[Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Though I did once get caught in a vicious Tupperware party cycle, the reality bears little similarity to this post.]
The intangible invitation hangs over me in the week after its acceptance, and the tangible one—designed in Microsoft Word with the heavy employ of Word Art and Clip Art and other things that take the word “art” in vain—hangs literally over me as well, from its position on my cubicle wall, tacked there with industrial-strength push pins: “TUPPERWARE PARTY.” The thing is pathetic in its over-accommodations—the address is listed above an intricate description of how to get there “from the east,” “from the west,” and “from the north,” below which is a set of instructions for making your way from your car to Unit 12, which all but requires a set of walkie-talkies and the mastering of a secret language. We are instructed to park not in the front or the back, but “on the side, where you’ll see a dumpster and an abandoned bicycle.”
“Arrive any time between 12 and 1!” it says. “Bring a friend or two (or even three!)” it says. These sad panderings are surrounded by cartoon stacks of plastic containers—purple and green and blue, all with lids artfully askew. At the bottom is a thumbnail photo of Peggy Nielsen, 23-year Tupperware Consultant. Peggy’s hair is a gray-brown cloud of self-satisfaction. Her teeth are the only border separating cheek and chin and mouth, her lips having curled inward over time like the slow, osteoporotic warping of a spine. She looks like a Simpsons character.
Another coworker is attending the party with me. Coworker 2 had also fallen for the trap when she was new at the company, and though she’d broken free of “the cycle” (I understand this reference only once the party is underway) months ago, she agreed to accompany me for moral support. Only later do I fully comprehend the breadth of Coworker 2’s loyalty and selflessness.
We park behind a dumpster. As the invitation foretold, there lies an abandoned bicycle chained to a pipe of some kind with a lock that looks like it’s been excavated from the ruins of the Titanic. The bike is missing both tires and its seat, and I wonder about the philosophical implications of being bike or not bike, and whether my removal of the handlebars or the pedals might change its description on the next Tupperware party invitation. Signs in front of the building warn of steep parking tickets for those who deign to leave their vehicle unattended.
Unit 12 is located on the third floor of a three-story building, situated between units 33 and 16. Coworker 1 squawks something about the whimsy of the numbering system and living in “the penthouse” as she thrusts drinks into our hands, cloying and fizzy in neon plastic margarita glasses, the kind you take home with you, sticky dregs and all, after a cruise. Of course it is non-alcoholic, I think after the first sip, but after the second and third I wonder if I’m judging the party too harshly already.
Peggy is there in the corner, flipping through a binder of laminated pages, mouthing words as if in rehearsal. I recognize her, though her hair has been updated by about a decade since her official Tupperware headshot was taken. The coif remains a decade out of fashion, and I wonder if the photo was taken ~3 or ~13 years into her 23-year tenure.
A gaggle of Ladies reposes on the sagging sectional. It’s a couch one might refer to as “understuffed,” its cushions appearing to pool around themselves in melancholic old-age. Coworker 1 still has an old-fashioned tube television, the apartment’s centerpiece. It stands atop an old microwave cart with the kind of cabinet doors that have to be punched before they’ll open. I finish my drink. The bottom of the glass looks like my tongue feels, covered in a gritty layer of sugar that failed to dissolve. Soon the room feels the same way, saturated and sickeningly sweet with the mixing of perfumes and the various high pitches of Ladies separated from their husbands and children with permission to spend money. The parade of multicolored, multifunctional, multimiserable products about to commence fills these women with a euphoria that renders alcohol redundant. They are veterans of the Tupperware party, I understand, and with that I also understand the mocktails.
A folding table has been erected against a wall opposite the couch, a wall that has ostensibly been cleared of furniture to make room for the party set-up. A cacophony of chairs is relegated to a corner, along with a dilapidated microwave on a second microwave cart. The carts must have come in a pair, though what reason a person would have for buying twin microwave carts eludes me. The real microwave, brown and big, has a greasy looking handle and watermarks on the glass. I can tell which buttons are depressed most frequently. The One and the Time and the Start buttons all have fingerprints over them, the lazy pawing of a single woman accessing her Lean Cuisine after its languid, 4-minute rotation.
