Otherwise Engaged

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Yves sat in my orange chair, legs crossed at the ankle, scotch held in the air. I perched on his lap, piling gold lamé on my knees. I looked around the place. I’d accepted Yves’s proposal the week before, and tonight I planned on telling everyone.

He was the stranger strolling in the shadows, pennies jingling in pockets.

   “Oh, Yves, this might suck,” I whined.
   “Have another drink,” he said, shifting his legs under me in obvious pain. “Only way to kill the jitters, Lee.”
   We had both decided to forget the only other time he’d come here. I’d made dinner but overcooked the lamb because he was late. He wouldn’t say, but I don’t think he was lost; he just couldn’t believe it was the right neighborhood. We ate by candlelight so he wouldn’t see the grimy walls, but darkness, of course, invited roaches. He devoted his body language to seeming relaxed, but I caught him wiping grease from his wine glass, crunching a bug under his shoe, sneaking gristle from his mouth. I got despondent, staring at our flickering shadows.
   "Hey,” he’d said, brushing my cheek with his knuckles. “I’ve got an idea. Fanelli’s to finish the night off. ”
   So we’d driven into the city, and I was silent until we were seated at the bar. He ate dessert. I drank whiskey. And suddenly my poverty and dependence seemed glamorous again. I was the urchin selling violets in the dusk, skin burning anemic, eyes ablaze. He was the stranger in the bowler hat strolling in the shadows, pennies jingling in pockets.

Friends transform an apartment; it’s not unlike watching a sick person gain back weight. The epicenter was the turntable. Through the smoke, my friends looked wild, with diamond eyebrow studs, tattooed necks, hand-sewn shirts. I kept checking Yves’s reaction, but his expression didn’t stray from generic benevolence.
   A Chihuahua trotted between shoes, hair cut into a full-body Mohawk. Giuseppe put a cocktail napkin over its head: “Look! An Amish puppy!”
   Kelly sat cross-legged on the floor, sifting through the album jackets. Cheeks pink, hair damp, blue hooded sweatshirt with the words "South Beach" in white. The tip of a tattoo extended beyond the sleeve.
   Jamie was making custom cocktails. She tottered over, pressed a sticky glass into my hand. “This is a little something I call the Bombay Hooker.”
   “What’s in it?”
   “Old family recipe. Kind of sacred," she said and went back to work.
   “You have no idea what you put into it," I accused.
   “That’s what I meant,” she called from the kitchen.

Yves spent most of the night sitting, tumbler in hand, smiling like a sphinx. He rarely got up, and when he did, it was to peruse books or freshen his drink. Once, he offered a handkerchief to Jamie when Sherry bumped her drink. Reflected in the Empire mirrors of his eyes, the clumsy lot of fools.
   I cleared my throat, the speech ticker-taping through my head. I was poised to clink the martini shaker with a silver stirrer. Gazing onto faces, I knew my ears were turning scarlet. Sweat beaded my upper lip. I was floating, pressed to the ceiling like an astronaut, looking down on myself. I could actually see the middle part in my red hair. The lavender valley between my big white tits. Crimson toenails peeking from the gold hemline.

I mixed Kahlúa and milk. He said nothing. My back burned; I was blushing when I sat down.

   “I feel like your chaperone,” Yves said, coming up behind me.
   “Oh, please," I said. "You can drink these kids under the table.”
   “Not tonight. I think I’m still tired. Would you call me a car?”
   “No! If you leave, I’m going with you.”
   “Let me go home gracefully. Let me call it a night.”
   No one knew that I planned to make an announcement, not even Yves, although he must have suspected that was why I’d had the party. He did look tired, like someone off a red-eye flight. Suddenly, I was nauseated by how many things I never completed. I knew I should tell everyone now, but I also knew the words would not come out of my mouth. Instead I apologized, and he waved me away.
   “For what, Lee? Have a good time. Have fun.”

