No matter how much my best friend Kelly dressed it up for the party, the balcony was too damn small. I was standing with a man I’d just met on a pretty shag rug that obviously belonged inside. There were little colorful lights strung across the bars at our feet, but the balcony still felt like a fire escape—a place you bolted to in an attempt to save your life.
I was counting my drinks because I wanted to remember everything. I’d recently blacked out for the first time, woken up in bed with a guy I didn’t know, and this time I wanted to know what happened. It wasn’t that I felt guilty or bad for doing what I so obviously did, but I wanted to remember what that was. If I couldn’t conjure up images of a chest, a pair of arms, and couldn’t remember kisses, what was the point?
I had, as my mother would say, just slimmed down, losing twenty pounds and fitting into my favorite skirt and a sweater I considered doll-sized, and I was very aware of the inch of give I had at the waist which helped me shake my head no at the cheesy doodle my new friend was holding out as an offering. The doodle was wrinkled, the cheese smelly, and his fingertips were dusted orange.
I felt pretty standing on the little balcony with the man I’d just met. He was listening intently to each thing I said, which made me feel even prettier. It was a party I’d thrown for Kelly, although I didn’t really do much except for having the idea, sending out a mass e-mail, bringing a case of beer and a store-bought birthday cake. It wasn’t Kelly’s birthday but the cake was on sale, and I wanted to walk into the party with something surprising. I was at that age where I wanted to be mysterious; it was like holding in your stomach—it never really worked. Or it worked temporarily, and then there you were again, an open book and your belly was bigger than you’d remembered it. But I was twenty then and didn’t know how hopeless it all was.
On top of the cake, someone had written in blue cursive, “Happy Birthday Clementine,” and my new friend was impressed with this. He said it was cool and that the minute I walked in and set the cake on the dining table, he noticed my high-heeled boots and wanted to say hello. Hello, he said. He was talking, flirting, and I was flirting too, but in my peripheral vision, I saw a guy I loved for a short while who didn’t love me back. He was looking down at the cake and shaking his head like it was the saddest thing he’d ever seen. He stepped away and out of my view then, and I felt like I’d lost something.
My new friend was asking if it was hard to walk in my boots. I was shaking my head no, but I wasn’t quite there. I was wondering where the guy I loved who didn’t love me back went. I was wondering if just seeing me in my favorite skirt and tiny sweater would fill him with regret.
You look like you know some things, my new friend said.
How old are you anyway? he asked. What kind of cake is it? he wanted to know.
A birthday cake, I said.
Chocolate or vanilla?
I don’t know. It’s for Clementine.
Who’s Clementine? He looked around.
She’s not here.
Where is she?
Good question, I said. I was wondering what had happened to Clementine, if she’d been punished, done something bad like shoplift or cuss at a teacher, and so her whole birthday party was canceled. Or maybe she’d done something terrific, like get straight A’s or fend off a kidnapper, and a store-bought cake wouldn’t do anymore. Perhaps her mother was mixing eggs and flour and sugar into a bowl because her Clementine was so great, more intuitive than she’d ever imagined.
I lived in my head a lot then, smoked pot a couple nights a week, but mostly I drank at parties or bars, flashing my fake ID and trying to summon maturity to my face. I wanted to be in a relationship because I wanted someone to kiss me goodbye and hello, again and again and again. I’d never had a boyfriend, but I’d loved the guy who thought the cake was sad, and I’d had lots of sex with guys who’d been my friends, and then who were, like me, struck by the awkwardness of having had sex with a friend, and so pulled away even though we’d had so much fun just hanging out and getting stoned before we got all carried away.
Kelly had had a baby a few weeks earlier, and the baby was still so tiny that I marveled at her just being out in the world. Shelter seemed inadequate—the building, the apartment, the crib, the blanket—nothing was enough. The only time I thought she’d live through the night was when I was holding her two nights earlier. Tonight, though, I was thinking about my own needs.
The man I was talking to on the balcony was an African-American man. There were a lot of men of color at the party: Latinos, two guys from the Middle East, and four black businessmen who went to MIT. There was also a very short white guy who kept saying, Hey bro, and How’z it? and embarrassing himself. Most of the other men were big with broad chests and deep voices. My new friend’s skin was light, and his features were small and pointy. He had one of those noses you stare at because you can’t imagine the necessary amount of air squeaking its way inside, and his lips were too thin like my grandmother’s. And he giggled. When I said something funny, he’d actually lift his hand to his mouth and hee-hee behind it. There was something endearing about his giggle when most of the other men at the party, including the guy I loved who didn’t love me back, were knee-deep in their own testosterone, their laughs from their bellies carrying across the room and out onto the balcony, dwarfing my new friend’s giggle all the more.
