I stood outside Gretchen’s door. She had lost track of time. She opened her door and invited me in while putting on her earrings. I followed her into her bathroom where she was getting ready for the night. She put on her makeup––subtle eyeliner, lipstick, foundation and light blush––and spritzed herself with perfume. I asked her how her day had been.
“Fine,” she said. “My professor got on me for turning in an assignment late. I had to put it off cause I had too much other stuff to do, and I didn’t want to miss yoga again this week.”
“That sucks, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, well, it happens. Anyways, aren’t you excited for tonight?”
“I am! We haven’t been out for a while. I don’t know how much dancing I’ll be doing, though. I am a terrible dancer.”
“I’m sure you’re fine. Besides, Faust, I can teach you,” she said, looking over her shoulder to smile at me. She walked to the door to let in her friends Maddie, Carissa and Eric. They were cheering and holding up opened bottles of wine, swaying their heads as if dancing to an unheard beat. “I see you all got started without me!” I stood back, saying hi to everyone as they made their way towards the living room. Carissa got out her phone and started playing music, some kind of modern pop I didn’t recognize, to get us in the mood for the night. The girls sat down on the floor. I offered to get glasses for the wine, so I headed to the kitchen and Eric followed.
In the kitchen we said hi and Eric asked how long I’d been with Gretchen. “Oh, we’re not dating,” I responded.
“I meant tonight.”
“Oh.” I winced a bit, hoping he wouldn’t notice. “Only a few minutes. She was just finishing up her makeup when you guys got here.”
“I see. Well anyways, I just wanted to tell you that I looked over that essay you sent me, and it’s really damn good. You should get that published somewhere. I didn’t understand most of what you were talking about, but I enjoyed reading it anyway.”
“Well thank you Eric. That’s very kind of you. I’m always a bit worried that people won’t understand what I’m trying to say, but that’s encouraging. It’s a big project I’m working on and I feel like I’m really onto something.”
He then pulled me aside for a moment, glancing back at the girls who were laughing and complimenting each other’s outfits. “Look, we both know you’re into Gretchen. It’s pretty obvious to anyone with eyes and ears. And that’s fine, but you gotta man up and just go for it. You’re never gonna go anywhere with her if you keep beating around the bush like this. You have to talk to her, dude. Let her know how you feel. It’s not that hard, Faust.”
I felt flushed. “Well, I don’t know what to say. If it’s obvious to you, how could she not know at this point? It just feels pointless.”
“This is exactly what I’m talking about, man. Apprehension will kill that spark within you. You have to take chances, or else you’ll get nowhere. And think about it, maybe she’s having the exact same thoughts about you. Maybe they’re talking about you right now.”
“It certainly doesn’t look like it.” As soon as I said that, Gretchen noticed me looking in her direction and whipped her head back to face Maddie and Carissa, her hair floating for a moment. “But what if…”
“Hey, I can’t tell you what to do. You gotta do it yourself, no one else can do it for you. Now come on, let’s get those glasses and have some wine.”
We grabbed a couple stemless glasses and some other miscellaneous cups, including a coffee mug. I offered to take the coffee mug but Maddie was enchanted at the idea. She divided between us the remainder of her extra-large bottle of cheap merlot. Gretchen played music off her phone, the tiny speaker eliminating everything except the hi-hat, snare and vocals, but Eric brought his wireless speaker and the music got louder and more bass-heavy. By now the room was dancing with energy: Maddie would stand up to start dancing around the room, the sound waves from the chatter reverberating and amplifying against the barren walls of Gretchen’s apartment, Eric, Carissa and I laughing about something-or-other, Gretchen getting up to check herself in the mirror one more time. We barely noticed the knock on the door when more people started streaming in, only some of whom I recognized. For some reason, I feared Mephistopheles would walk through the door.
The tiny apartment was teeming with vivacity, raucous and wild. The music remained the same volume, but its steady beat made the room pulsate, its harmonies resonating with random objects in the room, creating the abstract thoughtspace in which we were sharing this moment. The rising synth arpeggios built up to a massive drop, when everything exploded. Someone spilled their drink, overwhelmed by their involuntary jumping. She stopped and bent over, laughing as her male companion put his hand on her back. A rag materialized from nowhere, hitting her in the face and startling her, snapping her laughter into an uproar. Gretchen twirled around in an improvised ballroom dance with Carissa as Maddie stood back, cheering them on and sipping her wine. One of the new guests danced alone in the center of the room, eliciting the occasional cheer from around the room. His movements appeared rehearsed, or at least well-practiced. For a moment someone would disappear into the restroom to make sure they didn’t look too fucked-up, to fix a stray hair or make sure their makeup was still pristine. Outside the cracked window, a single cricket chirped. We had begun to swelter, the body heat of nearly a dozen people packed into a tiny room vibrating on the thin line between a nice buzz and full-on drunkenness, mashing elbows and legs against each other in a frenzy. The macromotion of the crowd twisted counter-clockwise, the natural tendency of all present to drift to their right so every ten minutes or so they were ninety degrees from where they had stood before. Maddie circled the dancers against this flow, searching through her purse. On the other side of the room Eric and I coolly watched the proceedings, nodding our heads to the beat. We nursed our beers, some cheap, watery crap still icy from the convenience store fridge.
