She was sitting on a gunmetal-gray velvet pouffe, feeling uncomfortable. It wasn't my fault; I'm very comfortable. I know every dress says she's comfortable, but I really am.
The waiter had already come by twice, but she hadn't touched her champagne. I think she only took it to keep them from asking her if she wanted any.
I knew something had happened when I felt myself tighten; she'd taken a deep breath. She didn't let it out for a long time. She stared into the bottom of the glass.
A shadow loomed over us, and a light voice said "Kathy! You, here?"
He wasn't very tall, and he wasn't very young, but he wasn't old, either. In brighter light I bet you'd see gray in his hair. His evening dress was immaculate, but it looked as if he wore it every day, like he put it on right after breakfast. It was tailored to hide a little bit of a belly, I thought.
He sank down beside her. A waiter immediately appeared, and he took a glass. I could feel him staring; it felt like being next to a hot radiator.
"You look perfectly elegant," he said.
"It'd be a nicer compliment if you didn't sound so surprised," she answered. She took her first sip from the glass.
"Well, I usually see you in dungarees and an old shirt. Or a boiler suit. Although I must admit the boiler suit can be pretty cute."
"That's what I paint in. This is what I — " she waved the glass around " — whatever this is — in."
"This is Elena's showoff party. Are you showing off?"
"I think I'm being shown off. Or I'm going to be. She bought something last month. The big canvas — you remember? And with a big canvas you get a personal appearance by the artist. Plus Green Stamps."
"Ah." He smiled. "That explains all. Even the dress. Did she send it?"
"Her secretary did. I even get to keep it."
"Elena likes to make sure of all the details, she does. It's endearing in her … and lovely on you."
She looked into her glass again. "Where's the Countess? I didn't see her."
"She's with the Count. Wherever he is."
I could feel her turn towards him, slightly. "Should I feel sorry for you? Or for her?"
"Do you feel sorry for the library book when it has to go back to the library?"
"Sometimes, sometimes I do. If I didn't get a chance to read it before it was due."
"Well, then, you shouldn't feel sorry for either of us on that account. We figured out how the story ended."
"And it's really ended? This time?"
"Big letters, saying "THE END" appeared on the screen. I believe there was a sunset involved. Probably a horse, too."
"You're mixing things up. We were talking about books, not movies."
Music started in the other room.
"C'mon," he said. A waiter was right there, again. He was the kind of man waiters liked. He took her glass away and put it on the waiting tray, next to his. "Let's dance."
When he put his hand on her waist I felt her gut clench, but I don't think he felt it.
"You dance like you paint," he said.
"Lots of blue?"
"Lots of air." He smiled down at her. Not very far down; their faces were close together. "Lightness. Lots of little surprises, surprises you only find after a very long time looking."
She didn't say anything, but I felt her relax, just a bit.
"The funny thing about you, Kathy, is that as a woman, you're very direct. More direct than most women. As an artist, though … you're oblique."
"That's an interesting interpretation," she said. "I have told you how much I hate being compared to 'most women', though, haven't I?"
"You see? Direct. Of course, most women want to think they're unique. The difference is, you actually are."
He sounded so dispassionate, as if he were talking about auto insurance or Korea; that alone should have tipped me off that he wasn't.
"And what about you? Are you unique?"
"Me, I'm right off the assembly line. They make ten thousand of me a year, and you can get me in any color you like, with an optional radio."
"I could give you a custom paint job." She grinned at him. It was the first time she'd smiled since she put me on.
"I bet you could. Good thing I like blue."
They had drifted to the edge of the dance floor as the music stopped. A large woman in an electric-green dress swooped down on them. There was a jeweled clip in the shape of a peacock feather in her hair, and her eyes were lined in the same peacock color. She spoke in a low voice but it carried like a shout.
"My two geniuses! Of course you know each other! How perfect! Clancy, doesn't she look deee-vine?"
"Absolutely," he said. "I was just telling her so."
"Liar," she said.
"I was getting around to it." He looked like a sulky boy, just for a moment.
Elena wasn't paying attention; she had her head turned towards the band. "Clancy," she said. "I know I said I wasn't going to make you do this, but the drummer got a hernia or indigestion or malaria or something, and the replacement won't be here for twenty minutes — would you play something?"
He looked doubtful. Elena didn't notice.
"Please, Clancy — it would mean so much to me. And everyone here loves you, you know that. Play something for me?"
"For you, Elena, anything," he said. He shrugged. "Although you're making me stand Kathy up for the next dance. I can't dance and play at the same time."
Elena laughed. "If anyone could, you could, Clancy." She was still looking towards the band. "Oh, and play something new, will you? Thanks, darling!" She hurried off.
"Play something new, will you, darling?" she said, imitating Elena.
He looked away, absent for a moment. He took a deep breath. "I think I will play something new," he said. "Be careful what you ask for." He headed up towards the piano.
Elena was already up there. I thought she would make an announcement, but she just said, "Everybody, Clancy!" There was a lot of applause.
She didn't clap. She just looked at him.
He sat down and did an elaborate jokey hand stretch. He dropped his hands on the keyboard in a dramatic chord. The room went quiet.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "This is a new piece. It's called "Kathy"."
I can't really tell you what it sounded like; I can only tell you that she shivered and got goosebumps. And that I got really mussed during the cab ride home, but I didn't care.
[NB: this is a first draft … wrote it all this morning very quickly! so it might change.]
[Note: Sarah pointed out that this is really #14, because #13 was the fundraising post back in December. I've updated the list on the sidebar, so everything should be properly numbered and ordered now …]