UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Laurel Finnegan loathed going to parties by herself, but all her friends seemed to be on some exotic trip to one
The event was Ophelia Gamble’s fortieth birthday. Beautifully dressed straight people and even more gorgeously dressed gay men stood on the hardwood floor of Ophelia’s penthouse apartment, some clutching champagne flutes filled with Cristal, others holding crystal wine goblets brimming with pinot noir. Smoldering cigarettes dangled from busy lips, and Laurel seriously wondered how long the ubiquitous white roses would last in the ubiquitous white smoke.
Because of a preponderance of female size zero specimens, Laurel felt like a pork sausage at a convention of carrot sticks. (She was a healthy size six.) Still, she tried to stand tall in her black suede Kate Spade heels and sleeveless black dress, and exude a sense of joie de vivre, no matter how anemic her joie.
A jovial bald man sat at the baby grand, knocking out show tunes. Friendly servers in forest green military jackets roamed from room to crowded room carrying trays of vegetarian appetizers. They didn’t even attempt to get near the balcony which was teeming with people gasping for fresh smokeless air on this unseasonably nippy July night.
The hand of an emaciated woman, more bone than flesh, gripped Laurel’s bare upper arm. The stranger’s purple hair and burgundy dress happened to blend beautifully with Ophelia’s lilac living room walls. “Sorry,” she said, trying to catch her breath, find her balance and resist falling on the floor. She seemed exceedingly distressed and harried, possibly a little high.
“Are you all right?” Laurel asked.
Without responding, the distraught woman let go of Laurel’s arm and rushed into the crowd, the burgundy dress revealing her dramatically bony back. The experience left Laurel unnerved.
There were several little exchanges going on at once. As she sipped straight cranberry juice and milled about, the snippets of conversation Laurel heard turned out to be entertainment of the highest order:
“It wasn’t an asylum, sweetheart; it was a health spa called The Asylum.”
“Sex is like a vacation. You don’t always want to go to the same place.”
“He makes things happen, Lance. You just let them happen.”
“Why that quack hasn’t been reported to the Academy of Plastic Surgery is beyond me.”
“The man brought dignity to everything he did, except when he plied that Girl Scout with gin gimlets.”
Laurel found a place to park herself near the piano player who was wowing the crowd with June is Bustin’ Out All Over, an odd piece to play in July, she thought. Standing a few feet away was Patrick Wynter, a six-footer with the clean-cut look of a Congressman (except for the slightly mussed hair). He politely nodded when their eyes met, then he straightened his pants and his posture. As Ophelia passed by, Laurel grabbed her attention.
Between the time she noticed Ophelia and the time Ophelia stopped to talk, Laurel realized the guy held her gaze a fraction of a second too long for him to be homosexual. Now she didn’t need to ask the birthday girl about her guest’s orientation, but she had to say something or she would’ve looked foolish. Luckily Ophelia asked, “Need anything, sweet pea?” Laurel offered a short reply. Then Ophelia flashed her glorious, toothy grin and breezed away.
In his very cool blue blazer, Patrick inched his way over. “Cole Porter was a genius, don’t you think?” he asked. “Miss Otis Regrets, Begin the Beguine. What’s your favorite song of his?”
Laurel peered into his predictably seductive eyes, blue as the Aegean Sea. “Why are you asking about Cole Porter?”
“Didn’t you just tell Ophelia that you’d love a little Cole Porter?”
“No. I told Ophelia I’d love a little cold water.” The guy’s face turned fire engine red. “How foolish do you feel right now?” she asked, impressed that he was familiar with the legendary composer.
“It’s not even measurable,” he admitted after grabbing a gulp of his pinot noir. A strand of hair was hanging on his sleeve, the only blemish on an otherwise immaculate outfit. Laurel delicately pulled it off. Then she caressed the sleeve, just a little, just enough. A look of sublime satisfaction bloomed on his face, as if Laurel had just offered to be his sex slave and full-time housekeeper for eternity.
She couldn’t help wondering why such an affable, attractive guy was alone on a Saturday night. Girlfriend out of town? Some beauty left him for a billionaire? Curiosity was compelling her to ask, but she had the good sense to restrain herself.