Jamie and Vanessa jumped around to Devo, and Martine told an endless story to Tyrone, who was rolling a blunt. The dog licked the kitchen floor.
   Sherry was lap-dancing over Marcus, who was passed out.
   The bald stranger sketched Sherry and Marcus on a paper bag.
   Candle wax dripped off the table. Records everywhere. Cigar extinguished in coconut drink. Chico cha-cha-chaed up to me, asking what the party had been for, anyway.
   “Oh nothing,” I said. "A very merry unbirthday to you."
   A crew left for Blondie’s. I took off my shoes and kissed people good-bye. The Israeli boys were the only guests left, playing quarters in the kitchen.
   Then there was Kelly, who sat in the butterfly chair, beer can between thighs. Shoulders broad as eagle’s wings. Plump lips, like he’d been eating sour candy. He didn’t look ready to leave.
   I wrapped a ratty afghan around my shoulders and sat on the floor next to him. The downstairs boys, hands in pockets, filed past us. They thanked me morosely. I asked Kelly if he wanted another beer.
   “I haven’t finished this one,” he said.
   “You’ve had it forever. I’m sure it’s warm.” I said I’d make a nightcap.
   “Are you kicking me out?” he asked.
   “Of course not.”
   I mixed Kahlúa and milk. He said nothing. My back burned, and I was blushing when I sat down. I spilled a bit of drink, licked it off my hand.
   “So what do you want to know about me?” he asked.
   “What?” I scoffed.
   “Come on," he said. "You ask me one question, I ask you one.”
   “Why are you here?” I asked.
   “In New York? Or in your apartment?”
   “Either one."
   “I’ll answer both. I’m here for two reasons. One, because my friend hanged himself in our motel room.” He pulled off his sweatshirt, standing hairs on end with static. “And, how should I say, it forced me to look at my life. I decided I had to come here to find someone I know, prove something to her.”
   “I’m sorry about your friend,” I said, looking into my drink.
   He sipped. “And I’m here in your apartment because I wanted to talk to you. Like this. And you’ve been avoiding me. My turn.”
   “Do you know you’re one of the unhappiest girls I’ve ever known?”
   I stood to refill my drink, to hide my face. My hands shook as I poured; my eyes were blurry.

His hands on my hips, lips on my neck, one hand pushing away my hair. I stood like a statue, my drink in my hands, eyes wide open, rigid. Hot breath on cool back. I closed my eyes, let my head roll back on his shoulder, turned my face to his mouth.

He was long enough to show above his waistband, and I swiped the pearl off the tip, licked my finger.

   I moved to face him, and we stumbled without going anywhere. The record ended. I clung to his belt loops, wrapped my hand around the back of his neck, bit his lower lip. We swayed like marathon dancers.
    I pulled off his T-shirt. Kissed the meat of his arm. We fell onto the couch, and I was covered, smothered, the world gone dark. His back was wide, unmeasurable by my hands.
   My eyes closed, visions flickered: the surf, a scorpion, Kelly’s hand around a vodka bottle, his eyes the day of the suicide train, a man hanging, a palm leaf.
   We revolved, lay side by side, his hand held my breast through the gold, rubbed my nipple with his thumb. Hardness in his jeans against my belly. He was long enough to show above his waistband, and I swiped the pearl off the tip, licked my finger. His hand climbed my inner thigh, then cupped me.
   I gathered my skirt, pulling up gold, pushing down panties. Our eyes were close in the shadows, wet, dilated. The crackle of condom wrapper. I waited, watched.
   He rolled on top, put just the head in and paused. I could feel his heartbeat down there. That alone was almost too much. Suddenly he was in to the hilt. He barely had to move. Closer to the end, I wanted more. Imagined him with the power to be where he was and in my mouth at the same time, like a unicorn.

Later, in my bed, I took the head in my mouth and held the rest with my hand, blood thumping under my thumb. I was on my knees at a right angle to his body, his hand between my legs. His hand kept trying, but lapsing, forgetting. His breath hard, bottom lip pushed out.
   The halter of my dress pulled down to my waist, the skirt of it pulled up, to make a big gold belt.
   A crescendo of bad words and a throat full of buttermilk.
   We lay there, flung like the dead onto the bed. The room was dark, but he was darker. Inside his silhouette, fireflies bumped and glowed. 

Excerpted from the novel Here Kitty Kitty, which will be published in May by Little, Brown.

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Jardine Libaire holds an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her stories have been published on Nerve and in Fiction and Chick Lit , an anthology. She lives in Brooklyn. Here Kitty Kitty is her first novel.

©2004 Jardine Libaire and