Eve of the party, she donns the glitzy silver shoes to click around her room a bit. Yes, she’s ready for tomorrow. No make-up, hair swept back to indicate a fancy up-do, offset by the diamonds she models on her ears. Yes, in reality, they are rhinestones, but she sees diamonds. Her name is the sparkle lady. In middle school, her best friend was on the whimsical side and gave her the nickname. She wore a lot of glitter back then. Still occasionally does. It’s the fairy dust that makes you fly.
Below messy hair and fancy jewelry is a big, white, fuzzy bathrobe. Or, rather, a bathrobe that used to be white, before frantic last minute eye-shadow clouds stained is blue and coffee left brown spots. The mirror reflects a juxtaposed starlet. It provides a shabby profile with this robe and dirty hair, yet top and bottom hint at future glamour. Here, she is more beautiful then she will be the following night. Here, beyond the strain of the long work day and symptoms of not enough sleep threatening to dull tired eyes, is the perfect look of anticipation.
Maybe if she ran thirty minutes three more times this week, she would feel lighter. Maybe if she drank three glasses of water a day and always woke up at the same time, she would have a deep healthy glow. Maybe if she was a princess she wouldn’t have to work. But the sparkle lady works at the grocery store, and the only thing glowing is the
fluorescent yellow dim of indoor lighting.
The mirror is ignorant of all this, knowing only a woman stands before it, a woman who has an exciting weekend coming. Reality cannot blur her expectations, so she is certain that her diamonds will catch someone’s eyes and they’ll realize they’d missed out on her. Her.
It was October, time for homecoming at the old college. Last weekend was spent doing inventory too late, this weekend will be different. The undeniable highlight will not be the game against rivals, the chummy dinners, the concert by the musician whose heyday has long since passed, the pretty school with its mothy, wood smells, or even the prospect of seeing friends. It will be the dance, engraved on the invitation as “Jazz at the over look.” The dance has a title. Everyone knows a real event, a true gala, is better when there is a phrase attached to it. We learn this in high school with proms and later in life with work fundraisers. Once the precedent is set, there is a greater chance it will be met.
“Jazz at the Overlook.” She thought about it some more. Jazz is layered with connotations of history, stuggle, and romance. It is not just the bubbley stuff of swing. It’s more lively than the swaying carriage of a waltz. Even a symphony is characterized by the crowd remaining seated. But, consider the lonely passion of a jazz riff. Think something classy, yet almost forbidden. Imagine.
Today, instead of the dingy robe, she wears the proper underclothes for the dress. This time, the hair is neatly set, clean and whispy. She peers, inches from the mirror, to
smear shimmer around her eyes. A moment later, she stands back to get the full perspective, pause, and she return to the work. Her friends models different dresses to see which looks best. One dress looked so much better in the dressing room a month ago. A Frank Sinatra CD is the pre-party music, and the dorm room is cluttered. Her friend Cynthia reminds her, as she ask for advice about choosing the right dress, “Of course I will be wearing a strapless bra with this,.” The sparkle lady gives a scrutinizing look. “Oh, and my hair would be more like this.” Cythnia piles it on top with one hand. Cynthia poses, looking like a model whose hands is glued to the back of her head. “Wear the first one. It looks better to dance in.”
The stretchy red and black dress is tossed on the floor, and Cynthia wriggles into the other dress. The black and white piping slides up her hips. The sparkle lady resumes her rituals and finishes with mascara. Now, it is time for her dress, an afterthought compared to the time spent shaving, washing hair, brushing teeth, pulling on tights, and applying make-up. She searches for the shoes amidst a floor of laundry. Frank Sinatra says “ . . . the way they do things in Chicago, Chicago.” The shoes are clasped. The girls meet one date in the hall.
The date quietly smiles, wearing a wrinkled suit and paisley tie. The tie matches the dress with the black and white piping, that girl takes his arm. The sparkle lady follows, two steps behind, feeling her skirt swaying against her legs. She is like Isabel, in Portrait of Lady, before a bad marriage, traveling not to Paris, but “Jazz at the Overlook.”
Kindly, the boy with the paisley tie dances with both girls. A twelve piece band is playing loudly and the night air is cool, with only a few escaping breezes to foreshadow w
inter. It is fun to dance with a friend, no fear of tripping, or standing too close, too far.
