The following story is based on actual events with actual people at “Samuel’s Late Night Tofu Spaghetti Party” thrown weekly during my senior year in Philosophy studies. Most names have been changed to protect the guilty. Until now, it has only appeared as a feature in my graduate studies creative portfolio.
I could have, I suppose, picked up enough at the market for several parties all at once. But I liked the immediacy, the excitement, of rounding the aisles at prime speed. Hungry people were coming over; and throwing a party is important business, especially when it’s for classmates. So, straight from Philosophy 457, as I’d done all semester, I threw my book bag on the back seat of my old Saab and headed over to the market. A pound of extra firm tofu, some tomato paste (3 cans for a dollar), one stick of salted butter, four cloves of garlic, a pound of generic Swiss, and two large bags of fresh spinach linguine. The organic extra virgin olive oil, double fermented soy sauce, and the secret herbs I always stocked. Then, to the wine shop for cheap Slovenian cabernet. Double bottles. Value.
Even before I’d unpacked my bags, the pan was hot, butter and garlic already volunteering their sensual scents. You see, my sauce, the only sauce worth serving, is built from the bottom up, slowly, and definitely will not be hurried. It could take hours. And what goes in it, is, and will remain, top secret. So don’t ask. All the more reason I melted, chopped, dashed, browned, and ground my herbal invention before my friends arrived. Then, as I watched it work and bubble, I got the first bottle of wine off to a proper start. Soon enough, though, the whole event began to rise right out of the pan. Crazy revelers would be knocking, and there was plenty of wine.
But no one ever actually knocked. It was more like a welcome break and entry. When Ken came through the door, Josephine was already there, standing near the sauce with a canning jar of wine.
“Canning jars, yeah,” she said, “They’re unbreakable.”
It was near zero outside, yet all Ken wore was a depreciated tee shirt under his thinning old Harley jacket. He styled himself tougher than he really was. Or maybe it was the other way around; I could never tell. Nevertheless, he was the only person on campus with sleeve and turtleneck tattoos.
“All I had was a bagel all day,” he said. He stood there in the doorway to the kitchen, leaning, hugging a glass of wine, telling candid tales of growing up in a dysfunctional family, a mad mess of things. He had, most likely, thought all day about what he wanted to say. It was as if he were waiting for someone to be listening. An occasional tear dropped to his tee shirt.
“That really sucks, man,” said Josephine, going over to hug Ken. Her brow was pulled down, curled in the center, her jaw dropped a bit. Her arms started swinging when she talked, excitedly, as if she had grown up in the exact same place as he, the same parents, house and all. Then she got into some stories of her own, the two of them okay with all the unloading. But it felt like prayer to me, or group therapy. Perhaps there is no difference. Anyway, this wasn’t what I had in mind when I started the thing up. I’d fantasized the spaghetti as foreplay to something like an orgy. Maybe it would start with the intellectual and move to the physical. These parties had turned out to be more like POW parties strewn with scars and anecdotes.
My idea to throw a weekly dinner party sprouted mostly out of a vodka late-night. Being that my friends liked both vodka and words, we played Scrabble and drank, until, Sari, a Christian freshman, climbed up on the table and stretched across the nicely arranged JURY, SECLUDE, and CLIT. I couldn’t see the board for her bare belly. That was pretty much it for the game. So, on Josephine’s dare, I drank vodka and juice from Sari’s navel. Before long, Sari was dancing on the coffee table, asking, “Do you guys think I have a nice ass?” It was unanimous. Everyone assured her it was a very fine ass. Then, down she went, her elbow going straight through the face of my guitar.
I thought we’d pick up on spaghetti night where that left off. Instead, there I was, hosting a roundtable for bonding thinkers and writers. We were the odd ones out, fixed on our poverty of friends, caught in a social gravity of sorts. My favorite essayist would have loved it, though, Phillip Lopate, author of philosophical essays of distaste for pretentious living. My friends were not softly paired in the living room over cheese and walnuts as were his in his nicely arranged “Dinner Party.” Nor was there mind-numbing chatter. No, we went face to face, sauce dripping from our lips, conversations on speed, words slurred in red wine, the air thick with cigarette smoke. It was more like, well, a train station, everybody’s thoughts going somewhere.
