Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Line

They stood in line, shifting their weight from foot to foot like metronomes out of sync. It was a cold night, and Rachel had forgotten her gloves. She burrowed her long fingers under her arms, finding more warmth there than in her coat pockets. She looked up at Hank. He was scanning the line of people in front of them, the familiar little worry V between his eyebrows. He noticed her watching him.

“Looks like it’s going to be quite a wait,” he said to make conversation, even though it was obvious.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s okay. It’ll be worth it.”

They had been there only a few minutes, but already there were a dozen people behind them. The line curved from the castle door in a long, graceful smile. Everyone was orderly and polite—merry, even. It was a Christmas concert, after all.

Rachel’s fingers were just beginning to thaw when Hank companionably squeezed his hand through and tucked his arm around hers. Cold air rushed into the little pockets of warmth, and Rachel sighed at the loss, as if the warm air from her lungs rushed to escape with the warm air from her armpits. She said nothing. Many were the times she wished Hank were more demonstrably affectionate, and if the Christmas spirit had prompted him to touch her in public without her asking, she wouldn’t complain.

Hank squeezed her arm, and waited until she wasn’t looking at him to look back at her. He didn’t know why he should be shy to examine her face. Fourteen years together and you’d think all walls would be breached, all secrets reached. Yet while he could make love to his wife, or argue about the gas bill with her, he couldn’t examine her face with her clear eyes on him. Her gaze was too steady, too strong. It was like trying to look at the sun. So he didn’t look at his wife very often, and she noticed this but didn’t know why. Fourteen years together and they had this little cool barrier between them, a mild disruption in the comfort of an otherwise complacent relationship. In a way, each of them treasured this sliver of shy secrecy. It kept something for later, for the years when nothing else was left.

She was admiring the castle’s fa├žade, the glow from the windows reflecting golden on her skin. The fine hairs dusting her cheeks and chin were highlighted in a way she would have been self-conscious of, had she known. He found the effect charming. He liked things that made her human. She was smiling, bouncing ever so slightly on the balls of her feet as if trying to contain her childlike excitement. He was glad they came. He didn’t give two shakes about a Christmas concert, but he liked seeing Rachel happy. Her gaze dropped to the line of people in front of them. He looked away before her gaze reached him.

“Did you hear Becky had her baby?” The woman behind them asked her friend. “She had it at home in the bathtub—can you imagine?” There was no judgment in her voice, only wonder.

“Of course she did. She’s Becky!” Her companion laughed.

Rachel and Hank shared a quick glance and a furtive smile, in on the laugh by proxy. Of course she did. She’s Becky!

The foursome in front of them laughed at their own joke, and Rachel’s smile grew wider. They were three women to one man, and a ratio like that is never overlooked by the man.

“I can’t believe you guys talked me into this,” he said. “We could be at Darcy’s right now.”

“Braaaad!” One of the girls said. She grabbed his arm and hung from it, which he was no doubt hoping would be the intended result. “We go to Darcy’s every night. It won’t kill you to experience a little culture!”

“Sure, if we get inside before we freeze to death,” he said. The three women looked at each other and surrounded him in a big, female hug.

“We’ll keep you warm!” said a muffled voice. Brad looked pleased.

The elderly couple in front of the group hug glanced in tandem at the youthful frivolity. The iron-haired woman gave a disdainful sniff and turned away. Her husband looked at the mass of bodies for a minute, his eyes laced with memories. He took his hat off and clutched it tightly, as if it were his anchor to the present. Eventually he ran a spotted hand over his cool scalp, and perhaps the feel of his bare pate brought him back. He gently set his hat back on and faced forward again. His wife muttered something to his bent head, no doubt involving the phrase “kids these days.” He kept his nostalgic eyes cast down and nodded.

A little murmur of excitement traveled down the line, and Rachel saw the door was now open, a liveried man standing outside it. Hank smiled at her.

“Here we go,” he said.

But go they didn’t. The man chatted with the first few people in line, and stood there. He must have been waiting for something.

It began to snow. Big, soft flakes floated down in front of the grandly lit castle, as if they’d been ordered just for this occasion. Little exclamations bubbled up from the people waiting, and the queue undulated as hands were lifted, palms outstretched to capture the flakes. Rachel followed suit, laughing and extending a bare hand.

