Ronnie knew the moment she saw Charlie that she would follow him somewhere. It didn’t really matter where, she just knew it would happen sooner or later—that one day she would desert everything important and chase him down. And that somehow it would be worth it. That there would be some sort of sacrifice made somewhere down the line.
Ronnie wasn’t the kind of girl who had ever felt that way about anyone. In fact, Ronnie was the kind of girl who rarely felt anything. Since she was young, Ronnie had always been able to numb herself to external influence.
She was wearing a short black strapless dress and open-toed shoes, despite the fact that it was the middle of December. Her legs were bare, and every time the front door of the two-storey Annex house swung open to let another reveller in she would shiver slightly. Ronnie almost never dressed this way; generally she wore blue jeans, beat-up brown boots, T-shirts, and cardigans. But Aaron had asked her to dress up. She had styled her short brown hair, where normally she would have simply let it dry after her shower. She had put on perfume, from an old bottle she found in the back of the medicine cabinet, behind a row of prescription medication and condom and tampon boxes, a bottle that was a gift from Aaron two Christmases ago.
The party, a university affair filled with scholars and students and assholes, twinkled with tinsel and blinking white lights. Everyone carried the slightest hint of discomfort, straining to have conversations with people they couldn’t conceal their contempt for. They were drinking heavily to ease into the situation, and as the night wore on discomfort evolved into inappropriateness, Ronnie felt the burning glare of lechery on the hem of her dress and the curve of her cleavage.
Standing alone, away from the mistletoe that hung from a doorway and was trapping and tormenting many of the female guests, Ronnie tipped back a third glass of red wine, and regretted agreeing to come.
Three glasses of wine meant she was drunk.
She had come for Aaron, who had needed her help carrying the many platters of food he’d arranged for the party. It was money, and they needed money now more than ever. Aaron was firmly set in “plan for the future” mode and was taking every extra catering job that came his way, even if it meant Ronnie had to assist.
“You’ll have a great time, Ronnie, I promise. These are smart people. Like, smart, famous people.”
Ronnie wondered if there was such a thing as “smart, famous people.” The glossy pages of the magazines at the hair salon where she worked suggested otherwise.
When her glass was empty again and she decided to go for a fourth, she saw him across the room. Through the maze of tweed coats, pencil skirts, and loud Christmas cheer, she spotted him slowly chewing a canapé and staring blankly into the bottom of his whisky tumbler. He was a robust, rosy, bearded man with a slightly timid and mostly awkward look on his face. He looked decidedly lost, as if he might get swept away by the bumping shoulders of stodgy academics and earnest doe-eyed students. Despite his confused expression, all eyes were on him. Everyone in the room seemed to be whispering about him with a sense of awe, glad to be in his company yet afraid to approach him.
He was scanning the titles on a bookshelf, while an angular and severe-looking blond with a blunt bang haircut and red-rimmed glasses was talking at him, unconcerned whether he was paying attention. He looked up from the last drops of his whisky mournfully, as if it was the last whisky available in the world, and caught Ronnie in a stare. It should have been awkward, should have made her blush, turn on her heel, and clip off to the kitchen, but he seemed to derive so much pleasure from the eye contact that his mouth spread into a wide, welcoming grin immediately, and hers did the same.
The look on his face, a slight eye roll referencing the blond—in that moment she knew that he would have the capacity to make her do stupid things.
She put her wine glass down on a coffee table carelessly, without a coaster (a habit Aaron had warned her against), and uncharacteristically walked toward him. Ronnie wasn’t generally shy, but in situations where she had to be on her best behaviour because Aaron’s job demanded it, she occasionally kept her generally animated personality in check. But for some reason this man and his canapé seemed a safe bet. When he saw her approaching, he excused himself from the angular blond with a raised hand, gesturing in Ronnie’s direction in a way that suggested they had met before.
For some reason he thought to put his left hand in his pocket so Ronnie wouldn’t see his wedding ring.
“Harmless,” he thought.
He had a few brief moments to lament the mustard stain on the left breast pocket of his beige long-sleeved shirt, a shirt his wife had picked out for him before he’d left the house that morning.
