“…and I did not know what went on behind their eyes.”
A young man leans against the black granite balustrade that separates the parking lot from the grounds of the Mert Hotel in the NoHo neighborhood of Manhattan. Behind him, there is a drop off and, past carpets of sedge grass that look not unlike the tufts of green-yellow hair that rise from the crown of his own head, the black granite octagon that is the hotel. It is built all in granite, single-pane windows set at random intervals in its walls, and bears no resemblance or relation to any architecture elsewhere in the city. This is, of course, why people like it, or say they like it. See it there, this great obsidian chateau and its grounds, shimmering in its absurd gardens. See it there, a thing meant for another place in another time, either long ago or long from now, glowing in the tangerine sun of this late afternoon in July.
The young man looks up at this sun from where he has been looking at his phone. He is very hot, standing atop all this black, and he can feel the sweat beginning to collect where sweat collects. He looks down the length of the balustrade and at the bands of heat plainly visible there. He is smoking a cigarette and he looks at that, puffs at it, looks again. He tries to focus on the nicotine, willing it to cool him, but it does not cool him. He drops the butt to the black granite pathway, where it lands just next to his white leather boot and he raises the toe and pivots and brings it down to smother the last burning leaves, then he shucks his hips up from the balustrade and walks back through the parking lot from where he has just come. In his pocket, he fingers the key to the car, which is a Mercedes AMG G63, a one hundred and forty thousand dollar car. The door makes no noise as it opens and no noise as it closes. He presses the button to start the engine then sets the air to the coldest then sits.
After a while, he runs both his hands up and down the length of his thighs twice, the moisture of the palms making a squeaking noise on the leather jogging pants he wears. He leans to the glove compartment and inserts the key and opens the door and retrieves the paper-wrapped bundled. He holds it up to his face, sniffs at it then extends his tongue slightly out of his mouth and drabs the bundle once against it. The moisture leaves a black-brown imprint on the tan paper and the young man, whose name is Vincent, laughs at this then folds the package into his leather bomber jacket and presses the car off and gets out. He walks quickly over the hot stone, descending the stairs and going up the path through grass and through the glass doors of the hotel, which open without anyone to open them.
He checks into his suite and goes there and lays the package on the granite-topped table set before the wall of windows. He opens one of the sliding glass doors that lead out onto the balcony. In the bathroom, he washes his face in the granite basin. He readjusts the tuft of his hair but it falls back into place the way it’s been cut. He goes back into the room and sets his hands on the table, one on either side of the package, and leans there, looking down.
Yep, he says, and sits and undoes the tape that secures one corner of the package and unwraps it. He removes a knife from his jacket and punctures the plastic wrap beneath and dumps the contents onto the table. He goes back into the bathroom and washes his face again and puts his jacket over the back of the desk chair as he returns and sits.
Well, he says, and uses a credit card to cut two fat lines from the little dune that the powder has formed on the table. He does them then sits back and swivels as his waist and retrieves from his jacket another packet: a quart-sized plastic Ziploc bag containing many more, much smaller plastic bags. He pours the baggies onto the table then cuts the paper that had been wrapped around the bundle into a smaller rectangle then forms this into a funnel and secures it with the tape. He places one of the baggies below it, wrapping its mouth around the opening at the bottom of the paper funnel. He uses one hand to hold this arrangement just under the side of the table so the funnel’s lip underhangs the table top, while the other works the credit card through the dune above. He eyes out a gram portion of the powder and sweeping it into the funnel then taps it with forefinger taps so that the powder cascades in a tiny avalanche down the paper and into the waiting bag. Carefully, he raises the arrangement to eyelevel and removes the bag from the funnelmouth and closes it before placing another baggy in its place and repeating.
When he’s done, he takes out his phone. On it are messages regarding the birthday party that he is throwing himself in the ballroom of the Mert. It begins in three hours and is in honor of his twenty-third year on the earth. He types, sends. He orders champagne and it arrives and he pours it and sips and sips more. Outside, the sky has darkened into a neon pink. If there were, at this hotel, a pool and places for children to play and for families to sit, there would be laughter rising to the open window of Vincent’s hotel suite but there are none of these things.
Here, at the Mert, is just Vincent and his snow-white dune and plastic baggies and the granite and, soon, his friends.
Rachel has repositioned the tab of acid around her mouth in order to talk to the bartender, who she finds attractive because of his slim face. She orders a rum and coke and thanks him and puts a dollar in the glass fishbowl that sits off to the side of the linen-topped bar. He thanks her back and winks and she turns and sets her elbows on the bar and rearranges her blouse so that it falls correctly over her chest and composes the ruffles of her skirt just so, then she looks out to see what can been see.
In a corner, her boyfriend, David, playing poker at the makeshift casino tables, his big football player’s body folded up into the little chair. Surrounding him and encircling the table are his fraternity brothers, here for this weekend from Los Angeles. He is the only of them to have come east, a fact for which he has received, over the course of the weekend, endless ribbing from his fratbrothers.
