The Etiquette

S. Craig Renfroe Jr.

There are seventeen parties a year. This is number fifteen. There are two left. There are seventeen parties a year. And there are only two left.

You’ve gone to fifteen parties, and no one has talked to you. Except for me. At this, the fifteenth party, and I don’t know why I’m talking to you now myself.

I’m not sure how it happened. One minute I was thinking how pathetic you look, how awkward, which reminded me of how pathetic and awkward you looked at those fourteen other parties where I watched you being pathetic and awkward. Then, and an impossible then, I was talking to you. Like electrons jumping to some other atom, me jumping my ring of conversation into one with you. Please don’t correct me if that’s not how atoms work. For one, I am a woman who does not entirely believe in science. And more importantly it’s bad etiquette. Etiquette is everything.

Jane Saffron is our host. It is proper etiquette to know your host. She will not talk to you. She won’t even talk to me. She talks to no one.

This is Davie and his wife Melinda. Don’t hold it against them that they’re snubbing you. You’ll be snubbing people in no time. Yes, that’s a baby. Their son Freddy. If you bring a baby to a party, it has to be a proper baby. It can be an accouterment or a prop, but it cannot cry. I cannot stress that enough. It would be best if it made no sound at all. Freddy breathes a little loud for my taste. Yes, they can hear me, but they know how I feel.

Someone must be excluded. That’s how groups work. You can’t have a group without someone being excluded. Most of the time for good reason. That person is fat or criminal or their mind doesn’t work right or they don’t look right. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that “person” is singular and “they” is plural. But thinking like that will get you excluded. We believe in the fluidity of language. If you are too rigid, then you’ll likely get cut out of our group and put into another one. The Nazis, for example. Their mentality and yours seems similar to us.

Sometimes, I admit, people are excluded for the wrong reasons.

Davie and Melinda have considered offering their son up as a sacrifice to our host Jane Saffron. No one knows if Jane Saffron approves of this idea because she speaks to no one. No one has even seen her here yet. No one, in fact, has ever seen Jane Saffron. She may not even be here. The greatest party of all would be one where you threw it and didn’t show up yourself. Only Jane Saffron could pull that off.

The other fourteen parties were given in the honor of Jane Saffron. She hosts the last three of the year. No one knows if she attended the earlier fourteen. If she did, she did not tell anyone because whoever’s party she graced would have rubbed that fact in the rest of our faces. I admit that when I threw my two parties—those were the ones where I put your chair and place card facing the wall at a folding card table—I looked for her. I prayed for her. I honest to God got on my knees and asked the God Almighty to deliver to my party Jane Saffron. I no longer believe in God. If you do believe in God, you should keep it to yourself. That is proper etiquette.

You are not allowed to throw a party—if you break this rule of etiquette, no one will come to your party. No one here likes you. No, it is more elemental, more primitive than that because everyone here hates you. I count myself among them—chief among them. I coined some of the best, by which I mean worst, nicknames that we call you behind your back.

Why do we continue to invite you to all these parties? We need you. How would we be “we” without you? But what does it say about me that I’m being seen with you, talking to you, not even sneering at you? Some will think it is because I have gone soft—that I’m weak, vulnerable.

Let me tell you the story of Lester Nom. Lester Nom once threw four of the seventeen parties, more even than Jane Saffron. He was the host of the hosts. They were gala affairs, too. One time he dug out his entire lawn and installed powerful wind machines that blew up so precisely calibrated that you could step over them and they would support your weight—the party was held literally in the air. Lester took pity on the person that was like you back then. He found her crying and cutting herself between her toes in his bathtub. He let her sit at his table, showed her the ropes, taught her the etiquette. When the vote was taken to cast him out, it came down to her, she was the deciding vote. And I had him banished. So you can see I’m no weakling.

You want to know how to advance, of course. Sleep with the right people. But proper etiquette dictates that they can never know that you have slept together. You must do it in a way that goes completely unnoticed, except that the higher social status person experiences a lovely feeling, a feeling that is mysteriously associated with you. We haven’t slept together have we?

What a ridiculous idea. Though it would explain why I’m talking to you. There is Rodger O’McTeague—we have had sex—on many occasions. As a matter of fact at the last party, we had sex on your coat. Do you remember? You put it in the guest room. And I didn’t want to mess up Tessa’s delicate duvet, and I recognized your coat, so I put it down. Did you notice anything after? A smell? A dampness? You have to remember that I was looking out for Tessa’s duvet. It is proper etiquette to respect the property of the house you are a guest in.

Rodger is Tessa’s husband. They have been married many years and have two lovely daughters. I have slept with the oldest. Or I suspect that she has slept with me because I have started asking her to help with my parties, teaching her the etiquette of hosting, and that seems very unlike me. And she’s a very unpleasant girl. She wears pants.

I have taught people, as I am teaching you now, the etiquette of being a guest, but teaching someone the etiquette of being the host is dangerous. It is preparing someone’s replacement, and that someone could be you—well not you, but me. I suspect that is why Jane Saffron sees no one.