“It’s so good to see you again,” he said at full volume.
“Don’t worry, I don’t think she can hear you any more,” Ronnie said in a half whisper, looking over his shoulder at the blond. “She looks really fascinating.”
“That’s Sarah. She’s a wench. And sort of my boss. I told her you were an old friend,” he said.
“Well, maybe I will be,” she replied.
“Charlie,” he said.
“Ronnie,” she said.
They shook hands lightly. Then, reaching into his pocket with his right hand, he offered her half of his oatmeal cookie.
“Why do you have an oatmeal cookie at a cocktail party? ” she asked.
“I brought it with me. You can get all sorts of things from the fish at these things. Botulism. Ebola. Scabies,” he said. “And who calls them cocktail parties any more? What, were you born in the twenties? ”
“Were you? ”
“Ouch. Are you mocking me? ”
“It’s not hard. You brought an oatmeal cookie to a party in your pants pocket.”
“And you can have half.”
He carefully unwrapped the cookie and split it in two, handing her the bigger half. When he bit into it and realized it was actually oatmeal with chocolate chips, he playfully told her he wouldn’t have offered it to her if he’d known.
“A waste of good chocolate,” he called it. She smiled and snatched the remainder of his half from his hand and shoved it, along with her half, into her mouth with both hands.
“Naw you haf nuffin,” she said with her mouth full.
Cookie crumbs tumbled from her lips and onto the front of the dress Aaron had made her wear. Charlie looked at her mouth, full of half-chewed cookie, and wanted to kiss it. He reached out to brush the cookie crumbs from the front of her dress but quickly stopped himself.
Things they would find out later:
He was more than ten years older than her.
She was an Aries and he was a Leo.
She knew what that meant and he didn’t.
She cut hair for a living and looked through the newspapers for her horoscope every day.
He wrote poetry and she did not.
“So what brings you to this party then, Ronnie? ”
“I know the caterer. You know, the one who prepared the scabies fish you’re so afraid of.”
“You know, the one I share a bed with,” she thought.
Three and then four more drinks in, with Aaron in the adjacent room, she suddenly longed for the thickness of Charlie’s flesh, the width of his chest to curl into, the breadth of his arms around her to warm skin in strapless dresses and open-toed shoes. Admittedly this was not an uncommon occurrence for Ronnie, as alcohol always made her want to fall into strangers.
“We should drink shots,” she said.
“I’m close to fifty, Ronnie. I don’t drink shots.”
“It’s called being a ‘grown-up.’”
“Again. Yawn. How close to fifty? ”
“Don’t worry, old man. We’ll just do girl shots.”
“Girl shots? ”
Ronnie flagged down one of the party’s servers, a petite blond whose buttery flesh was awkwardly but sensually spilling out of an ill-fitting waistcoat, and exuberantly requested two B-52s. The girl, clearly out of her element, stared at her blankly.
“I don’t think we—”
“Peach schnapps? Can you do that? ” Ronnie suggested.
Without reply, the server nodded and scurried off to the kitchen.
“Peach schnapps? What are we? Teenage girls at Bible camp? ” Charlie asked.
“O-M-G, Charlie. L-O-L.”
“By the way, nobody orders shots at a cocktail party.”
“Oh, Charlie. No one ever calls it a cocktail party.”
The shots arrived and they drank, toasting “Bible camp” and “a time when they called them ‘cocktail parties,’” while the other partygoers eyed them strangely, still expressing their strange awe over a man Ronnie knew nothing about. Ronnie was swaying now, the liquor impeding her balance, her volume increasing. Also warmed and buoyed from the inside, Charlie suddenly told Ronnie that her hair was nice. “Pretty,” he said.
“There’s that word again,” she said.
“Well it is. Pretty. It’s shiny. Very Vivien Leigh. Natalie Wood. Elizabeth Taylor.”
“They don’t make them like that any more.”
“Young Elizabeth Taylor, I hope you mean.”
“Bloated wheelchair Elizabeth Taylor.”