“New York is just so…” And each has trailed off, omitting the word. But they haven’t needed the word and, each time this has been said, everyone has slapped his back and laughed.
Rachel is the why he has come east.
In another corner, she sees Jess standing by the sushi tables. She is alone and looking up at the granite ceiling, which is pockmarked with little disks of lights. These alternate red, yellow, green and brown. Jess’ dress is white and frilly and looks like a wedding dress. Rachel thinks that Jess told her earlier that she took mushrooms: she looks likes she’s taken mushrooms. Rachel follows with her own eyes the path of Jess’s eyes to the specific lightdisc that she is studying. Rachel wonders what she is seeing. She begins to call out to here but because of the din of the music and the people who fill the room, there is not hope of being heard. She sets off, through these people, in Jess’ direction.
When she takes her hand, Jess doesn’t look from the lights. Nor does she look away as Rachel brings her over to a table off to the side.
“What do you see?” Rachel yells and points.
“Turtles.” Jess, looking at Rachel for just a moment. “My father dancing with turtles. And waves. My father dancing on the backs of turtles in the waves.”
Rachel shrugs and takes a long pull of her drink and retracts a chair and sits. There are two men dressed in matching polka-dot jumpsuits sitting at the far curve of the table and they eye Rachel suspiciously. Rachel nods to them in confirmation then raises her drink in toast.
“She sees turtles.”
The boys commence again their close-talking. Rachel can feel the acid building in her lower back. She kicks off her heels and flexes her toes, setting her feet on the granite floor and feeling the warmth that isn’t there but feels as if it’s there. She drinks again and the coke in her drink tastes metallic. She reaches up to touch her face, which feels drawn too tight. The makeup she wears feels sandy, gritty.
“What?” But Jess hasn’t said anything. Jess is looking now at Curtis, whom Rachel is pretty sure Jess said she’s slept with. Last week. Rachel’s not sure though: she’s too warm and fuzzy to be sure.
“What?” She says again but Jess is gone. She has joined Curtis and is kissing his neck and rubbing hers hip against his hip. Rachel looks at the dancing crowd, the lines of their bodies dipping and curving. She sees a girl waving a green clutch over her head. She waves at no one in particular, at the party in general, and the clutch turns into what looks like a lizard but might be a cat. Rachel’s vision passes beyond this and she sees John, hiding strangely behind a group of soldiers. He looks too tan and looks blue then purple. This upsets Rachel and she stands then sits down again. There is something wrong with the cushion of the chair. No, not the cushion. Her clothes: they feel gritty against her thighs, like the makeup. She stands and moves quickly away, as if her outfit won’t follow her.
She is waylaid on the dance floor by Stephanie, who hugs her. They laugh, Rachel forgetting her skirt. Stephanie is taking something from one pocket of her overalls and slipping it into Rachel’s hand.
Rachel slips it back. “I’ve already got some.”
Stephanie laughs again and flings the paper tab over the heads of the riot around them.
They dance arm-in-arm, doing slow turns even though the music is frantic music. Stephanie’s hair feels like peppermint against Rachel’s face and she likes this but then she turns from her and melts into the crowd. People begin to touch Rachel at random and the faces seem twisted. She’s unsure where she is.
“Hi,” a boy yells at her.
“No,” she yells back.
Later, Rachel is dancing and she thinks David is there, but she can’t be sure. Then she is kissing a boy whose name she doesn’t know and doesn’t care to know. He rubs his chest against her chest and it feels good. It feels like a warm summer day on warm summer sand, a day spent with her mother and father in Hawaii when she was still a girl and they were still together and her sister was still there. She looks down at him and sees the flash of lights off leather shoes and off sand-blonde hair. He doesn’t, however, seem to have a sandy personality, but maybe he does. He feels like money and indecision.
Now, she is on the balcony of a hotel room. She is smoking a cigarette and there is a boy leaning on the railing, rolling a spliff. For a moment, she doesn’t remember who he is but then she does remember. He is naked to the waist, the bottom of his leather pants pulled up over his calves so it looks like he is wearing capri pants. She tries to remember how she got here and why she’s here but he is shimmering before her now and she forgets.
He says, after a while, “Love it, love it.” Then hands over the spliff and a lighter then goes inside.
The spliff is poorly rolled and hits hard. Rachel rarely smokes but it feels like an action befitting the moment so she puffs and looks out at the buildings that enclose the open grounds of the Mert like a fence or the stage design of a play.
She decides that what she really wants is another cigarette but she doesn’t know where the first one came from. Vincent reappears, shirted again, and she holds up the spliff to him and he looks at it as if it were a beetle set on fire.
“Sure, sure.” He laughs. “Why not, why not?”