I leaned over to Eric, nearly shouting in his ear to be heard over the chaos. “You know, I thought about what you said and you’re right. I gotta just go for it.”
“Well tonight’s your night, man. Promise me you won’t end the night without telling her how you feel.”
Someone asked what time it was. I looked at my watch and said it was about nine-thirty. “Well let’s go!” Gretchen said to the group as we all began to stream out the door like an impromptu parade. We weaved a circuitous path across the wet pavement, coalescing into groups of two to four, little blocks or lines navigating through the darkness. We walked in the middle of the road, assured no drivers would bother us. I tried to join a row of three, but I had nothing to add to their conversation and felt it futile. Eric, Carissa and Maddie were together again in the middle. I caught Gretchen in the back, wandering by herself, head slightly down. I slowed my gait to meet up with her. I asked her if she was doing all right. She said there was something on her mind, but she didn’t want to talk about it right now. I reassured her that we’re out to have fun, whatever it was she was preoccupied with didn’t matter for now. Her mood perked up instantly, and she yelled at her friends in the front, who hollered back, holding up their drinks. She laughed and jokingly started skipping and dragging me along with her to the front to meet up with some of the people I didn’t have a chance to meet earlier.
We stumbled through a sea of bodies, weaving a trail through the dark house. Multi-colored fluorescents and arrays of hot beams guided our way. It was sweltering from body heat, enveloping bass pounding in our ears. I feared we would run into someone and knock over their drink. Once we reached the old kitchen like something from the 1970s, the room cleared a bit. There were beer cans littered everywhere, precariously stacked on the countertop, ready to fall at the slightest touch or breeze. Past the sliding door to the backyard the music gave way to chattering cigarette smokers, discussing the evening’s plans, favorite movies, Albert Camus. High hedges squared off the terraced yard. Gretchen must’ve disappeared into the crowd, I thought. I pulled out a cigarette, looking for someone to talk to. Eric was standing near the back with someone I recognized, so I met with him there.
“How’s it going man?”
I tried to keep cool, but I knew my intonation belied how drunk I was. “It’s going great, dude. You know––it’s just such a nice night. It’s just so, wonderful out. I…”
“All right, Faust. Here, have some water.” I took a big gulp and handed the bottle back to him. He resumed conversing with his friend, about as tall as he was. “So anyway, you gotta check it out. They’re one of the best bands I’ve heard in town. They’re playing at some club downtown next weekend, we should go.”
His friend nodded in affirmation. “Is he okay?” he asked.
“Oh Faust? He’s fine. He just gets like this.”
My hands were shaking from the cold. Each drag of my cigarette brought temporary relief from my inebriation, allowing me a moment to be lucid.
“No, I’m fine. I’m just a bit out of it, but I’m sure lots of people are tonight. This place is popping. I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m Reggie. Faust, right?”
“Nice to meet you.” He turned to Eric again. “I’m down, what time is it?”
“I think doors are at eight, which means they won’t go on until like ten-thirty. Faust, do you wanna come? I think you’d really dig their style, it’s kinda like a jazz-funk-hip-hop fusion thing. Their synth player is nuts.”
“Yeah maybe. I don’t know, I may have something going on that night, I’d have to check. I’ll let you know.”
“Yeah just let me know, you have my number.”
