The lunch was something
of a haze, if only because of the Chardonnay that had become the only drink option when Kathy realized some years ago that no one ever wanted anything else. (Except Mrs. Collins who got tap water.) The only other thing I remember – besides the fact that Mrs. Laughlin was so proud of her boys for not living with their girlfriends before marriage and that one of the second-graders set down my quiche incorrectly – was that one first-time Lady at one point, apropos of nothing, leaned forward and said, "I love having an affair with a married man because it's always special-event time!"

Then it was time for the gift exchange. We chose our numbers and I eyed my present hiding in the back against the fireplace. The first few rounds went pretty smoothly. My mom had one of the early numbers and scored a huge Italian bowl from a small town in Tuscany – one of the few presents I would actually want for myself. It was of course stolen from her by Mrs. Banks, who gave a little speech about her daughter's semester abroad in Rome before snatching it away.

I opened an incredibly haunting Santa cookie jar, which though made by a reputable company, clearly freaked people out with its weird white body and eerie red splotches on its nose and cheeks. At one point, Amy, who stood hand-drying glass after glass in the doorway as her "helpers" deigned to sit in the living room with the Ladies as if they were invited guests, mouthed me the question, "Is that one yours?" I looked over at the pile, seeing that as the gifts dwindled, my mental-institution wrapping job was becoming more and more exposed.

Then I started to get really nervous. I had sat through year after year of cringe-worthy gift-opening moments. I prided myself on knowing what goes over and what gets whispered about later. When a repeat guest (because first-timers always brought the wrong gift) showed up with a plastic Santa and Mrs. Claus salt and pepper set or a box of tacky ornaments, I always wondered what kind of psychiatric disorder they had that allowed them to bring something so overtly cheap and inappropriate. Not that I don't think the entire idea of rotating the decor of your home according to the holidays is an illness, because I do, but you've gotta pay to play at Kathy's Ladies Luncheon. What kind of gall does it take to show up with a set of red and green candles, as one guest infamously did, and walk away with a six foot long hand-quilted Noel banner made by the gift-givers' aunt who spent all summer making it in the confines of her convent?