He smokes and passes her the spliff again and she puffs twice then returns it. He asks her if she’s having a good time and she says yes. He asks her how she’s been and she says fine. Then he laughs and tells her that she has a great ass. Those are the words he uses: great and ass. She hears her mouth say thank you, though she doesn’t mean thank you then she says, “My boyfriend says it’s too white.” He doesn’t say this but…
Vincent looks at her from what seems like a great distance. After a while, he says, “Your boyfriend, yes. David.”
He holds out the spliff to her again but she turns it down and he retracts it back from the length of his arm, holding it in both hands up to his face like a prize.
Rachel stands and thanks him and raises the shoulders of her blouse though they don’t need raising and says, “Goodbye.”
She is almost to the door when she stops. She isn’t wearing her underwear. She turns slowly back to Vincent there on the balcony. For a moment, it seems that he is twirling her underwear around his raised forefinger but then she sees that it is actually a cigarette. It takes some crawling and some furniture lifting but eventually she finds them, those little slivers of cloth, and places them into her crocodile purse, which she had also forgotten but found. She sits on the side of the bed and sets her high heels upright, each against each, and tucks her toes into them. Then she sets out from the hotel room to find a boy named David.
As she walks, the walls of the hallway move like horizontal waterfalls, falling towards her. The ceiling and floors float away. She does not look back.
John stands half-hidden by a group of men dressed as Ionic columns. He is watching Stephanie make here way through the dancers. He sees her dark-haired head pass behind heads, there then gone then there again. He takes in her walk, her hips, the way she moves with her chest back. He steps out from his cover to better watch her. Above him, a brown ceiling light now catches his face and auburn shadows fall from his brows so that he looks like a camp counselor with flashlight overhead instead of below chin, ghost story paused.
Just as she passes behind the poker table, she makes a turn away from him. His vision tries to break through the square-shouldered players and watchers but fails and his eyes fall instead on the players themselves and he inspects them. Perhaps they feel his watching, because one-by-one they all look up, like deer raising their heads from grazing when the presence of a predator is felt. But these are not deer: these are strong-jawed men and these jaws are set and their eyes are dark as these eyes make contact with John’s. He turns away and ducks down a hall, passing to the bathroom, thinking he’ll find Vincent there but he isn’t there.
Vincent has just given two baggies to Jeremiah and is making his way to the bar. With one hand, he folds the money into a little triangle then places it in the pocket of his shirt. In the other hand, he has a glass of champagne that has gone warm but not too warm. He sips and sips it again. As he passes through people, he is offered high fives, which he returns, handshakes as well. He hugs a girl whose name he doesn’t remember then reaches the bar. He asks for a rum and coke but then changes his order to a new champagne then he turns and places his elbows on the bar.
David appears beside him and shoulders him hello. “Man of the hour.”
“What hour is that?”
David takes out his phone and looks at it. “Ten pm.”
“Only ten to eleven?”
“Is that the only hour in in which I’m the man?”
Devin nods and grins. “No, sir. All of the hours.”
David shoulders him again. “How are you, buddy?”
Vincent tells him he’s good, high.
“Hey, here are my brothers. They’re visiting for the weekend, out from LA.” David sweeps his arm over group of five or ten young men who all look the same to Vincent. One, the biggest, gives him thumbs up, which Vincent takes to be sarcastic.
“You have a lot of brothers,” he says to David.
“You’re working tonight?” David points at Vincent’s jacket pockets, at what he knows it there.
“A working birthday.”
“Good man. I’m good though, thank you.”
Vincent hadn’t offered and he grunts.
David points at Rachel, who is talking to Stephanie on the dance floor, and waves but Rachel doesn’t see. Vincent doesn’t wave. He isn’t looking at Rachel. He is looking beyond her, at Jess, at the far side of the room. She is looking up at the ceiling and twirling slowly, her white dress cascading about, her head rotating more slowly, eyes held on the lights until the last minute when she snaps her head around to begin the rotation anew.
“Well, man.” David pats Vincent’s elbow.
“Yeah, yeah.” He says. “Thanks.”
David disappears and Vincent continues watching Jess. He fingers first the car key in his pocket then one of the baggies there. He raises the champagne and takes it in a gulp and turns and asks again for the rum and coke. The bartender hands him the drink then winks.
“Yeah, yeah, how many?”
Vincent tells him the price and tells him to put the money under a cocktail napkin and on the table. The bartender does so and, in a movement imperceptible, Vincent flings two of the baggies up over the bar. They take a great arch over all that is there then fall perfectly into the bartender’s cupped hands.
“Thanks,” the customer begins to say but the young man is already gone, the cocktail napkin wrapped around his drink, the money already in a tiny triangle, tucked away with the rest of the triangles.
He passes as quickly as possible through the drunk and dancing bodies. More greetings are offered and he nods to them all. The room is hot and not just a little oppressive. He feels the thudding of the music in the joints of his legs and arms. He sniffs a little drip back into his nose, down his throat. He sips the drink and ducks his head against the faces around him, which all seem too angular in this light, as if they have been hewn from rocks by an amateur mason.
