Jean wanted to be a salonniere, a lesbian hostess in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century. In her mind's eye, she could see the Temple of Friendship in the back yard of the old house where she lived in the most bohemian neighbourhood in town. Women in flowing gowns and androgynous beings in cravats strolled gracefully from the drinks table to the flower garden and back, looking as self-possessed as muses in an Art Nouveau poster."Ma cherie," they called each other in fluty voices.
Looking at her actual surroundings, Jean noticed the cracks in the walls of her spacious home, a house in the Prairie Gothic style that was like an aging farm widow who had inherited a fortune in land and equipment but had no idea that the psychedelic prints of the 1970s were no longer featured in fashion magazines.
"Here's some more dip," announced Jean's house-mate, another lesbian single mother. Marion enjoyed food, and her well-upholstered body showed the results. Jean found her eating rituals exotic, like the customs of an isolated tribe on a tropical island far from the gym-centred, health-conscious "queer" culture which had migrated north and radiated to the rural heartland from chic neighbourhoods in San Francisco and New York. As a graduate student and the mother of an eight-year-old, Jean often wished she could avoid eating altogether, and use the time she had to spend feeding herself and her child on more useful pursuits instead, such as writing the Great Canadian Novel. Marion was a graduate student in psychology who wrote sensitive poetry when feeling emotionally overcharged. She regarded it as a form of self-therapy.
Jean and Marion were not lovers, nor friends with benefits. Their different conceptions of the role of literature in the lives of lesbian-feminist single mothers fed the communication gap that hovered between them like blue-grey fog. Marion's three-year-old son had been the result of artificial insemination, and she took pride in being a "single mother by choice." Jean once pointed out that she had chosen to become a single mother by leaving her alcoholic husband, clutching a baby with one arm and a plastic bag of belongings with the other, but she was clearly not a member of the Amazon sisterhood which favoured a post-millennial, secular version of immaculate conception.
"Dip," said Jean with a hint of sarcasm. "I think we'll have enough."
Marion's son was with his usual babysitter, and Jean's daughter was spending the night with her grandparents. All the house-warming guests were expected to be adults. In an unusual fit of interest in the contents of the produce aisle in the neighbourhood Safeway, Jean had bought eleven kinds of vegetables for dipping. She hoped the munchies for the party could serve as an evening meal for those, like her, who preferred not to cook. She was a connoiseuse of exhibit openings at local art galleries because of the hors d'oeuvres which always appeared, arranged in contrasting colors on asymmetrical plates, early in the evening.
The doorbell rang. While Marion carefully pulled black forest cake out of a thin cardboard box decorated with silhouette angels and the name "Heavenly Bakery," Jean rushed to the door to welcome the first guest. Jean had little faith in her potential to become a gracious hostess, and she was afraid of tripping on the carpet and falling face-first into one of the bowls of dip.
"Darling!" exclaimed Alexander, one of the more flamboyant of the handful of gay men that Jean and Marion could both accept. Despite the glitter in his eyeshadow, the green streak in his spiked hair and the tight black leather pants that barely concealed his cherished assets, Alex exuded comfort as he envelped Jean in a hug.
"Hi, Alex!" called Marion from the kitchen.
Jean wanted to ask Alex to replace her as co-hostess. She assumed that hostessing was one of the many inborn skills she lacked, like an aptitude for sports. As a graduate student with a thesis-in-progress, however, she recognized the value of practise and revision. She decided to give it her best effort.
"Come in," she said. "We have veggies and dip. And wine and beer." She hoped that her offer of healthy snacks and liquid cheer would give her an aura of graciousness. Alex looked delighted, but Jean knew this was his usual expression.
The doorbell rang again. The party had begun.
(For those who aspire to write CanLit, Margaret Atwood casts a long shadow.)