Self Consolation

“We’re not on fire,” said Cynthia. She was sitting cross-legged on one of the floor cushions she had insisted on buying. It had a vaguely Native American pattern woven into the top of it—stacks of pastel triangles in rough wool. She was drinking her wine quickly and the bottle was at her knee.

Rodney patted the couch next to him. She shook her head and continued.

“We used to be on fire. Now we’re more like a forgotten baguette at a picnic brunch interrupted by rain.”

“And how are we like that?” said Rodney, picking The New Yorker up off the end table. He wasn’t reading it. He was just holding it, admiring the cover.

“We’re turning to sludge. Sludge no-one wants. Sludge that will never be a baguette again.”

She topped up her glass. The late afternoon sun shining through the balcony doors turned the straw-tinted wine golden.

“It’s just the isolation,” said Rodney. “No-one is hanging out with anyone.”

“I knew this would happen,” said Cynthia, squeezing the bridge of her nose. “I knew this would happen.”

“You knew the pandemic was coming?”

“That’s not what I meant, but I knew something bad was coming. I could feel it.”

Rodney laughed at her. Two glasses of wine and she was full of it.

“You knew? Before or after Australia burning, World War 3 almost starting or Kobe? Something bad is always happening or about to happen.”

“I said that’s not what I meant. I meant I knew that as soon as I stopped hosting dinner parties everyone would forget about us. They were here for the food. Not for me, for us.”

If she wasn’t going to sit with him, he was going to put his feet up. Slippers off, of course. He didn’t need that fight. Somehow the magazine fell open on his lap.

“I suggested a virtual dinner party, using that video call program everyone is using.”

Cynthia lowered her glass and wrinkled her nose with distaste.

“And I told you there is no such thing as virtual dinner parties, only virtual potlucks.”

“I like the sound of a potluck. It sounds so lucky.”

Now he was baiting her. But she deserved it. She deserved it because she was so easily baited. And if she was going to sit there and have her fun whining, he was going to have his fun.

“That’s because you’ve never been to a potluck. You’ve never been faced with a table full of casserole dishes, their white edges black with burnt cheese and smelling like a cannery in summer, bowls filled with immense mounds of bean salad, which is not a salad, it’s just canned food stirred together by imbeciles. And, worst of all, the very worst, those lumps of desiccated mince and breadcrumbs, those terrines from the dimmest circle of hell that they have the gall to call meatloaf. They don’t qualify as meat nor loaf.”

Rodney laughed. Not at Cynthia. At the cartoon at the top of the page. A Lady No Kids, in a top hat but without pants, wearing sandals with socks, was declaring to a couple with a stroller and children that she might spend the day following a goose. The personification of individual autonomy. Or was she a patron saint? Patroness saint?

“I am serious.”

“Yes, dear. I know. You just said it so well.”

They had followed quite a few of their own geese over the years. His own goose, his great white goose, you might say his Moby Goose, had been corporate governance. Cynthia’s had been cuisine in all its forms. Did he regret never having children? No. Would a top hat suit him? Perhaps.

“You and your flaccid pancreas wouldn’t even survive a potluck.”

“I might be able to eat meatloaf.”

“You don’t eat meatloaf. You consume it as penance for the sin of impoverishment. But you wouldn’t know that.”

She pointed towards the kitchen.

“I have an eight foot wide gas oven imported from France in there, we have weeks of lockdown to go, and I’m trapped with you, a man who lives solely on steamed salmon and white rice.”

“There is nothing stopping you cooking something complicated for yourself.”

Cynthia stood up, wine glass in one hand, almost empty bottle in the other.

“You know, Rodney,” she said through gritted teeth, “that I can only cook for others. I am going to have a bath. If I don’t come out, steam your own damned salmon.”

He got distracted by the Shouts & Murmurs section, but eventually stood and picked up the floor pillow and placed it on top of the others in their dark wood stand. Cynthia’s little corner of Bohemia, that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns without sandals and headscarves, and perhaps incense. It was time for some fresh air.

He opened the doors to the balcony and stepped out. The lack of traffic moving on the street far below, the cranes along the skyline frozen in place, made the view almost tranquil. An urban stillness, like a machine paused. The air was definitely clearer. The park across the street was returning to life after winter. Within its boundaries, on the path by the creek, obscured now and again by the closer trees, a woman, her legs bare, was running, screaming, pursued by one of the park’s geese.