PARTY GIRL by Lucille Lang Day


            Ginger had long legs, jade-green eyes, and hair as red as autumn leaves. These days, at sixty-three, she had to henna her hair, and though it wasn’t as lustrous as it once had been, it was still thick and wavy and reached past her shoulders, a mane she could toss as she danced. The skin now sagged on her upper arms, and her thighs were a bit lumpy, but with sleeves and pants or a long enough skirt, nobody needed to know. She wore size 4, had no stiffness in her joints, and was always raring to go.

            When the invitation to her friend Cassandra’s sixty-fifth birthday arrived, Ginger tore it open by the mailbox of her small, neat Spanish-style home in Berkeley. There would be a band and dancing, and the September weather across the bay in San Rafael would be glorious, but Ginger knew she would be going alone. Horace, her husband of twenty years, a retired real estate attorney, hated parties, hated Cassandra, and, most of all, hated to dance. He hadn’t always been such a curmudgeon. In the early years of their marriage, he had been less vigorous in his dislikes and had even danced with Ginger at weddings and on New Year’s Eve each year. Now, though, he didn’t hesitate to bash people and things he disliked with the passion and thoroughness he’d once brought to bear when arguing cases in court. The best thing she could now do for their marriage was to avoid setting him off.

            Horace was in the living room, lying on the blue leather sofa, reading the paper, when she came in. “Cassandra’s sixty-fifth birthday is a week from Saturday. She’s having a party. Want to go?” She knew very well what the answer would be.

            “Why would I want to spend any time with that new-age nitwit and her friends?”

            “You wouldn’t. I’ll go alone.” Arguing would only evoke a long, vehement tirade on Cassandra’s flaws. When Ginger divorced her first husband, Dudley, who had been less contrary than Horace ultimately turned out to be, she had hoped to meet a man whose feelings and needs would be more aligned with her own. Now she knew that expecting to find the perfect mate was plain stupid. Every last man on the face of the Earth would sometimes be out of sync with her. Horace was intelligent, witty, and perfectly sociable in small groups with friends whom he liked. He was also a magnificent-looking man—six foot four, with a long, angular face crowned by a shock of silver-black hair—and he was deeply in love with Ginger. It would be foolish to make a fuss because he disliked Cassandra.

            She had met Cassandra fifty years earlier, at a party at Cassandra’s house when they were teenagers. Ginger got invited to all the parties even back then because she was pretty and liked to dance. Now, she knew better than to mention the band and dancing to Horace. She wanted to go, and she didn’t want either to have him tag along and ruin the event for her or to sit home fuming about the fact that she would be dancing with other men. It seemed odd to her that on this side of life she had to tell half-truths to and withhold information from someone, just as she had with her parents when she was a teenager. She wondered if it was common at this age to be less than completely open with one’s spouse, and supposed it was, given how different each of us is.

* * *

            When she was young, Ginger had many times confused love with the infatuation and desire she felt while dancing. Shaking her hips in front of a handsome boy or man, or slow dancing in his arms, she would start to think he was the love of her life and fantasize about their marriage and the children they would have one day. As in fairy tales, the truth of this love would be revealed by a kiss. Consequently, she had kissed many a man in her day and only figured out much later that even if they were not blatantly using her, what was in their hearts was usually something far different from being her prince.

            The first time this happened, Ginger was 13, at the same party where she met Cassandra, the older sister of her friend Susie, with whom she had just finished seventh grade at East Avenue Junior High in Livermore. Ginger went with Ronnie, another seventh-grade classmate, who had been pushing to go steady. She wore a sleeveless lavender blouse and tight black skirt, her hair ratted into a red dome. They were the first to arrive, signifying Ginger’s enthusiasm for parties even then.

           Susie had on a yellow sundress. Her short hair, too, was ratted on top, her bangs neatly trimmed, her spit curls glued to her cheeks. Like Ginger, she looked older than 13. She welcomed Ginger and Ronnie with two beers. Her parents were nowhere to be seen.

            The party was outside. Soon the patio filled with girls with high hair and boys whose hair was slicked back on the sides and fell in greasy waves on their foreheads. It had been a hot day, over 100 degrees, but the night was mild, the Milky Way softly shimmering. Ginger and Ronnie danced during several slow songs rising from Susie’s 45-rpm  record player. In between, she guzzled one beer after another. Then she started to dance, fast or slow, with other boys. Ronnie watched from a chaise longue, his arms crossed, his face set. At first she felt like she was doing it to tease him. She wanted him to pull her away from the other boys and say he loved her, but he didn’t do anything.

