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Better

I laugh politely and then look down, staring at my feet, extending the exhale at the end of my laugh and then letting silence settle.  I had things that could be said; I simply had no desire to speak them, I let the mute moment hang in the air between us. To an old college friend, who wanted me to be impressed by his promotion in Syncrude, the silence was the product of us mutually searching for something else to say; in reality it was my hoping that he could not find another question he did not care about the answer to before the unspoken timer of socially accepted ‘conversational pause’ ran out and we entered the territory of awkward silence.

I anticipated that his timer had struck zero and I looked back to him, raising my eyebrows and opening my mouth, as was expected he took the opportunity to jump in and beat me to the conversation bow out: “Well, it was nice talking to you, man. I’m going to go grab another drink.”

“Yeah, yeah, nice talking to you too!” I put something resembling a smile on my face, barely even attempting to appear genuine.

After he had taken a couple steps away I turned and walked towards the path at the side of the garden which lead out to the street, careful to avoid eye contact with the other party attendees. I exhaled deeply as I closed the garden gate behind me. I reached into the inside pocket of my blazer as I walked around the front of my old friend’s house and pulled out a fresh pack of cigarettes. The climate in the back garden was less than accepting of ones desire to actively inhale carcinogenic smoke, and the party attendees had already offered me more than enough disapproving looks for one evening.

Spark, spark, flame, inhale, hold, exhale, and question, for the hundredth time that night, why I had felt so obligated to come to my friend’s anniversary party.

The text message suggestion of seeing old acquaintances, friends, and flames, barely bothered trying to disguise its true implication that my presence there would be expected and lack thereof would be considered a personal insult.

I took another drag of the cigarette and looked back towards the house: impressive yet conservative, appropriate to the point of cliché, for the first upgrade of a young upper-middle class couple. Offering the ideal North-American explanatory line: “We’re not planning on a family quite yet, but we wanted the room just in case.” As one half of the couple or the other squeezed their partner gently yet noticeably.

I pulled my gaze away from the home, looking above it to the sorry excuse for stars that suburbia offered. A strange kind of sadness strikes me as I accept that I had returned to a place where the night sky is only a darker shade than day as nearby cities outshine the lights of the universe.

Lost in my own thoughts and memories about places I’d been where the constellations shone brighter, I notice movement across the rooftop.  I look back down to the roof.  I was sure I had seen something shift across its peak: a slow movement, away from the chimney and then back. I squinted my eyes at the shingles, trying to make out what was atop the building.

In the low light of a greater metropolitan I saw the silhouette of a figure on the rooftop, someone sitting down, huddled into the chimney. I further strained my eyes, trying to decipher what it was I was actually looking at, and then the familiar taste of an exhausted cigarette filled my mouth. I looked down to confirm that I was smoking on nothing other than the brown tip of a No. 7.  I frowned and tossed the butt to the ground; unnecessarily grinding it into the pavement beneath sole as I looked back to the rooftop.  I shook my head, telling myself that I shouldn’t drink so much at such events,  it certainly wasn’t about to make me fit in any better, and even if that was not my concern, it was not going to make me any more tolerant of my evening’s companions, and pacifism should be of my concern.

I took a deep breath and walked back towards the garden party, producing, from the street, just enough noise to suggest that a celebration was taking place, yet not enough noise to be deemed disrespectful to the neighbours (had they not been politely, yet seemingly un-obligatorily, invited anyway).

I surveyed the garden insouciantly as I mapped the least congested route to the open bar. People in cold climates have a strange obsession with associating the serving of alcohol with bamboo and thatched rooves, I think as I look to the bar which appeared to be intending to make South-Eastern Canada resemble a generic location with closer proximity to the equator. I looked at the young man standing behind the bar and at first considered requesting something that would ease the painful effects of simply being there, but upon closer inspection of his close shave, recent haircut, and seemingly legitimately content smile, I found myself assuming that he was the offspring or relative of one of the party goers and my search for sympathy would go unfulfilled.  Instead I asked for a beer, accepting, even whilst asking for it, that I was somehow being pretentious in the fact that I was asking for a beer in silent protest against the ostentatious consumption of gin and tonics around me.

The barely-18-but-thinks-he-can-pass-for-20-year-old smiled even more delightfully at my request, suggesting that he had actually had a chance to taste the beverage he was about to serve me once at a friend’s older sibling’s house party. He didn’t ask if I wanted a glass as he poured the locally brewed craft beer, I found myself sighing more overtly than intended as I read the ‘certified organic’ label on the bottle. I thanked him, politely, he politely accepted the thankyou yet badly hid his disappointment at me not handing him a tightly folded note as tip and asking what he would be doing in college after the summer.

I tried to walk towards a group of men that were standing outside of the living room window futilely pretending that they were not watching one sporting event or another through the glass.  My innate distaste for athletics seemed welcome in comparison to my learned distaste for the populous of the party.

My name is called, I continue walking and try to evaluate whether or not the speaker was far enough away for me to feign being audibly out of reach. I’m called again, louder this time, the location undoubtedly is mere feet away.  I sigh inwardly and put on a smile as I turn around to face whomever called my name.

A hand immediately claps down on my shoulder as the other hand is extended over-exuberantly in accompaniment with a nickname (which had not caught on back in college and I had indifferently forgotten about ever since the last time I heard it). I respond with a bright smile and a: ‘Wow, it’s great to see you, man’ trying to express both surprise and pleasure at the person’s presence, while experiencing neither sensation.

He offers the words ‘this guy’ in repetition and then there’s a hesitation. I wonder if he is as curious as I am about what description of myself he is going to fabricate or exaggerate. “I can’t thank this guy enough for what he’s done for me. I tell you, one conversation with him can make all the difference, I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for him.”

He shakes his head and squeezes my shoulder. I realise two things in rapid succession: the first being that he was remarkably intoxicated, in fact refreshingly inappropriately intoxicated for the circumstance, but obnoxious only in setting and acceptable if we replaced the garden party with a seedy pub; the second realization was more of a recollection, shamefully I had entirely forgotten about the last time I had seen him. In contrast to the 10 years that had passed since I’d seen most of those present, I had run into him 5 years ago. I had been living in London for a spell, he appeared to keep better track of my Facebook than I did, and had sent me a message saying that he was in town on business. The Facebook message had caught me in a particularly good mood, to be honest I had taken up quite an affiliation with alcohol in the time I had spent there, so the suggestion to ‘meet for a pint’ wasn’t something I needed to seriously debate over engaging in.

He ended up having been in a degree of emotional distress; his marriage with the girlfriend he met in college was failing, therefore he was drinking far more than was reasonable as he poured out his grief to me, I had happily adopted the excuse of consoling a friend and joined him in over-consumption. I had only a loose memory of the conversation had, which, after his claim that it was somehow helpful, left me wondering whether I was forgetting something or he had dreamt something, but I felt it best to not bring up either.

I suddenly felt more connected to the people surrounding me than I had since the night began. I disliked it and tried to shrug off the sensation, knowing its foundation was built atop swamp ground saturated with the alcohol abuse of the emotionally unstable and that the feeling of connection would quickly pass.

I scanned the group then, knowing some of its contents, one woman whom I did not know seemed more dissatisfied than the others, I assumed that this was the new Mrs. Whatever-His-Surname-is.

The brief description of why a conversation with me makes all the difference had finished, and although it was impressively coherent, relative to our states then and his state now, his rendition was equally impressively boring. He finishes as the host, my friend who had guilted me into attendance, and his spouse join the small group. Taking only the minimal amount of required time for polite laughter after the story had finished, one of the group members that I did not know asked how I knew the couple (whom she described as caring and inspiring in their love after all of five years of marriage whilst I was stuck on the image of the man she spoke about drunkenly unfolding hundred dollar bills to a stripper as he begged for a handjob (who even likes a handjob?) less than a year past. I found my mind sidetracking from my sidetracking).

“We met in college,” I hear my friend suddenly answer on my behalf. I wonder briefly if he could actually hear the thoughts that were passing through my mind, or if he was just trying to join the conversation.

