Dinner with Friends
by Nichelle Calhoun
“Come on in.” Deborah’s voice was cheerful even if the growling dog beside her urged otherwise. Deborah tried to abate him as Simone walked through the split-level home front door. There was Christmas spirit in the form of garland-decorated banisters, and lights that blinked in both white or color depending on the glance one afforded it.
Deborah tried to placate growling Dakota with side pats to its tall lean body. Simone who was fully in the house foyer now was followed by her own daughter, Enia, who was carrying the Christmas gifts she had excitedly picked out for Deborah’s daughter, Riley. Riley and Enia had become quick friends their first day at the new private international school. That was two years ago now with an eventful pandemic in between. Many things had changed since then, and this was something collectively acknowledged from general conversations with strangers to deeper profound dialogues in kitchens and bedrooms across the world.
We were all different, and no one had an exact pulse on what kind of different we now were.
Atop the mini first flight of deep chestnut stairs was teenage Riley standing on the other end eagerly awaiting Enia to give her a hug. “Hey Enia.” Enia quickly put down one of the decorated Christmas gift bags on the stairs, hugged Riley and hurriedly followed Riley down the dark hallway to her room. Deborah then politely turned to Simone ushering her in further into the living room.
“You are welcome to stay for a while,” Deborah said. Simone thought quickly about how she was planning to spend the time while her daughter Enia visited with Riley. She quickly decided it would probably be more convenient, perhaps even a pleasure to sit with Deborah and talk and not for once be rushing off after a short, cordial exchange.
“Sure,” Simone said, walking in, carefully choosing a seat that would position her for conversation with Deborah. The dog continued to growl in the background, standing alert on the sofa across from Simone’s chosen seat. Deborah reactively positioned herself toward the edge of the couch, a soft barrier between the alert dog, the coffee table, and Simone on the crushed-chocolate colored recliner.
“I’m sorry about Dakota’s barking. He just needs to get used to you.” Simone acknowledged and said, “no problem” politely. Simone then turned her words toward the dog as if it were a baby, “you just don’t know me, do you?”
The two women positioned across from each were opposites. Deborah was in her early-to-mid fifties with thin blonde wispy hair that hung down mid-breast. Bodily, she was a medium build, and her complexion was northern-European light. Pending conversations would reveal her German and Irish roots despite her Italian surname.
Simone, on the other hand, was a brownskin woman, in her early forties with a body frame of West Africa, a smaller top opening up to a fuller bottom half. Her natural Black hair was pulled back neatly in a tight bun at the top of her neck, a few gray hairs were visible up close, but her face made it unclear of her age. There was something youthful about her appearance that provided a clear contrast to Deborah across the room.
Both were educators. Deborah, an educator at the small private school where the daughters attended while Simone was an educator in D.C’s public school system.
The two women began sharing the events leading up to Christmas Day almost immediately after sitting down: the hanging of the decorations, the putting up of the tree, the delay in the usual traditions.
“This was a trying time this holiday,” Deborah said off-handedly. Simone, agreed. It was agreed upon although both were unaware what each other's trying time was beyond the collective trauma of the ongoing pandemic, the return to in-person learning for students, and new strains of Covid-19.
Simone was sitting with her very own personal challenge in mind. She had recently lost contact with Enia's half-sister who had been abused based on her Black immigrant LGBTQ identity.
Simone wondered quietly if she could go there with Deborah. Could she open up in this mutually shared moment of reflection on the difficulty of the last month? Could they both share why the Christmas tree had gone up three weeks later than normal, why the push to decorate was so heavy and grievous as opposed to genuinely cheerful and light? Could Simone trust that there would be some shared sisterhood in the protection of children regardless of their intersections that buck heteronormativity, whiteness, Americanness? Did she have that space inside of her she wondered?
Simone surveyed the living room passively seeking that answer. Simone, a social scientist by background, understood that a living room was the museum of the home: the walls, the coffee tables displayed family values.
What symbols were there? Who was there? How much was there? Simone glanced to the walls for the answer to how vulnerable she could, she should be. Sitting in non-Black homes, having conversations either cordial or intimate was something she had done so rarely in her life.
