The Uninvited Guests
Shawn watches the living room television from the dining room table, sitting sideways in his chair. An apron is draped over his long legs and his face is flushed from making dinner. Shawn loves to cook, to bend his lanky frame over boiling pots, so it was a foregone conclusion that he would make their anniversary dinner at home. The food is ready, it has been for an hour, so he pages through a magazine. The dining room table at his back is fully set — green beans languid and wrinkled, crab cakes sinking under a steamed glass cover, an open bottle of merlot, and candle light. Shawn jumps up in his seat when Annie, his wife, walks through the door.
“I’m sorry,” she says, as she sets her briefcase down in front of the television, bumping the on/off switch with her short-skirt hip. She flips on the stereo, scanning for something without lyrics. “Donald wouldn’t let me out of the office. He’s been so stressed lately. I thought he was going to lose it.”
“It’s okay.” Shawn straightens in the chair and twists into his penny loafers, pressing down the erect, freshly vacuumed carpet fibers with his feet. “Just wash up and we’ll eat.”
“Sure thing,” she says, kissing the top of his head as she walks by.
From the dining room table, Shawn watches Annie as she washes her hands in the kitchen sink, the sleeves of her blouse rolled up to her elbows. Wiggling around in her skirt, she slips off her shoes. Annie is blond and short; she has a nice figure in a skirt suit, her athlete’s legs flexing on top of high heels. She was a gymnast in high school.
“Three years,” he says across the room. “Can you believe it?”
“Three years, honey,” she says, drying her hands with a dish towel.
“Three fantastic years.”
“Oooh, ahh. Oooh ahh,” she croons like a backup singer. “It’s amazing!”
“So work was bad?”
“You know how Donald is,” Annie says. “He just gets out of control. He doesn’t think about what he’s doing.”
“Well, some people don’t,” Shawn says as he watches Annie walk back into the room and sit down at the table, hands in her lap. The dinner is basically ruined, but they’ll eat it because he went to the trouble of making it. When she picks up a fork, Shawn smiles at her. “Some people act without thinking about what they’re doing,” he says. “It’s a mental disorder. I’ve read about people who say that they can’t even relate to their own hands in their mind — they’re just not part of the same whole. Killers and rapists. People like that.”
“But Donald isn’t a rapist,” Annie corrects. “That’s not what you mean.”
“No,” Shawn says, arranging the cold food on their plates. “He isn’t at the extreme. It’s just that he doesn’t consider that consequences of his actions always. Donald doesn’t really care how his actions affect other people. You know that.”
Shawn studied the psychology of personality when he was in college. He works from home now, writing product descriptions for an online shopping mall. Annie is an account assistant at Donald Pearce & Associates, an architectural firm she’s been with since serving an internship there five years ago. They met in school and were married after graduation. They’ve lived in a small house in an old neighborhood near campus for almost a year. Shawn gardens most of the day while Annie’s at work downtown. In the evening, while they watch TV on the couch, Shawn types away on his laptop, finishing up his day’s work.
From above their heads in the dining room, easing out of the speakers at low volume is Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. The sounds of strings spread throughout the room like a rumor, underneath the floorboards and behind the curtains. Shawn slices the duck, careful to not break the bones in the wrong spot. He serves them both, his hands held to present the cut to his wife. Since the wedding, he’s worked hard at becoming an excellent cook.
Annie’s head sways a little as Shawn serves her, her neck rolling, working out the kinks as a quiet moan pushes out between her lips.
“What was that for?” Shawn asks, amused, putting her plate in front of her. “Are you hungry or what?”
“Oh,” Annie laughs, putting her fork down after taking an embarrassed bite, chewing behind a smile. “I was just thinking.”
“Well, about what you said. About how people can do things without relating their actions to themselves. It’s funny.” Squinting, she swallows a mouthful of the merlot. “I’m no murderer, of course, but it just made me think about something that almost happened a few years ago.”
“Well, yeah,” Annie says. “Do you remember that big blowout Donald had at his lake house? The Halloween party?”
“Of course. We had just started dating.”
“Yes,” she says. “We weren’t really that close back then.”
“Not like now.”
“No, not like now at all.”
“Three years,” he says, a smile on his face.
“Oooh, ahh,” they sing in unison.
“Anyway,” Annie continues, taking another drink of wine. “I was dancing downstairs with these guys. Just dancing. Do you know what I mean?”
“I don’t know. A bunch of them. There were a lot of guys there. Guys Donald knew from the architecture college, I think. We were dancing.”
“You were dancing,” Shawn says, putting his fork on the table.
“Well, you know how it is. It’s embarrassing to talk about it now, but it seemed okay then, in that moment. Everyone was drunk,” she says, reaching across the table to cut butter onto her knife. “Pick up your fork, honey. It was nothing.”
Shawn stabs at the green beans then takes a drink, allowing the wine to slide down his throat with his eyes closed.
“What are you talking about?” he asks. “What happened?”
“These two guys. They were good-looking, I remember that. They, well, asked me if I wanted to go into the laundry room with them.” Annie sits up in her chair, her legs too short to touch the floor. “And for a minute, it sounded like a good idea — so I told them we should. I said, ‘Why not?’”
Shawn takes a deep breath. He thinks about clearing the table and starting the dishes. It might be better to get some take out, than to eat this ruined dinner. He could suggest that they leave. He isn’t comfortable with finishing this dinner, in the state it is. Annie has told stories like this before, this semi-erotic nostalgia that arouses her memory, even though it makes everyone uneasy to hear it. At least they are alone this time. She’s indulged her recollections at dinner parties before, at work functions.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, like you said before. I was just acting, as if nothing could go wrong because it wasn’t my life.”
“Then what happened?” Shawn asks, his voice muted. Moving food on his plate, he asks, “What happened with these two guys?”
“Oh, nothing happened,” Annie says. “I told them I had a boyfriend, that I had to go upstairs and find you. They were pissed off, but whatever. It wasn’t about them. It wasn’t about me either; just like you said. Absolutely nothing happened. It was just that almost. What you said, it made me think of it.”
“Then what did you do?”
“I went upstairs and talked to you, silly,” she says giggling. “Don’t you remember that? We had a great time.”
As she spreads butter on her roll, Shawn concentrates on the potatoes. His eyes twitch at the glass, stained red from the swirling wine.
“That was such a weird night,” she says. “Funny, how one recalls these things, isn’t it?
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