The Life of the Party
My wife's name is Graciela; mine is Arthur. "They're such a charming couple," our friends are always saying. They're right, we are a bright, young, elegant, Cosmopolitan married couple, good conversationalists and financially secure. As a result, a large part of our life is spent at social gatherings. People vie to invite us, and we must frequently choose between one party and another.
The essential feature of our conduct is that we never have to be begged. We hate giving the impression that we're aware of our qualities and, hence, when accepting their invitations, that we are bestowing a great honor upon our hosts. But they do consider it an honor, and this fact also weighs in favor of our reputation as generous, magnanimous people, free of pettiness and suspiciousness.
I swear we make no effort whatsoever to stand out. Nevertheless - and I'm speaking impartially - Graciela and I are always the best looking, the nicest, and the most intelligent. We are the life of the party.
Graciela is surrounded by the gentlemen; I, by the ladies. Naturally, were strangers to jealousy and distrust; we know that no man, except Arthur, is worthy of Graciela; that no woman, except Graciela, is worthy of Arthur.
How many people must doubtlessly envy our social success! And yet, Graciela and I detest social life, we abhor gatherings, we hate parties. Moreover, we are actually shy, contemplative individuals given to silence and solitude, to reading and intimate conversation; persons who despise crowds, dances, loud music, frivolity, small talk, and forced smiles.
Well then, why the devil are we so urbane? Why can't we turn down even a single invitation to a social gathering?
The truth of the matter is that deep down Graciela and I have no willpower and we don't dare say no. On our way to a party, we're submerged in gloomy thoughts, bitter tribulations, and painful guilt feelings. But once we enter into the noisy whirlwind of the throng, the voices, faces, smiles, and jokes all make us forget the annoyance of being there against our will.
But then, home once again, how it hurts us to consider how fragile our personality is! How painful our feeling of helplessness! How horrible to see ourselves always obliged to be the life of the party!
Burdened by a problem similar to ours, two ordinary people might have fallen into despair. But , far from that, Graciela and I are in the midst of a campaign to avoid further invitations, to cease being the life of the party. We have devised a plan, the purpose of which is to make ourselves unpleasant, obnoxious, abhorrent.
Now, then, when we're at parties, we don't have the courage to appear unpleasant, much less obnoxious or abhorrent; to such a degree are we imbued with our role as the life of the party. But in our own home, where serenity invites contemplation and where the pernicious influence of parties doesn't reach, we are transforming ourselves into pariahs of refined society, turning into the antithesis of the glorious life of the party.
When we put our plan into practice-some two months ago-it still suffered from many shortcomings. Our inexperience, our excitement, our lack of cold-bloodedness at first caused us to make some serious mistakes. But people learn throughout their lives; little by little, Graciela and I were improving. I'd be exaggerating if I said we've achieved perfection; I can state, however, that we feel pleased, satisfied, even proud of our latest performance. We are now awaiting the fruits of our labors.
There's always some couple that's especially friendly toward us and wants to be invited to our home. We have no objection to doing so, but we take the liberty of delaying to the maximum the moment of extending the invitation. When it does come, the couple, whether it's a pair of young nonconformists living together or a ripe old married couple, is waiting for nothing else and rushes to accept it.
We made the Vitavers wait a long time, a very long time, before inviting them. The point is that, given their dangerous qualities, with that kind of people one had to be careful. I preferred not to improvise, and I wanted us to be very well prepared.
Beneath his false air of the respectable gentleman, Mr. Vitaver is semi-illiterate. His lack of culture, an unlimited bad faith, a total disregard for his fellow man, and an implacable dishonesty have, of course, led him to make a fortune. After all kinds of marginally legal businesses, he has established himself as a pornographic book publisher. Hence, one of his favorite expressions is, "We, the disseminators of culture . Needless to say, I despise Vitaver: his spiritual emptiness, his greed, his coarse humor, his eagerness to please, his Impeccably shaved face, his unscrupulous beady little tradesman's eyes, his exquisite clothes, his manicured fingernails, his suspiciousness, his desperate need to be respected, to make a proper place for himself. For my taste and character, all these wretched features combined to paint an atrocious portrait. And Vitaver sought out my friendship; my supposed connections with what he called "the world of letters" were important to him. He doubtlessly cherished the idea that my frequent contact with novelists, critics, or poets would act by way of osmosis on him, taking the rough edges off his mercantile crudeness. He never suspected that the majority of those writers - as brutish and uncultured as he himself - were concealing what was only stupidity beneath extravagant attitudes that sought to be shocking.
