The invitation arrived in the mail:
You are cordially invited to a reception being held in your honor on Tuesday, October 7 at 7:00 PM. Please RSVP by the end of today.
The People You’ve Wronged
M stood at the end of his driveway rereading the letter. There must be some mistake. He was not the type of man who deserved to be honored. He lived dissatisfied in a one-bedroom house that he shared with a fish—a fish that, unbeknownst to him, had been dead for a week; he’d sprinkled flakes in its bowl before leaving to get the mail. He was thirty-seven, too opinionated for friends, too absent-minded for love, an irregular brusher of teeth, a man who donated change, a vegetarian, and a lush, back-pimpled, strong-jawed, left-handed, alone.
The letter must have been for M’s neighbor. His neighbor drove a gas-guzzling Suburban and let his dog—a pit bull!—shit wherever it liked. There was a man who had wronged. There was a man who must’ve done something, however despicable, that earned him the right to be honored.
M flattened the letter against his mailbox and wrote the name of his neighbor over his own. Then he corrected the name on the envelope, stuffed the letter inside, and placed it in the mailbox where it belonged. He cut across his neighbor’s lawn on the way back to his house.
Late that night a phone call interrupted his sleep. He answered in groggy alarm: Perhaps there was an emergency with his mother. “What is it?” he said.
“You only have five minutes to RSVP for the reception being held in your honor.”
“You have the wrong number.”
“We do not.”
“I fixed it this afternoon. I delivered the letter to its intended recipient.”
“And who would that be?”
“My neighbor. The man with the pit bull and the Suburban.”
After some time, M said, “So it’s all figured out?”
“Almost,” said the voice. “There is only one minute remaining.”
“But I haven’t wronged anyone.”
“Do you not want to be honored?”
He stewed over the question. How many people, in the history of the world, had ever been honored? He would join the elite ranks of his species. Perhaps this would be the turning point in his life. Perhaps this would lead to bigger things at the office. Hadn’t someone recently told him to say yes more often to life?
“Ten seconds, sir.”
“I’ll be there,” M replied.
“Very good,” said the voice. “And please rent a tuxedo. This is a formal event.”
“Good night,” M said, tenderly. But the voice had already hung up. That night, he slept better than he had for years.
In the weeks leading up to the reception, M reflected on the people he’d wronged. He would sit at his desk during work and type up informal lists of the few people he had, possibly, wronged. He found the exercise easier than he had anticipated or hoped. He remembered Harry Lang, for instance, a tall, venomous man whose car M scratched with a cart in a parking lot. In sixth grade, M tried to give Billy McTier a flat tire but accidentally scraped Billy’s ankle, causing him terrible pain. The boy wept. For the next seven years he was known as Billy McTears, the nickname so prominent that it replaced McTier in their senior yearbook. M once stole money—twenty-three dollars—from a purse buried under a pile of coats at a party. Perhaps that person learned that M had stolen her money. Surely she would’ve felt wronged.
Then there were obvious candidates. The girlfriends M could’ve treated more kindly. He had wronged them, he could admit it, but innocently. He hadn’t been mature enough to be the man they needed. His sister, too, she must’ve felt wronged for accepting his investment advice—and for that matter, his brother-in-law and his nephews, who also had suffered from the loss of their savings.
M understood how these people could have felt wronged. But he hadn’t intended to wrong anyone. Wronging was simply the risk you took by interacting with others. Sometimes, you didn’t act appropriately. The alternative was staying inside under the covers. That wasn’t life. Not any life that M wanted to lead.
Yes, he thought, it’s okay to wrong someone—so long as it isn’t malicious. CEOs growing rich off cheap Malaysian labor, the governors poisoning water supplies, the con artists conning senile grandmothers out of their retirement funds: they wronged with hateful intentions. They wronged to get rich. M had never wronged for the cash. He wasn’t a sociopath.
And hadn’t he also been wronged? This insight invigorated him. Beneath the list of the people he’d wronged, he compiled a list of the people who had wronged him. He made it twice as long as the first. Compiling it stole his attention from work. He began to submit forms and memos with sloppy mistakes, began ignoring his clients. Three days before the reception, he was terminated. Good riddance, he thought, as he carried a box to the exit. He added his boss to his list—hell, he added everyone in the office. They had all probably filed complaints that led to his release.
The night before the reception M’s neighbor invited him over for dinner. The neighbor, muscled and manic, stood in M’s doorway smiling small, pine-nutty teeth. “Shelly’s out of town,” he said. “I need another voice in the house.”
M reluctantly joined him. The neighbor grilled all-beef hamburger patties, X-ed each burger with bacon. M failed to mention that he didn’t eat meat. Similarly, he feigned enthusiasm when the neighbor suggested they watch football during the meal, despite his committed indifference to sports. M didn’t want to wrong anyone else, especially not his host. How could he have known that M avoided meat, that he hated sports? It was best to assume he hadn’t meant any harm.
