The Dinner Party
"So, hey, Jeremy and I are having a dinner party," Sydney said brightly as they were waiting for the briefing to begin. "You guys are all invited."
You guys was Weiss, Jack, and Vaughn, who looked up from their folders as she spoke.
"I'm there," Weiss said.
"Actually, you and Kath are both invited. Will and Francie are coming too."
Vaughn stole a look over at Jack, wondering if the couple math had struck him. He felt uncomfortable, but unsure if he had reason to. His social life had dwindled over the years and he didn't quite remember how kosher it was to mix the matched and the single like that unless you were trying to set people up. He'd known women to lay a table with an eclectic miscellany of china though, and then there was the whole fusion cuisine trend. Maybe it all hung together in some nouveau etiquette cultural shift he wasn't entirely up on.
"Oh yeah," Weiss was saying, "you got that new table. Do me a favor, don't mention to Kath that it's new. She's on a redecorating kick. The more ideas she has, the more of my furniture I lose."
"That's actually a good thing," Vaughn pointed out. As a friend, it was his duty to razz in the guise of helpfulness.
"Don't mock the Weiss collection. I've had some of it since college."
"I rest my case."
Sydney ducked her head to half-hide a smile.
"What night?" Jack asked.
Still smiling, she raised her head again and pushed her hair back on one side. "Saturday. Seven-thirty."
God, she looked happy these days, Vaughn thought. It wasn't the first time he'd noticed. It made him glad for her, as a friend. If a subterranean strain of regret ran through his feelings, it was an old, faint one, like the occasional ache of the arm he'd once broken. He had no reason to resent her choices. She'd been with Jeremy a year now, and he was a nice guy. Kind of geeky. But good to her.
He spoke his thoughts to Jack after the meeting as they were walking down the hall. "You think it's unusual, a dinner party with couples and two single men?"
"She's filling out the table," Jack said unconcernedly. "I'm just thankful she's not trying to matchmake."
Vaughn's lips quirked. "Did you ever see Joan again?"
In answer, Jack turned an acid-etched look his way.
Perfectly deadpan, Vaughn said, "I thought she was nice--a little New Agey--"
"Don't push it." Jack used the same astringent tone he'd have directed at just about anyone, but Vaughn knew it was bark and no bite, and grinned.
Before they parted ways he said, "Oh, hey--I got tickets for the hockey game."
"Unfortunately, I'll be out of the country that day."
"I haven't told you what day it is," Vaughn said amiably.
"I won the bet fair and square."
Jack looked pained. "Technically, Al-Arian's organization was a splinter group of the ANO."
"They'd disassociated themselves as an independent jihad. Don't quibble, Jack. It's unbecoming in a senior officer."
Eyes narrowed to a level gaze, Jack studied him. "I had no idea you could be so obdurate and pitiless," he said finally, as if passing a judgment that would condemn Vaughn to an eternal hell. A pause, and then his eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch. "Keep up the good work."
On Saturday evening, Vaughn was buttoning a dark blue shirt and studying himself in his closet mirror, trying to decide if a jacket was called for. A thought struck him and he grabbed his phone, speed-dialed, and wedged it between ear and shoulder.
"Hey, are you bringing wine?"
"I hadn't planned to," Jack said.
"What does Sydney like, do you know?"
"She's fond of Clos Pegase Cabernet."
"Cool. Hey, did I leave a jacket at your place last week?"
"Can you bring it with you tonight?"
"Yes. Would you like me to pick up your dry cleaning?" he added in a sardonic tone.
"You're a funny guy." Vaughn hung up, unaware that he was smiling.
He didn't like to arrive late--his mother had instilled in him principles of courtesy that he found it hard to shake--and even after picking up wine he got there a few minutes early. Sydney let him in with a big smile that was slightly anxious around the edges if you knew what to look for.
"Hey!" she said, sounding breathless, and took the wine that he handed her. "You didn't have to bring anything." Her words might have been casual, but her tone was warm with sincere appreciation.
