By Elizabeth Eicher
Getting dragged to a dance floor wasn’t new. Before the sickness it was my brother telling me I needed to loosen up or my friends not really understanding that their personal desires didn’t translate to mine. After the sickness it was my coupled-pals trying to include me or my agent provocateur, Nate, acting smug while tugging my hand and whispering in my ear that I wasn’t as clever at hiding my secrets as I imagined. Inexplicably, everyone always thought I enjoyed myself while dancing. They told me I looked good or I was a natural. They imagined that adeptness was the secret to satisfaction.
My roommate, Gracie, was a Sisyphean boulder who made rude gestures as the final word when the concept of dancing was broached and eventually given up. I had never been as sturdy as her in my refusal, friendly pouting at my hesitation being enough alone to turn the tide. That flexibility was almost certainly why I was never believed. It was too easy to get me to dance. Eventually Nate would sneak a purr in my ear that hips don’t lie as though a pop song offered unshakable wisdom.
The truth, or the crux, or whatever essential distillation of the matter that could be found in the depths of a pounding rhythm (and its inevitable paired drunkenness) was that dancing never seemed like an activity best shared between friends. What truths did my hips have for a friend like Nate? None, I hoped.
Still, I would not and did not refuse a polite request from a new acquaintance; it was a nice gesture and Kayla was sweet to ask. I determined to at least look like I was having fun and it was always so easy to coach my body into a dialect that put people at ease.
The monthly ‘Fuck-It-Fire’ had lived up to Russ’ billing for cathartic debauchery and the hype man himself was sinking into DJing with the ease of greeting an old friend. The crowd was obviously too disparate in taste to unite unanimously but more of the group than I’d expected had joined in. The black-denim clad duo were hopping around earnestly with sparklers clenched in their teeth. The goth couple who’d been making out on a chair throughout dinner had moved their entanglement to the edge of the dance-ground as though it made their indelicacy more socially acceptable. Several of the Haulers were circled around bobbing their heads in that special, rhythmless way white men had perfected. Another of the Haulers, a Latino man with a pencil-thin mustache, was pressed against a dark haired woman with hoop earrings and a burgundy fur collar. The two of them put everyone else’s casual fun to shame with practiced ease, trained in proper dance steps but filled with admirable passion that stripped the correct moves into sublime physical purity.
At the center of it all were Marisol and her friends. They let themselves get lost in the heat and the noise and the moment. The party was as close to one from before the sickness as you could ask, really.
Now that I was watching Marisol, I could see she shot Russ a look or a gesture for every new track he played. They communicated with the seamless understanding that intimate familiarity breeds: nods and shrugs and tilts of a head and juts of a hip and, for one heavy song, some elaborate full body contrapposto pose that left Russ smug and fighting back a proud smile.
I tried to untangle if their rapport in the car was an extension of this, the other way around, or something settled even deeper. In their car they had a song for seemingly every moment. Russ would spend only seconds sensing Marisol’s mood and deftly navigate to the track she’d been hoping for. They would get into happy arguments about artists and influences and time signatures and utility vs artistry and intellectual property rights with regard to sampling and dozens of other inconsequential wonderings. All the while, the car sped past the ghastly devastation of history, the rubble and ruins warded from intruding by the music.
Russ had asked early on about what I would prefer to listen to. All I could muster was a shrug. Something about their manner had instantly guarded me. They had reminded me of my cousin at 12 asking if I still listened to the stupid music of my childhood or the boy with the cruel smirk in high school who had laughed with his friends when I failed to name drop the right bands. It struck me that Russ hadn’t intended to make himself a gatekeeper when he had asked. I could probably make a suggestion at this point and he would be happy to oblige if he could find it on one of the many phones in the glove box. I couldn’t let myself ask now. It would be like breaking a spell. The songs wove magic between them and the road and I would not set fire to their loom.
Russ as a DJ felt like he was on loan from Marisol to the rest of us. We got to listen, to overhear, to eavesdrop, but his purpose was her. She was a good audience and a better barometer. She’d dance harder ten seconds before everyone else. She’d slow her pace for a breather at the first bars of a bpm drop. It was the same way she’d heralded the start of the dancing by stalking angrily to the hard packed dirt, friends in tow, only to have the rest of the party slowly gravitate her way, swaying and pulsing and strutting to the dance floor, pulled by some obscenely paced beat. It was prophetic and magnetic at once.
I would have stayed behind, content to sit around the fire and sneak to bed early, but I knew the benefit of being a friendly face. That was the whole reason the Mayor sent me on my mission, to lend high cheekbones and soft lips to the idea of our Settlement in some poor assholes’ mind’s eye. My drivers at the Deal weren’t part of the ‘outreach’ mission but friendly acquaintances never hurt to have. Not the way friends can hurt.