            Doing the twist, she found herself looking deeply into the eyes of a wiry little guy wearing a jacket emblazoned with “Del Valle Tigers,” a Livermore High School club. It was as though she were entering his eyes and their two bodies were fusing and becoming one. When the music stopped, she wasn’t surprised that he leaned forward to kiss her. Ronnie finally did something: he walked away.

            Cassandra pulled Ginger away from the Tiger, who was ready to kiss her again. This was Ginger’s first encounter with Cassandra, who must have felt protective because Ginger was her little sister’s friend. “Ronnie is really mad,” she said, her dark eyes serious and intense, every hair of her brown bouffant helmet lacquered into place. “He says he’s going to break up with you. You’d better tell him you’re sorry.”

            Break up with her? They weren’t even going steady! Cassandra led her to the kitchen, where Ronnie was sitting on the table, gripping its edges, frowning and swinging his legs. Halfheartedly, Ginger said, “I’m sorry.” Why should she be faithful to him? She wasn’t in love.

            In a low, deliberate voice, he said, “Don’t let it happen again.”

            She didn’t consciously decide to do it again, but she went back to the patio, where another boy from Livermore High asked her to dance. It was a slow song, “Love Me Tender,” and instead of looking over his shoulder, she turned her head to look into his eyes. “I’m glad you stopped dancing with Tony,” he said. “I’ve seen you around and wanted to meet you.”

             Ginger felt swept away. He was better-looking than either Ronnie or Tony, and he’d been watching her! Could this be love? she wondered as Elvis crooned. Maybe this boy with blond hair, a cleft chin and such warm arms would be her true love.  Certainly, there could be nothing wrong with kissing him.

            Again, Cassandra pulled her away. “Are you crazy?” she asked. “You’re going to lose Ronnie. Can’t you see that those guys are just using you?” Ginger didn’t believe her. She thought they wanted her to be their girlfriend, and that the second guy, whose name she didn’t even know yet, might be in love with her.

            Ronnie, who saw the second kiss, headed back to the kitchen. Ginger followed him. “Let’s talk,” she said. She wanted to explain that she liked him as a friend, but that she couldn’t be his girlfriend. Standing by the refrigerator, he looked at her without recognition. “There’s nothing to talk about,” he said angrily. “You’re nothing but a two-bit whore, and we’re history.”

* * *

            In high school, although she was still a virgin at graduation, Ginger had developed a reputation for being fast. She supposed now that any girl with such a penchant for dancing and kissing was bound to be misinterpreted. Or maybe just petting was enough to classify you as fast. She loved to be touched, so had relished making out—and a little more—with her boyfriends. Of course, as the years went by she came to realize that Cassandra had been right about the boys at that party in 1959, as well as some others whom she shuddered to think about, and she often wondered how she could have started out so dumb about relations with the opposite sex, because, in general, she wasn’t dumb. She was a good student, especially in English and languages, and was accepted by several colleges in her senior year. She chose the University of California at Los Angeles. It was far enough away from Livermore for her to feel independent from her parents, yet close enough that she could go home as often as she pleased.

            Dressing for Cassandra’s sixty-fifth birthday, she remembered returning from LA for a holiday party at the house in Livermore where Cassandra then lived with her husband. Cassandra had gone to a community college for two years, married at twenty, and was already expecting, while Ginger was still working toward her degree in art history at UCLA. Ginger’s hair was down now, red and wavy, cascading to her waist. Drinking heavily, she had started flirting with one of Cassandra’s neighbors, who was there with his wife and two-month-old baby. After slow dancing to “Yesterday” they sat side by side on the sofa, looking into each other’s eyes, which was always Ginger’s downfall. True to form, she started fantasizing that he was her true love. How could she think that? Why hadn’t she yet learned? The man, decent-looking but ordinary, an insurance agent, said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

            “Thank you.” She smiled, thrilled by his desire and her own sense of power. She could make things happen, turn a chance encounter into love!

            “Can I kiss you?”

            Unfortunately, she said yes. He put his arms around her, and their lips met for a long, passionate moment. Then Cassandra grabbed him by the arm, whisked him away, and delivered him to his wife. He never even returned to Ginger to say good-bye, and she knew she’d been a fool. Why did she get infatuated so easily? It was still a mystery to her, explicable at best as a side effect of selfish genes using her as a pawn in a battle for their own survival.

