If there had been anyone else in that splendid hallway with us – anybody at all, going in either direction – I would have been tipped off and could have made my escape. But the three of us walked down the corridor alone. When Shane and Kathleen came to the open double-doors on our left, they both stopped suddenly in front of me, blocking the entrance to the main ballroom. Staring inside, Shane said, “Uh oh.” Kathleen turned and looked at me and made a face that was half-smile and half-grimace.
Bland Motown music and the buzz of hundreds of conversations came drifting out the door as Shane said, “Jesus, I’m sorry, man. I honestly didn’t think it was absolutely required…”
“Oh, crap. What’s wrong?” I pushed between them and looked inside. Five hundred people filled the ballroom. Every woman was dressed in either a black or a white evening gown, and every man was dressed in a tuxedo.
Kathleen hugged my arm to her breast. “It’ll be fine. You’re still more handsome than ninety-nine percent of the men in there.”
“And I’m sure that’s what everyone will say: ‘Did you see that handsome man?’ ‘Which one?’ ‘The one who showed up at the Black-and-White Ball wearing blue jeans and a navy sports jacket.’ ‘Oh, you mean the handsome asshole! Yes, everybody saw him. He’s the talk of the ball.’ ‘How did he get in dressed like that?’ ‘Shane and Kathleen brought him.’ I promise both of you,” I said, “I’m not going through this embarrassment alone. Before I leave here tonight, everyone will know that I came with you.”
The three of us stepped inside the crowded ballroom and looked around. Everybody sitting at the tables was wearing either black or white; everybody milling around the room was wearing either black or white; everybody standing at the bar was wearing either black or white.
I took a step backwards, but Kathleen tightened her grip on my arm. “Don’t go. Please don’t go. You spend too many nights at home alone as it is.”
“Look around, Kathleen. I’m as out of place here as the Cubs at the World Series.”
Shane poked me in the ribs with a sharp elbow. “Look! You’re not the only one,” he said pointing to the dance floor.
At first all I saw were dancers dressed in black and white (and only a quarter of them actually moving in time with the music). But then one couple drifted to the right. A woman wearing a bright red gown that sparkled with every move she made danced as if she didn’t have a care in the world.
“Well, that certainly makes a world a difference. I feel completely at ease now.”
Kathleen tugged her husband’s sleeve. “Go ask the people working the coat room if they have a spare tuxedo or if there’s a men’s store nearby.”
As Shane took off, Kathleen said, “Not to worry. As long as I’m on your arm, no one will even notice you.” Still holding fast to me, she guided us towards the bar. “Let’s get something to drink.”
Sure enough, as we made our way through the crowd, people gave me quick, fleeting glances and gave Kathleen long, admiring stares.
Halfway to the bar, a woman’s voice behind us called out, “Kathleen!”
We both turned around and when Kathleen saw who called her, she squealed in delight. The woman would have been attractive if her hair had been only one color. But I counted at least seven shades of red, brown, and black.
“Kathleen! Remember Susan Kelly?” Rainbow Head asked, her eyes intense with excitement. “She’s here! And she says she’s looking to invest in a romantic comedy!”
Kathleen’s mouth dropped half open for a moment and then they both screamed again.
Rainbow Head grabbed Kathleen by both wrists. “Come on! I’ve been singing your praises to her for almost an hour!”
Kathleen allowed herself to be dragged away. I looked at the door but Kathleen yelled back at me, “Don’t you dare leave! I’ll meet you at the bar in fifteen minutes.” Then she disappeared into the crowd.
I debated with myself: the door or the bar. I wanted the door, but if I did that, I would be getting grief for at least a month. So I made my way to the bar, twisting and turning this way and that through a sea of black and white saying, “Excuse me” or “Pardon me” again and again. And without Kathleen to distract everyone, I was attracting everyone’s stares. And there was nothing admiring about them.
A solid wall of black and white surrounded the bar so I staked out a quiet stretch of wall beside a potted palm tree. I checked my watch: 10:14. Kathleen’s fifteen minutes would be up at 10:29.
As far out of the way as I was (not to mention being almost under the tree), I still drew smirks and amused shakes of the head from people. After the sixth person did a double take in my direction, I closed my eyes and promised myself that I would keep them closed until 10:29 had come and gone.