What would these by-design intimate conversations reveal? How much intimacy could Simone afford or want to allow? Simone searched the full Caruso walls. All the spaces were an organized homey chaos. There were contemporaneous, mainstream mantras like “Live, Laugh, Love.” There were heterogeneous decorations that filled every space. There were little American flags on magnets and coasters; wooden crosses over doorways. There were homespun green,white, and red quilts that lined the center of headrests and table spaces. Put simply, it was an aesthetic that matched an Americana Simone did not have much exposure to: white working to middle class home decor.
Conversely, Simone was raised in a Black middle-class suburb where the cultural value of decor came with ample spaciousness, nods to curvaceous Black bodies in statues and art, colorful pieces that centered movement and Spirit. The aesthetic of the furniture was expected to be well-matched, well-fabriced, well-placed. Simone tried to suspend her cultural notions of what space should look like as she gazed at what seemed to be every inch of covered space.
Simone returned from her active thoughts to being present in conversation with Deborah.
“These last few weeks have been tough,” Deborah started. Deborah divulged the details of the story that had led her to earlier comments.
Perhaps, Deborah too, questioned how vulnerable she could be with Simone. Perhaps, Deborah was also looking for the decoration in Simone’s speech to determine what she should reveal. Either way, Simone must have passed the test because Deborah began to flood the air thick with her family’s most recent saga. In the midst, Deborah’s husband, Jack, sat down in his lazy boy chair centered between the Americana sofa and the recliner where Simone sat. Deborah acknowledged Jack and began to summarize her points, catching him up to speed.
Deborah only broke from catching Jack up to let Simone know that they had plenty of leftovers from Christmas Day. “We’ve got miniature crab cakes, cabbage with ham, shrimp alfredo, rolls, green beans. Go in the kitchen and help yourself.”
She then stood up to go fix her husband’s oversized bowl. Simone thanked her for the kind invite and followed suit.
Ten minutes later, the two women were back in their seats. All three had oversized bowls with Christmas fixings. The conversation resumed. Jack picked it up mid-story.
“When I walked into my 80-year-old mother’s room, she was giving her financial information to some African.”
Simone sat back erectly, a bit prepared and unprepared at the same time.
“I told my mother this is not an American Black, this is some Black person from Africa.” He recounted the distinction he had made as if it were philosophical and definitely understandable.
Simone stopped and placed the bowl in her lap.
“My mother then said I called her "African boyfriend," a “nigger.”
The word came out like “the, two, water, walk, run” whatever words would fall in English’s top 100. There was no distinction, no censuring, no hesitation from his mouth to Simone’s Blackness, her brown-skin, her natural 4B hair, her curvaceous West African beauty that sat firmly in the seat. He told the story to Simone with precision and without a hint of denial.
Simone’s mind began calculating the responsibility of the moment. She was not blindsided because she was an ethnographer, a specialist in the African Diaspora, a traveler, and most importantly a proud Black woman. She had been in extremely racialized situations personally. She wrote about it academically, podcasted about it professionally. She sat on panels talking about intersectionality and other academic terms that deconstructed the racial, heteronormative, sexist, classist frameworks that existed.
Jack continued telling his story with a moral righteousness that implicated his low hanging views on racism, sexism, and agism.
Simone continued to calculate. The obvious route would be venom for venom - to take all that cruel yet simplistic language Jack was slinging and dissect it with such Black philosophical precision that it would leave his head spinning. She could shove it down his wide throat to the last syllable.
But Simone was 40 now. She believed in impact more than anything. She listened to the vileness of the other side of the aisle staged in politeness, staged as harmless conversation, staged even as intimacy.
She excused herself by asking for the bathroom.
Once inside, she spoke to herself in the bathroom mirror, “I will sit and listen. The white friends I do have sit so far left ideologically that my engagement with this type of thinking is rare up close and personal. It will be ethnography - an up close look at whiteness and its dangerous, superficial civility.”
It was settled. She returned to her recliner positioned on the left side of the living room.
"Dinner with friends, it is," she sarcastically said to herself.
The conversation continued. There were rapid-fire racist, sexist, homophobic conversational posts throughout.
“I'm Sicilian. I can’t be racist. The Moors conquered Sicily at one point. I could have their blood.” Jack looked down in moments like these to examine his skin for swarthiness.