Just then, I thought Rachel was at the door. It was Francis and his new lover, the garishly outfitted Simone, rainbow stockings, fur hat and all. Francis was the more subdued of us all, browning jean jacket, poor guy’s running shoes, wire glasses, and the like. He’d been Josephine’s lover after me. They went on being friends, too. I asked him about it once; he just shrugged a shoulder. I met him outside of class, smoking cigarettes. He had a shy build, was a free verse poet, a self-announced official expert on the Beats, vinyl records, and all things Dylan. When I got the courage to ask him what the design on his arms was all about, we became friends. They were scars really. He had a great attitude, what I saw of it, for having had third degree burns covering his whole body. The barbecue grill exploded in the backyard. “I saved my sister from burning,” he said. “She was six, I was eight.”
Simone, however, was not a regular to spaghetti night. I wondered how Josephine and she were going to fit in the same room. I mean, both of them came on strong, but Simone had to be the center of things; if not, she’d launch into histrionics. She proposed her authority on just about everything, from diesel engines to coffee prices in jungles. Francis said he wanted to bring her as a guest; he said she’d fit right in. I told him, “It’s your call. She’s your lover, man.” That was my second mistake. The first was to introduce the two of them. Right from the first night, everybody had been possessive of the dinner idea. So, it was agreed that we’d check with the “charter members,” as Josephine put it, before someone new was invited. We weren’t able to come up with any criteria other than “philosophy major” or “writer,” though. And since Simone had never taken a philosophy class that anyone knew of and she’d never mentioned as much as one finished piece, we were all skeptical. She must have known we were on the fence about it. Every time she’d ask me if she were invited, I just said I’d let her know.
About eleven or so, things were heating up near the sauce. Ken, reaching for his Harley jacket, said that maybe he should be working on his paper. “No, dude, you have to hang out,” Josephine said, “Do it later. Stay up all night.” Josephine was fired up as always. If anyone could roll a party along, it was Josephine. She said that practically everyone she knew thought she was too much. It never bothered me that she did living room handstands, broke wineglasses, or argued about almost anything, vigorously. I loved that about her. She had activism in her tone, plenty of Virginia Woolf, poetic, strong. She was even colorful about depression, like it was a valid part of some philosophic process or as important as the meter in her poetry. And besides, she was the only female philosophy major on campus.
That’s likely why we ended up in bed. She was seductive, a comforting insecurity. I needed a release, couldn’t take all the energy. Or maybe she couldn’t take my energy or even take her own. We enjoyed everything about each other that we could, as much as we could. Nevertheless, we stopped seeing each other sexually. I was glad that we didn’t need a reason to stop. Like kids that let balloons go free, we just went on being friends. So, when I thought up the spaghetti party, she said, “I’m in, dude.”
By midnight, most everyone had wandered in. Stefan was a good-looking, lonely, boyish sort, wearing black everything, shoes, pants, turtleneck, and hat. He was mild with his voice, and known as the first person on campus to wear black framed glasses. Rad, a tall buzz-haired guy who could pass easily for a cop, rolled his own, had an old pickup, and a stern face that morphed to benevolence when he smiled. And, Tom, of course, who had developed a full set of pork-chop sideburns that gained him the title of lumberjack, was now the very happy new boyfriend of Josephine. Before the two were an item, she asked me how I thought she might be able to get his attention. “I’m sure he’d want to go for a beer,” I said. He did, they talked for five hours, and have been inseparable ever since. Then, as usual, maybe-she’d-show-maybe-not Rachel showed up. She was an unadorned queen of sorts, beautiful. I mean, you couldn’t tell at first, hair all in her face, second hand jeans dragging on the floor, an oversized nubby sweater. She said I saved her life more than once, particularly the night in Germany when she wanted to throw herself through plate glass; but that’s another story for another time.
