I’m the only deaf person at the party, again.
I hesitate at the front door. The house is in a residential neighborhood, a part of Seattle I do not know. A classmate of mine, Emily, has texted me and said we have mutual friends at this party. I look through the window at the people inside, in the living room of the house, and I don’t recognize anyone. They all chatter with their mouths and I don’t see anyone gesturing. I don’t see anyone signing. They all sit or stand and use their mouths. They all grasp at large glasses full of dark liquid, dark alcohol.
Maybe the deaf people here have found refuge in the kitchen. Looking through the window, that thin hope tapers out already—there are no shadows, no signs of life beyond the living room. When I got the invitation from Emily, I suspected I would be the sole deaf partygoer, but something had staved off the polite decline I was texting back to her.
The party is better than another winter night alone. The party is better than flipping through books by the heater, feeling the floorboards with worry if a clank doesn’t occasionally come through. Being in a new environment, with polite strangers around you, tamps down your loneliness for a couple hours.
I knock. A porch light turns on and shines pale light. I brace myself for the work to begin.
The door swings open. The woman’s face is familiar. She is someone I’ve seen. I’ve seen her in a classroom, one of my classes, a Linguistics class or an English class. Her hair, fine and light brown, is not normally loose, I think. She is not normally dressed in sequins.
You made it! she smiles at me. I’m so happy Emily invited you!
She speaks through bared teeth (a snaggletooth is in the right side of her mouth), but her voice is loud enough to cut through the night chill and usher me inside. The entry space is dim with shadow and indirect light. I can’t see the hostess’s face and I find myself filling the space with meaningless chatter, saying things I always say and never mean.
I’m sorry, I hope it’s okay if I didn’t bring anything. Any food, I mean.
Thank you for inviting me here. You’ve got a lovely place.
Where do I put my coat? Do I take off my shoes?
The hostess says, You can put your coat here. She places a hand on a coat stand, a dark metal monster appointed beside a flight of stairs. Past the coat stand, down the hallway, is a closed door; then there is a doorway, beyond is a kitchen space, the countertop dark and gleaming.
As I find a place to hang my coat, the hostess says something else. Her tone is light and teasing, not inquiring or remotely serious. Her voice comes through my hearing aids and I know she said something. Still, I didn’t catch what she said and I don’t know if it’s okay to ask. I curse myself for missing it. I curse myself and it feels like my heart rate has tripped and is stumbling back to normal. It is the first of many uneasy stumbles and snowballs.
Five minutes in someone’s house and I already can’t be an attentive guest.
There are shoes by the doorway. I slip out of mine and place them where I know I can find them in a couple hours. They look misshapen and grotesque next to the other pairs.
Do you want anything to drink? the hostess asks. She mimes drinking, a small gesture of kindness. We are in the living room now. The other partygoers stare at us.
What do you have? I ask partly out of courtesy, partly out of curiosity. I never drink alcohol in a group full of hearing people, but I want to know what is in people’s glasses.
The hostess rattles off her selection, using her fingers to move from one drink to the next. She uses both hands to list all her choices. One hand is entirely hard liquor.
I’ll have water, I tell her. The hostess blinks at me, either out of surprise or hurt—or both. Her kindness is forgotten already, as if it was barely a kindness at all.
The living room is bigger than it looks from outside: it is a pale-carpeted space with a dark sectional couch and mismatched chairs. One is green, the other gray. All the furniture, all the people, are cast in yellow from a large lamp. It is meant to look like a soft honey light, warm and inviting. Instead, it looks cheap, yellowing the white walls. All the partygoers’ faces are waxy and sallow, as if they are wearing masks. Half of them have fixed smiles. The other half’s mouths don’t move. The voices, a low polite buzz, come from somewhere, but I cannot tell who is and isn’t talking.
The hostess gives me my water in a stemless wine glass. I perch on the couch, the material sighs, and I sink further into the cushion than I think I should.
The hostess stops in front of me. She asks something. I shake my head on reflex, a reflex that happens when I am still processing her words. She has asked me, Do you know anyone? I have already shaken my head when I realize her question.
Nevertheless, she is starting on introductions. You know me, she says. I’m Rachel.
