Her coat would only get dirty, or worse, lost. Far better to throw back a half-dozen shots of vodka from the plastic handle being passed around and brave the below-freezing temperatures in her little black dress and fuck-me boots.
Nothing like a little liquid blanket for insulation.
“Are we ready?” her roommate asked, stuffing the vodka bottle in a sideways milk crate under the desk.
Four girls set out along the ridge. The wind off Lake Champlain was wicked, but she tried not to blink. She didn’t want to smear her mascara before the party even started. They crossed the road, turned downhill towards the auditorium where the dj was set up for dancing. Club nights on a rural campus were cause for celebration, even in the bitter cold of a New England winter.
The girls’ chatter was raucous and silly, their laughter like giddy bells on the night air.
“Hey hey!” came a friendly cat call across the dark quad between the girls and their destination.
A pair of young men, obscured in the long shadows from the street lamps were headed up from the auditorium.
The path turned steep and she teetered on her three-inch heels, but was grateful for the leather encasing her legs nearly to the knee. goose-flesh rose on her bare arms.
As the boys’ faces came into focus, her heart rate picked up. She smiled and waved, felt her heel skid a little on a patch of black ice. She righted herself, but the sky swam a little from the vodka.
“Hi!” she called out just as a snowball crashed into her left shoulder, sending a frosty shower of sparks against her skin. She screamed from the surprise, but she was drunk enough to find it funny.
Three more snowballs pelted the girls in rapid succession, and her friends shrieked at the onslaught.
“Oh my god, stop!” she called out, giggling.
Another snowball whizzed by her right ear. He and his friend just kept coming.
“Seriously? I will take you down if I have to!” she called out across the remaining distance.
“I’d like to see that!” he taunted. They were close enough now to see one another, and he could see how inappropriately she was dressed for the weather.
Their eyes met, and he held her gaze as he slowly bent down and scooped up a handful of wet snow in his ungloved hands. Her friends were huddled together a few steps behind, waiting to head down to the dance party until further threat of snow assault had passed.
“No mercy,” she said, leveling him with her fiercest look.
He let the snowball fly.
She was running before it hit the high point of its arc. He had enough to time realize she was serious, but not enough to brace for it.
She hit him running, hands on his chest, and they tumbled together into a snow bank halfway down the hill. Laughing, they rolled, mashing snow into one another’s faces and clothes. The cold was everywhere, but his hands were white hot on her as they came to a stop a few yards down the hill. Legs akimbo, black boots digging into the wet snow, his weight on her, his face above hers against the winter constellations, they stopped, breathing hard. A rivulet of melting snow ran down her cheek and she shivered.
His lips were icy and tasted of fresh snow as they came down on hers; his mouth was warm and tasted of bourbon and marijuana.
“Get a room,” her roommate called out as they passed, headed for the warmth of dancing.
They broke apart, grinning foolishly at one another. He got gracefully to his feet and extended a hand down to her. She took it and rose unsteadily to her feet.
“You’re crazy,” he said admiringly.
“And stupid,” she admitted sheepishly, brushing snow from her dress, shaking snow from her damp hair.
He chafed her bare arms with his chilly hands. She shuddered. He looked at her for a heartbeat, then unwound his scarf and draped it over her shoulders, tying it loosely over her breasts.
“Go get warm, we’re headed over to see some friends, maybe we’ll catch you at the party later.”
“Yeah, later. You’ll want your scarf back,” she replied.
He tromped off toward his waiting companion, and she picked her way out of the snow and back onto the path.
She turned back to sneak a look at him as he walked away, and caught him looking back at her, his expression unreadable in the shadows.
“I’ll be sure to get that scarf back,” he promised, then turned and disappeared into the night.
The concert was a success. Her little college band was off to a fine start. The after-party had been in full swing for a few hours, lights low to hide the shabby dorm lounge location. She helped herself to another plastic cup of cheap beer and surveyed the crowd.
Geoff was in the corner of the room, probably talking shop with the guest band they’d invited up from a sister school to open the show. The lead singer was just his type, willowy and vague, with a baby doll voice and long, romantic skirts.
Watching Geoff intentionally not come on to the waifish singer – a move she knew he prided himself on because, when a woman then expressed interest, it conveyed to others the idea that he was compelling – a wave of miserable self-loathing washed over her.
Why, of all the musicians she knew, was he the one who drew her. Her earthy looks did nothing for him. It was her voice, her performing Geoff wanted, for the recognition it would bring him as the guitarist in the band.
She realized she was staring, and shook off the mood. She slugged down the beer, tossed her hair, straightened her shoulders, and eyeballed the shy drummer from the other band. She’d noticed him before the show, but Geoff distracted her from other boys.
He wasn’t too much taller than she, dark hair cropped close, with Elvis Costello frames around his pale blue eyes. As she was crossing the room to draw him out, the song changed.
Oh, the song! There was quite literally nothing she could do about it. She simply fell into dancing. Hips undulating, head back and loose, arms winding. She was helpless against the rhythm, the lyrics touching the untouched heart of her. A minute in she opened her eyes, knowing them to be shining with unfocused pleasure, to see the drummer watching her.
