The Lunch Party
At the time, everyone’s partner had the same name—David.
There was no good reason for it. Initially, we joked that the name had been in vogue the year they were born, but that couldn’t be true: the Davids were set apart in years, the youngest being Alena’s boyfriend at nineteen, and the oldest being Audre’s secret, at fifty-eight. Perhaps the first of the sisters to procure a David—Audrey, at thirty-two, who had been courted for eight months by an age-appropriate David at the swimming club where she tuned her finely muscled thighs every weekday evening—had set some kind of subconscious example for the rest. Whatever it was, within a year of Audrey’s formal introduction of the First David to the family, Adalyn and Alena had both found Davids of their own, followed by Ayla, and then, when they all turned to Audre, the eldest, thinking wouldn’t it be funny if she found someone after so long and that person turned out to be a David, too, it came out that she’d been carrying on with a married man this entire time, their father’s wife’s orthopedist. Who, of course, was named David.
There were five of them, Audre, Ayla, Audrey, Alena, and Adalyn. It’d just been Audre and Ayla at first, but their father’s second wife had come packaged with the indomitable Audrey. When Wife #2 passed quite suddenly from belatedly discovered leptomeningeal disease, he brought the three girls, aged twelve, seventeen, and twenty-one, to get their meningitis vaccinations, which, no two ways about it, was where he met the woman who was to be his third wife. Me.
By the time the twins arrived, it’d been decided that they’d continue the tradition of names beginning with A. Myself, I thought it’d be nice to break away. Didn’t mind a Darby, or a Christine. But the older girls sensed my discomfort and pressed down hard, insisting on keeping with convention. In private, I consulted with their father. You already have an Audre and an Audrey. Are you sure? Truthfully, I was afraid he’d mix them up. He wasn’t getting any younger, and his memory had never been crystal. The thought of five similarly named girls wandering around in that big house just seemed like a trap. You want to know the worst part? Ask me my name.
Call me Anita, I said, before the battle lines had been drawn. I was only twenty-three, I had no peers to consult with. All my girlfriends had found men still on their first go. Later, they’d say: you should have established authority first thing. Don’t try to be their friend. Where was this advice when I was first inducted into the family? Not yet hatched, I suppose. Anyway, being authoritarian wouldn’t have worked. And the girls knew it. Anita, they’d say, we’re out of eggs. Or, You’re so cute—Anita. Wielded at a distance, as if to remind me that my presence in the house was but a passing amusement to them. Even the twins didn’t anchor me: the other wives had come and gone, too.
Audre, the eldest, is saying it now. Don’t mind Anita, she takes a while to process things. The way she always says it, Ah-ni-ta, the ta a harsh spit. I look to David, but he is of no help. He’s in that spot men eventually all find themselves in, between enamored and guilty. It’s the first we’re hearing of the affair, and looking at Audre, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a smugness in her eyes, a certain challenge in the set of her chin. She crosses her legs, her hand snakes into his. I can’t believe how reckless they’re being. Life can’t be lived on a whim. And yet. David is one of my oldest friends, and I had no clue. Even though it’s been a while since I’ve had to see him for my herniated disc, I meet him and Celine at least once a month for lunch. Celine. Oh god, Celine. I look at him again. His eyes are pleading. I can tell he’s asking permission to smile, to take Audre’s side. So, it’s that fresh. A fifty-eight-year-old man, still hanging on the tail end of his mistress’s every sentence. Audre says it again: Earth, earth to Anita. And laughs. It’s the laugh that does it for me. I put a hand on my husband’s lap, turn to my old friend and orthopedist, David, and say, You know, darling, we should all have lunch.
The lunch is set for the first Friday of the following month. We can’t do weekends, because then Celine will want to know where her husband is. The other four girls and their Davids have flexible schedules and somehow make it work. In the lead up to that lunch, I often wonder if Audre regrets announcing the relationship to her father and me in that way. I turn that analytical eye on myself, too. What is it in me that drove me to propose that disaster, lay that trap?
Was I conscious of what I was doing? The girls think so, I’m sure.
Just shy of a decade later, at their father’s funeral, Audre will say, flatly, while picking at a cucumber and egg sandwich, Now you’re free, Anita. She doesn’t clarify, but we both know she’s referring to that lunch. I don’t want to look at her, so I stare at her sandwich instead. Cucumber and egg, her father’s favorite. Deceptively simple, but hard to get right. The cucumbers have to be pickled in rice vinegar, sunomono style. And the eggs boiled for ten-and-a-half minutes, then whipped with kewpie mayonnaise.
When Friday comes, I spend all morning perfecting the sandwiches, then arranging them on the lunch tray. When my husband tries to steal one, I send him out for fruits. It’s a last-minute decision, and I give him a list of what I want, in order of priority: mango, and if that’s not available, then jackfruit, or rambutan. I can only breathe easy when I hear the car pull out of the driveway.