A small woman sitting on the couch next to me with dark hair and owlish eyes is Monica. The blonde woman with a tight smile, tight like a staple, is Erin; she is cross-legged on the floor, wearing a dress. The man next to Erin is Sean or John, and the top button on his shirt is buttoned. Another woman with a white turtleneck and a purple undercut is named Lucy, a name I haven’t heard in so long it takes time to compute. I miss the other blonde girl’s name, something that holds the buzz of an “n.” She is also wearing a dress. The other man is named Patrick. He sits in an armchair rather than the sectional, even though the sectional has plenty of empty space. He has made himself separate from the gaggle.
Patrick stares at me and doesn’t dive back into conversation like the other partygoers. His face is pleasant. Under the lamplight, it holds the vague appeal of a painted portrait, the shadows soft and gray. I nod at him, feeling a smile unfurl on my face. But it mustn’t unfurl too quickly. He nods back and I feel excitement begin to spark hot in me. Maybe he is another lone partygoer.
Patrick’s gaze swivels off me as the second blonde girl calls for him. I stare down at my water. The carpet wobbles through it.
Monica is talking excitedly. Erin and Sean/John stare at her. Erin talks with an expression of detachment, her mouth barely forming shapes. Her bottom lip catches under her teeth more times than I can count. I think I see her say the words “developing” and “language,” and I lean forward. Maybe they are talking about linguistics. Maybe they are talking about books. Either topic is one in which I can hold a conversation, even with low light and high background noise.
But I can’t lipread Monica; her hair is a curtain upon her profile. I can only see the tip of her nose and the curve of her chin. Her voice comes rattling out, staccato like a machine gun.
My water glass is empty.
A screech tears through the low buzz of conversation and the hostess is at the center of the disturbance, grabbing at the second blonde girl, her head thrown back and her mouth gaping happily at the ceiling. Patrick grins and looks on.
It is not Monica’s voice that is like a machine gun, I realize. It is the second blonde girl and her talking. She dominates the space. By comparison, Monica is so quiet I can barely register her, though I am sitting next to her.
I get up and go to the kitchen. It is brighter in there, and I blink in the light. I feel the low seethe of frustration already sitting below my collarbone. I tug at my right earlobe until my hearing aid squawks with feedback. I do the same to the other one. I know they’re working, but they’re not working like they should be. They’re not picking up on the right things.
I have thought about these frustrations before. I will think about them again.
I stay in the kitchen. The ceiling lights are fluorescent bright. Under them, the open bottles of alcohol on the counter look alluring, all shimmering clean and crystal even though I’m positive only half the bottles are glass.
The hostess comes into the kitchen. She holds two empty glasses. She sees me and asks something. I know the soft query and its tone all too well, and I have a lie ready.
I’m doing fine, I say. I just have a little headache. Water helps.
She asks something else. I do not catch the words falling off her mouth, but I see how her gaze is misty as she looks at me. Her voice is less crisp and inviting than it was when she greeted me at the door. She is already getting drunk.
I’m doing fine, I say. Unease hums like a coiled shock at the small of my back. Thank you, I add, quickly, carefully. The hostess does not acknowledge me. She is more focused on the refrigerator now. She squats and rummages.
Patrick walks in. Under the kitchen lights, he comes into focus. He is more tall than broad, and his hair is lighter than I’d thought. The smile he gives me makes twin dimples appear in his cheeks.
He doesn’t talk until the hostess leaves with a mixture of orange juice and a generous pour from one of the glass bottles. What are you drinking? he asks.
Water, I tell him. In the other room, someone trills. They sound like a siren.
Are you here by yourself?
I stutter—I forget her name, then I don’t. I was invited here by Emily, I say. She said she was going to be here, and, hopefully, she should be here any minute.
She won’t, Patrick says. Rachel got a text from her a few minutes before you showed up. She has food poisoning.
I feel my eyebrows drive up my forehead. Something in my stomach slips downward, the weight of disappointment. I hadn’t felt my phone vibrate. I’d checked my phone right before climbing the steps to the front door and there was no text from her. I had been counting on her to show up and now she wasn’t going to.
