It's high midnight and I'm up to my old tricks again.
Bes came by my apartment last night, ostensibly to see why I've stopped answering everyone's calls but harboring more ulterior motives than a presidential charity event. I let her in, mumbling some vague, ******* excuse about how I'd simply been busy. She stood in my living room, her hands demurely folded in front of her as her eyes swept the scene, a quick appraising glance that took in the leaning towers of paper and rows of empty bottles, the rings under my eyes and the cheeks grizzled with god knows how many days of growth, and when at last they met mine they seemed to ask what exactly it was that I had been busy doing. Her lips said no such thing though, held in check either by innate tact or single-minded purpose. Instead she smiled, that old, slanting smile that was more a twitching of her cheeks than an actual moving of her lips, and asked if I liked her dress. It was the first time that I'd seen her dressed in anything but jeans, and the change was as unexpected as it was becoming. The dress was short, black, simple and elegant in its simplicity. In the expected places it clung to her curves and invited you to do the same, but elsewhere it hung in loose folds, folds so deep that she seemed almost lost in them, and when you did catch a glimpse of her body -the delicate line of her collarbone, the thin ridge of a rib- the force of the contrast struck home with calculated, bewildering power. She looked incredibly fragile yet fraught with danger, like broken glass swaddled in a black flag. I gave her an exaggerated once-over, then said, "Do you really need me to answer that?" She laughed, her voice high and breathy, and dropped me a theatrical curtsy. "What's the occasion?" Her eyes narrowed, and the ghost of a smile twitched its way back onto her face.
"We're going out tonight."
"We are? And why are we doing that?"
"It's ladies' night at Stoa, and that means free drinks."
"Free drinks for you, kiddo. I doubt that I could pass as a lady, even in that ****-hole."
"For me, yes. But if I were to get those free drinks and then decide that I didn't want them, well, what would happen to them? It would be wrong just to waste them, after all. I suppose I should have to give them away, perhaps to a good friend?"
"If you should change your mind." I said flatly.
"Of course. Woman's prerogative, you know."
"Are you trying to bribe me with free liquor?"
"Well, if that isn't enough I could always throw in a 'please'. Limited time offer, though, non-negotiable and nontransferable."
"Unlike the drinks, you mean."
"Rules are like bodies; they aren't meant to be be broken, but sometimes it's fun to see just how far you can stretch them."
"Far be it from me to tell a pretty girl no when she says please."
"Pleeaazzee?" She batted her eyelashes at me, lower lip stuck out in a burlesque pout.
"Put on a fresh shirt and grab your coat, I'll get a cab."
"Yes'm," I said, snapping off a quick salute before about-facing toward my bedroom. She laughed again as she left, the soft chuckles punctuated by the click of her heels on the concrete steps outside. I dressed quickly, taking roughly three minutes to apply fresh deodorant, sniff-test and shrug my way into a shirt with marginally less wrinkles than your average nursing home and grab my keys. I walked out the front door to find Bes ready and waiting for me, having snared a cab with the same brisk efficiency with which she had beguiled me into escorting her. She stood at the curb, toe of one black pump tapping impatiently as the taxi idled next to her, engine panting like some exotic animal brought to heel. The ride there was silent. The cabbie was one of those garrulous specimens of his trade who seem always to have something to offer his customers in addition to the transportation for which they had paid; some tidbit of folksy wisdom, or a sage prediction of the weather, no doubt buttressed with countless examples from the days of yore. He brought out several of these chestnuts for us, but after a few failed gambits even he lapsed into what for him must have passed for a taciturn state, contenting himself with humming along to the radio, albeit loudly. He had sloughed tunelessly through several songs and a commercial break by the time we arrived, and had begun to sing under his breath, apparently unaware that he was doing so. This unwitting serenade had been steadily growing in volume, and he was working himself into a rather heartfelt rendition of Black Velvet as we disembarked.
