The Upper Crust
The party was boring. In fact, looking back, I'd hardly even call it a party. I had been crammed into a ritzy ballroom with a bunch of stuffed shirts standing around drinking champagne and telling stories about all their money. Normally, I would simply have stood back and admired the architecture to keep myself occupied, but my claustrophobia was acting up in spite of the room's size. Absolutely nobody looked to be having a good time.
"Enjoying yourself, Nick?"
I turned to see Barry, my agent, carrying a martini and decked out in an expensive suit (which he would later proudly profess was Italian), a pair of designer eyeglasses (though he had perfect vision), and a haircut that probably cost more than both put together.
"I can assure you, not at all," I replied sharply. Barry frowned.
"Well, put on a happy face anyway, kid. It's not exactly good press if everybody sees you moping in a corner." He stirred his drink with his finger thoughtfully for a moment, before plucking the olive from the glass and popping it in his mouth. "Your speech is in thirty minutes. Why don't you go mingle? We're on the road starting tomorrow morning bright and early. You won't get an opportunity to relax like this for another four months."
"This is hardly my idea of relaxing," I snapped as Barry downed the rest of his drink, clearly disinterested.
"Yeah, yeah. Hold that thought, I think I hear the bartender calling me." With that, he ambled off, as he so often did, in the general direction of the liquor.
I sighed and turned my attention back to the room, finding it just as dull as before the interruption. An older man with an inadequate comb-over caught my eye and excitedly waved me over. With a groan, I adjusted my tie and went.
"Ah, if it isn't our distinguished guest, Mr. Neale!" he exclaimed, shaking my hand vigorously and pretending as though my arrival had been a pleasant, uncommissioned surprise.
"Hi there," I said flatly.
"Monsieur DuPonte was just telling me the most intriguing tale about a rather large fish..." I tuned him out almost immediately. He, much like everybody else in the room, had an annoying habit of meandering through as many words as possible when he talked, but never managing to say anything of substance, even by accident. The upside of this was that it was a passive experience; he would expect no commentary from me in return, and in fact would likely be quite offended if I saw fit to offer any.
And then I saw her. There was no way I couldn't see her; everything from her clothes to her hair to the way she walked commanded my attention. Her dress was simple and unobtrusive, in stark contrast to the flamboyant affairs many of the women present had chosen to wear. Her hair was relatively plain, a simple curling job sufficing for what most of the guests had considered a multi-thousand dollar matter of importance. Despite her less-than-showy appearance, she strode into the room with an air of confidence about her, as if she were the only person who truly belonged here and what in the hell were all of these people doing in her ballroom?
She turned and met my gaze with a warm smile.
"Excuse me, Hank," I interrupted him mid-sentence of what he probably felt was a very humorous anecdote about caviar. "Something's just come up."
I strode across the room, not needing to look over my shoulder to know that he was wearing an expression of indignant confusion. Her smile grew wider as I drew nearer, and when I was close enough she threw her arms around me in a tight hug.
"I've been expecting you," I said.
"Sorry to pull you away from your important work. You looked like you were having so much fun." Her words were dripping with sarcasm.
"Har har," replied playfully. "Come on, let's get the hell out of here." I started to pull her back out the doors she had just walked through.
"Wait!" she cried.
"...I want one of those things." She pointed toward the buffet table and a plate of hors d'oeuvres I had become very familiar with in my boredom.
"Ooh, those are tasty." I paused. "Too bad you don't get one." She punched me lightly in the arm.
"Get me one now," she commanded, her voice tinged with laughter.
I saluted and replied, "If I don't come back alive, don't let any of these assholes speak at my funeral."
I skirted the edge of the room, taking care not to draw anybody's attention. I ducked down low behind the table, humming the Mission Impossible theme in my head. Slowly, I reached a hand up to grab the dish. When I felt my fingers close around it, I quickly swiped it off the tablecloth and into my lap. I army crawled back to the other end of the table, sliding the plate on the floor in front of me. When the table could no longer conceal me, I jumped to my feet and bolted for the door. She was hysterical with laughter.
"Hors d'oeuvres for the lady?" I asked in my worst French accent as I grabbed her hand and yanked her out the door. We made for a staircase.
From the roof, the dull drone of the party seemed far away. I sat in one of the two outdoor folding chairs I'd set up earlier and motioned for her to take the other.
"My, isn't this fancy," she remarked as I popped open the cooler and offered her a beer. She took it.
