Joy grabs his hand and pulls him onto the dance floor before he can think to stop her. He has a glass in his other hand, the last sips of a Tom Collins Cynthia passed him more than an hour ago, the ice melted now, the gin and sweet-sour syrup watery and warm. He doesn’t know what to do with it so clamps it against his chest and tries to move as little as possible to keep its contents from sloshing over the sides onto his shirt. But this isn’t music that allows for stillness, with its hammering drums and barked lyrics, not to mention his stepdaughter, thrashing in front of him, all sharp elbows and knees and shiny thick-soled boots stamping the floorboards by his feet. She might not mind a drink spilled on her shirt, black as it is and tattered, slices of skin showing through ragged slits over her belly, the sides drenched with sweat and stuck to her ribs. Her eyelids are black, too, bruised-looking, and so are the leather armbands that circle both wrists and forearms. The only color she wears are patches of red, white, and blue on her skirt, which she has sewn together herself out of hacked wedges of a Union Jack. Her hair, recently clipped and dyed, is a dark shade of mauve.
Paul is the only one on the dance floor not wearing black, though some of the others have words written in radioactive-bright lettering on their T-shirts—“The Exploited,” “Misfits”—along with screen-printed skulls. Most of the boys have hair spiked solid, with pomade, he guesses, or glue; a few have shaved heads or shaggy bowl cuts. The girls wear ripped tights and pointy silver rings on every finger, and they all stomp boots as heavy as Joy’s. He has seen this set of fashion choices for long enough now—glimpsing his first mohawk ten years ago, on Eighth Avenue—so that they no longer seem strange to him, or dangerous, though he doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to seeing them on Joy. Instead, the kids’ clothes and makeup strike him as quaintly earnest, as do their grunts and howls whenever the music stops.
These are Joy’s new friends, accumulated over the past six months or so, but the party itself is a holdover from her days as a pony tailed cheerleader on the Morris Knolls freshman squad, when she wore high-heeled pumps, lace-trimmed socks, and knit polo shirts with the collar turned up. Last year—a different geologic epoch in teenage time—she begged her mother to throw her a sweet sixteen party like those to which she’d been invited by older girls she admired and envied, something as elaborate and expensive as her bat mitzvah three years earlier. And though Cynthia held out for a while, on both economic and feminist grounds—why should sixteen-year-old girls be told they’re sweet? Cynthia asked—she eventually relented, in part due to Paul’s intervention.
“Is it really worth making her resent you for the rest of her life?” he asked, and assured her that his annual bonus would cover all the costs.
Joy had since rejected, or abdicated, her old life and all its trappings, and a few months ago tried to get Cynthia to cancel the party. It’s so bourgie, she said, which Paul took to mean embarrassingly ordinary. But Cynthia wasn’t having any of it. Paul had already paid a deposit for the room and the catering. “You wanted it, now you’re going through with it.” Fights ensued, shouting and slammed doors, until they finally came to terms when Cynthia agreed to can the cheese-ball deejay and let Joy and her friends take care of the music themselves.
So here they are, in the ballroom of the Madison Hotel, with forty-five of Joy’s sweating, scowling comrades, and a buffet table spread with sliced cheese and whitefish and marinated peppers and miniature bagels, now plundered of all but a few scattered pickings. Cynthia has spent the evening ducking out to the lobby bar and returning with drinks she half-drains on the way, asking Paul each time if he needs a refill, though until now he has been content to sip the same Tom Collins for much of the night. Why didn’t he ask for at least one more? He kept himself out of sight, or thought he did, in a corner of the ballroom, watching the fevered dancing, which has increasingly turned to groping, and admired Joy and her friends for their spirit, their willingness to turn what could have been a humiliating event into an ironic occasion, no opportunity for idealistic expressions of rage or defiance wasted.
On the dance floor, he continues to admire them, is flattered to have been invited—or compelled—to join them, at least briefly, and when the song ends he pumps his fist in the air along with the others. He expects to see Cynthia laughing at him from the sidelines and plans to ham up his enthusiasm, sneering and stamping and bucking his head. But she’s slumped in a chair, chin on chest, her own cocktail glass, empty, on the floor beside bare feet. He makes a move to join her, but again Joy grabs his hand and holds him where he is, and this time another of her friends, a girl with two tiny orange pigtails sticking out like blunted horns from the sides of her head, stretches out her arms to block his way.