“And they’ve been literally inseparable ever since!” his wife says with a roll of her eyes, as if our bi-monthly nights out were not only the acclamation of the closest two friends could ever be, but also that those seldom occasions were so wild (which she should not think because the charges to their joint account always indicted 4 beers at Kelsey’s) that they threatened their relationship. There is a light laugh from the given company and I realize that my cringing expression had been interpreted as concern that she had heard all of our stories.  I may actually have cringed had I just learned that she was aware of her husband’s adoration for cocaine and strippers (that’s a joke, he doesn’t do much coke, he drinks Coors Light, he does tend to get caught up in strip shows though). In fact I had been cringing over her use of the word literally instead of any one of the adjectives which actually meant what she intended to say.

The conversation shifted away from me then as she very excitedly asked one of the women in the circle how the local GMO-free organic tomato farm was doing.  I almost audibly groaned as they discussed investing enough money into organic farming that they could fund an independent study to prove that their own ‘hip-ignorance’ on the definition of organic and its benefits were incorrect, when I decided that I’d slip away for another cigarette.

I walked by the band that was setting up on my way out.  Yes, there was a band setting up. I saw the long hair of one of the members and wondered passively if he was friends with the boy behind the bar, or if their parents had forced them to hang out as children and they had grown a casual distaste for one and other ever since.

As I listened to a poorly tuned sound check and smoked deeply on a cigarette I found my eyes suddenly attracted to the rooftop again. Once more I had caught movement from the corner of my eye and immediately my mind returned to the figure I thought I had seen earlier in the night.  I walked slowly towards the house now, staring at the roof as I approached.  I wondered over whether or not I could see a figure again or if the shadows cast by street lights were tricking my mind.

There was movement again, whether shadow trickery or not, it looked like hair blowing in the wind.  I traced my line of sight over the darkness, focusing there again.  I had walked my way far enough across the lawn that the eve of the roof almost blocked my view of the shingles. Yet as I watched the wispy movement of unconfirmed hair in the wind the sensation that I was correct in thinking someone was there grew stronger.

As I strained my eyes against the darkness and distance I saw the briefest change in the shadow. As if freshly illuminated, I saw the whites of two eyes peering down from the peak. I feel my breath catch in my throat.  I open my mouth to speak and realize that I have no idea what I am going to say, nor to whom.

But the wind shifts, there is no longer hair being swished through the breeze and no eyes appear to be looking back at me.  I blink long and hard and then shake my head, feeling the most genuine smile of the evening come across my face as I am amused at my own foolish belief that I was seeing anything other than rippling shadows. I turn away from the house as I finish my smoke, looking up and down the sleepy street, all with finely trimmed lawns, attached garages and the same porch light on.  I toss my cigarette and I stand there for quite some time, sipping on the craft beer which was better than I desired to admit. Finally I turn and head back into the party.

I hear my name called almost immediately after I walk in. I look around more or less startled that I had been sought after so quickly.  I walk towards the small group where I heard my name called so slowly that I surely appeared to be a weary animal (admittedly I was approaching them much the way a hen would try to investigate a fox).

“…shouted a lot of red back in college but I bet by now even he’s turned blue.”

Politics.

I cringed.

I shrug and give a non-committal smile as this particular character’s mouth begins to almost froth as he babbles some kind of party preach to the poor woman who had been willing to engage him in conversation.

“Hey, hey, I’m not looking down on you for having once been red, I mean we all were back in the day. I just mean that you’ve got to grow out of it. Blue comes naturally with maturity and intelligence. Red’s not realistic or sensible unless you’re a broke college kid, right?”  He barely looks at me as he raises his hand expecting me to tout some kind of support.

I wondered briefly if he was trying to start an argument with me before I realized that he actually believed his words, actually believed that no one could possibly hold onto the same political beliefs we had in university.

I feel my tongue run against the backs of my teeth as if sharpening itself before my lips parted, when the host himself suddenly appears with the words “I hope this isn’t a politics debate, I mean, I just had to convince the boys to turn off CPAC because it was too much fun for a party atmosphere!” He chides as he hands me a beer I did not realize I needed replacing.

