Orchids

Laelia’s father steered her across the room. He held champagne in the kind of glass that is supposed to look like Marie Antoinette’s breast, and as he walked, the golden liquid kept sloshing over the edge. “Paul, this is my daughter, Laelia. Laelia, my colleague, Dr. Gibson.” He said. “Laelia just got into Columbia. She dances.” Laelia smiled modestly. “Dr. Gibson” – he paused for effect – “is an actor.” Her dad turned, champagne splashing, and walked away. He always introduced people well.

“Pleased to meet you.” Dr. Gibson had dimples and a tiny southern accent.

“Nice to meet you.” Maybe thirty-five, Laelia guessed. He held himself like an actor, easy posture and a boyish face with a big, ingenious smile. They smiled at each other for a moment.

“Congratulations on Columbia. Do you know what you want to study?”

“Not for sure, but I think I’m going to be pre-med. What kind of doctor are you?”

“Radiation oncology.” Great dimples. “Your dad’s my boss.”

“And you act?”

“Your dad’s kidding. In college.”

She swayed a little to avoid a girl carrying a tray and he stepped closer and put his hand out to keep her from falling. “What kinds of things?”

“Different stuff. Equus. A lot of Shakespeare.” Laelia moved toward him again to let the girl pass. “The most fun production I was in was Twelfth Night. I liked comedy. What kind of dance are you interested in?” He had nice eyes. Gray.  She looked down and then up again.

“Ballet. Or that’s what I do. But I’m interested in everything.”

“Can I get you some champagne?”

This was the first year her mom let her come to her dad’s New Year’s party, which, according to her dad’s dumb girlfriend, was always a big deal. More people kept coming in, handing her father’s girlfriend their coats, shaking hands, kissing on the cheek, and adding their voices to the murmuring crowd. Laelia had met two doctors, an anthropologist, and now Paul. She smiled into her glass. He was totally hitting on her. She was having a ball.

Laelia always spent the last week of Christmas break in New York City. Her dad took her to late lunches at fancy restaurants, and shopping, and to the ballet. This year there was the Chaconne she wanted to see, and something by Twyla Tharp. And he loved taking her shopping, waiting outside dressing rooms, rolling his eyes. It was a little ritual. Laelia wore black jeans and heels and a sequined gray tunic top her dad had bought her, on her advice, for Christmas. The sequins were tiny, smaller than normal sequins, and arrayed in diagonal lines. It was a little casual, but she was glad she wasn’t overdressed. And she liked the way she looked in heels. Heels and jeans made her look older. Her face, in contrast, looked very young. She wore no makeup because she liked the effect.

The apartment was built to entertain.  People were pressing in on all sides, but the room didn’t feel crowded. The living room was large and bare, just two sleek couches on a wood floor. And house plants. Her dad liked plants. There were orchids, and a few trees in baskets. The ceilings were high, and the whole west side of the apartment was one big window looking out over the river. It was dark outside, and it was very bright in the living room, and the window became a huge mirror.

“Grace, this is my daughter, Laelia. Laelia, this is our chief surgeon and very dear friend, Dr. Palmer. Laelia just got in early to Columbia.” Laelia smiled modestly. “Columbia is Grace’s Alma Mater.” Grace was wearing a black shift that clasped at the waist with heavy heels and heavy eyeliner. You have to be post-menopausal to wear that much makeup. She did it well.

“Well, Congratulations! And you go to school in New York?” She had a low voice for a woman.

“I live with my mother in Boston, actually. I go to school there.”

“I grew up in Boston! What school?”

“Concord Academy.”

“No!”

Laelia’s wasn’t coed until the seventies, probably after Grace’s time. There were still more girls than boys. Laelia didn’t feel especially close to them. The girls at school, the older, artsy set with whom she had naturally fallen in, graduated last year. She knew a lot of ballerinas too, but they were, well, dumb. Dumb, she thought, but weirdly compelling, throwing their bodies around like dice, like bags of fertilizer on suburban lawns. The girls in her classes knew Laelia was a virgin, but in the locker room they afforded her a perverse kind of respect. They admired her. Basically they were nice girls.

Her mom liked the ballerinas. She thought Laelia should have more friends. But she also kept warning her not to slack off just because she had gotten into college, which was insane. Laelia always did well in school. Laelia had done so well on her Latin final that Mr. Arnold gave her a copy of the Aeneid with his annotations in the margins. An early Christmas present, he said. Her mom was irritable. She just seemed exhausted all the time.