Vitaver's wife is not his wife, but his concubine. This fact, which should be immaterial, irrelevant to approval or reproof, fills the Vitavers with pride. They imagine that such daring covers them with a glorious halo of modernity and open-mindedness; they never miss an opportunity to talk about it. I don't know what her name is; Vitaver calls her Adidine, a nickname that, although it evokes shades of prostitution, also sounds like a pharmaceutical product. The latter is an attribute that fits her very badly, however, for there is nothing aseptic about Mrs. Vitaver. On the contrary, her taut, shiny, moist oily skin evokes all the possible humors of the human body. In general, when both dimensions are compatible, she tends more to width than to length: her fingers are short and fat; her hands are short and fat; her face is wide and fat. All of her is broad and fat. And she is obtuse, and she is ignorant, and she is pompous, and she is dyed, and she is daubed, and she is bejeweled, and she is repugnant.
And so, Vitaver and Adidine, based on grossly commercial reasons, sought our friendship, the friendship of the life of the party. And we were sick of being the life of the party, and we were sick of these Vitavers in particular and of the hundreds of Vitavers who tormented us weekly with their stupidity, their frivolity, their mercantilism.
At that point, we invited the Vitavers to dinner at our home.
Graciela and I are neither princes nor paupers. But we live comfortably, we can renew our wardrobes often, and we have a small car and lots of books. We own our apartment. It takes up the entire second floor of a house on Emilio Ravignani Street, a house built in 1941, solid house with very thick walls, fine wood, and very high ceilings, house that has not yet succumbed to demolition and the subsequent construction of a fragile apartment building with apartments heaped up on top of one another.
On the ground floor there's a hardware store; then there's the entrance to the flat below us and, right next to it, the door to ours. The door opens directly on a steep stairway made of black marble that leads up to the second floor, where our home actually begins.
We like the flat. It's larger than we need, so in case of emergency we can change the furniture from one room to another and carry out other strategic maneuvers.
The heavy rain that fell the night of the Vitavers' visit was a challenge to my creative spontaneity. Although it wasn't foreseen in my plans, I knew how to take advantage of it to the maximum.
From behind the closed shutters on the second floor, we peeked out at the ostentatious arrival of Vitaver's enormous car, we saw how he parked at the curb across the street (there's no parking on our side); with delight, we observed the Vitavers get out, encumbered by raincoats and umbrellas, and we watched them cross the street on the run and rush headlong against our door like two fighting bulls. Unfortunately, we have a balcony, and it sheltered them a bit from the rain.
Beside our door there are two doorbells, each with a little cardboard nameplate. The first announces my last name; on the other it says MR. JABBERWOCKY, a name I took from a poem in Through the Looking Glass. Besieged by the whirlwinds of freezing rain, which the wind pelted at him every little while, Vitaver rang the doorbell corresponding to my name once, twice, and once again. That noise, monotonous, of course, sounded to us like celestial music. Vitaver rang, and rang, and rang; Graciela and I did not answer.
At last, Vitaver inevitably rang the Jabberwocky's doorbell, from which he received the little electric discharge I had foreseen. Naturally, it's Vitaver's fault; who told him to ring the doorbell of an unknown person?
Our ears pressed to the shutters, Graciela and I listened with glee to the Vitavers' conjectures: "I tell you, the doorbell gave me a shock!"
"It just seemed that way to you."
"You ring, you'll see."
"Ow! Me too!"
"Didjuh see? Can the bell be ringing upstairs?"
"Is the number of the house right?"
"Of course. Besides, there's his last name."
Then I barely stuck my head out through the shutters and, prudently covered with a waterproof hat and an umbrella, I shouted from the second floor: "Vitaver! Vitaver!"
Happy to hear my voice, he ran out to the edge of the sidewalk to try to see me, because of which he got much wetter. He tilted his head back and completely neglected to hold his umbrella up. "How are you, Arthur?" he shouted, squinting his eyes against the rain lashing his face.
