by Dean Knight
The party was on April Fool’s Day, but Daniel had no thoughts of practical jokes. Although Claire had been only sporadically returning his texts recently, tonight, he felt, would be when things would get back on track again. It’s a major step to proceed beyond the first stages of dating and take the next steps. People say about marriage, “it’s a big step,” and although this wasn’t marriage—yet—there are many smaller steps to take before the big one, and she had given Daniel a number of verbal cues that marriage was on her mind. When Daniel picked out the glass bird that he gave her on their second date it was with the thought that she could be the one.
Entering the house Daniel saw her leaning against the wall, texting. She acknowledged Daniel briefly, but he could see that it was an important conversation or else she wouldn’t be having it here and now, at a party she was hosting. When he went in to kiss her he just got the rear of her cheek, by her ear, but he reasoned that of course that was best, if a bit awkward, to kiss her there, because that way he didn’t interrupt her conversation.
As he expected there was almost no one he knew at the party, but that was all right, as he had enjoyed the previous occasions when he had opportunity to meet people that Claire knew. He wasn’t such a bad catch when one thought about it—although his corporate IT job was uninspiring, it paid a decent salary; at the age of 35, his hair was thinning but still mostly there and he felt his carefully-chosen glasses were an actual improvement on his facial features, as they framed and gave definition to his eyes, which were set back rather far in his skull.
In the kitchen he was pleasantly surprised to be greeted effusively by Kelly, Claire’s housemate, who had previously seemed a little cool toward him. Tonight, though, she actually hugged him before merging back into a pack of women, wedging herself between her girlfriend and a thin sharp-faced woman who looked angry, but maybe, Daniel thought, that was just the way her face was constructed.
In the living room with a beer in hand Daniel glanced around with an air of hopefulness. Although he hadn’t yet entered into conversation with anyone, he felt relatively at ease; the mood of the room was pleasant and mellow. After a few minutes Claire entered from the kitchen; he brightened and opened his mouth to speak to her but she pre-empted him by bringing up one of his pet subjects:
“Daniel is something of an expert on Scorsese.”
Daniel smiled, a little uncertainly, before realizing that she was speaking to a woman behind her who now stepped into view, unhappily it seemed.
“Well,” Daniel started, “I guess you could say—”
“Well, you are, though, aren’t you? You’ve taught me some things, in fact.” Claire then went on for a minute about the films of Martin Scorsese, with a nod towards Daniel’s knowledge thereof and his instruction on the matter to Claire, although Daniel noticed that one of the things she said was not among the relatively few items about the filmmaker that Daniel had mentioned to her by way of conversation.
“And Angela,” Claire continued, “Is writing a study on Tarantino and his connection to Scorsese. Or would you call it influence? Something of that nature, anyway.” The sharp-faced woman, who appeared to be Angela, seemed about to protest something, but Claire quickly interjected, “I’m sure you’ll have much to discuss!” and whisked off, out of sight, leaving Daniel to look quizzically at Angela.
“So,” he began, “You’re writing about Tarantino—”
“Yes,” she said, sharply, staring into the can of soda she was tightly clutching.
“Do you prefer the earlier films or—”
“My dissertation is on violence and race in American films from Birth of a Nation to Django Unchained.” She said this as though it were a knife that she was plunging into Daniel’s chest.
“Oh. Well, that sounds interesting. So, ah, do you get into Gangs of New York at all?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed slightly.
“Yes, I manage to touch on that somewhat.”
“I was just wondering because of, you know, the sort of Irish aspect of that. Or maybe that’s more about ethnicity. But that’s race, too, right? I guess.” Daniel felt himself to be fumbling a bit.
Now Angela stared at him, with a touch of what might have been pity.
“Yes, you could say that. That’s why it’s in my dissertation.”