I had hoped to enter the party through Emily. I wanted to know who to avoid and who to engage with. I wanted to not feel my way through with lipreading and non-sequiturs and bluffs of understanding. I wanted to go to a party and not feel unmoored.
Patrick says something else, the tone searching. A smile tugs at his lips.
I shake my head. I don’t know anyone else here, I say to him. Emily invited me and I thought I’d come because she was here.
Patrick’s eyebrows rise. You and me both, he says. I mean, I know Rachel, but everyone knows Rachel. He says something else—but another sound erupts out of the other room, another laugh, high and staccato and grating. Patrick’s voice drowns underneath the burst of noise even as he keeps talking.
I’m sorry, what was that? I ask.
Patrick steps closer to me. Only three alcohol bottles fill the space between us now. I feel my back straighten, but I resist the urge to step back. I bounce on my heels and hope Patrick doesn’t notice. I notice as he gets closer that Patrick’s hair becomes redder.
It’s nice to meet someone who doesn’t know anyone, Patrick says. Parties are more fun that way. I like meeting new people.
I nod, mainly because I have nothing else to do or say. The closer Patrick gets, the more his presence overpowers.
Can I get you anything to drink? Patrick asks.
The no is already in place, my tongue pressed against the roof of my mouth. I almost walk past Patrick, put my shoes and my coat on and leave. Something holds me in place. If I leave this house now, I would have come here for nothing. If I left my apartment, I wanted to make it count. I want the journey to this house, with those people, to count for something.
I ignore the lingering tension in my stomach and smile at Patrick. He is here in this kitchen, with me, while the party continues in the other room. Sure, I say. Thank you, Patrick.
At my thank you, Patrick stops midturn to the alcohol bottles. He cocks his head at me and says something I can’t decipher—his voice skates a bit higher, sounds a bit louder, he sounds affronted.
I feel heat spread up my neck. What? I ask.
My name is, and he says something I can’t catch. My hands collect into fists. My nerves feel like they are being pricked with a needle, my skin hot. I don’t know his name and I can’t pull it off his mouth. I feel like I am drowning.
One more time, I say. Sorry. My voice sounds tinny.
His lips press together. A-T-T-I-C-U-S, he spells it out. My name is Atticus. Not Patrick.
Heat floods me. I feel the pinprick of tears in my eyes. Excuses and explanations crowd into my mind, but I don’t want to give anything that annoys him more. Sorry, I say. Atticus.
Atticus turns back to the bottles. He grasps at one bottle, then another, then another; it is hard for me to keep track, but I ignore the simmer of distrust within me. I must be kind to Atticus. I must not assume every hearing person has bad intentions. When Atticus hands me my drink, dark liquid still swirling, I take it.
Thank you, I say. Sorry about before, with your name. I’m deaf, so it’s hard to pick up on things sometimes. Thanks for being patient with me.
Atticus lets out a little laugh, his lips parting, his brow furrowing. Before he can say anything, before I can ask why he laughed, another screech rips open the silence. Atticus turns and we both see the partygoer enter the kitchen from the hallway, a new partygoer with shaggy hair and a leather jacket. The hostess hangs off him. He speaks through a bright smile. He wraps Atticus in a hug, clapping his back. Atticus turns his back on me, and I stare at his shoulders. I am forgotten and solitary, but I am not alone in the kitchen. Atticus has someone else to talk to now and I do not. If I am lonely, I want to be alone.
Everyone gathers around the dining table. The table, metallic and pale and cheap looking, is barely visible under the number of dishes. The hostess speaks to me past Atticus’s frame. This is dinner, she says. It’s a buffet. Eat what you want.
I stand back as the others converge. Soon, everyone is back in the living room; I go to the table, then. The plates are paper. There are two different lettuce salads, dark and gleaming with oil. Someone has brought fried chicken and potatoes from KFC, and, miraculously, both buckets are half-full. There is a casserole at the end, with macaroni and shredded cheese that is almost gone. I start there and work my way down.
I look up when I finish and catch eyes on me from the living room. It is the hostess and both blonde girls—they look down at their plates too quickly, stuffing their mouths too quickly. They are talking about me, I know this on instinct. They avoid my gaze and each other’s, the picture of embarrassment.
