Ambient LightThe evening’s revelers were all there as expected, each adorned in either the finest couture or the thriftiest vintage attire one could find in the city, all to be sure they fit in with the rest of the artistic elite. Clinking champagne glasses were the percussion under the thousand voices that burst too loudly from each of the guests at yet another opening-night gala.Jerry fancied himself to be an artist of sorts, and had spent more than one evening in the company of similarly peripheral people congratulating him on this film or that play, pitching some vaguely cohesive project that was sure to be the next Godfather or Godspell, depending on the company. It was at such an event where he first nearly crossed paths with Elena, but they never crossed paths and indeed it seemed that they would only ever cross stars, as he was certain his chances were dashed by his own social ineptitude. A brief stint trifling with a little Myspace stalkery had only made him more certain that he was not only hopeless, but an utter coward. He could hurl Shakespearean insults at Tony winners on stage in front of a thousand onlookers in Central Park, but he couldn’t so much as flirt via the internet without a well-planned script.Jerry could have done without the hordes, as he would have were it not for her. She was the honoree, the newest toast of the town, and he watched her smile widen with the rising champagne bubbles while her face reddened again from the steadily flowing stream of compliments and pleasantries. He knew why her eyes turned down as the blood crept into her cheeks, why her hands kept trying to slip into pockets that were not to be found on her new cocktail dress. He knew who she was, what she was, and she wasn’t the type to stand and be the axis around which all the would-be idolaters revolved.Elena was a simple artist, paying her dues, and she did not yet know how deeply her kindred soul longed to know her, nor even that she had one. While she shook hands with this producer and that starlet, he noted how her face had changed in the years since he first saw it; how her hair had brightened and her skin was worn closer to her frame. How only her eyes were unaltered, though they were more luminous now in the dancing light of ornamental torches in the park.It wasn’t until then that he realized how ludicrous his approach would seem to her. They had never met or spoken, he had never been brave enough to write, to tell her how she’d captivated him years ago. She was unaware of how she flickered in his mind, muse-like, as days and nights bled together over weeks, months, and years, driving him to find his truer voice. She could never know the flame she’d ignited, so there was little use in telling her now, here, when droves of new well-wishers were all gathered en force to shower her with stories of how she’d affected them, changed them, altered their thinking and perspectives on the past. All of the hollow platitudes that would only be remembered until the next morning’s coffee left a dried brown ring on the New York Times’ review. All of the sentiments that would inflate her ego and take her out of his reach.Jerry hated all the people then. They were all taking up space in her mind, filling it with compliments that didn’t have half the life or truth that his did. None of them had been changed by her the way that he was. She changed him first. None of them knew her then. All these who would remain nameless to her were bastardizing the moments that should have belonged to him. They were making her feel honored, touched, overwhelmed, accomplished, accepted, adored… he wanted to be the one to evoke those feelings in her. He had wanted to be first.His steps retreated and he found himself backed against the patio railing, unable to escape and unwilling to move forward. What a fool, to think that he could go to the new celebrated playwright on the night of her anticipated premiere and somehow win her attention over all the others vying for it. What did he hope to achieve? What masterful turn of phrase could he craft to win her favor? How could he tell her that he loved her, sincerely loved her, without the jingle of her laughter tossing it off with all the other professions of love she’d already been given that night? Or if his earnestness did penetrate that cloud, how could she not find him utterly out of his mind?The sea of evening-wear parted briefly near the stairs, providing a space just a breath wide enough for him to slip through and evade the awkward stares and tabloid flashes that would surely follow the humiliation he’d almost inflicted on himself. Freedom was so near, he had one foot on the top step, but a thoughtless backward glance for one fleeting glimpse of her glowing smile did not bring the conclusion he anticipated. Elena’s face was ashen, and he followed her worried eyes to where they fell on another young woman; she appeared weak, one hand covering her mouth as another reached for anything to prevent