There was a silence for a few moments wherein Angela seemed to be staring through Daniel’s midsection as if in an attempt to bisect him. Daniel in turn looked at Angela’s soda can and, noticing the colorful design on the label, said, brightly,
“Oh, that soda is made in Michigan, where my father is from. We used to always drink—”
It was at this point that Kelly, who apparently had been nearby the whole time, appeared at Angela’s arm and, with a word or two, removed her from the area, in the opposite direction of where Claire had gone.
Daniel migrated over to the aquarium: there were several fish in it, of the same species but of different sizes, swimming about at various speeds within the bowl. He watched how each of the fish made their own way about the environment, not seeming to communicate with each other but at the same time being aware of the paths the others took.
“I like that one the best!” A finger poked on the glass at one of the fish. “Nah, I’m kidding, they’re all the same. Hey, I’m Jim. So, who are you with?”
Daniel, caught off-guard, almost answered with the name of his company, but then hesitated, unsure what was being asked. Jim filled the pause in the conversation by explaining,
“I mean, who do you know here?” As he said this he looked around the room as if to try to ascertain the answer himself.
“Oh, I, well—Claire, Claire invited me.”
A stately woman appeared next to Jim; he said to Daniel, “Hey, this is my wife,” and then to her, “Would you like a drink, my dear?” in a deliberately extravagant but genuine manner. She must have signaled that she did, as Jim promptly dashed off in the direction of the kitchen, leaving her and Daniel face-to-face, only partly introduced. Her eyes seemed to take Daniel in and yet not involve him, as though her gaze could not be satisfied by merely one person.
Daniel, realizing slightly too late that he was staring, put his hand out and stammered, “Ah, I’m Daniel. I’m wi—I know Claire.”
Her face radiated a glow that was more than a smile and yet not one. It seemed to contain knowledge which overruled Daniel’s attempted handshake, so he lowered his proffered hand. Jim returned with a beer and a small glass of wine and murmured something to his wife, who turned around and glided away. Jim followed, with a quick glance to Daniel, suggestive of apologetic uxoriousness.
The party continued around Daniel. He did not feel abandoned—Claire made a point of checking in with him a couple times, as if to make sure he was keeping to some invisible schedule—but he did not feel entirely part of what was happening. Not that there was anything in particular going on—just small clumps of people standing around, talking to each other, drinks in hand—or that he felt deliberately shunned or ignored, he just felt himself in some kind of limbo.
Kelly came up to him at one point and murmured, “Dating is hard, isn’t it?” Daniel managed to make some commiserating remarks, in case she was having difficulty in that arena, but the exchange ended on an inconclusive note, with Kelly sidling away and back into the party. Before she left, she pointedly remarked, “Someone is supposed to be dropping by a bit later on to see the place—a potential new housemate,” she concluded, with some kind of meaningful look at Daniel, which he found hard to interpret.
Daniel had come to rest against a wall near the front of the house, eyeing the door. He had started to think about leaving, despite not having had much of a chance to talk to Claire—she was busy, he figured, hosting a party is a real effort. He would send her a text tomorrow.
Claire swooped by, on her phone—upon seeing Daniel, the little finger of the hand that held the phone extended out toward him as she said, “Hey, Austin, I’m coming to the door now.”
Daniel took that to mean that this was someone she wanted him to meet; with a slight twinge of jealousy he mentally recounted that she had mentioned this Austin a couple times with some kind of faint emotion in her voice, perhaps regret. When Daniel had asked her about him, though, she said that she hadn’t seen him in a while, a bit dismissively.
Claire opened the door and welcomed Austin; Daniel watched carefully as they greeted each other without touching, and felt somewhat relieved. Claire brought Austin into the room and introduced him to Daniel; Daniel made sure his grip was especially firm. The two of them entered the kitchen and Daniel leaned back against the wall.
Austin soon reemerged, drinking one of the beers Daniel had brought to the party. He told himself that was fine, he had brought plenty of beer and it was meant to share. But had Austin been steered to that beer in particular because Daniel had brought it? He didn’t know. Maybe Austin was settling in, because he was staying the night. And maybe moving in. Daniel stared at the wall opposite.
