At the base of the house, at the place where the concrete foundation met the lush green lawn, Oliver was crouching like a gargoyle. His shoulders were hunched over, a scowl marred his brows, and if it hadn’t been for that damn awful lighting one would even be able to see the way his fingers were held, the first two digits outstretched, the remainder curled away. The hands themselves were long, elegant.
A piano player's hands.
Oliver had painted the fingernails of those hands sometime in the week because the chipped blotches of blue color remained. He had always thought of painting his nails as a calming activity, something he had started doing when he was eleven and having trouble with the fingering during a particular passage in Chopin’s waltz. He’d painted each finger nail a different color and then each corresponding key with the same color, until his hands had learned to match the rhythm of the song. Now though, he used the colors as a repetitive, mind numbing way to escape his body, rather than to harness it.
In the dim light of the backyard, he rocked back and forth on his feet, like a metronome, endlessly set in motion. If it was a conscious thought to do so, Oliver didn’t let it show.
When Marley approached quietly from behind, Oliver’s body was so tense and keyed up that the subtlest, “Hey,” from her made him yelp and topple over to one side.
It was lucky that he’d been on his left foot then, because had he been on his right, his head would have struck the concrete foundation of the house and hurt like a bitch.
“You doing okay?” Marley asked, her voice unsteady and her eyes glancing around at the empty pieces of lawn furniture around them. "What are you doing out here?”
“Nothing,” he replied hurriedly, “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look fine,” Marley insisted, annoyed, “You are at a party, but have escaped to the creepy corner of the house outside looking pale as shit. Are you taking something or what?”
Oliver came back onto his feet too quickly, weaving here and there as he stood.
“God, I wish I was taking something. Anything. Something is exactly what got me out here in the first place.”
Marley didn’t respond, choosing instead to lean back against the side of the house, cross her arms, and narrowed her eyes at him.
“Fucking hell, Ollie. Not this again,” she sighed, “Do you want a smoke to take the edge off?”
Oliver shook his head vigorously, “Chester, says to stay away from…everything.”
“Please,” Marley snorted, “This isn’t my first rodeo with you. If Chester, the dipshit, was here right now watching you shaking hard enough to make you unsteady on your feet – and, you know, stumbling around ten steps from a fucking swimming pool– I’m sure that he would be giving you a smoke himself. Here.”
She pushed off the house and slipped a hand into the cleverly disguised pocket in her sundress. When she pulled out a single cigarette and a lighter, the dim patio lighting caught the reflection on her long polished nails and even that small amount of glare made Oliver so dizzy that he had to close his eyes for a moment.
“God,” he groaned, opening his eyes immediately when he felt his equilibrium starting to pull him to the ground.
A puff of smoke whispered over his face as Marley took a long drag and released her breath in his direction. Pathetically, the sensation was so blissfully relieving that he turned directly into it, just so he could breathe in as much of it as he could.
“Here.” Marley held out the cigarette to him.
The first touch of the paper to his lips had the same effect as if he had just taken an Ativan. Something like a moan bled out of him.
“Okay?” Marley asked. She had taken up her stance against the side of the house again, but this time her eyes were watching him intensely with the unflinching focus of a hawk.
Oliver didn’t respond, choosing instead to let his deep pull on the cigarette be answer enough.
It only took a few minutes – possibly only a few seconds– for the effects to take hold and the tremors to ease up on his body. Oliver wasn’t sure if he was embarrassed or grateful, but he came to lean against the house beside Marley, both of them able to take their first deep breath of the night.
“What are you even doing here?” Marley asked. A note of frustration tinged her voice. “I mean, a party, Ollie? Really? What did you think everyone was going to be standing around, holding hands, and singing kumbaya?”
Oliver felt heat creep up his chest. His neck. The tips of his ears.
“Trent said it was going to be clean,” he admitted sheepishly.
Marley rolled her eyes, “Of course, he did. Trent the-guy-who-got-a-cut-from-your-dealer-if-he-invited-her-to-parties told you it was going to be a clean party. Nice thinking, Ollie. Really sound judgments you’re making there.”
“Fuck off, M,” he huffed, embarrassed.
The dim patio lights suddenly flickered out. Oliver suddenly realized that they must have been motion censored and that his dipping and swaying all over the back deck must have been what was keeping them on the whole this whole time.
The darkness made the air feel different, as though the sudden lack of visual stimuli left an empty space in his mind that was just waiting to be filled. And what filled it immediately was his recollection of everything that had just happened over the past hour. Showing up at the party. The assault of the overloud house music on his ears. The lights that kept flickering on and off. The flash of colors that put all of his senses on edge. The smell of weed and alcohol. The sight of the boys from the trumpet section of the orchestra doing something heavier. The embarrassing state that Marley must have caught him in when she found him out here curled up on himself like a fucking animal.
He pulled the cigarette up to his mouth, closed his eyes, and sucked the sticky smoke down, down into his chest where it coated his lungs like a protective salve.
“What are you doing with cigarettes in your pocket anyway?” he asked quietly. “Since when do you smoke?”
“I don’t,” Marley replied bluntly. Annoyed.
Right. The reality that she must have been carrying them around for him and this exact purpose created a burning fissure in the soothing coating that the cigarettes had built around his nerves.
“I didn’t even know you were here,” he admitted quietly.
The fissure became more electric. Burning. Uncomfortable.
“H-how is your thesis going?” he tried, the full force of his humiliation coming back to him little by little. God, he must have looked insane when she first found him.
“Don’t, Ol.” She sighed heavily and looked up into the dark sky, where the light pollution make it impossible to see anything but an endless, blank canvas of black. “I don’t want to talk right now like we are all good and everything is normal.” She paused for a long moment and Oliver watched her out of the corner as her chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm, a perfect four four time signature. “Do you want me to call Chester for you?”
Oliver shook his head. Chester was his counselor, not his sober companion. Calling him at one AM would be crossing a professional boundary and Oliver wasn’t about to get on the bad side of the first counselor that he had actually liked.
“I should–” his voice cracked, giving away the current chaos of his mind and body. “I should probably go though.”
“Yeah,” Marley said, her eyes still turned up as she talked to the sky, “You probably should.”
He pulled out his phone and with fingers that still wouldn’t be steady enough to play a Tchaikovsky or Risky-Korsakov, ordered a Lift. The silence and the dark melted together into a heavy blanket that weighed him down to the ground. Looking over at Marley, who was clearly ignoring him, he knew she must be feeling the same way too.
Anchored to this relationship with him in a way that was difficult to define.
Feeling a flicker of desperation, he pushed off the wall and turned to face her, acutely aware that she didn’t move. Didn’t look at him.
“I didn’t…take anything,” he whispered, both embarrassed and proud.
Marley didn’t move, but continued to look up into the dark where the earth melted into sky in an endless field of black.
“I know,” she said, “It doesn’t change anything.”
She was right, of course. Oliver thought of himself again as that horrible, gothic creature she must have come upon a few minutes ago. Just like a gargoyle, he felt like he was carved from stone, unable to stand up from that hunched grotesque form, but forever trying to become something nature hadn’t intended for him to be.
“Are you still coming to the performance tomorrow night?” she asked suddenly, “Calista gave me the solo from the second movement.”
Oliver took a step back to take her in and the patio lights flickered to life again, illuminating them both in that dim, eerie light.
Marley wasn’t leaning against the house anymore, but was standing upright with one arm reached across her body to clasp onto the top of the other.
“Yeah, M.” He said, “I’ll be there.”