The paper plate sags; it could surrender my food to the carpet any second. The drink Atticus made swirls in the cup. I am part of this party. Still, I hesitate in the space between the dining room and the living room. I see Atticus: he is staring at me, and he pats the couch cushion next to him. He is talking with Monica, who grins at me.
He says something as I am balancing my plate on my thighs, the drink between my knees.
I look up at him, What?
He says it again, gesturing to my cup. I cannot read his lips, but I know what he means. I sip. The taste erupts as a strange catsup tang on my tongue. I swallow and it burns my throat. I try not to cough too hard or too many times. The plate teeters, and I move it higher up my thighs.
It’s good. The words leave my mouth as air. Atticus smiles at me, obvious delight in his face. His forehead furrows and his smile crinkles around his eyes. To his ear, my breathy response probably sounds soft with awe. He puts an arm around my shoulders.
I tense. Atticus doesn’t take his hand away. His thumb sweeps alongside my shoulder, his pinkie close to my armpit. I am not used to this. I am not used to a stranger touching me like this. As Atticus rubs a little circuit on my shoulder, I realize his hand is a kind of anchor. It is a way for me to feel like I belong at this party.
I force myself to sit back and relax, and I start eating. The casserole is slick with butter and heavy in my mouth. The salad’s lettuce barely registers past the oil. There are little drops of either melted butter or oil that speckle the plate.
As I eat, Atticus keeps rubbing my shoulder. My skin hums with electricity, with a kind of contentment, but I cannot shake the feeling of unease underneath. I cannot decide if I should ask him to take his hand away.
I look at him. He is already looking at me, his face bright with curiosity. I feel myself flush with heat, and I look back at my food and drink. His gaze stays on me, and I know he’s seen my hearing aids. I want to speak out against his gaze, the urge rising up sharp in my chest. I take another drink.
Monica is staring at me expectantly. I raise my eyebrows as a general query. I swallow.
What do you do? she asks. Her voice is sharp with impatience.
I’m a Linguistics major at the University of Washington, I say. I’m a senior in the program.
Do you like it? Monica asks. I notice the red stains on her teeth, the way her lipstick looks half-chewed off. She looks both worn and bloodthirsty. She looks like a vampire. She drinks from a stemless wine glass, like mine.
I nod. I smile gratefully at Monica. This is small talk and it is familiar territory, easy territory. It requires little work and less focus.
I do like it. Linguistics is a lot of work, but I love learning about language. I love studying language, I say. It’s interesting to me to see how people use and develop language with each other.
Monica purses her lips. Something about the action, how it pulls at her face, makes me think about the other women, the hostess and the blonde girls. The three of them are now giggling among themselves. They have moved on from me. I drink.
Monica is now talking with the shaggy-haired partygoer. He sits on the other side of Atticus, but Atticus has no arm around him. I feel singled out with Atticus’s arm around me. I feel claustrophobic because of Atticus’s warm weight on me. He could be reassuring me or using me as a crutch. I don’t know what he wants. I don’t know what I am doing, staying at this party, surrounded by strangers. I drink more. The food has disappeared from my plate—all that’s left is chicken bone. I see the bottom of the cup and I drink until there’s nothing but the glass of the cup. I blink and the living room seems to swirl, only for a moment.
Excuse me, I say. I shrug off Atticus’s arm, place my plate and cup on the ground, and ask the hostess for the bathroom.
She points it out. It is the door between the coat stand and the kitchen. She apologizes, she should have given me a tour of the house earlier.
I don’t know why I am here at this party. I don’t know why I thought I would enjoy myself here. I don’t know why I am still here.
I stay seated on the toilet after I finish peeing. My socked feet almost touch the bathtub. The hem of the shower curtain hovers millimeters above my feet. The shower curtain is a grotesque array of watercolor flowers printed on gauzy white cotton. I belch, the action hot and ugly in my throat. My stomach aches; I ate too fast. My vision still swirls and warps at the corners. I am drunk off Atticus’s concoction, or, at the very least, I am getting drunk. I don’t want to be drunk, and I shake my head against the swirl. Shaking my head only makes the swirls in my vision bigger, more ominous, like the wake from a boat crashing upon the shore.
