I am not sitting with my parents, who are down the table, talking animatedly to the Austrian nationals who have congregated at that side. I do not want to be close to my mother and father because I long for independence, to be understood on my own terms and separate from them. So, I sit with a lone Swiss salesman, two Germans, and an Austrian, all of whom work for the same firm. They are speaking in English, although slurred now by the wine. They have lived in America for so long, they have begun to forget certain words of the language their mothers spoke, the language they grew up speaking. Even the alcohol does not bring it back, but instead intensifies their accents, making them sound aggravated and pronounced like blisters. I sit quietly and listen.
The man across from me is red haired, a salesman. His features are smooth, unfreckled. He is handsome in a way that my mother would call “European,” an eccentric form of male beauty I mistakenly associate with wearing woven leather loafers with white socks or jackets without traditional lapels. This man is talking about his wife and begins singing an expression from America’s Excedrin commercials, “I haven’t got time for the pain.” This causes the other men to laugh. The red haired man, named Peter, covers his face with his hand, his fingers splayed wide in a melodramatic expression. I watch this display and eventually realize that the eyes behind the fingers are staring at me. I see the dark ring of his iris against the white. The men continue talking, and eventually, the hand comes away from the face. I see, as I had not noticed before, the trim auburn beard, which follows the contours of the man’s chin. Above it is the manicured arc of his mustache.
The conversation has moved on, and the men next to me begin laughing, snorting and slapping knees. Occasionally, they include me in the joking. They are not condescending but ask what I think, and nod animatedly when I agree. The red haired man named Peter has withdrawn from the conversation. Distracted, he moves his fish knife, which is the only utensil that remains at his place setting. He signals the waiter and touches his glass. I feel his eyes again. His gaze appears level, earnest, if somewhat cloudy and unfocused. He looks down in the direction of my parents. My mother has her chin on her hand, listening to something someone at the end of the table is saying. My father is equally absorbed in the conversation at their end of the table. The men beside me continue talking, which has turned towards the subject of work, and the man named Peter leans forward and asks in a low voice, “What room are you in? Or are you with them?” He nods sideways in the direction of my parents. I smell the alcohol on him, which wafts towards me in a great billow when he speaks.
I shake my head. I tell him I have my own room. He nods, smiling. “And the number?” he asks. His hands are on the table, the fingers laced.
I glance quickly at my parents once more. “215,” I answer, looking down at the table cloth as I say it.
He nods. Fear is rising in me, but excitement, too. I do not yet really understand this power, or even that what I have at that moment is power. And I am certainly too young to recognize that it is weakness, too.
I reach for my glass and empty it, tasting more mineral water than wine. I glance at his glass. It is a flick of my eyes, almost unconscious. I know if I alert the waiter myself, it will attract my mother’s attention, which I don’t want at this moment. The man named Peter smiles and empties his glass into mine. The man beside me notices and shakes a finger at Peter mirthfully, “What do they call it in America?” the man asks, smiling. “Contributing to the delinquency of a minor?”
“Tush,” Peter says and waves away the man’s jibe.
I drink what he has poured. He again signals the waiter and touches his glass.
Savannah Schroll Guz is author of American Soma (2009) and The Famous & The Anonymous (2004). She edited Consumed: Women on Excess (2005). Find more about her here: www.savannahschrollguz.com.