Atop the folding table is a striped paper tablecloth, still with crisp creases from its time spent folded in a plastic sheath on a hook at the dollar store. One corner is ripped, but it’s the corner closest to where the walls converge, placed there so no one would notice it. I notice it as I crane my neck to inspect the hummus. The inspection reveals that it’s actually some sort of onion dip. There is taco dip, spinach-artichoke dip, sugar cookies slice-and-baked from a roll with hearts in the middle, a sad and untouched bowl of pretzels, puppy chow, Cheetos (the puffy kind in a purple Tupperware bowl, the crunchy kind in a smaller, green one), pinwheels oozing cream cheese with translucent deli meats flopping about as if dying slowly from their toothpick impaling, something buried in powdered sugar, something wrapped in Pillsbury crescent rolls, something in a crock pot with condensation pooling on the lid, falling stalactite-like back into its origins.
Another woman comes up next to me and snags a ridged potato chip from a pink Tupperware container, dragging it fluidly through the dip. A small dollop escapes the chip en route to her mouth, landing just near the ripped corner of the tablecloth. It pools around itself, reminding me of the couch cushions. No one else knows it’s there. The woman crunches on the chip, then follows it up with a second, dry one. “Can’t have just one,” she says to me. I nod encouragingly, for the sentiment is very true. Another dollop has taken residence in the corner of her mouth. I take a chip for myself and chew it while maintaining eye contact with the woman. She watches as I wipe the grease and salt from my fingers onto the tablecloth. It tastes stale and slightly moth-bally, and I suspect it came from a bag with a Food Club or Roundy’s logo in embarrassing blue or red, not like the professionally designed bags of Ruffles or Lays that would have cost Coworker 1 a few additional dollars. I take a second chip and choke it down because I feel bad for Chip Woman and her willpower shortfall, and I want to give her misery the appearance of company.
Peggy continues her frenzied rehearsal, the neurotic rituals of a virtuoso performance artist. Coworker 2 has taken residence on the couch, poised on the edge of her seat with legs crossed at her ankles, a good 24 inches between her back and the cushion’s pool. Next to her is an aunt wearing a crew-neck sweatshirt with some sort of puffy-paint sentiment on the front. Her posture makes the message indecipherable, but I imagine it’s something prosaic and vaguely uplifting, in the neighborhood of “Live, Laugh, Love.” Next to her is a cousin, flashing a modest engagement ring to the circle of Ladies gathered around the tube television, in the throes of a dramatic retelling of her engagement. A grandmother with a downturned mouth and wiry perm sits rapt in a recliner, the creases in her trousers standing at attention. Two of Coworker 1’s high school friends sit on the other end of the sectional, pretty until they begin to speak. They are what I always imagined the term “plain-looking” described, before I understood it to be a euphemism for “ugly.” Both have long, swishy, mouse-colored hair that probably looks the same wet and dry, pulled back above their ears with unassuming black barrettes. They bear no discernible makeup but their youthful skin and not-yet-receded lips make up for this fact. When they speak, however, pinched O’s and spastic E’s and laughter that sounds like a quiet recording with the volume turned up, their plain beauty is obscured behind their now-obvious belonging at a Tupperware party.
A voice rises above the din, and though I don’t make out what it says I understand that the main programming is about to begin. I briefly curse not having refreshed my drink before remembering that it’s a dry party.
“Ladies,” Peggy addresses the group.
Coworker 1 takes a seat on the floor in front of me and Coworker 2. Chip Lady pulls a chair from the corner and sits down, a handful of chips wrapped surreptitiously inside an unfolded napkin in her lap.
Peggy launches into a diatribe about the storied Tupperware brand and her involvement with it. Her deft and melodic variations in vocal pitch, the balance of pause-for-effect and galloping prose, and her deployment of 99-cent words suggests both that this speech has been delivered countless times throughout her career and that she’s honed her craft almost enough to make it seem like it hasn’t. Tupperware is in the business of empowerment, she tells us, and her spiel begins with an appeal to (and frankly, a patronizing of) our feminist independence and entrepreneurship. “Anyone can have a career like mine,” she says. Peggy runs 15 Tupperware parties in an average week and makes a percentage of every item sold. (My eyelids droop when she talks numbers, and I find myself wondering how the blob of chip dip on the tablecloth has fared.) Peggy’s “career” as a Tupperware consultant needed only a modest up-front investment in her starter kit, which quickly “paid for itself” after her very first party. It becomes apparent at this point that Peggy receives a commission on nearly every action a guest at this party can take: purchasing Tupperware, offering to host a party, participating in a game, or the Holy Grail, a referral to become a consultant ourselves. The only action I can think of that won’t personally benefit Peggy Nielsen, 23-year Tupperware Consultant, is eating, but there are now three aunts and Grandma’s over-starched pants between me and the food table, and I harbor a nagging suspicion that I’m somehow being incentivized to eat, too. Thus begins my meditation on free will and whether there is anything I can do at this shindig that has not already been subtly and subconsciously encouraged by Peggy or Coworker 1, and whether the absence of action—the mere sitting down and listening passively—is not actually the greatest capitulation of free will possible here.
