By Jack Reibstein
Image: “Untitled (Seems To Be Necessary),” by Leslie Hewitt, 2009.
“Well, it didn’t just get up and walk away,” his parents told him as a boy. But he knew better. Sometimes they did. Sometimes things just left.
That night, after all the scraps were scraped into the disposal, and all the coats were claimed at the bannister, he stared into the black nothingness above his bed and struggled to quantify all the time in his life he’d devoted to searching for things he’d never find. Legos, socks, homework, laundry cards, keys, pens… They served him one moment, and left him the next. When he was younger, he would clench his teeth and ball his fists when these things disappeared. He could feel them poking and prodding his patience, a phantom pain from a misplaced wallet burning in his pocket, the laughter of a pair of forgotten tickets echoing in his ears.
He never felt this frustration around people. A person cannot be lost. They are too large, in both a physical and impactful sense. Only things vanish. People do not.
Salad tongs, salad tongs, salad tongs. The cover of the kitchen island concealed the red that filled his face, invisible pin pricks showering the back of his buzzed head and lousy neck. For a second, he feared the racket produced by his hands—scooping and tumbling through the cabinetry, uprooting this byzantine kitchenware organization system that he had worked so hard to keep in tact—was making a scene. He peaked his head over the countertop to make sure he wasn’t upsetting the guests, but none of them noticed his plight, nor his anxiety. Here he was, silently dying, while his closest friends, mere feet away, none the wiser, filled up on cheese and crackers.
She would know where it was. She invented this arrangement. Why did she have to go?
Hosting is an unwinnable game, an unachievable balance between staging an atmosphere of zen and hopping from one micromanagement to the next. For two people to do it is hard, passing back and forth the roles of maitre d’ and chef, one checking the roast while the other introduces quivering-lipped neighbors to rambunctious friends who haven’t matured beyond their undergrad years. But to do it alone? It was becoming clear to him that this was impossible.
“Love the new plates, Jack.” It was Brie. She surveyed the table, shoving triangle toasts piled high with gorgonzola into her maw. That motherfucker. It was her surprise garden salad that caused this spinout. They were supposed to be sitting down to eat fifteen minutes ago, but here he was, excavating the depths of his pantries like an imbecile, searching for the proper utensil to accommodate this verdurous wildcard.
“Why thank you, Brie. Saw them in the Bloomingdale’s catalogue and I couldn’t say no.”
“Heyo, mind if I crack open one of those IPA’s you were talking about?” said Roy, Gail’s husband. Roy’s thunder grip and infatuation with micro-brews made him the de facto “man’s man” of the neighborhood, but seen with a newfound clarity and intolerance for bullshit that can only emerge in widowhood, Jack saw him exactly for who he was: a pain with expensive tastes. Why was he even asking? No one else was going to drink these unpalatable, hoppy concoctions. He’d bought them with Roy in mind.
“All you, dude.”
And then, as this testosterone tinged go-ahead left his mouth, it hit him; the whole night, he was playing husband and wife. Sure, the labor that went into preparing dinner was exhausting. That part was expected, but the constant gear shifting between talking football and showing off the new backsplash by the sink was wearing him out. The rate that he fluctuated between a put-on, burly affectation and the cadence of his wife was unsustainable.
The two of them had taken pride in enduring these parties as a team, in overcoming a taxing night of social posturing together. They were a modern couple, with matching wages and matching flannels. Dish and laundry duty were split down the middle. They alternated who cooked meal by meal. Their sexlife was a scorecard, and the game always ended in a tie. If they had had kids, they would have shoved this doctrine on them, too. To love is to share. It was like having a second him around, except the him was a her, and she had just enough distance from him to compartmentalize his worries and calm his nerves.
And now there was only one of him, for the first time in fifteen years. He was starting to remember how hard that was.
Now, left without a point of reference, no barometer to check himself against, he felt like a one man circus, running backstage every few seconds to change costumes and prepare the next act.
And for his next trick… he was missing a prop. He scanned each shelf twice, three times. There was logic behind every placement. Bowls hid inside larger bowls, like Matryoshka dolls. Blender, mixer, and juicer, like a trio of the Queen’s Guard, stood at attention side by side in the rare event that they were needed. Even the Keurig machine showed its ugly face, exiled years ago upon arrival of the cappuccino maker. But where were the tongs? That two pronged menace, one half not quite a fork, the other not quite a spoon, the two utterly useless when separated.
He came up for air again, this time for good, looking upon his work: a group of 30 and 40 somethings huddling around trays of h’orderves, posing for cell phone pictures, sharing leads on the best preschool, the best tapas joint, the best personal trainer. Was it his imagination, or had they taken on a mob-like property, the rhythms of their speech leveling out into one continuous hum, holding a uniform expression of mild dissatisfaction. It was not pitchfork and flame this creeping mass wielded, but rather glass of port and baby lamb shank.
Had someone tampered with the temperature dial? He felt a climbing heat, the kind of heat that makes someone want to take off their own skin, arriving first in his forehead, then coursing up and down his arms and into his fingers, before setting his chest and heart ablaze. Soon it would spread to his brain, ripping through its tissue, leaving a burnt crisp of the cranium-housed operating system.
The heat blinded him, and made him want to say screw the salad tongs, and screw salad altogether, and screw all these people. What was stopping him from ripping off his constricting button-up and too-tight corduroys, dumping out each drawer, emptying every last nook and cranny, sifting through the thousands of dollars of home appliances that encircled him, at long last finding the godforsaken tongs by the cheese grater and pizza cutter, brandishing the tool not for salad serving but for attack, spitting on his guests, herding them out of his house, lashing out at the horde of freeloaders and fair-weather friends, all of whom had backed away when his wife had collapsed last summer at a party much like this one, none of them knowing what to do or say once the ambulance was called because they were nothing more than a crowd of yuppie sadsacks who didn’t even know how to mourn properly, none of them ever once sitting Shiva, none of them knowing that the proper way to console a Jewish widower is to leave a bundt in the kitchen, make small talk, and say “I’m here if you need me,” that it’s not okay to show up empty handed because you “don’t believe in sugar,” to pat him on the back and treat him like a quarantine patient, to bring your asshole ten year old along because this would be a great learning experience for them; what was stopping him? What was stopping him from chasing them into the streets, parading his naked body up and down the boulevard, throwing the local news team the story of the year, entertaining teenagers for all eternity with the viral smash “SALAD TONG GUY GOES BALLISTIC MUST SEE,” getting charged with public indecency and disturbing the peace, making bail that night, and hitting the daytime talk show circuit?
“Hey, Jack. I’m starved! What’s the hold up?”
But that was messy. Instead, he took a deep inhale, decided salad would be self-serve, and blew out this hypothetical future, the last ten minutes, the last year, the last fifteen years….
The tongs were gone. She wasn’t.
Read an interview with Jack Reibstein here.