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General

You check the time. Perfect. As intended, you’ve arrived fashionably late. Tie straight, hair smooth, breath clean, shoes shined, cuffs cuffed. Again. Tie straight, hair smooth, breath clean, shoes shined, cuffs cuffed. Always good to go over the routine before entering. Though why bother, you wonder? You could walk in there wearing a potato sack and they would swoon all the same. In fact, they’d probably be relieved you decided to arrive in the first place.

Oh we’d just love to have you there!”

“Please do come.”

“We arranged to have the best caterer there. Their hors d’oeuvres are simply to die for!”

And why not, you thought. Nothing better to do tonight. Though there are risks going out. Opportunities to smudge the surface of your otherwise perfect reputation. You knock on the door. One word out of place, one joke poorly delivered, one comment taken out of context, and it all comes tumbling down. You hear rumblings on the other side of the door as someone, probably one of the butlers, moves to open it, then a click as the lock comes undone. Sometimes, it is exhausting keeping up the persona. All the same…

“Oh you’ve arrived!”

“Such a joy to have you here tonight”

“Many thanks for accepting our invitation”

There was no substitute quite so satisfying.

The scene unfolds as the doors swing open, showering you in golden light coming from the chandeliers on the ceiling. With it, the gaze of every guest, glossy from champagne, wide from social buzz, and as of two seconds ago, completely and irrevocably enamored with your presence. The chatter didn’t stop, simply changed direction. Now, it was about you.

You plaster on the smile you know everyone loves and you make your way through the room. How easy it was to please them! A comment on a dress here, a subtle smile ambiguously directed there, and they were satisfied. Glowing, even. Begging for more. It was necessary, this song and dance, to keep up appearances. You couldn’t have anyone thinking you unkind, or worse, self-absorbed.

“That’s a lovely gown, Theresa,” you say as you stop to chat with your old colleague. It was important to follow the formula perfectly. First enter, then join the crowd, then small talk as you pass by, then find the host. Can’t look like you’re there for no reason. Not you. What a disaster it would be to arrive unwanted, unnoticed. It helps to smile and compliment. You do wonder why people love the smile so much. It often felt awkward to hold after a while, but give the people what they want, you’ve learned, and there was no room for mistakes. Not for you, anyway.

“Oh! Thank you.” As intended, you catch her slightly off guard, and she glows with the surprise of your arrival. She takes a step back and spreads her arms out, turning this way and that so that you can view the gown properly. “It arrived from Paris last night just for tonight’s gathering. Can you believe how gorgeous the green of the skirt is under the lights?” she adds.

“Stunning,” you say. And you smile your winning smile again. Theresa smiles in response and looks you up and down.

“And you as well, Ezra, as always.” She takes a sip of her champagne. “We were beginning to think you’d never show up.”

“Ah, so you were thinking of me?” You tease, careful not to sound like you mean it.

“Well who doesn’t invite the great Ezra to an event and spend the night wondering if you’ll have the time? Let me guess. This week you saved the whales and next week you’re scheduled to sew up the hole in the ozone by hand?” she winks.

“You flatter me, Theresa. I wouldn’t have missed it,” you say.

You continue the polite conversation with Theresa and her cohort, a group of women and their husbands chatting about world events “this” and politics “that.” One of the women announces she is to receive an award for her philanthropic efforts in the Australian reefs. You make a mental note to send a congratulatory gift after the party and push down the thought that if she’d really wanted to make a difference, she would have donated more than what amounted to .02% of her monthly income.

You remember to laugh when appropriate, and tell stories as the situation calls for them. You exchange pleasantries when a newcomer inevitably finds their way into the conversation as if by happenstance:

“Oh dear me I did not notice you there, Ezra. Allow me to introduce myself…”

“Theresa, these decorations are simply-- Ezra! I didn’t see you there…”

“Excuse me, I do apologize, but I did not know you’d be attending tonight and would be remiss if I missed the opportunity to chat.”

Happenstance. You know it’s only to speak to you.

These people think they’re good at being subtle. If only they knew how desperate it was. No matter. You know your cues. Smile, laugh, compliment, repeat. Take a drink, or appetizer when offered, but reject politely if they come too quick. Smile, laugh, compliment, drink. Smile, story, drink. Smile, compliment, thank the host for a “truly incredible event,” smile again. You remember to bring up small details of their life and inquire further. It makes people think you care. Better yet, it makes them think they know you.