Once someone is banished you never see them again. I hear rumors of Lester Nom. He is very sad. He lives in a house with glass walls that let in all the light that day and night have to give. And he has young, beautiful women who rub his feet and shoulders, but he is sad. I do not want to be sad.

I don’t want to be sad, and I don’t want my forced leaving to be the cause of Rodger’s daughter’s happiness. I never had children for almost that very same reason. Etiquette does say that someone who has children is better than those who don’t. I find that rule troubling. I see nothing special in the product of following the basest instincts. But that is sometimes the way of etiquette. And that, by the way, is why Davie and Melinda’s sacrifice would be so impressive. Yet my barren womb earns me nothing. I don’t want to know if you have a child, and I don’t suggest you go get one—only that if you had one, your life would be worth more. But not more than mine, mind you, because you have no idea how many parties I have thrown, attended, refused to attend.

If you do attend, a good guest, according to the etiquette, bends willingly to the whims of the host. Departing from your patterns to match theirs. Can you imagine if I did not eat until eight at night every night? But that is when Jane Saffron sets dinner, and so that is when we will eat. Eating whatever is placed in front of you is also an immutable law: shellfish, escargot, steak tartar, human, monkey brains straight from the skull. Whatever.

A good guest also lets the host pull some stuff—these flowers, for instance, are fake. So’s this wine. It’s not fake I suppose—just cheap siphoned into expensive bottles. An old hostess trick. God knows it’s not that Jane Saffron can’t afford the good stuff. In fact, the centerpiece fish bowls full of dark liquid are probably where all the aged vino went when she emptied those bottles to fill them with swill. She is proving a point. We are not here to suckle her Pinot noir nipple. It’s not as if she were Linda who pretends that her relatives are hired help. But even that. You forgive these sleights of hand.

We all know that certain conversation topics are verboten: religion, politics, sex. But also don’t speak of your musical tastes—you don’t have the right to impose your passions on others. Only the host may do that. They can play whatever horrible caterwaul they like, and like your cousin who played heavy metal at her wedding, all you can get away with saying is “Oh, how like you!”

And I hope you don’t read, but if you do, please don’t bring up books. Once you mention a book you have read, you automatically embarrass other guests because they will not have read that book—will not have read anything, in fact. So don’t act all superior by acknowledging that you read—or rather making us acknowledge that you do. Better you not read at all. TV you may talk about, assuming it is network TV. Leave cable for the bedroom. And the following films: nonthreateningly inspirational movies that will probably be nominated for an Oscar.

The best topic of conversation, of course, is you. And I do mean you personally, the person excluded. All the hilarious ways you unwittingly break etiquette. All your infuriating faux pas. All the times we debate never inviting you again. I suppose this doesn’t help you, unless you can find another you. But we would never allow that person to attend a party.

Drinking is very important to the etiquette—you must drink, because not to drink is a character flaw as grave as reading, a moral superiority that goes against etiquette. But you must—as is too often the case in life—seek balance. You cannot drink too much as Olivia does. You can hear her obnoxious flushed-faced laugh from here. But etiquette also dictates we must ignore her alcoholism, even as she slips deeper into the bottle. Her parties are so slapdash these days, hardly events at all—junior cotillion stuff. She will be replaced soon.

Another reason I suggested to Davie and Melinda that they make a big statement tonight by sacrificing their baby. Look at them now. They’ve taken the horn of plenty off the Lazy Susan and put that little fat Freddy there. Davie holds the carving knife as if he’s never cut the Thanksgiving turkey. He must have a strong-willed father-in-law. Look at them hesitate hoping Jane Saffron will pop out and say thanks anyway but that she’d rather they didn’t. But Jane Saffron does not show. Or she looks on with indifference. Davie’s drawn blood but clearly can’t go through with it. Melinda’s crying is so undignified. Now Davie. Now Freddy. Thank heavens, the wait staff has gone over to escort them out. We will never see them again. The etiquette can brook no cowards.

You don’t seem like a coward. But, of course, you don’t seem like much of anything. Perhaps that is the best policy. Sit by the sidelines, and let others put themselves out there to be destroyed. Wait and see and take advantage of their simple ambitions.

Don’t look behind you, but Olivia is drinking from one of the centerpieces since no one will serve her. I suspect with her declining health and the recent disappointment of Davie and Melinda her night will go to me. That will make three, Jane. That is your actual name, isn’t it? If that is an actual name. Three for me and three for you, Jane Saffron. A tie but a temporary tie. How soon it will be six once I take your three. How humiliated they will be to have been humiliating you all this time.

Please. I am using “please” because you are bound by etiquette to respect my request. Please. Please tell Lester Nom when you see him—and I promise you that you will see him very soon. Please tell him I am sorry.

craig2S. Craig Renfroe Jr. collects books, including antique manuals on etiquette. He possesses very little actual etiquette. He is an assistant professor in creative writing at Queens University of Charlotte. He is the author of the short story collectionYou Should Get That Looked At and the poetry chapbook Flirting with Ridicule. Also, his work has appeared in Cemetery DancePuerto del SolMcSweeney’s Internet TendencyPankHobart3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere.