Walking into Janice’s party I felt eyes on me. My cheeks flushed hot. With sticky palms I adjusted my dress. I tugged at the bottom of the dress, willing it longer. Why had I worn it? I was realizing now it was too short.
When I’d entered, I looked around at all the people. They were all faces, all eyes. It had seemed that everyone’s conversations stopped, but then the room started to hum again. I searched desperately for my hostess.
“Elizabeth!” Janice emerged, gliding through the crowd, wearing just the right dress. She put a cool hand on my shoulder, pressed her smooth lips to my cheek and kissed me hello.
She was in a pale blue dress that was almost white and it complemented her tan. Her dark hair was swept across her forehead and pulled back into a low ponytail. Her nails were manicured as always and she wore red lipstick. The lipstick made her teeth look like hotel pillows carefully lined up — they were professionally whitened. Positive that she’d left a pair of those red lips on me I wiped at my cheek, spotting the pair she’d also left on her glass of champagne. She didn’t notice them.
Her apartment was filled with the appropriate amount of guests, mostly people Janice knew from work. Everyone was well dressed. No one but me had paint under their fingernails. I was in stupid flats, while all the other women wore heels. I hadn’t wanted to leave the canvas I was just beginning to discover at home. But I had to come.
She guided me effortlessly towards the bar, asking me what I would like to drink (without giving me a chance to answer), thanking me for coming, asking what I was working on, telling me excitedly what the caterers had made for dinner, urging me to try this or that appetizer, and introducing me to guests as we passed, adding after anecdotal gossip in a low voice.
“And this is Ben. Ben, this is my very good friend Elizabeth.”
“Nice to meet you.” That was my line.
Then, as we moved on, “Ben just left his wife. You could tell, couldn’t you? She was cheating… Oh! This is Joan. Joan? Joan, dear, my friend Elizabeth.”
“Nice to meet you.”
As Janice led me onward she murmured, “Joan likes her drink so watch out. She’ll get drunk and trap you in a corner to sob and tell you sad stories.”
* * *
Ben hadn’t wanted to go to the party. While adjusting his tie before leaving he had caught his eyes in his hallway mirror and he’d thought, ‘My god man, look at you. What do you think you’re doing?’
He liked Janice. She was so happy. They worked together. He liked how she would flit about at her parties. He liked to watch her just as people liked to watch butterflies play in the wind on warm summer afternoons.
He hadn’t wanted to go but he knew it would be good for him to get out. He was nervous and far from eager to answer the questions he was expecting about the divorce. Everyone at work knew but said nothing. Now they would be in a casual setting where personal conversation would be considered appropriate.
He was uncomfortable entering Janice’s whirling apartment without his wife, ex-wife, on his arm. Guests stood around chatting, laughing. Men stood with hands in their pockets or arms around wives; they shook hands, took coats, and fetched wine, cocktails.
Ben immediately headed for the bar to arm himself with a drink. It somehow made him feel less pathetic to stand alone if he had something to sip periodically. Alcohol was needed before entering into any conversations.
Then he chatted with an accountant he vaguely knew from work. No questions yet about the divorce — so far, so good. But then his eyes were drawn to a woman. She had just arrived and he was the only one in the room to notice her; her short blonde hair and slight frame, her short brown dress, her gawky legs and awkwardly placed feet in their ballet slippers. It was the first time for many years, especially since the divorce, that he had looked at a woman and not immediately compared her to his wife, ex-wife.
While the bland accountant talked on, Ben tried to work up the courage to go and talk to her. The accountant’s wife joined in and interrupted her husband, “You’re boring him, dear. Now tell me, Ben, where is your lovely wife?” He looked from the woman in brown to Mrs. Accountant; he had no idea what she’d just asked him. Abruptly excusing himself, he started to make his way politely through the crowd: “Excuse me, sorry. Thank you. Excuse me, thanks.”
But Janice got to her first. ‘Damn it,’ Ben thought. He stood confused near the door, saw Janice kiss the woman, heard her friendly greeting. ‘It’s better I didn’t talk to her,’ he thought, ‘I would’ve made a mess of things.’ But then the two women were heading right for him. Desperately he tried to find an escape. He was searching for a conversation to join when someone touched his arm. He jumped: there she was, extending her hand. He noticed the chipped paint beneath her fingernails and felt her moist palm.
“And this is Ben. Ben, my very good friend Elizabeth.”
“Nice to meet you,” murmured Elizabeth.
Ben tried to think of something to say. He composed and abandoned a few statements, ‘I was just coming to introduce myself. I saw you come in,’ but before he could speak, she was gone, moving on into the depths of the party.
* * *
I’d never come to one of Janice’s parties before. I came this time on the condition that she not abandon me with people I didn’t know.
“Who was that Ben guy?” I asked her as she made me a drink.
“Have you never met him before? See, dear, you really must come to more of my parties. I’ve worked with him for years, we’re great friends. His ex was an absolute witch. Why? Are you interested?” Janice asked eagerly.
I was watching him. “No… I don’t know. He just gave me a funny look,” I responded.
“I wouldn’t be surprised, he gives nothing but funny looks. Here, go and talk to him, he’s perfectly gentle. He won’t bite. I’ve got to go and deal with the food. Charlotte’s just announced she’s vegan. I mean, really. So I’ll have to see if the caterers have anything for a vegan. Go on. I promise I’ll come and rescue you in just a minute.”
Bronwyn Lewis is a Vancouver writer currently transitioning from writing fiction and poetry to writing for television. You can follow her adventures in the kitchen and the garden at feastwritegrow.wordpress.com and find her on Instagram @bronwyn__lewis