            Ginger left that long-ago party with Dudley, another high school friend and a real dud of a man. In less than five years, they would be married. As Dudley drove her to her parents’ home, he said, “Cassandra’s sister advised me to stay away from you. She said you were that kind of woman. You always had been and always would be.”

            “Susie doesn’t know what kind of woman I am. Did she have any criticism of the man?” She was a dreamer, not a whore, but people, even some who had known her for years, couldn’t seem to tell the difference.

* * *

            Ginger wore a pale blue and lavender skirt from India to Cassandra’s party. Hundreds of round, metallic little mirrors were stitched to it, so that it shimmered and sparkled when she moved. She also wore silver sandals and a lavender cotton-knit shirt that showed off her perfectly rounded breasts, which had not yet started sagging like her arms and thighs. Horace said, “You look beautiful,” and blew her a kiss as she left the house.

            The party was a late afternoon affair, outdoors, like the one where Ginger had met Cassandra. The house was modern and upscale, with a large yard and pool. Cassandra was on the plump side now, with short, stylish gray hair. She had been married to Glenn, a retired auto mechanic, for 45 years. Of their three children, only Tania, the youngest and unmarried, was present. Susie, now a born-again Christian living in Alabama, had been estranged from her family for a long time and wasn’t coming. Cassandra greeted Ginger with a long hug. “You make me sick,” she teased. “Why don’t you ever gain weight?”

            The guests, wrinkly and graying, stood around the edges of the patio—sipping cabernet and pinot gris, eating hors d’oeuvres, and tapping their feet—while the band, also wrinkly and graying, played rock ’n’ roll songs from the fifties and sixties. Ginger felt antsy. Had they reached the age where no one wanted to dance anymore? Were they all like Horace?

            She turned to the man standing next to her. He was of average height and had thinning brown hair and a full face. She’d always been attracted to men with better-defined cheekbones and jawlines, but this didn’t matter anymore. She wasn’t looking for a mate, only someone to dance with. “How do you know Cassandra?” she asked.

            “I met Glenn at a bar where we both go occasionally for a beer. How about you?”

            “I met her at a party fifty years ago.” As she spoke, Ginger jiggled, shook her head, and tapped her foot in time to the music.

            “Fifty years ago! You don’t look like you were born fifty years ago.”

            “I was,” Ginger said with a small laugh. “I’m sixty-three.”

            “Jesus, what happened to her?” He pointed at Cassandra. “She looks old enough to be your mother.”

            Ginger liked this man who didn’t make her feel like a has-been. In the next few minutes she learned that he taught art at Indian Valley College, that his own paintings had been shown at many museums and galleries, and that one of his favorite artists was Frida Kahlo. Ginger could hardly believe it. She had earned her M.A. in art history at San Francisco State, writing her thesis on animal imagery in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. When he said, “Her art rejects social repression and reclaims the self,” Ginger practically swooned. Art and artists touched her very soul. She had once hoped to be an artist herself and tried her hand at painting with less than enviable results. She now ran a gallery on Fourth Street in Berkeley and was a fairly good potter.

            He said, “Want to dance?”

            The song was “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” The only couple dancing, Ginger and Larry did the swing: holding both hands, they rocked together. Then they pulled back, let go of one hand and kicked. When she twirled beneath his arm, her skirt glittered and flashed. Everyone was watching them. Ginger was in her element. She thought of the seahorses she and Horace had seen recently at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There was a video of them dancing that she’d watched over and over again. They bowed to each other and touched snouts. Then they swayed together— first both facing to the right, then turning to face to the left—perfectly synchronized. Next they intertwined their tails and spun gracefully before rising toward the surface in a burst of shining bubbles, as though they were dancing in a sea of champagne. The males got pregnant and had the babies, she recalled. Ah, those lucky seahorse ladies!

            When the music ended, Larry said, “Again?” Ginger nodded. It was a slow song, “In the Still of the Night,” and several other couples ventured out onto the patio to join them.

            Ginger and Larry danced and danced, long into the evening. They twisted and shimmied to “Twist and Shout,” jitterbugged to “At the Hop,” waved their arms and moved their hips freestyle to “We Can Work It Out,” and held each other close, barely moving to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” Ginger had been here before, and she knew something beyond any doubt: if she weren’t sixty-three and married, she would want to kiss him. She would be infatuated and fantasizing about being in love with him. She could recall that feeling and knew it was still there, nestled within her, waiting to be summoned.

