The First Chapter of a Piece I Think is Strong Enough to be a Novella But Not a Novel

The first time he saw her, she was drunk: her step unsteady, lacking firmness, an anomaly in what would normally be a smooth gait. That was how he mistakenly considered her stumbling: irregular, incorrect, inaccurate, not what they actually were: joyful, excited, inebriated.

He was seated on a plush leather couch long since gone to pasture, the sort of lounge that no respectable household would dare contain. The shoulders were ripped, tattered scars, testament to arguments and rough-housings from who knew how many years ago. Splotchy, star-burst stains darkened all aspects of the fading leather, and the bottom of the seat sank further than he would have considered desirable. But the lounge was comfortable, all the same, and suited the peeling paint atmosphere of the smoking room upstairs at Rics just perfectly.

She opened the glass door, a burst of loud noise heralding her arrival. She looked about, not at him, not yet, her bleary gaze taking in first the table with its scattered empty and almost empty drinks; the back exit stairs, rickety and rusty, unsafe but well used; the leather couches, both of them, similar in size but not in style or colour or shape, one occupied, one not, positioned at right angles to each other, providing visual access to the dance floor by way of the spattered glass door. She collapsed into the couch he was not on, lazily draping an arm over the head rest, curling the other over her stomach, protective.

-Hi, she said, her voice not slurring, not yet, but there was a sort of dull warmth to it, an untargeted warmth that would apply to anyone she shared words with. But he was lonely, so:

-Hi, how are you?

-I'm goooood, she drawled the word, he supposed for two reasons: one comical, the other because that's how it came out.

Now he was at a loss for words. She didn't seem to mind, laying her head back on to the couch, the soft depression kinking her hair, the brown spider-web bending and curling like a wave. Between the couches was a little table, large enough for three or four drinks, and on it was a scotch and coke without ice, his. He picked the glass up, holding it gently in front of his face, letting his wrist fall in the casual, limp way in which some people observe things they are holding. He swirled the drink as though it had ice, then took a sip as it sloshed about, wetting his lips with the liquid.

Her eyes were almost closed, they were heavily lidded, a tiny sliver of eye-bright peeping through. She was in profile, her arms resting so that palms faced upwards, fingers slighting curling in towards the wrist, one of which – the left – bore a tiny flower tattoo, yellow. A slender black bag lay against her thigh, the straps falling over to her lap. Her dark hair was swept upwards and away from her ears, delicate little waves of pink flesh, pierced once with gold, twice with steel. In terms of clothing, she wore materials, cuts and colours that pleased him, though he was not fashion aware enough to know why. White sneakers with pink slashes, the laces loosely tied, blue jeans that ended just above the hips, a thrilling glimpse of pale white skin before the shirt, black, began, and a gold necklace with a stone of some sort nestled between her breasts, an area his eyes did not feel comfortable roaming over, though they wanted to. When she breathed, her chest heaved slightly, lifting up her shirt just enough so that he could see the dimple of her belly button, a slender, feminine curve accentuated by the faintest outline of a rib.

He wanted to say something more. She was, he felt, an extremely attractive girl. There was also the matter of the room being solely to them, nobody as yet had interrupted their – not a conversation, but something. Generally, at this time of night on a Friday, this room acted as both a thorough-fare and a pit-stop. It provided easy access from the upstairs dance floor to the downstairs toilets, as well as being the only place in the whole building where smoking was allowed. And there were the leather couches: comfortable, soft, enveloping; not at all like the harsh wood and metal elsewhere.

-Are you, he cleared his throat, looked away, sipped – swallowed – at his drink. -Are you enjoying yourself, tonight?

She opened her eyes lazily, turning her head to look at him. Her eyes were green, her eyes held his like a lover cradles a cheek. -I'm having a great night, she smiled. -What about you?

-Me? Oh, you know... He looked away, startled by the intensity of her eyes, such a powerful, beautiful, yet harrowing window to another's soul, man or woman. At times he felt so overwhelmed by the naked intensity of a person's eyes that he did not – could not – look at them for an entire conversation, contenting himself with studying their nose, or their forehead, anywhere but those twin pools of truth. To catch a glimpse of another's true self is to know them deeper than he was often willing to admit. It was a baring of I that made him uncomfortable, as though he was being welcomed to a room of secrets he did not feel deserving of entry. -I am, yes, I suppose. It's quiet, and...

