Party Girl

By Susan Phillips

O-1nce I ran with the in crowd. I used to attend more parties in a week than I do now in a year. There were times that my entire life centered around parties—and not the birthdays and anniversaries, weddings and baby showers I get invited to now. I don’t know if I’m invited to these events because people here have accepted me and like me or because they pity me, imagine me home by myself crying when I’m not with them.

I used to know where to buy everything: the latest fashions at a discount, special ingredients for recipes to dazzle the pickiest eaters, the freshest flowers, the perfect gift. I don’t know all the ins and outs here. I listen when women chat about this store, that shop. Once I’m home, I often forget what object they were discussing or where the shop is located. I don’t need much anymore. No one visits me, and I have all the furniture I want. I’m invited out so rarely that I have clothes I haven’t even unpacked. Maybe I will someday soon. Sometime soon, when nothing in my bags can hurt me.

Back then, I hung out with artistic, creative, influential people. At least, that was how they all described themselves—those talentless painters, depressed and depressing photographers, the stiff actors, off-key singers, clumsy dancers, the writers of tedious plays and meaningless poetry, the cooks who couldn’t. Everything was off. The plays were never off Broadway or even off off-Broadway. They would never see a glimpse of Broadway, ever.

But I was delighted to be a part of a life that I found compelling, intellectual, absolutely thrilling. My evenings and weekends were full—receptions, theater premieres, openings of what would soon be the hottest club or restaurant around.

When I left the city of dreams, I supposed that I would never meet the kinds of people I had known before. But there are aspiring actors, writers, artists, chefs, club owners everywhere. I don’t know any of them here, and I don’t intend to meet them. I left that life behind—behind with all the ticket stubs and menus and unintelligible books of poetry that I threw out the night before I left. I didn’t want to leave the big city and move to a smaller town, but I had to get away.

When I think of my old life now, I can pinpoint the end, but not the beginning. I lived in a tiny apartment, a cozy hideaway in the heart of the city. The bedroom was large enough for a bed, a bureau, nightstand and bookcase. There was another room—my living room/dining room/study/kitchen. The bathroom was all deep green tiles with a toilet at one end and a shower at the other. I had to move towels and toilet paper when I showered.

Most of the time I felt lucky to have all that space to myself. I knew people who shared bedrooms or slept on living room couches. It was the only way they could afford to live in the city. But I had a good, steady job, so I lived alone.

But sometimes, I got restless and wanted to pace around my apartment. Then my cozy spot felt like a prison. I would head out to a coffeehouse or neighborhood bar. At first I enjoyed sitting and people-watching, but after a while I just got lonelier. I was surrounded by couples or groups of friends out for an evening of fun. The only men who talked to me told the same stories about their ex girlfriends or their wives who didn’t understand them.

I found other places to go—small art gallery openings, poetry readings in church basements, sparsely attended premieres of dramas written by obscure playwrights.

After a while, I was invited to the next opening or reading or premiere or cast party or whatever event was going on. I mingled with people who were going to be famous or who had been famous and even some who were famous in small ways. That was important to me then. They were fun people, I told myself. They like me, and I’m enjoying myself, having a hell of a time, doing the big city right.

At one point I wanted to live that life forever—going to parties and exhibits and shows of all kinds—out most nights, rarely getting enough sleep, never finishing the chores I used to enjoy. In six months most of my plants died, and I didn’t notice. Of course, that was just as well. How could I have taken them out here? So I just started over: my plants and my life.

I was naive then. Otherwise I might have stayed, waited the whole thing out. My naiveté was half my charm; that’s what my photographer friend Gil used to say. I visited him in his studio every month or so, and he took photos of me. Sometimes we met in a neighborhood or area that I had never explored. Gil seemed to know the entire city as if he had lived for years on every block. He waited until I found what he called the key to wherever we were and then snap, snap, snap photos of me looking at this, tasting that, laughing with delight or wrinkling up my nose.

