“Marry me, Delilah!” a voice screams over the crowd as I close the front door behind me. I act like I didn’t hear and make a beeline for the kitchen, where I see Patrice serving punch into crystal cups.
“Hi,” I say, as I take off my winter coat. “You look shot.”
She looks drunk, not shot. Her hair is oddly askew, her eyes more than a little wild, her dark red lips smeared with several added layers of lipstick.
“You’re late!” she says loudly, handing me a brimming cup of punch. I take a gulp as I slip my purse off my shoulder to Patrice’s kitchen island. The punch is sharp and fizzy, with a stench like vodka. There are raspberries floating at the bottom of my cup and something that looks like a single blond hair at the bottom of the punch bowl. I cough and set the cup down.
“Sorry,” I say. “Work.”
“On Christmas Eve?” she says, as loudly as before. Even her dress, so tight you can see the ligaments in her back, is slightly off-kilter, like her hair. I check my watch.
“It’s 8:00, Pat,” I say. “And you’re already drunk?”
“I’ll sleep it off tomorrow,” she says cheerfully, dismissively.
“Kids won’t be happy on Christmas morning, opening presents alone," I say, but she’s not listening anymore. The kitchen -- no, the whole house -- is so full of people it’s overwhelming. We’re crowded shoulder to shoulder around the island and I’m the only one not talking and laughing as loud and fast as possible. Noises come quick and bright, almost choked, and I actually see a few people have already choked on laughter, or cigarettes, or liquor. They recover rapidly and dive right back into the ever-thickening crowd. The noise, the bright flashing of sequins and teeth, the heavy rumblings of the collective party, are grotesque in comparison to the quiet dignity of the snowy night visible through the windows. I can see lights on outside, strings of flickering bulbs, but everyone has congregated inside, thick and together and loud and everything bleeding red, the color of what’s supposed to be a peaceful, enjoyable holiday.
I feel a scream rising in my throat.
A tall, tousle-haired man stumbles forward from the crowd and slurs, “Delilah! Sexy as always tonight.”
“Thanks, Tomas,” I say noncommittally. “But I just got off work. No need to lie.”
He gives me a roguish grin and slings his arm around my shoulders. He leans in, kisses my hair and ear, and whispers, “Won’t you marry me, Delilah?”
“You’re the second person to ask me that tonight,” I say brightly, forcing a laugh and pulling his arm off. “You’re drunk too.”
He shrugs and tries to kiss me again, but I duck away, weaving through the crowd. “Not for me, Tomas,” I call back. “Not tonight.”
He doesn’t hear. He’s back at the punchbowl, filling another glass.
I run my fingers through my hair nervously and look around. I just want to be alone, some peace and quiet. But Pat said Asa would be here tonight and I’m both apprehensive and thrilled about the prospect of running into him. I find an empty corner behind the staircase and pull my coat back on, thinking about Tomas’s words. It’s the dress. It’s black and almost sheer and a little too short. I borrowed it from Patrice the day before. My hair is pulled up, exposing shoulders, collarbones, neck, and the top half of my back. I thought I liked it. I despise it.
My coworker and ex-boyfriend Dan finds me and hands me a cup of punch. I smile weakly.
“Crazy, huh?” he says, gesturing to the crowd. I nod. “You okay?”
He leans in, too close, and I feel uncomfortable when I lean away. As if it’s my fault for the uncomfortable feeling. He turns red, more from irritation than embarrassment. “I was wondering if you’ve given any thought to what we talked about Wednesday.”
“Dan, we broke up on Thursday.”
“I assumed we’d pick up again. You’re going to be stubborn about it? Won’t you marry me?”
I refuse to allow his charm to break me as he looks deep into my eyes. He always says mine are the most enchanting he’s ever seen. I look away.
“I still love you, Delilah,” he says soulfully.
“And I you,” I lie, fearing his reaction to any other answer.
“Then why -- ”
I snap. “No. The answer is no. I’m not marrying you.”
Dan’s face freezes into an all-too-familiar expression and I stiffen up. But he just scowls and walks away. I hope he’s walking out of my life, but I know he isn’t. He’ll pursue me -- who he sees as his prey, his rightful hunt -- until I get a restraining order. And even then…
I shudder and slip through the crowd. Maybe I’ll find a place where no one can find me, not even Dan, who finds whatever he seeks. I promised Pat to stay until midnight.