He returns with the first set of Davids. He found the twins wandering around the market with them, trying to settle on an appropriate gift. They tumble out of the car, all limbs and laughter, and together the Davids present me a massive bouquet of wildflowers. Double the size for double the girls, they say. As for my husband, he’s found the mango, my first choice. I peel and dice it, populating the table with small dishes of yellow flesh, when Audrey walks in with her David. They’ve brought wine, and I feel defensive as I send her to decant the bottle into a carafe.
Then, Audre and my old friend David arrive. They come empty-handed, as if to assume the position of host and hostess, as if to claim this lunch as thrown for their benefit. The younger Davids giggle nervously; the twins must have given them the background. I don’t let it get to me. I offer them a drink, which the traitor David accepts. We all take our seats, and wait.
Ayla flies in half an hour late, corresponding David in tow, and looks disappointed that we’re all still civil. Anita, David, David, Anita. Dad. Ayla has a laugh like a horse. It puts you on edge. To ask her why she’s late would be to offer her an opportunity to humiliate—No. We return to the conversation at hand, which vaguely, but also clearly, includes dear, absent, hapless, betrayed, Celine.
I don’t even like Celine. If you asked me directly, I wouldn’t be able to name one compelling thing about her. We met in church, after my wedding, when the twins were still germinating secretly under the frou-frou of my corset. She was a friend of the family, inducted by Wife #2. So I inherited her. She’d pressed her husband’s card into my hand, told me to call if I ever needed company or orthopaedic work. What kind of woman outsources friendship to her husband? Though it’s true that Celine’s David and I got along swimmingly. From our first appointment, I knew. He had the reassuring air of an anchor, weighty and rooted, from which Celine ballooned. Even though she was absent in that treatment room, David’s steadiness conjured her; it made you, a female, feel safe. In friendship with him, you were sexless, and could release yourself from the trappings of charm. Very quickly, over the course of treatment for a pinched nerve, David and I became close friends, bedrocked on his commitment to Celine.
Where is she during this lunch, Celine? She is back at the church, cross-stitching bible verses on the dresses of dolls, to be distributed at the Christmas service in two weeks. Every perfect and good gift is from God above. James 1:17. Poor, boring, good Celine. She’s been doing this for years. There isn’t a family within a hundred-meter radius without one of those dolls. When children bring them home, the idea is that they’ll carry these verses with them too, and, worrying the dolls over and over, that the verses will catch, and grow. That she’ll plant these beacons of morality in homes all throughout town. That’s Celine for you. She’s been volunteering at the church for as long as I’ve known her, and even after the divorce, she will stay. But we will go. We will drive twenty minutes more to attend Sunday service at another church, which is helmed by a fire-and-brimstone sort. I look at her David, who is no longer hers, though she does not know it yet. He’s looking at Audre, my oldest. The others are all looking at me, at him, at Audre, their gazes flickering between us, as if afraid to miss the slightest blink.
Audrey’s David gets up to pour the wine.
I’m sure the twins drink, but in front of me, their faces are stone as the carafe passes them over. Everyone remarks on how similar we are, how perfectly they take after me, but already the twins must be keeping secrets from me, maybe even from each other. Their Davids will only last one and three months more, and then they will refer to this period as the Davidic era, and laugh and laugh and laugh.
“It’s a common enough name.” This is Audrey’s David, the wine-pouring David. He says it apologetically; he’s a therapist with a reasonable attitude toward everything. “I was in school with two other Davids, myself.”
“But all five!” I say. He just shrugs: everything about this situation is unusual. The twins interject. Alena, older by twelve-and-a-half minutes, punches her David in the shin.
“I picked you because of your name.”
Adalyn: “And me, because it’d be funny.”
The twins glance at each other, and say, perfectly synced: “We’re collecting Davids.” They dissolve into laughter.
I’m embarrassed. I say, “What one does, the other has to do. You should see their rooms. It’s a compulsion.” I mean to say that with them, everything is a game, but that their playfulness is simply a byproduct of a sheltered youth and shouldn’t be taken to heart. Their Davids don’t seem to mind.
Therapist David sets the carafe down and settles back into his seat. I can see Audrey resting a hand on his thigh, gratefully. He speaks directly to Ayla’s David, the latecomer, making general, safe inquiries about his family. I find myself leaning forward. I know nothing of Ayla’s David. I hadn’t paid him any attention.
“One brother. Older. Nathaniel. And then I think my mother just went down the Book, picked the most normal sounding name out of the lot. Nathaniel’s other brothers in the Bible were all things like, Shimmy, or somet’n.”
