By: Anne T. Donahue
About a year ago, the thought of hosting a dinner party made me want to quietly pass away before haunting the fool who suggested it. I can’t cook. I don’t care about food, outside of having access to the kind I like (bread). I love having people over, but the idea of feeding them anything other than frozen appetizers and a shrimp ring seemed overwhelming and terrible. Plus, I’m a control freak: in the same way I don’t let anybody in emotionally, I didn’t want to set myself up to be vulnerable in terms of hosting. And cooking for and feeding people is an act of vulnerability. Many things can go wrong. Friends may see you freak out about cook times and whether everyone has enough to eat or drink. You can be revealed as a human being instead of whatever perfect and fictional entity you’ve decided to be.
So no dinner parties from me. I’ll see you around 8 p.m. for cheese puffs that require only a 20-minute oven time.
But then the last few months happened. Without going into so much detail that this essay becomes two for the price of one, things happened. A buffet of revelations and realizations presented themselves one after another, and during that time I came to an understanding that was as terrifying as it was unappealing: I needed people. I needed friends, I needed family, and I needed to be vulnerable. I needed to tell them how I was feeling and what I felt I was grappling with, and while none of what I was sorting through was life-threatening or terrible or traumatizing, it was still uncomfortable. I realized I needed to start taking better care of myself and to tell my nearest and dearest instead of internalizing the moments of feeling like I was spinning out. I realized I needed to take my mental and emotional health seriously, I realized that opening up didn’t equate weakness, and I realized that real friends don’t shame or judge. In the immortal words of Kylie Jenner, I was realizing things. And amidst those revelations, I realized that if I could let my best friends into my heart and head, I could let them into my apartment. Where I would feed them.
Or, one of my best friends could. Back in early March, one of my best friends (who cooks like a queen and actually enjoys it) suggested a collaboration: she would drive to Cambridge from London, where she’d make a meal for our little friend group. I would make the appetizers, provide the space and dishes, and everyone else would bring a dessert. It was to be the product of friendship and family and working together. And, it was an extension of vulnerability: not only was I having some of my best friends over for dinner, I was letting them into my actual reality. I couldn’t cook, I didn’t want to, and while I could set a mean table (thank you, repeated screenings of Titanic), I wasn’t some perfect host. Or a perfect person. Which was a relief to reconcile: the myth of perfection made me feel lonely and sad and left me at a point where I was emotionally and mentally treading water. Now, I had my family at my apartment, celebrating how great one friend was at cooking and the other was at thawing a shrimp ring (me).
Which is never a place I thought I’d get to. I never imagined being open enough to let someone else (regardless of being a best friend or not) cook at my house, illuminating the fact that it’s something I could do. I never imagined feeling more comfortable in the chaos and loudness of friends piling in, giving hugs, and catching up than I did in the façade of clean perfection I’d embraced over the last few years. I never imagined I could be my real self outside of a crisis. And I never imagined I’d want to do it all the time and fill my home and heart with memories and feelings and welcome the experience of being a person instead of a persona. All while splitting a shrimp ring.
Which, for the record, is absolutely perfect.