As the night carries on, you make your way through the social circles. Greeting old friends, family friends, people you used to work with, and people who you know you’ve met before but whose names have since slipped your mind, etcetera. These things are like a puzzle, you think  to yourself. It’s not complete unless you’ve found all the pieces.

Blissfully, you find an appropriate time to escape to the restroom. Making your way through the large room, you remember to keep up the smile and short greetings as you pass by people hoping to steal you away for a conversation of their own. “Alas,” you mutter to yourself through slightly clenched teeth. “They will have to wait.”

Finally, you pull the opulent door to the restroom and close it behind you. Leaning with your back to the door, you close your eyes, take a deep breath, and allow yourself to wipe your face of every emotion besides relief. How does anyone do this for any amount of time? Is that why the restrooms are decorated like the Queen of England is supposed to use them? To give people an excuse to stay a while longer, away from the smiles and chatter and bragging and oversharing? You force yourself to use the restroom even though you don’t really need to because what if you’ll need to use it later? People will wonder why you’ve been absent twice now within a short amount of time. You can almost hear Theresa’s chirpy voice, feigning concern.

“My dear, are you feeling ill? Should I fetch someone to help?” you chuckle at the thought and do an exaggerated impression of the way she showed off her dress to you. Finally, after an acceptable amount of time passes, you take one last look in the mirror, readying yourself to go out.

“Tie straight, hair smooth, breath clean, shoes shined, cuffs cuffed,” you recite, this time the memory of your father saying it to you joins in. With one last deep breath, you walk out the door and directly into a young woman.

Oof!

“Oh, goodness, I’m so sorry,” you say, steadying yourself. “I apologize. I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

The woman, still reeling from the impact -- she is significantly smaller than you -- chuckles and waves it off.

“Don’t worry about it -” she begins to smooth her newly wrinkled shirtfront - “a bit of excitement is good during events like these.” Then she looks up and her eyes widen in recognition.

“Oh- oh my. Are you -?” she stammers.

“Ezra,” you say, flashing her the sheepish version of your smile, “pleasure to meet you.” You extend your hand. She blinks once, then looks at your hand, then back at you, then in a completely unprecedented move, she begins to laugh. Big, hearty laughs. She’s clutching her stomach, gasping for air. You’re beginning to wonder if you somehow missed a joke and should join her in laughter to cover up for your mistake when suddenly:

“Don’t be daft, Ezzie! I know who you are!”

Your hand, which is still bridging the gap between you and this supposed stranger, jerks back as if shocked by electricity. Ezzie. Her words hang in the air. At least, they hang in the air to you. She seems content carrying on with her laughter. Eventually, after what feels like a lifetime, her big laughs turn to giggles, and she composes herself enough to give you a look up and down. You, however, remain as she left you.

“My, my, you clean up all right. Still impossibly neat. Honestly how do you ever get anything done if you always insist on leaving the house looking perfect? That was always the most annoying thing about you.”

You don’t like the way she looks at you. Not because you weren’t used to people looking, no. When people look at you it’s with admiration, with glee, and sometimes with jealousy. But this? This wasn’t any of those looks. She’s looking at you like she knows you. And that feels like a threat.

You manage to break her spell for long enough to say, “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’m not sure who you are. How do you know that name?”

For the first time since you started talking to this woman, she looks shocked. “Who am I, Ezzie?” 

You flinch at the name before you can stop yourself. She rolls her eyes and puts her hands on her hips in mock anger, “Ezzie. Fifth grade. Tanglewood Elementary. Oregon,”  she raises a hand and taps her temple. “Is this lighting any bulbs up there? Ringing any bells?”

And then it hits you like a ton of bricks. Fifth grade. Before you were sent to boarding school, before your father insisted you would be better off away, before your mother died. Tanglewood Elementary. Blacktop yard games, that one teacher who used to give gummy bears to the good kids, miserably failing to learn your multiplication tables. Oregon.  Playing in the mud, rollerblading up and down the block, greenery as far as the eye could see. And finally, Azul. Sharing clothes, pillow forts, raiding their mothers’ makeup, sleepovers.

