The party was shaping up to be tons of fun. Lose, relaxed. Music was pumping through the space. A vivid sense of decoration tilted the evening towards overdrive. There was for instance a thick layer of dry leaves everywhere inside the apartment. It was not a Halloween party, thank the good Lord, but simply a birthday party and so the sense of menace that Julia always felt at Halloween parties was mercifully quiet.
The location of the party, a former nunnery, lent itself to the dark and bizarre. At various points as Julia and her well-appointed girlfriends climb the slate steps she is tempted to turn back. What if her friend Sybil, her ride home, hooks up with someone and leaves her stranded? Or, despite the caveat on the bottom of the invitation, gifts are indeed expected? And the dim lights illuminating the staircase suddenly turn off plunging her into darkness, leaving her to slowly grope her way down the steps one at a time?
She swallows her fears and continues upstairs. Julia notices as she trails behind her girlfriends that they’re emitting a lively, frisky vibe. Once inside she too is enveloped in the boundless warmth, wit, a quickening of names, references, people doing things. She loses track of her friends. Dimly she registers Sybil’s loud laugh cutting through the pounding bass line of a song she heard last at the gym and heads off in the opposite direction, the kitchen.
She hangs by the dessert table catching the crumbs of other people’s adventures. Mid-conversation, a glass shatters and she grabs the dustpan to help with the clean-up which is challenging given the thick layer of dry leaves. The man who is sweeping up the broken glass shards is having a hard time of it and yells to a dog who wanders towards them to get out. He says it with such authority that Julia naturally assumes that he’s the dog’s owner. But he’s not. She bends down to rest the lip of the dustpan against the chipped green titled floor so that he can easily sweep the accumulated glass and stray leaves into the dustpan and wonders if this man is glancing down her blouse and can see her nipples. She looks up blushing but he’s clearly intent on completing the job as efficiently as possible. He’s an efficiency type. Probably a software programmer or civil engineer.
None-the-less he extends his hand to her to help her up once the job is done. And she appreciates this kind gesture. They fall into an easy conversation and that’s when she learns that the dog isn’t his and that he’s just passed the bar on the first try. He says it with such pride that it hurts to look at him too directly. He jokes about the level of debt he’s assumed to get to this point, but quickly adds that his parents are on board to help him until he gets on his feet. Julia’s ears quicken when she hears that phrase “on my feet” certain that his Mom or Dad probably used those exact words to couch their offer of financial support.
As he hooks the broom back on the wall she catches a glimpse of his tight abs and wonders what it would be like to spend a long night with him or better yet a winter. It’s coming. Julia can feel the cold air pricking her neck when she steps outside with him to smoke a joint. Her hand trembles slightly as she reaches for the burning roach. She can feel a hot flash coming on. The flooding heat traveling up towards her face. In a minute she’ll be beet red, sweaty and so she’s grateful for the darkness. Conversation drifts and dies away. He heads back inside. Always polite.
For a moment she feels like a crossing guard befriending a first grader. She heads back inside, stoned now, vaguely embarrassed, searching the room for someone closer to her in age.
There is no one save for her girlfriends who form a tight cluster in the corner. She can second-guess the flow of their conversation, the pointed remarks about the lack of fashion and elegance on display.
Without notifying her friends, Julia seeks out the hostess, thanks her cordially for a lovely night. The hostess, who works two cubicles away from her, looks confused, almost flummoxed. And that’s when Julia realizes that the invitation was probably a formality, a kindness to a seemingly lonely co-worker.
She could so easily stuff herself inside the dark busy anthill, the place she retreats to after disappointing dates and fractious family gatherings. But instead she heads towards the door.
Outside on the slate steps, the dim light holds true. Julia allows the night to fill her lungs like cool lemonade on a hot summer day, relishing the ease of her own company.