-Is that why you're out here? She looked back at the writhing mass of people not five feet away but behind glass, like snakes at a zoo. -Is that why you are out here, instead of there?

-That's right, he smiled, for the first time, a tentative smile, not nervous, a gentle, probing, reaching smile that questioned her just as much as his words, his gestures. -I prefer to ... I enjoy talking more than ... that. He pointed with his glass hand, the liquid swirling almost to the lip of the cup and over; he brought the rim against his mouth, the taste of scotch stronger as the glass became half full.

-Me too. I like talking. She sighed, loudly, melodramatically so, locking her fingers together and pushing her arms out, stretching, leaning forwards, a groan too intense to be real, then sat up once more, a relaxed half-smile on her face, left hand falling to her lap, right to tug at some hair fallen astray over her ear, tucking it behind with practised ease. -But I like dancing, too.

-Have you had much to drink tonight? He asked, regretting the words as they left his mouth. They were so common, so expected, so familiar. Any person, upon meeting someone they feel a slight interest in, will ask this question, it is almost a law, a requirement, one that denotes instant strangerhood, one that serves more to distance two people that to combine them. He hated asking it, hated needing such a coarse analysation of a person's immediate experiences to continue the flow of a discussion. A poor choice, but one could argue that it was a necessary one, and surely it was better to get the question over and done with as early as possible.

-No, no, well... She laughed. -Not here, no. Too expensive. Being poor is not fun. I had some drinks at home, before I came. It's so much cheaper... The answer left her mouth as easy as the proverbial hot knife through butter, her response as automatic as the question, a necessary hurdle, once completed never repeated. The answer she gave was as meaningless as the question which prompted it, forgettable, inconsequential and essentially useless. Yet there was a sense that she, too, was relieved that this question was gone, that the answer was past, that the formulaic ritual of meet and greet had passed and now the real truths could begin.

He nodded. What else was there to do? A relatively standard answer to an excruciatingly standard question. -Me, yes, well, I, I had some drinks at work, before I came out, of course, then I, well, I guess I've been sitting here since.

She grinned and he didn't know why. -Does alcohol make you jittery? Get you hyper?

-No, why? Confused, tilting his head, unsure whether this was a good or a bad direction for their conversation to turn. Was she mocking him, or talking to him?

-That sentence, before, had more pauses than I've heard all night from anybody else. Are you nervous?

-Maybe a little...


He blushed. She smiled, aww-ed softly, removed her hand from her lap and squeezed his wrist. -Don't be nervous, silly. She let his wrist fall. -What's your name?

-It's William. Will.

-Well, Will, my name is Lauren. There.

-There what?

-There, now we know each other and you can't be nervous.

-Oh, he said, looking for his drink, finding it, then swallowing, a great big scotchy gulp that tickled the back of his throat, then slipped whispery soft into his stomach. -Well ok then, if I can't be nervous, I can't be nervous.

-Gooood, she drawled, purely comical this time.

There was a pause, a pause the went from momentary to pregnant to long to too-long. He wanted to say something, desperately so, more now than before, when she was just an abstract, an idealised Female, and now, now that she was no longer a Female but a Lauren, with a personality he was beginning to define, to slowly chip away at the great marble block that was her, to create a sculpture that, so far, was pleasing to the eye and to the mind, he wanted to talk to her, to say something clever and witty and memorable. He felt a familiar, hated tension, as though he was a millimetre outside of his own skin, a tiny hair's breadth outside of his body, able to look back at himself, to observe, to see and to understand what he was not doing, and what he should be doing, but because he was not quite himself, because of this differentiation between his mind and his body, he was unable.