Thoughts of the reception had been spidering through M’s mind since losing his job. He had responded by trying to bring more good into the world. Yesterday, for instance, he had volunteered at a rescue shelter for kittens, but his clumsiness proved hard to contain and after his stepping and stepping and stepping on the tails of kittens, the shelter’s director asked him to leave. This morning he’d donated fifty dollars to the Red Cross—but shortly thereafter read an article about its less than ethical practices. He reported the payment as fraud to his bank. Then he donated twenty-five dollars to Medecins Sans Frontières, a charity too French to be corrupt.
“What’s eating you up?” said the neighbor.
“I’ve got this thing tomorrow,” M said. He was grateful to finally open up on the subject. “It’s important, and I’m worried I might mess it up.”
“A job interview? Shelly told me you were canned.”
How does she know? M wondered. “It’s an event. A reception, I mean.”
“Fancy,” said the neighbor. Hamburger blood rivered over his chin. “What’s it for?”
“I’m told it’s being held in my honor,” he said, suddenly proud of the fact.
“In your honor?” said the neighbor. He chewed his tongue, pondering. “And you didn’t think to invite me?”
M hadn’t. “It’s not that I didn’t—I just don’t have any control over—”
“So they’d refuse the guest of honor’s request?”
“It’s all very mysterious to me.”
“It’s pretty simple to me.” The neighbor stood up. He crammed the remains of a burger into his mouth. “How long have we been neighbors? Shelly and me, we’re always inviting you over—but you? Not a peep. Never a peep. You know what that is?”
“I have a hectic—”
“It’s incon-fucking-siderate. It’s like Shelly and me don’t even exist.”
“I really don’t think I’m allowed to—”
“Get out of my house.”
The phone rang. The neighbor answered in the kitchen. “Yeah, I’m him . . . Tomorrow . . . Seven PM? . . . Get me a seat at the front. . . . Doesn’t matter. I’ll pay whatever it costs. . . . Perfect.” The neighbor hung up and said, “You better not still be in my house!”
M scrambled out of the living room, knocking over a plant on the way. Its ceramic pot shattered. Soil fanned over the floor. “I can hear you,” shouted the neighbor. M stomped the soil into the carpet. He heard the neighbor approaching and ran.
The following morning M left an apology card on his neighbor’s front door. In it, he invited his neighbor to dinner sometime in the future—though he didn’t mention the plant. He spent the rest of the morning and afternoon tracking down the people he’d wronged. Social media made them easy to find. He wrote gushing apology letters personalized to the best of his memory.
Writing these messages further confirmed what he suspected: So much of wronging was done accidentally. The former lovers, the coworkers, the classmates, his sister, his neighbor, his teachers, the people whose cars he had scratched—he’d wronged them, absolutely, no denying it, but he’d wronged them with the best of intentions. He made this clear in his messages. If I have wronged you, then I am sorry, he wrote, but please know that I meant no harm by my actions.
No one responded—though his messages had been delivered and read. Why wouldn’t they respond? They must have been laughing at him. They were having fun with his sincere attempt at atonement. That was the problem with people. No one wants to engage with anyone else. People praise the merits of conversation, of empathy, but all anyone really wants is to put people down.
What type of monsters, he thought, create an event centered on shaming the guest of honor? The people he had allegedly wronged were the ones who deserved to be shamed. Wasn’t it wrong to waste everyone’s time with a stupid reception? Didn’t greater atrocities deserve their attention? If he hadn’t already rented his tux, he would have boycotted the reception. But maybe it would be best to take a stand at the party. “It’s you who are wrong!” he envisioned telling the guests. He saw them cowering at his words.
He retrieved a bottle of bourbon from the kitchen. Bottle in hand, he sent follow-up messages, cursing the recipients for conspiring against him. He called them small, frightened, wrongdoing people. He called them hypocrites. Scum of the earth. Cattle-munchers and dweebs.
Someone knocked at his door. M answered, wearing a sweat-stained undershirt and yesterday’s boxers.
“It is time,” said a chauffeur. Behind him was a white limousine. The chauffeur kept a cigarette stuck between his lips as he spoke, its ash wormy and curled.
“I need to change,” M said.
“It is time,” the chauffeur repeated.
“I was told to wear a tuxedo.”
“I was told to deliver you on time.”
“Please can I just?”
The chauffeur sucked on his cigarette, an obvious no.
“Let me just—I need to feed my fish.” M turned to the fishbowl and noticed a month’s worth of food terraformed at the bottom. His fish, thoroughly saturated, had also sunk to the bottom. “Finn?” M said. He tapped on the glass.
“Ready?” said the chauffeur.
M followed him to the limo.