I get up from the toilet. I turn on the faucet, make a puddle in my hands, and place my face in it. I sigh soft against the water. I am at this party. I am at this party and there is no obligation keeping me here. I know no one here. I can barely connect with anyone here.
I let the water through my hands. I turn off the faucet and inhale, exhale. My reflection stares back at me, pale and puckered. A drop of water slides down my neck, past my Adam’s apple.
I’m going to leave, I think—the thought is like a lightbulb in darkness. It’s not worth the trouble to be at a party where I don’t know anyone. It would be easier to go home.
I don’t know if I can find my shoes. I don’t remember where I put my coat.
A knock on the door. Another partygoer needs to pee.
One minute! I call. I turn on the faucet and stick my hands under it to buy myself more time. But there comes more knocking, insistent over the gush of water.
I turn the faucet off without using soap. My hands slip when I first try to turn the doorknob, but I grasp the handle soon enough and open the door a crack.
Atticus is on the other side. He stares at me.
Are you okay? he asks.
Tension twists in my gut. Fine, I say. Do you need to use the bathroom?
Atticus chuckles, shaking his head. He pushes the door open, pushing me back. I step back as he steps in. He closes the door behind him, behind us. He twists the lock and locks us in.
I’m sorry, Atticus says. I’m sorry if that was too strong.
My head feels heavy, but I know what he means. He’s worried about the drink he made and its effects on me. He’s worried and I was wrong to be wary of him. I smile. I shake my head. The unsteadiness in me will dissipate, eventually. It wasn’t too strong, I lie. It’s fine.
Atticus grins back at me, dimples digging deep in his cheeks. His fingers curl around the back of my neck, the sensation feels far away. But then he brings his face to mine. He brings his mouth to mine. He kisses me.
Shock knifes hot up my chest. I grunt against his mouth. But he keeps going. He keeps kissing me. I see the small creases in his eyelids, the tender skin there. Shower tile, curtain flowers, and pale wall swirl around us, and I feel the tug to surrender to Atticus’s mouth. He could pull me towards a good thing, towards a deeper connection.
He wanted to do this. He wants to do this. He wants me. His hand is on my ass. He wants, he wants, and it is overwhelming.
I close my eyes and open my mouth. I let him take control. He hums—somehow, I am against him, against his body, and he presses his crotch against mine. His tongue sweeps the cavern of my mouth, and I let him dominate. I can feel him, hard, and I feel desire collecting in my gut. My hands slide on his back, fingers feeling out the splay of muscle and bone, moving under his shirt, over his skin.
We could leave this party together, I think. We could go back to my apartment and be together, do all of this together, only the two of us together.
Atticus mouths at my jawline and then he presses his lips against my neck. Another shock of heat in my chest. I feel my nails dig in his back. I want him. I want this. I hiss out, “Yes, yes,” as he keeps going, back to my mouth, kissing me.
His hand brushes against my hearing aid. Snicker of static, and Atticus hums again, shorter this time, the sensation sharp against my mouth.
Atticus stops kissing me. He rubs a finger over my hearing aid. Static again, too loud, too close, too much. I try to move my head gently away, sideways.
Atticus touches the other one. His face is close to mine, I look up into his eyes, but he stares past me. The desire is being replaced with something else. He stares at my ears, his eyebrows slanting upward. He says something, and all I can catch is the general uptick near the end, the thready tone of questioning. The question is one I’m familiar with.
Those are my hearing aids, I tell him. I’m deaf. I told you.
He pulls back and looks me in the face. His eyes are glazed over, his eyelids heavy. The corners of his mouth turn upward, in a small, lazy smile. He looks like he’s just woken up.
I don’t understand. You’re here with me, he says.
The words seem to echo in the bathroom, bouncing off the shower tile. The words somersault over and over in my head, and I can’t find other meaning, other than the obvious, other than what he’s said. Even as I understand what he means, I don’t understand why he says it. I don’t understand why he is smiling. I feel something inside of me drop, like I’ve fallen off some tightrope and am plunging down.
Just because I’m deaf doesn’t mean I can’t be here, I say.
Atticus still smiles. He cups my jawline and rubs his thumb against my ear again. Then he rubs higher—the snicker of static once again. I pull away from his hand.