She’d been wounded by love too many times, having wrongly assumed her partners were ready, able and eager for commitment. Both claimed the timing was off. George didn’t want to settle down just yet, and Travis was about to embark on a complex corporate project that would take him overseas for two to five years. While she was open to the possibility of another go at love, she’d made the decision to tread very carefully and look where she was going, like exploring a cave with a super bright flashlight to avoid falling into an unexpected, bottomless abyss.
After introducing themselves, Patrick asked Laurel how she knew Ophelia. “We were in the same class,” she explained, studying him covertly. “It was years after college. A night course in French Rococo and Neoclassic art.” A flaxen-haired force of nature, Ophelia lived every day as if it were her last. There was always some African safari or Mediterranean cruise in the works (not to mention some jet-setting CEO) but she still found time to help underprivileged children become literate. In contrast, Laurel’s life was a series of dull days at a midtown consulting firm and dreary nights in a downtown apartment with no future plans except for babysitting her two nephews in Brooklyn. “I want to be Ophelia when I grow up,” she confessed. “Just look at the extravaganza she throws for a simple birthday.”
“I might hire her for my next one.”
“Book in advance, she’s in demand,” Laurel said with a grin.
“Excellent idea,” he replied.
She liked this man. There was a certain gravitas to him, undoubtedly deriving from his boldness, baritone voice, musical knowledge, and perfect amount of product in his hair. “How do you know Ophelia?”
Just as Patrick was about to speak, a startling, blood-curdling scream, a guttural squeal out of a horror movie, came careening from the balcony, slamming everyone’s ears like falling bricks, wiping the sang-froid off all the lovely, refined faces.
And then, absolute silence. Nobody budged, nobody breathed. One split second of stillness, hesitation, as if all the guests were actors on a stage, directed to freeze like mannequins for an instant. When that instant ended, panicked people stampeded toward the balcony, shouting, pushing, shoving, poking, cursing, crying, clutching, squeezing, grabbing for cellphones, spilling drinks and dropping food. The Day of the Locust, east coast style. Comments flew at a rapid-fire pace.
“She threw herself off.”
“Who was it?”
“She lost her balance.”
“Oh my God.”
“Someone call 411!”
“She was drunk.”
“She was pushed.”
“911, you jerk!”
“It was Sophia!”
“I heard the body hit the pavement!”
A cold bottle of Evian was thrust into Laurel’s hand. Before she could say a word, Ophelia vanished into the voluminous, vociferous mass. Then, like a herd of frantic horses fleeing a burning stable, the mob rushed out the front door to the sound of sirens blasting below. By the time everyone had vacated the apartment (with the exception of Laurel, Patrick, and a dozen stray guests), the sirens had been turned off, and silence reigned once again.
“How could this happen?” Laurel whispered. It felt like the world was literally crumbling and there was no place to run. Severely shaken, Laurel feared she might burst into laughter because she’d been known to guffaw at the most inappropriate times. (When she was told her stepfather had broken his pelvis, she laughed maniacally for a full two minutes.) Gradually her head found its way onto the shoulder of her consoling new acquaintance, an action that didn’t seem improper given the harrowing, dizzying, life and death circumstance. Patrick’s arms gently surrounded her.
“I’ve sat on that balcony with Ophelia,” Laurel solemnly said.
“Spectacular view, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Especially at night, with the lights of the city below.” He felt Laurel nod her head near his pectoral. “The sparkling lights below.”
“I could be wrong,” Laurel said like a sleuth, “but I have a strong feeling it’s the woman in the backless burgundy dress. The woman in the backless burgundy, with wavy purple hair, seemed tense and troubled.”
“I didn’t notice her.”
“She touched my arm. Gripped it actually. Her fingerprints might still be visible on me.”
“I don’t see how that could be helpful,” he said. “At least she didn’t feel physical pain.”
“How do you know that?”
“The human body will fall at a speed faster than the speed it takes the brain to register pain.”
“A smidgen of comfort in the chaos,” Laurel said. “It had to be an accident, don’t you think?”
“Depends how troubled she was,” Patrick said. “The clinically depressed do jump from balconies.”
“At festive birthday parties?”
“People have done stranger things,” he said. “I’ve treated some of them.”
“You’re a psychiatrist?”
“Psychologist.” He tightened his embrace as if to shield her from the sorrows of life. “Everyone has a story,” he said. “But most people keep the details to themselves.”