He offers the blue-spieling man an appropriately neutral line about one opposition platform or another that was agreeable. The group standing around the window suddenly makes a series of excited noises as if they’re watching a precarious ‘jenga’ block be pulled, hoping that the exertion in their voice would add structural support to the tower, or (as it was unlikely they were watching a televised children’s game) hoping that their exertion would assist an athlete of one sort or another run or skate or punch faster.

“Speaking of blue though, Toronto is holding it together well aren’t they?”

I stare as the host seamlessly pulls the conversation in a less tedious area.  As people murmur exciting sounds, and amateur predications were passed around, I find myself actively wondering what Toronto team they were speaking of and if there could possibly be anything less exciting to discuss.

I look around the group silently, not listening to any of the words being spoken but instead viewing with disgust the faked expressions of enthusiasm as people put on personas to appear relevant. I felt even further disgust at the expressions of enthusiasm which may have been genuine.

“I think a game might be in order for our next man date, hey?” I feel the host nudge me gently.

I wonder at first if this suggestion was a joke; then if it was some kind of a jab to tell me to start pretending like I’m enjoying myself; and lastly if he had actually referred to our barely more than quarterly, supposedly ‘only here for one, I’m driving’, catch-ups, a ‘man date’, and why the group on hand was not looking at him as if he had just said one of the most ridiculous things I’d heard all night (which was a feat more admirable (perhaps more apprehensible) than usual given the conversations I’d had that night).

I shrug and say maybe and try to laugh, less like the idea was ridiculous and more with a tone of ‘sounds like fun’.  As I find myself increasingly exhausted with the conversation I silently curse the host for bringing me another beer and therefore removing my easiest excuse to leave the group.

I consider finding another excuse, pretending that I needed to use the washroom, but then I found myself realizing that this would be a short term escape; even if I maximized the appropriate amount of time spent in the bathroom before coming back out, I would be just as uninterested and annoyed with the scene as beforehand. So with less concern for my appearance than my father would have found appropriate, I opt for the dependable and most popular western social interaction catalyst: I down the fresh beer I had been given. I say that it was great and I’d like to try one of the other styles the open bar offered,  I moved away from the group.

As I’m walking back towards the bar I notice that one of the party goer’s eyes seem to be staring quite intently to the roof. Instantly remembering the strange shadows I noticed during my last two cigarettes, I turn towards the peak and follow her gaze.

In turning like this, I broke one of the most fundamental rules of attending such functions: I allowed myself to look interested in something.

Before I had even found the rooftop I was spoken to and found myself pulled back into the same group I had been inducted to earlier, the mildly intoxicated London-drinking-companion appeared to be in some kind of a whispered argument with his female acquaintance and the other members of the group searched for a polite distraction.

“So what is it you studied in University?” Asked the women who had inquired how I knew the couple earlier in the evening.

I answered and politely asked how she knew the hosts in return.

The ‘this-guy’ couple appeared to have finished their argument as a comment was interjected about my recent years spent traveling.

“Wow, you’ve been practising [the title of my degree, repeated precisely as I said it, in confirmation that she wasn’t sure what it was] across the world?”

I recited the original comment, that I had spent time ‘traveling’, in my own head, ‘practising’ or even employment, hadn’t been mentioned, yet this character refused to entertain a conversation along the basis of changing location for it did not fit into her archetypes of how people should behave. I found it frustrating that people imposed their own expectations onto the things which they heard, like a tuner looking for A over middle C, anything other than what they desired to hear was altered somewhere between their ears, their minds acting as a tuning wrench, modifying the world around them until it matched what they thought was the perfect pitch.

My response is slightly more subtle however, as I explain that I hadn’t worked in the field for years and that my time spent away was for cultural experience.

“Oh, finding inspiration for future work?” She returns, smiling.

No, simply finding inspiration to be a better human being, I say as I try to further explain that not all of one’s choices in life need to be devoted to an improvement of their capitalist position.