Russ’ comment that this would all pass like some strange brief internship or semester abroad or even summer camp stuck to me and sputtered around my head. I’d ended up working full-time for the office I’d interned for. I’d cried the whole car ride back from summer camp after I realized I wouldn’t see most of those people again. I couldn’t afford a semester abroad, the main reason I’d gone to a state school in the first place, but if I had, I’m sure I would have ended up overstaying my student visa and embroiled in some hair-brained scheme to marry someone for a carte de résident.
It was my knowledge to see the advantage in seeming like I was a friend. It was my nature to want to be a friend.
The smart play, the one that would have guarded me and ensured my safe detachment, didn't include dancing. It didn’t include fireside conversations where people, save the liars like me and obviously Marisol, bared their hearts. It certainly didn’t include watching a gorgeous woman dance, well past the point of obviousness, letting myself follow the flow of her hips and the pull of her neck. When Marisol caught me, which was the least surprising outcome considering my lack of discretion, she watched me back. There wasn’t any shy glance away or feigned embarrassment to save the pretense of accident.
We surveyed each other. Seeing our seeing. Appraising appraisal. Somewhere in her dancing, Marisol had lost her conspicuous reluctance. The beat drove it from her and she was indecipherable. Intuitive. Russ had called her intuitive.
Intuitive meant instinctual and that meant mercurial, too. Friendly and laughing then sullen and angry. Flipped binary, one or zero, yes or no, on or off. Switching between presence and absence. Drifting between here and somewhere far away. Maybe the world of her memories, the world of the dead, the world we lost? Maybe she falls deep within herself into pits of her own digging. Hidden with palm fronds until she crashes through to the embedded spikes below. I was no stranger to springing psychological traps of my own device. Losing the tripwire somewhere in the cobwebs of the faintly remembered names and faces of people I’d never see again. Then loosing the snare absentmindedly when a word or an ache or a story or a smell caused my thoughts to skitter back to some heavy weight I hadn’t felt burdened with lately.
We were looking at each other the whole time I was thinking about her and, well shit, if this were someone else or sometime else, this much eye contact would mean I’d be buying her a drink. Maybe we’d end up going home together. Probably we’d end up in the alley behind the club with my hand down the front of her pants. Decorum forgotten in our seclusion. Hot breath panted against my neck. Muffled bass from inside the only accompaniment to our shared moans. The thought would be easier if she didn’t hate me. The act would be easier if the world hadn’t ended.
As it was, with the world ending and her hating me, I kept my distance. Sputnik to her earth as everyone else orbited her unconsciously, too. Cosmic debris trying not to run into anyone else and flame out in the atmosphere.
I’d been unyielding. I’d injured her pride by insulting the only thing she had let herself invest in since the sickness. I’d met her openness with chilled indifference and she’d insulated herself against the bite of that cold. Now that I had warmed, that insulation kept her unaware.
It shouldn’t have mattered.
It did matter. Not because I wanted to move inside her in some grungy alleyway where we panted and sweat and came then “forgot” to exchange phone numbers that would have allowed us to send messages to each other through satellites. It mattered because it would simply be more tolerable to spend months on the road if we could share in laughter and discussion around a campfire. If she would grant me some of those wide smiles she gave Russ.
And song after song we watched each other. Glancing through choruses and viewing through drops and eyes locked during crescendos as our shoulders rolled and bent in time and rhythm. That tension between what this should mean, what it could mean, and what it did mean grew more taut with each passing track. Finally it hit me that, thanks to Russ’ meddling, I’d wind up in bed with her at the end of the night anyway and I laughed at the wryness of fate.
That was her cue. Marisol’s face left its placid waters and swam back to that state of annoyed indifference I had been uniquely privy to these last few weeks. Her jaw tightened. The bridge of her nose wrinkled. She turned her back to me and reengaged her friend Josephine. I was still laughing at the preordained machinations that would drive us together at the end of the night.
I danced goofily with Kayla and Tyler, the man who’d been revealed as her brother, trying and failing at trendy steps from before. I danced too close to Bishop, whispering in his ear to remind him this wasn’t going anywhere, receiving an affirmative hum and an assurance that he didn’t want anything I didn’t. I danced with a woman in a cowboy hat and a man in a leopard print track jacket. Josephine, with her auburn braid, came by during a Marvin Gaye number my brother once told me was the best party song in the history of mankind. She didn’t dance with me so much as she challenged me, dared me to reveal myself. She drifted closer than I’d call platonic, but I knew her game. I let my hand hold her waist in response to whatever she was looking for. I could be impassive when I had to be and I fixed my expression. If she needed something from me it was in the negotiation of our bodies. We circled each other until she decided I’d given her what she wanted or I wasn’t going to at all.
