The Cocktail Party

Dresden pressed the doorbell and waited. He felt good about himself as he stood in the porch way before the wide door with the bevelled glass, trying to catch a glimpse of himself in the reflection.  His dark blue suit was tailor-made of Samuelson wool from the Montreal garment district. The Oxford shoes were a bit tight but he knew the discomfort would vanish once he had had his first two whiskeys. There was assured to be a good supply of whiskey, even if only Dewars.  Jeffrey – the steward – routinely betrayed his thankful lack of training by filling the crystal tumbler with booze before adding the ice.

The door slowly opened.  Jeffrey, beaming, stood in the centre of the doorway in his white livery waistcoat framed by the hallway with its dark oil paintings of hounds and bucolic scenes, the grand staircase ascending behind him. The insensible chatter of the throng in the drawing room blossomed forth. “Good evening, Mr. Jameson”, said Jeffrey in his thick West Indian accent. “Good evening, Jeffrey!” replied Dresden Jameson, stepping forward into the hallway.  Dresden was the family lawyer. If it had been winter, he would have known what to do with his overcoat. But it was July, the annual summer cocktail party renowned for its Tom Collins, gin, soda, lemon juice and sugar. Dresden despised gin, it gave him hives.  “You know your way…”, mumbled Jeffrey while closing the door, peering enquiringly into the street.  “Yes, thank-you Jeffrey!”, absently replied Dresden as he stretched himself erect, let his hands fall to his sides and entered the drawing room, his eyes searching for his host, Colbert Navarre.

Colbert, standing near the ancient coal fireplace beneath the lavish oil painting of his late mother, spied Dresden as he entered the drawing room. “Hey!”, roared Colbert from the where he stood, “Are they letting in just anyone off the street!”. At this, Colbert dragged heavily on his cigarette then exhaled a large plume of smoke and snubbed his cigarette in the carved glass ashtray on a nearby mahogany side table. He peremptorily excused himself from the cluster of people to whom he’d been talking and wove his way, pardoning himself, through the crowd towards Dresden. Dresden, aside from being a favourite of Colbert, was as everyone knew Colbert’s vehicle for conveyance of his legacy to posterity. Colbert had no children and he had been cultivating Dresden’s favour and commitment for years, nursed in no small part by passable whiskey and less passable food prepared and served by Jeffrey (except on the occasional Thursday on Jeffrey’s night-off when Colbert had the decency to ask Dresden to join him at his dinner club “’round the corner”). Colbert and Dresden were on the editorial board of a developing law report series; but more importantly Dresden had agreed to serve upon Colbert’s Foundation which, more than the Catholic Church, would ensure Colbert’s perpetuity. Colbert hadn’t attended church for years and he only kept alive a pretence of religiosity because his parents had once inhabited the former Bishop’s Palace.

“Come ahead in, you blighter!”, cheerfully barked Colbert at Dresden, their hands extended towards one another to shake.  Then pulling his watch chain from his waistcoat pocket and examining it, Colbert exclaimed, “You’re fifteen minutes late! The bar has been open for fifteen minutes! Let’s get you a drink!” Amid laughter and pleasantries, Colbert gently pushed Dresden through the crowd of other visitors towards the sideboard in the adjoining room where Jeffrey was in the throes of preparing several Tom Collins.  Colbert reached into the cellarette next to the sideboard and withdrew an unopened bottle of Dewars whiskey from which he poured an ample portion into a crystal tumbler and reached across Jeffrey for ice cubes which he plopped into the tumbler, then handed it to Dresden.  Dresden took it greedily, raised the glass with a nod, then swallowed a large gulp of the restorative. He instantly regained his equilibrium.

The two men insinuated themselves into the gathering. Dresden had planned not to smoke at the cocktail party but the obstinacy proved useless after another gulp from the crystal tumbler. He fumbled into his suit coat pocket to withdraw the cigarette package and his Dunhill lighter. The first drag from the cigarette caused his head to swim momentarily.  Dresden readily accepted the offer from Jeffrey (who was making his rounds among the guests) to refresh his drink. “Whiskey, yes!  No, not the Tom Collins”, he answered in response to Jeffrey’s muted enquiry.

