High ceilings and chandeliers baroque with light lackluster and forlorn; glitter and gowns and suits gaudy and grotesquely fitted around egos and bank accounts swollen and foul; the tinkling of glasses; a din of voices fixed and base; the droll of conversations overheard, none interesting or clever; money, old and white, loomed and festered; legacies lived in infamy; sadly, none virtuous.
All swam about her like piranha.
Lucretia was a shark, elegant and sleek devouring with honesty, style and manners; a satire to those who knew her, Edith Wharton and Jane Austen would be envious—Maleficent proud. “May I eat you after I destroy you,’ she would politely ask, selecting the best parts of her prey like appetizers then saying fuck it and gleefully gorging them whole. It was a fascinating dance. Her prey would happily acquiesce.
Perhaps that was what Jason saw when he looked at Lucretia. He was as mesmerized and beguiled as Layne was.
Or maybe this was another illusion fueled and fabricated by entities unknown and absent? Assembled by a room of capitalists manufactured to build the perfect brand? A walking soulless cog and scheme in another capitalism con?
Layne watched Lucretia troll the room while Jason safeguarded from a distance perched in a corner like a cat—her own little kitty cat with sharp, deadly claws in the form of a Glock or Beretta or whatever deadly prosthesis guys like him affixed nowadays to accentuate their masculinity.
Lucretia stood at the center of his gaze. It was his eyes. Always the eyes—almost pathologically. Layne noticed the dialogue between them immediately—indirect and unspoken—and found it…unsettling. On confronting Lucretia—who uncharacteristically rambled on about connections and attractions and chemistry to those closest to her, even Layne, which Layne naturally conceded—she finally acknowledged begrudgingly that the chemistry between her and Jason complicated things, but she wasn’t willing to sacrifice that alliance just yet. Complications were challenges, she said, and we love challenges obviously from what we do and who we are.
What we did and who we were, Layne hadn’t really figured out yet. She didn’t think Lucretia knew either.
Regardless, Layne didn’t find love healthy. Lust was natural and good. Love? Love was an illness—and tragic. Love broke people and worlds; sliced the so-called soul unhealed (she used soul poetically as a euphemism for spirit or essence or conscience; certainly nothing supernatural). Love triggered treachery—a treachery more insidious than their enemies and the paths they regularly rode.
Love made you vulnerable.
Romanticizing the tragedy in relationships was not something she was willing to do. Not anymore; at least not purposely.
Statistically, more times than not, these matters ended in suffering. Suffering arose from the attachment to desires and ended when the attachment to that desire ended. She acknowledged the four noble truths, but hadn’t graduated to the Noble Eightfold Path and probably never would. That entire worldview perplexed her.
Every worldview perplexed her.
No, there was no nirvana for her.
Nirvana. Had Kurt Cobain found nirvana? (Pun intended) Ironic given the short brilliance of his starlight that faded far too young for such an old soul (euphemism, again). His obsessions became a love even he couldn’t quite sustain. Perhaps that’s why he self-exited this hellscape.
Maybe he was right—the only nirvana was in death.
No, no love. Philosophically, love seemed limiting. Layne preferred exploring all avenues and love hindered that. It also hurt. Sometimes so much so the damage lingered long after. A scar tattooed across the self and branded on all things. Perceptions altered, time distorted, energy consumed to thwart or manifest the kaleidoscopic of emotions and actions—impulsive and violent—that arrived with that condition. She didn’t want to suffer that. It frightened her. It made her vulnerable. It exhausted her.
It changed her.
Besides, who could focus on love when the world was ending.
Lust was easier. A quick fuck simpler.
Layne saw the connection between Jason and Lucretia; the unspoken communication with their eyes—that discourse so tacit and resounding she wondered if anyone else saw it—so vivid and brazen, they held entire conversations in sweeping sharp glances that could fill epic-length novels. One glimpse and it made her crave a hot hit from a joint to tame whatever contagion that held them so transfixed.
