Orange and red streaks pierce the bloated Brooklyn sky as evening races into night. She shivers slightly as they wait for their ride, wishing she had brought that jacket. It is, admittedly, too small, but it complements the rest of her outfit, which still seems a touch pedestrian, too teachery. He said she looked great, though. He thumbs at his phone, impatient-- “Still says three minutes away.” She wonders, again, how many minutes they've racked up like this, waiting for strangers in cars to come and drive them places, instead of going to the places themselves. It probably breaks even. She touches his hand, his wrist. She imagines dashing back inside their apartment building, punching the button for the creaking elevator. If she burst into the apartment in a hurry, she might startle the baby, who she worries will give her friend a hard time tonight. She could get her jacket, but the time wasted would annoy him, and she would begin to perspire, probably, tiny bumps of sweat that would shove the concealer out of her pores, set a glistening mustache over her painted lips.
Their ride is here. It is too late to make any definitive action but clamber into the backseat. “Hello,” she offers the driver, not really meaning it. He gets in after her, closes the door. He exchanges pleasantries with the driver, finds the address, puts on his seatbelt. Her pants are a bit too tight at the waist, where her skin is a deflated flesh balloon, concealed by her top. That her body is her own seems like a fiction, even now, as she speeds further away from home, from the baby. The car is quiet. She watches the window, then shifts her gaze beyond it, the rapidly mutating storefronts in varying levels of cleanliness and decay, the testament of neighborhoods rising and dying and rising again, of immigrants and landlords and cost and demand. Fried plantain oil and urine and cigarettes, and beneath that, the smell of panic. Or maybe that’s her own. She presses the window shut and flexes her toes in their new shoes. Like her pants, they are constricting, but they look the way she wants to be seen. He breathes beside her, warm and buzzing. The neighborhoods change again.
“Where is the party?” she had asked him earlier, and he responded, “Gowanus.” That is not what she had meant. Now, she tries again, clumsily: “So, tell me about this party. Who is going to be there?” The question confuses him. She tells him never mind and is quiet. It is an industry event, a horrible modifier. There will be people there who she follows on Twitter. An open bar. She cannot imagine the scene, and this makes her anxious. She wonders what she can talk about. How will they approach these glittering usernames? What can she say? What can she offer?
“What are we going to eat?” he interrupts, and she immerses herself in a Yelp search. They debate options and ultimately decide on nothing. The driver slows, signaling their destination, and she looks outside to find brick and industrial buildings and empty parking lots.
“We’re here?” He verifies the address. They walk forward, then backward, then change direction and walk forward again. The air is quiet and the sky bleak. There is a white couple a few paces ahead, their gait hesitant, eyes searching. She knows they are looking for the same party, and thinks to mention this, to suggest catching up to them and asking “Are you headed to number fifty five too?” She obeys the frisson of fear and stays silent, retreats back into anticipatory dread. The couple sees them, and the woman - short blondish hair, small teeth - smiles, friendly and wearied.
“Looking for number 55? This is quite a maze, isn’t it?”
He agrees, jocular and open, and she imagines a light pinging on somewhere around his head: he is on! Ready to engage. She admires his easy familiarity with strangers, takes refuge beneath it like a hood, only speaking when it becomes obvious she has to. She shakes their hands and tries to enunciate rather than spit her name, but the woman still repeats, “Carly?” like so many others have, and she wonders how bad it would be to just nod and be thought of as Carly so as to not have to repeat herself. It’s not such a bad name, she thinks, as they amble past the canal, gloomy and still in the gathering dark. Her tongue is dry. They’ve found the party.
The event space is Very Cool, so cool, in fact, that she cannot disparage it, even to herself. Two swings suspended from wooden rafters greet them, and she is almost offended by their beauty, the sheer dream of getting into one and kicking off in the midst of a crowd. It is a fantasy of hers, and here it is. She avoids the swings the entire night. The music is loud, but unassuming: somewhere between top 40 and indie dance hits. This party has levels: balconies and lofts and long couches and short ones. Above one balcony, there is an enormous salmon-colored balloon, navigating its own tiny orbit above a fan, some unknown mechanism keeping it in place. The party is not yet full, a smattering of smartly dressed youngish strangers, mouths open and limbs not yet alcohol-loosened, but bracing, waiting, for permission to engage. How many of these people are somebody, she thinks, and then hates herself for it. She wonders if this is the climb, and she already wants to just sit down somewhere quiet. He sees a person he knows.
He introduces her, and she shakes the man’s hand. She doesn’t hear who he is, her ears are so distracted by the music and all of the other conversations that she has very little idea of what’s happening in this one. She smiles whenever the man’s eyes drift to her, hoping it’s the right response, a sort of vague acquiescence, the lowest common denominator of participation she can muster. She longs for a drink to sip, and tries to stop playing with her hands. He is sparkling, effusive, looking at her often, as if trying to pull her further in. It’s an expression she knows well, as he directs his words in one direction and his eyes in hers. She wonders if she’s still smiling correctly. You curl your lips up, she would sing to the baby, gently poking the edges of her mouth, as if she could prod a grin into being. And you smile! As if it were so simple. When the conversation concludes and they walk away, she finally learns who the man is, and is regretful. She admires his work, she should have said more. She probably wouldn’t have, though. The truth is cold comfort.
There is free pizza. Gratefully, they inhale a slice as they approach a bar, seeking beer. Another introduction, and this time she hears the name. She is not sure how to acknowledge her awareness of his existence before now, so she doesn’t. His wife is there, so the conversational pressure is doubled. Resistance is futile. She takes a deep breath before plunging in, responding to questions and making facial expressions and offering commentary when appropriate, like a swimmer churning laps. She finishes her pizza in pieces, self-conscious to chew right in someone’s face but too hungry to care. She doesn’t want to be holding it any more. She and the woman now have their own separate conversation, a gradual tearing from the men that felt inevitable, and she participates in a way that feels like scrambling, as if all of her words have been thrown onto a field, and she has to go retrieve them, quickly, and in the correct order. She is nearly panting with the effort. Another woman joins, and now they are talking about motherhood, and she relaxes a bit, because this is all she knows right now. She has the youngest baby in the group. There are many looks can be translated to “awwwww”, and she feels the same strange detachment from her face: is she smiling? Beaming? Grimacing? She cannot tell. The longer she stands there, the less herself she feels, until there is just a body with her face making sounds at these other women, and when they go to get more pizza she nearly collapses in relief. She gulps her beer, and looks for him. He is alone, for the moment. There are so many more people now. “Excuse me, excuse me.” He met someone else while she was in conversation, an editor of this and writer for that and she is so tired. Fuck it, she thinks, and Googles his name. Why don’t I know anything, she thinks, as the page loads an image of his face.
She scrolls quickly downward, before someone can see and scorn what she’s doing. And then the man she has been researching approaches. Hi, nice to meet you. Insert clammy hand. There is nothing else to say to or about her after her name, really. He and the man talk about something else. She hates standing, waiting. She extricates herself, somehow, eventually. There is a break in the crowd by the empty pizza boxes, an island of quiet between groups of friends and strangers with open mouths and loose limbs. She gulps her beer and thinks about Carly, who she hastily denied out by the canal. Maybe Carly could stand in these small shoes and tight pants and offer up her best introduction about being a teacher and wanting to be a writer. She could be attentive and laugh gaily and make herself sound convincingly significant. She could stand, and wait for an opening, instead of running away.