A few minutes later, I heard someone at the bar say, “There’s no smoking in here, Miss Boyle.”
Fifteen feet to my right, the woman in the shimmering red dress stood at the bar, frozen in mid-movement holding an unlit cigarette like it was a microphone halfway to her mouth. A dozen men and women watched in amusement as the tiny wisp of a woman stared down the hulking bartender (who was wearing a black and white uniform, of course). She looked at him as if maybe the poor guy had lost his mind for a moment, then she smiled a smile of genuine amusement.
She snapped to life and put the cigarette between her lips, handed a gold lighter to the bartender, and then waited. And all the while she never stopped looking him right in the eyes or smiling that amused smile. For several moments the bartender stood motionless, staring at her, apparently trying to figure out what he was supposed to do. He looked around and saw everyone watching and smiling and laughing and waiting to see how he would handle the situation. So he lit the lighter and offered her a light. The woman in red leaned forward and her cheeks hollowed as the tip of her cigarette caught the flame and glowed bright orange for a moment before sending a trail of smoke drifting towards the ceiling. She took her lighter back with one hand, removed the cigarette from her lips with the other, and still smiling, mouthed the word, “Thanks.”
She turned her back to the bar, and with smoke wafting from her half-open mouth, scanned the room until she was looking in my direction. For a moment, I thought she was looking right at me. She looked familiar – but unexpectedly small. Just then, a man in tuxedo stepped in her line of sight, and tried to strike up a conversation with her.
I checked my watch: 10:18. Just before closing my eyes once more, I glanced at the bar and saw her peer around the guy talking to her. And this time she did look directly at me.
She looked at me. And then she smiled at me. And then she winked at me.
My heart jumped and I tried to look away. But I couldn’t; her eyes wouldn’t let me. Maybe because of the lack of color everywhere else in the room, or maybe because they stood out in contrast to her bright red dress, but the very blueness of her eyes acted like a magnet. She continued to stare and smile at me as she turned her head slightly to the side and upward and blew a plume of smoke above the heads of everyone else around her.
When she turned back to the bar I was able to look away. I leaned back against the wall once again, closed my eyes, and her name popped into my head. I thought as small as she was on television, in real life she was even smaller.
A few seconds later, someone very close to me asked, “Don’t you know why this is called a Black-and-White Ball?” I opened my eyes. There she stood, looking up at me, giving me her best TV star smile. “Hi, I’m Lara,” she said, offering her hand.
I shook her hand, my mind freezing up at seeing a celebrity being a flesh-and-blood person right in front of me. Her complexion was so fair it bordered on being pale. An explosion of lightly colored freckles that I had never seen on her on television covered her face, shoulders, arms and chest. Her eyebrows looked expertly sculpted above those blue eyes that seemed to command me not to look away. I let go of her hand, but she held onto mine – her grip startlingly warm and strong.
“You were staring,” she said in a voice deeper and raspier than it sounds on TV. I glanced at the glass of whiskey and the lit cigarette in her left hand.
“I was. I apologize. It’s just that I was rather taken by the sight of you.”
She burst out laughing – a sound of genuine delight. “You’re blushing! Oh, God, that’s adorable!” As she laughed, I smelled the tobacco and alcohol on her breath. The smell was a little unpleasant, but it drove home the idea that this was not an image on a TV screen in front of me but a real flesh-and-blood woman.
She still held my right hand. “Hold this,” she said, handing me her drink.
She studied my right hand, caressing it with her left thumb. The smoke drifting up from her cigarette stung my eyes. “You have small hands. I like small hands.” She lifted the cuff of my shirt and looked up my sleeve.
As she studied at my hand I was able to steal a close look at her. Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail and reflected the lights overhead. At least a hundred freckles dotted the tops of her shoulders and appeared to go down her back. She wore small, gold earrings with red stones in them and, on her left wrist, a gold watch with a band as slender and delicate as herself. Her perfume smelled of fresh water.
“A guy who blushes. There’s no way you’re in the industry. How did you get in here?”
“A couple friends dragged me along. They’re producers.”
She let go of my hand and said, “Give me the other one.” I gave her my left hand and again she examined and stroked it, front and back, and then lifted the shirt cuff to look up my sleeve. “Pushy producers? Who ever heard of such a thing? Next you’ll be telling me actors are self-centered.”