I did not know how to gauge the passage of time on a dance floor. The way a three minute song could turn into a ten minute remix baffled my internal clock and those innumerable minutes eluded me. We danced for hours, surely, but how many I couldn’t say.
Marisol found me, stood next to me, looked at me for the first time since I’d broken the moment between us with my laughter. She wasn’t moving to the beat anymore. Ahead of the curve again. When she told me plainly that she was going back to her room, it was after two in the morning, I knew that the rest of the party would collapse in her wake. She didn’t invite me to follow outright, but the fact of her informing me, actually talking to me, was obviously the same thing. She hugged and waved to people on her way out. I trailed behind her, offering smiles where appropriate.
She walked ten feet in front of me the whole way back to the makeshift dorms. A couple fluid missteps convinced me she wasn’t drunk but loosened by alcohol more than I’d thought. She opened doors with more force than necessary and barreled her shoulder into her room’s entry. She kicked out of her shoes and started stripping her clothes as she turned a wide circle around her enormous bed.
I busied myself looking at a photo tacked on the wall near the door that I missed earlier when Russ had convinced me to sleep in the room. It depicted three figures in ski gear on some snowy incline. The one in the middle was clearly Marisol from her wide smile and immaculate chin, younger than now, obviously, but not so young. Early twenties. I suspected the figures on either side were her parents but they were hidden in ski gear, each with only half a face visible. The man’s goggles pushed up to show his eyes but lower face buried in a scarf. The woman’s goggles still down but her smile almost exactly the same as Marisol’s if her teeth weren’t so straight: the difference of orthodontia between generations. It felt too telling — to see that the only hint of family Marisol kept in her room was one where the figures were obscured and hidden from full view.
Marisol fell noisily to her bed. I understood that to signal she’d finished and that I had permission to focus my attention back to the room. I took off my boots and socks, setting them in a small, neat pile, countering Marisol’s haphazardly scattered garments. I changed into sleep clothes from my duffel, back turned, while Marisol finished shifting around and settled into quiet stillness.
When I glanced to the bed with its impossibly expensive sheets, Marisol was sequestered neatly on its right side with her own cashmere blanket. There was a towering pile of pillows behind her head, supporting her as she read a novel. A no-man’s land split down the middle of the king size mattress and a mess of bedding was haphazardly piled on the left for me. She had seemed comfortable sleeping anywhere: the ground, a thin mattress, her hammock. It was surprising that her personal bed yielded to frivolity.
I imagined asking her about it and hearing back a simple, “why not?” I couldn’t refute it. The amount of material goods left from before meant a redefinition of what was scarce and what was abundant. Food and water could be scarce. Information and communication were scarce. Luxury linens were comparatively abundant. I leaned my arms against the top of her dresser for support, bumping lightly against a pile of baseball hats, and ran my bare right foot across the edge of the bed to meet those sheets. Had my soles ever felt something so soft?
Marisol looked up at me, distracted from her book. She set it open on her lap. It made me shy and I pulled my foot back. Trying to hide from her gaze, I inspected the rescued treasure in the gilded frame above her. I let my eyes trace the ghostly, abstracted figures, mostly dressed in black, as they moved through the grand boulevard under dead trees. The central trees were leafless and bare, a mass of gray brown limbs and sticks but, thinking about it more, they weren’t actually dead. Just wintering. Waiting for brighter days.
When I let myself look at Marisol again her eyes hadn’t left me. I busied myself with letting my hair out of its knot and I asked.
“Do you ever wonder what happened after the sickness in places like Paris?”
“Dense city. I assume nothing good.” She pushed her head back into her pillow mound, letting her chin turn up towards me slightly. “I spend more time thinking about what happened there back then.” She doesn’t gesture at it but I know she’s talking about Monet’s Paris.
I worked the tightness out of my hair and let myself see flashes of hazy, impressionist France. Recollections of light and dancing. Grain stacks only notable for their color. Moments of bourgeois leisure. There was an appeal to refining life to only memory.
“Do you think you would have liked it?”
She spent a few seconds thinking before her mouth curled up slightly.
“No. Probably not at all… but considering our current circumstances…” The sentence didn’t end so much as it died in thought.
There was a moment where a quip about sharing a bed with a beautiful woman not being such bad circumstances crossed my mind. It wasn’t the time. Marisol and I were barely civil, much less friendly, nowhere near salacious jokes. That was my fault, though. I should have tried to make it right earlier. She was still looking at me and, while daunting, I needed to do it now.
“I’m sorry I misjudged you.”
“What do you mean?” I smiled because of course she wouldn’t make this easy on me.
“I said things about you and about the Deal before I really understood and I was wrong.” I tried to press down my rising embarrassment. I didn’t like being wrong but I wasn’t above admitting when I was. I just wished it could be over, but she wasn’t going to let it go quickly. That’s who Marisol was and that’s why I was apologizing. She was cheeky, not cruel.
