Nina Fosati

Honestly, It Put Me Right Off My Luncheon

+++++ In 1979, I was a back-to-the-land Whole-Earth-Catalog-reading hippie whose first job out of college was working for a community theater. A small German woman, a housekeeper in the season’s second play, invited me to join the American Business Women’s Association. When I lightheartedly demurred, she objected. My position as costume designer was a public one, and she wanted me to be her guest at the next luncheon. I suspected a conservative professional crowd wouldn’t appreciate my point of view. However, she insisted, so I agreed.

+++++ Usually, I knocked about in wooden-soled clogs and painter pants, but I’d dressed up for this occasion. I arrived at the designated hotel wearing a knit skirt and jacket set I’d foraged from the theater’s costume collection. A sea of women wearing business suits with matching shoes and bags gathered outside the ballroom. I said a little prayer of thanks when I discovered my rummaged outfit blended in perfectly. The next task would be more difficult for me–connecting with the practical mid-western businesswomen making polite inquiries about my work. The joy of theatrical design and historical clothing captivated me. The intricacies of running a company, not so much. When asked what I did, I should have said, “I make costumes for plays.” That was tangible. Instead, I spoke of illusive concepts like “working with the director and actors to help support the character’s journey.” It’s no wonder conversations would fire up then fade into awkward silence.

+++++ We listened to the speaker and poked at our chicken salad, served on a decorative bed of iceberg lettuce. When finished, she visited each table, exchanged smiling introductions, and received compliments on her presentation. The wait staff efficiently exchanged the lunch plates for coffee and cake.

+++++ I turned to the woman on my left. She was quiet and sweet, one of those tiny people who everyone calls dear, as in “I saw dear Audrey at Harold’s today.” She and a friend had softly commented to each other throughout the presentation. I wondered if my boisterous voice might have frightened her. Like the bunnies I saw nibbling on clover in my yard, she kept a cautious eye on my every move.

+++++ As I launched into some inconsequential topic, her face warped. A shiver flowed over it, distorting her features as it passed. Then the back of her glasses fogged. At first, I thought it was steam, but that made little sense. Water squirted over the glass, the jets clearing the fog in little streams, which washed down and dripped onto her cheek. I observed these changes in startled fascination, not knowing whether to comment or look away. Then to my astonishment, her eyeball burst out of her socket. The blue iris surrounded by white pressed against the back of her eyeglasses, bulging and judging me in my horrified surprise.

+++++ The diminutive woman quickly covered her face with her napkin and turned to the comfort of her friend who whisked her away, presumably to some tastefully decorated ladies’ room, where she could compose herself, then slip away, neat, tidy, and re-assembled.

+++++ After this happened, the other women seated at our table discretely turned away per the rules of decorum and polite society, pretending it had never happened. Obviously, we were embarrassed. Both for ourselves, witnessing such a disconcerting breach of the body proper and in empathy for the lady having to endure such an unfortunate ordeal. The party broke up quickly. We excused ourselves, and then skedaddled as fast as possible, myself included.

+++++ These days, when I remember the woman with the glass eye, melancholy overtakes me. It bothers me there was no response that felt right. Perhaps the crowd was correct. Perhaps politely pretending to have elective amnesia was the most considerate impulse. Some will argue the lady didn’t require my sympathy. She and her friend found a safe place to retire, performed the needed repairs and composed themselves. They had no need of my concern or me.

+++++ It’s certainly possible that that was the case. However, I do wish I hadn’t sat there shocked and immobile. You see, I know something about being on the receiving end of silence that reverberates as loud as laughter.

+++++ For much of my life, I have experienced what are quaintly referred to as fainting spells. It’s a Victorian term that conjures images of an overwrought woman lifting a wan hand to her forehead and falling daintily upon a conveniently placed chaise lounge. My reality is more violent and unrestrained. It’s an internal fight with my body, a call to flee, to escape. It’s a paralyzing fear. Often I end up unconscious, falling forward with no cushion between the floor and me. I black out then wake, bloody and bruised, to wonder what I’ve damaged this time.

+++++ The possibility of such an event happening to me at a future luncheon was real. I envisioned my lingering disorientation in the aftermath, the tidying up, the brave face, the internalization of my polite shunning.

+++++ It haunts me that when the dear lady returned to the banquet room, she would have found the table cleared. I imagine her staring for a few agonizing seconds at our empty chairs. Perhaps her mouth closed into a line. Perhaps she raised her head, placed her hand on her friend’s arm, and silently walked out of the building. Perhaps, like me, she resolved she would never return.

Nina Fosati is an artist by inclination and a writer by misfortune. Beguiled by historic clothing and portraiture, she impulsively holds forth on her favorites @NinaFosati. Nina is also the SOS editor for the r.kv.r.y quarterly literary journal. Dappled Things, Fictive Dream, and West Texas Literary Review have most recently published her stories.

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