It also becomes apparent at this point that Peggy’s hair is actually a wig, not because she has lost her ability to grow hair through some horrific bout with a tragic disease, but because she watches QVC frequently (to study the nuanced techniques of the big league saleswomen peddling unnecessary products to women who will try anything, spend anything, to fill their sad void of femininity, and because Peggy herself is one of these sad women and is not immune to the very sales tactics she studies and emulates), and one afternoon the Ladies of QVC were peddling wigs to an audience of housewives who all already possessed passable heads of hair. This revelation forces me to re-examine my prior assumptions about where her headshot fits into the timeline of her career.
Peggy scratches at her scalp, or the manufactured scalp that comprises her wig hair, and continues. Tupperware is more than an array of organizational vessels with airtight lids that need to be burped before long-term storage; it’s more than a 65-year-old company with the kind of bootstrapped history that makes the American Dream a wet one. They’re the pot inside which a chicken shall repose on every stove—I mean microwave. The brand is a lifestyle, an opportunity, a Mirror of Erised for those who are okay with the corrosion of big dreams to realistic proportions over time. Tupperware is more of a cult than a company, their containers hold more than dry goods and leftovers, and this party, I can now see clearly, is more of an infomercial, the kind where “but wait, there’s more” is more of a demand than an imploration.
Next begins the anticipated parade of wares. Guests are instructed to follow along in our catalogs, which Coworker 1 begins circulating. I’m the last to receive a catalog, and I watch as Peggy removes a rainbow of plastic receptacles from her tote bag, which is, surprisingly, not emblazoned with the Tupperware logo; it is a Sendik’s bag. I imagine the modest initial investment did not cover a receptacle for her receptacles. She stacks a quintet of nesting bowls, absurdly un-nested, on the edge of her presentation table, then arranges a set of animal-shaped 12 oz. water bottles, then a set of ice cube trays with matching lids—can you believe that? Lids on ice cube trays!—then collapsible snack cups for the homemaker with storage space so ludicrously limited that she must flatten the snack cups in her cupboards, then a sequence of unidentifiable canisters and repositories that I would later find out comprised the Microwave line, a series of plastic products that were somehow, inexplicably, safe for use inside a microwave. Though I don’t know much about science, I’m well acquainted with the rumor that plastic, when heated in a microwave, has been known to leach into the very food it contains, spreading cancer with more ferocity than even cell phone usage. However, I do not intend to raise any ethical or legal objections to the brand, and for all I know these rumors were incepted by a competing brand, say Glasslock.
There exists in Tupperware’s catalogue a vessel for cooking every type of food imaginable. Peggy shows us a rice cooker, a pasta boiler, a veggie steamer, a soup reheater, a tortilla keeper, and something called a breakfast maker that Peggy never goes into further detail about. I assume it cooks eggs in the microwave, a sobering thought (though I have little to be sobered from), but as Peggy unlocks clasps and removes steamer trays and drones about the incredible time-saving these products afford to Ladies like us, I wonder if its name is not at least a little exclusionary toward vegans, ovophobes, pancake enthusiasts, and those in other cultures who eat things like lunch meat (another exclusionary term!), tomato slices, cheese et al. for their first meal of the day. The 12 oz. monkey water bottle is staring at me, and I don’t appreciate the look of malice in its eyes. I decide that these water bottles must not be intended for use by children and re-christen them wine sippy cups. I will purchase the monkey when the time comes.