She gently released herself from Patrick’s embrace but remained within range of his intoxicating musky scent. As an added sensory delight, he brought his wine goblet to her lips. The pinot noir was silky and rich, with a sweet, subtle edge. “Everyone does have a story. Earlier, I overheard a woman tell her husband, ‘He makes things happen, Lance. You let them happen.’ Obviously she thinks he’s a wimp.”
“Not only that,” Patrick added, “but she knows another guy who’s not a wimp.”
“Lance wasn’t a wimp his whole life,” Laurel pointed out as if she knew the guy intimately. “Over time he turned into one.”
“People change, drift apart.”
“Do they have to drift apart?” Laurel asked. “He might try to become stronger, more secure.”
“You can’t change to suit someone else,” Patrick stated with conviction. “It’s a lesson people learn too late. Let’s face it, Lance is a loser.”
“Poor Lance,” Laurel muttered. “Something else I overheard: A dignified man, maybe a college professor or a United Nations ambassador, plied an unsuspecting Girl Scout with gin gimlets.”
“Well, let’s not judge him too harshly,” Patrick suggested. “In all likelihood he was trying to get a free box of Girl Scout cookies. Who doesn’t love those chocolate mints?”
“Nobody. They’re out of this world,” Laurel said. “I used to know a freckled, red-haired twelve-year-old who sold them.”
“Isn’t she still red-haired and freckled?” he playfully asked.
“Actually it’s light copper, and she’s only slightly freckled.”
“And definitely not twelve,” he added.
Laurel could’ve lived without that last remark. Even though she realized it was purely a joke, she didn’t care for its insulting connotation. The moment in which he could have apologized came and went. The front door swung open, grabbing everybody’s attention. A small group of guests entered with expressions so grim, so mournful, they might as well have just returned from a wake.
A few seconds later, Ophelia appeared, ashen. She addressed the crowd like Eva Peron addressing her people, exuding courage and nobility. “If you were on the balcony when Sophia fell, the police would like to speak with you,” she announced. “The party is officially over, but feel free to stay as long as you like. I’m grateful to have you all in my life,” she added. “I think it would be fitting to share a moment of silence in memory of our friend Sophia Frost.”
Eyelids immediately closed and nobody dared to sneeze. The silence was thick and uncomfortable, like in a library. Visions of Sophia flooded Laurel’s mind. She clearly saw the pained expression on the woman’s face - the despairing eyes, the quivering lips. The tormented victim had touched Laurel’s arm, literally reached out to her. Laurel half opened her eyes and scolded herself for remaining passive. She should have pulled the woman into the hallway and insisted on offering help. “Thank you,” Ophelia softly said.
All eyes opened to reveal faces whipped with sadness. A woman was dead, a life had ended. Conventional wisdom told Laurel to throw caution to the wind, go for broke, seize the day and make every moment (and corny expression) count, grab the man next to her and make passionate, primitive love to him. A nearby hotel, an empty stairwell, one of Ophelia’s sumptuous bathrooms. Anywhere.
Either that, or lose themselves in a rich, delectable chocolate lava cake oozing with gelato and raspberries, topped with whipped cream and cherries. Maybe sex and sweets at the same time. Enjoy every single sinful available pleasure of the world. Drink, too. Break out the booze and have a ball. One after the next until they were soused, until all sense of logic and sanity went out the window. Or off the balcony.
Patrick brought his lips to Laurel’s ear. “Would you like to go someplace and continue our story?” he whispered.
Yes, she wanted to continue their story; she was curious to see if it would turn out to be a classic tale. “I’m ready to continue,” she said. “First let me say goodbye to Ophelia.”
“Take your time. I’ll wait downstairs.” He turned away and darted toward the front door. She watched his retreating figure and felt only slight disappointment that he didn’t look back and wave.
In the kitchen, the gracious host was surrounded by a small circle of guests listening intently, almost with worship, to what she was saying. Laurel half expected them to grab hands and dance around this goddess to whom they handed their destiny. She felt terribly sorry for her, the well-ordered precision of her party shattered by a swift, gruesome suicide. The four-tiered, red velvet birthday cake, frosted in white fondant, remained in the refrigerator. Candles hadn’t been blown out, tributes hadn’t been given. The fabulous Ophelia would turn forty only once, and the momentous birthday would be remembered for the wrong reason. Laurel decided to slip away silently without saying goodbye.
