge.”
He looks surprised, but he’s too drunk to take much offense. George is watching her with a secretive little smile.
“As a matter of fact,” she says. “I think it’s somehow more annoying to me coming from a gay guy.”
George raises a brow. “Is that because you think for a man to use the word, he ought to at least like to visit it now and again?”
He shrugs, “I get it.”
She turns away with a grimace. “Anyway, she may be out there screwing one of my guests, but I think smart people can find better ways to break a person down than just calling them that word.”
George sighs. “What if we agree that she seems self-centered and has no sense of timing?”
Turning back, she looks at him a long while. He has a good face; he has kind, knowing eyes. They ought to be closer friends, she thinks, and she leans against his arm.
Then Sheldon, swaying in the dim light of the mud room, says, “Or we can just agree that she’s a fucking cunt.”
And just as George had explained before, it surprises them, and they all laugh, richly, as the van bounces up and down before them.