She took her drink back, held open the collar of my shirt and looked at my neck.
Then she held my chin between her thumb and forefinger and turned my head all the way to the left and then all the way to the right.
“No jewelry,” she said. “Good. I can’t stand men who wear jewelry.”
She stepped back and stared at me tilting her head to the right and nibbling at the inside of her right cheek. She put her cigarette between her lips and when she took her drag, she moved her hand six or eight inches away from it, parting her fingers wide: a showy way of smoking – smoking with a flourish.
“Wallflower, you look like you’d be more comfortable almost any place else in the world. Why don’t the two of us get lost together?” Without waiting for an answer, she threw back the last of her drink, set the empty glass on the edge of the pot the palm tree sat in, took me by the arm, and steered me to the door.
I looked over my shoulder and saw Kathleen and Rainbow Head sitting at a table with another woman, all three of them talking and laughing together, unaware of everyone else in the room.
As small and delicate as Lara’s hand looked, her grip was firm and confident. Anyone looking at us would think I was escorting Lara. I looked at the door only a hundred feet away and saw it as an entrance to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And I just knew Shane was about to come walking through that door carrying a rented tux.
I looked around and saw we were the center of attention for just about everyone in our immediate vicinity. Men and women decked out in their finest formal wear had turned to look at the TV star and the stranger. Some of them were pointing at us, most of them were whispering and smiling to each other. I felt more out of place than ever: the pauper in his jeans with the princess in her designer gown.
I heard whispers on either side of us. “… the woman from The Practice.” “…thin.” “Is he anybody?” “I didn’t know she was so small.” “… no smoking – unless you’re a celebrity.” “…prettier in person…” “… moron … jeans!” Maybe Lara was unaware we were being stared at or maybe she was aware of it and she just didn’t care. Either way, she paid no attention at all to any of the whispers or stares or pointing.
We were thirty feet from the door when an enormous woman of about sixty stepped in front of us. She wore a light blue gown and around her neck she wore enough diamonds to fill a small ice cube tray.
“Lara! You’re not leaving already?” She spoke to Lara but she was staring at me.
“We are, Liz.” Lara said in a “just between us girls” tone of voice as her fingernails suddenly dug hard into my bicep. “Given the choice between spending two or three hours making industry small talk or spending two or three hours getting laid, well…” Lara shrugged, making a gesture that said, “It’s an easy choice,” and brought her cigarette to her lips.
“And this is the lucky man?” She stuck out her hand to me. “I’m Elizabeth Ganders, it’s nice to meet you.”
I shook Elizabeth’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you, too. I’m…” My right hand and arm were suddenly filled with pins and needles as Lara jammed her thumbnail deep into my upper arm. She must have caught a nerve between my arm bone and her nail because the pins and needles were quickly being replaced by numbness.
I looked at Lara and saw her nonchalantly turn her head and exhale a long stream of smoke. The smell caused a man and woman to turn towards her. The woman looked at the cigarette and then back at Lara. Lara smiled sweetly at them before looking back at me, waiting for me to make some excuse to get us out of there.
“Elizabeth, I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s not often a TV star shows an interest in me, and I really want to get Lara out of here before she comes to her senses. I hope you understand.”
The pain from Lara’s fingernails was replaced by a gentle squeeze of approval.
“We’ll dish tomorrow, Liz,” Lara said. “You’ll get all the dirt here for me?”
“Of course. Go have fun.” Elizabeth turned to me and said, “It was nice meeting you, whoever you are.”
And then we were walking out the door.
Outside, Lara flicked her cigarette away as a valet in a dark red jacket almost sprinted up to us. He stood in front of me with his hand out. Lara let go of my arm (causing my heart to sink just a bit) to open her purse, and the valet gave me a quick look that said, “The woman has the stub? What’s wrong with you?” He took an exaggerated step to his left to stand in front of Lara, gave me another suspicious look, and then turned his attention to her. As she looked in her purse, the valet made no attempt to be subtle as he thoroughly examined her face, neck, and cleavage. Lara handed him the stub and he ran off.
“Did that excite you? Watching him check me out like that?”
“I admit I liked it. I didn’t like that he did it so openly.”
