I took the subway to the party in Center City. I walked from the stop down a quiet street in the business district, where merchandise peeked out from behind thick steel gates. As I approached the address of the old brownstone, I heard the muffled sound of voices and the latest Nirvana album. I felt a wash of panic. I could be back home and under my blanket in twenty minutes; but my feet kept moving forward. I found the appropriate apartment number, rang the bell, and was buzzed in without question.
The party was a crowded gathering of hipsters. I scanned the room for familiar faces, feeling stupid. The few I recognized looked at me, then quickly turned away. Finally, I spotted Noelle.
“Hey Kit,” she smiled. Her sandy hair hung neatly around a tiny, plain face. “How are you?”
She gave me a hug. Noelle would be one of many mutual friends walking the tightrope between the fallen couple. I tried to balance her with a forced smile.
“Hi Noelle,” I said. “Thanks for inviting me. Who’s having this party, anyway?”
“Pete and his girlfriend, Margo.” She nodded toward a guy talking to a group of people. “Pete’s in that band, Smarmy.”
“And that’s Margo over there.” Noelle pointed to another corner.
My eyes followed her finger to the corner of the room. Margo was tall and curvy, her long black hair shining with streaks of midnight blue. Her full lips were accented with bright scarlet lipstick; her blue eyes painted with a swish of black eyeliner. She wore a low-cut red satin dress that hugged her figure, and held a martini and cigarette gracefully in one hand as she smiled at a chatting male guest. I felt flat-chested and plain.
“I’ll introduce you.”
My heart thudded noisily as I followed Noelle closer to this intimidating creature.
“Hey Margo,” Noelle said. “This is my friend, Kit.”
Margo moved her cool smile away from the guy to fix her eyes on me. She inhaled deeply from her cigarette; her pool-blue eyes bored through me. I felt like a frog pinned down to a board, a scalpel dangling above me.
“Don’t you go out with Dale?” she asked.
“I used to,” I said, attempting my cheeriest tone.
“Oh. Sorry,” she said, looking over my shoulder at the rest of the crowd.
“It’s all right,” I mumbled.
Margo’s eyes continued to scan the room. I fiddled nervously with the clasp of my purse as I awaited further instructions from our hostess. After a moment, she looked back at Noelle and me.
“So,” she said in a bored tone. “Can I get you guys a drink?”
“I’m going to go grab a beer outside,” Noelle said.
Just as I was about to follow Noelle’s lead, Margo turned her piercing gaze toward me, and smiled with aloof politeness.
“How about you, Kate, would you like a martini?”
“It’s Kit, and… sure.”
I followed Margo to a table that sparkled with a liquor rainbow. She poured with expert precision, first filling a chrome shaker with ice, then using both hands to tip in a clear stream of vodka, then a splash of vermouth. She snapped on the lid, spun the shaker, then filled the triangular glass until the martini almost kissed the rim. Dropping two olives in the drink, she turned and handed it to me.
“You’ve done that before,” I said, trying to sound charming.
She laughed. “A few times.”
We both took long sips of the grown-up drink. Margo continued to smile politely, but kept her eyes moving around the room.
“What do you do, Kit?” she asked indifferently.
“I’m a proofreader.” I took another sip from the smooth glass. The vodka was already massaging my anxiety with its warm fingers. “How about you?”
Margo waved her hand as if shooing an invisible insect.
“Oh, I do PR for an insurance company. It’s selling out, I know, but it’s decent money.” She turned her gaze from the crowd back to me and leaned closer, crowding the air between us with musky perfume. “Sorry about mentioning Dale. I didn’t know.”
“That’s okay.” I took another sip. “We just had a different definition of monogamy.”
Her eyebrow lifted slightly as she smiled.
“So,” Margo began, pulling another cigarette from a silver case. “Last time I saw Dale he was playing at The Barbary with the Electric Love Muffin. I don’t remember meeting you there.”
“I don’t think I was at that show.”
“Probably a good thing.” Margo took a drag from her cigarette. “They were pretty bad that night. I stopped going to Pete’s shows. I thought it was fun for a while, but then I just got tired of being ignored.” She paused to glare in Pete’s direction, then took a sip from her martini.
“I know,” I said. “Dale was really different in college. H wasn’t in a band in college.”
“A band is just their excuse for getting drunk with their buddies. They don’t even know how to write a decent song.”
“What kind of music do you listen to?” I asked.
“Oh, I like the old stuff, like Wanda Jackson, The Collins Kids. It’s real simple, it has a hook, not like the crap these guys play.”
She lifted her glass to her lips, then realized it was empty.
“This is a problem. Looks like you could use one, too.”
She took my glass from my hand and refilled them both from the tall silver shaker she’d left on the table. I didn’t normally drink hard liquor, and could feel myself disappearing a little, but I was immensely grateful for the company. I hadn’t really talked to anyone about Dale. My parents didn’t want to upset me, so they acted like we’d never dated. My kid sister was wrapped up in her own little college clique. I wanted to tell these things to Margo, not just because we had things in common, but I really wanted her to like me. We sat on the couch and smoked cigarettes and swirled martini after martini, my intimidation dwindling with each new glass.
“I never knew what I would find when I came home from work,” I slurred slightly. “Sometimes Dale would just be sitting around smoking with guys from his band, and I’d walk in all corporate and they’d look at me like I was someone’s mother.”
Margo nodded her head sympathetically.
“I never knew where Dale was,” I continued, “and if I asked he’d say I shouldn’t be so paranoid.”
“What an ass,” Margo said. “Pete’s the same way. He’s a bartender, so he sleeps in and stays up late and listens to music when I’m trying to get to sleep so I can get up the next morning and make some decent money to pay our bills. All he cares about is ‘the band’ and his friends.”
We both stared at the tattooed people in the room.
“You know,” Margo said, “these people work in comic book stores and coffee shops and they feel so superior to people like us who have the nerve to get a 9-to-5 job.” She shook her head in disgust. “Just because they can wear an eyebrow ring to work they think they’re fucking artists. What gives them the corner on creativity?”
“Don’t forget record stores,” I said, “with their superior fucking attitude. God forbid if you pick up the wrong fucking CD and they look at you like you just voted for George Bush.”
“Please,” Margo rolled her eyes and took a long sip of her drink.
We stared at the clueless gathering, unaware of the invisible daggers we were hurling into their backs.
“I know I could write a better song than most of the people in this room,” Margo said. “I play a little guitar. It’s not that hard.”
“Really? Have you ever played with a band?”
“Nah. I just mess around on one of Pete’s acoustic guitars. How about you — do you play?”
“Actually, I kind of know how to play bass. Dale gave me one, and I took it with me when I moved because I knew he wanted it back, but felt too guilty to ask for it.”
Margo took a drag off her cigarette. “Maybe we should get together. See what happens.”
“I’d like that,” I said.
Margo glanced over at Pete. Two guys who looked just like him stood at his sides. They were passing a joint and laughing. She turned back to me.
“I can definitely get an electric guitar from Pete. He has, like, a dozen of them. I’m sure he can spare one.”
The buzz of the martinis accentuated my enthusiasm. Thoughts of parties and gigs and new friends clouded my blurry vision.
“We can play at my house,” I said. “I have plenty of room.”
“And I’ve got a ton of song ideas. Real simple stuff. I could bring some CDs over.” Margo fell back into the couch and grinned. “This is great. What better way to get back at these guys than to piss on their precious territory? Let’s do it.”
Margo lifted her martini in the air and we clinked glasses, the bond as strong as a blood oath.