her from falling. The ashen-faced writer rushed to the poor girl’s side, lifting her up as tears began to wash down. She wordlessly held her friend and ignored the queries from onlookers. The two drew quietly to the edge of the gathering to assert the expectation of a little privacy.Jerry stepped forward again. The crowd retreated from the pair, giving them a narrow berth, but this spurred him forward. She wasn’t falling prey to their frenzy, she wasn’t letting their attentions influence her priorities. This was her moment, and she was giving it to a grieving friend.He remembered why he loved her.As if cued by a concealed director, the crying woman raised her sodden eyes to the young man who crossed the patio. A wave of recognition ran through her, and she sat up with a jolt, wiping away tears with the back of her hand and assuring her friend that she would be fine.“Really, Elena, I’m okay, you… take advantage of this opportunity… seriously, this won’t happen again.”Elena, the evening’s honored writer, cocked her head quizzically and spoke with a playful tone. “I won’t have another opening night party? Really? Thanks Emily.” Emily smiled sheepishly. “No, of course you will, tons of them, I just mean… well, really enjoy this one. Really. I’m gonna go mingle. Being stood up isn’t going to ruin the party. It’s not like it’s prom night.”Emily rushed off, brushing past the young man who was now only steps away. She gave him a meaningful nod that perplexed him, but emboldened him to approach Elena for the first time.She had turned toward the sound of a siren in the distance; the mark of a new city dweller. She let her gaze linger out over the moonlit lawn of Bryant Park, enjoying the way the trees always seemed to look like they were engaged in an eternal, agonizing ballet. She lifted her nearly empty glass, drained the last drop, and held it delicately with both hands. She seemed grateful to give them some occupation.Jerry stepped up behind her. He looked at his shoes. They looked shabby. She would find him shabby, unsuitable, childish… an absolute fool.His eyes moved from his shoes to hers, and from there to her ankles, trailing up the graceful turn of her legs to the hem of her dress. A bit of a leaf rested there, caught in the fine black lace that lay over the ivory satin. Despite his internal protests, he found his hand reaching for the leaf, intending only to gently flick it away. An unoffending motion, surely, were it not so near the hem of a thigh-grazing cocktail dress, and had another party guest not chosen that moment to trip.Elena gasped and Jerry found himself on his knees, his right hand having disappeared between her thighs along with his confidence and poise.“What the hell!” Elena cried, wheeling around to find Jerry still on the ground with his eyes cemented shut and his hands clutched in his disheveled hair.“Oh God, don’t look at me, I’m not here, that was an accident… a dreadful, unbelievably regrettable mistake that I should like very much to have you forget and in fact ignore at this moment, because I really don’t think I can so much as look at you right now…”Elena, after the initial shock of an unexpected hand suddenly thrusting between her legs without her consent at a public function, began to find the poor offender’s prostration amusing and put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.“Really,” she began with a laugh, “It’s okay, this is a party, there are much drunker people sticking worse things than hands up dresses, I assure you. Come on, stand up.”Jerry shook his head and remained fixed to the patio. “Oh God, no, you don’t understand, I took twenty minutes to walk up to you to merely say hello, and now I’ve molested you, I don’t merit standing up.”“Fine then, I’m coming down there, and that’ll cost you. Seriously, my dry cleaning bill is your dry cleaning bill,” she challenged with a snicker.Jerry moaned and laboriously drew his six-foot frame upward, but still refused to meet her gaze.“Jeremiah Burke?” Elena whispered suddenly, giving Jerry a start. As consumed as he was by his memory of her words three years prior, he had never allowed for the possibility that she would remember his, or that she would even recognize him, which was a ridiculous notion. Of course she would remember. Of course she would recognize him. She had sought him first, and he was the dolt who never wrote back.“No,” he protested. “I mean yes, Jeremiah, but no. Jerry. Jerry… my friends call me Jerry. Or you can call me Jeremiah if you prefer. Or Jerry. I like Jerry.”Elena smiled warmly. “I like Jerry too.”His heart skipped a beat and he had to emphasize to himself that she was only referring to his name. “Jerry it is then. You convinced me.” His face fell. “This is awful. I’ll go away and stop speaking, I’m an idiot and I’m keeping you from my party. Your party! I’m keeping you from your party. See, I shouldn’t even be authorized to speak.”A gentle hand on his arm prevented him from turning away. “No, please, really – you’re right, it’s your party too. It wouldn’t be much good if it was only mine, would it? Me alone with a thousand bottles of champagne and gallons of caviar. Especially since I hate caviar.”