Another set of blue eyes fractured her psyche. She squashed the urge to sneer at her own digression. As if on cue, Brody Blake invaded her line of sight in addition to her thoughts. She fought the urge to look away as his gaze briefly met hers then away. A sudden drop from the discouragement of not being recognized sent her careening. Eyes bored into his back like an awl, willing him to find her, playfully, like a game of hide and seek. When again he looked through her as he walked right by—came so close she could smell him, could reach out and touch him, she didn’t. He was across the room when his scent—thunderstorms and tornadoes and a trace of vanilla—slapped her senses so completely she took a breath.
She watched him as he stopped, turned, and stared flat-faced and stunned. She suppressed the bubble of laughter that pulled at her lips. He hadn’t recognized her in this getup—this resort staff attire that screamed low-wage-earning-proletariat-imprisoned-by-late-stage-capitalism-slash-authoritarianism-slash-kakistocracy-slash-oligarchy-that-rapidly-ascended-towards-a-monarchy and hating it costume she assumed.
He did not approach, but watched her steadily—obsessively really. This display served only to prove her earlier point, nothing more. This was what she told herself as his eyes followed her wherever she moved. She batted that feeling around—a tickle growing and lurking—till she acknowledged what it was.
The thrill his attraction sent through her nudged her closer to the connection of whatever simmered between them. She didn’t want it and certainly didn’t need it. It was a complication she needed to avoid. Unlike Lucretia, Layne had enough challenges in her life and wasn’t clever enough to handle them all. She knew her limitations. And, he was fodder for her senses—candy of the worse kind; a lollipop she could wrap her tongue around and easily lose herself to.
This began new scenarios, carnal and hot. She eagerly followed that wave of visuals till it passed, like a hot flash.
Layne delivered the message as was instructed then changed costumes to something a bit more fashionable, graceful, and apropos per Lucretia who insisted on providing her with a stylist and a wardrobe. She was thankful for what little help they afforded. Layne’s style usually consisted of mannequin and rack shopping, esoteric and retro normally twenty-thirty years old. She informed the stylist that she wouldn’t be dressed in anything obsequious or suffocating: No high-waisted pants or collar-choking ruffles. My skin needs to breathe, she told them. The stylist stood mute and mortified. Why, they never really said or indicated as they were more concerned with the satisfaction of their high-priced clients and a paycheck than they were of Layne’s dissing of their sense of stylist nobility.
Escaping Brody’s line of sight heightened her fun; pulling and pushing through the maze of figures, ultimately dispersing into the crowd leaving him in the center of the room bemused. On returning, she found Lucretia, made eye contact and signaled. Filling a plate full of food and grabbing a bottle of water, she headed outside to the veranda—a semi-lit sedate area where she could monitor all and sit in peace while listening to the distant wheeze of the ocean.
The food—layered in reams of the surrealistic: Platters of beef and salmon fillets bloody and thick; trays of veggies steamed; trenches of bread with drums of butter; fountains of chocolate and champagne—lined the borders of the room, on plates piled high left mostly uneaten, barely picked apart by the scrawny but gorged on by others unconcerned with idle talk of wants and waistlines.
To be fair, this critique had nothing to do with waistlines and everything to do with waste. Having grown up poor and this most recent iteration of poverty, the thought of an uneaten plate full of food left Layne ill at ease; an anxiety that she felt in a stomach once numb and hollow from emptiness prolonged. That kind of continued ordeal leaves a change so structural, it brands the DNA; a meme—a hunger meme carried on for many generations. Since she wouldn’t be breeding, that blight ended with her. Too bad these people were immune, breeding and infesting like the cockroaches they were.
Brody sat down across from her with his own plate and began to eat. “The avocado used to be called an alligator pear,” he said stabbing at the fruit that garnished his salmon.
“Have you ever had turtle soup?” She asked picking up an asparagus spear with her fingers, chipping away at it, savoring the distinct taste of olive oil and seasonings sauteed.
One thing she enjoyed while hanging out with Lucretia was the food. She appreciated the elegance and the abundance so freely offered without thought to its actual value. Never though would she leave it to rot or trash like these people regularly did.
“Yes, in Singapore and New Orleans.” A short pause for a bite. “I’m told we’re to thank Lucretia for this extraordinary food and the brilliant chef. I was expecting fast food.”
“She demanded and delivered taste where there was none.” Layne smiled at him. He laughed at her deliberate pun. “Have you not been here before?”