With another round of wine and full plates of spaghetti, we settled around my old oak table, salvaged from a church basement, showing its wear as proudly as an old skiff with burns, stains, cracks, all with stories to tell. We looked at each other with faces of invocation. Chosen, beaten, mottled, connected, twenty-somethings, thirty somethings, and me, the career student, older than the youngest by a decade and a half. I felt picked, even better than the time my name was called to play second base. I felt strong about feeling beat; all of us did, as if we could beat the world, like Ginsberg meeting Kerouac, Virginia meeting Leonard. I hadn’t felt that way since I had religion.
“A toast,” I said as wineglasses met in the middle. “Here’s to… Yes. We’re all dying.” The round of still-sober laughs told me once again that food makes people happy. “There’s more cheese in the kitchen.”
“Damn, this is even better than last week,” Francis said.
“To meatless clarity of the mind,” Rad said, “Here’s to tofu.”
Glasses met again, heads nodded, noodles muffled the agreement. “Ta tofuu!” Everyone went on chewing for a bit; occasionally somebody sucked a shaking noodle in, end to end. That meant the sauce was a hit.
“Did you hear what Pruim said today?” Josephine said, not needing an answer. “Everything is just degrees of goatness.”
“You’d need faith for that.” Tom said.
“Where is Professor Pruim?” Francis said.
“He should fucking be here, dude,” Josephine said.
“But isn’t faith essential absurdity?” Ken said.
“Of course, faith is absurd; but religion puts specific limitations on absurdity,” I said.
“You know something? I’ve had all the Rationalism I can take,” Tom
pitched in, “To say that I can’t trust my senses for knowledge is rubbish.”
“Damn Dualists. I’m an Empiricist, I’m about the senses,” I said. “I taste, therefore I persist.”
“Are there limitations, though? Can I, say, smell too much?” Josephine said.
“You can’t drink too much, can you?” Stefan said, pushing on his black frames.
“Why not amass extensive knowledge of beer?” said Tom.
Back and forth and around we went, arguments and wine. From the sofa, Simone randomly offered what seemed to me a taunting squeal-of-a-laugh through her mouthful of teeth. Josephine rolled her eyes back and just went right on not falling for it. She was more intoxicated by the mayhem than anyone, not a docile bone in her, brow wrinkled, chin jutting, just short of yelling some philosophical argument still brewing from a fresh lecture. Unlike at Lopate’s party, none of my callers were hopelessly dependent on the host, being me, as the medium of conversation. Jump-starts were unnecessary. The only dependence seemed to be on the secret sauce. And, well, the wine of course. And getting away from campus.
“So, what are we all doing here?” I said.
“Smokin’ and drinkin’ like people should,” Rad said.
“I bet Samuel makes spaghetti just to get with the girls,” said Simone.
“She doesn’t get it, dude. How about, no one was cool in high school?” Josephine suggested.
Rachel lifted her glass, “Here’s to that.”
“Thirty two flavors and then some,” Josephine said, “That’s Ani.”
“I hate that song,” Simone yelled from the kitchen.
No one answered. Tom pulled at his plump sideburns, salting his thoughts with deep laughs, mouth gulping wide. “Thirty-one flavors, and still everyone is bitching,” he said. Tom was the most Socratic in the bunch, a scholar among us, perpetually examining things, keeping to his seat, engaging fully, long after several glasses of wine. He wasn’t sexually vigilant, either. Nothing was said. I mean, about Josephine. There we were, all three of us in the same room, four of us having been naked with at least one other person at the table.
I looked at the remaining lump of noodles and red sauce on my plate and lit a cigarette. I thought of Josephine naked. She was so quick at nudity, so unashamed. Like it was supposed to be. She used to sing naked to Ani. Ani DeFranco, that is. Every word. I never did get to hear much of Ani herself. I imagined the lyrics were better filtered through Josephine anyway. I looked across the table, wondering if she was thinking of me naked. Or Francis? I wondered how we could have let go so easily of those attachments.
“Humanity fucking blows,” Josephine said.
“Isn’t that our nature?” Rad said. “We want as much as we can get.”
“Altruism is dead,” Stefan said.
“It never was alive, was it?” I said. “It’s in our nature to only care for what benefits us. Who can feel another person’s pain, anyway?”