“What did you say about me?”
“You haven’t forgotten,” I insisted.
“No, but have you?” She smiled tightly.
“Well, the heart of my argument was calling you extortionists and that was wrong.”
“I’m glad you see that, but I’m looking for specifics.” Marisol stretched and put her hands behind her head in exaggerated relaxation.
“Ok. I think I called you hooligans.”
“Cocky delinquents. Yes.” She was grinning now.
It took me a moment to think of another. “Rowdy troublemakers?”
“That one’s true so I won’t hold it against you. You’re still missing my favorite.” This felt like flirting.
“Uh…” It escaped me.
“I’ll give you a hint. It was self-righteous highwaymen.”
I sighed and rubbed my hand up and down my face. “That’s the one that actually hurt your feelings, huh?”
Her eyes narrowed a little but she was still smiling. “I would prefer you not be that observant.”
I pushed myself off her dresser and sat at the foot of the bed in a slump. She tracked my motion. Marisol hadn’t taken her eyes off me for the last few minutes. I looked up to the ceiling.
“I didn’t understand the shit you go through on a daily basis. I imagined driving around like I had before the sickness. I was naive about the things you do and uncharitable to the way you have to cope.” The dropped ceiling didn’t answer me but Marisol did from my side.
“The way I cope?” Her voice was laden with confusion.
“The night before we left, I saw you get into a bar brawl and it made me nervous. I was scared of your temperament.”
There was a long pause. When the ceiling grid still didn’t offer answers I turned to Marisol. She was staring at her hands, idly running them over her book. She closed it and set it on the floor next to the bed. Then she stared at the lumps her feet made under her sheets. Near me, not at me.
“So, when we met,” she was thinking out loud, “the problem wasn’t my ‘SHOW ME YOUR TITS’ hat?”
I couldn’t repress a snort. “That hat is really dumb.”
“Russ picked it.” She was still staring at her toes. The idea of her wearing a terrible hat at Russ’ bidding was surprisingly sweet. For how complicated they both were, I loved how uncomplicated their friendship was.
“The hat’s effect on me was marginal at best,” I assured her.
There was half a second of a smile on her face before it disappeared. She was somewhere far away. A minute passed before she pulled her feet to her body and sat crossed-leg, still under the covers. She began to pick at her knee then spoke quietly.
“The man at the bar called me a dyke.”
My lips pursed sympathetically. How cruel that the truth of yourself could be wielded against you with only a sneer. And oh, what lists people like us collected of where and when and whom by. I waited a second but her gaze didn’t shift from her knee. “I bet the barstool you smashed over him deserved it too.”
She quickly darted her eyes to meet mine at my joke. Her brow held a plea. It was strange how open she felt right then. She wanted something more than an apology.
“Look, I already decided I don’t care why you did it.” That didn’t sound right so I stumbled over my words to clarify. “Or, not that I don’t care, but I don’t need to hear justification for it. I trust your judgment even if it’s different than my own.” The corner of her mouth twitched up. “But, also, fuck him for saying that.” She smiled now, thoughtfully and still a bit shy. A few seconds later she murmured something so low I barely caught it.
“I didn’t need to be so harsh. You didn’t know about Russ’ issues. I’m just protective of him.” Good form here would have been to accept what she’d offered and move on, but I couldn’t help ribbing back a little. Fair exchange, in my opinion.
“That almost sounds like an apology.”
Her smile grew. “It’s the closest thing you’re gonna get.”
“I’ll take it.”
I crawled to my pile of bedding and lay my head on a pillow. I considered not straightening the blankets out and sleeping in them like an unreasonably soft nest. That would be ignoring the much lauded sheets, though, so I bowed to peer pressure and began untangling them. The task was made harder by laying on top of the bedding. Marisol let me struggle with that smile still gracing her face and I tried not to show my satisfaction at her watching me with kindness for the first time.
“Night, Riley,” she said and clicked her bedside lamp off, blanketing the room in darkness more enveloping than the damn insubordinate comforter.
“It’s a lot harder to untangle these with the lights off,” I complained as I pulled a cashmere throw that tugged at my hair almost painfully.
“I know.” She breathed out before snorting and laughing.
In the morning, she slipped out of her room quietly, trying not to wake me, different from the irritated crashing about she’d done at our roadside campsites. Slipping into my clothes in her empty room, I sensed I’d walked us in the right direction from that cliff where we’d danced. Whether it was back from the ledge or off the edge, I couldn’t say.
Elizabeth Eicher is a ne'er-do-well who moonlights as a scoundrel, which millennials call being a gig-economy creative. Hailing from the world's loveliest concrete swamp, Houston, Texas, Eicher collected a couple arts degrees from American coastal cities before returning, only a little worse for wear. She passes time by being evasive about herself and canoodling with her wife.