“No. I’ve purposely avoided this…theater.”
“Your father indulges it.”
“Yes, well, he and I travel in different circles. As much as he hates my disinterest. He disapproves of my lack of enterprise in his enterprise. And I would add that he tolerates this for professional gain—or more along the lines of protection nowadays,” he gestured to the crowd before them.
“Not a fan of this?”
Eyes met eyes across a table lit with candles in an overly ornamented centerpiece that glared gold and looked oddly like a malformed swan curled in sleep: “I’m a neutral observer as required per my station. How about you?”
“I do what I’m paid to do.”
“And what exactly is that?”
She smiled and continued eating.
Inside, trumpets heralded the arrival of the owner of honor and his other more infamous title that he acquired illegitimately and kept corruptly. Most of the crowd quickly stood and applauded so feverishly that Layne was afraid some would faint from servility. Others purposely turned their back and continued their conversation in a flagrant snub.
Brody leaned in over the table towards her: “Are we supposed to rise?” He whispered.
Humor transformed his face into something soft and cozy, contrasted from his usual expression. The dossier had given her a hefty set of photos; most were somber. This was…different. She swallowed her food while staring at his lips noticing that he stopped eating leaving a significant amount of food on his plate. “Who cares? More importantly, why do you care?”
“Me? I don’t. Careful though—your sedition is showing,” he warned playfully. “That’s dangerous nowadays.”
“If you thought I was compromised, you wouldn’t be sitting with me.”
“Compromised: Now that’s an interesting word to use. And, on the contrary, I could be investigating you—unofficially.”
He ignored her question letting her sit with it. Several minutes went by before he spoke as he looked over the crowd: “More than half the country hate these people, especially him. Most of the world.”
“These people.” She mocked him bemused, albeit humorously.
He shrugged. “You and Lucretia are here.”
“Yes, yes, we are,” and she shut the door on that subject not willing to go any further. For now. “Are you going to finish that?” She asked pointing to the food left on his plate.
He frowned then pushed his plate forward towards her around the malformed swan. “You realize…you can get more?”
Layne ignored the question eating what food remained on his plate.
The conversation continued traipsing through avenues of thought that she oftentimes transgressed into with people she felt overly comfortable with—that bizarre concept of trust she had little experience—digressing and meandering into subjects that became the musings of a prospectus on future reflection. Dismissing the portent of that exchange at the time as a sort of relative flow of ideas, she found herself surrendering vigilance. It didn’t bother her as much as she thought it would. She eased into the rationalization of him—all things him—and his effect on her in part for a grander plan.
This was how it worked, she told herself. We pretended this was real so as to not allow them to detect the deception.
But this was not real. He was not real. This was an illusion; an illusion perpetrated by all around her and insisted on in the era they lived. Maybe she was game, maybe she wasn’t. What could this possibly accomplish? She wasn’t sure. She didn’t bother with it, and yet, she did.
Focusing on the goals, regardless of him, she contextualized the situation fitting it appropriately into Lucretia’s puzzle. She would like to think that he’d be gone soon—he wouldn’t be. Experience told her that he would linger. He would reappear, especially since they called the same geographical metropolis home—swam in the same dirty waters, so to say.
Layne regarded him as they relaxed, leaning back, sipping hot herbal tea instead of partaking in the desserts heavy with cream and collusion, watching the drama unfold around them through the open glass doors of the veranda like an opera tragic and macabre. The golden light painted the peacocks in a dappling of shades distorting features into a more profound parody of what they actually were while highlighting the difference on him into something other; delineating those hands and fingers—the way they gripped his tea, steady yet flexible, as were those eyes she felt slip over her, sneaking glances like a child curious, shy, and eager to play. His body lined the elegance of his chair requiring him to sink into the overall realm of the universe he inhabited.
A contradiction, he was good at assimilating with them. Having originated from this coterie—born and bred from this parade of monopolists—he accessed and moved amongst them like a chameleon. She saw the push and pull within him—the struggle.
Turning her attention back onto the production in front of them, Layne decided she could use him then get rid of him when he was no longer needed.
© 2020 Alex Shea/Pamela Gay Mullins