we would call him sir
We did not know his name. He had come to the party with someone else. We did not know him, yet he lingered to the end, when just a few of us close friends remained. We had thought the behavior unusual, but he was foreign, it seemed; his teeth were stained and crooked and his name, the one that had escaped us, was not a common one in our country. So he was exotic, or so we thought, and we leaned toward him, eager to hear him enlighten us about his culture. We were open-minded, progressive on all the important issues and naturally we wished to broaden our perspective whenever the opportunity arose.
“My daughter just got her period,” he said, speaking of it as if it was a rite of passage celebrated proudly in his place of origin. We felt uncomfortable. We did not know how to respond.
“Would you like more wine?” one of us offered and filled his glass without waiting for a response.
He took a healthy sip, as would a sommelier, but without the customary sniffing and gurgling of an expert. For this we were thankful.
Our minds raced for something to say. Should we respond to his statement about his daughter or simply and preferably ignore it? The later seemed rude but what could we say without seeming ethnocentric, which we were not. Of course we were not that.
“How old is she?” someone managed. “Your daughter.”
“Young,” we said and then worried that it was not young for his race. Perhaps, we thought, it was an evolutionary adaptation to their physical surroundings, like narrow eyelids or enlarged nostrils. Surely we had offended him.
“Yes,” he said. “From the chicken.”
The chicken, we considered. We felt relieved. Public radio had done a piece on the chicken. “The growth hormones!” one of us exclaimed.
“Yes,” he said.
So he is aware, we thought. How then? Why then does he not buy organic? One’s own daughter, no place to skimp.
Unless of course, he’s poor. Of course that must be it, we concluded. We had not known that poor people from other countries were educated about the chicken. He had surprised us.
We did not like being surprised in this way, feeling compelled to put ourselves in his position. Imagine the frustration, we thought, knowing the risks of the chicken but having no means to purchase quality food. Simply awful. We pitied him. Truly we did.
We recalled that time when we had skipped lunch, instead donating the funds to a charitable organization. We could not remember which charity it had been, but it had collected our lunch money and had fed a family in a third world country for a month. We remembered that time and how hungry we had felt. We had taken a Pilates class that morning and were famished. We remembered the emptiness in our stomachs and felt as though we could relate to our guest. We wondered if he was forced to skip meals often. Perhaps it is not the same, we thought. No, we realized. Our suffering and his were not the same at all.
We suddenly felt as though we were not decent people. Our manner had been shallow, comparing, as we had, our situation to his. This, we decided, was false. We could not help it if our means and his differed. We had sacrificed our lunch and we had suffered. Sacrificed and suffered we had. We had, after all, opened our home to him, and he had overstayed, and we had welcomed him, offering wine and conversation. Was that not proof of our compassion? Why yes. Proof indeed. Still, we shifted uneasily in our chairs.
He stared intently into his wine glass, saying nothing at all. Did he intend to make us squirm? Most certainly he did. This uninvited stranger wanted us to feel inferior in some way. The audacity of him. It was after all the end of the evening, a time to relax and be ourselves. We did not need him there to judge us. Certainly we did not need that. Who was this intruder and from what land had he come? We wanted to ask but quickly thought better of it. It was discourteous, was it not? It was. We decided to get at him in a roundabout way.
“What kind of food do you like?”
“Pizza,” he said.
“Pizza,” we confirmed.
“Yes,” he said. “With onions and meatballs.” We watched him conjure up a piece in his mind and take an imaginary bite. Our mouths began to salivate.
“Do you have family in the area?” one of us asked, hoping to find a clue.
“They are dead,” he informed us.
We shot glares at one another. Had it not been enough that we had insulted him by failing to embrace the ancient menstrual rituals of his ancestors? Now we had gone and drawn up bad memories. Forever he would associate the death of his kin with this party.
And what of it? The party had ended hours ago. He was a hanger on and an uninvited one at that. The rest of us were there because we had commonality, shared interests, ran in similar social circles to which he did not belong. No, quite clearly he did not belong. We liked to stay on after our gatherings and talk about the day: the food, the conversation, the guests. It was our practice and he had kept us from it. We could not speak freely with him there. Could he not see the time to depart had long passed? But we could not ask him to leave. Of course we could not. What would we have said? You there. Yes you, you insolent stranger, it is not the custom here to loiter in the homes of people who you do not know. Return to your hormone infused bleeding daughter. My god man, buy her some sanitary napkins and be gone! No, we could not say that. Of course we could not.
“More wine?” This time we filled our own glasses before pouring his. He did not take our hint. Again he sat and sipped with no indication of leaving.
Perhaps through some inadvertent gesture we had invited him to stay on forever, we worried. We eyed each other with disdain, trying to determine which of us was the culprit. We imagined life with him, the house always stinking of ethnic food, of onions and meatballs. We would enjoy it at first, the novelty of it. All our peers would talk of us, we were sure, lauding our generosity and astounded by our utmost etiquette. They simply would not ask him to leave, they would say, with awe and praise. After a while though, his presence would begin to wear on us, not even knowing what or who had brought him to us in the first place.
Yes, who had brought him to the party, we wondered. We could not recall. No matter now, we thought. Now, he was ours. It would be an adjustment, especially not knowing his name. We would make a pet name for him. We were certain he would like that. Sunny or Hal or maybe we would just call him Sir. That would be a kick, would it not? It would. We were sure that it would.
So it was settled. He would stay and we would be happy, challenged by our differences, there were so many, but happy nonetheless. We wondered, would his daughter come, too? We thought it best to clarify the arrangement, but when we turned to face him, the space where he had sat was empty. We scanned the house but did not find him. He had departed.
One of us recalled him standing and shaking our hands, but we could not be certain that is how it had went. We only knew that he had gone.
We looked at each other, helplessly silent. He had left us to ourselves and we felt betrayed.
nicole fix is a recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and was a finalist for Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and The Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction. Her publication credits include Post Road Magazine and the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry. Nicole co-founded and curates The Lantern Reading Series in New York. nicolefix.com