“Shimea.” It’s my friend David. Just like that, Celine is with us, again.
Ayla’s David looks at him with interest. “You a deacon, or the like?”
“No, an orthopaedist. But I attend.”
I can’t help it, I snort. It’s very funny. And I know David has said it for my benefit, establishing a private bubble between us, of warmth and banter. For a moment, I feel like nothing has changed. But when I look up, it’s Audre smirking, Audre amused. Audre, just two years my junior, with her limp, dirty hair, which she shaved off once, after I ran my hands through it, absentmindedly petting her head as I introduced her at a gathering as my oldest step-daughter.
David relents. He tells Ayla’s David: “It’s a good name, it means beloved.”
Ayla’s David looks vaguely comforted. “My mother said he was a king.”
“And a womanizer.” Audre is smiling now, audacious, as she leans into David’s chest. She hasn’t even touched her wine. How could they do this to Celine? To me? I reach for another sandwich, pick at it. Technically, Audre has known David for as long as I have, though they’d never spoken outside of absolute necessity. But two years back, I’d rung David and asked if he could please have a quick look at Audre’s wrist, which had been giving her trouble. Carpal tunnel was easy enough to diagnose, and she really just needed a prescription. I remember ringing him again to complain, afterward. Audre hadn’t even thanked me. She treats me like a secretary, I told him. She always has. My old friend David had hummed on the phone, then said it’d been tendonitis. Not carpal tunnel. Though the two were so similar that they were easily mistaken, one for the other.
We are done with lunch. The sandwiches I’ve so painstakingly labored over, demolished. The mango, gone. Audre turns to my David and squeezes his bicep, bringing it sharply into existence. I blink, stunned.
“The strudel,” she says.
He smiles at us, then goes to retrieve it from his car. So they did bring something after all. They’ve kept it in the boot, a surprise.
“It’s your favorite,” Audre continues, in David’s absence. She’s speaking to her father. As if I’m not there. “Dave and I drove way out of town to get it. It was his idea; he knew you’d been craving it.” Dave? I hear a waver in her voice, I look at Audre more closely.
But a buzz of distractible excitement has settled over the table.
I’m momentarily confused, until I hear Ayla explaining to her David: “It’s this place we used to go to, as kids. It’s by our first house, when we were still living with Mom. We haven’t had it in years.” She turns to her older sister. “How’d you know it’d still be good? I wouldn’t dare. I’d be so afraid it’d disappoint.”
Before Audre can reply, David returns with two long boxes of pale yellow. He heats it up in the oven for ten minutes, then the strudels are unveiled with ceremony, one apple, one mango. He looks at me apologetically. “We didn’t know you’d be serving mango.” Puts a slice of the apple strudel on my plate.
It’s warm. I can see the glazing winking at me, the brushed sugar melted slightly from the heat. Beside me, my husband digs his fork in, bringing a big wedge up to his mouth. He’s delighted and seems to have no compunction about the scene unfolding before him. We’re all adults here, he said, when I’d raised my objections in private. What they choose to get up to is their business. He chews loudly. The twins exchange glances of wonder: the strudel is very good. Still? Ayla is smiling, so it must live up to memory. A David, not my David, is exclaiming, asking for the baker’s address. I look back down at my slice.
Nobody really understood, when I married my husband. Of course, you could argue that those were different times. These days, a girl can go with a man twice her age without the world blinking, and separate just as easily. Not I. Sometimes, when you look back on your life, you think to yourself: what else could I have done with the options that I’d had? Back then, I knew how people talked, but I’d been determined to weather it through. I married for affection, but, yes, also for agency. And haven’t I played my part? I remade myself in the image of a perfect wife, I committed to becoming a step mother when I was barely past twenty myself, I’ve always been faithful, even when I’ve had occasion to stray. I stayed. People can say what they want, but I gave myself and the twins a life not otherwise possible, and there’s no shame in that.
A year after his funeral, Audrey will call me. My overachieving, perfectly sculpted middle child. She wants my recipe for the cucumber and egg sandwiches. She’s tried pickling the cucumbers several ways, but can never quite get it how he liked it. Of course, she admits, it could just be her memory. After all, so much time has passed. It could be that they were perfectly ordinary sandwiches, and she’s inflated them in her mind over the years, enhanced by her step-father’s enthusiastic appreciation. I give her the recipe; there is no longer reason for me to withhold. A few days after that, she calls again. They are exactly as she remembers. Perfect.
I invite her back to the house, where I live alone. The twins, who everyone said resembled me so, have flown the coop. Ayla married her David, and they’ve moved to Germany. Audre and I keep out of each other’s way. When Audrey shows up, I am surprised to see that she is very pregnant. It hadn’t worked out with therapist David precisely because he wanted kids and she didn’t, but I suppose the right person can correct a wrong situation. Her new husband is apparently very nurturing. As we sit together, eating sliced cucumber, Audrey asks to see the dolls again.