Rachel raised her glass again. “So, we all blow. What the fuck? Here’s to that.”
Digestion was kicking in and things were heating up. The arguments were driving us to madness. It was a weightless madness though. And I’m saying arguments here because it wasn’t a fight. No one really wanted to win. It was more like linguistic hugging. We begged for differences, for the creative tension in it all. We all wanted the same answers. To get at them, we busted the bullshit, ripping our beliefs to nothing. Over the weeks, I had become more energized and stimulated from it all. The early idea of the vodka and Scrabble orgies seemed empty.
“So then, back to the sense knowledge thing,” I said. “How do I know, though, that I’m not dreaming I just ate spaghetti?”
“Fork, spaghetti, fork, spaghetti. One always follows the other,” Tom said. “In a dream you can have spaghetti without even cooking it.”
“In your dreams you can come before you go,” Rad said.
“I just wanna come,” Ken said.
It’s interesting how, and I’ve seen this at other parties too, people have a mini mental orgasm or a momentary release of some sort when sexual innuendoes pop up. They always do, even in the most sophisticated groups, church socials, fundraisers for victims of abuse. It feels good to laugh at sex, about sex, during sex. So why should I be surprised? Ken did pop the topic a lot that night, though. He was madly gone, over some girl that lived with another guy. Ken got the daytime hours. “It’s only right to sleep with her after having sex,” Ken said. “It’s whacked.” With that, he got up and went for the door.
“Sit the fuck down, dude,” Francis said. Instead, Ken passed out on the floor, right there by the table.
“How can Descartes possibly say that he can live without his body?” I said. “He must not have had oral sex.”
I noticed Stefan hadn’t tried to get in on things much. He just kept filling his glass, pulling smoke from cigarettes. Josephine told me he hadn’t been laid in a while, maybe ever. “He’s a virgin, dude. Really,” she said. And Simone, she paid little attention to what was going down around the table. Nothing much at all to say. Every few minutes, it seemed, she’d call Francis over to the couch.
“Francis, Francis,” she’d say, grabbing for his belt.
“Shut up. Wait,” he’d say, “Not now,” taking turns between the conversation at the table and playing a Dylan CD, the Smiths, or somebody.
Rachel jumped up on the couch, her jeans riding low, hair flying, dancing and taking pictures, laughing between each snap.
“So here’s one,” Rad said. “Are apples red or not?”
“Of course not,” some said in unison.
“A bind man hath not the idea of blue. Locke,” Josephine said. “How about this? Byron was an opiate-head, so, should that play into a lit analysis? And if we ate opium, would we read Don Juan differently?”
And so, around we went. More questions, comments, and posits, plenty of them, rattling like bar glasses in the wind. Are there ugly people? Or are they just sick? Whose definition of beauty are we going with here? Schopenhauer? Nietzsche? Plato? And what about those Leibniz monads, those little perfect souls endowed to us, the collection of beings made by a perfect God perfectly? Or does she even exist? God, that is.
Nothing in my life seemed to be holding together except spaghetti night. The practical stuff was just fine, eating some, sleeping some, going to classes, studying. But like the rest of my friends, studying philosophy had plowed up my ideas of heaven, hell, knowledge, existence, faith, and a dozen other ingrained notions that I’d held on to. By my senior year, I had started to feel forlorn, nothing to fasten to, nothing solid. It felt like the time I was good-and-stoned on that rocky cliff above Boulder. I felt like a cooked noodle dangling off the end of a fork. The worst thing you can do is to try to control the mountain. Life is lot like being high, it’s better when you roll with it.
And that’s just it, I thought all my ideas were fixed; I’d never checked to see if they were valid. But now I was checking. I found no certainty, few answers, and I felt shaky. But the one thing I did understand was that we were asking. All of us were examining, burrowing into our ideas, personal, cultural, religious, or whatever. As I looked around the table at more of myself, I thought of Alan Watts’ wiggly world idea. He’d say we have little to hold onto, nothing but moving moments, a wiggly world. And I was starting to feel okay about it, sharing the wiggly with my wiggly spaghetti friends with their wiggly lives. Maybe we’d even be smart enough to figure something out. Thinking back, we already had.