"Fine, just fine, thank you," I replied cordially. "And your wife? You can't have come alone, have you?"
"Here I am," said Adidine, obligingly rushing out next to Vitaver. It was wonderful to behold the way the water was running down over her tightly set hairdo and her fur coat.
"Hello, there, Adidine. How are you? Always so pretty, eh ... ," I said. "What a downpour! And just this morning the weather was beautiful. Who could have imagined that? But ... Well! Don't just stand there getting soaked! Get up against the wall, and I'll let you in right away."
I closed the window and let ten minutes go by. Finally, I called out again: "Vitaver! Vitaver!"
He was obliged to go back out to the curb.
"Please excuse the delay," I said; "I couldn't find the key to save my life."
With great difficulty, Vitaver etched a woeful smile of understanding on his face.
"Here comes the key," I added. "Catch it and go right ahead and open the door yourself, if you will. Just take it for granted you're in your own home."
I threw it to him with such bad aim that the key ended up falling into the water in the gutter. Vitaver had to squat down and stir around in the dark water for a while with his hand. When he stood up, having now salvaged the key, he was wetter than a mackerel.
He finally opened the door and came in. I already pointed out that the stairway marble is black; so it barely gets dark and you can't see a thing. Vitaver groped around on the wall in the darkness until he found the light switch. From upstairs I heard click, click, click, but the light didn't go on. Then I shouted: "Vitaver, it looks like the light bulb burnt out just this minute. Come up very slowly, so you don't fall. "
Clutching the two railings with an iron grip and in the uncertain light of short-lived matches, the Vitavers came hesitantly up the stairs. Graciela and I awaited them above, wearing our warmest smiles. "How are the charming Vitavers?"
Vitaver was getting ready to shake hands with us when a shriek of horror from Graciela turned him to stone.
"What have you got on your hands?! Oh, my God, look how you're all stained! How awful, your clothes! And Adidine's beautiful coat!"
Huge red stains covered Vitaver's right side and Adidine's left side.
"Damn!" I became indignant, clenching my fists in a rage. "What'll you bet Cecilia took it into her head this very day to paint the stairway railings? What a stupid girl!"
"Cecilia is the maid," sighed Graciela, considering the matter at an end. "She's driving us crazy with her dumb tricks."
"Domestic help is getting worse every day," Adidine said heroically, as she looked out of the corner of her eye at the hairs of her mink coat all stuck together. "I just don't know how we well-to-do families are going to get along!"
She had no idea to what extent this last statement worsened her situation.
"Tomorrow without fall," I insisted with a dire look on my face and an admonishing index finger, "I'm putting Cecilia right out in the street."
"Oh, the poor girl," said Graciela. "Just now, when she was beginning to learn? And she's already like a member of the family.
"Right out in the street!" I repeated with greater emphasis.
"But consider the fact that poor Cecilia is an unwed mother, that she has two babies. Don't be inhuman!"
"I'm not inhuman," I specified. "I'm being just, which is quite different."
"Justice cannot be upheld without a humanitarian foundation," Graciela adduced. "Epictetus said that ..."
And leaving the Vitavers disdainfully forgotten, Graciela and I engaged in a learned debate, abounding in apocryphal quotations and authors, concerning justice, equity, morals, goodness, and other values remotely applicable to the case of the nonexistent Cecilia.
The Vitavers listened to our conversation, anxious to intervene but - inept as they were - without knowing what to say. Evidently, they were suffering, they were suffering a great deal. But how artfully they concealed it! They too aspired to be as worldly wise and as congenial as we are; they assumed that, in a similar predicament, Graciela and I would not have lost our smiles.
We finally remembered the existence of the Vitavers and helped them rid themselves of their rainwear, umbrellas, and coats. Vitaver was wearing a magnificent, black dinner jacket, a shirt with narrow lace edging, and a bow tie; he was elegant to the extent that such an outfit could refine his rough, underworld nature. Adidine was wearing a long white sparkling evening gown; she was profusely jewelled, finely perfumed.
"Oh, Adidine!" Graciela exclaimed with admiration when the intense dining room light fell fully on those wonders. "How elegant, how lovely you look! What a beautiful gown! And those shoes! What I wouldn't give to have clothes like that! But we're so poor. Look what I had to put on. These are my best clothes."
