Barbara liked to throw parties. She was good at it, her hosting skills honed by years of practice, countless gatherings that brought her to this point, where things just ran on their own, like a well-oiled machine that she could manipulate and set into motion with precise, deliberate, and yet seemingly-effortless execution. The key to hosting a good party, according to Barbara, was never letting the guests see the work put into it. She felt that parties, given their nature and essence, demanded a light touch, a host who didn’t bog things down with heavy formality or rigid schedules. Her touch was so light that she even skipped one of her own celebrations in a now-infamous oversight (or so she claimed at the time), missing the date by a week and vacationing in Monte Carlo the night of the event. Guests assumed it was part of the theme (a ‘Grand Guignol’ that they believed Barbara orchestrated and was simply acting as a missing hostess), even when they had to break in, setting off the alarm and already pouring their own drinks when the first cops arrived in confusion. When someone finally reached Barbara, she spoke to the police and the party went on without her.
Now, as her parties ran themselves, she was simply another guest, perhaps slightly more decked out in an Azzedine Alaïa column dress, zig-zagging its bold pattern over her still-shapely-at-55 figure, but still only there to have fun and enjoy herself. It was getting harder to do that. When one’s life has been full of rich twists, exotic locales, and extremes of elation and heartbreak, it’s difficult to find a happy medium, and then a moment of happiness within it. She always thought the next party would be the one – the one we would all remember – a party we would talk about for years.
On this night, at her summer party, we are assembled as usual. There are a handful of new faces, and some favorites in absentia, and that always made things interesting. The beauty was that one was never quite like another, due mostly to this changing of the guard. It kept things fresh, and unpredictable. Yet it was not usually the newcomers who caused trouble. Barbara kept a few close friends who did that well enough on their own, and hidden demons that she freed from their cages on certain nights when a darker sparkle was needed. That was her big secret – that she had these things bubbling beneath the façade. You understood that, if you spent any significant time with her. It was a sense of storied turmoil, a vicious patch of the past, something that went deep enough to excuse the glitter and the frilliness of her party persona. She glided through the guests, smiling and laughing and seemingly having the time of her life, but every once in a while you could catch her, if you looked hard and long enough, standing off slightly by herself, or maybe just on the edge of a little circle of people, and her smile was frozen as her eyes searched the rest of the room, sensing if a light needed dimming, or another batch of ice needed chipping. Then she was gone, the problem had been rectified, and suddenly the music was a little louder.
Tonight, she wears a favorite perfume by Creed. She’s managed to hold onto it for all these years because she only wears it on special occasions. What made this evening so special? She herself pretended not to know, but even if she did, she would keep it to herself. That’s the other thing about Barbara: she always acted like she held the one secret you most wanted to discover. She didn’t hold it maliciously out of reach, rather she dangled it seductively in front of you, but close to her heart, like the diamond pendant nestled just above her décolletage.
The bartender was good, but she’d had better, and she was keeping her eye on him just in case. She wasn’t a stickler about such matters, for the most part, but she didn’t hesitate to step in and make the perfect bone-dry martini if one of her friends had a drop too much vermouth. He was young, lingered a little too long with the pretty ladies, and let the gentlemen fend for themselves. If there’s one thing that Barbara despised in a bartender, it was favoritism – even when she was the recipient. That’s the other thing that you had to like about her: she wasn’t swayed by empty niceties. Polite, yes, and nobody accepted a compliment as graciously as she did, but try her patience with one too many fawning episodes and she’d turn on you with a cutting dismissal. It wasn’t so much an outright attack as it was a removal of her focus and smile, and it had the effect of turning your world suddenly colder, like a cloud passing overhead as the wind kicked up.
“If they insist that you refill their glass instead of accepting a new one, you must at least provide new fruit,” she said with a smile, quietly enough so no one noticed. The young man nodded vigorously, with a little too much exuberance. She was not impressed. She turned the bracelet around on her wrist. This would not be the party to remember. That took some of the pressure off, and made for a fine affair, but it would not be the elusive party she had been chasing for years. It happened that way sometimes, the instant she could tell, early on, and then dismiss the rest of the evening. It freed her up, and those nights were often some of the most fun – the ones that don’t promise much, but somehow deliver, as if by taking them out of the running she imbued them with a challenge they rose to meet. This might be one of those surprising parties. She held onto the capability of surprise. It was one of her more irresistible charms.
The door to the backyard terrace was open. Silk curtains fluttered in the breeze. A boozy group of friends laughed loudly in a dim corner lit only by candles and shrouded by a trio of potted palms.
On any other night, at any other party, she would have thrilled at the sight. Nothing gave her more merriment than seeing friends in the throes of hearty laughter. She was always generous that way. It made the less-worthy aspects of her character forgivable, much in the same way her parties did. Proper hospitality masks a variety of drawbacks.
She’d known enough not to have all her fun in your youth, but once you started enjoying life it was difficult to stop, though much more difficult to keep it going. It felt like she’d been coasting on this happiness for some time, and the thrills no longer thrilled her in the same way. New guests and fresh faces could only compensate so much for the lost loves that tugged at her heart.
Back inside, the party is sweeping to its crescendo. It should have been the most exciting part of the night, the moment when everything is in full-swing. It lasts but fifteen or twenty minutes, and then begins to break slowly down. She still gets a little high from it, the joy of being social, of being part of something and, somehow and in a different way, of being loved. For we all did love her, even if we did not know it then.
Tonight, though, she does not become part of it, choosing instead to watch from a distant vantage point. Near the top of the stairs, she pauses. Looking over her shoulder, she surveys the night she has created, the life she has made for herself, and she wants to cry. She pulls her dress over her heels and walks out of sight, down the long hallway that leads to her bedroom. In it, a bedside table throws its soft fringed light over the space. A dressing gown has pooled at the foot of the bed; ripples of Japanese silk, in the palest shade of turquoise and the faintest pattern of cherry blossoms, roll over one another. Barbara thinks back to the start of summer, back to when it all began – the hope of a new season. Every year she holds out for the same miracle. Every year she thinks it will be better. Every year she gives herself another chance.
This will be the last party, she almost says aloud, her lips barely moving along with the words. It is done. The dull roar from below carries up the stairs, along the hall, and into this room. It is subdued, quiet enough so she can make out the ticking of the clock.
When the last guest departs, and her husband has gone to bed, she lingers in the front doorway. It is her favorite moment of the night.
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