“I could watch you every day,” he would say on these outings. “I love to see how you experience things. I want to capture every expression.”

At first, I was flattered and waited for more, waited for Gil to call more often or to accept my invitations to Sunday brunch or dinner. He was always devastated when he couldn’t join me. “But soon,” he would say, “soon we’ll have a real, proper date.”

We never did. And although his book of photographs of me got wonderful reviews in every offbeat magazine, Faces of Innocence never sold much. I felt so bad for Gil that I went to dozens of bookstores, buying copies before and after they were remaindered. I have a box of them here somewhere. One day I’ll look for the box and unpack a copy.

Sometimes I ran into Gil at a party or event. We would chat in a corner for a while or even leave early for a cup of coffee or a drink. Other times he was too busy. “You understand, lovey, don’t you? I’ve got to make the connections here—or else.”

I would nod my head sympathetically, but I never really understood what “or else” meant to Gil. I never made connections that changed my life. Often I just found a place to sit and watch all the fascinating people surrounding me.

There comes a time when the party is over—when the last guest leaves and clean-up begins. Before that, people start drifting away—off to another party, to a movie or a play or home. And there came a time when my own party in the city was over, when it was time to leave. It started with a series of small incidents that got more and more uncomfortable: a misplaced jacket, a lost hat, a few dollars missing from a wallet. What could anyone say? “Are you sure you didn’t leave your coat at the restaurant?” “I don’t remember your wearing a hat tonight.” “How much money did you have when you left your apartment?”

Everyone lost something at a party or opening or wherever the crowd gathered that night. I began wearing clothes with pockets, hiding my keys and money.

The thefts got larger as time went on. More money, expensive coats, packages. The questions were more accusing. “Why in the world did you wear that coat here?” “Who carries that much cash at night?” “What were you thinking when you left your tote bag in the corner?”

Other questions came up. Was one of the regulars a thief? If so, how could that person be detected and dropped? Or were the thefts totally random? But how was that possible—that so many different events seemed to include one unknown thief?

Gil and I talked about it during a couple of our get-togethers, but we couldn’t figure anything out. I lost ten dollars one evening, I told him. Another time my new pair of leather gloves disappeared. Gil was lucky. His expensive camera equipment hadn’t been touched. “I hope that no one suspects me,” he said, “I suppose it does look odd.”

I was quick to reassure him. “We only think that we know everyone at the parties,” I said. “I’m sure that every event is really a different crowd and that there are—well, hundreds of people who haven’t lost anything.”

Gil laughed at that, quickly assured me that he wasn’t laughing at me, and then shot two or three rolls of film coming in close to get what he called my “delightful worried expression.”

 

No one thought of calling the police. Why would we want them spying on our events? The word got around, however, and a few of the smaller papers printed stories about the “artsy thefts.” If editors or writers thought that making fun of the situation would lighten the atmosphere, they were wrong—dead wrong, as it turned out.

Slowly, everyone I knew got more tense. At every party, conversations stopped when anyone entered or left. A few people stopped being seen at all, but the thefts didn’t stop. New arrivals showed up to take their places, but the thefts didn’t increase. Fewer people danced at parties; women didn’t want to leave their handbags anywhere. No one left a jacket or scarf to save a seat at a performance. Then the quarrels started—small squabbles at first. This one accused that one of trying to take something. A flare-up instead of a laugh if someone mistook your coat for his.

I kept going out, but it wasn’t as much fun anymore. Too much tension in the air, too many people picking at one another. Anyone who started hanging around—as I had, when I first got involved with this artsy set—was looked at suspiciously, instead of being welcomed or appreciated. And that attitude didn’t help the scene at all. The openings and the galas and events were less welcoming, less fun. Fewer people showed up. Regulars found new places to go. Quarrels got nastier.

One evening, shortly before I left the city for good, I went to a poetry reading and later saw Gil at an art opening. He was friendlier than ever. Had he missed me over the last few weeks? Or were there fewer people to try to meet that night? I didn’t ask. I was too glad to see him.