“Did you ever have Mr. Arnold?”

“Oh my god,” Grace said, blinking her made up eyes. “Yes. He taught me Latin. He was ancient even then.”

This was the first time her mom had let her drive down alone. Don’t speed. Don’t talk on your cell phone. Call me if you get lost. Her mother was more nervous than her father. She was probably smarter, actually, but her dad was lucky. She was a nurse, and he was a doctor. She had gray hair; he had a new girlfriend. Children liked him. Dogs liked him. He had a green thumb. Laelia drove herself every day from Brookline to Concord for school and then downtown for ballet. She drove stick, clutch out gas in, like a dance, and she was good at it. She drove her mom’s old Saab. She left at seven the day after Christmas — she was an early riser — and drove west through Massachusetts. She stopped once for gas in Connecticut and bought herself a Diet Coke. She drank it in the dirty snow next to the pump, feeling competent and alone.

The caterers were cleaning up in the kitchen, which was almost as crowded as the living room. Guests were waiting in line for the bathroom. Her father and his dumb girlfriend were making out. She was wearing an awful dress, cranberry red. He was leaning against the island and she was standing in front of him, and he was holding her to him and nibbling on her ear. Laelia didn’t think you should kiss ears in public. On principle. Laelia was next. No one ever used this kitchen to cook. She tried to make cookies once, for her father, not for herself, and she couldn’t find a cookie sheet. A bald man left the bathroom rubbing the top of his head.

There were three white orchids on the marble counter. The shower didn’t have a shower curtain. Her dad had lived here for six years. How could you shower every day without a shower curtain? She checked her outfit in the front and the back. There were three mirrors set up around the sink at angles, so you could see all the way around. Her thong, which she worried about, was not peeking out.

She had had two glasses of champagne and a spinach canapé. Three hundred calories, probably. There are a hundred and twenty-five calories in a glass of champagne, something like that. There was Listerine. Throwing up was only gross if someone else saw.

Dr. Gibson sat down next to Laelia on the far couch.

“How are you doing?”

“Good, you?”

“Good.”

Just outside, two other couples were leaning over an enormous flower, amaryllis maybe, arguing about someone named James. Laelia could hear her father laughing in the kitchen.

“So are you going to dance in college?”

“I hope so, yeah.” He wore a white button-down with rolled-up sleeves. He was tan. “Barnard has a dance program. I’d like to keep taking classes there.”

“What’s your favorite ballet?” She laughed. He was teasing. He was leaning his head back against the wall.

“Favorite that I’ve done or favorite that I’ve seen?”

“Both.”

“The most fun thing I’ve been in was probably a hip hop workshop. Don’t laugh. Instead of having a performance we went to a club at the end. They had to sneak me in.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.”

“You’re poised for eighteen.” Laelia was usually good at accepting compliments, but she didn’t know what to say. She shrugged.

“What’s your favorite thing you’ve seen?”

She took a deep breath. She had a good answer. “Pierrot Lunaire. It’s this atonal Schoenberg piece, have you ever heard it? It’s a German translation of French poems set to music.” He shook his head but raised his eyebrows. He was interested. “Anyway, there are twenty-one poems, and this guy Ratmansky did twenty-one little ballets. They’re sad and sort of toy-like. It’s really cool. I saw it with my dad last Christmas.” She shrugged again. She was enough shorter than Dr. Gibson that she had to look up. “Where did you say you were from, Dr. Gibson?”

“Washington. Virginia.” He smiled down, “Paul.”

Laelia wondered if he knew he was flirting. She couldn’t tell. He kept holding her eye a second too long. Maybe he flirted with everybody. Or maybe he was doing it on purpose. She was poised.

“Ten.” Some people started counting down. “Nine.” Two buttons of his shirt were open at the collar. “Eight.” He looked professional and clean. He was tan and blond with lots of gold hair on his arm. “Seven.” She wondered if he thought they might. “Six.” She bet she probably could. “Five.” She bet it was like driving stick. Takes confidence. “Four.” She bet she could. “Three.” She stared at him. He had nice dimples. A boyish face. And nice eyes.  “Two.” What long lashes. “Happy New Year!”

In Latin class, Mr. Arnold once told Laelia that she was the namesake of a Vestal Virgin. She said, “I was named for a flower.”

People had started leaving. Someone put on Benny Goodman and a few couples danced in the living room. The sounds of peoples’ voices had changed. Earlier the clamor sounded bright, and now the crowd made more of a murmur. Everyone was sloshed. Her dad was sitting down, and Laelia knew that meant the party would be over soon. His girlfriend was handing people their coats.