Don’t do that, I say.
Atticus giggles, the sound high and sparkling; the laugh reverberates, and the reverberations seem to carry an edge of scorn, sawing against my bones. It’s like you’re part robot, he says. I didn’t think you people got invited anywhere.
I am plunging down towards fire, like his words are a catapult towards open anger, open flame. My vision swims and I feel the hot prick of tears.
I need to go, I say. My voice breaks on the word go and I cannot look at him. I cannot look at myself in the mirror. The tile on the ground and the shower walls all swirl together. I cannot make sense of where to go, how to respond, why Atticus said something like that to me. I do not bother to ask. I do not bother to listen to him, to the protests falling from his mouth and echoing upon shower tile.
I shove past him and open the door. This party is not for me, and I need to leave.
I cannot find my shoes or my coat. I paw through fabric after fabric and my hands don’t close around familiarity. I think I hear the bathroom door open behind me and I lean too close to the coat stand then, smelling the black wool of a coat that feels too expensive for me to own. My vision still plays tricks on me, warping and swirling, and I almost lose my balance. The coat stand almost topples over.
I cannot find anything. Behind me come the waves of people talking, people laughing. It all comes as human static through my hearing aids. Atticus’s voice, deep and velvety, is a needle plunging in skin. The pulse pounding behind my forehead is starting to become a headache, an all-encompassing pain.
I climb the stairs. I ascend into deeper darkness. A couple of the doors hang ajar and squares of light beam from windows and cut across pale hallway carpet. Behind me, below me, the party goes on.
I wanted to hurt Atticus. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders, shake him, and ask him why the fuck he thought what he thought. I wanted to slap him. I still do. But at a party with other hearing people, he is protected. At a hearing party like this, the deaf one is always on the outside. There is no way to an honest answer, in a scenario like this.
Above the party, I can feel the thunder of my pulse starting to recede. I sit down on the hallway carpet and take breaths. Deep breaths, in and out. The storm moves on.
I hadn’t been invited anywhere, for a time. A boy I’d been seeing always said he’d been invited to bars. He’d been invited to concerts. He’d been invited to parties. I always looked at my phone and anticipated the invite to tag along. The invite had never come, and I’d always texted back a perfunctory response, a wish to have fun.
One night, he said he would come over after a party, or maybe it was a concert this time. He said he’d be at my apartment around 9 p.m. I waited, past nine, past ten, past eleven.
Then I opened my eyes and the ceiling lights were still on—I’d fallen asleep without wanting to, lulled to sleep in the static sameness of my apartment. Then my phone vibrated again, in my jeans pocket, and I bolted upright on the couch. It was two in the morning.
He didn’t come alone. His friend opened a keg she brought along, the tops popping off and clinking on the kitchen floor like loose change. Neither one of them picked the tops up. They chattered and giggled at my dining table, shiny with exuberance. I tried to follow their conversation, foggy with both sleep and the lack of it.
I’m so sorry, what was that? I asked again and again.
The friend started yelling her responses at me, her responses remaining incomprehensible. My boyfriend didn’t say anything. My hearing aids barely could figure out the shapes of consonants. Her vowels were all long and loud. I counted four fillings in her mouth. I stayed silent and soon she stopped yelling, going back to giggling with my boyfriend, but her voice still echoed in my mind.
She said she had to go when the clock read 3:12 a.m. But she took a long time to leave, too, hanging around my doorway. But then she caught my eye, she saw me slouching against the wall, and she seemed to understand, finally. Her voice came resigned and thready, even if she didn’t stop smiling. She turned and walked off in the deep, dark night.
My boyfriend closed the door and locked it behind him. He turned and looked at me, the expression on his face soft and warm. He went to me and kissed me.
We had sex with the lights on. After, I didn’t turn off the bedside lamp.
Why did she come along? I asked him as we were settling down under the covers. It’s my apartment.
His sleepy smile faded. He stared at me, as if I’d suddenly grown another head. We wanted to hang out, he said.
I felt my mouth twist as if I’d tasted something bitter. I didn’t want her in my apartment, I said. She screamed at me.