“Oh, how nice.” She smiles back just as big as before. I accept then that I could have said virtually anything and I would have gained the same response. Unless of course I was organising a homeopathic anti-vaccination clinic, or some other physical manifestation of one of her other uninformed and painfully ignorant beliefs, in which case the nice may have been followed by: ‘I’m a big supporter’, or perhaps, even a: ‘you should meet with my generic-name-for-a-group-of-middle-aged-over-privleged-white-people-whom-sit-in-starbucks-and-reprimand-consumers-of-the-unppular-product-of-the-week-activist group sometime’.

The conversation shifts to this woman’s own career as some kind of designer for fabric conditioner, or perhaps conditional design fabrication. I let her voice become background noise and look back towards the roof as I hear her mention that her current company gives extended maternity leave periods.

I glance along the rooftop and see absolutely nothing other than a well-balanced brown shingling broken by purposefully slightly off-centre skylights.

I try to mask the boredom on my face as I look back towards them.  I find myself considering who is actually more pretentious, them for thinking they’re better than me, or me for thinking I’m better than them because they could think they’re better than anyone at all. The internal debate is indifferent I decide, because more pretentious or not it makes me the hypocrite of the situation.

I look down at my glass and happily remember that I needed a drink. I wave the empty glass as if in itself it offers an explanation and go to move towards the bar.

Just as I leave, someone from a group just next to me says loudly “Oh look, she’s out again.”

I turn my head and expect to find the host’s Alsatian bounding through the garden in hopes of finding dropped ‘steroid-free-aged-cheese’.

Instead, my eyes were brought to movement on the roof.

There, huddled against the brickwork of a short chimney stack, was a young girl.

Her skin was a deep brown, hair almost black and wiry, even from my distance across the garden I could see the brown colour of her eyes.

As I looked towards her, I knew she looked back at me.  From that distance it should have been impossible to tell. Yet her eyes had found mine. I could feel her gaze boring into my own.

“Oh, she is just adorable.”  I hear fabric-design say from over my right shoulder.

The gaze of those around me, my own gaze as well, seemed to have attracted the attention of the other party goers. Many more heads turn towards the rooftop

A murmur of approval spreads over the crowd.

“Do you like it up there?” I hear shouted from closer to the house.

Her gaze breaks from mine and she looks at the other party goers.

“Oh, she’s looking at me!”  Someone exclaims excitedly.

“Then don’t make eye contact, you silly woman” A man replied light-heartedly. A gentle laugh rippled across the congregation.

“Oh, she almost had me,” A woman to my left then shouts as she bends down as if ducking out of the way of a thrown object.

A chorus of ‘whoa’s and ‘oh’s is echoed from across the garden as people begin ducking away from her gaze. I watch as she looks around more frantically. I watch as she bangs her foot against the rooftop in frustration as people laugh, bending and swaying in unison away from her line of sight.

Her eyes met mine again, and I remained standing. Our eyes locked. We looked at one and other. Her foot stopped banging.

“Oh! She’s got him, she’s got him!”  I hear someone shout.

I feel a cold shiver ripple down my spine as I stare at her. The eyes of the garden turn towards me and then back to her.

“Duck, duck, quick!” I hear someone next to me shout and nudge me to encourage me to join their crouched position.

I turn and look down at the bright smiling face.

“She’s looking at you!” He laughed.

I stare down at him, trying to formulate some kind of response to the situation.  I consider shouting some kind of reprimand for his laughing.

And then the laughter of the rest of the garden is refreshed, there are suddenly ooh’s and ah’s again as people avoid her gaze once more. I look back to the rooftop.

She looks back at me.

I feel the man next time hit my leg again, I see the eyes of the entire party on me again.

I crouch down beside the others.

I hear the others laugh as the girl upon the roof screams in frustration.

I refuse to laugh, I tell myself, that not finding this amusing was what separated me.

I tell myself that not laughing was my silent protest.

I tell myself all of this as I’m crouched down to avoid her gaze.

I hear the stomping of her foot again. I hear screams of frustration. I hear someone comment ‘how cute she is when she’s angry’.

I turn in my crouched position and walk to the bar. I hear a cry of disappointment, as someone exclaims that she’d moved to the other side. I notice that the band had not stopped playing.

I order a gin and tonic, and I hand the kid a tightly folded twenty.

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