When she arrived outside, she was struck by the eerie tableau before her eyes. Scores of onlookers stood on the sidewalk in stony silence, staring at the body in the gutter which was covered with a gray blanket. The street was cordoned off. Police officers roamed with flashlights, speaking in hushed tones. The unique scent of wet concrete hung in the air; a light rain had obviously fallen. The atmosphere was positively apocalyptic, as if all those present had no place to go because their homes had been destroyed.
On the lookout for Patrick and for puddles, Laurel made her way through the crowd. She assumed he would appear from behind a cluster of people. When he didn’t, she forged her way back to the front of Ophelia’s building and leaned against the wrought iron gate, waiting for him to find her, certain he would show up shortly.
Two minutes turned to five, five minutes became ten. The dread was rising, like an elevator filling with water. Every second that passed chipped away at Laurel’s mountain of hope until it was reduced to a hill, then a knoll, a protuberance, and finally a mound of wet mud. The six-footer with the seductive eyes had departed, disappeared, disintegrated for all she knew. There would be no romantic story to tell, not even an unfinished one. Without a middle or an end, there was only a beginning. This was no story; it was a preface.
Laurel couldn’t stop herself from devising one plausible scenario after another.
Did he meet someone else on the way down? Was he stuck in one of the building’s four elevators? Maybe he was looking for a polite way to extricate himself because he was engaged. Or bisexual. Bipolar. Bionic. Maybe he was playing some kind of cruel game in which he flirted with a woman, then hit the road. Or perhaps it was just happening too fast - falling in love with a freckled size six - and the cowardly lothario got cold feet. Whatever the reason, she intended to delete him from her mind like spam from a computer’s mailbox.
Twenty maddening, mystifying minutes after leaving the party, it was time to call it a night, a horrendous one. Baffled and crestfallen, Laurel began walking south. She passed two diminutive elderly ladies. “Couldn’t she have just taken the elevator?” one of them asked the other with absolute sincerity.
The bright white beam of a policeman’s flashlight struck Laurel’s face, startling her. “I’m sorry,” the officer said, redirecting his light. “Didn’t mean to blind you.”
“Is there something you want?” she asked, trying not to sound annoyed.
“You’re dressed like you were at the party in the penthouse, and I’m wondering if you knew Sophia Frost.”
“No. I didn’t.”
“Oh. All right,” he said. “Sorry about the light.”
“I’m over it.”
“You look nice, by the way.”
“Oh,” Laurel responded with surprise. “Thank you.” She looked more closely at this not unattractive officer. His face was the kind that always needed a shave, and his thick black hair always needed a trim. At another time, in a different place, she might have offered to look for a pair of scissors.
“Well, have a good night,” he said.
A good night? Not only was it one of the worst nights in recent memory, Laurel figured it was the odds-on favorite to take top honors for the worst of the previous decade. “You too, officer.”
“Eric,” he said with determination.
“Eric,” she said with a faint smile. She continued her slow walk south.
Neither the surprise flirtation nor the flashlight in the face had prepared Laurel for the next shock of the night. Still within the confines of the cordoned off street, she came upon a sight that caused her to audibly gasp. Her hand instantly covered her open mouth, and she froze like an Arctic glacier before global warming.
Standing ten or twelve feet away was the emaciated stranger in the backless burgundy dress. The active ghost of Sophia Frost. Laurel remained irresolute, her hand still over her mouth which had now closed. Just to make sure this wasn’t some hallucination caused by two flutes of champagne, one sip of red wine and a very tiny valium, she took a few tentative steps toward the apparition. There was no question that the provocative dress was the same. And the bony, exposed back couldn’t have possibly belonged to anyone else.
The living dead creature turned to see Laurel. “We met at the party,” Laurel quickly said, the words faltering in her throat. “Ophelia Gimble’s. Gamble’s, I mean.”
“I was there, yes,” she replied in a raspy voice.