He is halfway to Jess when he stops. There is a buzzing at his temples that doesn’t feel right: he needs more but the bathroom seems a long way away. He drinks from the straw and the plastic feels oily in Vincent’s mouth. The drink tastes like nothing. He bites and lifts the straw and spits it down to the floor. He continues forward.
“Did you come here to get married?”
Jess doesn’t look down from the lights when Vincent says this. He leans in closer and repeats, louder. Now, she jolts.
“Vincent, oh hey, Vincent, hi.” She hugs him and totters a little then stands. “What’s that?”
He quotes himself: “Did you come here to get married?”
She raises her head slightly and laughs—dainty motion, dainty sound—and swims her dress in a figure eight using both her hands. “How are you? Happy birthday.”
“Thank you.” He is looking down at his drink. “How are you?”
“It’s a great party. So much fun. So many people. They’ve all come for you.”
“You’ve come for me?”
“They’ve all come for you.”
“Yes. Can I get you anything? Do you need anything?”
Jess’ vision has drifted beyond Vincent’s shoulder but then it returns to him. “Me? No, I’m doing lovely.”
“You wouldn’t mind meeting me outside in the garden, the back garden there. There’s no pool but there’s a garden, back there. In, like, twenty minutes?”
Jess turns to look over her shoulder, in the direction that Vincent has nodded. “Me? Of course. I’d love to.”
“Hotels don’t have pools anymore.”
“Of course not.”
“Great. See you then, there.”
Vincent is in the bathroom, doing lines with John. His nose is running after each and he has to tip his head back to make sure the mucous doesn’t drip onto his jacket. As a distraction, he listens to the things that John is saying to him.
“Oye, did you see that girl dancing with Samantha? I’m gunna fuck her tonight. Yeah? Ya dig? For real.”
Vincent grunts and unspools toilet paper and dabs at his nose.
“She’s hot. Father is some shipping magnate, Greek. Rich as God, hisself. I also heard that she’ll do a lot of things in bed, real porn star shit. Ya dig?”
Vincent doesn’t dig. He doesn’t know who he’s talking about and he stops paying attention. He cuts two more lines. For fortification.
After, he pushes the stall door open and tells John a good luck and walks out through the bathroom then up the obsidian hallway, his leather shoes squeaking on the obsidian floor.
When I was six, my father told me his metaphor for life. You, your life, he said, is like a painting of the sea. A painting of the sea is not flat. It is not uniform but made of many small strokes of paint and the image of the sea is the product of all these strokes of paint taken together. These strokes, he said, are like all the experiences of your life and, just as a painted sea is the summation of all these strokes of paint, you are the result of all your experiences taken together. At first, when you look at a painting of the sea, you see only the sea as a whole but then, when you get closer and inspect and go back through time, through the creation of the painting, you begin to see the watercolor sea in all its depth, all its little strokes. Neither exists without the other—the parts of the sea or the sea as its whole—and to know someone, you have to be able to see both of these: the sea, which is the resulting person, and the strokes, which are the experiences—the family and friends and places and trials—that made her that way.
He was, of course, a painter, and when he died, I went through the paintings in his studio that he never sold. There were, of course, many paintings of seas and I took one up and inspected it, each of its strokes, recalling for each a moment I had spent with him, the small fractions of his life which had made him a whole. Or at least the small fractions of his life spent with me. After, I had tried to do it for myself, for all my moments, and I learned a lot about myself then and about what had gone into making my sea. And I had thought that my father was a good man and I had cursed the car and the alcohol and I had made a note to remember his metaphor and to tell it my own kids someday, if I have any.
But then something happened and I was presented with a question that his metaphor gave me no help to answer: what happens when someone comes along and wipes out all that had been your sea, wipes clean all that it had contained and comes to replace it fully so that you feel, no longer like your own sea, but like a boat atop theirs?
I look now at Curtis, standing over by the sushi table. His beautiful face turned so that it sits in profile, a profile so perfect that it seems drawn by a painter who knows how to paint. He wears a white shirt, open perfectly at the collar so that some of his chest shows. Jesus, I think, what a sea. I’m not sure I know how to paint him but I’ll try my hand at painting him anyway—I am, of course, a painter and I have painted lovers before, but never so perfect as this lover. In fact, all I paint is lovers.
I take a deep breath. Jesus, also, to these mushrooms: they are very strong. I look up at the lights set into the ceiling above me. Dots dabbed onto a black canvas…
There is a tug at my arm but I don’t look down. Rachel is there and pulling me somewhere I don’t want to go. She asks me what I see and I tell her but don’t know what I tell her. It doesn’t matter. None of this will matter. She brings me to a table and sits and I keep looking, trying to see what can be seen in the lights. Then I am looking at Curtis again, now walking towards him, now touching his shoulder. He turns his perfect face through the perfect light and smiles. I say something that doesn’t matter and he touches my shoulder and we are embracing. Two seas. Two seas. One sea.
