The room was striking; someone or some group had spent many, many hours on the decorations. The effect was arresting—burgundy and gold, matching floral centerpieces and garlands at every table, walls full of blow-ups of photos taken twenty-some years ago, full of feathered hair, primary colors, rolled sleeves, and leather. The room was full of the clamor of buoyant greetings and the celebration of reunion.
As he walked through the room, he overheard snatches of conversation -- the past not so much being remembered as being recreated: accounts of lives, varying according to the audience, and role-playing among virtual strangers, former friends, spouses and escorts.
Catherine, who had cast herself in the role of hostess, came and grabbed Mark above the elbow, wheeling him to face a well-dressed woman with dark eyes and hair to match, cut short.
"Do you know who this is?" Catherine asked. The woman's features had a certain authority to them -- decisively shaped hair and dark brown eyebrows -- although there was an amused glint in her eyes, silently challenging him to recall her identity. He knew immediately.
"Elizabeth," he said, "how are you?"
It had always been Elizabeth, never Beth or Liz or Eliza.
"Hello, Mark." She leaned forward to be kissed.
"Nice to see you," he said, a bit blandly. She had not been one of the flashier girls in the class, but she had aged far better than most. Her dress was midnight blue and silk -- unassuming and expensive. Elizabeth, he conjectured, had made something of her life. Her face reflected, together with that quick smile and flash of the eyes he remembered, a confident sense of herself. Though Mark was happy enough to see her, he was somewhat at a loss for words -- idle cocktail chatter being inappropriate for a reunion after so many years, but little in the way of shared memories to fill the void. Others joined the group and they separated.
It was only toward the end of the evening that he saw her again. The band was playing and, although he hadn't danced at all, it seemed like the thing to do -- easier than trying to talk -- so he suggested it. They took a space toward the edge of the crowded floor. The song soon ended and something slow came on. He circled her waist and took her surprisingly warm hand. She danced close to him, hips often touching and, occasionally, the feel of her breasts brushing against his chest. Despite himself, he felt the familiar sensation of arousal. He could smell her perfume and felt slightly intoxicated, which was unsurprising, given how much he'd had much to drink.
He stole a look at her face. She looked slightly flushed, and he realized she'd had a bit to drink herself. Her eyes smiled as they caught his, a hint of mischief in them.
"Mark," she said, in a low murmur, "do you remember that time ... in that class, when we were in the back of the theater?"
Of course he remembered. He had been reliving it all evening. They'd had a class together -- introduction to dramatic arts or something like that. They had put on a Shakespeare play. What was it? He strained to recall. Yes -- All's Well That Ends Well. He was ... Bertram and she was ... he couldn't remember. They'd had to pretend to kiss at the end. Rehearsal after rehearsal, he'd held her in his arms, and they'd pretended to kiss. At first, they did the "high school actors' kiss" -- chastely putting their faces together with minimal lip contact. But after a while, they'd relaxed and let their lips touch, and then finally, just once, during a run-through for the last evening's performance -- the second of the day -- she had opened her mouth slightly and let her tongue hesitantly touch his lips, and it had ended in a full, unambiguously sensuous kiss, a deep fusion of stunning eroticism.
But that had been it. They'd graduated soon afterwards, lost touch, both gotten married, and ... now here they were. He looked into her pupils, which had widened in the dim light -- or was it something else. He recalled vaguely something about dilated pupils reflecting interest. Her eyes sought his.
"Yes, I certainly haven't forgotten that," he said.
Elizabeth gave a short laugh. "Well that was about as naughty as we got, wasn't it."
He wondered at her choice of words. It sounded a lot like an entrée, so he took it.
"We didn't really have a chance," he replied. "That was just before we graduated."
"Yes, and you went straight to California; no long goodbyes," she smiled.
"I did," he answered lamely. But he didn't want to let the opportunity go.
"If I'd stayed, maybe we might have kissed more than once. You were... , " he stumbled, searching for the word, "beautiful." God, he thought, couldn't I do better than that!
"You still are," he added, saving himself.
"Hmmm," she murmured, "not so beautiful any more."
They looked into each others eyes as they swayed slightly in acknowledgement of their function on the dance floor.
He wanted to continue the conversation in this vein, curious where things might go. But what was the use? They were both married. Tomorrow they'd be back with their respective spouses. There was no future in it.
The band played on as the evening progressed and he continued to dance almost exclusively with Elizabeth, with occasional trips to the bar. As they moved across the dance area, their hands together, their legs and hips occasionally made brief, stirring contact.