He shrugged and briefly smiled. "To inaugurate the table. May it host many dinners to come." He felt a bit like an idiot as soon as he spoke the words, but that was his mother again, training him to be gracious, and besides, he meant them.
Thankfully he wasn't the first to arrive. Will and Francie were already in the living room, comfortably ensconced with the air of frequent visitors, Will with beer in hand and Francie snagging a cheese-heavy cracker from a platter of hors d'oeuvres on the coffee table. They both greeted him with bright faces as if truly glad to see him, and conversation came easy. Sydney and Jeremy cycled in and out of the room between trips to the kitchen. Jeremy's eyes seemed tired behind his glasses. Being a college professor--well, with a high-stress job like that, it must be tough, Vaughn thought dryly, then felt immediately ashamed of his ungenerous reflection.
Eric and Kath arrived within a few minutes, and within a few more minutes, Kath's characteristic enthusiasm had raised the tone of the gathering to a buoyant height with cross-talk and laughter, moving from friendly group mocking of Will's cooking abilities to talk of Francie's restaurant to anecdotes from Kath's last trip home to see her parents. Vaughn knew there would probably be very little shop talk this evening; there wasn't much they could share with Will and Francie, except in general terms. Even office gossip was off-limits. He started to make a list in his mind of topics he might slip into conversation if a lull occurred. He was good at commenting on stuff but it occurred to him that, outside of work, he didn't really have much to talk about. His friends were people he worked with. They talked about arms circulation in global terrorist networks, recent bombings, the defection du jour, and emerging threats. No one he knew even had any kids, except for Marshall.
Their lives were different, except for evenings like this, when they reintegrated with civilians and remembered that there was an everyday world outside the agency that they'd sworn to protect. The world of shopping malls and fashion and the current TV season.
As Vaughn's gaze drifted around the room from couple to couple he felt a different kind of melancholy steal over him and wished Jack would get there.
Almost as soon as he thought it, the doorbell rang. Jack's entrance had a slight dampening effect, though everyone greeted him nicely and Francie complimented his sweater, a charcoal mock turtleneck. Vaughn could identify both the color and style because Alice used to describe her clothing purchases to him in very precise terms. The knowledge lingered long after her departure just as stray pieces of her clothing had remained behind in his apartment; panties clinging sneakily to the inside of tee-shirts, scarves lurking here and there like flowered snakes.
Jack looked down at his sweater as if he'd never seen it before, but gave her a polite thank-you. Francie traded a covert, knowing look with Will that Vaughn found himself vaguely resenting on Jack's behalf.
Vaughn's jacket hung over Jack's arm and he handed it over. "Thanks," Vaughn said, folding it over the back of the couch behind him. Francie exchanged another pointed look with Will. Her eyebrows nearly disappeared into her hairline. Vaughn felt that he should know what the look meant, but he didn't examine it closely enough to pierce the ambiguity.
Dinner was some sort of chicken thing, and incredible. "Oh my god," he said, after a forkful, trying not to sound orgasmic. "This is amazing."
"You're, like, a typical single man, right?" Will grinned in understanding as he salted his own plate. "With the frozen dinners and the take-out?"
"How'd you guess?"
"It's so sad," Francie said, shaking her head. "Seriously, I don't get it. Food is, like, the most basic human need. Cooking should be like breathing."
"Speaks the zealot."
"I'm not a zealot!" Francie gave Will a puppy-eyed look of hurt.
"In the supermarket," Will confided to them, "she grabs total strangers and tells them what they should have for dinner. She gives them whole recipes by heart. The other day, she cornered this woman in produce and lectured her on how she should cook her squash. I'm telling you, that woman had fear in her eyes."
Laughs broke around the table and Francie shrugged in blithe self-defense. "Food nourishes the soul. I'm like a spiritual advisor."
"That's right, sweetie," Sydney said with affection.
