The door is answered by Sylvia Plath, blue dress belled out around her slender hips, head stuck in a cardboard oven. This comes as no surprise; there is one every year. This particular Sylvia braces the doorframe with one arm, still holding a glass of red wine so that I may see into the apartment but not enter. She smiles with gray-tinged teeth — a close match for the gray-blue of her artificial asphyxiation face paint, though likely a result of the wine now gently sloshing onto the linoleum. Waves of heat and noise seep out from the doorway, pressing me backward, carrying snippets of conversation: “… the next date on my tour …” “… have you seen pictures of the new baby? …” but by the time they reach the hall it sounds like, Get out while you still can.
The annual agency costume party: where “highbrow” is not the same as “in good taste.” True, there will not likely be any sexy nurses or policewomen on this particular occasion, but a sexy Jane Eyre or Hester Prynne is not entirely out of the question. Somewhere, I imagine, in the bustling apartment behind the blue-faced Ms. Plath, I will eventually run into Virginia Woolf as well, complete with stones in the pockets of her sweater.
Sylvia — otherwise known as Helen from the HR department — makes a vain attempt at embracing me fondly. Her wide, cardboard headpiece knocks first against the doorframe and then against my jaw before she settles for a polite pat on the shoulder. “You’re so late!” she says, though she continues to block the door. It does not seem to occur to her that my entrance is dependent on her position. She looks me up and down then, attempting to conceal her distaste as she takes in my faded jeans and sweater. I clear my throat. The green is somewhat pukey, I’ll admit. Cheryl always did most of the shopping.
Sylvia-aka-Helen steps aside, allowing me to pass into the apartment where other well-known characters and embodied puns are milling about, drinks in hand. The air smells like perfume, and body heat, and booze. In the living room, Daisy Buchanan is playing the piano with the characteristic lilt of one too many glasses of champagne. Bobbing along with each note, the rapidly wilting actual daisy tucked into her flapper headband. I have been instructed by Mike, my literary agent, to “stay connected,” to “network.” This is important for my career, according to Mike. My so-called career, according to Cheryl.
In the kitchen, a small banquet table has been set out with drinks and finger foods, wine and beer bottles leaning out of buckets of ice. I crack open a beer and glance at my watch. One hour would be polite, two downright generous. Mike is nowhere to be found, though he has guaranteed me his attendance.
I mingle dutifully. Scarlett O’Hara in accounting has just gotten engaged. Cyrano in copyrights wants to tell me about his bowling league. Across the room, a memoirist dressed as some sort of dead pig has just spilled guacamole down his chin. I am the only guest not in costume, a fact that does not go unnoticed. I adopt a facial expression that I hope will convey “I know,” before another person can say “But you’re not dressed up!” Oh really? I hadn’t noticed.
“Jimmy-boy!” a voice calls out. It is not Mike’s. Rather, it is the too-loud-for-the-room shout of Dale Gibbons, a writer of football biographies and another (I would not say “fellow”) client of Cabot & Bartram. The right side of his shirt is untucked, revealing a hair-covered patch of protruding abdominal flesh. He clinks his empty beer bottle against mine.
“Dale,” I acknowledge. He has sweat stains under his armpits. I cannot imagine how this is in any way good for my (so-called) career.
Dale wastes no time. “Where’s the missus?” he asks. Well, it isn’t a question about my costume. I have prepared a number of lies for this scenario, lies I have told repeatedly during my dutiful mingling. She is under the weather. Or her mother is. Poor thing. She is working late, or away on business — explanations I have heard enough times myself that they almost sound like the truth. But Dale does not give me the opportunity. “She find something better to do?” He chuckles and begins elbowing me in the ribs, as if we are old friends, which we are not. “Or maybe someone better to do? Heh heh. Am I right?”
“Excuse me,” I say, pushing past him with perhaps more force than is necessary. I head for the kitchen, weaving my way through the hall where a small commotion is stirring. Sylvia’s oven has knocked over a vase.
Cheryl was a fan of Sylvia Plath, the real one. Twenty-one years old, brushing one long strand of hair after another out of her eyes as she sits, cross-legged, bent over a book. This is my eternal image of young Cheryl, happy Cheryl, my Cheryl — sometimes in front of a fireplace, sometimes on a wide expanse of university lawn, but always bent over a book, struggling to manage that unruly cascade of hair. “Tortured poet,” she would say then, scribbling down lines in the margins of her notebooks. “Such beautiful honesty,” she would say.
“Don’t you have any decent ties?” she says now. “There’s no money in that kind of work,” she says. “Come on, don’t, I’m going to be late.”
I spot Mike chatting with a petite blonde, a receptionist, I think. She is leaning against the marble countertop, her chest thrust forward in a medieval corset. One hand is flirtatiously stroking his arm. Of the 15-or-so women at the party, at least half have held varying degrees of affection for Mike. He wraps one finger with a lock of her hair. I crack another beer.
After my first missed deadline, she cut it all off. Her hair, I mean. An efficiency cut, sleek, just past her ears. I can’t say that the two events were related, but I can’t say that they weren’t. The memory of her at the salon is a false one — I wasn’t there, didn’t know about it until it was too late. Still, mixed in with nightmares of lost teeth and manuscript pages blown away in the wind were the long strands of her hair sailing down from the impossibly high barber’s chair, disappearing into nothingness.
“Dress for the job you want,” she had said, patting her new hair in front of the mirror, eyeing my open terrycloth bathrobe.
“… a startling portrayal of the decay of innocence …”
“… do you think she’s had Botox? Just look at her forehead …”
Mike is whispering something into the receptionist’s ear.
