{the cracked kettle: torch song ii}

“…none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.”
– Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary

torch song

The floor vibrates with the bass, and occasionally there’s a stomach-swooping thump as someone on the makeshift dance floor gets a bit too daring. Bodies, cheek-by-jowl, the air as sticky as boiled sweets, conversations at deafening decibels, but no one speaking to me. My party. Happy birthday, vingt-et-un.

It was to be an office building, has kitchenettes on every floor, rows of bland white toilets – with no stalls to divide them – and a conference room, which serves as our dance floor, layers of plywood over naked joists. My father’s copied keys opened these doors to me, his money drew friends in mosquito swarms to the brief light of my popularity.Celebrate! I remind myself. This is what I wanted, to be seen. To be visible.

I hear, somewhere, a phone ringing, ringing, ringing, its high-pitched edge like a dentist’s drill. Even above the dubstep my roommate’s DJ boyfriend insists on playing, the shrill chimes shriek. Phones. Voices. Thudding, throbbing bass. My fingers tingle, then my hands. All over, a pinprick of sensation murmurs over my skin. Dancers pack the room, arms lighted high, lights flashing as fingers fly; relentless in their pursuit of happiness, captured and chronicled for all their friends.

Who the hell are all of these people?

“HE – EEEEY!” Ásta – or Astrid? from my Poli-Sci class salutes me with a red plastic cup full of something neon pink. Jon and Eva stumble past, arms entwined, waving. I blink watering eyes at the assault of Astrid’s breath. What in heaven’s name is she drinking? And how does it not eat through her gut?

“Pink Squirrel Plus,” Ásta/Astrid raises her cup, splashing herself. “Want one?”

I wave her away, knowing drinks with “plus” in their names are simply trouble. I like my trouble with more complex nuances. “Seen Finn?”

Even Ásta/Astrid is not far gone enough to tell me this outright. “Um…” she blinks and licks her naked bottom lip. Her wine-dark lipstick has worn away in a pale pink crescent.”Friðfinnur…” Even buzzed, the name rolls loosely from her tongue. “He’s…around. You know. Could be anywhere. S’a lot of people,” she adds, gesturing vaguely.

I shoot her a look of wounded reproach – whatever happened to the solidarity of sisterhood? – but she’s impervious. A split second’s distraction and she’s reabsorbed by the pulsating, gesticulating beast, breathing in unison with what must be a hundred thousand others. Hundreds of strangers, dancing and swaying and partying in my honor, and I know four people here; three, if Finn hasn’t shown. I knew it would be like this – knew I’d be an offhand postscript to my own celebration.

I just didn’t think I’d care.

I rub my eyes, but the little lights dancing across the room are even sliding across my skin, distorting visibility. Someone bumps my elbow, compliments me on my body glitter, and asks if I know where the toilets are. Even standing on the sidelines, I’m dragged along with the tide of humanity.

feel it

“Screw it,” I mutter, and stand on a table. He’s got to be here somewhere, everyone else is. I promised myself – before everything got so out of control this afternoon – that this year will be different. This year I will say the words I think, and mean them. Now I’m five hours into twenty-one, and I need Finn to get started. He’s been a friend since Freshman year – the type of friend who watches me so hard he actually sees. Lately, he’s seen too much, which is how, I think, he scared me into this fight. Somewhere while he was looking at me, I started seeing the future. Mine doesn’t hold him, not someone like me. But I can’t lose him. I can’t —

Whose phone is that? If they don’t answer it, I’m going to find it and break it.

The crowd ripples like schools of minnows changing direction. It’s all dark faces beaded with sweat, iPhone lights strobing. The music is drilling, bass with whipsaw edges, grating broken glass across my nerves, making me blink back tears. It wasn’t me screaming today – raging about gun control and environment – but my treacherous saline eyes. His, gray-flecked brown, widened when mine stung, and he backed off, raised hands signalling his defeat, and left the field. Pyrrhic victory – neither one of us got what we wanted.

If he doesn’t want to be seen, I’ll never find him, not in this crowd. And the phone seems so close — a tinny ringing growing only louder —

I jump from the table, absently rubbing my shin from where I barked it on the raw edge of the wood. In the kitchenette, spaces for cupboards yawn, blank holes in the plasterboard, exposing frayed coils of wire and anonymous pipe. I rifle through litter and stacks of empty bottles, tossing half full cans, blind hands groping, desperate to stop the sound. Cardboard pizza boxes yield congealed cheese and a slice or three untasted, but not worth eating. No phone, no wretched phone. The ringing will make my teeth fall from my head. How can everyone dance? How can they hear the music?

I’m pressing through bodies, diving in deep; stumbling, twisting and tumbling. I arrive on the far side of a sea of bodies, sweat-slicked and stunned by decibels thrown from speakers propped on rolls of moldering carpet, which themselves are balanced on pails of Ceramic White. Before the night is over, there will be a wobble, and a speaker will blow. An almighty crack, and someone’s foot will break through the dance floor. Before the light returns, there will be drama and angst, people making out in the marble tiled niches in the lobby, and I will have broken, crushed, pulverized someone’s phone under my heel. Never mind Finn, and never mind this party. I’m never going to find the phone, never going to have a moment’s peace. I’ve lost; I’ll never have what I want, I’ll never be seen as I am. I am invisible and doomed to be alone.

I’m leaving. Somewhere, there’s a door —

Light smears across my eyes, strobing and pulsating, even in an empty corner of the darkened room. The jarring bass stabs my brain in counterpoint with the shrilling in my ears. Particles of light cling to me – my sandaled feet, my arms – I draw up my shirt to see light peppering my stomach. Terrified, I lift my skirt, uncaring of eyes. Speckles of light have gathered and clung to make blinding masses above my knees. I can barely see my thighs. I raise hands now perforated with streams of light, and see, through the illuminated holes — nothing.

I draw breath and scream until my throat feels curdled.

Mouths are open around me, hyena laughing, shouting, singing. Bodies twist, shimmy, grind, their sweat-slicked planes limned by my torch song.

Around me, the party goes on.

The Cracked Kettle is on! And seeping hot water everywhere. Check out the rest of the stories throughout this week.

Yeah, this is another weirdie. It occurs to me that I’ve got another short somewhere by the same name, so this is Torch Song II. I’ll admit this time to having been unduly influenced by my distaste for large parties, my amusement at the Hunger Games tagline, “Girl on Fire” and W.H. Auden’s poem At The Party, which I read this week, and possibly some latent anxiety about the state of the environment. Who can tell? Tune in next week…

The story prompt comes from spapax, whose brilliant shot, FEEL IT is covered by a Creative Commons license.

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