It was just past eleven, relatively early for a nightclub, but the line was already stretched ten yards from the door. It wound around the side of the building, surprising me in spite of myself. I really hadn't been out in a while, and had forgotten all about waiting outside, that desultory purgatorial period where people shifted restlessly from foot to foot and chain-smoked, anxious for admittance, though in all likelihood less concerned with being able to dance or mingle (which they could have probably done just as well out here) than they were with losing the buzz they had brought with them. Some of the people had clustered into loose groups and those who had looked more sanguine, almost serene, and no doubt there were a few water bottles filled with ***** stashed in their purses and jacket pockets. I started toward the corner, intending to join the rest of the sad-sacks at the back of the line, but Bes grabbed my arm, giving me a slight shake of her head. She walked directly toward the entrance, deftly sidestepping the little pockets of people and putting on a smile of almost predatory brilliance. She sauntered up to the bouncer posted at the door, one of any number of interchangeable drones whose charge is to prevent just such flouting of protocol as she undoubtedly had in mind. She said something to him and he shook his head. She spoke again, raising up on tip-toe and looking directly into his eyes, and when she spread her hands in a comely now-do-you-see gesture he looked around furtively then nodded. She waved a hand at me and he nodded again, though more apprehensively than at first, and the hand pointed in my direction now wiggled its fingers in a come-hither gesture. I walked up and looked a question at her but she merely shook her head again, though this one was accompanied by a slight smile that said nothing and hinted at everything. She took my hand, dragging me forward like a she-wolf dragging a rabbit into her den, and as we passed into the club she favored the sentry with another smile, so warm that I could have sworn I saw him blush.
The interior was dark, cavernous and redolent of a thousand mingled perfumes, a heady, dizzying blend spiced here and there with the dank odor of marijuana. As soon as we were past the bouncer, Bes stopped and pivoted on her toes like a ballerina, spinning so quickly that I almost stumbled into her. She said something to me then, but despite the sudden and shocking proximity of her body to my own her voice was lost in the car crash of voices from the dance floorahead. I cupped a hand to my ear in the commonly understood signal for deafness, and she responded by cocking her head at a questioning angle and forming an elongated y with her thumb and pinky finger, tilting them toward her lips in the universal gesture for drinks. I nodded my assent and she took my hand again, pressing it gently as she threaded her way through the tumult of writhing flesh on the dance floor. We found seats in the corner of the bar, the one place where you could actually sit with your back to the wall instead of the rest of the club, a place that I privately thought of as Paranoiac's Cove. I dug out my pack of Lucky's and set to work on trying to find my lighter as she flitted away, returning moments later with a pair of highball glasses, each filled to the brim with a curiously green concoction that was so bright that it seemed almost as though the glass was filled with liquid neon. She handed me one, her fingers momentarily brushing mine as I accepted it, visions of the cauldron from Macbeth flashing briefly through my mind. That smile twisted its way onto her face again as she offered a silent toast, raising her glass toward me with an oddly solemn gesture. I raised mine in return, noticing the way her eyes sparkled in the shadows, green and impossibly bright, almost lambent, bright like the drink though her eyes were a deeper, truer green, closer to jade than to the grassy color we held in our hands. We touched their rims together, the clink almost inaudible in the howling bedlam of the club. She threw her drink back at a single draught, surprising me into a laugh and I followed suit, barely tasting the liquor as it ran down my throat. What I did taste was a rather poor attempt at artificial apple, cloying and somehow thick, like melted jolly ranchers. It was saccharine sweet yet bitter, a harsh undertone that matched the crisp tang of a real granny smith about as well as the sweetness did, which is to say not at all. Not that this bothered me; alcohol and bitterness have always gone well together for me.
She leaned over to me, fingertips resting lightly on my shoulder, breath tickling confidentially in my ear as she asked, "Dance with me?"
I demurred, not bothering to waste words but simply waiting until she pulled back to look at me and then shaking my head. She didn't lean in again, catching my eyes instead and mouthing the word with an exaggerated care that was almost comical. "Okay." She hesitated momentarily before adding, "Maybe later." She didn't wait for a response, instead sliding off her stool with easy, doe-like grace and disappeared into the throng. I stayed at the bar for some time, an hour perhaps, drinking steadily and watching the growing chagrin of the woman behind it as she realized that I had not intention of tipping her no matter how drunk I got. Bes reappeared periodically, staying long enough to grab each of us a free shot and steal one of my cigarettes before vanishing again. I whiled away the time by counting the necklaces that came bobbing and heaving up to the bar. The vast majority were crucifixes, their forms and sizes as varied as those of their bearers, but there was a smattering of other ikons as well; Celtic knots and stars of david, pentacles and hammers, and once, nestled incongruously in the ample and expertly showcased cleavage of its wearer, a crescent moon and star. The owner of that particular pendant also happened to clutch a drink in one hand, and while it may have been a shirly temple or club soda, the glassy eyes above it and the boneless, disjointed movements that arm described in the air spoke to a more potent brew. I wondered what they meant to the people who wear them, those chains of devotion donned voluntarily. A symbol of their faith, they would probably say, though it's a faith betrayed by virtually every action that they take, and if there's one thing that I've learned about people it's that their vows and promises may be lies, but their betrayals never are. Even a virtuous act, an act of unequivocal good in the face of overwhelming temptation, even that can be a lie. It is concealment, a denial of the temptation, of its reality, of the fact that the desire for what tempts us exists. But in betrayal, in succumbing to temptation, people reveal themselves, for they are true to their desire and desire is the most accurate mirror, the truest reflection of who we are. Most people wear masks to cloud that mirror, false faces that sometimes fool everyone and sometimes fool no-one. But truth always asserts itself and so most people betray; others, causes, even themselves. But even the betrayal of self is also an act of honesty, the final acknowledgement of who we really are.