“What about them?” Twenty feet away, four more valets in dark red jackets were talking amongst themselves and staring at Lara.
Staring at them, I put my arm around Lara’s waist and pulled her close to me. The warmth from her hip seeped through the leg of my jeans and into the top of my thigh.
Lara gave a short moan of approval sound and leaned against me.
A few moments later, a black Porsche pulled to a stop in front of us. The tinted windows made it impossible to see inside. My favorite valet hopped out of the car, leaving the driver’s door open.
As Lara started to walk around the front of the car she handed the valet a twenty. He reached for it, but I was faster, and I snatched the bill from her hand. “He already got his tip, “ I said, making Lara bark a delighted laugh.
When she got in behind the wheel, the valet said something to me in Spanish. He took a step forward with his chest out. But when I wouldn’t back up, a look of uncertainty passed over his face. The passenger door of the Porsche popped open, and I climbed in.
I hadn’t even closed the door before Lara threw the car in gear and we were screeching away. I had time for only a quick glance in the side view mirror and for a fraction of a second saw the valet, shrinking into the distance, grabbing his crotch and giving me the finger.
Settling back, the seat seemed to mold itself around me. The interior of the car was as black as the exterior and the heavily tinted windows blocked most of the light from getting in. If not for the night coming in through the windshield and the blue-green lights of the dashboard, we would have been sitting in total darkness. “It feels like we’re almost invisible to the outside world.”
“I know,” she said, smiling. In the dimness, I saw that Lara had hiked the bottom of her gown up to her mid-thighs so she could get her legs far enough apart to work the clutch. “You’re first time in a Porsche?”
“What do you think?”
Lara chuckled. “Yeah, that was my first reaction, too.”
Three hundred feet in front of us, the traffic light changed from green to yellow, and I felt my head press back into the headrest. The numbers on the digital speedometer rocketed upwards from the lows 20’s. When they got to the mid-50s, it took Lara only a second to lift one foot from the gas, step on the clutch with the other, push the stick shift up and to the right into third gear (using only the middle finger of her right hand), let go of the clutch and step on the gas once more. My head pushed back even harder onto the headrest as the Porsche surged forward. I watched the half-dozen cars on each side of the cross street waited for their red light to turn green. The lead car on our right, anticipating the green light, inched into the intersection, starting to block our lane.
A hundred feet from the intersection, the yellow light facing us turned red as the Porsche’s speedometer raced past 90-mph. Lara’s feet and fingers danced on the pedals and the stick shift once more as the cars on both sides of the cross street started forward, and my stomach dropped. When we were ten feet from the crosswalk, the lead car on our right rolled into our lane, and Lara flicked the steering wheel four inches to the left and immediately back again to get us around him as we shot through the intersection at 101 mph and disappeared into the night, a dozen blaring car horns fading in the distance.
All of a sudden, I could hear Lara’s breathing – the result of the adrenaline rush – and we dropped down to 80 mph. “So, wallflower, why did your producer friends drag you to the ball?”
“They worry about me.”
“I don’t date much.”
“Enough that I haven’t had a girlfriend in five years.”
“Why is that?” she asked in a tone that demanded an answer. Now.
Before I could say a word, she stomped on the brake so hard the tires locked and squealed. I was thrown forward hard enough that my forehead touched the dashboard. The back end of the car skidded so far to the left I thought we would spin completely around. The numbers on the speedometer plummeted to 17. Lara jerked the steering wheel to the right.
We raced down a quiet side street for a quarter mile before Lara pulled the car to the curb, and we screeched to a stop underneath a streetlight. In a flash, Lara was out the door, hurrying around the back of the car.
I reached for the handle to open my door, but before I could touch it, Lara jerked the door open herself.
“Get out of the car!”
Lara reached in, grabbed me by my jacket, and pulled me out. She shoved me back against the car, put her left forearm across the middle of my chest, and leaned against me hard enough that the edge of the car’s roof dug into my spine. Her jaws muscles clenched and unclenched again and again and her breathing came loud and fast. “Is there something wrong with you?” she demanded.
The change in her mood was so sudden and so sharp, I was too rattled to make sense of what was happening. All I could do was stand there, gawking at her.
“Do you have a disease?” she yelled loud enough to make me wonder if people in the homes across the street could hear her.