We walked past customers dinner-tabled between an immense wall of wine bottles on steel racks and a high-chaired oak bar that ran the length of the establishment. It was an expensive place and I didn't have any money. But Pete, Chuck, and Amy kept walking past tables of imminent financial ruin towards the back wall and I gratefully followed them through a back door where the fabled party was unfolding: an intimate outdoor patio area. There were several trees and Christmas lights dangling over a half-dozen party guests who clutched wine glasses and table napkins. Everyone turned to regard us. A pretty waitress with blonde hair and green eyes handed us menus and gestured at an empty table.
Smitha sat next to her sister, Sandia, who I quickly learned had just graduated with a master's in business. Sandia was complaining that 9:00 a.m. was too early to have to come into work and both of the strangers sitting next to me agreed with her. One of the guys at our table mentioned cigars and then Sandia said something about Turkey. A job opportunity? Or an anecdote about growing up there? Both she and Smitha were dark-skinned and talked with accents. I'd been playing horrible chess lately because I wasn't thinking clearly enough, and here I was making the same mistake: I assumed Smitha was from Turkey.
This, of course, contradicted her appearance. If I'd only LOOKED at her I would have guessed India straight away (the correct answer). But after re-locating my chair next to Smitha to flurt, I blundered when she asked where I thought she was from. "Turkey?" I asked confidently. Wrong answer. Totally wrong. (Is there some cultural antagonism between Turks and Indians?) When you aren't thinking or looking, you're not only liable to get checkmated but also likely to fall to your social death from the cliffs of misinformation that you mistakenly think are leading to the bedroom summit. How many climbers have died this way?
After Smitha clarified where in INDIA she was from, I mentioned Hinduism and how it seemed a lot like Japanese Shinto in that it didn't travel well, that Hindus didn't knock on your door with pamphlets proclaiming "the good news." "Christianity is a virus," I added almost indignantly. Smitha could see where I was coming from. "I see what you're saying," she said.
But she started turning from that point forward in our discussions away from me. Biting my tongue, I threw out vampires: I postulated that only they were capable of having enough time on Earth to emerge from the existential shadows and formulate some ultimate answer to Man's problems. Then I declared handwringing pointless for us because our lives have such a relatively short shelf life: we expire and everything's solved. No problem!
Shortly after this she asked me where I felt I belonged in the world. I said I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere and she said she felt like that, too. But this train of thought was making her weary, depressed, and I got the flash of insight too late that this wasn't the kind of conversation she'd come here tonight to have. Sitting out back in this fancy place with her sister's future commodity markets unfolding among like-minded guests, she'd only wanted to drink wine and maybe splash around in the shallow lagoon of material becoming with its clear water and easy footing. My signaling towards a brooding deep ocean that drowned religious veracity AND sank existentially amnesiac pleasure boats was nothing but a buzzkill for her.
The game was over when Chuck started yakking some stupid rap lyrics at the other end of the table and Smitha turned completely around to watch; I only saw her back after that. The door was closed. No, I didn't belong anywhere—especially not here in the company of these people. I felt frustrated, dejected. I was also ashamed that I'd guessed Turkey instead of India. Why had I dragged existential handwringing into what had started out as a promising conversation (place of origin aside)? Smitha just wanted to have a good time, after all. To be light-hearted like a feather on the grass.
Many times people get mismatched and tangled up at dinner parties; often the resulting knots can't be undone. Is this the end of the world? To leave a place in knots, ruined? Last night I cared but this morning I don't. Happy trails, Smitha.