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I was at a dinner party, seated between an excruciatingly dull man on my left and one who never turned toward me the whole time on my right. I was slightly drunk, and I felt, when from time to time I noticed how I felt, exactly like Dorothy Parker; in fact, the only difference I could see between us, just then, was that the shoulder of the man on my right wasn’t very attractive at all, but rather stooped.

I was the only one at the party who had drunk enough, in my view. Everyone else had had only one glass of wine, with their dinner, and was completely sober for all intents and purposes. Only I was smiling fatuously at my tablemates, and no one’s eye was sympathetic. I wondered idly if they would be serving aperitifs, or café royale, or something, after dinner, but the prospect didn’t look good. These others had all been invited because of common interest; I had been invited because the hostess had been to dinner at my house some months earlier, and felt she had to repay me. I had nothing in common with these other guests. They were all money men, investment bankers or finance managers. Such people never drink enough, but rely always on the appearance of being in control. I, on the other hand, was in advertising.

“I don’t like alcohol,” said the man on my left. I told him I was sorry for him, but after that the conversation lagged again.

The dinner party was lovely, as was usual for our hostess. She was well suited to giving dinner parties for investment bankers, and her husband was well situated to pay for them. She had impeccably expensive taste, and the table was done in heirloom Tiffany silverware, Irish linen, Haversham china, and the Waterford “Lismore” pattern glassware. She served wonderful delicacies on this finery, artistic, inedible concoctions with suspicious French names. I ventured injudiciously to try something called croquettes calmar de maison (avec vin et buerre); I was told later that I had been eating sea squid in little breaded patties with a cloudy sauce. However, there was also prime rib of beef, and creamed pearl onions, and some sort of a bratwurst (though I was told it was Chinese), all of which were quite good, and not at all funny-looking. She had little iced dishes all over the table full of things like fruit slices and cold meat and pasta salads, the hot dishes were kept in thermidores, which I had not seen used outside of a restaurant since Jackie Kennedy moved out of the White House, everything, but everything, was served on beds of shredded lettuce, and there was a swan carved out of ice placed in the middle of the table, dominating the scene.

That swan was a beautiful thing, a work of art. It would not have been out of place in a museum. Its feathers had been painstakingly delineated, and all the quills drawn onto them with a very fine knife. It had eyes, blank eyes of opaque white ice which stared sightlessly at the molded pate. Its beak was equipped with nostrils. And it was cut in such a way that, as it melted, the beads of water dripped down that beautifully realistic beak and fell into the large crystal plate which encircled the thing, so that the bird never became distorted with the melting, but only smaller. This effect, of the drops falling slowly from the swan’s beak, created the impression, in me at least, that the poor thing was weeping.

I would have wept too, to turn from a graceful thing full of cold light to a puddle of common water, and as I sat there over the course of a long dull dinner party, watching the ice swan weep, I slowly became vin triste, thinking of it. Everything that I had seen before as dripping with elegance now seemed crusted with the showy but morbid stalactites of calcification. The gentleman on my left became not merely dull, but intolerable; it was as though he breathed in good healthy oxygen and, speaking, breathed out only fustiness and mildew. Meanwhile, the shoulder of the gentleman on my right began to look not just slightly stooped but hideously deformed, palsied, hunch-backed. I perceived the faces around me as greasy in their wealthy corpulence, and every gold cuff-link and diamond stickpin previously admired now winked at me like cheap chromium bijoux, while the elegant restraint of the tablesetting now epitomized snobbish contempt. What human being could decorate for a dinner party, supposedly a festive occasion, with such coldly expensive impersonality, up to and including the centerpiece of this ghouls’ gala, the enormous ice swan? There was no warmth in this dinner anywhere – except for the swan, who was dying of it.