Just then, a steady stream of people from the back stairs arrived, opening the door to the dance floor, sending in a great blaring of white noise into the room, precluding a conversation he was not, if he was honest with himself, anywhere near resuming. Yet he felt a sense of annoyance, of outrage, of opportunity once grasped but now forgotten, grow within him as the stream continued, not lessening but increasing, man after man after girl after girl, all manner of people: squat, tall, thin, fat, attractive, ugly, drunk, sober. Where had they suddenly come from? Why the mass exodus from the level below? Had the band finished their set? Probably. He glanced at Lauren, her eyes were almost-closed once more, arms slack, face upraised. If the procession continued for much longer, she would be asleep, he would become only a memory, a vague one, a shifting, hazy ghost from a night poorly remembered.

The flow stopped, the door closed, the music decreased from a booming cacophony to merely a dull roar. -I thought that was never going to end, Lauren said, languidly raising an eyelid, green pupil sliding behind dark eyelash to look at him.

-Neither did I, he said, relieved she had spoken, glad she had not fallen asleep. -I thought someone was going to sit down, and...

-And then you wouldn't have me all to yourself? She challenged, shuffling her body so that she was sitting straight upwards, eliminating the casually elegant slouch she had been cultivating since arriving.

-Something like that. He smiled softly, not taking the bait.

-Well. She stood, stretched, cracked her back with the effort. -I'm going to go back inside. She turned, walked to the door, placed a hand tipped with pink nail polish on the metal door handle. Glanced over at him with eyes of green smoke, -You're coming, right?

In the space of a few short moments, William's heart had descended into the unhappy yet familiar depths of rejection and depression, a melancholy sadness that he knew from experience would grow as the night progressed, to a joyous, grateful, almost giddy relief that she was not giving up on him just yet. -Sure, sure, I'll come. But I can't...

She dragged him on to the dance floor by the hand and his words were lost in the chaotic roar of bodies and noise. The music was loud, repetitive, primal; a simple four-beat so natural and pure to the ear that the body felt almost compelled to respond. Laid over the top of this primitive simplicity was a complex, ever-changing mixture of songs, words, instruments. The DJ was mixing and cutting up different samples, playing all manner of music over the same four duh duh duh duh, endlessly repeated. All around, people jostled and jived, jumped, shimmied and shaked. Feet were tapping, heads were bobbing, arms were flailing about. Girls were dancing with boys who were dancing with girls who were dancing with everyone. Clusters formed, split, reformed anew, a thousand different variations a minute. A young man with swinging hips and an easy style sashayed up to a slender, dark haired girl dancing, for the moment, alone. He smiled at her, holding out his hands, which she took, but for an instant, no commitment just brief enjoyment, spinning on the pivot of his body and away, out of sight in seconds from the crush of people. He was unperturbed, dancing over to another girl, a group this time, they eagerly welcomed him, attempting to outdo one another with gyrations and undulations. Little groups of men stood together, swaying more than moving, a foot tap a luxury, a hand movement an impossibility. Curious girls danced over, some stayed, some did not. At the bar, three staff ran about the tiny enclosure, endlessly active, taking orders, pouring drinks, collecting money and dispensing change. Hopefully in that order, but with the noise and the movements and the atmosphere, it was difficult to tell. An outside area, as full as the inside section, had chairs and tables, and allowed a sorely needed breeze to pass through the room. There were a few plush, soft cubes of seats pushed against the walls or into the corners, the heavy drinkers had commandeered them long before.

It was to this that she had brought him. It was in here that she wished to be. William felt lost, simultaneously a part of this organic mess of arms and legs, and alone, insignificant – hopelessly so – a tiny speck of a person in this writhing, shapeless mass that not only hindered personality, it prevented it.

Without a reason William could see, she stopped, let go of his hand, began to move. The beat was fast and so were her hips, shaking back and forth, her arms raising, bracelets falling from thin wrist to the soft flesh of her arm. She stepped about, jerky, little movements, her entire body seeming to follow itself as she moved, a coordination that was quite beyond him. First the fingers, slipping to the left, snapping through the air, floating over a current of sound – invisible to him, but visible to her, a part of her movements, her being. Then the arm followed, soft, round flesh silking along, her leg, her waist, her hair, flashing about, a smile on her face, rapturous: she moved.