By this time it was long past three in the morning. From out on the porch, Stefan reported five inches of snow on the ground. Rad rolled another Danish tobacco smoke with a perma-grin, “Bali Shag, man. Five cents a cigarette.”
Ken came back from the floor eventually, jumped up, cocked his hat, pointed a finger at the ceiling and danced like Travolta, yelling, “The only thing missing now is complete intimacy. I want to come like a wine stain.”
“Shit, you’re so S.N.L.,” I said. “A little jumpy. But so sexy.”
Josephine was packing another bowl, laughing the piss out of herself. And Rachel was taking more pictures. The fraternity of the profoundly confused had morphed into the fraternity of the wiggly. No one was clinging. I wasn’t clinging. I was kayaking with the current, paddle in hand, negotiating the rocks. Josephine poured the last of the wine around the table. I had my friends; we had each other, partners in the current.
I picked up the little journal that went around the table every week. We recorded things there, stuff that we wanted to say to each other, stuff that people were saying and doing, posits, jokes, drawings, comments and the like. I was writing a note to Rachel …and then there is you.. gardens flow in and out of my head.. bees lick.. birds jump in the water.. yippee, girl.. when, Simone, laughing to herself, tried to pull the journal from my hand. I held on. I held on tighter.
“I’m writing,” I said. She became more adamant, laughing hysterically. She tried again. “Simone? I’m fucking writing.” Everybody got quiet. Then, she bent over, forced my hand in her mouth, and bit me. Shit, I thought, looking for blood.
“Why the hell would you do that?” I said.
“It didn’t hurt,” she said.
Blood was pushing up to meet her teeth marks, two pink and white fleshy half moons hung from my skin. I wanted to say it hurt like hell, but I didn’t want to give her any more pleasure.
“Damn,” Tom said.
No one else said anything for what could have been five seconds or five minutes. I glanced up from the bite to see blank faces. It was as if we were all levitated. Everybody was as surprised as I was, especially when I told her to leave. Tom lit up a smoke, pulled long and hard on it, then let out the smoke with nervous exhaustion. Josephine tapped on the table. “What the fuck?” Rachel whispered to herself. Stefan, Francis, and Ken shuffled around the room a bit, then left with Simone. Ken mentioned the paper he had due. “Yeah, I have one too,” I said. And that was that.
Spaghetti night dwindled, over the weeks toward graduation, to Tom, Josephine, me, and sometimes Rad. A few weeks later, I wasn’t surprised to hear that Simone was making spaghetti, on Thursdays, at her house. After a summer of throwing fish in a market, Francis stopped seeing Simone, and wouldn’t talk about it, and moved on to corporate accounting someplace. Ken went to work moving rocks at the quarry; he sees his lover now both day and night. Rad travels around painting amusement rides (donkeys) and plays banjo in his cabin on the river. No one has heard from Rachel. When she left, she said she was going surfing, every day, in Hawaii. She said she’d never be back. Stefan got tired of loading trucks of tampons at Roadway and moved back to New York. Josephine works as a bartender, I doubt for long, and lives nicely with Tom, who is, still with sideburns, in graduate philosophy studies.
And me, I’m sitting here writing essays and pondering, not too seriously, why Simone chose to bite me. Why me? If to get my attention, or attention at all, she was successful. If to gather my affection, she was not. And I do think about a wiggly reunion now and then, inviting all the wigglies back for more wiggly spaghetti. I’ll go to the market, round up my things, start the butter and garlic an hour early, and pull a cork at the sound of the first knock. Hopefully it will snow, and no one will want to leave.
Occasionally I notice Francis’ vinyl of Jackson Brown, The Pretender, left under a chair, all the wine corks still in the basket, and the little journal up on the refrigerator. I pull it down and have a look.
Week 3, 3:30 am – I suggest we debate the ontological status of the noodle. Tom.
Week 4, 12:05 am – Ausgezeichnet! Josephine.
Week 9, 4:00 am – The promise that’s never kept, I’ll burn it for you. Samuel.
©2006 Samuel Saint Thomas