My mood grew blacker and blacker as I thought about it. I fished around morosely with my fork in what I had thought were mashed sweet potatoes, and found a piece of some kind of cooked skin. My alcoholic euphoria evaporated completely then, leaving nothing but a thick and malodorous residue on my tongue and a nasty, oily smoke in my head. I began to resent the entire party, merely for being held; I began also to resent myself for attending. I expected someone, at any moment, to offer me a little dish of newts’ eyeballs or some such, with a look of Caligulicious gluttony, and tell me it was a delicacy.

I was losing control over myself. My conversation partner, the man on my left, made some remark about the texture of the pudding; I was positively foul-mouthed to him in reply. I made ill-considered remarks about my hostess, and about the entire company. I slurped my wine. I realized that the eyes of all the investment bankers were upon me, surreptitiously, but did not change my behavior, out of spite. In fact, I became, if possible, even more obnoxious once I realized that I had an audience. I enjoyed immensely the idea that I was being disruptive, and tried to make myself even more so. I dipped my sleeve in the crab salad in purely swinish carelessness, and wiped it off on my pants.

I was not abashed, however, by the knowledge that I was behaving swinishly. I continued to be an abominable child, even after I had lost my audience, and the bankers turned their heads away in distaste. In fact, I tried to regain this audience with ever more dreadful displays of poor manners. At last, in moments when I though no one would be looking, I began to throw things. I landed a small shrimp in the wine glass of one particularly staid-looking man, and a bread stick found its way into the burgundy sauce. These did not create much of a stir, so I looked around for something harder, and found a prime rib bone.

Ah, that fateful prime rib bone. I picked it up and hefted it – it seemed just about right, nice and heavy. I was aiming for the large water carafe on the other side of the table from me; a very artistic throw it would have to be, too, right over the ice swan but not so far as to land in the cold chowder, which would not make enough of a splash for my purposes. I pulled my arm back so that the rib bone was over my right shoulder, holding it between the thumb and first two fingers, like a boomerang. Just as I was making the delivery, a waiter appeared at my left shoulder like an avenging angel, abruptly, right out of nowhere.

It was too late to stop, but I was startled, and the rib bone flew out of my hand somewhat prematurely. I had put just the right amount of acceleration into it, but the ballistic was not what I had intended at all. Instead of arcing gently some four feet over the table and landing in the carafe, the bone headed right for that ice swan.

The bone hit the swan at the slenderest part of the carving, the long and graceful neck. A split went up the very middle of it, then spread downward along the right wing in less time than it takes to tell about it. I heard a sort of creaking sound; it was the noise that ice makes when it is breaking slowly. The surface of the ice, so smooth and opaque before, was no crazed with little cracks all through it, like a fried marble – if you have ever fried marbles as a child, you will know what I mean. The creaking sound became louder, the cracks spread faster, and finally the entire head and neck of the swan fell like a spring thaw in the mountains, shattering down upon the food, crushing what could be crushed and throwing little pieces of ice into everything else. The carafe I had originally been aiming for broke into five large pieces, drenching the table, the bread basket, and several laps. The pate mold took on the consistency of road kill, and little bits of it were propelled by the force of impact into the fruit salad and the gravy boat.

Indeed, all around the table, everything and everyone had been spattered by something unpleasant. In the silence which ensued, every eye turned toward me. Their attention had been attracted, even as mine had been distracted, by the waiter at my shoulder, and every one of them had seen the rib bone flying from my hand to hit the swan, which was now unequivocally dead, the ruins of its beauty strewn everywhere. I smiled uneasily, and began to frame a suitable apology in my mind. I have never been too swift at that kind of thing, however; even as I was thinking of it, I was thrown out, bodily.

Needless to say, I have not been invited back. When I pass that lady who had been my hostess, she pretends not to notice me; I have tried to speak to her to apologize, but she will not acknowledge these attempts at all. Finally, as a kind of maraschino cherry of social ostracism, the last time I tried to get a business loan I was turned down on the basis of character. I have come to view ice sculptures as the harbingers of doom, and will not attend any gathering where they plan to have one.

I no longer drink at dinner parties, but it matters little. The reputation I gained that evening will be with me always.
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