He has to go to the bathroom but he tells me he will be back and I stand there, adrift for a while. I look back up at the lights and I like them. But now there is someone else at my elbow, asking for my attention. Watching the lights must not be allowed at this party.
The person talking to me is Vincent, the party’s honoree. Also, a drug dealer. But not the good kind. He says something about my dress and asks me if I’m having fun and if I need anything. He’s not so bad. But now he’s asking me for something… to meet him outside? In the garden?
“Sure,” I say but I don’t know why. “Sure. Of course. Why not?”
Outside, in the garden, I am walking slowly among the grass. My father hated painting grass.
I can’t capture the movement, he said. But he could capture the movement of the sea. I like painting grass. And I can’t paint seas. That’s strange, don’t you think? Shouldn’t a painter, who can capture one thing truly, be able to capture all things? But, I suppose all things are different so why wouldn’t painting them each be different, take different skills. The mushrooms, the mushrooms are very strong. There is a bush in front of me now and I reach out and touch it very lightly, for stability.
Now, there is a voice behind me. Vincent again. He is saying something to me and I can’t make out. He is asking me the same questions as before—at this party, there are only a few questions available for asking. I try to listen but all I can hear is the gentle summer wind of the summer city rustling the grass behind me. And all I can see is the hotel rising above Vincent’s head. This ugly building of black stone, no definition to it or lines to catch light or curves to provide drama. Just a hulking octagon of money, money in the form of black octagonal stone. Or a licorice bite that has been dropped into bunch of grass by a child. I am looking at it where it rises over Vincent’s head, not unlike a crown atop Vincent’s head. Or a black chef’s hat. I decide that, if I were to paint Vincent, I would paint him with a black chef’s hat. But that is, of course, something I would never paint.
Vincent stands in the doorway that leads out onto the veranda, which looks out over the garden. He sees Jess standing above a plant of some kind, one built of sprigs bristling with green needles, like the arms of a miscolored gorilla. The lights of the surrounding city wash her in a light so beautiful that they appear to be have been arranged for her by some unseen scenographer.
Vincent daps at his nose with the back of a hand and picks his way carefully down the stairs and approaches Jess. She turns as she hears him say her name.
“How are you?”
“I’m great. This is a beautiful garden.” Though it’s not. Mostly it’s just grass and a few spriggy plants.
Vincent tries to think of what more to say. He can feel his body vibrating and his mind undulating. “You look lovely.”
“Me?” Jess does a slow turn away from Vincent, he thinks to highlight for him, her beauty.
His mind races, scrolling through a list of things to say to her: conversation prompts, questions, comments, things that will lead to the saying of more things. He realizes now that this is a mistake, that he is too high to be charming. He feels his phone buzz in his pants and he looks over his shoulder back at the hotel and the customers it contains. Jess seems distracted, or maybe she’s just drunk. He thinks to ask her if she’s drunk but realizes that that’s a bad question. He thinks to ask her if she needs anything but realizes that he’s already asked her that. He begins to sweat, the fabric at the back of his knees sticking to his skin. He looks down at his pants to make sure they’re still on. He wants to escape but not to leave her. He’s accomplished nothing in this. His phone buzzes. The baggies won’t sell themselves. His birthday won’t celebrate itself.
What am I doing out here? He thinks. What am I doing anywhere?
“I have to go,” he says quickly, and turns. He pauses for a moment to see if she will tell him to stay, but she says nothing. She just looks up past him, at the sky or maybe at the glow the city lights in the sky.
He runs away.
Stephanie’s hair feels like peppermint against Rachel’s face but then, without warning, she pulls herself away and disappears into the bodies of the people dancing around them.
“Hi,” a boy yells at her.
“No,” Rachel yells back.
She finds herself at the edge of the dance floor, Curtis standing before her.
“Where’s Jess?” She asks.
Curtis shrugs and looks around. “Your guess is as good as mine. She said she was going to drift. She’s having a good time.”
“Having a good time?”
“What’s a good time?”
Curtis cocks his head. “Pleasure. Is the party giving you pleasure?”
“I guess.” Rachel looks out at the dancefloor. The acid is ricocheting up and down her back in thin, crisscrossing lines. “Yeah, it is.”
David appears. He sets himself before Rachel and his broad shoulders erase her view of the party. She looks up at his face but he is looking at Curtis.
“Hey, there,” David says to Curtis.
“Hello.” Curtis extends a hand and David takes it. “Curtis,” Curtis says.
“I remember. Jess’ Curtis.”
“That’s right. Possession.”
“It’s important. These days.”
Rachel isn’t sure that these are the words being said but they seem to be the words. Or at least the gist of the words. David looks down at her.
“Are you having fun?”
“Pleasure. I’m having pleasure.”