The presentation of the Microwave line is interrupted by a field trip to the food table, where a Vent ‘N Serve container has been set out next to a can of chili, a bag of shredded Mexican Cheese, and a softening block of cream cheese. Coworker 1 has assembled the vignette unnoticed while we were under the spell cast by Peggy and the Tortilla Keeper.
“Now, I will show you just how easy it is to cook in the microwave,” Peggy says, as if her halo of frizz is a by-product of having invented the microwave—after rounds of failure and personal electrocution—herself. Anything (anything) can be cooked within a microwave, she teaches us, from cakes and cookies to whole turkeys and, yes, 3-Layer Chili Dip. While Peggy spreads the cream cheese across the expanse of the Vent ‘N Serve bowl, Coworker 1 makes a move to provide a can opener. But Peggy demurs, selecting instead a lime green contraption from her Sendik’s bag. The implement separates the can of chili from its lid with equal success as would have been achieved with a traditional can opener, but with a very different mechanical process. The product is for sale, only $35. I look down at my shoes and realize that they cost less than this can opener. “What else does it do?” I ask in earnest curiosity. My can opener has long-ago rusted and I could be convinced, now that I am already ordering the monkey wine sippy cup, to add a can opener to my debit. “That’s it!” Peggy says. “It’s the simplicity that’s so wonderful about this product. It does only one function, and it does it well.”
The chili hits the side of the plastic tray with an unappetizing thwap, mostly retaining the shape of its can, while Peggy hunts for a rubber spatula. During her brief interlude to hawk the spatula to her captive audience (“Only $15, and it’s dishwasher safe!” A few women release uninhibited squeals.), I watch the canned meat ooze languidly around itself and onto the blanket of cream cheese like the body of Coworker 1’s grandma, who wasn’t inspired to abandon her chair in the living room for this demo. Entranced with its somnolent descent, I wait for the ooze to find eventual stasis as Layer 2 of the chili dip. But with another thwap, Peggy interrupts my trance and flattens the blob, spreading it deftly to all outer edges of the bowl.
“Step three,” she says, brandishing a pair of scissors, “is the cheese.” I note silently that, for clarity’s sake, she should have said, “…is the other cheese.” Step one, after all, had also been the cheese.
In a flourish of choreography, the cheese bag is opened, cheese sprinkled, lid secured, and microwave brought to life. During the 5-minute circumnavigation of the tray around the turntable, Peggy assails us with a brief history of the microwave, accompanied by some tips and warnings about safety. “This is especially important when you’re pregnant,” she says, inexplicably locking eyes with me. I cross my arms in front of me and seek visual solace in the bowl of puffy Cheetos. The entire party (minus Grandma) is gathered around the food table, but no one eats it, as if it’s artificial food on a commercial set. I calculate the social tax of reaching between Coworker 1 and Engaged Cousin to snag a Cheeto, but the microwave dings just as I’m about to launch my assault. The 3-Layer Chili Dip is done. Peggy lists other uses for the Vent ‘N Serve set while waving through the schlieren lines that wag out of the hot steam. The entire set can be mine for the same price as the parking ticket I would have received had I not followed the parking instructions on the party invitation.
“And don’t forget,” Peggy says as the lid to the Vent ‘N Serve comes off, “the more you spend, the more our party host here earns.” We all turn to look at Coworker 1 like a herd of cows. She smiles smugly, and I can almost see the pageant of plastic containers dancing above her head like sugarplums.
We all descend upon the bowl as Peggy sets it down, dipping our chips one by one. I admit I scoop more onto my chip than anyone else, but I’m an opportunist and it doesn’t appear that I’ll have a chance for seconds for quite a while; the rest of the party is already forming a queue behind me as I struggle to maintain chip equilibrium on the long journey from hand to mouth. Peggy eyes me, and her upper lip twitches a few times as if she’s about to reprimand me for taking more than my fair share. Though her chili dip is one of the most gustatorially pleasurable experiences of my life, I vow not to take a second chip. It is too early in life, I decide, to reach my lowest point, and a rebuke from 23-year Tupperware Consultant Peggy Nielsen for overindulging in the microwaved 3-Layer Chili Dip would certainly propel me to that sad nadir. Not worth it. Not even as I consider the great synergy of canned meat and cheese and cheese I’ve just experienced, the implausible sum greater than its comprising parts, do I consider taking a second chip. Even as I discover and excavate some previously unswallowed dip from behind my wisdom tooth and enjoy the alchemy of flavors anew, I remain staunch in my decision. Peggy has turned her attention to Stiff-Pants Grandma, who has apparently found the smell of 3-Layer Chili Dip moving enough to leave her chair. I believe she is on her fourth chip. The Chip Lady, I note, is conspicuously absent at this feeding frenzy.