"This is nice," Elizabeth said dreamily, her chin resting on his shoulder as they swayed to the gentle beat. "I haven't danced like this in years."
"It is," he agreed.
She snuggled her head up against his neck, her chin resting on his shoulder. He could feel the moist warmth of her breath against his skin. She moved in closer, allowing him to feel the press of her breasts against him. He could feel the press of her thighs against his, the whisper of her thin dress gliding up and down, back and forth. He felt himself hardening.
"Hmmm," he heard her murmur in his ear, with a lilt of excitement in her voice, "it feels like you're enjoying the dance as much as I am."
"I'm sorry," he said, a little bit of sobriety coming back to him, and with it, nervous embarrassment. This was someone other than his wife -- a married woman – he had to remind himself. This was folly. He tried to pull away a little bit but she resisted.
"No, no," she whispered, her lips touching his ear lobe, just enough to leave a kiss on it. "Don't pull back. It's been so long since I've felt a man react like that to me, and I've had just enough to drink that it feels really good."
"But I don't think Mr. Kochevar would appreciate it very much," he whispered back.
"Hmm," she murmured, "It's Madigan, actually. But I'm not planning to tell him. Are you?"
He laughed and stopped trying to pull away from her. He wanted so badly to kiss her, just to lean down and put his lips to hers; but he restrained himself.
Finally, to both his relief and disquiet, the song ended, forcing them to break apart. They went to the bar and shared another glass of wine. But soon they were back on the dance floor, enjoying one more slow dance. During the dance they once again pressed their bodies together, breasts to chest, groin to stomach, and she once again made him intensely hard, aroused almost beyond measure.
"This is so nice," she whispered to him, her tongue reaching out to lick at his earlobe.
"Yes," he agreed.
"Sit with me when it's picture time," she said softly, her tongue actually probing inside his ear for the briefest second. "Sometimes those old photos scare me."
He wasn't sure what she meant, but assumed there was to be some sort of slide show. Sure enough, Catherine had taken the stage and grabbed one of the microphones. In a slightly slurred voice, she announced the beginning of the magnificent, final stage of the party: the exhibition of all the pictures everyone had provided her in the weeks before the party, which had been assembled into a slide show with accompanying music.
"This will be an amazing trip down memory lane," Catherine said proudly, having to hold onto an amplifier to steady herself. "Most of these, you will never have seen. So let's turn off all the lights, find a place to sit that faces the stage, and let the action begin."
Someone began to click off the lights, and people started finding seats at tables and along the side of the room. He started towards the tables, but Elizabeth tugged at his arm and moved in a different direction.
"Let's sit over here," she told him, guiding him to a spot at the very back of the room, more than fifteen feet behind anyone else and well out of their view unless they happened to turn all the way around.
He sat down on what appeared to be some sort of padded bench. He felt a little nervous about what she might have in mind. The fact that they were both married -- to other people -- came back to him again, creating a stab of guilt at how provocatively they had danced. She sat down next to him and melted sideways, compelling him to move his left arm back until her head rested against his shoulder.
This was insane, he thought. Anyone could look around at any minute and they'd be caught, and news of their flirtations telegraphed to one spouse or another within hours.
But then, whatever light had included the area they occupied went off, plunging them into near total darkness.
"Mmmm, this is cozy," she said, draping her right thigh over his leg.
"Yes," he said, less nervous now that they were almost invisible in the darkness. The feel of her body against his, together with the alcohol in his system, had clouded his judgment. His right hand, seemingly of its own accord, dropped down onto her thigh, just above her knees. The skin there was sumptuously soft, deliciously feminine.
As the music started and the first of the photos came on the screen -- a baby with wild hair -- the crowd all gave an appreciative laugh.
Elizabeth didn't laugh. Instead she kissed him lightly on the neck. As more pictures went up, his excitement finally overcame his fear. He began to move his hand along her thigh.
He did it slowly at first, his fingertips gliding gently but hesitantly over her inner thigh until they encountered the hem of her dress. She made no move to stop him; in fact she opened her legs a little, allowing him a corridor between them. He took advantage of this, sliding his hand beneath her dress and onto the delectably soft skin of her inner thigh.
"That feels good," she whispered to him. "You have gentle hands." She lifted her chin and kissed his ear.
It was then that the inevitable technical malfunction of the evening occurred. The image on the screen froze and the music came to a halt.
"Sorry" he heard Catherine's yell in the darkness. "We'll get it back up." She found the microphone and started talking about how they had gathered all the photos.
The lights started to go on and they reluctantly separated. He looked over at her. Her eyes were glazed with desire.
"I guess we'll have to find something to talk about," she said.