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The Missouri Review 30.1 (2007) 110-118

Strangers Among Us
Rachel Swearingen
[Begin Page 111]

Here she was again, in a strange apartment, at a party, alone. The first glass of wine gulped too quickly. Later, she would be certain it was the backless couch that had caused her to drink too much. Positioned in the exact center of the ivory room, upon a fur rug over a parquet floor, it was more sculpture than furnishing. At first she was alone on the couch, which she reminded herself again and again was a "divan." The other guests mingled in groups by the fireplace and before the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. A young couple joined her. They brought an open bottle of a Clos du Bois and refilled their glasses. They asked her name, said, "Bates? Of Howard and Bates?" [End Page 111]

"Yes, my husband," she said. They spoke for some time, the young couple about how the recent tech market crash had affected their own legal practices. "And portfolios," joked the woman. Her dimpled chin and wide cheeks gave Leslie the impression that no loss of income could dampen her ecstatic approach to life. Leslie could still detect the girl in her; there was a twirl about her, as if even leaning forward, her crossed leg tapping the air, she were rushing about, peeking from behind doorways, giving chase.

The woman turned away from Leslie and resumed her earlier conversation with her date. He wore the amused half-smile of one in love and drunk. She wanted to laugh, but it was impossible to laugh in such an upright, poised position. The wine bottle listed to one side on the furry rug. An incredible desire to point her shoe in its direction, to give the bottle a little nudge, consumed her. Instead she picked up the bottle and topped off her glass. The couple held out their glasses to her then, and she was forced to pour the last few drops. "The good stuff always goes fast," she said. "Notice how the servers have covered the labels with their towels." After a few minutes, the young woman said, "Look. The balcony," and the two ambled outside, arm in arm. Leslie scanned the room, aware again of the open space next to her.

Just a few feet away, Mervin Carrol, CFO of BKI, circled wildly behind Roger Murray, then grabbed him by the neck and pushed his hand into his back like a gun to demonstrate his story. His bald head perspired; his face reddened from the effort. Roger Murray, uncomfortable in social settings, wrenched away.

"You get the picture," Mervin Carrol said. "He was a little Algerian guy, no bigger than an elf. Had me at gunpoint, and the only thing he can say in English is, 'Spare change.'"

The group roared. "That's too much," said Sydney Cortage, head of public relations at Bowers McGaffrey. She tugged Mervin by the arm and almost lost [End Page 112] her balance, which caused her to clamp a hand over her huge teeth and laugh all the more loudly.

Roger Murray twisted a cocktail napkin in his hand and gazed at Leslie. A good friend of her husband, he often cornered her at parties and summarized entire television plots. She pretended not to see Roger and moved to the window. Out on the balcony, the young woman's hair blew in all directions. Her friend appeared to be teasing her. He tugged at her chin. She pouted. He grabbed her hard by the waist, so hard that her thin scarf flew off her neck and somersaulted across the balcony, catching on a flimsy branch of a potted fir.

Inside, the host made an announcement. He passed around a crystal bowl in which everyone was to drop a business card. The winner would organize the annual spring benefit gala. "Time to pass the buck," he joked.

Leslie slipped out without saying good-bye. In the elevator, she called her husband on her cell phone. He apologized again for...


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