“I do too,” Jerry agreed hastily.“Really?”“No, I… actually, I like it. I’m talking out of my ass I think. Really, I should stop. Don’t let me speak. I’m completely inept.”“Now, that’s completely untrue.”Jerry grimaced. “So far I’ve accosted you and senselessly lied. Is that of some use to you?”“Oh no, as far as the party is concerned, you fail. Epic fail.” Elena’s laugh was woven with mischief, but no less musical. “But prior to tonight, your résumé has been stellar.”A uniformed waiter with an expertly-balanced tray of bubbly champagne flutes stepped up and wordlessly exchanged empty vessels for full ones. Elena nestled into the corner of the railing, running her finger idly around the rim of her glass as she continued to speak. “That is, I mean, you have such widely varied talents, clearly you’ve made yourself useful, at least until now.”“Oh, yes, my days of being useful are clearly at an end. They say once you finger a woman before you’ve met her, there’s no hope for you.” Jerry blushed furiously. “Why am I still talking? Please, please, lace my drink with cyanide and put me out of my misery.”“You can’t be miserable yet, I’m still complimenting you. Wait until I get to the part where I insult you before you start with the self-loathing. I get to be the author tonight. It’s my party.”Jerry was encouraged by her teasing enough to follow her lead. “Now, only a moment ago you said it was my party too.”“I’m revoking your party co-ownership.”“On what grounds?” Jerry demanded, feigning judicious indignation.“On the grounds that you’re trying to usurp my storytelling.”“Usurp?” Jerry repeated with a raised eyebrow. “Well, I object on the grounds that you’re showing off.”Elena flashed a wider grin than any she’d given him thus far. “I’m allowed to show off, because – ““It’s your party!” Jerry interrupted, hopping up on the railing to sit above her. She was leaned back on her elbows, her posture blithe and fluid. It may have been the champagne, but she seemed perfectly at ease just then. Jerry found it easy to imagine they’d done this before, exchanging lighthearted barbs over drinks in the Big Apple. After only a moment’s association he was already having trouble remembering the moments that brought him to it.Elena had paused somewhere within her smile, searching for something she knew was there before. “What were we talking about?”“You were complimenting my many talents,” Jerry replied, followed closely by a quick swig from his glass.She chortled as she took a swig of her own. “One of which is not humility, evidently.”“Oh, you know me, it’s all false bravado,” he protested. “In truth I like very little of what I do.”“I know you?” she queried, her expression shrewd. “Why do you say that?”Jerry thought for a moment. “I don’t know, I suppose you don’t. Just an expression, really. Perhaps I mean you should know. I’m not ignorant, I know I’m better at some things than other people are, but there are other people who are better at those things than I am.”Elena nodded thoughtfully. “That’s a very diplomatic assessment. And that may be the case, but I’d argue that there aren’t many of those other people who have as many talents as you do.”“Are we still complimenting me?”“No, ‘we’ aren’t, because when people say ‘we’ like that’s it’s creepy. I’m complimenting you. Deal with it. I’ll let you know when the insult part of the plot begins, if you’d like to be forewarned.”“Yes, please,” Jerry grinned. He involuntarily inched closer to her. The tip of her elbow now shared a solid square inch of railing with the tip of his little finger. He wasn’t sure she noticed.“Well, we’re not there yet. We’re still talking about how you have too much talent for one person.” Elena finished what remained in her glass and found a spot waiting for it on a passing tray.“Why do you get to say ‘we’ and I don’t?”“Oh, now I don’t have to tell you again, do I?”“Right, it’s your party. I forgot.”“You gave up your party-ental rights.” Elena giggled at her own joke.“No I didn’t, they were revoked.” He wrinkled his nose and winced at her. “And that joke was horrible. I may have to sue for custody of this party.”“You won’t win, you’re not the father. And I my be a bit drunk.” To emphasize this likelihood, Elena turned, abandoning the tip of Jerry’s little finger on the square inch it had shared with her elbow, but graciously offering her entire left forearm to his thigh to make up for it. She leaned inward, making him acutely aware of the faint scent of vanilla on her hair, mixed with something more exotic near her neck. “But tipsy or not, I’m right about this. You, Jeremiah… or Jerry… Burke… I have admired you for years. So much talent all in one spot. Seems like an unfair allocation of resources.”Jerry’s mouth twisted upward in amusement. “Unfair allocation of resources? Are you saying my talents are unbalanced?”“Well, you know, why should you have so much when others have none at all?”“So… you’re saying God should have dealt more fairly when He doled out special aptitudes?”Elena laughed, throwing her head back. “Right, right, talent socialism!” She punctuated this with a light slap on his thigh. Jerry pretended to weigh the argument. “It seems fair, I suppose.”“Ah,” Elena began. “But then how would we know who the exceptional ones are?”“Isn’t the point to make everyone exceptional?”“But if we’re all exceptional, how do we appreciate it? If history, literature, and art have taught us anything about the pursuit of a fair and equal utopian society, it’s that attaining it would make us less vital. Less human. It’s the competition, struggle, and desire for success and affirmation that make life worth living, right? So we need to remain imperfect and unbalanced in order to ensure the survival of the species, so to speak.” Jerry gazed down at her, incredulous. “Are you a playwright or a sociologist?”“Same thing, in a way. To write anything relevant to society, one needs to study how it moves.”“So, in essence, you’re saying that there needs to be a balanced ratio of talented people to untalented people?”“Of course.”“Because…”“Because somebody has to pay us to not have real jobs.”“And we have to pay them to have no talents?”“Exactly!”“That’s absurd.”“Maybe, but I’m right.”“Yes, you are.”“Yes, I am!” Elena cried, assuming Jerry had disagreed. “Wait… were you supposed to agree with me there?”“Yes, I lost party custody, remember?”“Ah ha! You shouldn’t have reminded me. I almost let you argue your way into convincing me you’re right.” Elena nudged his ribs. Jerry commanded his ribs to remember the feeling.“I’ll save that for later, when we get to the insulting part.”“Oh, pfft” Elena scoffed. “You won’t need it. The insulting part is just a red herring. It’ll never come.”“Why not?”Elena cocked her head and looked upward, meeting Jerry’s eyes deliberately for the first time. “Because I like you.”Jerry blushed and mentally repeated the sensations of her elbow, arm, hand, and the jab to his ribs, hoping there would be additions to that list. “Are you drunk?”Elena pouted. “Can I not like you if I am?”Jerry seemed to take a very long time to reply. “Not as much as I’d hope.”Elena furrowed her brow and moved her face closer to his. “What does that mean?”Jerry closed his eyes and sighed. There was no sense in withholding it. “It means… I’ve been falling for you.”Elena smiled triumphantly. “That’s… incredibly cheesy! Seriously, like extra cheese. From a can. But I think I knew you would.”Jerry found himself lacking the surprise he should have expected. “I think I know why you’d think I would,” he whispered.“And why do you think you know why I’d think I know why you would?” Elena posed. “Wait… yeah, that’s right. Answer that.”“Answer what?” teased Jerry.“If you make me say it again, I’ll… think of something to do to you.”“Oh God, anything but something!” Jerry laughed.“So? Why do you think you know… etcetera…”Jerry took a moment and a breath, and then he took in the stars, or rather the stars that must be there beyond the glow of New York’s ambient light. “If I may profane with my unworthiest hand…” he whispered, his face still lifted skyward. He wouldn’t look down as long as she was silent. He couldn’t. The still quiet seemed interminable.At last, a sharply drawn breath, and then she spoke. “It really was you.” The words would have floated away had he not been so attentively waiting to pluck them from the air.He brought his gaze down and fixed it to hers as his hand sought her fingers. “And it really was you!” he mirrored.“Why…?” Elena stammered. She didn’t need to finish the question. The much more anonymous Elena of three years prior, toiling under piles of rejection slips and rewrites, had fruitlessly used social networking to try and impress the elusive Jeremiah Burke with her witty turn of phrase, liberally seasoned with Shakespeare and over-thought prose.“I don’t know,” Jerry answered. “I don’t know why I never wrote back.”Elena smiled; a new smile crafted for this moment. “It doesn’t matter.” She intertwined her fingers with his. “It matters that you came now. It’s the why that matters, not the when.”Jerry sighed. “Had I known, I would have just walked up to you tonight and quoted Shakespeare from the start.”The laugh she bore came from deep within her, carried on the breath of guttural humor. “Well, technically you did profane me with your unworthiest hand!”Jerry’s cheeks went pale and pink simultaneously. “Oh, I did! I don’t know if I’m mortified, or extremely proud of myself!”Elena laughed and launched both arms around Jerry’s shoulders, pulling him down from the stone rail to stand before her. “Oh be proud, sir, that was bold. And this hand,” she said, raising his right palm to her left cheek, “is not so unworthy.”
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