The next song starts, even louder than the last, and somehow brasher, starting with a chant, “Hey, ho! Let’s go!” He begins to shuffle his feet again, but this time instead of thrashing arms and heads, the kids are all bouncing straight up and down, the floor thumping beneath him, nearly buckling his knees. Joy has a serious look, of concentration, maybe, or anticipation, her black eyelids half shut so that for a moment he imagines he’s looking through dark holes into the mysterious regions behind her skull. Why does she want him here? What is it about her life she hopes to show him? He gives a little hop or two of his own, forgetting his glass and the liquid inside, a few drops of which splash onto his fingers. But even then Joy doesn’t smile, her mouth set firmly as she springs not quite in rhythm with the chant, the mauve hair looking almost natural as it flops across forehead and brows.
When the chant ends and the song starts in earnest–a fast simple beat and almost jauntily sung lyrics too rushed for him to understand–the kids keep leaping, only now rather than up and down, they’re bouncing to all sides. The girl with orange pigtails bumps into his arm, and this time he can’t keep the Tom Collins from spilling. Most of it lands on the leg of a kid who doesn’t seem to notice, too busy is he flinging himself toward another boy jumping from the opposite direction. They knock shoulders, twist, land unsteadily, and bounce away. Paul excuses himself to the girl, but she only bumps him again, harder, with her hip, sending him sideways into Joy, who, grinning madly now, gives him a rough shove with her forearm.
“Excuse me,” he says again, though by now it has dawned on him that the bumps and shoves aren’t accidental. The kids are throwing themselves at each other on purpose, shoulders, chests, backsides colliding. Some of the boys and girls slam together and kiss at the same time, lips grazing or mashing, tongues sliding across cheeks and chins, and all Paul can think is that they have gone insane. He is standing amidst raving, violent, black-clad lunatics. He tries to leave once more, but this time a limber pimpled boy lurches into him, knocking him backward. He holds his balance and then loses it, going down on one knee. It’s all he can do to keep from dropping the glass. The last thing they need are shards scattered beneath them as they jostle one another. Worse than having kids barrel into him would be to spend the rest of the night explaining to an outraged mother how her child ended up with twelve stitches in her face.
He isn’t down long before Joy yanks him up, and then it’s only a moment before the girl with orange pigtails comes crashing into him, this time chest to chest. And when she hits, her arms go around his neck, her legs in torn tights around his waist, her tongue flicking out and sweeping across his lips. He is so astonished that he reaches around to grip her to him, but just as quickly she bucks off and careens into someone else. His lips are sticky, tasting of some sweetened sharp alcohol, vodka, maybe, or rum, something cheap and diluted with cola. The girl is drunk, he recognizes that now. They are all drunk, of course they are, of course they’ve been sneaking sips from bottles hidden in backpacks lined up behind the buffet table. Yes, drunk, not crazy, though he can’t help believing still that they have willfully abandoned their senses, that he has been brought in to witness an ecstatic ceremony, primitive and mystifying. He doesn’t think Cynthia will believe him when—if—he describes it to her.
And just as he thinks so, he glimpses movement in his periphery, black and mauve and the white of pale skin. It’s Joy, charging at him, not for a kiss but a tackle. Head down, shoulder cocked, boots lifting high. He doesn’t have time to brace himself. He catches the blow on the ribs. The glass flies out of his hand, and he waits for it to shatter. But if it does, he can’t hear it over a new round of shouting as the song abruptly cuts off.
In its wake comes relative quiet, talking and laughter and clomping feet. He is on his back on the hard floor. Joy is on top of him, head resting on his chest. Her breath is boozy, her speech slurred. “You know what I always dug about you?” she asks. “You’re game for whatever.” He’s mostly sure she’s mistaken him for someone else.
The lights come on. Waiters are clearing the buffet. He sees Cynthia’s feet move, then hears her groan. “Paul?” she calls, groggily. “Are you still here?” Joy stays where she is. Maybe asleep, maybe just enjoying the movement of her head, lifting and dropping as he breathes. Where her hair separates along a jagged seam, he can see sandy roots. The party, a success, is over.
Scott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, most recently Aftermath, and a memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. His stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, New England Review, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Prairie Schooner, and Alaska Quarterly Review, and have been cited as notable in both Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays. Winner of the Oregon Book Award, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award, and the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, he teaches at Willamette University and lives in Salem, Oregon.