“We are from Pennsylvania. We grew up with Czech, Polish, Dutch, Italian all in our neighborhood fabrics. My grandfather was Dutch.”
“Do you know what the word for Black is in Dutch?” He questioned Simone.
She stolidly shook her head.
“Nigger. My grandfather would often say, “look at the nigger run? He was just using the Dutch word.”
Simone readjusted wondering if her up close and personal ethnography would just have to end. But she held her composure.
“Oh, and as an Italian- why are we taking down Christopher Columbus’ statue? I don’t agree with everything he did like anyone else? But, this is “woke”culture, he mocked.”
Simone interjected a few references to Pennsylvania geography. “So, what part of Pennsylvania are we talking about?
“Well,” Deborah said, as she rattled off a few coal mining towns that their families originated from. Simone quickly opened up her google maps looking for the towns, taking it as an opportunity to locate them and disengage from Jack. Simone had passed many of these familiar small towns on her recent runs to upstate New York where her father had grown up as a Great Migration baby. Simone strategically mentioned it.
“Aww, yes, I have seen signs for those towns en route to upstate New York, where my family moved as a part of the Great Migration.”
“The Great Migration?” Deborah asked. Simone was well aware that Deborah and Jack would probably not know. This would be Simone's rebalancing act: drop seeds of what she knew they did not know nor qualify. This would be the subtle revenge.
“Yes, the largest migration of people within American history in the United States - Black people fleeing the South, reculturing the largest cities North of supremist Dixie.”
Jack sat quietly. Deborah as well.
“I also love driving that way, so I can note the indigenous names, towns and trails, so I can look them up when I get home and learn about the indigenous people and their thousands of years of history and continued contributions in that area.”
Jack returned to the Pennsylvania he knew, quickly recounting the Italian owned bakeries he had grown up with. He looked for his wife Deborah to follow suit.
“Oh, and the churches. We had so many churches. In our homes we had images of the saints, Mary, Jesus. Every door had a cross above it.” Jack held the words in his mouth with revelry.
The conversation continued. Jack did conversational drive-bys on topics that covered LGBTQ+ communities to Kyle Rittenhouse’s right to do what he did.
“Of course, he was not guilty. Someone hit him with a skateboard. What he did was self-defense.”
“These woke culture kids are learning from their phones- that is the problem. I will call people the gender that I see. They will have to deal with it.”
Deborah intersected, “as Christians, we treat everyone with respect.” Deborah felt smugly solid in this.
“That is why I think our girl Riley is suffering now. She is not going to her Christian faith. That is why she has depression.”
Simone only ingested. She did not divulge that she surmised perhaps the basis of Riley's depression was attending an international school, learning about other worlds yet returning to a home that denigrated those worlds; that the depression was from identiying as LGBTQ, but not having voice to say it; that the depression was being in close friendship with critical thinking Enia and feeling the guilt of her father’s sins everytime Enia challenged her thinking.
Simone looked down at her Fitbit for the time.
“Well, we are going to make our way home.” She text Enia: Leaving Now.
Enia returned a sad-faced emoji from the back room. She loved spending time with Riley. But a few moments later, Riley’s room door opened and Enia came out with a polite goodbye in her eyes.
In a final set of words, Simone said to the Carusos, “Have a good evening.”
There were no usual “thank yous, no lofty Christmas season wishes, or pretty words” just true civility on Simone's part and cortness.
Simone walked into the open, unusually warm winter night with Enia. Her thoughts were racing. New language was emerging and ideas gelling. Simone's first thought in the night air was that the myth of white male greatness could only be disassembled in intimate contact beyond the workplace, where the privilege of their knowledge is not automatically co-signed onto, where their power can not be conflated with objectivity.
Simone's mind then quickly thought of the final conversation of the evening and reflected on the danger in thinking that one is only able to access one’s full humanity through the lens of religion. She scoffed to herself furthering the thought in her mind: religion can be an additional route, she thought to herself, but not THE ROUTE . She continued in her internal dialogue: "we must simply come to a point where we can treat everyone according to their ultimate humanity because we are firstly - divinely human."
Feeling it was a truth she had not personally accessed before that night, she smiled and said aloud into the Maryland night, "only then can we truly have dinner with friends."