Made bold by the music, the dancing, she wound her way through the dancers, took his hand and tugged.
“Dance with me.”
He resisted with a smile.
“I can’t,” he replied, voice strained over the blaring music.
“Everyone can dance to this song!” she argued.
And she pulled him into her, settling her hands on his hips, pulling them together from thighs to shoulders. The music flowed through her into him. His hands came around her, a questing pressure on her lower back, and she reached up to hold him, singing the words into his ears as they moved together.
The song ended, and they stood for a moment like fools as another song started. The spell was broken, but enough magic remained in the air around them to delay their parting for a moment.
And then another band mate came looking for her; the party would have to shut down soon, and did she want to move things to someone’s room? She nodded, sneaking a glance at the drummer to see if he was paying attention, but he was fading back from her already. She agreed to move the party, and began shutting things down.
With the lights up, and the music off, the room showed its filth and wear. She set about dismantling the stereo as quickly as possible. She needed to bring it back to her room before she went anywhere.
With her components stacked, she called to her band mates that she would meet them across campus.
“Let me help you.”
The shy drummer. There behind her.
“Alright,” she agreed, stepping aside so he could pick up her speakers.
She grabbed the receiver, and led him from the room.
They made small talk as they crossed a frost-tipped field towards the dorm she was calling home that year. As they approached her door, she whispered, “My roommate’s asleep.”
He nodded, and allowed her to slip in, set down the receiver, and come back for the speakers. She closed and locked the door. They stood there, empty-handed in air full of electricity.
“Are you coming to the next party?” she finally asked.
“Is there somewhere else we can go?” he countered, taking her fingertips in his, touching her tentatively.
They slipped into a common room, abandoned at such a late hour, tumbled together on to a scratchy couch, still bundled in their winter scarves and coats. They laughed quietly as they fumbled with bulky outerwear. He tossed his overcoat over them like a blanket, and they kissed in the wool-sheltered half-light.
He kissed like the dreamy, shy boy he was, with sweetness and intensity. He cradled her, stroked her cheek, hummed melodies under his breath while his lips cruised her throat. There was an unbearable heat to their restraint, as their hands crept to touch what skin was already exposed, conscious of the public nature of the common room.
After what seemed like hours, they came up for air, pushing back the coat, allowing fresh oxygen to dispel the mingled scents of breath and desire.
“I should get back,” he said. “My bandmates will wonder.”
“Yeah,” she exhaled. “I’ll walk you back.”
“You don’t have to. It’s a cold night.”
“I’m used to it,” she laughed.
“And I know where Geoff’s apartment is,” she added on a wry note.
She kissed his lips to stop his protest. “I don’t mind.”
They bundled up and struck out, hand in hand, across the same frost-tipped field. Orion hunted in the black, cold sky overhead. The stars were close and blue-white.
He stopped her, halfway across the field.
“Look,” he said, gesturing up at the sky. She followed the sight line of his hand up over the Hunter, into the Bull, where a small cluster of stars nestled.
“Those are the Pleiades,” he said. “The seven sisters. Orion follows them across the night sky.”
Lowering his arm around her shoulders, he touched his cold lips to hers, cold palms on her cheeks. It was his warm breath that made her shiver. It was too cold to linger, though, so the kiss was brief. When they reached Geoff’s rooms, the irony not lost on her, he kissed her again, a touch of farewell to her cheek, and went inside.
They neither spoke to nor saw one another again. Years later, though, she still sought out the Pleiades in the winter sky and smiled back at the sweet kiss stolen under the cold, blue, starry sisters.
Between Contact & Recognition
A volume of D. H. Lawrence on the nightstand, the page held by a torn Trojan wrapper.
His flannel shirt, still warm, discarded on the papasan chair in the corner.
An essay still visible on the screen of his computer.
She sat on her hands, at the foot of the bed, feet bare, toes scratching the throw rug. Her shirt, one sleeve inside out, lay on his floor, just to the left of her book bag. The bag she’d dropped when he’d kissed her, suddenly.
From the moment she’d breathed, reached for him after the six discarded heartbeats between contact and recognition, they raced each other giddily to the skin. Hands tugging at fabric like greedy children, mouths open and careless in the dips and hollows of what skin they exposed.
The patchwork quilt on his narrow bed left imprints on her knees, track lines down her shins, divots in the tops of her feet. She’d left marks on his wrists where she’d held them, binding him with her hands, with her lips, but never with her eyes.
The strap of her bra, listing off her right shoulder. A bar of rose-gold sunlight falling on the indigo denim he’d peeled away like fruit skin.
More naked in their underclothes than in nothing at all.
The heat of early autumn giving way to the cool of evening; the air from the open window chilling the damp labyrinth he’d traced down her body.
His thumbs, caught in the lace at her hips, fingers pressing into flesh, a tactile question she thought she’d known the answer to. Until she hadn’t.
The door, left open just a fraction, in his hasty retreat to the bathroom down the hall.
