There are hosts in this world who believe a guest should never have an empty plate. There are guests in this world who believe a licked-clean plate is a polite plate. These two should never meet. When they do, it is a cage match to the death. In the profession we call this, the fat man’s dance with the Devil.
-Jane Freyer, How to Survive Dinner
A few days after new year’s, Nikita and I find ourselves in Moscow. It is cold, it is gray, it is dark. It is nothing new. His Grandmother lives in a suburb, an hour from where we are staying. We take the bus. It is dirty, it is cold, it is slow. It is nothing new.
We pick up a plant and some flowers on our way. I haven’t brought a woman flowers since my aunt died. Inside the apartment I do the obligatory handshake with one boot on. His grandmother is kind and curious and speaks almost no English. Nikita takes on the role of friend, grandson, translator and cultural attaché.
The food is on a conveyor belt of his grandmother’s hands as we shuffle around, helping where we can. His mother and step father arrive. I shake their hands once they manage to get one boot off.
They speak some English and Nikita is demoted to simply friend and caretaker.
The table manages to set itself in the interim. It looks like a dystopian homeless shelter; packed full of meat with a few loaves of bread. There is homemade vodka and a bottle of wine from some mysterious more expensive part of a wine store I’ll most likely never see.
We all sit, Nikita and I on the sofa, table pushed up.
“Don’t be shy,” Nikita tells me. So, I pile it on. There are cheeses among the meats, and caviar beneath the bread. A few bowls of salad start on a track of hands toward me. I pile higher. The rules of politeness get all mixed in my head at times like this. In China I was warned to try everything. In Korea I was told to compliment profusely; words or noises, my choice. I settle for the tried and true advice of my father.
Finish everything on your plate.
So, I do.
Then, suddenly, after a blur of serving spoons and smiles, it is full again. I don’t know whose hands grabbed what. And again, I clean the plate.
Then, like a child attempting to get attention from a distracted parent, my stomach starts asking me, politely at first, to stop. Instead, I continue as though I am trying to flee through a revolving door with no exit.
Eventually, as I scoop the last bite of salad into my mouth I see his grandmother reach for a piece of caviar covered toast. In a visceral panic, I hold out my hand. She pauses. She puts the bread down. I feel as though some battle has been lost.
So, in my guilt, I eat more.
I eat until I realize that my stomach has stop sending gentle warnings and somewhere in my gut some concerned citizen has pulled the fire alarm. I take a breath.
I get up and try to shake the meal loose. I stretch and bend. I realize my legs have fallen asleep, the room is blurring a bit.
I look at Nikita. He is smiling.
“There is another course,” he says.
He laughs, his family laughs.
I laugh, it hurts.
We catch our breaths.
“But, seriously,” Nikita says.