I saw Gretchen, Maddie and Carissa exit the back slider and circle up near it. I started drifting their way immediately, but I caught myself. “Remember what we talked about earlier,” Eric said. I nodded at him before tumbling back down the yard towards the three of them. As I was heading their way, I thought it may be rude to intrude on their good time––they seemed pretty engrossed in each other and their phones at the moment. So instead I passed them, hoping they wouldn’t notice, and headed inside to use the restroom, to regain my composure. I improvised a route through the tangle of people, finding my way to what looked like a hallway. I took a wrong turn that led down a staircase into the basement where the music was coming from. Someone was deejaying, red plastic cups surrounded the setup of the laptop, mixer and digital turntable. I tried to turn back but a wave amassed behind me and swept me into the center of the dancefloor, where I stopped uncomfortably. The voices were deafening. Their faces had no identifiable features in the darkness. I saw a little rectangular spot emerge from the ceiling in the corner, and I made my way over there. I tripped on the wooden stairs on my way up. Someone asked if I was okay but I was too engrossed to respond. Back upstairs I twisted around the house searching for the toilet. I opened another door that led to some bedroom, where three people were inside doing something––I didn’t want to peer inside long enough to be sure. Another door leading to another bedroom, too dark to see what was happening. Finally I found the restroom, but the door was locked. Someone shouted from inside that they would be out soon. I stood impatiently at the door. I checked my phone to see two messages, one from Gretchen, asking where I was, and the other from Mephistopheles asking what I was up to this evening. I told Gretchen I would be outside in a minute and I told Mephistopheles that I was at a house party, thinking he wouldn’t believe me. Someone bolted out of the restroom wiping his nose and I entered, locking the door behind me. While I was pissing I realized three things simultaneously: one, that I really did have to go this whole time; two, that this was the moment to gather myself before my courtship of Gretchen really began in earnest; and three, that Mephistopheles was here right now. I don’t know where he was but I could feel his presence tonight. It carried with it some haunted energy. I pulled out my phone while still pissing, spilling on the rim of the toilet. I saw another message from Mephistopheles asking me to meet him out front, adding that it was important in a second message. I cleaned up my mess with some toilet paper, flushed, and took a minute to regather myself in the mirror, heavy bass tones throbbing beneath me from a house beat. Someone almost barged in, the doorknob almost falling off due to years of poor maintenance––did no one in this house own a screwdriver? As I unlatched the door, what looked like a sophomore lineman fell to his knees and began vomiting all over, coating the tiny room in a disgusting film of mucus, alcohol and scraps of half-digested food. I jumped over him to escape as a couple people behind him were leering and cheering. One person pulled out his phone to take a video: later that night people would see this video with a caption about how wild this party was (a bit overstated), interspersed with scenes of dancing, drinking, kissing and driving in various permutations.
As I left the hallway, I felt two paths diverge and fork in front of me. One led out back to Gretchen, the other to Mephistopheles out front. I wanted to see Gretchen like I had promised, but my body took over and led me out front, crossing over to the front yard, where Mephistopheles was passing a joint between him and some beautiful, tall woman I had never met before, wearing a long red dress and leather jacket too fancy for the occasion. She was standing with apprehension, her left arm cocked upwards holding her cigarette away from her face and her right crossed in front of her chest. His face lit up, knowing I had made the right decision. “Faust, I want you to meet Anna. Anna’s been hanging out with us tonight, I thought you two would get along well.”
Oh no, I thought. The chaos of my emotions was only getting worse at that moment. Gretchen was my true love, but Anna was gorgeous beyond belief. Mephistopheles had a telepathic sense of what everyone around him wanted and had the means to procure whatever it was. Maybe it was my drunkenness (by that point I believe I had had three beers, a generous pour of wine and a couple cigarettes, stacked on top of the confidence-boosting shot of vodka I took before meeting up with Gretchen and a couple hits which threw the tracking of things completely awry), but I felt stunned. I quickly sobered up, since it was time.
“Nice to meet you Anna,” I said. “Is that short for Annabelle?”
“It is, in fact.”
“What a beautiful name. Do you mind if I call you Belle?”
“Not at all!” She smiled. Mephistopheles looked proud, having advised me to use that trick. Rule thirty-two: giving people nicknames or pet names makes it seem like you are special to them.
“Ah, Belle. The French word for beauty. Comme un rêve de pierre, et mon sein, où chacun s’est meurtri tour à tour, Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour, Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière.”
“Indeed.” Goddamn it, Mephistopheles was crafty.
Belle and I spent the rest of the night together. I put my clothes back on and asked if she wanted to get brunch somewhere. She was hesitant, so I didn’t push it any further. I kissed her goodbye and left, making the long walk back to my place. On the way there I stopped at a coffee shop, where I sat near the window and ate a bagel and cream cheese with my dark roast. I picked up a newspaper too, since I had nothing else to do. I skimmed through the pages: there were stories about corporate mergers for tens of billions of dollars, refugees at the border escaping catastrophes at home, women taking top posts at the FBI, CIA and NSA, obituaries for athletes, artists and politicians I had never heard of, book reviews, some local political drama surrounding the mayor’s office, event guides for the week, an awful op-ed that hid a reactionary message beneath liberal sentimentality, ads for law firms and realtors, a crossword puzzle that at first glance looked too easy for me, and a couple comic strips that failed to elicit any response. As I sat drinking my coffee and perusing the paper, I felt this dark energy creep into the shop, like a black fog seeping in under the doors and through the ventilation. My mind raced with questions and uncertainties: was this all a delusion? What comes next? I hated myself at that moment, and I wanted to scream, bolt out the front door and lock myself in my bedroom for the rest of the day. I saw the patrons chatting, a family stopping by after church, an elderly man also reading the paper though with much more poise than I, a tattooed young woman a bit older than me working at her laptop. This was not the place, not now. Why is this happening? I finished my lukewarm coffee, bussed my dishes and said thank you to the employees before I left, hoping that my eyes didn’t seem too crazy. I refused to look back but I felt the fog creeping behind me, tracing my footsteps. I could hear it whispering to me, the old Faust is dead…one must die to be reborn…what’s next?