“Jamaal.” The tall white blond pointed his chin at the corner of the room. “Who is that.”
His tall black friend didn’t even look up, knowing full well who he was talking about. “Don’t even, Dylan. She’s out of your league.”
Dylan’s fine brow furrowed, and his cheek tightened below one chiseled cheekbone. “Your faith in me is inspiring.” All around them very elegant people milled, laughing, chatting.
Jamaal’s powerful frame shifted in his slate wool blazer as he laughed softly. “Man to man. Friend to friend. She’ll chew you up, player.”
This was perhaps the worst thing to say to the lean, toned man of four decades. The globe of ice in his Crown Royal boffed against his rocks glass as he sipped. He licked his canines, staring steadily at the mere slip of a woman in the corner of the room. A simple LBD hung from her slight shoulders, and she smiled vaguely at a portrait beside her. Pale, unassuming, yet…
Jamaal planted a strong finger in Dylan’s chest. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but if you’re hellbent on self-destruction…” He closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. “Analisa. Just Analisa. Choreographer, actress out of Junction Triangle. You probably saw her in that Candletone video, where they’re retelling the Rheingold saga.”
“The what?” Dylan sucked air through his teeth and rocked on the balls of his feet, his eyes transfixed on the small woman. “Can you introduce us?”
“Cultured fuck,” his friend muttered, turning away for crudités.
That left this man to fend for himself. This CEO of Susescent, a rising aromatics lab seeing much success with Zen, the gender-inspecific cologne that flatteringly enhances the wearer’s natural skin culture. This five-time squash champion at his neighborhood gym. This already-retired, decorated captain of the RCAF. Dylan made a gesture of brushing at his bespoke Brunello Cucinelli, squared his shoulders, and mentally willed the floor to clear a corridor for him. Which they obediently did beyond conscious thought.
Dylan strode carefully, his military posture serving him in good stead, as well as his athletic awareness of self. One measured stride after another, a practiced half-grin of amusement playing about his lips, a light in his eyes as though a joke were forming.
Analisa hadn’t noticed when he approached, so he feigned an interest in the artwork she was looking at, peering at the corner. “Hopper, eh? Loved him in Blue Velvet.”
Her voice, quiet and soft, nevertheless rose above the din of the soirée. “This was the master of light and shadow, relaying his keen insight into the human condition with muted, blunt strokes.” She caressed the picture frame with two slim fingers. “While he and David Lynch may be considered priests in the church of retro Americana, Edward Hopper suffered none of the director’s arch misogyny.”
Dylan’s knees lost their conviction. The ice globe ducked and clanked in his whiskey. “I, I mean, it was…” He hitched his breath and canted his head briefly, sharply, righting himself. “Awful, awful stuff. Between that and Almodóvar’s Talk to Her−”
The much shorter woman turned on one heel in China flats, facing down his Salvatore Ferragamo Oxfords. “The go-to rape scene among sophomore cinematic cognoscenti. Very good. Which bothered you more: the sight of a man openly weeping in public, or your sympathy toward two men struggling against the impenetrability of the female mind?”
His eyes squinted. His lips moved slowly, wordlessly, as though he were trying to read a hand-lettered sign through a mottled window. The raven-haired artist grinned (in her lips, not in her eyes) and waltzed around him on a breeze.
Sweaty palms. Heart palpitations. Something like clammy mucilage in his stomach. The fuck is going on, his head growled. Dylan drained his whiskey and nearly slammed it upon a nearby end table. Two young women looked up in surprise, then returned to their conversation.
He looked around the room. The sight of the narrow, pert butt swaying under her black dress caught his eye promptly. She was making a beeline for the snack table, sidling up to Jamaal who was making time with one of Susescent’s project managers, a tall, lean woman with an explosion of frizzy auburn hair. Somehow, the artist’s mere presence caused Jamaal’s words to falter before he even saw her close in; he and his company blinked a couple times and slowly turned to the short woman helping herself to Vienna shortbread. The little dancer in black looked up at Jamaal and said something Dylan couldn’t hear. Jamaal looked surprised and fumbled for speech, and the other woman howled with laughter, struggling to raise her hand daintily to her gaping mouth. When the little woman placed her slender hand upon Jamaal’s developed bicep, Dylan’s blood abruptly boiled and his legs whisked him across the room.
His friend looked up, relieved, gesturing to the woman with huge hair. “Dylan! Have you met−”
“Yes, Barbara. One of my best.” He nodded to the tall woman, relieved to be ahead of the game once more. He moved to toast her in greeting, then glanced at his flexing, empty fingers.
“Barabara, actually. I’m, um, going out for some air.” She glanced meaningfully at Jamaal and slipped into the crowd.
Dylan grinned, puffing his chest and peering down upon Analisa’s glossy head. “Jamaal, why don’t you introduce me to your friend?”
“Not on your fucking life,” he muttered, nearly throwing himself into the churning mass of guests and revelers. Dylan watched him disappear, wishing he had that drink still.
And when the little woman turned toward the tall, athletic veteran and CEO, all the noise of the room muted. The temperature dropped several degrees, right through his suit, and he could’ve sworn someone dimmed the house lights.
“Analisa.” Her voice was a flute solo. She extended one thin arm toward him. “How do you do?” She stood there so primly and grinned as though they’d never met.
A few years ago Dylan toured Thailand on a business trip. After drinking and whoring in Bangkok, the party made their way down south to the “Ko”s, the sprinkling of islands flanking the narrow strand of nation north of Malaysia. On one of these islands, Dylan and some acquaintances rented heavy, rusted bikes and rode out to look at dolphins from the beach. They passed a guesthouse on their way back, walled in by a large fence laced with dense foliage. Through this shield Dylan saw some variety of macaque in a large mesh cage, firmly mounted in the front yard. The primate was clearly in distress, going through a tight routine of swinging around on one bar, faster and faster, building up an anxiety-inducing whoop, higher and louder, until it threw itself violently against one wall, rattling the cage and shrieking in an ear-splitting climax. Then it dropped to the ground, paced without spirit, leaped back up to the bar, and did it all over again.
That’s what Dylan’s heart was doing in his rib cage right this minute.
“It’s…” He gulped for breath. “It’s very… It’s lovely to meet you.” His hand drifted toward hers.
Her eyes gleamed. “You shouldn’t say that, Capt. Dylan Lowell Keane, CEO of Susescent. It’s considered impolite.” Her palm was dry in his, cool as a forest spring. “Because what if it turns out to be a lie?”
The floor fell away from beneath him. “Yes, ma’am,” he heard himself say, somewhere.
[Based on an idea by Giantess Ainsley]