His statement froze the three strangers mid-stride. They had been about to melt back into the party; the olive-skinned woman who talked and danced and pealed laughter at her own jokes, her quiet partner whose face didn't seem to move even when it did, and the rotund man lecturing them all on holding cell phones next to their heads. They had chatted, or rather the dark woman had told stories, and Michael had drawn her out further, polishing her loquaciousness until she relaxed and remembered her personality, while the pontificating man had attempted to dominate with Mr. Wilcox-style wisdom. But the conversation had run its course; the kohl eyed woman and the tousled hair man were energized and glancing about the room, ready for further stimulation now that this intercourse - begun in hesitant fumbles - had given them courage, and the quiet still one was going to be the same wherever she was dropped next.
"You haven't asked her what she does." Michael repeated.
I wasn't ready to talk to any of them. I had tried, though not very hard, truthfully, but I had smiled and responded and nodded and opened my mouth and inhaled, ready to offer words. Other people had been quicker. Or perhaps cleverer, or surely smoother. I hadn't had anything truly wonderful to say. It is easier to let them have what they want. They want to hear themselves. But Michael's words had shamed them, and the Italian woman focused her sharp, striking eyes on me. "Well? What about you?"
I stuttered. She was standing too close to me, and her eyes paralyzed me. She was waiting for me to be amazing and I was warm, and flustered. I don't need the attention. I already am getting more than my fair share of attention, just standing here in my new dress with the tulle-stiffened flounces, shifting my weight in shoes that are just barely uncomfortable. I just want to observe, and be in my head, and let Michael charm everyone else for me so no one notices I haven't said anything. I can't think of what to say. They are talking so fast and I don't know them and don't know what they want from me yet, other than for me to be unthreatening. It is easy to succeed at demure if you don't open your mouth, but now I have to speak and am going to give myself away.
She smiled slowly, watching me struggle, and remarked, "How pretty you are." I was surely supposed to have said something more clever here, but I did not. Michael told them how smart I was, and I watched the conversation form iron bars around me. He was looking at me with such tenderness, knowing I was twisting in discomfort but not realizing putting me on stage was making it worse. He is proud of me, he wants me to be shiny, but I can't be shiny right now, I have too many arms to be shiny, and I love him for being his business self and taking over the room but I just can't do anything more complicated than polite right now. I am slowly leaking life force onto the stripped wooden floor when she strikes, "When are you two going to get married?"
I want to burst out laughing. If anyone who knew me, knew us could have been here in this moment. If he would leap in to save me right here. If she would stop toying with her prey and would have pity on me. "I've already been married," I reply lamely, goawayjustgoaway lady drumming in my brain. I succeed in dumbfounding her, just for a second. "I didn't like it."
"But...but look at him!" she refuses to accept defeat. "Look at him! Of course you want to marry him, you haven't been married to him!"
"Yes, he is very handsome." He is, and God only knows what he is making of this exchange in that tight labyrinth brain of his. He is very handsome, so handsome I can barely look at him when I'm angry, or flustered, or supposed to concentrate on other people. He is very charming, walking into this party and cultivating every person here so that they eat out of his hand and thank him for the opportunity. He is very skilled, very clever, and very aware of how awkward I am. And perhaps I should be pleased that this is the only thing he doesn't do quite perfectly, setting me at ease, manipulating me. Because I think he misjudges the cause of my unease, never suspecting I could be insecure about him, about whether I've pleased him, about whether he thinks he got the bad part of the bargain with me on his arm tonight, and my head stuffed with sawdust.
I want to tell him I don't need the compliments, that the attention is crushing me, that I just need his arm around my waist and the freedom to be vacant and rest on his social skill. But I don't have enough articulateness to even make the attempt. I touch his hand over our shared plate of food. I try to mind meld with him, staring soulfully into his eyes. "What?" he asks, startled.
I didn't have a very successful evening. But for all of my personal stiffness and dullness, I did nevertheless walk away with this moment. You haven't asked her. All his smoothness and charm, like an athletic ability, and he so fit he is able to double back and pick up stragglers on the steep hill, without worrying he himself will tire. You haven't asked her. You haven't paid attention to my mate. You will stop what you are doing and show her homage. I will use my power to compel you to do so. And this millennia-old male power maneuver that would have enraged me if I were at full capacity, would never have happened if I were at full capacity, and breaks my heart with love at this moment. I am the one he cannot read. I am the lonely child and he is trying to bully his friends into playing with me. He doesn't realize the only reason I try to engage strangers in this mood is to be beautiful for him.