“We didn’t exactly meet, but you used my arm to get your balance, remember? Well, that’s beside the point. I’m…I’m just so glad to see you.” With a surge of heartfelt emotion, she threw her arms around this bag of bones, and tears began rolling down her cheeks. Then, with all the grace she could muster, she took a step back, hoping her spontaneous embrace wasn’t too inappropriate or unwelcome. “I’m very sorry,” she gushed, wiping the tears away. “Please forgive me. It’s just that…”
“Yes,” the stranger interrupted, nodding in a knowing way. “Emotions are running high.”
“Very, very high. Off the chart actually.” Now that Laurel had a chance to study her, she realized this wisp of a woman was as beautiful as she was offbeat: pale green eyes, plump magenta lips, perfectly sculpted nose, and cascading hair the color of pomegranate juice. Her radical appearance and commanding presence belied a cool remoteness from the goings on, a desire to be detached and unnoticed; she might as well have been veiled. “Did you know Sophia Frost?” Laurel asked.
“I did,” she said with nonchalance and a sigh that suggested she was bored with the subject.
“I didn’t know her at all,” Laurel replied with genuine regret.
“You’re better off. She was a complicated mess.” There was a hint of an accent - something European - that gave this wafer-thin woman an aura of elegance and intellectualism, like she might’ve been Simone de Beauvoir in her most recent previous incarnation. “She once proclaimed that death would set her free. Imagine having breakfast with someone who says those words while you munch on French toast. Free from what? She had a divine life at the time. Lance was a devoted husband.”
Laurel instantly put the pieces together: Sophia Frost must have been the woman who said, “He makes things happen, Lance. You just let them happen.” Poor loser Lance. “Lance was at the party, right?” Laurel asked.
“Of course. The bitch dragged him everywhere.”
“How is he holding up?”
“How would you hold up if your spouse jumped off a balcony? But he’ll bounce back in time, like Paris after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.”
Laurel nodded. “The woman must’ve been in a lot of pain.”
“The woman was a lot of pain. Pain personified, that’s what the woman was.” She took her time lighting a cigarette. Then she tossed the match in the air.
“How do you know Ophelia?” Laurel asked.
“We met at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.”
“Of course. I’m Laurel Finnegan, by the way.”
“Ah,” she responded. As an afterthought, she added, “My name is Violet. But people call me the Countess.” Her swanlike neck fell back so that she could gaze at the sky.
“Are you a real countess?” Laurel asked.
“No. Tomorrow I’m having a few people over for coffee and Scrabble,” she said, lowering her eyes to focus on Laurel, “so I invited Sophia and Lance. She told me they couldn’t make it because they were catching a midnight train to Athens, Georgia.”
“A midnight train to Georgia?” Laurel quizzically inquired.
“It wasn’t a midnight train, you see. The official departure time was eleven forty.” She took a drag of her cigarette, then exhaled a cloud of smoke and watched it billow. “You have to understand that Sophia was a pathological liar. We all tell a harmless fib now and again, but this slag lied about everything: her childhood, finances, diet, sex life. She enjoyed lying, like some people enjoy tennis, or scrapbooking.”
“It was a pastime, a sport. She wanted to see what she could get away with. Do you like these shoes?” the Countess asked, lifting her leg to display her leopard suede pumps. “Too dark to see. Excuse me!” she called out to a nearby police officer who happened to be Eric. “Could you point your big wand over here please?” Eric pointed his flashlight at her foot. “Thank you,” she said. “Designed by an orthopedic surgeon, a woman named Rose, so they’re good for the feet, and very stylish. Do you think they’re stylish?” She exhibited more enthusiasm about her shoes than she did about her deceased acquaintance.
“Yes I do,” Laurel said. “Very stylish and attractive.”
The Countess returned her foot to the ground but the spotlight remained. “That’s enough!” she shouted to the officer. “Unless you want to try them on.”
“I see him in more of a white strappy sandal,” Laurel said quietly enough so that Eric wouldn’t hear.
“Can I help you with anything else, ladies?” he asked.
“Not right now but thank you, Eric,” Laurel said. He looked at her searchingly before stepping away.
“Do you know this man?” the Countess inquired.
“Not really. He introduced himself before.”
“His eyes are magical for such a masculine face.”
“I didn’t notice,” Laurel replied. “He’ll probably want to talk to you since you knew Sophia.”
“I’ll be going upstairs. I’m sure there will be police to talk to.”