There’s coffee and hot chocolate, but they could upset the balance of the already established mix of toothpaste, hairspray and perfume. People react to each other, complimenting, sharing smiles, introducing, jokes, but mostly observing the formally clad human surroundings. The date begins introductions. “This is my girlfriend, Cynthia. And this is my sister,” he says. Both girls relish their close connections to the talkative date. Background lines of music catch the air and drift over into our memories, as Harry Conn ick Jr. is impersonated on stage. There’s dancing and mingling on the lawn. Some unruly grass tickles smooth ankles. Boys lean one arm on another’s shoulder, cock one leg to the side and hypothesize dialectics on who they will ask to dance and how their general weekends are going. Sometimes they talk about everything except what is going on. Eyes give them away as they glance from girl to girl, eager to grab an arm and jump on the dance floor. Eventually, they do. The talking lessens. People wander to other friends, and the sparkle lady finds herself with neither brother, nor confidant. They have left her.
There are tables on one side of the lawn. She sits. She watches laughter and smiles in assent. Her eyes float from moving couple to moving couple, then she looks down to admire her shining shoes. One crossed leg taps to music. One leg stays planted on the ground. No one is around, so she puts a black cardigan around her lonely shoulders. Natalie Cole sings “L. O. V. E.” and she thinks about how much she likes that song. She sees a friend at the dessert table.
The friend is pregnant, and leans over coffee to kiss her husband, Jeremy. Jeremy used to talk about her, and how they met in a bookstore over the summer, and how many times she turned him down.
Now, she is pregnant with his kid. Jeremy was older and used to buy the sparkle lady alcohol. He was planning on going to seminary to be a pastor. But, he works at a restaurant and he is kissing his wife. The sparkle lady turns away from their moment, not wanting to intrude on something sacred. Seeing others kiss in public can be disarming. You cannot get caught watching them. Also, you cannot get caught looking like no on will ask you to dance. You cannot get caught looking like you have no one to talk to. Being solitary at a dance must look intentional.
Another friend strolls over to say hello. She is warm. They play the catch-up game. “Where do you live? What do you do? Are you dating? Or married? Everyone we know just keeps getting married.” Together they laugh at the folly of the young and married, as though it were a health food fad that would come and go. It would promise to solve all your problems, and people would swear by it. Bystanders laugh and munch on chips. Marriage! Pah. If only they knew. The skeptic bounces off to talk to others.
She returns to looking at her shiny shoes. Tap, tap. The music on stage gets louder, faster. Feeling the music, she pulls her cardigan off and walks over to the band to get a closer look. Dancers nearly knock her over. They are blind in their passionate movements. She is only an obstacle to them. The socialites keep mingling, flashing their best smiles, convincing anyone watching that their lives keep them ecstatically happy. But she stands, mouth closed, eyes staring at the band. It is clear she wants to dance, so it is time to leave. It is time to leave, and she’s standing alone.
She goes to her brother to say goodnight. He asks her to stay. His girlfriend giggles and tosses her arms around him. He rocks between girls, telling his sister stay, at least we can talk. He senses that her night is going very differently than his. His night on the dance floor. His night tipping his hat, laughing with his friends. His night with his girlfriend leaning in. “Why are you leaving?” he asks. She cannot answer. She cannot let the words manifest the depths of something that while still hidden can keep tears from her eyes. He watches her shake her head, looking hurried, and walking away.
She holds the sleeves of the cardigan around her hands and walks off. Her brother considers for a moment, as Cynthia starts moving with the music, inviting him to dance. H returns his attention to his friends. Cynthia plays with his tie. He throws her into dip. His sister is done with the party.
The dorms are less accusing than the crowd outside. The shower water is calmer than the chatting girls that stood in noisy huddles by the dance floor. Two hours to get ready and in ten minutes it is washed away with warm, unquestioning water. Tears, mascara and soap rinse from her face. Stepping out, she hides in a towel and walks down the hall to the room she is staying in. The room is unfamiliar, but her pajamas are old in way that reminds her who she is. She tosses her shoes in the corner. They are empty, side-ways, scuffed.
In bed, she pushes away feelings of regret. If she hadn’t left school the second week of her sophomore semester, would she still be out there at the dance? If she had been strong enough to stay. At least she finished at the local school. Either way, the education mandate is fulfilled. But what about the girls out there that could have been her roommates? Which of those guys would have asked her to this dance? None of the guys back at home would ask her to a dance like this. The grocery store clerks are younger and
have separate lives. The friends she drinks with do not know about private school dances. People lean in when they were drunk, not when they want their first kiss. She thinks about Fred and Ginger. She thinks about Sabrina going to the tennis courts. But, no one is waiting for the sparkle lady. She just hears the jazz singer outside still going. There’s shadow and light on the school lawn. While the band plays Sinatra’s “Save the Last Dance For Me,” she goes to sleep wanting to have a first dance.