Kelly appeared nearby, hovering, as if waiting to say something. Daniel noticed her. She said, ostensibly to someone on the couch, “You know who didn’t come by tonight? Jonathan Campbell. I thought he was coming late to check out the house.” Daniel thought that she put slightly more emphasis on the name than was necessarily warranted, and felt himself the recipient of a message and thus half-relieved. “At least Austin isn’t moving in,” he thought.
The party thinned out: Kelly had disappeared and only a few people remained. Claire settled into a rocking chair across from Austin, who did not seem to be headed out anytime soon. There was not an extra chair for Daniel.
Claire swept a hand across her head, a long finger brushing against, and slightly dislodging, a hairpin that Daniel had given her. A high-pitched shrieking sound emitted from somewhere outside.
“What was that, a bird?” asked Austin.
“Ugh—birds,” Claire replied, with a scrunched-up expression on her face. Daniel started slightly. Claire looked up at Daniel with what seemed momentary regret; she reached up to him and touched him on the arm and sort of patted him.
Daniel could tell that the evening’s drinking had caught up with her a bit. He shrugged, cleared his throat and said, “I don’t think that was a bird. There aren’t a lot of birds around here. And certainly not at this time of night.” Daniel was aware while he was saying this that a) he had no idea if it was a bird or not, b) he was not very familiar with this neighborhood and did not know if birds were plentiful here and c) his very scant knowledge of the habits of birds did not extend to their nocturnal activities and thus he really should not have been commenting on the topic at all. She patted him distractedly on the arm a couple more times while remaining focused on Austin. Daniel thought of the bird he had given Claire and felt his face flush.
Austin glanced around the room, avoiding Daniel. His gaze fell on a magazine, lying on a nearby table, which he picked up and showed to Claire.
“Oh, look at him—he’s very trendy.”
Claire laughed, a long, delighted burst. Daniel stared at Austin, who seemed to be concentrating on not looking at Daniel. Daniel, whose knowledge of fashion and pop culture was limited, thought Austin’s own fashion choices put him in the same category as the minor celebrity he seemed to be mocking—if indeed mocking was what Austin was doing, which was unclear to Daniel.
Claire began to rock in her chair rather more vigorously than might have been expected under the circumstances. As though the rocking made her dizzy, she put her hand to her head, removed the hairpin and held it for a moment, arm hanging off the armrest, then dropped it on the floor.
Daniel picked up the hairpin and put it on the table while Claire continued talking to Austin. Daniel tried to judge the tenor of the conversation—was it friendly, flirtatious? They seemed to know each other well and to have a good rapport, although it also seemed to be tinged with something the precise nature of which was unclear to Daniel, much like the tone in Claire’s voice when she had mentioned Austin.
Daniel stared at Austin atavistically, instinctively spurred into defending against an aggressor, something he was not exactly trying to do consciously since it was unclear what the situation was. It occurred to him that Austin might also be unsure as to what the situation was, and was maintaining contact with Claire—who was fully encouraging and prolonging it—as a way to keep from having to fully acknowledge Daniel.
The conversation between Claire and Austin seemed to the outsider Daniel to be an intense dialogue that both were locked into, without the possibility of emerging soon. Daniel continued to stare Austin down, and eventually Austin emerged momentarily from his eye-lock with Claire to give Daniel a sort of brief eyeroll and head-shrug that Daniel seized on as a minor victory, or at least a cue to retire from the field with a portion of his honor intact.
“Well, I guess it’s time for me to head out,” Daniel said.
“Oh, do you have to?” Claire responded innocently.
“Ah, yeah, I think it’s about time. I have to work tomorrow, anyway.”
“Oh, well, all right, if you have to work tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I do.”
Daniel leaned over towards her, not sure what he was going to do. Claire touched Daniel’s arm, repeating the patting motion from earlier, and then leaned her head to one side, toward Daniel, as though simulating putting her head on his shoulder.
Daniel said goodbye to the others in the room and left the house; the light from the streetlamp was enough for him to see the time on his watch.
It was 11:45—still April Fool’s Day.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing