There we were, at a small gathering of friends after my wife, Debbie, and I eloped in an office park in Encino, California. I had barbecued steak with homemade steak sauce, made a pasta salad, roasted some fingerling potatoes, and sautéed pea pods with a sprinkling of cracked black pepper and Parmesan. I baked a three-layer strawberry shortcake, and we set everything out on a table. We arranged a basket of plastic plates and cutlery and sat outside to eat, everyone six feet apart, wearing masks when we weren’t eating. It was all very festive—June 2020, three or so months into a very long year-and-a-half of isolation and worry and waiting.
Debbie and I had not imagined we would have any opportunities to socialize until there was a vaccine, but then we did. It was a welcome reprieve. We tried to be as safe as possible, or maybe we convinced ourselves we were being as safe as possible. As the sun set, we celebrated our marriage with six other people. Later, we sat around the firepit as best we could, drinks in hand. We tried to pretend that everything was normal for just one night. We had a moment of mourning for the big wedding we had once been planning. We had more than a moment of mourning for the countless lives that had already been lost, without realizing the magnitude of the tragedy yet to come. It was a celebration, but the evening was tempered by so many sobering realities.
And then there were many months of just the two of us at home, enjoying each other. As a distraction, I quietly planned the fabulous dinner parties we would have when it was all over. The worse the news about COVID-19, the government’s response, the election, and the failures of democracy afterward, the more elaborate my plans became—ideal guest lists, chic place cards so those guests would be arranged in ways that would encourage fascinating conversations, fancy place settings and maybe new cutlery, some chargers, beautiful menus, multiple courses, and, of course, delicious wine. I wondered if it would be too much to hire a string quartet. I bought a gorgeous set of dinner plates—well, I bought four, because that’s what I could afford—and spent quite some time admiring them in their sturdy and stately packaging. If the exterior world was inaccessible, I was determined to do the absolute most with my interior world.
I’m rather shy, which always seems to surprise people. I really enjoy quiet and solitude, especially if I have a book nearby. I can fake extroversion, but it requires a great deal of energy, and I feel a sweet rush of relief when I can retreat into myself once more. My wife is more outgoing, always the life of the party, a consummate entertainer. Secretly, though, Debbie is an introvert and could go many months without socializing if her schedule allowed it. It shocked us both, I think, that when we could finally be out in the world safely, I was more eager to entertain and hang out with our friends. She was more than willing to remain burrowed in our home, an island of two.
As I made my elaborate dinner party plans, I wondered what proximity would be like in the After. I wondered if the anxieties we’d developed by virtue of the terrifying unknowns of a pandemic would get in the way of great conversation and bonhomie. I worried that my ability to fake extroversion had atrophied. I read a few news articles about how people found that their friendships had faded over the great expanse of the pandemic and worried that maybe my friends would decide we had grown too far apart and that my friendship services were no longer needed.
And then, there was a vaccine. Before long, we had an opportunity to entertain. I tried to be cool, but I was thrilled. Debbie and I, our friend Min Jin Lee, her husband, Chris, and their son, Sam, our friend Miwa, also a book person, and her “dude,” James, and my friend Randa, another wonderful writer, gathered at our home in Los Angeles. It all came together organically. All my fancy plans vanished. We used paper plates because we were feeling lazy. There were no place settings at all, just the spread laid out on our dining room table so people could serve themselves. I made sangria and homemade potato chips and a charred scallion dip. We grilled hamburgers and hot dogs. Pasta salad, again. There were mint chocolate brownies that tasted like Andes mints, and blueberry cobbler. We sat around enjoying the food. Conversation was effortless, and there was little small talk; we had no need for small things. Throughout the evening, I was intimately aware of the gift of proximity without precarity.
Roxane Gay is an author and social commentator.
This story originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
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