There was a time, of course, when these signs and symbols of faith were a business of deadly seriousness, when their betrayal would have begotten swift and sure punishment, when the mere display of one's allegiance was both a pledge and a challenge, but no longer. Now they are carried as casually as their wearers carry the name of some obscure fashion designer on their underwear, and given the reverent attention paid to the latter and their blasé hypocrisy regarding the former, one has to wonder which is really more important to them. Yet the symbols persist even when the meaning has been forgotten, and the majority still carry signs of fealty formed from counterfeit gold and beaten nickel, sigils that flash quicksilver in the strobing lights, leading the way like the wooden maidens which adorn the prows of ships. I used to have one of them, you know, a rough loop of rawhide the carried three little trinkets, a bunny a book and a small golden heart. It's gone now, of course, and fittingly so, the heart having fallen after the bunny down the rabbit-hole, and the book remaining unwritten, though I suppose if your reading this, that if these disjointed ramblings ever manage to make it onto the printed page, refugees finally transplanted from the wilted notebooks or the cocktail napkins that I even now sit scribbling madly on, it has been written after all and you're reading it. You poor *******.
I realized my thoughts were drifting, meandering on their own down paths that I have expressly forbidden them to tread, rambling like unsupervised children in an amusement park at sundown. I gathered them up, scolding them, trying to exert some authority in my own mind, telling myself to just take a deep breath and shake it off. I can't though, and for once it's not because I can't quiet the thoughts but because I can't seem to take a breath that is deep enough. I realized that I was panting, well nigh hyperventilating, my breath coming in quick, shallow gasps that seem to crystallize in my longs like spun glass. I take stock of myself, trying to assure myself that I'm not going to have a heart attack or a ******* stroke, noting with some alarm that my hands are shaking and my vision has narrowed into a twisting, undulating tunnel. I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing, the darkness behind my eyelids streaked with purple and red, and gradually I became aware that those explosions of color are rhythmic, recurrent. They happened not with the pounding of my heart, as I would have expected, but in time with the music, sunbursts of color appearing each time the bass kicked. The panic diminished, replaced by curiosity, and I realized that without the shrill yammering of panic in my ear and the terror of impending death in my mind, the combined sensations are not only pleasant, but oddly familiar. It's then that I realized what happened, belatedly doing the mental arithmetic and realizing that unexpected invitation, the free drinks and the first's oddly bitter taste, the secretive smile with which it was delivered, that it all added up to a single thing. She drugged me, of course, spiked my drink with something and I didn't even notice, naive as a sorority pledge at a keg party, and oh **** was I high. I stayed at the bar, knowing from hard experience that there was no sense in fighting it, and so giving in to it. If you can't put out the fire you might as well feed it, feed it all that you can, because the sooner the fuel runs out the sooner the fire dies. So I stayed there, focusing on my breathing and letting my thoughts spiral out, catching the waves in my head as they rose and fell, finally learning to float on their crests, in some semblance of control. Calmer now, I pulled out my cigarettes and lit one, the process taking an eternity, empires rising and falling in the time between the moment when the spark caught and the flame exploded into life and the one when it reached my lucky. I breathed out a plume of smoke, a pillar of cloud that also seemed to go on forever, and as it cleared there was Bes, materializing out of the smoke like a Cheshire cat.
"Ready to dance?"
I looked at her, unable to speak for a moment, not the drug this time but something entirely, a thing that came surging up from some unsounded depth within me and caught in my throat, because when I looked in her eyes, wide and wet with excitement, her pupils telescoped into pinpricks that told me she was in the grip of the same I saw myself. Because she was looking at me the way I looked