The Countess took another drag of her cigarette. “Who knows? Maybe death will set her free, free as a gull flying over the shore.” She scanned the infinite sky with the awe of someone discovering the splendor of a new landscape. “Maybe she’ll be part of a flock of sea gulls soaring over the Atlantic. Maybe we’ll be lucky and she’ll fly into a lighthouse.” Suddenly the face of the Countess changed dramatically as if the result of some seismic shift inside her body. Eyes closed. Lips quivered. Nostrils flared and breathing became heavy. She tried to say something, but words didn’t emerge. A nod of the head acknowledged something to someone, maybe someone far away, maybe herself. “Lance is a prince,” she finally managed to utter. “I don’t know a soul who doesn’t love him, including myself.” Tears streamed from her eyes.
Laurel was taken aback by this unexpected outburst of emotion from a woman who seemed frozen. “You’re in love with him,” she hesitantly said.
“When he married that ogre, I couldn’t rouse myself from bed for a month.
I was physically sick with love, paralyzed. He said he loved me too, but she was the one who became his wife.”
“That must’ve been devastating.”
“A doomed love is darkness as far as the eye can see. It might’ve been me who hurled myself off a balcony. Nobody could figure out what he saw in her. I drove myself mad with that puzzle.”
“What was your conclusion?”
“Love doesn’t play by rules,” she stated. “Write that down and frame it. There is no rational explanation why somebody loves somebody else. It defies science, defies logic. There’s no way to make it start, no way to make it stop.”
Laurel nodded with understanding. “I hear that.”
“And then,” she said, “time plays a trick. Time, often a good friend, can completely change a situation. Lance fell in love with me and decided to leave her. He finally saw her for what she is. Was.”
“And he told this to his wife one hour ago, at Ophelia’s party. I warned him not to. Wrong time, wrong place. She was as insecure as a rickety wooden bridge in a windstorm. But Lance does what he wants.” She took what was left of her cigarette and tossed it in the air. “I should go back to him.”
“All right.” Laurel took a moment to snap a picture in her mind, a detailed shot of this bizarre, slightly arrogant, much too lean but very much alive woman whose feelings ran unexpectedly deep. “When did Lance realize he was in love with you?”
“One month ago. Sophia was in a Scandinavian asylum and Lance took me on a tour of the fjords in Northwestern Norway. An ideal place for love, don’t you agree?”
“Uh, yes,” Laurel said.
“You’ve seen the fjords?”
“You must,” she said. “You see, when the right time comes, in the right place, you need to act immediately because the next time might be horribly wrong.”
“I understand. And time moves so quickly.”
“One day you’re born, the next you turn thirty, the next you turn sixty. And the next? I don’t have to tell you.” Laurel took a deep, mordant breath. “Maybe we’ll meet again before we turn sixty, under different circumstances.”
“More likely we won’t, but perhaps.” The Countess turned and strolled away as a cool breeze accompanied her. No hugs, no goodbyes.
Laurel stood her ground and watched the retreating figure. It was the last thing she expected, but before disappearing into the darkness, the Countess turned back and waved.
Undeniably touched, Laurel began to amble south, past the last of the anonymous gawkers who were wondering what happened in front of the elegant structure, and why.
At least Laurel understood what happened to her. She had assumed the woman who plunged from the balcony was wearing the backless burgundy. She had assumed Patrick Wynter would meet her on the street, as planned. How many other incorrect assumptions had she recently made, she wondered? How many were made about her?
When Laurel exited the cordoned off area, she found herself in a world of bodies in motion: people engaged in lively conversations, pigeons washing in puddles of water, teenagers huddling together while passing around smoldering cigarettes, disheveled loners dancing and lurking in alleys, inquisitive canines sniffing and exploring and prancing down the street. The sounds of laughter, music, whistles, wind, traffic, barking, bickering, and beer cans rattling against the curb combined to create one cacophonous, comforting urban melody, alive and real.
She noticed a taxi in the distance, slowing down and pulling over. Laurel picked up her pace and broke into a brisk, confident trot, flapping her arms like a wet flamingo but making no assumption that the driver would notice her and wait. But he did. She opened the car door, then instantly closed it without climbing in. “Changed my mind,” Laurel called out to the driver. She was hit with the realization that this might be the perfect time and place to talk to the officer named Eric.
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