The ballroom is filled with black and white, glitter and red, like a star strewn sky bleeding silk scarves and paper planes. Partygoer’s faces beam, smiling moons circling in pairs along the dance floor. He makes his way through this galaxy of merriment, nudged by unseeing shoulders, his steps uneven to avoid the trampling of polished heels. It is not a night to be alone. Most nights aren’t. But tonight with the brass band blare, it makes it impossible to hear one’s own thoughts. It is a night for communicating with smiles and fingertips and perhaps silent tongues.
For now he is lost in the thick of a human asteroid belt. He has never been fond of crowds. He remembers standing on the subway platform waiting for her. It was early January, the air chill and the snow and year still fresh. But not for them. They knew they were near the end, but they knew too that they could stretch it on for a few more months, surrender to their apathy, to the fear of being alone. After all there was still comfort to be had. Things weren’t all bad. They could still make love, each lost in their own pleasure. It would no longer be about the other’s movements, the other’s touch, the other’s rise. He would hold on, try to wait for her out of ego, out of pride, and sometimes he would succeed and it would be one less thing she could hold against him, one less fault or failure in the long list that would be his.
Cone hats read “Happy New Year”, held with thin pink rubber bands that pinch lines in the cheeks of wearers. Cheap paper cones on expensively coiffed hairdos, a stampede of bourgeois corner dunces. He continues to plow his way through.
They held on until March. By then the lovemaking had ceased, conversations were dull and meaningless. They were co-workers in the white walls of their apartment. In the mornings, sitting and drinking their teas, the rustle of a paper was enough to grate the other. But they were beyond arguing, their contempt lived in the silences. They would stay out late to avoid each other. Whichever one of them arrived home first would feign sleep when the next arrived. They would take turns and it was an act of mercy.
He was a good man, she had told him, and others had told him too. He wondered if it was true though; a million transgressions of thought, the secrets behind small kisses. Was he a good man, or just discreet? Perhaps discretion was the better part of valour. Did valour mean anything anymore? His parting with Miriam was a formal one. He kissed her pale forehead on the sidewalk and it felt of wax. She simply looked at him. There was no attempt to smile, no notion to cry. He had left long ago, this was merely a symbolic act, but there was no emotion on her face. That face he could have read so well before was a mask to him.
Someone grabs his arm in the crowd and he turns. A man, just another smiling face, greets him, pumps his hand and shouts seasonal trivialities that are lost in the din but all so standard they are echoed from all around him, waves crashing upon waves of hen-clucked best wishes. The man introduces him to his party; a stout Mrs. Santa Claus, a gold-dyed cadaver of a woman who threatens to swallow him with her eyes, and the cadaver’s husband. He says his silent greetings and steels himself against a round of exchanges before excusing himself. He pushes back out into the crowd, a ship bereft of compass.
He lost his way after Miriam – before really. He wouldn’t get trapped again. The idea of commitment to one woman was equivalent to suffocation. To think of that slow death, the life slowly stifled from caring, absorption. For several months there were only one night stands. He would fall in love for one night at a time. The girls changed, the love affair was between him and the female form, the feminine spirit and he celebrated the different forms it took. He could convince himself that he loved each and every one of them, even transiently. It was a selfish love and yet it was also selfless, since he took so little, did not need to be loved in return but only desired.
It changed when he met Lena. He would like to be able to say that he knew it at once, that he recognized in her something different, but it wasn’t that way. He was drawn to her only as another representation of that feminine beauty. She was something of a pixie, with her short brown hair and sharp-cornered smile. She was what he would call “charming.”
He seeks her out now in the crowd, somewhere lost amid the faces, the bodies swaying and rocking around him. He thinks he makes her out, the short brown hair and thin form in a red dress and he fights his way forward. But as he reaches a few feet away he recognizes his mistake and scans the crowd again for her.
It was late September when he had arrived with a friend, a girl, one of the few he had made an exception for; he had slept with her twice and was here with her tonight in anticipation of a final rendezvous. Already on the lookout, he found himself talking to Lena all night. She was smart, perceptive. His date had showed signs of annoyance, but it didn’t faze him. Lena treated him with a streak of disdain, but was unable to hide their chemistry, her interest in him. They sparred in their conversation. He said things purely to antagonize her and though she knew it was his intention, she could not resist the urge to defend her points, to engage him further and challenge him in return.
It was this challenge that drew him in. It wasn’t that other girls had not challenged him, but there was something in the full presence of her curiosity, without invitation in her eyes, that made him feel studied and suddenly aware of himself. It dawned on him only in time; whereas with the other’s he wanted to know them intimately (drawn on by their intellects and ways), with Lena there grew the desire for her to know him as well, to not only know him but to approve of him and who he was.
It wasn’t until November that he was able to get her to agree to meet him. Each occasion they had gone out was on a pretext because she would not initially agree to go on a date with him. They became ‘friends’. Her term, though she knew he wanted more and was not resistant to his flirtations though she wouldn’t allow anything further. But she was softening to him over time, even as he softened, found himself thinking of her in ways he had not thought of a woman in some time; wondering how she would look in the morning waking beside him. His thoughts did not focus on the act of love making but the small acts of intimacy which would surround it, picturing conversations over a morning cup of coffee.
Things changed when she invited him to her family’s for Christmas. The invitation he knew was partly because she felt sorry for him. She was disarmed there and disarming. Hugging her knees on the couch, she smiled at him as he opened his present. Looking up he caught her and she didn’t hide, she was soft and open. He wanted to kiss her as he departed but restrained himself, settling for a press of his lips against her tousled crown. She pressed her cheek to his shoulder as they embraced.
He spots her back at a distance as the crowd’s drone rises to a pitch. Certain this time when he sees her profile, he begins an eager push forward. The music fades and he is about to call out to her when the voice blares on the speaker and then the crowd conspires in unison.
“Ten! Nine! …”
He had asked her to accompany him for New Years, to be his date. She had hesitated. Their friends were all going, she assured him she would see him here. She had. She had brought no other date. His old flame was there and eyed him disdainfully. “He’s with me,” Lena had stated, taking his arm, in what amounted to a challenge. No more was said.
He is baring closer but the crowd seems to squeeze tighter around him.
They danced. He held her and she rested lightly in his arms saying nothing. It was comfort, it felt natural. A head shorter than him, she rested her cheek against his chest but he could not see her face turned out towards the crowd. Afterwards he had gone to the bar and savoured the intense internal stir.
She laughs, so close now, but still unaware of him two bodies deep behind her.
“Two! … One! …”
He reaches out, his fingers pass an inch from her hand, but miss the grasp.
“Happy New Year!!!”