Dinner with Strangers
by Greg Bottoms
Recently I was teaching William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating,” first published in England’s The Plain Speaker in 1826. It’s an eloquent, musical, and bleak meditation by one of the Romantic masters of the familiar essay. Hazlitt, his life experience a narrative and rhetorical vehicle, investigates our human need for friction, for someone to define ourselves against, and the natural, unthinking pleasure that can be at the heart of such rancor. “Nature seems . . .” he writes, “made up of antipathies: without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action. Life would turn to a stagnant pool.”
After discussing the essay’s implications for our own times with a seminar of English undergraduates, I walked, as I always do, down the long, fluorescent-lit hall toward my university office. It was then, ruminating on Hazlitt’s observations, that I remembered—the memory appearing almost like a spark—a scene I hadn’t thought about in years.
It happened over a decade ago, soon after my wife and I were married. We lived near Charlottesville, Virginia. It was one of those awkward dinners with people you barely know—in this case, a co-worker of my wife’s and her husband—but who are roughly of your age, social class, education level, and temperament. My wife and her co-worker had gotten along well for months, often chatting and eating lunch together but never veering their conversations toward anything revealing or personal. Her co-worker suggested involving the husbands, thought we might be potential couple-friends. My wife liked the idea. Why not?
A couple of weeks later I rang the doorbell of a new, vinyl-sided colonial in a neighborhood so recently built that the streets were still black. They gave off the dull oily smell of soft asphalt, and the trees were barely five feet tall, held upright by ropes and stakes. My wife stood beside me on the large porch, one of us holding a bottle of inexpensive-but-packaged-as-if-expensive wine, the other a baked good of some sort, a berry pie, I think. I looked around at the cars on the street, a neighbor doing something handy in a garage, the ornate flowerbeds shaped like beans or quarter moons or perfect spheres.
I should say that my wife, whom I love very much and who has in many ways saved me from my darker self, has been trying for years to alter the world for the better. She’s both an idealist and an altruist. Lately she’s been working to convince me that we should host a “fresh air” child from an underprivileged neighborhood in New York City. As a late teen she worked with disabled kids in New Jersey, as a college student at the University of Virginia with elderly shut-ins, and as a professional she is a physical therapist who helps patients and their families deal with spinal chord and brain injuries after traumatic accidents—shootings, near-drownings, auto crashes—although during the time I am getting ready to describe she and her co-worker were therapists in an elderly care facility.
The door opened. Co-worker, whom I had not met, smiled and greeted us warmly. She was fit, with long, black hair, and wore heavily but elegantly applied makeup. She had on a pink turtleneck sweater and a pearl necklace. My wife and I had on jeans, and I wore old New Balance running shoes that she had suggested I not wear because a front rubber piece flapped when I walked. I also had wild, wavy hair back then—the nest, my wife sometimes called it—down to my shoulder blades. Co-worker’s husband came to the door. Thin-framed, tall, his hair neat and short, he wore an Izod Polo and khakis and shook my hand with something close to total disinterest. He was a civilian engineer for the army. He immediately gave off a vibe of being put out by his wife’s inviting us and—I speculate—by my hair.
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
Alcohol helped. It usually did in these situations, back when I drank. A couple of hours later I was in the massive garage, sheetrocked and shelved and with a large TV mounted high in a corner, looking at Husband’s Ninja motorcycle. I have no idea what kind of motorcycle it was. I call all of those bikes that lean you forward and are painted bright neon colors and go about 300 miles per hour Ninjas. It may have been a Demon or a Lightning Bolt—something demographically focused toward males eighteen to thirty. Husband told me that he and his brother went ripping along the Blue Ridge Parkway at over a hundred miles per hour, “laying it down.” There was a lot of talk of “laying it down,” which, I finally figured out, meant going almost to the ground around a turn. His brother went down once and didn’t even get hurt. They outran the cops in Pennsylvania. And so on. Then I got to look at his $900 riding jacket. I mean I really got to inspect it and talk about it, the $900 jacket, which cost so much, $900, because it was basically bulletproof, with real Kevlar, or something, and a serious bargain at $900, although, yes, $900 is a lot to pay for such a thing, but quality is issue number one. “Cool,” I said, wondering how much beer I could drink before my wife would comment. Maybe I could sneak a couple of beers when she and Co-worker were out looking at the garden. I’d duck into the bathroom and spear a can with my car key and pop the top and chug it out of the punched hole, à la tenth grade.
After dinner and dessert, sitting at the cherry-wood kitchen table, we were well into wine and cocktails and I was able to tolerate all this with a red-faced, slurry glow. My wife, attempting to cut the evening short, mentioned that she wanted to watch a television show about new findings concerning the origins of the universe. Husband looked nonplussed and said, “This universe?” and laughed somewhat derisively. Then Husband and Co-worker told stories of their wild college days at a fundamentalist Christian university in South Carolina, and my quick and mean judgment-o-mometer started ticking and whirring. Christian fundamentalist kids, I learned through many detailed stories, have at least as much sex, drug, and alcohol debauchery as kids at secular universities and colleges. My wife, a kind person, but a scientific and secular lefty if ever there was one, was being polite in all this, understanding that the evening would end soon enough and we’d never come back, that while—I could hear her saying this—they were nice enough, we just didn’t have much in common with them, philosophically and politically. I thought it remarkable how truly dialectical the whole situation seemed, like the set-up for a contemporary allegory on Red/Blue thinking, with everyone playing their parts a little too perfectly.