“Hey. Also, don’t be awful.”
“Don’t be silly. A Place in the Sun Elizabeth Taylor.”
“Does that make you Montgomery Clift? ”
“God, I hope so.”
Ronnie could take a doctor’s worrying questions much better than she could take compliments. She blushed, looked at her shoes, and then back at Charlie. In doing so she noticed a chocolate chip cookie crumb still lingered in the corner of his mouth. She reached out to wipe it away and then, like him, stopped herself, her hand hovering between them.
“Cookie,” she said by way of explanation, motioning toward the corner of her mouth.
“I’m sorry, did you just call me ‘Cookie’? ”
Charlie smiled and wiped the crumb away himself.
The angular blond returned suddenly, obviously curious about Charlie’s young companion.
“Charlie, there’s lots of people you need to be meeting tonight,” the woman said, momentarily ignoring Ronnie’s presence.
“Yes, you’ve mentioned that a number of times, Sarah.”
“You’re not just here for the drinks, you know,” she snapped back.
“Well, they don’t even have B-52s.”
Sarah ignored him and turned her attention on Ronnie.
“Who’s your friend? A student of yours? ” she asked.
“This is Elizabeth. She’s an actress. But don’t bother talking to her. She doesn’t speak any English,” Charlie said without pause.
Ronnie tried to stifle her drunken laughter while the blond stared angrily at them both, quite aware she was being lied to.
“Oh, I meant to ask you—how’s your wife, Charlie? ” Sarah said viciously. His grin quickly faded. Veronica’s discomfort was obvious as she turned away from them slightly, now wishing she had bothered to refill her wineglass.
“Tamara’s doing very well. Thank you for asking.”
“Oh, and your son? Noah? How is his treatment going? Elizabeth, did Charlie tell you he has a very sick child at home? He’s such a devoted husband and father—oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me. You can’t understand a word I’m saying, can you? ”
Sarah was being cruel now, clearly intent on ruining Charlie’s good-natured flirtation.
“Noah’s not ‘very sick,’ Sarah. He has autism,” Charlie spat, suddenly too offended to be embarrassed.
“Well, I do know it’s been quite the struggle for the two of you. You and your wife.”
“You’ve had enough. I suggest you excuse yourself.”
“I should get a refill,” Veronica offered, trying to defuse things meekly.
“Yes. Maybe you should,” Sarah agreed.
“No. Ronnie, you stay. Sarah? If you could excuse us? ”
“Please remember you are here on behalf of the department.”
Sarah exhaled noisily and then made a dramatic exit, throwing Ronnie a mocking, loud, and slowly sounded out “Sooo niiice tooo meet you” before scurrying off.
Ronnie gazed toward the kitchen, visibly uncomfortable.
“Maybe I should get that refill.”
“I think she told me I should go, and as much as I’m loath to admit it—too much whisky I’m afraid,” he said, again gazing deep into his tumbler.
“No such thing,” she said, raising her shot glass.
“I’m embarrassing you.”
“I think I may be embarrassing myself. And the caterer.”
“Please don’t be put off by her. I told you she was a wench.”
“Maybe it’s for the best if the fish gives everyone botulism.”
“Ronnie, would you like to run away with me? ”
“Where are we going? ”
“I don’t really care. Away from all of these godawful people.”
“All these godawful people you’re supposed to be meeting tonight? ”
Ronnie looked around the room and, after deciding no one was looking at them, stepped forward, lightly pressing her body against Charlie while slipping her empty shot glass into the same pocket the Saran-wrapped cookie came out of. She let her hand linger briefly inside the pocket before pulling away. He panicked slightly, but then eased into it, letting his clumsy fingertips graze the hem of her dress, and then the outside of her bare thigh. Then the inside of her bare thigh.
“I’d like to see you again. Please,” she whispered in the brevity of their closeness.
When she stepped back they both noticed the blond staring.
“I should go find that caterer I’m embarrassing.”
“We should run away.”
“I should go find the caterer.”
“O.K., then I suppose I should go find my wife. At home. It was nice to meet you, Ronnie.”
And she was gone.