He stood, tapping his foot to the beat, watching her. The other people faded away to a coloured blur, a faceless shape without individuality. Occasionally, someone would jostle against him, he would turn, reluctant to take his eyes off her movements, apologise to the person who couldn't care less, turn back to her, she had changed, was assuming a different position, always graceful, floating as though in water, her fingers cutting through the air, smile slicing through the noise.


-I am!

-No you're not, she shouted, grinning, taking his hands, which were resting feebly by his side, dead and unsure like slabs of meat, squeezed his palm, lengthened his fingers against her own, twined them together, locking tight, knuckles against his, spreading her arms wide, spreading his arms wide, moving him in, out, back, forth. He stumbled, the rest of his body unsure how to handle this effortless motion that was for him so full of effort. She laughed. He laughed, too.

-I'm hopeless at this...

-Oh, you're doing okay. She let go of his hands. Before, when their fingers were together, he hadn't noticed the gentle warmth, the feminine pressure she had exerted upon his hands. Now that the touch was broken, he missed it, rubbing the tips of his fingers against the places she had touched. -Here, watch me! She danced slower, exaggerating her movement, glancing at him, grinning with an abandon that was not wanton but joyous, a happiness so free of shame and thought that he had no choice but to return the feeling, moving his body as best he could, attempting to sway his hips the way she did, slide his fingers through the air, move his feet while also bending his legs, but it was difficult, and he stumbled, feeling foolish. Her movements were elemental, his were mechanical, imbued with hindering thought. -No, you have to relax. Move your hips. Bend your knees. Step back and forth... She rattled off her dance tips, he complied with one until the next was suggested, then focused upon it at the expense of the former. She laughed, throwing her head back, exposing the white curve of her neck, the gold thread at her throat glimmering dully, the stone bouncing in a way that would normally seem provocative, but here, in this pure joy of movement, was nothing more or less than exhilaration.

-Here, she said softly, her voice audible even over the thousand-decibel crush of sound. She stepped in close to him, placed her hands on his hips, flat, the warmth of her touch suddenly becoming the primary focus of his body. He knew that he needed to blink, and to breathe, and that his neck was itchy, but for his mind, which was electric, there was only the two warm, palm-sized sensations that dominated his conscious like a ship coming in to shore dominated the water. -Here, move your hips, like this, she swayed him, gently, he tripped a little, catching himself, but then, because he was not thinking of the movements but of her touch, but of her, he was able to do it, he feel the gentle rightness of moving, the liquid feeling of existing within the space you occupy, rather than fighting for it. He was her echo and he moved.

-Is this, is this ok?

She laughed and didn't answer him. Her hands stayed on his hips, long after they were necessary. He felt confident within his own body, able to move as one complete organism, rather than a disjointed, competing system of legs, head, feet. His arms were still an uncertainty, there was an unsure hesitancy to their bobbing, but he didn't care. He didn't. William grinned, really smiled, his face relaxing from the studied, observational countenance it so often wore.

They danced until they stopped, her hands falling away from him. He was sweaty, hot, tired, but happy. She walked up to the bar, placing her bag on the counter, trying to catch the bartender's eye.

-No, here, I'll get it, William said, pulling out his wallet.

-It's ok, I will-

-No. Really. I'm the boy, you're the girl in this relationship-

-Relationship? She raised an eyebrow. He stopped mid-sentence, voice falling away, smile slipping a fraction, then an whole integer. The bartender approached and he used the opportunity to look away and swallow, asking in a voice suddenly hoarse for two glasses of scotch. The drinks came, he paid, then was forced to look at her again. He could tell that his face had assumed its normal state, his eyes felt clear, but in a horrible, neutral, sterile way.

She punched him, hard, on the arm. -Don't be like that! Then grinned, taking the drink, thanking him, sipping at it while spinning full circle back into the crowd. He followed, slowly, gulping at his drink, deftly side-stepping the more drunken dancers of haphazard motion

On the thinning dance floor – for the night was aging, and the less dedicated people were leaving, trickles of tired, drunk revelers spilling out and away until tomorrow when it all began again – they found a clear space, wider this time, freer. She danced, holding her drink above her head, spilling a drop, her movements not graceful now so much as inviting. It was as though she was engaged in half a dance, a balletic performance that required the presence of a male, one male, William.