            The last time she’d let it out at a party was at the home of a professor when she was in graduate school. She wasn’t one of his students, but she knew who he was, a scholar of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance art. It was a New Year’s Eve party, and he and his wife had invited the art history faculty and a number of graduate students to their mansion in Pacific Heights. She hadn’t known that professors could be rich. When she saw the size of the foyer, she wondered why anyone with so much money would want to teach at State. She was wearing a headband, beaded moccasins, and her very best purple bell-bottoms.

            Well before midnight the host, lubricated by champagne, asked her to dance to “Go Away Little Girl.” Afterward he took her by the hand and led her to the library, where he cornered her for a passionate kiss. Could this be love? she wondered, just as she had at thirteen. She imagined him getting divorced and marrying her. She pictured sleeping with him under an original Bruegel, having children with him, and going with him to Europe on art history expeditions in the summer. When the kiss ended and she looked up, she found herself staring, with embarrassment, into the stern eyes of a female professor with whom she had studied twentieth-century American art. “Can I call you?” he whispered. She said yes, then fled back to the crowded living room.

            He called her and courted her, taking her to many romantic lunches at restaurants overlooking the bay or the sea, but she came to her senses. She knew he would never leave his wife, a physician at UCSF and the mother of his four children. She liked and admired him, but she knew he just wanted her for a fling, so she always declined to go to a hotel or away for the weekend. The following year she finished her thesis and left that fog-socked campus, and the year after that she married Dudley.

            Dudley, a CPA, made excellent money. He’d been a good provider for their two children, a boy and a girl, but he was more excited about tax returns than about art. Most people couldn’t even bear to do one tax return a year, but Dudley did 1,000.

            Why had she married him? Well, he liked to dance and that was certainly a plus. Also, an excellent cook, he wooed her with waffles or eggs Benedict on Sunday morning, grilled salmon or fettuccini and shrimp on Friday night. He never used a cookbook, but created his own recipes, variations on dishes he’d liked at restaurants or had at someone else’s house. Occasionally he asked a restaurant chef a question about ingredients, but usually he knew without asking, “basil with a hint of bay” or “cumin and a touch of dill,” and could copy a recipe or create a variation the way musical geniuses, having heard a piece once, could play it by ear.

            Dancing and cooking aside, until she married Horace, Ginger had thought she and Dudley were the most mismatched couple in the world. He disagreed with her on many things. If she wanted white tile in the bathroom, he wanted black. If she wanted chocolate cake, he wanted white. If she wanted a red car, he wanted blue. These differences were not trivial to him. Once, he got angry at her for buying Lady Lee cranberry juice instead of Ocean Spray. When she said she liked Lady Lee just as well, he turned red in the face and screamed, “I don’t give a damn what you like. I’m telling you what I like!”

            The mystery now was that Horace had deeper, more personal disagreements with her than Dudley, but she did not think she and Horace were incompatible. If he didn’t like one of her new ceramic creations, Horace might say, “You have no aesthetic sense whatsoever.” Friends of hers he didn’t like were “new-age nitwits” or “Nazis with lipstick.” And he was always criticizing her clothes. She liked bright colors, ethnic prints, and chunky jewelry from India, Africa, and Tibet. Once, when she put on her blue Senegalese caftan dress, he said, “My God, you’re not wearing that tonight are you? This isn’t Halloween!” He liked simple, understated garments in white, black, beige, and gray, and loved her best in a plain sheath with one of the tasteful, elegant pieces of jewelry he’d given her. This was okay: she loved his gifts and enjoyed pleasing him, but she had to wear her Moroccan wedding dress sometimes too!

            Ginger told herself Horace didn’t really mean it when he was so disagreeable, that it was only how he felt at the moment. In general, life with him was good: they walked together in the Berkeley hills, where fence lizards basked on rocks and yellow star thistle bloomed by the trails, went to movies and plays, traveled, and talked about the novels they both avidly consumed. Also, their bodies fit together perfectly when they snuggled in bed at night and in the morning.

* * *

            Between songs, Larry told Ginger that he was fifty-two and had never been married. “Why not?” she wanted to know.

            “Never met the right woman, I guess.” He paused. “Do you have a clone?”

            She shook her head.

            “A sister?”

            She shook her head again.

            “Well, I guess I’ll have to stay single then.”

            They both laughed.

            Ginger could have danced all night, but the band stopped playing, and she told Larry she wanted to visit with Cassandra before leaving. He said, “Yes, of course, you must.”