“Good.” He takes her by the arm and brings her to the same corner where she had taken Jess (There is lots of corner-talking at this party). They stand above the same table and the close-talking boys are still there, close-talking each other (Also, a party heavy in close-talking). They look up as Rachel and David arrive and Rachel nods at them again, conspiratorially, as if they know. But they don’t know.
“What?” She says to David.
“I said, ‘are you alright?’”
“Oh yes. Why of course, yes.”
“You seem out of it.”
Rachel hasn’t told him about the acid, which has formed now a solid network of warmth across her back and buttocks like the net of a hammock. A pleasure hammock.
“I’m ok. Drunk, I think.”
“You get drunk pretty easily.”
She looks up at him and feels her face screw up. “Don’t be shitty.”
“I’m not being shitty. Why don’t you spend any time with my friends.”
She thinks for a minute about what lie to tell but then doesn’t tell one. “I don’t like your friends.”
His face darkens. They are standing under a purple light so his darkness is tinged with purple.
“You could try.”
“That’s not how liking works.”
She sees David try to think of what to say. She gives him a moment but then continues, “I would like them if they weren’t so much what they are.”
“What are they?”
“Frat boys. The same frat boys that exist everywhere. Like poorly drawn sketches. Character’s created by a writer who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Or is lazy. They’re clichés.” She says this last words as if it is the worst thing that there is to be, because it is—to her and to most of us.
“They’re my friends.”
“Then you should have spent more time individualizing them.”
“What does that mean?”
“Personalizing them. Giving them backstories. They really are poor characters.” Rachel is speaking very loudly now and the boys at the table have looked up. To them, she says, “Am I right or am I right?”
They just look (They’re not very well developed either).
To David: “As they stand, they are just a ill-defined group and I don’t like groups.” Individualism is very important to Rachel—to her and to most of us. David has kept a hand on her elbow this whole time and she wrenches it away from him and turns.
Over her shoulder, she says, “Leave me out of them.” She takes off at a loping jog, skirting the outside of the dance floor and passing behind the bar and game tables and the frat boys still standing there. They all watch her go.
For a long time, Vincent passes aimlessly through the crowd of partygoers. No, not aimlessly exactly: he has a purpose and he sells many baggies and shakes many hands. Why this is his aim, however, he doesn’t know. He keeps asking himself why. The question why is all that fills his mind. After each thing that is said to him, his response, internally, is why? Externally, all he says is yes, but he means why.
The party is still going strong, the music loud and people still dancing. The sushi is running low but that’s ok. Everyone is too high or drunk to notice. There is only the moving and the drinking. This is the kind of place where these are the only things permitted, these and corner-talking. Why is Vincent’s question.
She is flying through the hotel now, up passageways that seem lit by torches. Her skirt is flowing behind her, the fabric of her blouse billowing about her chest and stomach. The net of acid still cups her back and now she curses it, curses its oppressive pleasure. She has forgotten where she is and what has just happened. All she knows is that she must escape something, as if these hallways are a maze and she is being chased by an ancient monster of some unknown design and loosed upon her by the writer she cannot see but knows is there.
She turns left, now right and the hotel spits her back out into the ballroom, onto the dance floor as if she’d never left. And she is dancing with a boy that she thinks is David, rubbing her chest against his chest. Now, she is in Hawaii with her family when her family was still complete and happy. Now, she is in an elevator, ascending to only we know where.
Now, he has stopped with the baggies. Hands still reach out to him but he has ceased to feed them. Instead, he is searching for Jess. He wants to ask her his question but can’t seem to find her. He thinks he sees her on the far side of the party and is trying to ford the dance floor but the dancer won’t let him pass. They form a wall of hands and all seem to stream towards him, he swinging his arms high up and forward but gaining no ground. If anything being pulled back with the flow of them. He holds a shot of tequila but he doesn’t know where he’s gotten it. He lifts it to his mouth and pours it down.
Maybe, it will give me strength, he things. Like spinach gives Popeye. But it doesn’t. Instead, it makes his eyes water and his whole vision goes wavy. The bodies around him loose their shape, becoming only undulations and eddies around him.
“Ok, ok,” he says aloud, trying to steady himself. He reaches out and takes hold of something. The something is Rachel and she turns towards him. He hugs at her and throws his arms around her as if she is the only thing left not flooded away. She stands stick-straight and accepts him and wraps her arms around him and says something into his ear that sounds like, “I got you.”
Still outside, twirling slowly and looking at stars that are not there but she imagines are there. A figure approaching.
“Hello, beautiful. Do you like what I’ve done with the lights?” He points at the city behind her, then at the sky above. “I’ve done it for you.”
“It’s you who’s done that? I thought it was me. I should have know.” She smiles and flicks her tongue to the corner of her lips. “I like them very much. Do you know what else I’d like?”
“For you to take me out of here.”
“Would you now?”
She smiles. “Very much yes.”
“That can be arranged.” Curtis steps forward and extends his arms, scooping up Jess with arms around her back and behind her knees. He cradles her for a moment then lifts her to him, her face to his face. Lips to lips.
They float there for a moment. See them. A single, white form, framed there by the absurd gardens of this hotel. See them. The granite pathway over which they float falling away, the dying party behind them dying further, the lights of the scenery behind them and of the sky twinkling dark, one by one. Curtis begins to move forward and Jess raises a hand to set against his cheek. She looks out in the direction that Curtis carries her. She is excited to see where this direction leads. She assumes that it will be someplace beautiful, someplace good and we have nothing to suggest that her assumption is wrong.
David stands behind the sushi table looking out over the party. Though most of the rolls are gone, there is still the odd bit and garnish: a bowl of sliced radishes, a mound of tsukemono, some cold rice balls and those who are still visiting the table to pluck up these things have to pass under his gaze and the gaze of his collected frat brothers who stand arrayed on either side of him. They look like an oversized boy band posing for a picture. Except that their faces are not smiling. They are looking for Rachel, a line of eyes sweeping out then back across the dispersing party in a beady-eyed radar.
“I don’t see her.”
“Where’d you say she went?”
“She’ll be back.”
“She should be back by now.”
“I don’t see her.”
She is not there to be seen. All that remains before them are the few remaining revelers, swaying and teetering into and then out from each other.
A curse makes its way down the line.
“Is it that kid Vincent?”
“It can’t be Vincent.”
“We saw them dancing though.”
“Who saw them?”
“Tom and Chris and Jamie.”
“After she ran away from me?” David scans the room again, willing his eyes to see her now, willing her to appear out of they dying debauchery.
“I’m sorry, bro.”
“Sorry for what?”
“She’s not gone.
“I told you…”
“Don’t you even say it.”
“We’ll find her.”
“Find her where?”
The line ripples then settles (if they are deer, they are the most aggressive deer in history. Hunting deer, preparing to hunt).
“No, bro.” The one on David’s right has turned and is placing a hand on David’s shoulder. “We got you.”
And then they are off, rippling through the swaying figures, their arms reaching out to move them aside, their bodies turning sideways as they pass, righting, turning again. David watches them go.
I have just slept with Vincent, whose birthday it is and who I have decided I don’t like. We are in the bed in his hotel room, which is a strange little octagon of a thing with mirror walls, meant to be cool or sexy or something. I can hear the mirrors vibrating with the base of the music from the party below, which isn’t so much a bad party as it is a boring party. But this was a mistake, a mistake. I was only talking to Vincent because I was trying to make Curtis jealous of me. We—me and Curtis—had been talking earlier and he had said something about my dress, which he had meant as a compliment, but afterwards he had been less interested, annoyingly. Thus Vincent.
He’s sleeping face down, no pillow, his arms out straight by his sides, his palms up. All but dead, it seems. He’s not unattractive, actually: dark-featured, dark-haired. Not bad but not great either. What is this hotel room?Only mirrors. Only mirrors and the bed. What the hell? Two nightstands as well but still. I have been to beautiful places and this is not it. This whole thing, the whole room, the whole hotel: tacky. Tomorrow, I’m going somewhere beautiful. Maybe home. At least in Greece, the hotels are easier to understand.
Where are my clothes? A pile at the foot of the bed. I separate mine from the boy’s. Is that a baggie of coke? Yes, it is. That goes in my clutch.
Vincent is stirring and mumbling something that sounds like short me.
He is in fact muscular and rather attractive but I can tell by his clothes that he’s not worth very much money and this makes him less attractive. I take up my phone from the nightstand take a picture of him sleeping there then I open an application and find Curtis’ profile and follow him and then try to think of something sexy to message him. He was wearing beautiful clothes.
“Shit.” Vincent is reaching out in his sleep to grope me where I’ve sat back down on the bed. I take my clothes into the bathroom, wash of the face, run a brush of the hair using the one provided by the hotel. Vincent liked hair pulling. I don’t like hair pulling. Actually, I don’t mind it. For a moment, I look at myself nude in the mirror above the sinks. I smile; most girls are unattractive and I am not one of them. I sit on the toilet and clean myself and try to think of what to say to Curtis. After I wash my hands, I cut some of the cocaine into thin, long lines on the counter top. I do them and the cocaine is good. Thank God. I slip on my underwear, hook my bra, shimmy into my dress and compose myself one last time in the mirror.
Back in the room, Vincent is still asleep and I look at him one last time. Not terrible. I settle on messaging Curtis that I’m not wearing underwear and I go to the door, open it and leave.
Halfway up the hall, there appears a group of frat guys all excited and running over each other to get up the hall. The lead one stops, holding his arms out to his sides to hold back his friends.
“Hey gorgeous, you know where that guy Vincent is?”
