the christmas party

In retrospect I can use or at least approximate the right words for the feelings; I can say I felt all the air go out of me but at the same time I felt just like an overblown balloon, about to pop. I can say all these things but at that exact moment I knew nothing except a sort of wild-animal blank panic, and I stood in the shadows which was the most I could muster for propriety, and I didn’t know if I were happy or sad or if I loved him, still, or ever.

Neil walked in and saw me, giggled and began a story. “So I was saying to the director that ‘no, really’ because I had no idea she . . .” he stopped and looked at me. “Are you feeling well?” I shook my head, trying to keep from crying, thinking it would be the very worst thing, to cry while someone giggled at you, but my eyes were already smarting. I opened them wider to hold the tears in. “You’re not breathing Lola,” he said softly. “I can’t – he didn’t – it was – too long, I mean – ” I gasped, an epic story lost in the dashes. Neil stood closer, pushing aside the champagne bucket on the table in front of us. He almost took my hand, then stopped. “Look at me, Lola,” and I did, although he seemed kind of shiny. “In, out, in . . . ” and then I was breathing again, and the tears were re-absorbed or at any rate gone, and I began to feel the need to explain.

“I just saw . . . someone. I hadn’t seen in a very long while.” I said, breathing carefully. He cocked his head at me. “And then you forgot to breathe of course.” The comment annoyed me and I snapped back “It’s easy for you, you’re old, you’ve had time to live through this a dozen . . .” and the air caught in my throat, because I remembered he’s a client, and they all want to feel so young. He laughed. “I am old, aren’t I? Especially compared to you, Lola, then I’m extra old.” He crinkles his nose slightly when he’s amused, I thought. And he’s stopped giggling. And he’s taller than I thought, and he must be wider too, because the light from the other room is blocked with him standing in front of it. And I looked up suddenly into his eyes, wondering where the giggles were and the deep, spoiled sighs, and the whiny – because there is no other word for it – tone of voice that grates like a beginning violin student’s ‘music’ on my nerves. His voice was soft and deep, and he sounded like a person.

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