Already I want to curl up and sleep the night away. I’ve just finished a ten-hour shift at the hospital and am wondering why I do this to myself. I yawn and realize, as I twist my way upstairs, that I’m still holding the cup Dan gave me. I set it on a step next to a woman yelling excitedly into her phone and keep climbing. I remember that my purse and therefore my phone is downstairs on Pat’s kitchen island. I keep going -- it’s not worth it. Upstairs is quieter, but all the rooms and bedrooms are locked and the only place is the dark hallway where I can hear what’s happening in the rooms, not to mention downstairs. I sigh, turn around, and head back down.
The house is broiling, a complete mess of deep red and open, laughing mouths, steeped in noise and billowing with fulness and company and the epitome of material pleasure. And inside it, surrounded and filled by it, I have never felt emptier. It’s inside me, the loneliness and emptiness, seething as I find my purse and worm through the crowd, as someone I vaguely know -- Patrice’s husband, in fact -- tries to hold me and begs for a kiss or my hand in marriage. I force another bright laugh, make a weak joke about old fashioned customs, and get outside as fast as possible.
The backyard is lit by dim Christmas lights but the moon is what really illuminates the space. The pure light falls softly onto new snow, laid out like smooth skin over the ground. The air is so cold it takes my breath away. But the wind is still, the moon and its glow so inviting, I walk a little farther in, my thin dress shoes crunching through the snow. I button up my coat against the cold and the fading noise of the house. I push it out of my mind, what might be happening in there, and clear the snow off an edge on one of the wooden raised garden-beds. I sit and hold myself, shivering, breathing in frigid air and listening to the tangible, perfect silence. A young, bare pecan tree, tangled with lights, stands between me and the moon. Suddenly in a whimsical mood, I pretend it’s the only thing separating us, not space nor time nor fear of leaving the familiar. It’s so huge, the moon and the utter blackness around it, I want to reach out and touch it more than I’ve ever wanted anything. I raise my hand, but the back door opens crisply and I jerk it down.
“Sorry,” says a familiar voice. “Didn’t mean to intrude.” Asa sits heavily next to me, his knee almost touching mine, and instead of throwing an arm around my waist he folds his hands and follows my gaze to the enormous, beaming moon. He’s wrapped in a large tan coat that hides his comfortable bulk. He’s both tall and wide. He’s a friend, he’s as familiar as the earth itself.
I shake my head. “You didn’t,” I say, and it’s not quite a lie.
“You look beautiful tonight,” he says, looking at my hair, the hem of my dress below the coat, the line of my neck.
“Doesn’t it?” I say, pretending to misunderstand him. “It’s a full one tonight, too, I think.”
“I spotted that guy in there,” he says, getting right to the point. We’re silent together. The noises and colors of the house bleed over into the backyard, over the snow and through the silence.
“Yeah,” I say, finally filling the not uncomfortable silence. “Dan. He proposed Wednesday and I broke up with him Thursday.”
“I’m sorry,” he returns. I force a smile and draw a deep breath.
“It’s been a while since I saw you,” I say.
“Malta wasn’t it?”
“Montgomery,” I correct him. “Alabama.”
We laugh. He offers to wrap his coat around my shoulders when I shiver, but I spread it over our knees instead.
“I still live here, in town,” he says after a few minutes.
“I have your number,” I say.
“You think the creep, Dan, will try that again?”
“Of course. We work together at the hospital. But what could you do about it?”
He doesn’t have an answer. Instead, he clears his throat and fidgets. “It’s been a year,” he says, voicing what we’ve both been thinking during those silences. It’s true, we both know. We’re less familiar. Less like the earth, more like the moon. We’ve grown apart. “I’m in a different position now, senior vice president in Commercial. Better off, but… nothing’s changed for me. I still want to marry you.”
“We agreed to part ways, Asa,” I say, swallowing hard. “A mutual agreement.”
“But if -- ”
“If means nothing.” I pause to gather my thoughts. “I can’t now and couldn’t then.”
“Your freedom?” he asks, not snidely.
I shake my head. “Not just that… I don’t know you, any of you, not Tomas, not Dan, not Pat’s husband, not whoever the first one was. Not well enough. You act like it’s a one night fling and even after a divorce -- nothing’s the same. It changes everything.”
He sighs. The moon glimmers through my eyelashes, like magic, like fairy dust. The wind is still. We shiver together. “Delilah. Please. Will you marry me?” He looks at me and my resolve wavers. It would be so easy, and it would be wonderful at first… “If -- ”
“If.” I stand, give his coat back, and smile at him through a single tear, lit by moonlight. There’s no need for him to answer or me to elaborate. I walk away, into the pool of red and golden light, heading for my car, for home. He doesn’t follow. He chooses to sit in the moonlight and the silence as I choose to leave him there. As we part, we both know it’s forever, and that it’s the right choice.