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The elevator played the opening notes to Krzysztof Penderecki’s second symphony. When you rode down to the ground level, the machinery in the walls, exhausted after years of use, went ding…SNAP! as you passed each floor. By the time you stepped off, you half-expected other instruments to join in. That had been an awful night in a dingy hotel.
She listened intently as I told her about this elevator. It wasn’t true, though. The old machine had only made noises that sounded like short sections of songs. They were more like bits from a John Cage percussion pieceâ€”one of his Constructionsâ€”but might as well have been the opening notes to Penderecki’s second symphony. I told her this because just a second ago she had mentioned Penderecki’s Threnody.
“Three times in a row like that,” I said. “Just a little ding and then a loud crack. It sounded exactly like the beginning of the second symphony.” I was extremely proud of this false anecdote. She would be impressed. Nick hadn’t heard of Penderecki, but I had. I studied her face for a sign of approval. “Oh, really…” she said, and smiled. I grinned back at her. “Yeah,” I said. “Pretty strange.”
Nick was feeling left out, I guess. He turned to her and said, “I’ll be right back.” Then he walked off toward the concessions stand, where someone was setting out napkins next to a bowl of punch.
“You’re pretty bright,” she said. I figured she was making a comment about my age, about me being fourteen. Placing her at Nick’s age, I said, “You’re only two years older.” Then I added, “You are Nick’s age, right?”
She nodded. A pensive expression rested on her face as she stared down at the ground. I sat quiet for a minute, and then she looked up at me, her face suddenly radiant with energy. “Have you heard Polymorphia?” she asked.
Before I could tell her I hadn’t, Nick came back holding two cookies on a napkin. He handed one to her. “Sorry,” he said to me. “I was gonna get you one, but these were the last.”
“But the dancing hasn’t even started yet,” I said.
“I know. They put the cookies out, and then they were all gone.”
I shrugged. She and Nick started eating. The sun was starting to go down, and everyone was lined up around the quad in groups waiting for the music to start. When the music started, the dancing would begin.
She only ate half her cookie. She held the remaining piece in her hand, awkwardly, as if she didn’t know what to do with it. Nick had already finished his. Then she looked at me. “Here,” she said, extending her arm. “You can have the rest.”
I accepted it. There was a sensation that shot through me when I placed the cookie in my mouth. I knew it had touched her lips.
I couldn’t look at her as I ate the cookie. After I swallowed the last of it, I didn’t know what to say. She was straightening out the folds in her dress, running her hands down along her thighs.
“I never got your name.”
She stopped suddenly and looked up. Her face was still, and her eyes seemed to examine me for a second.
“It’s Sylvia,” she said.
I looked over at Nick. He dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a napkin, then folded it up and shoved it in his pocket. His eyes looked hazy and remote as they stared off at the descending sun. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen that glazed expression; sometimes he got like that, sad and worried looking, and I knew to leave him alone.
He was fine, though. The music started and he stood up and placed his arm around Sylvia’s waist. She smiled at him, and they started off toward the center of the quad. As they walked, he pulled her closer so that their waists bumped against each other.
I waited where I was and glanced around for someone I might recognize. A boy in a cape walked by with a sullen expression on his face. Then there was a group of girls, including Anne, which skipped by. I waved at Anne. She’d been officially “together” with my roommate for two or three months, but he’d gone back home a few days ago for a funeral, so she had no one to dance with tonight. This didn’t seem to bother her, though. She looked happy.
The music was an upbeat hip-hop song that I vaguely recognized. Violent percussion sounds drove the beat, but on top of this were delicate accentsâ€”bells, possibly, or maybe marimbas. I couldn’t quite tell. It was a very danceable song, and everyone in the center of the quad was moving rhythmically. They worked up into a hypnotic frenzy as I watched them, building gradually with the song’s increasing tempo. I wasn’t alone in watching them. There were a good number of people standing around the periphery of the quad, the designated area for those not dancing. I recognized a few of them. Some were not going to dance at all, some were already exhausted, and some were just waiting for the right song to start before joining in.
I looked back in the direction of the music and saw Nick and Sylvia approaching me. This time I noticed Sylvia’s hair, how dark it was and how it reached down until it stopped at the bottom of her back.
“Hey,” Nick said to me. “Come on, you need to dance.”
I just grinned back at him, as if to say, “No, that’s not for me.” Then I said, “No, I’m fine. I will, but later.”
“Where’s Zoe?” he asked. “You should dance with Zoe. You should ask her.” I didn’t say anything. “You should. She likes you.”
“Just ask her,” Sylvia added.
It must have been close to nine, because it started getting dark. I hadn’t even seen Zoe yet, although I knew she was wearing her new black dress. The last week or so, she seemed to mention it during every conversation we had together. “Oh, you’ll have to see my new dress. It’s black and it’s really pretty. You’ll be at the dance on Friday, right? I’m gonna wear it to the dance.” I told her I’d be there.