“How beautiful,” she said. A few flakes settled in her hand and she touched her tongue to them like a child. She tasted nothing but the salt from her skin.

The iron-haired woman scanned the postcard-perfect scene. “Great,” she said. She sighed loudly as if the snow were a personal affront. Rachel felt sorry for her husband.

Hank’s worry V was back. He sandwiched Rachel’s cold hands between his gloved ones. “Where are your gloves?” he scolded lightly.

“I forgot them.”

His V deepened. He rubbed her slender hands gently and then cupped them, raising them to his lips. He blew on her freezing fingers, and rubbed them again. He alternated actions; blow, rub, blow, rub. Rachel’s hands slowly grew warm as he massaged them. She felt like they were alone, surrounded by a curtain of snow. There was something different about this moment than the preceding moments. Different from the moments soon to come after. This one stood alone, suspended in snow, brought to life with breath and touch. The rippling pattern of the fluttering snowflakes and the hypnotic rhythm of Hank’s attentions to her hands went directly to her heart, filling it with such happiness she thought she might die. Hank stopped and looked up, as if he felt it too. He broke his unspoken rule and looked at her while she watched him. They gazed at each other, examining the other’s face as if they would never see each other again and had to memorize every curve, every wrinkle. They looked into the other’s eyes and saw themselves reflected there.

The falling snow slowed, thinned, and stopped. The absence of the snow left them feeling strangely naked, and they sprouted embarrassed little half-smiles and turned away from each other. Hank took off his gloves and gave them to Rachel. She said “Are you sure? You’re hands will be cold.” He said “Take them.” She said “Thank you.”

The snow had subsided, but flurries of hands rose from the crowd again, pointing up. Hank followed their direction to a lit window at the very peak of the castle. He didn’t know what the room was on an ordinary day, but for tonight it was apparently a dressing room for the choir. Some unfortunate girl, ignorant of the crowd outside and the lack of a window-covering, was in the process of changing into her gown. She’d unbuttoned her shirt and was stepping out of her jeans. There were murmurs down the line as people registered the appearance of a half-dressed girl in the window.

“Poor girl,” said one of the women behind Hank and Rachel.

“For God’s sake!” muttered the old woman.

“Whoa,” said Brad appreciatively.

Hank and Rachel said nothing, and watched the window. Hank felt sorry for the girl. He wished there was a way to cover her from the eyes of all these strangers. He looked away helplessly and hoped it would be over soon.

Rachel watched as the girl unhooked her bra, thankfully with her back to the window. There were a few catcalls, one “Turn around, honey!” that was hushed quickly in admonishment. None of this registered with Rachel as she watched the girl, awkward and innocent, struggle into her dress. She had the strangest feeling that she was that girl, naked and clumsy in full view of eyes quick to find fault. She was exposed, embarrassed. The connection with the girl was so strong, when Hank put his hand on the small of her back to urge her forward, she was surprised to find herself in line, standing on a thin covering of snow. The line of people had finally started to creep slowly forward. She took a few steps to close the gap and looked up again. The girl was in her dress, twisting her long hair up as she looked in a mirror. She was beautiful. Rachel wondered if she would ever know.

The queue inched forward. People around them rustled in pockets and purses, pulling out tickets.

“Do you have the tickets?” The woman behind them asked her companion.

“Yes. I was lucky to get them, too. They sold out fast.”

Rachel and Hank looked at each other, mutually chagrined expressions growing on their faces. “Did you get tickets?” she asked.

“No. I thought you did.”

“Oh.”

They fell silent, shuffling along with the line of ticket-holders.

“What do we do now?” Hank whispered from the corner of his mouth.

“I don’t know. Make a break for it?” Rachel whispered back.

They clasped hands and ran, laughing, as if they’d just shoplifted something. Their queue companions gazed after them in bewilderment, then promptly forgot about them again as they neared the entrance. They could hear the discordant sounds of the orchestra warming up, and chatter, and wine glasses clinking. The girl was gone from the window. Rachel and Hank ran, slipping and righting themselves and slipping again, laughing through it all.

The snow silently resumed.