She was trying to include you! She doesn’t know sign language and she was trying her best. Be happy anyone wants to hang out with you.
He turned away from me, staring away from me. I stared at his dark curls, his bony shoulders, and I couldn’t find any trace of the man I’d fell for. I felt like a gulf was now between us. I left the bed, left the bedside lamp on, and lay on the couch, alone in the near dark.
I didn’t sleep. The sky lightened to blue, paling and paling until the sun rose. The stranger in my bed stirred, got up, and got dressed.
I watched him leave. He never looked at me once. I never texted him again.
Something comes out of the darkness. There is nothing downstairs, from the party. Something moves in the darkness, in the upstairs hallway. I squint, but the darkness is too deep for me to make out anything.
Hello? I say. I feel silly once the question leaves me, siphoning into empty darkness.
Light comes. Monica grimaces wanly at me from several feet away. She’s sitting in the same hallway I am, her knees to her chest. Her right hand falls down from a light switch. Her lipstick is now completely gone, her mouth the color that comes after a rush of blood. Her make-up is completely gone; her hair is tied back, not loose like it once was.
You need a break too, huh? she asks.
People talk a lot, I say.
Monica nods. Most of them aren’t very interesting, either, she replies. It’s only talk to fill the silence.
Silence is better sometimes, I say. Monica chuckles, low and throaty, at that. I don’t understand what she is laughing at, and then I do. I laugh with her. Her laugh is one I like. She is someone I like.
Have you met any of those people? she asks. I shake my head and she smiles, a real smile, a smile of curiosity now. Her eyes hold a glimmer of recognition, of knowing. Perhaps she has been me before, the reluctant partygoer. She still could be, in many ways.
You looked uncomfortable with Atticus’s arm over you, she says.
I feel embarrassment burst in my chest. I open my mouth, Monica holds up a hand, and, below, there is a sudden spurt of laughter and loud talking.
There’s no need to explain, she says, after the noise has died down. I get it.
I don’t get invited to parties often, I say. Even said only to Monica, it sounds like an excuse ready to collapse on itself. I can anticipate her questions already, why I chose to come here. Why this party? Why these people? Why subject yourself to something like this?
I wanted to do something different, I add.
She nods, and I think she doesn’t believe me. She gets up and walks past me. She is returning to the party. But, halfway down the stairs, she looks back. Half her face is shrouded in shadow. The other half is shiny and sharp in the soft honey light, her cheekbone glinting like a razor’s edge.
Do you want to go home? she asks me. I can turn on the foyer light for you.
Below, another rustle of laughter reaches up to us.
When I was a child, I was brought along to parties. My parents loved them, my mother putting on jewelry and lipstick, my father cracking jokes and asking for yet another drink. But the hum and bustle, all the conversations, was too much for me to take in. It was too much for me to keep up.
I started sneaking a book into the car. When I was tired of trying to read the other kids’ gummy mouths and the floppy way they said their words, I would go to the car and I would get whatever book I’d chosen. Then I would sit on the stairs and read until my parents materialized.
They would always act so angry, so embarrassed. Where have you been? Didn’t you know there was dinner? Didn’t you know there was dessert? Do you want dessert? Say yes, say you do.
The first couple of times it’d happened, my mother came into my room to tuck me in, and she said, You know, you don’t have to leave at the first sign of trouble. It’s okay to ask questions if you miss out on things. It’s okay to speak up and assert yourself.
What if I get tired of asking questions? I’d asked her the first time.
She’d shrugged, the picture of nonchalance—even as her face darkened with uncertainty. Just keep asking, she said. You’ll get used to asking, eventually.
The next time they found me reading on the stairs, there was nothing to be said. The light switched on above the staircase. The scene, and what would happen next, became all too clear.
My parents’ faces materialized before me, below me, at the foot of the staircase. Both faces were filled with resignation. Both faces blamed me not trying, gazes becoming hard and accusing. They didn’t understand I was outside this party and couldn’t get in. Every party was a feast of sound and mouths and consumption, nothing for me to hold on to. As I closed my book, as I went down the stairs, I tried to communicate without talking that I’d tried, really tried before I gave up, and no one had listened.
Rumpus original art by Peter Witte