She Seeks a Life of Beauty

“I seek a life of beauty,” she said to everyone and no one, twirling languidly on the table 22 floors above the city, her body pliable on the spinning table, arching and curving to the soft, melodic music. Giddy and lightheaded from the champagne, she laughed and let the gaze of those around her fall upon her form, wraithlike in the glow of the room. Laughter and amiable conversation floated from groups of people scattered about the room. The curls of smoke rising from cigarettes obscured the half-filled flutes of champagne, glinting in the din. Countertops shrouded in the ghostly traces of powder imbued the room with empty promises. The men moved about the room conversing in small groups, the women floating amongst them, grabbing a hand and stepping into sync with the music. Ties were loosened, dresses alternately askew, hair slightly disheveled. It was 3:03 in the morning and they had been dancing for several hours.

Staring at herself in the mirror, earlier that day, she stood unmoving, her gaze unfocused. Not quite sadness, not quite ennui, just an emptiness in her appraisal of herself. Beside the mirror were cards with quotes pinned to the wall, “Begin Anywhere”, and “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”   Next to her on the top of the bureau were various pieces of expensive jewelry at odds with their surroundings, shoes perched atop the drawers, hair pins adorning the glass dishes that served as jewelry holders, and trinkets scatted in no particular order. Clothing was strewn about the minimal amount of space in the room. The kitchen counter was littered with empty glasses and stacks of papers. But the bed was clear, save for her computer, open to the screen of an empty inbox; waiting, waiting, always waiting. Picking up her phone, she dialed the number most capable and swift of removing her from her sullen despondency.

Later in the evening, the bar glowed in the dark, warm light of the evening. She sipped crisp champagne from the flute in front of her. Waiting alone at the bar she felt the looks of those around her. Eyeing herself in the mirror behind the rows of bottles, she could see the handsome picture she made. Eyes made large and luminous by the dark liner, appearing to glow from deep within their sockets. Admiring glances floated towards her, appealing to her to turn her head, just so, and make eye contact. She knew the cause of their attention, she knew she should not pay it any mind, and she knew she was not yet ready to release herself from its trappings. But she did not heed any of their pleas, so focused she was on maintaining the picture of tranquility she worked so hard to compose. But the words, the words, the words that kept running through her head…

“Do you want to know why I have not asked you to marry me?” M---- asked, requesting another bottle of champagne from the server.

“No thank you,” she said.

“I’ll tell you why” he said.

“No thank you” she repeated louder. 

“You challenge me.”

“And that’s not a good thing?”

“Not always.”

Gazing onto the foreign bay, she considered this.

“Seems a low threshold for a satisfying life,” she said.

“Perhaps.”

“You’ve overlooked the most important part.”

“What’s that?”

“That I would ever agree to marry you.”

“You see. That’s not a nice response to someone asking you to marry them.”

They held one another’ gaze for a steady moment and then began to laugh.

“Good to see you!” a familiar voice chimed from behind her, pulling her from her reverie.  “You as well,” she said turning to offer a cheek. “I ordered you a glass of champagne.”After signaling to the bartender, she motioned to the empty chair beside her. They talked and laughed and joked with an ease that came naturally under the spell of chilled drinks and elegant surroundings and superficial pleasantries. Some people’s company was easier to keep than others, never exacting more than a smile and laugh and the charm of being irreverent. The ease with which they conversed, loosened by the champagne, never failed to lift her spirits, to distract her from real life.

“So,” her companion, changing topic, inquired, “will M----- be making an appearance tonight?”

“I haven’t talked with him,” she brushed off, overly casual. “Let me tell you again about the time I bought the entire bar cowboy hats,” she says, motioning for the bartender to listen.

“Now, I didn’t actually buy anybody cowboy hats,” she intimates, leaning close. “I paid them to wear one.”

“You paid people to wear cowboy hats?” asks the bartender.

“Let me explain: I was at a bar, a very western bar, and on the way to the restroom I spied a basket full of cowboy hats and so I asked the nearest employee as to the availability of the hats for patrons. He, the manager as it happens, told me the hats were available and so were My Little Ponies, if I so pleased – my phrasing, not his.”

“Funny man,” chimes the bartender.

“Yes,” she says, “until the bartender wandered by my table shortly after asking where my hat was. Itold him I was not going to wear a hat but I had paid everyone on this side of the bar five dollars to put one on his head before they left. And they did!”

“Not really…”

“Really! It was a regular cowboy hat rodeo on top of the manager’s head!”

The bartender laughs and she laughs and the bartender likes the way she laughs.

“That’s funny,” her companion says, dryly. Then, looking at his phone, “let’s wrap up here, I need to make a stop along the way.”

“Oh? Well then!” And glancing at the bartender she gives a generous smile.

“Shall we?”

Exiting the bar, she placed her arm in his and together they alighted into the evening.

     “She walks in beauty, like the night,” Marianne said out of the blue, over lunch earlier that week.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Lord Byron, his poem ‘She walks in Beauty’. It reminds me of you.”