I hear murmurs of delight and approval from the other dip-consumers. One of them vows to make the recipe for her husband. Another cites a pair of sons who would quite enjoy it. Coworker 2 joins the fray and says she can’t wait to see how much cooking time she’ll save now that she’s a Microwave Convert. “Not to mention dishes!” Coworker 1 concurs. I wonder if Coworker 2’s husband will complain when his food is nuked instead of fried. I wonder if the sundry husbands and sons and nephews and grandsons will appreciate the dip as much as we have.
When the dip is gone, the Ladies make their way back to the couch per Peggy’s request. I take this opportunity to indulge in that Cheeto I’ve had my eye on. We are now going to play a game, she tells us. The Plain-Looking Duo groans. I briefly wish I still had a glass to raise in their direction. Perhaps I have made the rookie mistake of grouping these women in with the other Ladies. Perhaps they are not all bad; perhaps they, too, are living in their own private hell, dreaming of returning to That Time We All Ate 3-Layer Chili Dip Together. “Don’t worry, this game’s really easy,” Peggy says. You don’t even really have to do anything.”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Engaged Cousin asks. I don’t know whether to align with Peggy or Engaged Cousin on this one. I can see both sides of the argument.
“All you have to do,” she says, choosing to ignore her, “is select a slip of paper from my Tupperware bowl!” Peggy produces a haggard-looking bowl in a retro shade of olive. I expect her to say it’s from her very first Tupperware party, perhaps part of her original starter set. I prepare to feel moved, to reverse my entire exegesis on the Tupperware party experience in exchange for a small piece of poignancy and nostalgia. “By the way, Ladies,” Peggy says, “You can buy this very bowl in our Throwback Line for only $29!” Peggy explains that the line was released in the original shades of olive and mustard and cream, to celebrate the brand’s 65th anniversary. They’re only available for a limited time, unfortunately. “And you might as well buy them now, so our host gets her party credit.” Peggy delivers a literal wink and nudge combo, and Coworker 1 grins gamely, just shy of the level of humility the situation calls for.
The game, it turns out, ends up being a more civilized version of Russian Roulette. It takes just as little skill and activity, and delivers nearly as dire the consequences. Something about the greedy hunger in Peggy’s eyes as she watches our selection from the bowl sets off a warning bell. It reminds me of a fairy tale witch who has poisoned a beverage and performed the arduous psychological warfare required to dupe some young ingénue into taking a sip. Her face is the witch’s face in that moment when cup and shapely lips meet and the ingénue hesitates, a culmination of excitement and fear and longing and overwrought mania.
I ask Peggy politely what I can expect to find on my slip of paper. She bristles and pats at her scalp, which I now know is one of her tells of dishonesty. She tells me I’ll have to take one and find out. A woman from the other end of the couch unrolls hers and says, “Hey, mine says I have to host a Tupperware party now!” The 23-year Tupperware veteran pivots in the direction of the voice like a wild beast surrounded by spear-wielding natives. “You weren’t supposed to read it yet!”
Another voice chimes in, “so does mine!” And another: “Mine says I won a Sandwich Keeper set!”
Peggy appears to use a number of learned coping mechanisms to calm herself down before speaking again. She tells us the premise of the game—to cash in the “prize” on your chosen slip of paper, which might be a product for organizing our pantries that retails for $49, or a selection from the Prize Bin (itself a piece of old Tupperware, housing other pieces of Tupperware ephemera leftover from 23 years of parties—a clementine peeler, a pill sorter, a salad dressing container, a spaghetti server that isn’t even Tupperware brand), or the “opportunity” to host your own Tupperware party. “But keep in mind, Ladies,” she says, “any of you can host the next party. You just let me know and I will set up everything for you.”
