The editor has been here for only a few minutes and already she is fighting an urge to go back inside, or at least begin rolling her eyes from over the rim of a generous glass of red wine.
Her husband is more of a people person. But even he does not know quite what to make of the little Argentine man who just told his wife that she is "the leetle chick" to his "old fox."
The old fox, a squat, balding man in his 60’s, goes on, telling the editor how good she looks, "even better", he says, than his own wife, who is only 37. Who is not here.
The man’s thick accent creates a lag in comprehension, a brief delay during which the editor has time to consider. "Is that really what he wants to say? Could this conversation really be that appalling?"
There are more to come. It is not by chance that she finds herself navigating a series of awkward conversations on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of the street, with people who are not strangers, and not her friends.
This is her neighborhood. These are her neighbors. This day is the result of planning and cooperation, a belief that they share more than a zip code. This is the spirit of suburbia! A block party! What could be more fun? Can you feel her pain?
A tent has been set up in the road. Underneath, a couple of men are laboring over the barbecue grill, churning out a steady supply of hot dogs, hamburgers and lame banter.
A nearby table is piled with condiments and side dishes. The food is strangely homogenized, given that Cubans, South Americans, Europeans and West Indians call this neighborhood home, along with garden-variety transplants from the Midwest, New York and Texas.
An Armenian neighbor recalls bringing some sort of ethnic dish the last time. "Nobody liked it," she says. This year there is a foamy looking green salad. The editor peers at it curiously. It is fluffy and lumpy with ingredients she cannot identify, yet oddly familiar in this setting. "Inevitable," she thinks.
This party is the project of a couple from down the street. The wife is attractive in a perky, pulled together sort of way, in the way that makes other women sometimes think of a Barbie doll. Her husband, a tall, well-built corporate man with neat hair and clothes by L.L. Bean, only adds to the impression.
She is pulling two carefully dressed children in a wagon, snapping pictures and encouraging everyone to please wear their nametags.
It is almost more than the editor can bear. The name tags and the little camera. "Oh God," she thinks.
But she can’t leave. For all of the forced merriment and social miscues among adults, the block party is a big success with the children. They are having a fabulous time. If the wine holds out, maybe that will be enough.
Another neighbor. Another conversation. Why are our taxes so darned high? What are we getting for our money? He is a nice guy. He is earnest and sincere. Even the editor’s husband has had enough. "Why don’t you run for office?" he says. But what he means is "why don’t you stop talking?"
They are neighbors, living side by side in three- and four-bedroom, vaguely Mediterranean style homes. They wave to each other in the morning and the evening. They keep their cars washed and their lawns tidy. They recognize each other at the grocery store, even if they don’t always remember each other’s names. They share a mailman. They should really get to know one another. They must have a lot in common.
Except they don’t.
At no point is this more obvious than when the Texan comes striding over. He is married to an attractive blonde flight attendant in her forties whose looks, he wants to be certain, should not escape anyone’s notice. But just to be sure, he makes a gratuitous, almost leering show of his appreciation. He narrates her arrival in a slow Texas drawl: "There’s my baby. There’s my baby in her li’l brown dress." Later he will suggest that a group of teenaged boys are checking her out.
The editor and her husband exchange looks. Is it them? The editor repeats "bayuh-bee" in her head, trying to imprint the sound of it for later retelling.
But it does not come to her until later. Until after the conversation with the neighbor who regales her with stories of marital crises and bouts of ill health. Whom she is sure is about to spill the details of her menstrual cycle if the conversation runs for even another five minutes. A perfectly nice woman, simply oblivious to the concept of "too much information."
"It just sort of hit me that I hate my neighbors," she says.
Sixteen hundred miles away, in a similar setting, another woman gets to know some of the neighbors. Children play. Hamburgers and hot dogs smoke over a barbecue grill tended by middle-age white men. Thankfully, no one has brought anything made with green pudding products.
It is a beautiful day. She wants to scream. Where are the cheeses? And what the fuck is up with this music? This is not your high school reunion, is it? But she doesn't. From outward appearances she is only enjoying a glass of wine and the company of a small group of men whose sense of humor runs to mildly racist and homophobic jokes.
She is tempted to say something really funny about the root causes of homophobia, if only to clear the table and watch their penises fall off into the shrubbery. But she lets it slide, in deference to the weather, the wine and the children.
Nearby, the anal retentive Victorians are getting prickly, wondering when the renovations next door will be complete. There are friendly questions. But there is an edge to their voices.
Mrs. Victorian is trying to enjoy a glass of wine in the yard and the sawing and hammering goes on all day. She just wants to sit on her porch and not hear anything. The view from her meticulously manicured yard now looks upon a pile of lumber and wood scraps, tastefully arranged around a collection of mismatching garbage cans.
They are a mismatched couple of families: one rising early to rake; the other sleeping in and reading the papers before going out to pick trash out of the hedges because someone has forgotten to put the lids on tight and the goddamn raccoons have gotten into the cans again.
Mrs. Victorian kindly asks if she can weed an overgrown section of the neighbor’s yard that faces her own and spoils the view. The neighbor’s husband thinks she is very nice about it and does the weeding himself.
His wife would have told Mrs. Victorian to weed as much as she liked. She might even have pulled up a lawn chair and a beer and watched. Mrs. Victorian does not fool her. The woman has a promising streak of bitch written all over her. They could be best friends at the block party, if there was one.
The renovators are visited occasionally by another neighbor. He is a pleasant old man who pops over to spread his own version of neighborliness. His conversations go something like this: "You’ve got a big backyard to play ball in, why are you out here in the front yard where I have nothing better to do than watch you and your stupid kids and worry about my car getting hit with a ball?"
Yes, a block party. Are you free? I will bring the wine.
Photo: Nothing says "this party is going to suck" like Pistachio Salad. Courtesy Kraftfoods.com
I Dare You to Eat This Salad:
1 cup JET-PUFFED Miniature Marshmallows
1 pkg. (4-serving size) JELL-O Pistachio Flavor Instant Pudding & Pie Filling
1 can (20 oz.) crushed Pineapple, in juice, undrained
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1-1/2 cups (1/2 of 8-oz. tub) thawed COOL WHIP Whipped Topping
MIX marshmallows, dry pudding mix, pineapple and pecans in large bowl until well blended.
ADD whipped topping; stir gently until well blended. Cover.
REFRIGERATE 1 hour or until ready to serve.