#8220;Give her the hook!” cries my husband as we attempt to leave a dinner party. He has even carried me out bodily, like Laurel and Hardy making for the door. Maybe it’s my Texas upbringing, but I’m not good at departures. I hate taking people to the airport or train, and I never say goodbye, only hug and pretend we’re meeting up again in a day or so. I supposed I’ll be unbearable when the guy with the sickle shows up, but there always seems to be something more to cover in conversation. In the case of a dinner party, someone will always say, “Oh, wait a minute, I forgot to tell you…” — and there I am, deep in yakking at the door when everyone, including me, wants to go home to bed.
But what goes around, comes around.
Here’s a scene. It’s 1 a.m. On a stained tablecloth that began the evening crisp and set with china and crystal for several courses, even our limoncello bottle looks tired and droopy, along with pathetically empty wine glasses, scattered crumbs of hazelnut biscotti, and sticky gelato dregs in dessert dishes longing for a bath.
This more-than-delightful summer evening began with prosecco and olives on a flower-covered terrace, segued into a dinner and lively conversation with masterful solutions to all the world’s problems, including startling answers to the great Meaning Of Life questions. But even such evenings, joyously planned and filled (for hours!) with scintillating moments of apocalyptic revelation, should end at a decent hour.
Why, you ask?
Because it’s one in the morning, because everyone is tipsy and tired, because the grist for the dinner party mill has been ground once too often, and because the hosts, having shopped, cooked, poured, and cleared, are about to drop.
Europeans, unlike Americans (or Texans), quickly and cleverly take leave of one another (once they decide to do it, that is) in the way one exits, for example, a doctor’s office — pay the bill briskly with finality and suffer no long goodbyes.
I am learning to be that marvel who knows how to bugs out well. No lingering at the door, no remembered snippets of information neglected at the table, no repeated hugs all around, but only the mwah, mwah on the cheeks (I still invariably pick the wrong one and smash into someone’s nose) and a quick exit into the night, or day.
But even the pros at retreat somehow feel awkward at being the first to begin the process of parting. Actually getting up from the table and turning towards home seems cause for uncertainty. Perhaps it is the age-old “first-to-leave” syndrome. Someone’s mamma or some hallowed book on etiquette insisted that the first one to leave was mal educato, that it would be an insult to the hostess or host to bug out after three to four hours (!) of hospitality (that seems to be the minimum these days).
I wish to say that guests appear to enjoy the dinner parties we love to give. Even one or two duds in years of entertaining gathered momentum with a little wine. Putting people together (another Texas affliction) is great fun, but even if the joint is jumpin’ and everyone’s ready to dance naked on the table, my eyes go half-mast around eleven.
To fill those subtle little lulls that sometimes make everyone twitch in his chair, I once offered more coffee or biscotti, hoping there would be no takers.
Now, I let the silence fall, hoping that the most astute (or sleepy) will stand up to begin the exodus.
On nights when the strategy fails, my husband rises to clear the table, in effect a gentle nudge to uncertain guests to let them know that saying good night is OK. This can relieve guilt. After an evening of good food, lively talk, and friendship — with many subjects admittedly still uncovered and many new wines untouched — there’s a natural temptation to overstay, to try to pack everything in.
What’s important to recognize is that “briefer” evenings can help usher in encounters to come. They’re a promise of cameraderie to be continued.