“Four twenty-five,” I say and nod up the hallway but don’t look up from where I am typing on my phone
John wakes up and doesn’t know where he is. A full half of his vision is filled by white sheet. The other, by shadow. He flips himself over looks up at the octagonal ceiling of the octagonal room and at the dimmed yellow light that the sconces above his head cast there. He runs the palms of his hands over the top sheet of the bed, warm, ruffled, then he remembers. He turns his head slowly to see her but she isn’t there. He sits up, looks around, curses.
Each wall is a mirror and these click lightly in their settings with the base of the music below. He peers over the end of the bed to see his clothing in a pile, arranged strangely. He curses again and shimmies down to the foot of the bed then off, searching through the pockets of his jeans for his wallet and phone. These he clutches to his naked chest as he toes through the clothing for the baggie. No baggie. One more curse.
Now, there is a new sound coming over the base and the clicking. Something in the hallway, feet or voices or both. He cocks his head at the door, which is also a mirror and is set into the wall before him. He stands and sets his phone and wallet down gently, silently on the bed and goes to the door, opening it the width of a thumb. Voices and feet. He shuts the door then opens it again this time wide enough to poke his head out. Nothing. Wait…
Suddenly, the whole hallway fills with an swarm of thick-necked boys. They’re upon him in an instant. Fingers fitted around the door, pushing it in, causing John to step back, his naked body made nakeder by the harsh light of the hall.
“Vincent,” the lead one says. He says this first to John then again, over his own shoulder back at the rest of the herd.
“John.” John points to himself.
“What do you mean, no?” John is trying to cover his penis with one hand while the other works hopelessly to close the door. The doorway has filled with faces. Some have attempted beards. Others are baby-faced. All are square-jawed and are horrifyingly white.
“Shit is right.”
“I’m not Vincent.”
“A likely story,” a second says.
“Rachel in here?” A third, looking past John.
“A likely story.”
Then they are upon him, one grabbing his shoulder, another his leg and he’s being thrown onto the bed where he bounces up and down before being set upon again. The first punch catches him in the ribs, the second glances his chest, a third connecting with his cheekbone. His head rings. He thinks he is calling out for help but now all he can hear is the ringing and the clicking of the mirrors in their fittings. Click, click, click. The clicks rise in their urgency and their frequency and he wonders what song is causing this. He hopes it’s a good one. He hopes they’re enjoying it, the people below, in their party. He hopes they’re having fun, those assholes.
Rachel has gone and Vincent stands alone on the balcony of his hotel suite.
He can hear the party dying below. He looks out over the gardens and feels the alcohol gurgling in his stomach. He is smoking a cigarette and he looks at its burning tip then beyond it at the carpets of grass below. They wave in the New York night. He flicks the butt out into the dark and follows it to where it falls away into nothing.
There, a figure. A woman. She is wearing white, frilled, not unlike a wedding dress. Now, a second figure making its way up the path towards the woman. He must have said something because she turns and he waves and she smiles. More is said then he is lifting her, her dress blowing in the warm wind and he catching it and pinning its bottom between her thigh and his arm, for modesty. He twirls her in a perfect twirl and then carries her slowly up the path, away from the hotel.
“Yeah,” Vincent says to himself. “Yeah.”
He turns back to the suite and goes inside but doesn’t shut the door. He is very drunk now and high and antsy and defeated. Vincent’s eyes glaze and suddenly he feels the urge to vomit and he rushes to the bathroom and does vomit.
After, he flushes the toilet and stands and takes off all his clothes and walks over to one of the windows. He puts a hand to the glass, feels its warmth, looks beyond to where the sky is coloring over the scenery of the city. The inevitable rise. The inevitable fall. Super imposed over this is the reflection of his face, gaunt now and terrible. He lights another cigarette and watches himself smoke it. He thinks that he’ll go back down, rejoin the fray of the party, or whatever fray is left, but for this he knows he’ll have to put back on his clothes, a thing he doesn’t have the strength to do. His vision falls to the floor below him. Granite. All this fucking granite. His vision narrows until it is just a square of blackness and, in that blackness, dust blown in from the open door, a cigarette butt, a roll of sushi, a dune of drugs, a car key, a poker chip, a pair of woman’s shoes, a children’s toy, a hooker, a bag of blow, a sunrise, a purple light. Then, it all floats away.
The next morning, he takes a cold shower and runs his hands wet through the tuft of sedge grass hair at the crown of his head. He dresses in a black suit and black tie, checked with white lines. There is a stack of bills sitting on the table, so thick that it can’t be folded. He secures them on either end with rubber bands he keeps around his wrist then slips the bundle vertically into a little compartment that he’s sewn into the front of his boxer shorts. He zips the pants and does the button and the belt.
He thinks of nothing as he does these things: they are the movements of something mechanical, something dead. Something that should not be but is and always will be. See him there, in his absurd hotel suite, shining in the first rays of the city’s sun. See him go to the door and open it. See him look back once then leave.
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