“Azul!” you gasp in wonder, forgetting all parameters of social do’s and don’ts. “How are you? What are you? I- how?” you manage to stutter out. She snorts and laughs at your dissolution.

“Whoa there, one question at a time. How am I? Fine, thanks for asking. I guess that summarizes the past twenty or so years. What am I? That one’s more difficult to answer. People smarter than I have tried and failed, you know,” as she talks you find you can’t hold back the laughter  building up in your chest. The release is intoxicating. Relief of a different sort.

“What are you doing here?” you manage your first complete question of the conversation. 

“Well,” she leans in, “rich people are notoriously bad at locking their doors,” she whispers. You stare at her for a second before she snorts again and slaps your arm. “Jeez, I could have told you anything and you would have believed me, eh? Man, I should have said I was president of a foreign country, or NASCAR’s best new racer. A golden opportunity, wasted!” she throws her hands up as if exasperated, and you smile widely in response. This time, you don’t have to think about it.

“No,” she continues, “my husband is friends with some yuppy who works as a foreign ambassador. Nice guy, except one time I got a stare-down for not using a coaster. Something about how the coffee table was hand-crafted by monks halfway around the world. Anyway, he was nice enough to extend the invitation for  tonight despite us not being, well, whatever that is,” and she jerks her thumb to two men standing at the end of the hallway that leads to the bathroom. This confuses you, as nothing seems particularly off about them. They wear tuxedos and hold a glass of champagne each. One of them listens intently as the other tells what seems like an amusing story, though you can’t quite hear the details over the sounds of the party. You stiffen. The party.

Reality propels itself back onto you. Your back straightens, you instinctively smooth your hair, your hands move to straighten your tie. How could you have forgotten where you were? People must be talking by now. Surely discussing where you’ve gone. You try and estimate how long you’ve been absent, but it’s impossible to tell. Five minutes? Twenty? You scold yourself for getting distracted but force your face to return to its calm, normal state.

“Azul, I’m so sorry, I really must rejoin the party.”

At first, Azul says nothing, only looks at you from under furrowed brows. 

“Rejoin the party,” she repeats slowly. Is that confusion in her voice? “But we just started talking! I know you’re, like, a big deal now. I read the news. I know you have an image to keep up, but I thought...” for the first time in the conversation, she hesitates. It surprises you enough to make you wait for her answer. You tense, but you don’t move away.

“You thought?” you prompt. She chuckles nervously.

“I guess I thought that was all for show,” she says.

Now it’s your turn to hesitate. For show? Was it really so obvious? After all the regimented training crafted by your father, all the etiquette classes, all the strategies practiced to ensure a conversation never goes stale, and it still looks like a show? I know you have an image to keep up. You think about all the time you’ve spent over the years convincing people to like you. Convincing people that you like them! You begin to wonder if everyone else can tell. How transparent are you? Her words ring in your head as you attempt to process them. They feel uncomfortable in your thoughts. Thick and clumsy, like a lump in your throat.

“Azul, I- this is who I am,” you manage to say. Was that a defensive tone in your voice?

Her gaze softens, as if thinking carefully about how to phrase her response. “Okay,” she says, and a polite smile spreads across her face. “It was lovely getting to see you again.”

“And you as well,” and you flash your famous smile. “Let’s continue the conversation soon. Over lunch maybe?”

“Definitely,” she nods. You reach into your pocket and pull out a cell phone.

“Here,” you say, handing her the device. She types in her number and hands it back, and after one more set of pleasantries, she walks down the hall and disappears into the ballroom. You unlock your phone, navigate to Azul’s name in the contacts, and begin to compose a message.

This is Ezzie

Your thumb hovers over the “send” button. Then, a moment of thought, and you clear the text.

This is Ezra

You hit send and secrete your phone back in your pocket.

Tie straight, hair smooth, breath clean, shoes shined, cuffs cuffed.

And you make your way to the mouth of the hallway to rejoin the party.

June 26, 2020 20:25

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2 comments

A.J. Eckardt
05:25 Jul 04, 2020

This is a great story, really well written! I love how you can feel the awkwardness between the two when Ezra snaps back to reality. The whole story I was so curious as to why he was so famous, but I like how you never exactly say. Great writing chops. I'd love to see some more from you!

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Priscilla 🌹
00:13 Jul 11, 2020

This is such a lovely compliment, thank you!

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