He was nervous, his mind seizing on the casually rejecting 'relationship?' of before, his insecurities hovering like buzzards over this one word, ignoring the thousand good words and actions that surrounded it like flowers around a weed. He finished the drink, buying time before action, looking for a place to dispose of it, watching her, wanting to join her, desperate that another would not take his place, worried that someone would, almost convinced that she was giving herself to that guy, there, or that one, over there, or maybe...

-Come on, Will! She yelled, holding out her hand, palm up, fingers lightly resting on the air, pointing at him, waiting for him to take them, to possess them, to make them his own. And he did, stepping forward, taking the fingers, curling the palm against his own, pulling her closer, taking her other hand, lowering his arms, holding on to her tightly at waist level, her fingers clutched against his, her body close enough to feel her warmth, her breath on his neck, her eyes on his face, her smile reflected, dazzling, in his eyes. She squeezed his hand, pressed it against her hips, tilted her head so that her mouth was close against his ear. -Hi.

-Hi, he said, his nose full of dark Lauren hair.

-You're not such a bad dancer, you know, she said, swaying with him, swaying in time with nobody but him, the music was off, the other people were off, the DJ was off, only they two were correctly in time with ... with what? -With everything, he whispered.

-What? She asked, a hesitant smile, a tender smile, not at all like the carefree, joyful release of before, this smile was a giving, demanding smile, a smile that asked for little, promised much.

-Nothing...I was have a phone number, right?

The smile deepened, widened, allowed for more and accounted for everything. Her eyes had a spark of knowing in them, an awareness, an opening of possibilities that he could not see but that she was planning for, considering, weighing. -I do, yes. Why?

He grinned, a quick, short, nervous grin without teeth, -Because, well...dammit, don't make this harder...

She squeezed his hands, pressing herself against him so that their stomachs touched. -I won't, promise.

He cleared his throat. -Because, you see, if you have a phone number, and if I had that phone number, maybe I could call you?

-Maybe you could, she agreed. -That wouldn't be so bad, would it?

-I don't think it would, he nodded, -I don't think that it would be at all bad, it might even be good...

-It might, she said, and told him her mobile number, ten digits that before this night were ten random, meaningless numbers, but after this night, they would be her numbers, a connection to her, a way to be with, to speak to, to share with her. He scratched the number onto some paper in his pocket, showing it to her to make sure it was correct. She nodded.

-Thank you, Lauren, he whispered, feeling overly dramatic but not caring, her hands were so warm against his, her stomach was so firm against his, the faint rubbing of her chest against his was enough to electrocute him.

-There's a small problem, she said, smile fading but still there, body easing its pressure but still there, hands loosening their grip but still there. Eyes veiled but still there, holding his gaze tight like a miser's fist around coins, -I have a boyfriend...

His eyes misted, his throat lumped. He blinked, swallowed, let go of her hands, looked away -What?

-I'm sorry, I just, I didn't...I still want you to have my number, she said, her voice tinged with panic and sorrow, hands reaching for his, hers eagerly apologetic, his reluctantly willing. -I do, William, honestly. He's not even...

-Not even what? How to ask a question like that? Not even sure he wanted an answer, but yes, he did, very much so, craved the answer in fact, desperately searching for a golden thread to take him out of this sudden abyss.

-Just call me, ok? Please...please call? She looked straight into his eyes, no, beyond his eyes, into that mystical part of everyone that lies behind the simple cornea, retina, lens; looked into him, into who he was, to his self, her own naked self pleading, sorry, interested. She stood up on her toes, almost falling against him for a brief second, pressing her lips to the corner of his mouth so quickly he hadn't time to return the kiss, if kiss it was. Her hands fell from his, her body removed from his, her gaze left his, she left him, walked away, turned back, looked at him, smiled, a gentle, hopeful smile, his last sight of her a whispery fall of brown hair as she descended the stairs, away.