            Standing by the pool, Cassandra and Ginger looked across the yard, to where Larry was now talking to a blonde who looked like she must have been one of Tania’s friends. “You sure seemed to get along with him,” Cassandra said. “He’s a nice man. Don’t know why he isn’t married. He sure isn’t shy or gay or anything.”

            “Maybe he never met the right woman.”

* * *

            When Ginger interrupted him to say good-bye, Larry was still talking to the blonde. “I’ll walk you to your car,” he said, and her heart leapt. Down girl, she thought.

            Leaning on her red Toyota, she said, “It was fun dancing with you.” He looked at her expectantly. If she had been younger and unmarried, she would have kissed him. If she had been sixty-three and unhappily married, she would have kissed him. Any move of encouragement from her now would bring their lips together, although she knew this was too soon to be love. She’d come a long way. Yet, under different circumstances, she would have said, “Let’s go somewhere and keep dancing.” But she didn’t want to betray poor, dear Horace who didn’t like to dance.

            Larry said, “I hope to see you again.”

            “Yes, of course.” She opened her purse and handed him her card.

            “Thanks. You can reach me at the college.”

            And that was it. She drove home feeling that she’d handled the situation with dignity, acted her age, and done nothing to undermine her marriage.

* * *

            The next day she received an email: “Had a wonderful time last night. I’ve never met anyone like you, a beautiful potter who loves to dance! We must meet again.”

            She wrote back: “I had a great time too. I felt like a teenager.” Although she didn’t want to set a date or do anything that could lead her down a path to trouble, she wanted to see him again too. After thinking about it, she added, “I’ll invite you to our next opening.”

            She did invite him, but he didn’t come. She also invited him to the opening after that, the one after that, and the one after that, but although he said a couple of times that he would come, he never did. She had looked at his Web site many times and liked his work, in which figures of men and women were embedded in a chaos of colors, swirls, and abstract shapes. When she sent him an email offering him a show sometime, he wrote back, “Fantastic. Thanks so much! I’ll be in touch.” But she didn’t hear from him again. She thought maybe he wasn’t interested in being just her friend, and that his better judgment was telling him to keep the hell away from a married woman. Then again, maybe he had another girlfriend.

            She would have lived happily without ever seeing him again, but something terrible happened to Horace several months after Cassandra’s party: he lost all interest in sex, claiming his blood pressure medication had lowered his libido. Ginger suggested therapy, but he said, “A: this is a physical issue. B: therapy is a waste of money. I know more about psychology than a dozen therapists combined.” She also suggested on several occasions that they massage each other with no preconceptions about where it might lead. Horace always said, “Yeah, let’s do that, but not tonight.”

            After more than a year without sex, Ginger started fantasizing about it all the time: with friends’ husbands, artists whose work she showed, checkers at the grocery store, and yes, of course, Larry. She hadn’t signed on to be a nun! Larry entered her thoughts more and more often. She knew that if she got to know him, there would undoubtedly be incompatibilities, just as she had encountered with Dudley, Horace, and other men with whom she’d had real involvements. Reality could never live up to the ecstatic fantasies she’d had each time she kissed a stranger. She did not expect Larry to be her true love, nor did she expect to leave Horace, but she had to see Larry again, to find out what, if anything, existed between them.

            On a clear, January afternoon at her desk at the gallery, under a painting of a bare-breasted woman reclining on a sofa in blue jeans, a modern-day odalisque, she clicked on “new message” and started typing. “Dear Larry, It’s been altogether too long. Can you meet me for dinner on Thursday? There’s a fusion place I like near the gallery: O Chamé. The gallery closes at 6:00. I’ll wait here for you. We can talk about a show.” The answer came back in less than an hour: “Sounds good! See you then.”

* * *

            She wore black pants, a long-sleeved black and fuchsia shirt, and dangling fuchsia earrings designed by a friend. There was no need to lie to Horace as she left for work on Thursday. She said, “I won’t be home for dinner. I’m meeting with an artist whose work I want to show.”

            “Have fun. Hope it works out.”

            So do I, she thought. So do I.

            All afternoon she wondered what would happen. What had she done? Nothing wrong yet. Would she do anything wrong? She didn’t know, but she felt very alive, open to all of the possibilities the universe had to offer. Would he stand her up? Be all business? Would she become all business once he walked through the door? She had no answers.

            It was just before six, and she had just shut down her computer, when he appeared in the doorway. He smiled, a bouquet of wild irises in his left hand.

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