“Do you remember,” Husband said, “that guy in the dorm?”
“Who?” said Co-worker.
“You know,” said Husband, giving her a look.
“Don’t tell that one.”
“No,” said Husband, holding his fourth or fifth drink. “I have to tell them this one. I mean, I have to tell this one.” He said there was a guy in the dorm, a “pillow biter.”
“A pillow biter?” I said.
“Yeah, you know, a pillow biter.” He stood up and made as if to bite a pillow with his ass in the air. “So my best friends and I gave him a pillow party.”
I asked what that was.
“You don’t know what a pillow party is?” he said, looking at his wife, who was smiling, then back at me, at my wife.
“No,” I said.
My wife said she didn’t either.
“It’s when you wait until a fag is asleep and then two or three guys hold down the sheet and trap him and someone beats the lumps in the bed with a pillowcase filled with three or four bars of soap.” He was smiling. “It’s a military thing. Haven’t you seen Full-Metal Jacket?”
Even with how the evening had gone so far, even with what a deeply judgmental prick I can be sometimes, particularly back when alcohol was involved, even though I was probably casting aspersions in my head as soon as I drove into the neighborhood—careless consumerist blah blah blah, the way dominance and privilege in a society go unquestioned, are presented as if the only stance from which to view and judge all things blah blah blah (I can be unbearable)—we didn’t see this coming anymore than we would have seen the floor falling out from under us. “The pleasure of hating,” Hazlitt wrote, “like a poisonous mineral, eats into the heart of religion, and turns it to rankling spleen and bigotry; it makes patriotism an excuse for carrying fire, pestilence, and famine into other lands: It leaves to virtue nothing but the spirit of censoriousness, and a narrow, jealous, inquisitorial watchfulness over the actions and motives of others.”
I wanted to offer up a mini-oration along these lines. Instead, I said with a booze-slowed tongue, “That was Chrisstthhian of you.”
“Oh,” he said, seeing our expressions, sensing the cultural chasm opening between us. “We didn’t hurt the guy. It was a joke. We just wanted to scare him and get him out of our dorm. I mean, I don’t want to have to think about some guy looking at me like that all the time.”
“Jesus,” I said, which seemed to just bubble up out of me.
My wife looked at me. Then she stood up, politely said thanks for the evening, and within moments, as I remember it, we had gathered our things and left through a vibe so awkward as to be like a foul-smelling fog.
She drove home as I ripped into those “idiots,” mustering all the bile I could, barely able to control myself. “Did you hear that?” I asked. I sacrificed “human infirmities at the shrine of truth.” I talked of warped education, of religious thinking like that as akin to a culture-wide mental illness, of superstition as an addiction for the stupid, of the way certain ideologies dressed rather obvious injustice and dehumanization in the garb of morality. I turned others “into ridicule” and congratulated myself “on their defects.” I grew bigger and meaner, more ruthless, more senseless. And my wife stared forward silently, drove on toward our old, renovated farmhouse in the Blue Ridge with its efficiency heat, its magazine racks of Harper’s, The Nation, and The London Review of Books, its compost heap and herb garden, its refrigerator with leftover pad Thai tofu in it. She drove toward our future with kids who get to watch PBS and Noggin and are taught “not to talk like that,” to respect “others” and “difference,” toward her rational atheism and my noncommittal Unitarianish liberal Christianity, my doubting the idea of God, my desperate need for the idea of God. But I was unstoppable that night, my darker self, brutal and blistering, a soldier of some sort. I became scary, I see from this safe distance—the kind of person suggested by Hazlitt in his essay, the one who storms the gate, or hurls the bottle, or spray-paints “death to” slogans on brick city walls. I went on as if flowing along on top of a giant tide. Drunk and furious, glorious and burning, I was carried forward in my thoughts and speech by pure, irrational emotion, my loud and fast talk out ahead of me, unguarded and unchecked, my heart newly focused with righteous and solid hate.
That’s how it happens, I think, the cruel pleasure of hating—some switch gets flipped, and suddenly there is no we-by-degrees, but simply us and them, us versus them, an Other and an Other and an Other, all alone, all in a fight, and it is easier to deface and destroy what you oppose. As my students would say years later: It’s as old as language, as sure to survive as the hardiest cockroach.
“Please,” my wife finally said that night in the car. I calmed down. Everything was upside down now, and I, too, was becoming a villain. But what I remember most—the reason I’m telling you this—is the blood-rush of excitement I felt, the high, the almost humming wish I had to do harm—Hazlitt’s “spring of thought and action.” I rode the rest of the way in silence, my eyes like two bright taillights going up and over the mountain, and I was capable, just then, of almost anything.
Greg Bottoms is the author of a memoir, Angelhead, an Esquire Book of the Year in 2000; a documentary narrative, The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art (both from University of Chicago Press); and two prose collections, including, most recently, Fight Scenes (Counterpoint, 2008). He is associate professor of English at the University of Vermont, where he teaches creative writing. (3/2009)