I followed Nick and Sylvia as they meandered around the quad. “We’re just waiting for a slow song,” Nick told me. I was thinking about Zoe, and started feeling guilty that I hadn’t seen her yet, that I hadn’t complimented her on her dress. There wasn’t much light out now, but I looked around anyway, hoping to find her. In her black dress, though, I knew there wasn’t much of a chance.
We sat down in a circle on the grass. Sylvia fidgeted with the clasp of her necklace while I talked to Nick. He was telling me how easy it was to slow dance with a girl, even though I already knew how.
“You just put your arms out like this, and put your hands around her waist. Not too low, or it’ll seem pervy. And you just move gently with the music. It’ll feel natural. There’s not even a lot of movement to it, really.”
“Okay,” I said, and nodded along.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s easy.”
“I know. I trust you.”
“I’m gonna find Zoe for you,” he said.
“Alright.” I tried to sound like I didn’t care. I was about to mention that I’d already looked for her, to no avail, but then I thought that that might deter him, so I kept silent. Sylvia seemed to be immersed in another reverie.
“Just ask her if she wants to dance,” Nick said. “Next slow song.”
I said okay. Sylvia looked up at me, and until right then, I hadn’t realized how close we’d been sitting to each other. She had midnight eyes, almost pitch black, so that I couldn’t define where her pupils stopped and irises began. I held her gaze for a few seconds then glanced away. Nick looked at me, but I felt only Sylvia’s presence.
“Don’t be nervous about it,” he said. It took me a second to realize he was still talking about Zoe. She probably was hoping to see me, I supposed. There was nothing to indicate otherwise.
“I’m gonna get a glass of punch.” I said this vaguely, letting the words drift into the distance, unsure if I was maybe just talking to myself. No one paid any notice when I stood up and walked away.
I could feel her flesh through the thin black material of the dress. Her hands were clasped around the back of my neck. We swayed back and forth with the gentle pace of the music, standing far enough apart we could still see each other’s eyes. I could tell she felt a little nervous, like she about to say something. I smiled.
“You like it, right?” she asked.
“The dress? Yeah.”
“It’s cute, Zoe.”
She smiled back at me. It must’ve meant a lot, but I still wasn’t sure why she desired my approval. I thought again about how she’d kept asking me the week before if I was coming to the dance. Of course I was. It was mandatory to attend. If you tried to resist, you’d end up in trouble with one of the counselors or academic directors. The way she kept asking it, thoughâ€”“Are you coming? Are you gonna be there?”â€”seemed a little puzzling, as if I could have showed up without really being there.
I was here, though. I was here, and I was holding her waist and we were dancing. I didn’t recognize the music, but I could tell it was something popular. There was a girl a few feet from us, her head pressed against her partner’s chest, and her lips were moving along with the words. Zoe wouldn’t dance with me like that. She would never allow herself to be that vulnerable. That would have been surrender.
I thought about it, what it would be like if she did. I saw her shut her eyes and lean in towards me. We would dance like that, with her just holding on to me as we moved back and forth. If she could just give herself up to something, then maybe we could. But Zoe could never dance like that. If she could, it might never have happened.
I saw Nick and Sylvia about a dozen feet away from us, dancing together against the hazy light coming from the windows of the library. Her body was pressed against his. I watched them dance like that, and as they came closer, I saw that they both had their eyes closed. Something must have been guiding them, the way they moved without colliding into any other couples. I couldn’t make out the expression on Sylvia’s face, but I kept watching her, carefully, and started to hope that she’d open her eyes and look at me. I wanted some sort of sign from her. It could have been anything.
That was when Zoe turned around. It happened all of a sudden, and then she was staring right at Sylvia, and she knew I’d been looking at Sylvia too. I knew there was nothing I could do.
Zoe turned back to me, and for a moment I couldn’t make out any idea what she was thinking. Her face was completely still. Her eyes went cold. Then I realized I was the only one dancing. She was motionless, and it must’ve looked like I was forcing an unwilling partner to dance with me. I felt like an idiot.
Her arms were still wrapped around my neck, but she gripped them tighter, it seemed, for a brief second, like she was channeling a tiny bit of rage.
“She doesn’t like you.” She didn’t look like herself when she said this. She looked frightening. All of her controlled anger was hidden behind it. I tried to glance away from her several times, but each time I looked back at her, her gaze was still fixed on me. And each time I looked back, I felt worse. I wanted to be anywhere else at that moment.
There was nothing I could do, though. I felt all her anger in the air around me, getting stronger with every second that passed in silence. There was nothing I could say.
Then Zoe looked back at Sylvia, and even though I knew I shouldn’t have, I looked back at Sylvia too. Nick was holding her arms and kissing her. Their eyes were still closed. Zoe and I watched this for a second, and then I shut my eyes too. I was helpless.