“Well, enough about me,” said Victoria Dietrich. “Where is the food?” She waved her flimsy scarf in front of her face as though she were holding a fan, and it was the nineteenth century and it was very hot out. It was in fact a modern ten o’clock at night in a banquet hall with massive ceilings, and Hong had a cold sweat running down her spine. The scarf was the lacey kind that would never keep anyone warm and could only be used to complement a tight satin dress and jeweled earrings. She wondered if Madame Dietrich ever stopped acting—if, in fact, that was the secret to her genius.
“Are there any roles you regret taking?” Hong prompted.
Madame Dietrich looked back distractedly from scouring the room for the waiters.
“Oh…too many. But I don’t have to worry about taking any nonsense I don’t want to anymore. That’s a luxury you wouldn’t know anything about, isn’t it?” She shot Hong a passing grin. Hong gave a laugh that was supposed to be small and casual but sounded in reality like a cat getting its tail stepped on. “Not even an appetizer,” the old actress continued. “I never eat before these things and I’m nearly faint. Charlie!” she shouted at the man on the other side of the table. “Those glasses make you look like a schoolgirl.” She leaned over the table to hear his reply and waved her scarf even more erratically. Hong rescued her drink from its path—something cloyingly sweet and overly alcoholic—and drank it in gulps.
She had the nauseating feeling she was losing Madame Dietrich’s interest. She was running low on the list of conversation starters she had made for herself. The good ones were long gone, the clichés were well on their way, and she was dangerously close to “What did you eat for breakfast?” Madame Dietrich answered the questions with so little padding that Hong was forced to speed through them. They were all reverent and self-deprecating, since everyone at this dinner was a bigger deal than her. She hardly should have been here at all, only she’d done rather well in her first supporting role. But surely she would have tried harder on her questions if she’d known the seating arrangement. Victoria Dietrich was, as she gushed while stumbling into her seat, like the mentor she had never met.
While she sat politely through a conversation about Charlie’s optometrist, she tugged at the starched table cloth and looked around. There was more fabric than person in the room. Everyone looked like a Christmas package—the professionally wrapped kind with sleek folds and gaudy ribbons. They were all talking at a large-banquet-hall volume, and the cool jazz that was playing over the speakers only added to the overall screaming effect. Hong held the glass to her lips like a squirrel with a nut.
Madame Dietrich succeeded in flagging down a waiter.
“Just how much longer?”
“Only a moment more, Madame. Can I get you anything?”
“Yes, another drink.”
The waiter dipped his head and marched back towards the kitchen. Madame Dietrich sat back in her chair, smoothed the table cloth in front of her, and sighed, in the manner of someone who was acknowledging the person sitting next to them without really having anything to say. In a flash of panicked inspiration Hong asked, “What did you eat for breakfast?”
“Nothing,” said Madame Dietrich. “I said before. And don’t feel too embarrassed.”
“About taking my glass,” she said, and fluttered her scarf.