The Vitavers had already seen our apparel and had already pretended not to notice anything unusual about it. But Graciela and I, implacable, were not about to exempt them from the unpleasant experience of looking over our garb while they, in turn, were attentively observed by us.
"Look, Adidine, just look," Graciela repeated, twirling around like an advertising model. "Look, look." She was all disheveled and had no make-up on. She was wearing a very old mended blouse and a plain skirt covered with big grease spots and with the hem unstitched. She had on silk stockings perforated with big holes and long runs and, over the stockings, a pair of brown anklets that partially disappeared inside some dilapidated slippers. "Look, Adidine, look." Adidine didn't know what to say.
"And I, what am I to say?" I intervened. "I don't even have a shirt!"
In effect, I had put on a grayish municipal street sweeper's smock right over a heavy woolen undershirt full of holes. Around my bare neck I had tied a frayed old necktie. A pair of baggy, dirty-white bricklayer's pants and black hemp sandals rounded out my attire.
"That's life," I said philosophically, as I scratched my five-day beard and chewed on a toothpick. "That's life, friend Vitaver, that's life."
Completely disoriented, Vitaver vaguely nodded his head. "That's life," he repeated like a parrot.
"That's life," I insisted yet once again. "'So goes the world, Don Laguna, / Old pardner, nothin' lasts, / Fortune smiles on us today, / Tomorrow it'll give us a lash.' Faust, by Estanislao del Campo. What do you think?'"
"Hub? Oh, yeah," he said hurriedly. "I read it. I remember that old Vizcacha ..."
"You know what Manrique said about the gifts of fortune, don't you?" I interrupted him. "He said: "For they are gifts of Lady Fortune, / who swiftly spins her wheel ..."
Then, with an affected voice and grandiose gestures, I recited five or six stanzas for him, something I love to do. "Do you get it, Vitaver?"
"Yes, yes, how fabulous!" He hadn't understood a word, and that wretched adjective of his was tantamount to making his crimes worse.
"Today you're loaded with money," I added, poking his chest with my index finger. "You have social status. You have intelligence. You're cultured. You have savoir faire. You have a beautiful wife. You have everything, right?" I stopped and stared at him, obliging him to answer.
"Well, maybe not everything," he smiled conceitedly; he actually thought he possessed all those endowments!
"Tomorrow you could lose it all," I then said in a gloomy tone, to show him another facet of the drama of life. "You could lose your fortune. You could end up in jail. You could become seriously ill. Your intelligence could atrophy, your culture become watered down. Your savoir-faire might be scorned. Your wife could be unfaithful to you."
I went on haranguing him for a long time with the vision of an atrocious future made up of imprisonment, illnesses, and misfortune. We were acting out an odd scene: a ragged beggar was solemnly pontificating before a gentleman dressed in strict formal attire. Together, we constituted a kind of allegory on the disillusionments of the world.
While I soliloquized, the Vitavers' fretful little eyes were leaping here and there. How humiliating! To have worn their best clothes and be received by two grimy, woebegone, melancholy tramps! "How can this be?" they seemed to be thinking. "And what about the clothes, the jewelry, and the elegance they always displayed at parties?"
"We've been left with nothing, friend Vitaver," I said, as if responding to their thoughts. "Yesterday we even had to sell the dining room furniture at a loss."
Then - as if it were necessary - the Vitavers cast a stupid glance over the obviously empty dining room.
"Ubi sunt? Ubi sunt?" I emphasized. "Tell me, Vitaver: Ubi sunt? Ubi sunt? Ubi sunt mensa et sellae sex?"
"And so," said Graciela, we have no choice but to have dinner in the kitchen."
"Oh please! That's quite all right," said Adidine.
"And we don't have a table in the kitchen, either, so we'll have to eat on the marble counter top. If you'd like to come this way."
I knew the condition the kitchen was in, and I watched the Vitavers' faces as stupefaction, disbelief, and repressed anger swiftly passed over them.