The chauffeur let M out in an alley breezy with tumbling trash. He knocked on a pair of black double doors. When they opened, he pushed M inside.
Two women—one scraping words on a clipboard, the other muttering into a headset—ushered M through skinny brick hallways. The hallways led to the wings of a stage. The two women motioned him out. “In this?” he asked, looking himself up and down. They pushed his shoulders. He stumbled onto the stage.
A movie screen stretched to the ceiling behind him. In front of it was a table for one. Its single chair faced the audience. M ran to the table and sat down, grateful for the cover it offered. He squinted at the crowd but was blinded by spotlights. The audience mumbled and breathed.
The spotlight cut out. A projector beamed onto the screen. M’s position made it difficult to see the screen, so he moved his chair to the other side of the table. As soon as he set it down the two women scurried out from the wings, picked up the chair—with him in it—and carried him back to the other side of the table. He stretched over the table, craned his neck at the screen.
The name TIMOTHY GROZEN appeared in white against black. A movie started to play. In it, a row of children stand in line waiting to climb the ladder that leads to a slide. M recognized the fourth child in line as himself, wearing the faded Miami Dolphins tee shirt that he wore every day as a kid. The line shortens. M is second in line. He whispers something to the boy in front of him. The whisper couldn’t be heard, but subtitles read, “I think your brother is calling you.” When the boy steps out of line to look for his brother, M climbs the ladder, reaching the top as teachers are blowing their whistles to signal the end of recess. M rides the slide to the bottom. Timothy Grozen sinks his head and joins the children walking inside.
The clip ended. A spotlight shone on a man standing in the audience. The crowd applauded enthusiastically. Timothy Grozen bowed, lifted his arms, then returned to sitting.
The name AMELIA LANE appeared onscreen. In the movie, M—again a young boy—races across a small field to girls gathered under a tree. He kisses one on the cheek before darting away.
“Oh, come on,” M mumbled. “It was an innocent kiss.”
Once M disappears from the shot, the camera swings past the girl he kissed—who wipes spit from her cheek—to the girl beside her, a freckled, bespectacled girl trying to smile. The movie ended. A spotlighted Amelia Lane stood for applause.
Many movies were shown over the course of the night. There was a clip of him wimpishly throwing a football to his father. There was a clip of him tipping a waiter a measly seven percent. One clip showed steak in the grocery store as it went unsold and was finally trashed. At the end of that movie a cattle rancher stood for applause. M stepping on kittens was shown. One movie named a town in India. The camera moved methodically through M’s dresser and closet. When the movie ended, Indian children stood to heavy applause. Over the course of the night M’s ignorance, apoliticism, indolence, sexism, and racism (both of a casual nature), his habit of using two napkins when one would’ve sufficed, the boring stories he told to people at work, his belief that all baristas were attracted to him, the doors he’d failed to hold for people behind him, how rarely he washed his hands after peeing, his unwarranted pride and unsettling shame, they all were put on display.
He protested—claiming innocence, good intentions—but soon he grew too hoarse even to speak. Silent, he let the videos work on his soul. He slogged through anger to shame and finally into a fragile acceptance, convincing himself that he should be grateful so many people cared enough to show him how he could improve.
In the final movie, his mother’s name appeared onscreen. This startled M. What mother could ever feel wronged by her son? Hadn’t he always treated her with respect? Admiration at times?
The movie began with a time-lapsed video of his birth, which had lasted, in real time, upwards of forty-three hours. After showing the birth, the film transitioned to the corded phone in his mother’s kitchen. This phone trembled when it rang. But over the course of thirty-seven time-lapsed years, the phone never trembled. “I texted,” he said. “I sent her emails. She knew I was never good on the phone.”
When it ended, his mother received the biggest applause of the night, replete with whistles, hoots, and even, if M heard correctly, the popping of champagne. The applause finally ended. “I love you, honey!” shouted his mother. The sentiment angered M. Loved him? How could she love him and participate in the event?
“Tell your mother you love her!” someone shouted.
“What are you, some kind of monster?!”
M squinted into the crowd to see who was shouting, but it was impossible to pick out the shouters—until it was simple. “Booooo!” everyone shouted, hands megaphoning their mouths.
The spotlight returned to M, blinding him. The two women emerged from the wings. One carried a deep red bowl of fettuccine alfredo—his favorite. The other held a bottle of champagne and a glass. She filled the glass to the brim, then set it next to the pasta. They walked into the wings.
The booing grew louder. M felt himself coming undone. What more did they want from him? What sort of spectacle had they expected? “Are you happy?” he screeched—though the words emerged from his hoarse voice as a whimper. “Does this give your lives meaning?” The booing softened; it ceased. He felt a manic desire to please these people—to entertain, to get them booing again. Silence terrified him. He wanted to show them that he had been harmed by this event. He sucked down the champagne, then slammed the glass on the stage, shattering it. Next to the glass he upturned the bowl of fettuccine alfredo. Nobody booed. He sank to the floor, knees and palms pressing into the glass shards, which produced only minor abrasions. Nobody clapped. He ducked his face into the pasta and lapped it into his mouth. “Is this what you want?” he asked, mouth full of pasta and glass. “Where’s my applause? Haven’t I also been wronged?”