How does she know I wouldn’t have tossed them? She reads the question in my eyes and says, You’ve always been one to punish yourself, Anita. Her smile is mirthless and tired.
After the strudels are done with, there’ll be a moment of awkward limbo, a pause. Then, someone, one of the twins’ Davids, asks to see their room, picking up on an earlier thread. We all troop upstairs, my husband and I, the five girls, their Davids. Push open their door. Enter the room. The twins are vibrating with mischief, excitement. Nothing is serious to them yet, they have no skin in the game. The world bears no stakes.
It had once been two rooms, but we knocked the middle wall down, so the effect is that of perfect symmetry. A long room, folded in half, one side leaving a precise imprint on the other. Their beds, desks, even the random entrails of their mess, mirrored exactly on each side. I turn and see Audre’s hand on my David’s lower back, rubbing it slowly, an act of intimacy that makes me feel awfully vulnerable.
But by then it is already too late.
The twins run up to David, their eyes shining. They see him as a funny old family friend, and throughout the lunch, they’ve been watching him with growing amusement as he affects a veneer of cool, trying to keep up with the younger boyfriends. I’ve seen them exchange glances at his occasional stumble and looked away, burning from secondhand embarrassment. But David has taken it in stride, played along. He doesn’t blink until that moment. In their hands, the twins hold a pair of Celine’s dolls, worn soft from years of attachment. Do you remember, they say. Do you?
A decade later, in that same room, Audrey will turn the dolls over in her hand, flip one of their dresses up. Along the hem: James 1:17. Every perfect and good gift is from God above. She reads it out softly. They really take after you, she tells me, finally. She puts a hand on her belly, and asks: Can I have this one?
The strudel, it turns out, has gone bad. Perhaps it is the fact that it has been sitting in the car throughout lunch, cooking slowly. Perhaps it is the burden of what it was called to do. After Audre’s David, Celine’s David, my David, mine, throws up all over the doorway of the twin’s room, something shatters. My friend David sees the flash of dismay in Audre’s eyes and in it, his own pitifulness reflected. The twins snatch the dolls away.
By the time the mop is retrieved and the cleaning cloths wrung and sponged, it is already over. The hopefulness of the afternoon has been punctured. An air of frailty overcomes David. He puts one hand on each twin’s head heavily, first Adalyn, then Alena, without seeing them: they are the same to him. Says goodbye to the rest of us, politely. Audre climbs into the car with him and they drive off a little way, before parking behind the church and separating quietly.
He is a good person, my David. He returns and confesses everything to Celine, who cannot forgive him. They file for divorce shortly after, and David transfers to a different clinic, out of town, for the remainder of his practice. Neither of them speak to me again; they ignore my calls. I respect them for that, at least. And if there are any significant developments in Audre’s personal life after that, I am never privy to them. Whatever relationship we might have had is lost with that lunch party.
But all of that is later. Before the end, the apple strudel sits, untouched, on my plate. Everyone has already gone for seconds, and it’s becoming uncomfortably clear that I don’t mean to eat mine. My husband, who’s already had a slice of the apple, then the mango, then the apple again, tries to make a joke of it. “If you’re not eating that.…”
The only David that really exists in that room is quiet. He’s looking at me, and I know in his face I will see that same pleading expression, betraying his naive desire for everything to be okay. Despite the disaster of the affair. Despite the fact that this is a small town, that it cannot last. Despite the fact that we have an unspoken understanding, he and I, of solidity, of accountability. Our friendship built on the assurance of things being exactly as they should.
In that moment, if I take a bite, he thinks, it will somehow all work out. It will resolve itself. He cannot possibly believe this, but he does.
I am not looking at him. If I see that plea in his eyes, my resolve will tremble. I know this much about myself. I am not looking anywhere, except resolutely at my plate, where the shiny slice of pastry sits.
Already the twins are scheming. Already the die is cast. My hands twitch by my sides, and I grip the edges of my skirt to steady them. Audrey, my perfectly poised child, gets up and begins clearing the plates. She gestures to her David, who collects the glasses and carafe. There’s a scraping of chairs. Everyone is up, now, except me, starting the dishwasher, cracking jokes, whipping the dishcloths between them.
My friend David gets up too, to use the bathroom. He hesitates, then leaves a kiss on Audre’s forehead, a chaste compromise. It’s just Audre and I now. I raise my eyes, we look at each other. I am shocked to see that her gaze is fierce, fervent.
“Mum,” she says, her voice controlled and low, and suddenly I can see that I’ve gotten it all wrong, but that it’s too late, and has been too late for some time now, “please.”