“Enough,” he said, after an hour of looking at drab landscapes. “I know just the place to go to brighten up our evening.”

Off we went to a new club. “Timothy’s latest venture,” Gil said. “I think he’s learned from his past mistakes and has finally found a cuisine that he can actually cook.”

I laughed at that and later thought that maybe Gil was right. The food was better than at Timothy’s last three restaurants, and the prices not much higher. But anything would have tasted good that night in Gil’s company. I had been lonely lately, dissatisfied at work, anxious every time I went out alone.

And then we heard some raised voices. “I asked for a ninety-five wine, you dimwit,” shouted the poet I had heard not two hours before. “Not this undrinkable ninety-eight.”

“Oh, no sir,” came a waiter’s cool voice. “This is the ninety-five. You checked the label yourself.”

“For all I knew you switched the labels before you brought it out,” the poet screamed. “I demand to see the owner.”

Timothy came over and made some soothing sounds. “What is the problem, sir? If the wine is not to your liking, I’m sure we can find another one.”

But the poet stood up, threw the wine in Timothy’s face and then hit the waiter over the head with the bottle. As Timothy tried to calm the two men down, the waiter punched the poet and knocked him down. The poet fumbled in his pocket and pulled a knife out.

Gil threw some money on the table and hurried me out. “Perhaps this wasn’t quite the night to visit Timothy,” he said as he rushed me down the street.

Over the next few weeks I heard about more and more thefts—large and small—and a few more fights.

Two nights before I left the city, I ran into Gil again at a party. I tried to talk with him. “Gil, I have something to ask you,” I began. “What would you say if I told you—”

Just then an art critic walked by, and Gil lifted his hand. “Sorry, lovey,” he said. “Let’s hook up later. I’ve got to make a new connection right now—or else.”

I nodded and smiled as he walked off. I hung around for an hour or so, then left, went home and to bed.

I woke early the next morning and turned on the radio as I made coffee for the last time in my small apartment. What I heard shocked me.

“The police are investigating the death of Mark Lester, a well-known local poet following a party last night.” The party I had been at, I realized. “According to witnesses, several people accused the men of stealing, but no one actually saw him leave. His body was discovered in an alley nearby at 4 AM. Guests at the party have also said that many of them were missing money and other valuables. The police have not said yet if they recovered any of the stolen items.”

I listened to the news on and off all day. I knew what I had to do—I had to leave. I spent the day packing what I wanted to take with me and threw out what I wanted to forget. I waited all day for Gil to call, but he never did. No one called me. The next morning I was in my car, heading out of town.

I don’t know if the police ever found Lester’s murderer. I listened to the radio as I drove through one small town after another, but soon other news events were reported. Lester hadn’t been a national figure, and now he never would be. His name and story just vanished from the news. I never read the papers from my old home, so I don’t know what happened.

They never caught the thief—the original thief, I mean. Because that was me. I saved up the money I stole, never put it in a bank, just kept it hidden away. As for the objects I stole—well, you pass through many small cities and towns when you drive from the big city to where I live now. You can pass by or stop at all kinds of pawnbrokers, flea markets, second hand stores where the owners are willing to buy what you have to sell—no, or very few, questions asked. Of course I had lied to Gil when I said that I lost things, and all my pockets came in handy when I found something I wanted. At first I just wanted a souvenir or two, something to show that I had been there, been at the beginning, at the scene when it was all happening. And it was so easy that I just kept taking this, taking that, until I discovered the art form that I had been meant to create.

I created myself, an entire new life for myself. And I must say that I’ve been quite successful at it.

——————–

A native of Chicago, Susan Phillips is now a Boston area writer, photographer and teacher, whose work has been published in many newspapers and magazines. Her short stories have been printed in twelve magazines, including Lacuna, Poetica Magazine, Literary Brushstrokes, Rose Red Review, Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination and All the Women Followed Her. She is currently working on an historical novel about King Agrippa I.


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