We sat around the heavy wood table swirling our wine, talking and relaxing after a long week. The children were tucked away in a playroom, eating apple cobbler ala mode, and having a silent TV-staring dinner party of their own. That is, until she emerged, offending dessert in her hand, complaining to her mom: “I’m not going to eat this. The ice cream tastes like whipped cream and the cake tastes disgusting.”
“Fine,” her mom replied, “Don’t eat it.”
We all chuckled a bit uncomfortably and then returned to whatever the discussion had been before the interruption.
No one noticed me choking back tears.
Over that damn apple cobbler - my contribution to the dinner party.
But my emotions surprised me. I’m not some easily offended baker, my pride wrapped up in the product of my oven. Hardly. And, Jesus, the little gourmand was probably right. Ice cream here does taste like whipped cream and I suspected my deflated looking cobbler wasn’t all that good, and had even made preemptive apologies when I presented it to our hosts. I wasn’t expecting any compliments.
I think it was everything that preceded her outburst.
I should explain: I LOVE dinner parties. I’m a run of the mill extrovert and feel energized and by interaction with others. I was especially looking forward to this one, with friends who we find funny and interesting, who are great story tellers and good listeners.
For some reason that night the conversations was largely about work. Everyone around the table was either a researcher and/or the manager of a large research organization. The group talked animatedly about that world, complained about the lack of incentives for collaboration in academia, gossiped about mutual acquaintances, shared insights about the latest research…..
I barely said anything. I barely had the opportunity. And the longer I was an observer to the conversation the harder it was to join in.
I wasn’t intimidated. I was engaged and interested, and I normally, typical extrovert, insert myself unabashedly. But this world was no longer my world. Maybe it never was. I had been doing research and policy analysis for the last 8 years, and I was good at it. But I never got a PhD. I never carved out a name for myself. These people had. Their discussions touched on issues I could not entirely relate to.
Anyway, my days are now with my kids. Kissing boo-boos, changing diapers, planning meals. Those things did not come up.
I steadily started seeing myself in the uncomfortable and unfamiliar role of a wallflower. Like a note-taking secretary to their important meeting, and I felt small. I felt a palpable sadness, a lead ball in my belly.
Unlike my dinner companions, my main visible accomplishment of the day had been that apple cobbler. The cobbler that someone had declared “disgusting,” and no one bothered to disagree.
I should add: the host later emailed me to say how much she enjoyed the dessert and our company. No one was trying to make me feel small, and to a person they are all lovely people. But somehow it was still a hard night.