I quickly calculate the odds that the paper I choose will hook me up with a free FridgeSmart set and not saddle me with another party. The prize bin is brought to the center of the group and one woman even reaches in and takes the pill sorter. Before Peggy can stop her, she holds up her paper in haughty justification of her entitlement to a prize. Peggy tells the rest of us to hold onto our papers without looking at them until the game officially begins. She is still hovering, foisting the bowl upon me and shaking it in my face. It looms larger than it should as though seen through a fisheye lens. The bowl is riddled with landmines, I determine, and without doing any actual math, I conclude that the potential costs aren’t worth it.
“I’ll pass,” I say. Peggy is confused, understandably distracted by the mutiny unfolding around her as another woman makes a pass at the clementine peeler. She thrusts the bowl again. She and the Puffy Paint Sweater woman to my left are both growing impatient—I can’t tell if it’s so we can expedite the end of the party or if Sweater Lady is merely keen on games of chance, athirst with the potential to own the non-Tupperware-branded spaghetti server.
I explain to Peggy that I’d like to opt out of the game, and the room grows quiet at the prickling of their drama antennae. “You can’t just opt out,” she says finally. “It’s just a game.” I had long ago learned to fear anything described as just a game. I tell her that I understand and that I’d like to politely decline. Another guest makes the case that if one person gets to decline participation, the option should be opened to everyone. The person who won the opportunity to host a Tupperware party chimes in that she’d like, in retrospect, to also opt out. Coworker 2 and I exchange a look. The room is plunged into a frenzy of anarchical discontent; Coworker 1 can only be described as shell-shocked. I half expect Peggy to remove her wig in preparation for a physical confrontation, but she manages to maintain composure and eventually brings the room to order. After a bout of negotiation, we manage to persuade Peggy’s reluctant acquiescence on the matter of opting out. But only some people are allowed to opt out, and even then an unspoken ratio of opting out vs. in must not be surpassed because, and I quote, the game will not be fun if no one is playing it.
Anyone who has looked at their slip of paper is required to remain in the game. Those who have picked from the prize bowl will keep their prizes. The winner of the Sandwich Keeper will keep both her prize and many decades’ worth of future sandwiches. The unfortunate soul who will play host to the next party will remain in the game and, as it will eventually turn out, remain in indentured servitude to the Tupperware brand for months to come. When she tries to reason her way out of it (“I have no friends and family,” and “I can’t host at my house,” and “I’m too busy this month”), Peggy has an answer tailored to each excuse. There is now way out.
I am allowed to abstain, mainly for the logistical circumstance of not having chosen a paper yet. Barbaric as she is, Peggy will not resort to violent force, even when it affects her commission, and I respect this about her personality. Coworker 2, at the facial pleading of Coworker 1, remains in the game. Engaged Cousin and Grandma select slips of paper almost haughtily, like they’re patriots eating a national delicacy that I, a barbaric imperialist, have just deigned to insult.
When the bowl has made its rounds and everyone except me and an approved ratio of fun-haters has chosen a slip of paper, Peggy claps her hands and smiles. When she does, her lips retreat even further inward, as if even they are ashamed at the philistine things they’re expected to smile for. “One by one now. Let’s reveal what we each won!”
Three different people win three disparate chip and dip sets. A few more get to pick from the prize bowl. One person is instructed to steal another’s prize. The Sandwich Keeper, in an unexpected and cruel turn of events, is separated from its original owner. Another gets an IOU for a batch of Peggy’s 3-Layer Chili Dip (“You’ll just have to stick around a little later after everyone else leaves”), and two others are added to The List no one wants to be on. Peggy pulls out a pocket calendar and schedules their parties right then and there while Sandwich Keeper lady fights with Other Sandwich Keeper Lady. Chip Lady and I lock eyes and exchange a knowing smile. She has abstained from playing as well. I’d like to grab a beer with her some time, but I never will.
In the frenzy of activity I haven’t noticed what Coworker 2’s prize is. She has won the opportunity to host her own party.
“I’m so sorry,” I begin when she returns from penciling herself into Peggy’s calendar. She insists that it’s fine; she isn’t mad. I offer to buy her the lidded ice cube trays she’s had her eye on. She says no, she’ll buy them herself. I offer to bring her a handful of Cheetos, to make her some 3-Layer Chili Dip some time, to hand over the penguin water bottle that will come with my Animal Water Bottle Complete Set. She says no.
“Just promise you’ll come to my party,” she says.
I cannot promise that.