"You could start a church," Eric said. "I'd be there every week, celebrating the holy communion of potatoes and gravy."
Sydney was giggling now, and Kath rubbed her boyfriend's back in a supportive way. "When it comes to dinner, you're the most deeply religious man I know."
"Thank you, honey."
"It's really not that crazy," Jeremy put in. "Breaking bread is the most basic human ritual--mankind's earliest form of worship. We say grace to give thanks for the gift of spiritual and physical sustenance."
But they hadn't said grace, Vaughn thought. Probably best that he didn't share that cynical observation.
Jack's low-key voice sliced neatly into the flow of talk. "Maslow said that hunger is the most basic human motivator, even above personal safety and love. Throughout history starvation has been an effective military tactic for population control. People become preoccupied with hoarding and foraging to the exclusion of almost everything else, and increasingly passive--though, starvation riots are always a risk."
The table was silent even after he finished speaking, everyone's faces fixed into expressions of deference and attention. Francie's wide eyes also projected a kind of horrified amazement that Vaughn dearly hoped was directed at the content of Jack's remarks and not at Jack himself. Vaughn's heart rate sped up just a little. He wasn't embarrassed for Jack--there was no reason--but something was squeezing Vaughn's chest tight as he looked at the other man.
Some understanding was expanding through him with a profound happiness that lit a smile up from the inside, and a sharpness closer to pain that he couldn't identify and which didn't seem to matter much. He loved Jack. The revelation was new, but not surprising, and not disturbing. He'd worked with the man for two years. They'd saved each other's lives, taken career risks for each other, trusted each other with secrets. At some point he'd become more than Sydney's dad. He was a friend. And you loved your friends, your close ones. He loved Jack like he loved Sydney. They were family.
He was still looking at Jack as the awkwardness around the table dissipated and normal conversation resumed. When Jack turned his head and caught his eye, he raised an inquiring brow. Vaughn realized that he was sitting there like a dope and smiling.
"Mike," Weiss said. "Yo. Earth calling."
He blinked and looked over at Weiss. "What?" he said, surfacing.
Kath was smiling his way. "I was saying you should come to this art opening with us next Friday. "It's my friend Georgia's show--I think you'd really like her."
"That'd be great, but actually I'm busy. I'm taking Jack to a Kings game."
"That's quite all right," Jack said with more haste and animation than normal. "I don't mind missing it, for such a worthy cause."
"Nice try." Vaughn smiled at him fondly. He said to the others, "He lost a bet."
"Ah," Will said.
Sydney was the most amused. "Before you know it you'll be painting your face and cheering every goal," she told Jack, her face an open blossom of innocent daughterly support.
In return he gave her the wounded look of a betrayed father. "I think not," he said, tone restrained but certain.
Something about the exchange lodged in the back of Vaughn's mind, though, like an uncomfortable thorn. As they were leaving later that night he stopped on the walk in front of Sydney's house, blocking Jack for a moment. "You know, about that hockey game--if you really don't want to go, I understand."
It was dark, but the light from the porch gave just enough light to make Jack's face visible. "A bet is a bet," he said. It was hard to read his tone. Resigned? At ease?
"I don't want to hold you to it if you're not going to have fun."
Jack was silent for several seconds, eyes locked with Vaughn's, a slight frown on his face. He seemed to be considering the offer, then said in a level and almost delicate tone, "Michael, I don't accept social invitations out of politeness."
"You don't?" Even from Jack that struck Vaughn as faintly outrageous--sometimes you just had to be polite, even if it meant seeing boring movies or suffering through office Christmas parties.
"So..." He tried to process the implications. "You want to go."
"You were just giving me a hard time," he said, seeking confirmation of something he couldn't quite believe.
Jack raised his brows and said mildly, "Yes."
"I'm never going to be able to read you, am I."
"I really hate that," Vaughn said, not meaning it at all, and smiled as he walked to his car.