The kitchen was a kind of monument paying homage to disorder, laziness, filth, and abandonment. In the sink, semisubmerged in water so greasy it was thick and on which floated the remains of meals, were heaped dishes, pots, platters, silverware, and sticky saucepans. Thrown here and there on the floor were about ten days of damp old newspapers. There stood against one wall an enormous trash can overflowing with garbage, with swarms of flies, cockroaches, and worms running and wriggling over it. In the air there floated the smell of grease, fried things, wet paper, and stagnant water.
The Vitavers looked very solemn.
"In just a jiffy," said Graciela, trying in vain to give her words an optimistic tone, "in Just a jiffy I'll spread the tablecloth" - and she pointed at the marble sink counter, also covered with remains of meals and empty cans of mackerel - "and we'll eat ... although ... although ..."
Graciela burst into loud weeping. Playing the role of humanitarian, Adidine tried to console her. "Oh, poor Graciela! What's the matter? For heaven's sake!"
"It's, it's just that ...," Graciela stammered between sobs and hiccups, "it's Just that we don't have a tablecloth either."
Indignant over this breach of confidence, I let fly a furious punch against the wall. But Graciela was unrestrainable: "Everything, we've lost everything!" she howled. "We have nothing! Everything, everything sold at a loss! Even my first-communion dress! Everything, everything lost and all through his fault!" And she pointed a tragic, accusing finger at me.
"Graciela!!" I roared melodramatically, giving her to understand that a single word more from her could drive me into committing an irreparable act.
"Yes, yes, yes!" she insisted, wailing louder and louder and looking to the Vitavers, as if calling upon them as witnesses to her misfortunes. "All because of him! I was happy in my parents' home! We were rich, we lived in San Isidro,5 in a cheerful home with a rose garden. One ominous day, that happiness was cut short. One ominous day, a monster appeared, a monster that was stalking my youth and beauty, a monster that took advantage of my innocence."
"Graciela!!!" I insisted with concentrated rage.
Ignoring me, she continued on, always addressing the Vitavers: "The monster had a human shape and it had a name; its name was ... Arthur!" And she emphasized this name by pressing her clenched fist against her forehead. "And this monster took me from my home, wrenched me away from the affection of my parents, and carried me off with him. And he put me through a life of privation, and he squandered my entire fortune at the race track and the gambling casino. And when he gets drunk on absinthe and vodka, he scourges my back with barbed wire."
Blind with rage, I hurled myself at Graciela and dealt her a resounding slap across the face: "Silence, thou vile insane woman!" I shouted, addressing her with the archaic form, thou, so everything would seem more theatrically tragic. "How dare you reproach me? Me, the pitiful victim of your whims, your insolence, and your adulteries? How can you offend in such a way the proud, worthy man who, by pulling you up out of the slime, redeemed you from sin and guilt by marrying you?"
And I, too, began to cry and compete with Graciela over who could scream the loudest. Such weeping! We cried with so much conviction that there came a moment when we really couldn't hold back our tears.
The Vitavers, pale and glum, were completely baffled. They had come to our home - the home of the life of the party - in the hope of enjoying a pleasant evening, and now, dressed in their luxurious outfits, they were like spectators at an incomprehensible fight between a poverty-stricken married couple.
They were saying something to us, but, intent on the pleasure of our weeping, we payed no attention to them. Patting me affectionately on the back, Vitaver dragged me over to the wall, near the garbage can. "Better times lie ahead, man," he said. "The Lord'll test you, but He won't break you."
That man, together with his habitual use of you know and I seen, gave me renewed courage for the struggle.
"You mustn't despair," he insisted, but he was the desperate one; it was quite obvious he wanted to disappear as quickly as possible.
Now Adidine came to my side, holding up the fainting Graciela; now they were urging us to make peace; now we were making up.
Drying her tears and blowing her nose, Graciela cleared the counter top by indifferently shoving aside the cans and dishes with her arm until they fell into the dirty water in the sink. But the counter was still covered anyway with crumbs and the somewhat moist, greasy remains of meals. By way of a tablecloth, she spread over those bulging things one of the newspapers she picked up off the floor. On the newspaper she set out four plates laced with cracks, four yellowish spoons, three everyday glasses of different styles and colors, and a large cup for cafe au lait.
"We only have three glasses," she explained. "I'll drink out of the cup."