After the haircut, it was the newspapers. Every so often, one would appear on the kitchen table, casually flipped open to the want ads. “You know,” she had even said once, over breakfast, “I think Jerry in the New Haven office is looking for a new assistant.” As if that were somehow more respectable, as if she wouldn’t divorce an office assistant faster than you could say, “Here’s your nonfat mocha latte.” I stuck a fork into my eggs, letting them bleed slowly onto the plate. Free range, just like she’d asked for, even though they were twice the price. “You could at least apply,” she’d said.
I said, “Is there more coffee?”
This would be cited later, as a Reason. As an explanation for how it was, in fact, my fault. How she had tried. Oh, how she had tried.
Still, you can’t look at a person like that, pointedly waggling your fork at him, without making that person feel small. Even now, I could shrink down inside my beer bottle for good.
Across the kitchen, Mike turns, slipping something into his back pocket. The receptionist giggles and whispers something into his ear, her hand now tracing the line of his shoulder. Still, when he sees me, he is quick to disentangle himself and head in my direction. I am grateful for this. If I had seen me from across the room, I’m not sure I would have done the same.
“Hoffman!” he shouts, clapping me on the back. “Where’s your damn costume?”
Mike is dressed as what I can only assume is a Mr. Darcy, white tube socks pulled up to the knees of his rolled trousers. I take a long swig of beer and shrug. “Here,” I say, grabbing the dish soap and sponge from the sink behind me, “I’m ‘All Washed Up.’” The laugh that comes next is not as friendly or lighthearted as I had meant it to be.
I don’t say that it’s sitting at home, in the back of the closet, still wrapped in protective plastic. I don’t say that I couldn’t bring myself to show up as only one half of Tristan and Isolde — a costume planned in advance, before I discovered that Cheryl had instead become one half of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Mike’s expression becomes suddenly serious. “Hey, man,” he says. “It’s a party. Come on, you used to love these things.”
I try to imagine a time at which I would have loved these things. After the first book came out maybe, or even the second. They were mine, at least, a thing entirely apart from Cheryl’s corporate dinner parties — all pencil skirts and sports jackets, not a single head in a cardboard oven.
I’m struck suddenly by a certain sympathy for, even solidarity with the tasteless Sylvia-Helen, the drunk Daisy Buchanan. I lift my now-empty beer bottle as if to make a toast. Go forth, I want to say, and be tasteless! To hell with corner offices! Free-range eggs be damned! We are artists! Free from the confines of claustrophobic top-buttoned collars! It is the visionless world, not the cardboard oven, that suffocates us! Mike looks at me strangely and I realize I am not actually saying any of these things. Only holding my bottle aloft and squinting into the middle distance. “Sorry,” I say. I lower my arm.
It’s been three years since I’ve published. Most days I just sit at my desk in my shorts, fingers stained with the orange residue of Cheez Doodles, computer keyboard spotless. Sylvia Plath — had she had Cheez Doodles — would have understood.
Poe’s raven brushes past me in a tight black mini-skirt — a novelist, newly picked up, whose name I can’t recall, though something tells me it may actually be Raven. Her hair is black, as it should be, and her stockings have that thin line that runs up the back of her calves. Mike’s gaze follows her as she passes. She glances backward, batting her heavily blackened eyelashes. This gesture is for Mike, not for me, and he knows this. The blond receptionist, I’d wager, will be going home disappointed.
“Excuse me for a minute,” Mike says, his eyes still on the raven though he is talking to me. Before I can answer, he is already hurrying away, grabbing playfully at the girl’s feather boa. I tell myself that this is not a slight, that his interest in her is in no way the professional sort, and it’s true. He will take her home, sleep with her, and not even ask her about the novel she’s written. When her book hits the shelves, he may not even realize that it’s hers, that it was born of his own agency. But what does Poe’s Raven care? She is young, “up-and-coming,” with a book on the market, and a bed that isn’t empty.
Whoever is playing the piano — still Daisy? — has grown increasingly sloppy, and guests are gradually abandoning the living room for the kitchen. I scan the crowd for the receptionist. I wonder if she, too, has moved on — her Mr. Darcy all but forgotten, Wickham the better choice after all. But no. If I cannot see her here in the kitchen, it is because she has already locked herself in the bathroom. Her gut now pressing tight against her corset, rumbling with one too many beers. She has seen them together before, of course, and yes, now it all makes sense. The person she loves, that she’s invested in — made sacrifices for! — drawn into the arms of another, and yes, yes, maybe that other is more successful, and she a mere receptionist, but does that make her less human? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not tell you to stop? If you step out on us for greener pastures with glass office doors and leather desk chairs, should we not feel poisoned?
It is loud in the kitchen. More guests seem to have arrived — though I have not seen the door open — and the faces I know are lost in a sea of iconic, recognizable strangers.
“… pictures from the honeymoon in Maui …”
“… it’s an all-vegan day spa …”
“… yes, we’re meeting to discuss the movie rights on Tuesday …”
The heat in the kitchen is stifling.
“… just fax it over …”
“… we’re thinking Braelyn if it’s a boy …”
I glance toward the front entrance — wishing for the cool night air, for a glass of whiskey, for solitude — but find that my path is obstructed. Back against the door, Sylvia Plath is posing for a photograph, one arm around the waist of Virginia Woolf, who smiles gleefully as she holds up a handful of stones. An acquaintance taps me on the shoulder and for the third, or fourth, or fifth time tonight, I am asked, “How’s your wife?” and “Where’s your costume?” and “How’s that novel coming?” and just for a moment I can feel the stones in my pockets; I can smell the gas in my nose.