It was unseasonably warm for December, and the headlights illuminated fog like a spider-webbed veil over the wet black asphalt. Her car dipped where the road dropped and thick fog like a fur collar wrapped itself around her. Her headlights searched for the road, then as the road climbed, she could see. The sky had turned dark hours ago, but her headlights caught the fog lines and guided her around the winding way. Heather's house was a bitch to get to, but the party promised to be festive, at least.
She was living in New York, and it felt good to be out of the city, the crazy, firefly lights of traffic and stores, of the smells that clashed: coffee and fish from the Chinese market, pastries and Caleche in midtown Manhattan. Everyone seemed lost, lost and busily trying to find it. She herself was lost. It was her third year here in the city, and all she had done was assimilate. She had perfected the art of the ten thousand mile subway stare, and she often put in her air pods without turning them on, aware of what was going on around her, yet not appearing to be.
Heather had lived in upstate New York. She was a columnist. She mingled with the upper echelons of society. There were bound to be politicians, artists and other illuminati at the party. She was to spend the night. She needn't worry about driving home. That was a good thing. New Year's Eve was a night of bacchanalia, when reasonable people could be mowed down by a drunken idiot who shouldn't have been driving. She wasn't even sure she should be here. Heather had convinced her that she shouldn't spend New Year's alone.
Tires on gravel. Her little black Honda had found Heather's driveway, and there was a handsome teenager who wanted her keys. She dug for them in her little satin bag and pulled them out, her bare shoulders shivering in the mild December night. She saw a car pull up next to hers. It was a Porsche, she recognized the prancing horse. It was candy-apple red and bore a vanity plate, The Man. She smirked to herself. It was a cliche, and The Man who emerged from the car was just as she'd imagined a man who drove such a car would be. He was older, much older than she was, and he plunged his hands carelessly into his pockets, tossing the key to the teenager, who wasted no time in entering the car and maneuvering it higher on the hillside, away from the others.
She wasn't yet ready to be social, but it was too late. The Man was looking in her direction. He gave her a cockeyed smile that revealed artificially white teeth. Something seemed to cause the hairs on the back of her neck to stand up. He opened the door for her and exaggerated a swipe to show her the way. He was obviously a player. As she entered the house, it was clear that the party had started hours ago.
There was an atrium at Heather's house. It was an old mansion, preserved from the robber-baron days, and the atrium was a marvelous example of the ostentation that money could buy. The floors were Carrara marble, and there were glittering large windows that stretched up to the ceiling, permitting a view of the glittering, star-studded sky. There were people everywhere. Women in silver halters and long palazzo pants with delicate fingers, reaching for a flute of champagne. There were men with nouveau pompadours, leaning in too close, swirling glasses of whiskey through the rocks.
She loathed scenes like this. People who were having fun, who were having attention lavished on them, and she would be stuck, holding a drink in some corner of the room, nursing it all night long. In the morning, dehydrated and tired, she'd have a spartan breakfast, write Heather a note of thanks, and drive her car back on the winding road home. She'd go back to work in a fugue, back to the thousand-mile stare of the subway station and things that didn't matter, things like summarizing interrogatories for more senior partners at the firm. She'd go back to things like trying to save up enough money to buy the same Manolo Blahniks that the authoritative women in the firm bought. Why? She didn't even want them really.
Her face must have given her away, because she felt something cold and wet on her back, and, flinching, discovered that it was her concierge to the party, The Man.
"Come here often?"
"Funny," she said.
"You need a drink," he said, and he deftly intercepted one from a tray that was perched on the shoulder of a walking cocktail waiter.
She sipped it dutifully. He was staring at her, openly ogling her shoulders. She slunk back instinctively.
He seemed to catch himself. Then he suddenly put his arm around her shoulder, casually, nonchalantly. She raised her glass to her lips. She was nervous.
* * *
The rest of the night had passed in a blur. She'd drunk too much champagne. She didn't know why. She didn't even like it, and he'd drunk too many whiskey sours. She remembered him removing a wedding band, joking that he wasn't married anymore. Her stomach flopped and she felt as though the earth was a large boat pitching on the sea. She'd somehow ended up in one of Heather's guest rooms, a light, airy sweet room, with gauzy curtains and a tiny red and white flower print on the wallpaper.
Now Heather was knocking at her door, and asking her to join for breakfast. She got up slowly. The room still spun. She put one arm on the wall and creeped toward the shiny white door. Heather. She would make things better. A cup of lavender tea and a piece of dry toast, and two aspirin at the breakfast room table.
Indeed Heather did not disappoint. The tea was blackberry, but served with sweet jam and dry toast, and she began to engage in conversation, trying to knit together pieces of what happened the previous night. She asked about the vanity plate.
"The Man?" Heather was laughing. "He comes every year. I actually don't know his name. He has a contest with Paula, the model. Every year they try to bag some sad sack as a contest. Supposedly, he's done it for the past fifteen or so years running. Can you imagine the poor thing who thinks that she'll be riding around in his Porsche some weekend, or that he'll be calling her? It's a riot."
The swimming in her head suddenly stopped. She saw the world in sharp relief. The teaspoon was cold and hard, and there were tracks of mud where the parked cars had bitten into the earth. Her hair was wispy and she smelled the oily smell of vodka, which she hadn't remembered consuming, pouring out of her skin.
"Are you OK?" Heather was asking. "God, you didn't hook up with him, did you?"
"No!" she answered, too quickly.
Heather just nodded slowly. "How about I draw you a bath," she asked.
She never saw him again.
The memory became clouded over when she returned to the city, and she told herself that it didn't matter. She no longer felt lost. Now she did as she pleased. She was no fool.