In your mind's eye, take yourself back to the worst double-date you've ever had. Most of them are bad, but go to the one that most perfectly captures the horrifying awkwardness of being trapped with your partner alongside two other people who hate themselves, each other, probably you, and/or the world. Thirty minutes of my wife and I sitting silently across the kitchen table, emoting with our eyes as our cribbage partners devolved into a drunken screaming match over whether or not she had to take his last name when they married; that is the feeling captured in this photo of the latest Trudeau-Trump tete-a-tete.
What is international diplomacy but the highest-stakes couples dinner of them all? Canada and America are neighbours that share a backyard fence. Imagine you are the prime minister and you live in a small rustic cottage on the shore of Lake Superior, in the shadow of a gaudy McMansion wherein dwells an extremely dumb but powerful asshole. You share a property line and you are obligated to be friends with this guy, even though he keeps threatening to cancel the annual neighbourhood block party and also set everyone's house on fire. There is no way out of this, so every other month you have to visit his house and try to convince him not to ruin your life. Today you're bringing your wife along for backup.
Melania Trump has been working away in the kitchen all day to make sure the meal is perfect. Once upon a time she would have cooked this because she loved it, and because Donald's idea of cooking is burning the fuck out of frozen french fries and well-done steak. But now this has become a grim and joyless affair, another rote and meaningless role in the lopsided division of domestic labour. Attentively curating the roast brussel sprouts to the soundtrack of her husband yelling profanity at the television in another room like the bastard son of Stan Kowalski.
Relief comes when the doorbell rings. It's the Trudeaus from next door, and they've brought mid-range bottles of both red and white. Melania greets them at the door and invites them inside, only to have Donald barge past her to slap Justin on the back and go in for an uncomfortable lingering hug with Sophie. Oblivious to the awkwardness, Donald beckons them all into the dining room where they will participate in the most awkward evening of their adult lives.
It is an elegantly minimal dinner of roast sprouts, rosemary chicken, and mashed potatoes. Donald slathers the chicken and potatoes in ketchup and wolfs it down, pushing the vegetables aimlessly around the plate. There is small talk and it is horrible. Melania is silent as the grave and every time Sophie tries speaking to Donald he responds by speaking directly to Justin and only Justin because the men are talking now, sweetie. Sophie groans inwardly; oh, it's one of these nights.
Donald turns the conversation into a fishing expedition; "Maybe we will just walk away from NAFTA, who knows what will happen?"
"You know, you people are so famously open, so those refugees are your problem now, I'm sure you don't mind."
"It's not like we have many options on the table left with North Korea, if you know what I'm saying."
Is he looking to get compliments, or to get a rise out of me? Justin isn't sure but he is careful not to give the man either. He thanks Melania for a lovely dinner and offers to help clear the table.
"No, they'll take care of that," Don waves him away. "Come out to the living room, I'll get you a drink and we'll get down to business." Justin shoots his wife an apologetic look before following his host out of the room.
But talking with the man is useless, as Justin soon discovers. Instead of making any real headway on anything that mattered, they wind up disinterestedly drinking scotch while Don replays positive news stories about himself he's saved on TiVo. Justin mostly smiles and nods; all the real work is happening behind the scenes, and his job is just to keep this guy from going totally postal. This is painful, but easy. It's just like managing a toddler. You let him get excited and gush to you about what his Lego men did that day and eventually you put him down for a nap.
It's almost endearing, you know—how enthusiastic the man gets whenever he sees his name on a news chyron. It doesn't even really matter if it's bad news. He's like a kid in a thermonuclear candy store.
Back in the kitchen, the women work in pallid silence. "You look lovely tonight, by the way," Sophie lies quietly to break the silence. "This was nice. It's so rare we get to see each other, even though we live so close. You know, if you ever need anything…"
Melania turns toward her with a plaster smile. "Oh, I'm fine. Thanks." It falls to pieces as she turns away.
They put the last of the dishes away and join their husbands in the den. Justin is immediately relieved. He stands up from his seat and feigns a yawn. "You know, it's late. We really should be going." Sophie nods emphatically.
For a split second, dejection flashes across Don's face. He doesn't want these people to go, this captive audience to go, because the performance—the bullshitting—is the only place he feels alive. But it is only flash. "Oh, of course. Let me show you out."
They step outside the house and line up before the cameras. Justin Trudeau, implacably self-assured even as his awkwardly long pants obscure the novelty socks no doubt meticulously tailored for the occasion. Donald Trump, the ur-oaf in an ill-fitting suit, pointing his finger at Trudeau like he's bellowing the same "this guy… this fuckin' guy, lemme tell you…" as every other asshole frat boy who has ever traipsed upwards through life on the backs of others. Melania Trump receding ever inwards behind that thousand-yard stare, stiff, alert, and utterly dead inside. Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, grinning frantically, through the overwhelming desire to escape this situation and the visceral relief that she might never have to speak to this awful man again.
Then they take this photo.
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