One red ballet flat, sole splayed up toward the ceiling.
Adjusting the Phrasing
She knocked on the door of his office, the soft sweetness of Mozart drifting under the steel door.
When he didn’t reply, she knocked again, a little louder.
“Professor?” she called.
She peered in the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of her adviser through the cheap plastic blinds that screened his private sanctuary from the curiosity of the rest of the department.
“Dr. Lawrence?” she called again.
The door opened a fraction, the toe of an expensive European shoe holding it open. She pushed it open further, slipping through as soon as the opening was wide enough. She knew well to be careful of the organized chaos that lay within Marcus’ office.
His forbidden name sent frissons of liquid heat pooling under her skin. She closed the door, shifting her messenger bag to the other shoulder and running a hand casually through her windblown hair. He liked her fresh-faced and tousled. She knew that from the look in his eyes every time they met to discuss her work.
“You’re late,” he said, never opening his eyes as the concerto slipped into a minor key. One hand floated in time, as though conducting an invisible orchestra.
“I have the revisions you asked for,” she said, pitching her voice low, emulating the women she’d studied with, so worldly and elegant. They were women who knew how to make a place in the world of performance; how little it really had to do with talent.
His eyes drifted open, drifted over her, lazily inspecting her, from the open neckline of her peasant blouse to the tall boots, snugly outlining her ankles and calves.
She unwound the scarf she hoped was artistically draped around her neck.
Dr. Lawrence stretched and stood as the movement ended, He gestured loosely to the piano bench, and she sat, acutely aware of the warmth from his body which lingered there. She fished in her bag, pulled out the spiral bound book of stave paper, settled it on the music stand.
She glanced at the notes, penned in herself since last week’s meeting, heard the corresponding notes flow out in her mind. She looked up at Dr. Lawrence, painfully close at the corner of the upright piano. His expression was guarded.
He reached out and switched off the mp3 player. Traded Mozart for expectant silence.
She touched fingers to the patinated ivory of his piano. Even his presence fell away as she played. Her fingers glided, caressed, demanded the music from the old upright. She felt her body rock and sway, felt the bite of her own teeth on her lips, her breath adjust to rhythm of the music. She played until the end of the piece, eyes very nearly closed, as the notes on the page were more for him than they were for her. This music poured out from her bones, carried out from her skin like a scent.
This music told a story of unrequited passion, of desires unquenched. It sang of heat and darkness. Under the desire, a demand, an aggressive plea to be heard. A plea for him to hear her.
The last echo of the final harmony hung in the air a moment, and she felt herself return to the room. She looked up at him a fraction of a heartbeat too soon, and he saw the naked want in her eyes.
“You’ve done it,” he said, his voice hoarse.
He sat, gingerly, on the piano bench, their bodies aligned from shoulder to hip, and pointed to a section of the revisions. He cleared his throat.
“Here, though? That’s not how you played it,” he whispered. Touched his long fingers to the notes. “You’ve written it as a statement.”
“I heard a question when you played,” he continued.
“You did?” she asked, voice weak.
He turned to her, and she saw it, her own desire reflected, her own plea mirrored.
His left hand pressed into the keys of the chord once, then ever so slowly again, and she heard the difference. She heard the question in the notes, understood how she’d played it for him.
She watched his face, watched him watch her. A wordless conversation played out on the dying chord, and when his mouth closed over hers, she was already lost in the music in her head. His hands, his graceful, clever hands, dove into her hair, spun sonatas against her skin while their mouths found a melody, their breath and heartbeats a rhythm.
He pulled her from the bench, settled her in his lap, the keyboard releasing a dissonant cry as the back of her thighs came to rest on the ivory.
The kiss was endless, symphonic. And yet, when she pulled away, put her hands on his shoulders to steady herself, his eyes were sad.
He exhaled, a labored, uneven whoosh of air.
“You’ve done it,” he said, repeating his earlier remark.
She stood then, abruptly, the ivory singing muted tones as the hammers drummed the strings in protest before returning to their rest.
“It’s very nearly perfect,” he said, his voice regaining some it’s polished smoothness.
“You just need to adjust the phrasing,” he added, touching the notes on the paper again, his hands gliding past her ribcage. She wondered if he could still feel her heart racing, her lungs sprinting to catch the oxygen lost to the kiss.
She backed away from the piano bench, kneeling a bit to retrieve her scarf and bag from the floor.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, as she wrapped the scarf around her neck, the bag around her body. He reached up to push a stray curl from her cheek, but his hand stopped inches from her face, as though he didn’t dare touch her again.
She looked hard into his face, unable to speak, before grabbing the spiral bound stave paper and yanking the office door open.
She fled out into the hallway, tracing her way out of the labyrinthine corridors by memory, eyes stinging with tears. When she found her way out of the building, she paused in the light of a streetlight to shove the notebook into her bag while the tears rolled down her cheeks.
From an upstairs window, now unlit, he watched her straighten her shoulders, wrap her hands around her body like a bandage, and step out of the pool of light and into the ether.