How dirty, how greasy, how sticky everything was! How the flies flitted about over our heads! How the cockroaches ran up and down the walls! How the worms wriggled about on the floor!
The four of us sat up against the sink counter and our knees kept bumping the doors of the cupboards built in below it. We were extremely uncomfortable. Vitaver cut a strange figure, seated in the midst of that sort of garbage dump, with his dinner jacket, his shirt with narrow lace edging, and black bow tie, next to his wife, with her low-cut white evening gown and luxurious jewels. On the other hand, Graciela and I were in complete harmony with that filthy, sordid atmosphere.
"There's just one course," said Graciela, apologizing. "Noodle soup.
"How delicious!" exclaimed Adidine. (As if anyone in the world could consider that fare for sick people as delicious!)
"Yes, it is delicious," Graciela agreed. "It's a pity that, because of the fight, it got a little burned."
And from a pot all oozing over and stained, she began to take out some shapeless tangles of dried out, burnt, and now cold noodles and distributed them onto the plates.
"Adidine," said Graciela, "since you're by the sink, could you please fill the glasses with water? We have no wine."
Adidine stood up submissively and turned on the tap. Just as we had foreseen, the water shot out with extraordinary pressure, bounced off the gelatinous utensils in the sink, and spattered Adidine's white gown with the remains of food.
With what disgusted faces the Vitavers ate! And how they tried to conceal it so as not to offend us! And how bewildered they were! Were we really the life of the party? Might we not be a pair of imposters? Constantly surrounded by the grease, the stench, the cockroaches, and the flies, they finished their dried-up burnt soup as well as they could and drank a little water from the cracked glasses. With their clothing stained, their stomachs upset, and spirits chagrined, they said they had to leave, that they had some commitment or other. Despite our urging them repeatedly to have some more soup, they insisted they had to leave, a discourtesy that grieved us, of course. They put on their coats, covered up with their rainwear, and went down the stairs.
"Don't touch the railing," I warned them. "It's just freshly painted, you know."
Before they got in their car, we bade them an affectionate farewell through the window: "So long, dear friends! It's been a real pleasure! Wish we could have these delightful get-togethers more often! Come back anytime!"
They waved at us quickly and rushed headlong into their car, which pulled away with uncommon speed.
Two weeks have now passed. During that interval, we have relied on the Vitavers to slander us enough to dissuade anyone from inviting us to another party. I know Vitaver well and I can foresee his wickedness; I know he will have said awful things about us. However, our reputation is too strong; it won't be easy to bring it down through slander.
So now we find ourselves at another party. We're sporting our best clothes, and we're perfumed with the finest fragrances. We display our most expensive jewelry, wear our most sophisticated smiles, and show the warmest cordiality.
We see the Vitavers, each with a drink and smiling, smiling forced smiles. The Vitavers see us and the smile freezes on their faces. Without letting them react, we shake hands with them very naturally and quickly begin to converse with the Carracedos.
We don't like the Carracedos either, for reasons similar to those which make us reject the Vitavers. On the other hand, the Carracedos are desirous of becoming friendly with us; they admire us and hope to gain material advantage from a relationship with us. He is a prosperous businessman, an expert swindler, adept at defrauding. To strengthen the bonds between us, he believes it the opportune moment to appeal to confidences: he tells me about his financial plans, describes the future expansion of his businesses, and tips me off to some tricks about how to make some illegal money and go unpunished.
Carracedo smiles, he smiles a forced smile, proud of his commercial shrewdness, smug about being so able to multiply his wealth, happy with his possessions, his weekend home, and his foreign car.
The Carracedos are so courteous, so cordial, and so friendly toward us that, well, not to invite them to dinner at our home would be inconceivably rude, an act of blatant discourtesy unworthy of the life of the party. So, we invited them; they're coming on Saturday.
And then we, Graciela and Arthur, now thoroughly caught up in the whirlwind of the party, go flitting from room to room, lavishing smiles, kisses, and handshakes. We dance, we tell and laugh at jokes, we are brilliant and admired, and everyone feels appreciation, but also envy, toward us. "They're such a charming couple," our friends always say. Because Graciela and I are always the best looking, the nicest, the most intelligent. Because Graciela and I are still the life of the party.