Laelia sipped from her fourth glass of champagne. She was standing by Paul. They were standing in the corner by the kitchen, over the amaryllis flower. They had made friends. He kept smiling at her, with his dimples and his big ingenious smile, like the two of them were in on a joke. She kept Mona Lisa-ing back at him. Look sexy. Look bemused. She was charming. She was charmed. He wore a tiny trace of cologne.

“Want to dance?” She asked. He offered his hand. This is not so improbable, she thought. I’m interesting. I’m poised.

When you dance with a partner, the man has to know what to do. One, two, back step. There you go. Paul knew how to lead. He indicated direction with pressure on her hip. The girl doesn’t turn on her own. Turn her. Start the spin with your arms. Toss her away from you, spin, and catch. He knew how to do it. He knew how to catch her, too. Some of the other couples had stopped to watch Paul and Laelia. Her heels made her just tall enough for this. She came up to his chin. He was not too tall. He dipped her. Someone clapped. Paul laughed.

“You’re good,” he said.

“You’re good,” she said.

She let him move her across the room and tried to guess what he was thinking. She moved closer as they moved out of what was left of the crowd. She stared at him hard, so he would know that she was staring on purpose. They were standing near the kitchen when the song ended. Paul held onto her for a second, then he bowed.

“Come with me to get a glass of water,” Laelia said. She pulled his hand — she was still holding his hand — to show that he should follow.

No one was in the kitchen. The caterers had gone. She poured herself a glass of water and drank it, then poured him one in the same glass. She jumped up and back onto the black counter next to the sink. She had seen someone do this in a movie once. When he handed her the cup, he moved forward, and she pulled him forward, and, hands on his shoulders, she kissed him on the mouth, and he didn’t pull away. Laelia hopped off the counter and pulled his hand again. There were two doors to the kitchen, one to the living room, and one to the hallway with the bathroom and bedrooms, and if they went into her bedroom no one would see.

“Do you want to go somewhere?” He asked, when he saw where she was leading. He had his arm around her waist. They stopped and whispered in the hall.

“Do you live far away?”

“In Brooklyn.”

“My dad’s about to pass out. It’s okay”

Close the bedroom door. Stand on your tiptoes and kiss him. Let him spin you. Giggle and stand on point. Kiss him again. Reach for the hem of your shirt. Laelia had a ballerina’s body, and she never wore a bra. The watery top came off and trickled onto the floor. Paul reached for her hips. His hands were warm. His lips were touching her ear.

“Do you have a…?” he asked.

She shook her head. “We can—I won’t—.”

“I can think of other things.”

“It’s ok, I haven’t had my period since September.”

“We can—” he stared at her stomach, then her ribs, then he ran his hands up and down her arms and shoulders.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Maybe we…You’re a beautiful girl.”

Laelia stood up straighter. Her posture was very good. She was not embarrassed.

“Maybe we…”

He should be embarrassed. She didn’t put her shirt back on. She stared at him in the eye.

“I can count your ribs.”

God, the kitchen smelled. Everyone had gone.

Laelia put her hand on her dad’s back. He was gripping the black countertop. There was vomit in the sink, along with cocktail sauce and shrimp tails and a leftover tray of spinach canapés. All of the muscles in his stomach and esophagus were reversing at once and wrenched what was left of the spinach and champagne up and out into the sink. Like revving an engine in neutral. All wrong. His face contorted again, and his body heaved, but a little spinachy mucus was all he brought up. He coughed and spat. “That’s good,” she said, “Shh, shh.”

Paul had to pass through the kitchen to get to the living room to get to the door. He was trying not to look at her, but she was staring at him. And then the front door closed. He was gone.

Her father had vomit all down his stomach. She poured him a glass of water and watched him drink. A pink flower behind the sink had come untied from its stake. She tied it up again. “Come on. There you go.” She led him toward his bedroom.

“I’m fine,” he said, dazed. “Did you have a good night?”

She was taking off his shirt. “I had a good night. Shh.  Shhh.”

Laelia left clothes in a heap on the bathroom floor. She ran her hand over the gash on her shin. She would cry in showers, if she were the kind of girl who cried. She sat in the bottom of the bathtub, hot water streaming down the sides and onto the tiled floor, hot water streaming across her back, and drew her knees to her chest. She wasn’t that kind of girl. She folded and unfolded her limbs. With her left hand she counted the ribs on her right side, and with her right hand, she counted the ones on her left.