The silence continued. M changed his approach. Why should I give them what they want? he thought. It was not about them any longer. If they wanted him to crack, then he wouldn’t crack. The event meant nothing to him. Composure was the finest way to protest. He scooped the pasta back into its bowl. He returned to the table, draped his napkin over his thigh. He ate with a pensive look on his face. He did not gobble but thoroughly chewed—forty chews for every bite. It was best for digestion this way. And when he detected glass in his mouth he did not swallow, as he had done minutes ago, but pinched the shards from his tongue and rested them on the table. He regretted breaking the champagne glass. It was hard to seem dignified and composed drinking champagne from its bottle, but the sips he took were shallow, contained, and he gripped the bottle firmly to maintain the appearance of control. Eating slowly let him reflect on the past couple of weeks. How rarely we give ourselves permission to pause, to savor our meals, to think about who we are in the world. He knew himself better than he had before the event. He promised to be more patient with people. Possibly kinder. If nothing else, the reception had granted him that.
M twirled the last few noodles onto his fork. He envisioned the audience tense and disturbed, defeated by his serenity. He himself had won, he decided. He swallowed what remained of the noodles. He set his fork on the table. He tried lifting his napkin, but it had adhered to the cuts on his thighs. He left it in place. There was no reason to risk looking goofy by yanking it free.
“I’m finished,” he said. When nothing happened, he repeated himself. The spotlight darkened. The house lights came on, exposing, for M, the full expanse of the stadium seating, its balcony crowning the back, revealing every seat—thousands of seats!—every one of them empty. A few stragglers funneled out the exits at the back of the theater. They were too far away for M to make out their faces. He stood, tried to tell them to wait, but it hurt too badly to speak. He cautioned himself down from the stage and chased after the people leaving the theater. Despite the pain, he pushed himself to jog, the abrasions on his thighs stinging the faster he went.
He exited the theater into a glitzy lobby where all the attendees hollered, “Surprise!” Blue and silver balloons blobbed out of the ceiling. Everyone cheered, clapping softly into hands holding flutes of champagne. A bearded man shook M’s hand and congratulated him. Amelia Lane congratulated him, too—though she added a hug. A crowd formed around M. Each person stepped up to shake his hand.
“I’m sorry,” M said to Timothy Grozen.
Timothy Grozen congratulated M, then moved to the side.
“I’m sorry,” M said to the next person.
“I’m sorry.” M needed to prove to the guests that the event had been valuable, that he had learned a lesson, and, most important, he needed to be told that he was forgiven. Their congratulations made him feel empty. They withheld something from him. He continued apologizing, but the guests pretended he hadn’t.
“Congratulations!” It was his neighbor.
“Oh my god,” M said. “I’m so happy to see—listen. I’ve been a terrible friend and a worse neighbor and you deserve so much better than that. I promise you”—M dropped down to his knees, clutching his neighbor’s hand—“that in the future I will not take you for granted. I will invite you and Shelly over for dinner every wee—every other weekend—and we’ll go out! Maybe a shared vacation—how would that sound?”
“Jesus, man,” said the neighbor. “Get a hold of yourself.”
“I didn’t mean any harm. I swear on my life.”
“Just stand up, why don’t ya?”
M tried to stand, but pain spiked through his legs, causing him to collapse. His neighbor yanked him into a stand. M thanked him graciously.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” said the neighbor.
“So you forgive me?” M asked.
“Sure,” his neighbor replied.
“You forgive me!”
“Come on—I’ll give you a ride.”
The lobby had emptied of guests.
“Say you forgive me—I mean, say, ‘I forgive you.’”
“I forgive you,” the neighbor muttered. “Now, you need a ride or you don’t?”
Yes, M needed a ride, but stepping outside curdled his stomach. He backed up, leaving one foot on the sidewalk and one in the lobby. The guests were marching down the street to their cars and their homes, where they would eat their meals and sleep in their beds and make love to their lovers. It seemed so absurd, having a life. He could see that now and was grateful. “No thank you,” he said to his neighbor, and watched with relief as the man stepped into his Suburban—which he had parked on the opposite sidewalk.
M limped back into the theater. The two women from earlier were sweeping the aisles. They turned, nodded at M, then went back to their work. M retrieved his folding chair from the stage and carried it back to the lobby. He set it up in front of the glass doors looking out to the street. He pressed his palms against the glass, leaning as close as he could without pushing open the door. The night and the people inside it continued undisturbed. M could see everything.