"Told you I was expecting you."
I managed to sort of balance the tray across the arms of the two chairs, and she grabbed one of the little cheesy tomatoey duck-livery cracker things from it and popped it in her mouth.
"Damn, these are tasty."
"Told ya," I said, cracking open a beer of my own and taking a big, ice cold gulp. "Ahh... that's much more my speed."
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather be downstairs talking to all of 'your crowd?'" she teased.
"Ugh. Don't even joke about that. I swear, these people are more boring than Mrs. Henley's English class."
"Didn't she actually bore herself to sleep mid-lecture one time?"
"Yeah, I was there. She just sort of trailed off and stood there for a minute. Eventually, everyone who hadn't been paying attention realized she wasn't teaching anymore. So we just let her sleep, because doing literally nothing was more exciting than listening to her talk."
"Well, it's nice that Mr. Big Shot can take time out of his busy schedule to remember the little people."
"Oh, indeed my dear lady," I said in the haughtiest voice I could muster. "After all, if we didn't have poor people, nobody would be rich. In fact, that reminds me of the most intriguing story..."
She snorted out a laugh.
"You're a dork."
"That's what I like about you."
We sat in silence for a while looking up at the stars. I heard a crunching sound and looked over. She was stuffing as many of the hors d'oeuvres as she could fit at a time into her mouth.
"On't phay a goggam wor," she said around her mouthful of food. She swallowed. "You probably get to eat this stuff all the time. I've tasted food like this in my life."
"It gets boring when you're eating it all the time."
"Seriously, what is this? What is this called? I gotta learn how to make this."
Muffled words came from below us. I peered over the edge of the roof. On the balcony below us, Barry was trying to put the moves on some blonde girl who probably sincerely thought he was interested in her career.
"I'm tellin' ya baby, I can get you a part on any TV show you want. You name it."
I grabbed an ice cube from the cooler and took aim. I chucked it at his head, then quickly ducked out of sight. A startled yell told me I had hit my mark. We managed to stifle our laughter as Barry searched for the culprit.
"Where the hell did that come from?"
"Where did what come from?"
"Oh, uh... nothin' baby. C'mon, let's go back inside and try to find a bedroom to, ah... talk business in."
As soon as we heard the door shut, we were both overtaken by a fit of laughter. When it had passed, she spoke.
"I've missed you."
"I've missed you too," I replied, taking note of the way her frosty gray eyes glinted in the moonlight like polished steel. "I wish I could have seen you more these past couple of months, but Barry keeps coming up with publicity shit like this to keep my busy."
"And then you'll be gone again."
I sighed. "Yeah. It's not too late to cancel though. If I refuse to leave tomorrow, there isn't a damn thing he could do about it."
"No," she said quickly. "You should go. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially considering where you started out." She paused, looking up at the sky. "I remember when you were Little Nicky Neale who was living in a low-rent apartment with his mom because his dad ran out and they didn't make much money and he cried that one time when he dropped his ice cream on the playground at school and I kissed him so he'd feel better. And then he got angry because he thought girls were icky." She paused again. "And now you're: Nick. Neale." She made little 'name in lights' motions with her hands in the air. "You've been through more shit than a lot of people have, but now you've got a good thing going for you. So you should take it. Go do the whole upper-class thing for a while. Be famous. Eat some good food. Get some bitches." She turned back to me, her eyes glistening now with more than just the moonlight. "Then come home," she choked.
She was still smiling, but the tears were flowing freely. I stood, and she did too, and I held her in my arms. I picked up the smell of lilacs from her shampoo. We stayed that way for a few minutes before I spoke.
"There's something I want you to know-" I began. The door from the stars swung open.
"There you are! Where the hell have you been, Nick? You were supposed to start your speech five minutes ago!"
Barry, clearly trying to look threatening but only managing mildly annoyed.
She pulled away and wiped at her eyes with a wrist.
"Yeah, I'm coming, Barry."
My agent threw some more heated words at me while I stood inattentive, occasionally rolling my eyes for effect.
"...now come on! We've wasted enough time."
"Fine. Just let me say goodbye to..." I turned to find that she was already gone, having slipped away down the stairs while I was receiving my lecture. Silently, I followed Barry back to the ballroom, the words I'd almost been allowed to say still fighting at my lips, desperately trying to push their way out, for me to scream them as loud as I could to the sky so that she might hear them from wherever she was.
It was to be the longest four months of my life.