“Because I walk in beauty?”

“Because it is about death.”

“I remind you of death?”

“No, but that shroud you wear around certainly does. How is Mr. ------- anyways?”

It had been on a fine afternoon, after an impromptu invitation to come along sailing that she had met Marianne. A local actress/songstress/sailing novice – they hit it off after a thrilling recounting by Marianne of witnessing a botched sailboat docking.

“Biiiiiiiill! God Damn it, Bill! You’re coming in TOO HOT!” Marianne trilled, to raucous laughter. “TOO HOT! GOD DAMNIT, BILL – YOU’RE COMING IN TOO HOT!”

The climax of the reenactment and ultimate bond of friendship arrived with the description of the sound of Bill’s hull scratching against the slip he was coming too hot into.

“He’s fine. He’s good. We talked, earlier. We are having dinner soon.”

At that, Marianne arched an eyebrow at the word soon, knowing all too well what it meant.

     “Do I know you?”

After leaving the first bar of the evening, she waited in another while her companion ran his errand. She turned to the woman adjacent to her at the bar, after admiring this woman’s friend’s tattoo.

“Charlie?” She said. “From the town?”

Yes, she did know her. She knew the same people. They discussed the commonalities of town life. They recalled the banalities of what is was to live in the town, what it was to grow up there, what it was to leave, the few besides them who had managed to make it out.

We should catch up soon was the promise they made to each other then and there. The promise made among those who know they will not keep it; the idea that we can hold onto the things around us, as if a solemn oath would make it true. They pledged these oaths and watched them slip away, like water through their hands.

     The alarm rung at 7 AM the next morning and he bolted awake from the hotel bed they shared, he asleep all night, she not at all.

“Is everything OK?” she asked.

“Yes, I will be back.” He muttered something about a bad fight the night before. He needed to speak with her that morning.

The words died on her lips as she watched him dress and exit the room: “Should I go?”

She knew the answer, though he would never say it. She knew what to expect, the all too familiar pang of being left alone while a man returned to his life.

She was not upset that he left; she knew this was the routine. She wondered why she put herself there and when, if ever, she would demand more; more of him, more of herself. She considered her life of dinners to hotel rooms to surreptitious weekends out of town. She asked herself what is enough and, inwardly, what is not enough.

She applied her lipstick and walked out the door.

She lay down on her bed, facing the ceiling, with her legs over the edge of the mattress and recalled the evening’s events. She found herself back in the room high above the streets of the city, the music and dancing and smoke swirling about her as she drifted through the crowd reimagined. She saw herself dancing on the table, the hem of her gown rippling across the lacquered finish, laughter rising gaily around her as she continues past the bar, beyond the billiards table where an animated game is taking place, to the end of the room where a piano sits. On the piano rests a glass of scotch and a lit cigar waiting for their patron. She takes a seat upon the bench and lightly touches the keys. The billiards players and dancers melt away with each successive meter. The din of the room fades along with the record player, leaving only the melodic notes of the piano. A hand reaches for the scotch and someone takes the seat beside her.

“A beautiful party,” a voice says right next to her.

“It was,” she says.

The scent of his cologne invades her nostrils, even in her dreams.

“You should have stayed,” she says softly.

“Play something for me.”

She begins a soft, mournful tune.

“Play something happier. I love it when you smile.”

“I am always sad without you.”

He did not respond, but began to play a tune, humming lightly. She smiled and began to hum along.

“Wouldn’t this be grand though?”

“None of this is real.”

“I always wait for you.”

“And I always find you.”

“But only after everyone is gone, and only when…why can’t we be together?”

“They will not accept you, and it would be painful for both of us.”

“But you accept me.”

He smiled the sad smile she always imagined he would give then, in response to those words that burned in her heart, those words that she wanted so much to say, those words that she would never get to speak.

The room began to swirl around her as the dancers and the champagne and the music drifted away. She saw her life a revolving door of parties and champagne and hollow promises and empty laughter. She fought to hold onto that moment, that hope that if she held on tight enough that some of it was real, that she was real and there was a future that would save her from her present and that everything would be ok one day. And once more she felt flooding in the impending sensation of doom and hopelessness, the fear of the future, of the unknown, and her own inability to save herself from a useless end. Opening her eyes and curling her legs onto the bed, she folded into herself and let the tears fall.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked, several months before.

“I said I agreed with you,” she answered.

“You know that this is for the best,” he said.

“Yes,” she agreed. Then, “thank you for coming with me.”

“It’s for the best.”

“Yes, I agree.”

She fidgeted nervously with the hem of her sleeve. “I hate doctors offices.”

“I will be here to drive you home.”

“And then?”

“And then we can be like we were. This is not the right time.”

“It won’t ever be the time.”

“It may seem that way now,” he began.

“Aren’t we really something, though?”

“Yes.”

“I suppose it’s nice to think so,” she said, standing to meet the waiting nurse. Without a glance, she walked down the hall and the door closed quietly behind her.