I was invited for dinner not long ago with two women 25 years my senior. They are different nationalities to me and to each other, but one of them speaks English.
I didn’t know them well, but I accepted the invitation because I thought what is life if it’s not about experiencing new things? If it’s not about embracing the unknown? If it’s not about making connections with new people and expanding your horizons? And also she was making tacos, and I do really love tacos.
What this evening showed me is that sometimes, you don’t always need to experience new things. Sometimes it’s better to just make your own fucking tacos and enjoy them, alone, in front of Netflix.
Here’s how it played out.
I arrive at the host’s home — we’ll call her Carol — at 6pm. She takes the flowers I’ve brought and tells me, excitedly, that she’ll give them to her mother.
Wait. Didn’t her mother die two months ago?
Carol beckons me into the next room.
Yeah, no, Carol! Carol, wait… ! I’m pretty sure your mum died 2 months ago though!
Oh ok. Phew. It’s just a huge homemade shrine with candles, trinkets and foil-wrapped sweets surrounding a five foot portrait of the deceased. FINE. This is fine. It’s a jarring start to the evening, sure, but it’s fine.
Carol disappears into the kitchen, and returns with drinks and hors-d’œuvres. Hors-d’œuvres in the form of iPhone photos of her dead mum. Literally her dead mum. Photos of her mum, dead, in her open coffin.
‘MY MOTHER!’ Carol bellows with a theatrical sad face, as she passes me the phone. I am instructed to swipe through the photos as she looms over the screen and lets out a series of shrill wails which sound, on cue, with each new picture.
Oh look Susan’s at the door (not her real name), saved by the bell.
Susan is a seemingly meek woman who looks like she could be the antidote to this madness, until I see she’s wielding a microphone. Carol ushers us into the living room. She wastes no time in firing up the karaoke machine, despite my protests that I don’t karaoke sober (I nurse my tepid glass of water as I scan the room frantically for alcohol).
‘You will enjoy it!’ she exclaims, with slightly too much emphasis on the ‘will’. Is that the language barrier, or is she threatening me?
Carol serenades us first with a wincingly powerful rendition of a song in a language I don’t know. She’s not a bad singer, she’s just quite operatic for 7pm in a front room on a Tuesday. I glance over at Susan to see if she’s clenching every muscle in her body too, but she’s smiling blithely and tapping her foot along to the music.
Is this a dream? What’s going on? Where have those tacos got to?
The microphone is forced into my hand. Carol and Susan cajole me until I find myself cornered. I must literally sing for my supper. I perform an off-key version of ‘Back to Black’, in palpable discomfort, which goes unnoticed by my elders who clap along furiously.
At last it’s over. Finally, the tacos, which are delicious. Things are looking up.
While I’m still chewing, Carol crashes a ramekin of jelly on top of the remnants on my plate. ‘YOU MUST TRY THIS EMILY!’ she half-shouts prolonging the ‘y’ at the end of my name so it sounds like she’s begging me in a way that’s too intense for the situation. She gestures eating with a spoon.
Carol has made this jelly and she’s very proud of it, though I don’t know why it’s imperative that I try it this second. (Why are you not force feeding it to Susan? Is it laced? Is this the beginning of my murder?) I do as I’m told anyway, because it’s difficult to ignore her wild, beaming face, now only about 25 inches from mine.
I find, to my horror, that the jelly is not sweet. It’s flavourless, verging on savoury. Savoury jelly, it’s basically cat food. It triggers my PTSD from the time I accidentally flicked cat food into my mouth, aged 10, feeding my cat.
I suppress my gag reflex with a wide, false smile. ‘Thank you Carol’, I utter, through a mouthful of wobbly, brown, tasteless animal tissue. Carol hands me a small jug of milk and orders me to pour it over the ‘dessert’. Don’t make me do this Carol. Please don’t make me pour MILK on JELLY and EAT IT. She gently guides my hand, nodding.
Conversation turns to my romantic situation. Of course it does. I’m 33 and these are conservative, traditional women in their 50s who need to know if I’ve made the correct life choices.
They’re on tenterhooks, imagining the worst: that I am, tragically, a 33-year-old singleton. Their hands are poised over their phones. Should I reveal such a plight, they have a folder of several eligible bachelors’ headshots at the ready for me to select from, and marry.
I tell them I have a boyfriend and they sigh and nod with approval. (Though Susan is visibly shaken by the word ‘boyfriend’ instead of ‘husband’.)
Carol inquires as to the date of when he’ll become my husband. I explain that we don’t know about marriage and kids, but we’re enjoying things right now.
‘Enjoying things right now’. What a surrealist, unintelligible concept. They look at me perplexed, like two Love Island contestants at a UN Summit. ‘Oh Emilyyyy, really?’ Carol wails with pantomime anguish. Perhaps she misheard and thought I said that my boyfriend is dying.
Susan asks (via Carol’s translation) about my family. She’s trying to get to the route of my radical and dangerous belief system. Divorced parents… a mother 34 years my senior… a father that was married before… It all makes sense now. I am a survivor of a dysfunctional and harrowing upbringing which has led me to this sorry, husbandless existence.
I watch, mute, as the two middle-aged women discuss me in a foreign tongue. As if by magic I succumb to a sudden, terrible headache and need to leave immediately. As I stand at the door, ready to flee, Carol takes my chin in her hand. She pokes the skin around my jaw with her finger and frowns. ‘Emily, your skin is very bad. You need to use a spot lotion!’
Thank you Carol. Goodbye!
Driving away, like the wide-eyed, traumatised protagonist escaping her captor in a horror movie, I breathe a deep sigh of relief. Never again will I accept a social invitation out of curiosity, obligation or a craving for tacos.