The props had been set. The business of the cocktail party had begun. There followed the customary guffaws and redundancies, exchanges about the weather and one’s health, exclamations concerning the latest political gaffs, acknowledgements about how busy one had been, and stock responses about mutual friends, associates and the financial markets. No one at the cocktail party imagined that anything other than reciprocity was at stake.  There was no agenda except to return the courtesy of others who had previously included Colbert among their own guests. It was always the same people at these cocktail parties, a tableau repeated ritually in the homes and upon the lawns of the same people, the same families time and again. The obligation if any was simply to make an appearance and to pretend to listen attentively to a repeat of the themes which one had heard so often before. They were part of a circuit, a microcosm of professionals, business leaders and socialites who were assured to bump into one another wherever they may go. Club memberships varied somewhat but it was by and large acknowledged there were really only two worth belonging to, both of which had mandatory monthly expenditure tags (something accepted as necessary to discourage the riffraff). This crowd felt it had indulged liberalism sufficiently to admit Jews and women to its club memberships. Besides membership was dwindling, fewer and fewer people swallowed formality on any level.

In the drawing room the wafts of perfume momentarily cleared the air of the burden of smoke which was becoming apparent. Explosive cackles of laughter betrayed someone’s need to release himself from stress, to break the stiffness of the ceremony, to permit an inroad into a conversation about some bit of gossip or controversy, perhaps a matrimonial dispute or embarrassment. As the guests continued to arrive, the spacious drawing room became less and less accommodating; the temperature was rising and men instinctively pulled at their collars and ties. Gradually the stuffiness of the cocktail party gave way to inescapable and resurgent humanity. People dropped their guard. Someone spilled a drink on the Persian rug; an ash fell from the tip of a cigarette. The doorbell continued to ring and the noise of chatter had people almost shouting to be heard.

Dresden Jameson had a calculating mind. He tolerated the affectations of the cocktail party.  He was one of few people who could profit from inebriation, he knew how to handle his liquor and he knew when to make a jab. Almost methodically Dresden worked his way through the clusters of other guests, sometimes merely shaking hands without saying a word, at other times whispering some clearly privileged topic to hint at the depth and breadth of his involvement. Dresden, in addition to his broad corporate practice, served on the board of directors of more not-for-profit organizations in the City than any other person in the room, including those trusts dearest to the Governor General himself. Dresden’s appearance of altruism was a patent lie which deceived no one but neither was there anyone about to say so.  They too tolerated his affectations. The social mosaic required many elements to complete its composition.

The only thing more important to Dresden than money and position was his libido. And nothing stirred that component of life instinct more readily than the appearance of a fresh new face. Although Dresden had once wagered and lost upon an application to a conservative law firm, he had since recovered nicely thanks to the convenience of popular trendiness and it was now unequivocal that he was a “member of the committee” as he liked to quip. In short, Dresden was as gay as the birds. And it sparked his interest to discover that a young, angular, dark-haired gentleman had just been ushered into the hallway adjoining the drawing room.

Over the ensuing half hour Dresden kept his distance but regularly shifted his gaze to follow the young man as Colbert introduced him to others in the room.  Dresden counted the drinks being served.  He craned to hear what was being said at a distance but could only discover that the young man named Dan was from Toronto. At last Dan was standing before Dresden, being introduced. Dan’s striking appearance did not however match his delivery. Dan was shy beyond belief; he hadn’t the knack of social triviality. Dresden himself strained under the preponderance of discomfort. And then, in an instant, Dan moved away, onto a subsequent encounter, leaving Dresden in the wake of what for him had been a palpable disturbance. The moment had evaporated.

Dresden was not accustomed to lose. What stung more than anything was the obvious ineffectiveness of his presence upon the young man. Nothing Dresden had said had had any impact, nothing. Certainly the social lures had gone unnoticed. Dan was either uninterested or oddly above the fray of the cocktail party. Dresden hadn’t even ascertained why Dan was invited to the cocktail party in the first place. Colbert had only repeated that Dan was from Toronto. Then as if to punctuate the uncertainty and the intrigue of his appearance, Dan was bowing his way out of the drawing room into the hallway and the front door could be heard closing behind him. He was gone! Dresden caught Jeffrey’s eye for another drink.

Certain things are better left unsaid. Dresden needed to recover his composure, to push back the sordid vacuity of his private life. The cocktail party was naturally the perfect platform from which to project himself. He wouldn’t ask Colbert or anyone else about Dan. That particle of irritation had been removed from his sphere. He quelled his concupiscence and moved to another knot of people at the cocktail party.