He had a newly shaved head that he told me was temporary. It made him look vulnerable, and if I’d had a hat to spare, I would have given it to him. I’d spend one night, a morning, and an early afternoon with this man, and then two weeks thinking about him, and I’d move on right around the time his soft curls would be growing back.
At some point a young woman joined us on the balcony. She had offerings: a bowl of artichoke dip and a plate of crackers. We were polite but not overly so. My friend accepted a cracker, swiping the dip while the woman held the plate steady. He was chewing, nodding his approval, but he was looking at me.
I refused the offerings and made them eat alone.
Tasty? she asked him.
He said artichokes, especially the hearts, were one of the wonders of the world.
I looked at him and felt betrayed. They’re overrated, I said.
No one said anything.
Inside, the party erupted with laughter, and the woman turned around to see what all the fuss was about. I’m going back in, she said, taking the dip and crackers with her.
And we were alone again, the way we obviously liked it, and without looking at each other, we’d made something clear: our very own after-party was all planned out. Sure, there were things we’d stumble over, things that filled each of us with doubt, but there was always alcohol, the fruity vodka drinks I was sipping and counting, and there was the proximity of the tiny balcony which could have probably brought even the most unlikely people together, at least for a night.
I was proud of my freedom and weight loss and fitting into my skirt and sweater, and I told him so.
The weight loss and skirt I understand, he said. Freedom, though, what do you mean?
I live alone, I said. No roommates, no parents.
Independent, he said.
That’s me, I said.
What are your parents like? he wanted to know.
Like anyone’s parents, I lied. My parents weren’t like anyone’s parents; they were very fat parents who were sometimes very thin. They were very thin parents now with skin hanging from their faces. They’d refused the foods they loved all spring, so my mom was wearing short sleeves again and my dad was tucking in his shirts. I imagined them sitting in their big house on their big couch talking about fat grams and calories and fake eggs and artificial sweeteners.
I was not very fat but I looked like I could be one day. I was the girl you thought might be athletic under her clothes but when you got me naked, I was all soft with a marshmallow belly. I wondered if the guy I loved who didn’t love me back was disappointed when he touched my belly on the way into my panties and if that had any effect on his decisions.
I might one day be very fat, I told the man on the balcony.
I like a woman with a little something-something.
I might have much more than a little of everything, I said.
What’s your mom look like? he asked.
She looks great.
He nodded happily.
Now, I added.
Hmm, he said thoughtfully.
Ask me in two weeks, I said, and then I was quickly embarrassed because the man on the balcony had said nothing about talking to me in two weeks, and I knew how presumptuous I’d sounded.
I’ve got someone, he said, looking down at his ring.
I see that.
We’re having problems, he said.
Did you do something?
We both did things.
That’s too bad.
She’s away. He paused. They’re away, he corrected himself.
You’ve got more than one?
I’ve got a kid, too.
Don’t tell me more, I said.
Okay, he said. Then we were both quiet for a few minutes, looking out at the night sky. Have you seen Kelly’s baby? he finally asked me.
I’m her best friend, I said. I see the baby all the time.
Oh, he said.
The baby was asleep, or maybe she wasn’t asleep, but we told ourselves she was. Earlier while I was buying the birthday cake, Kelly was putting her in the crib with the baby monitor turned off; Kelly was only twenty-one and didn’t want a baby to begin with but hadn’t been up for an abortion. You might not like the way that sounds, but I’d been up for an abortion twice already, at sixteen and at nineteen, and Kelly had come with me to the clinic both times. I’d always thought that she agreed with me, that she knew it wasn’t murder, but when Kelly got pregnant, all that changed. She kept saying that her fetus was a person like those people outside the clinic said it was.
I started to think back to the conversations we’d had about abortion, and I couldn’t remember her saying anything either way. Maybe my assumption had to do with Kelly’s omission, what she refused to say out loud, but either way it pissed me off. It’s not like I would have carried the pregnancies to term if she’d passed her opinion, but still I felt duped.