Eartha is laughing, spinning between the hands of a handsome dance partner, when she turns and finds a boy staring at her – blonde, white, rumpled. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I want to move like you," he says. "Can you teach me how to move my body like you do on stage?"
He had been to the show that night and now here he is at the same little get-together, here in these shadowy corners where everyone tastes whiskey-happy. "Come to the studio," she says, and gives him the name, and goes back to dancing with that handsome young man, never expecting to see Blondie again.
But there he is two evenings later, the sky outside dark in the way of Manhattan darkness that only makes the city feel more alive. He's wearing all black and he's here to dance. He's untrained. He's not bad.
Afterwards they go downstairs to have coffee and talk, a conversation of crests and swells; he tells her all about the kind of acting he wants to do, about Marlon Brando's voice on the telephone, about standing three feet from Montgomery Clift. He tells her he doesn't understand his insides half the time but he sees infinite knowledge in her little flicks of the wrist. Eartha laughs and makes fun of him and keeps the flattery private, close to her heart. She tells him about the importance of the body, the kind of music she likes, how every part of her is an instrument to be used.
His name is James. She will always call him Jamie.
He introduces her to an actor named Paul who he used to run into on the New York City audition circuit all the time. Paul has a wife named Jackie and a handful of little tots, pictures in his wallet that he shows Eartha. Three smudgy, pudgy pink faces. James stands by uncomfortably shifting his weight. "Kids," he says, vaguely, and shakes his head like a pup shaking off water, confused as anything.
Paul might be the best looking man she's ever seen, and she's seen a fair few. He'd just done a small part in a film and tells her, with such a devilish aw shucks look in his eye, that it was, "Pure shit."
She laughs before telling him how much she appreciates his candor. "I like a man who's honest about his losses."
"It's easy when they're all you've got," Paul jokes.
She laughs again, but James is fidgety, moody. "At least you got your name in the credits!"
"Hey, what's in a name," Paul teases. "Just a collection of letters."
"Call me when they stick yours above the title," James interrupts, too loudly, and then finishes in a mutter, "Even put mine above Steinbeck's."
It's sharper than he usually is in Eartha's presence, not to mention staggeringly arrogant, so she shoots him a narrow-eyed look.
But Paul leans in close to her. "Jimmy's jealous," he says. "He doesn't want you and I to have something to talk about that he's got no in on."
"Hey," James grumbles. He shoves his hands in his pockets, but doesn't deny it.
Paul hums a little bit of C'est Si Bon in her ear, handsome jaw tilted just her way, before pulling back. Eartha smirks at him, puts her hand on his chest so her fingertips leave five little points of pressure on his skin. "Wicked," she tells him, not without approval.
He laughs, and she thinks he's like King Arthur or Apollo or some other ridiculous figure of myth, simply too beautiful to look at directly.
James comes to her apartment and sits on her floor while she puts on her face or stretches, singing along a little under her breath to the records he puts on, making up funny little songs if he's playing those bongos.
"Eartha," James says, something wondering in it, and again, "Eartha?"
"Mm?" The sound of her voice is low and musical, as much a response as a note in a song she is always somewhat singing.
"What d'you think about Paul?"
"You came to my home to talk about boys?" Eartha raises an imperious eyebrow at him even as her lips curl in a twisty smirk, and James makes a face at her. He's like a little boy sometimes, all impudence and silly charm. "Well then, my dear, talk away."
"I'm asking what you think."
"No, you're the one who wants to talk, or you wouldn't have brought it up. So tell me what you think about Paul, Jamie – I'm all ears." She cups a hand around the shell of her ear to illustrate it more theatrically.
James flops onto his side and his back, rolls around with all his restless energy that never has anywhere to go. Finally he says, "He can't dance for shit."
Eartha lets out a loud, sharp laugh. Then she gets to her feet, pulls up her full height, and cocks her hip to one side, foot tilted out attractively and arms held up. "Show me how you move, Jamie. Maybe it'll get you saying the things you really want to say."
James' nervous energy needs a place to go, a singular focus and driving purpose, or otherwise he'll melt all over the place. And it works, of course: once he's up and standing how she showed him in class, he's all sturdy confidence and ease. They step and turn around the small living room, bump the coffee table and nearly knock over a lamp laughing. But then he gets a little melancholy look on his face like he sometimes does.
"I swear," he says. "There are times when I feel like nothing is tethering me to the ground at all."
It hits a tender spot in Eartha and she puts her arms around him tight. "I am," she tells him. "I am, right now."
Sometimes Eartha and Jamie spend their nights wandering. Not sleeping appeals to him because he never wants to miss a thing, he wants to look and see and take everything in. She's the same way; it's why they get along. They take trains and cabs, dip into coffee shops and museums, walk until their soles are sore. They are both country children, motherless, stranded in this onyx Oz, this midnight city pulsing with light.
They hold hands tight, Hansel and Gretel looking for breadcrumbs. "I feel so small," she murmurs.
"You are," Jamie says, just an edge of teasing to it. "So little I could put you in my pocket."
"As if I'd go," she says with exaggerated haughtiness. She squeezes his fingers. "No. I mean here, in this city. This universe. Just one woman. One ant. One star in the sky."
"Quit it, you're makin' me nervous," he says, but he squeezes her hand back. She knows he understands, because he always does. It's why they get along.
Whatever James' infatuation with Paul is – surface level, maybe, wanting to drink down all that burnished gold on him, or deeper, some actorly connection – it has him bringing Paul to the dance studio one afternoon.
"I've heard you've got no movement, Mr. Newman," Eartha declares. "What do you have to say about it?"
Paul's shoulders drop in a slump and he gives James a flat, disapproving look. "You giving up all my secrets, Dean?"
James smiles a little. He isn't totally at ease the way he normally is with Eartha; she can tell he's on display like when he's on stage, or television. Performing. Flirtatious. "I take it back. It's not that you can't, it's just you don't know how to do it when you're supposed to."
"I do love hearing all the things I've got to improve on," Paul says dryly.
"It's not natural yet," James tells him. "You gotta make it natural. Eartha taught me. She's all natural."
Eartha seems to purr. "Mmm, such praise from the boy."
Paul is less impressed. He drags over one of the chairs dotting the perimeter of the room and the grating sound cuts through the music playing on the turntable. "Put your money where your mouth is, Jimmy."
James doesn't miss an opportunity to put on a show. He draws himself up, whips up the coat he'd thrown over the piano in the corner, and shakes it out from side to side. "I'm the matador," he says to Eartha. "You're the bull."
Paul snorts. He's sitting backwards on the chair, arms folded across its back and chin propped on his arms. It is adorable. "More like a doe."
"More like a jungle cat," Eartha corrects, making a hand into a claw and pawing at the air in his direction. Paul grins and defers to her with a nod and slight bow.
But she does the bull act since Jimmy is still so insistently shaking out his coat-cum-cape. She scratches her pointed foot along the ground like a hoof; she squares her shoulders and flares her nostrils. She charges at James and he twists away from her in a flare of wool coat; she charges again and again he evades. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Paul is mischievously amused but also riveted to the long lines made by their bodies – intersecting, sweeping away from one another, chasing, dancing.
"Alright, you've made your point," he says after a minute, leaning back so he rests against the mirror, the outline of his own body.
Eartha extends a hand to him. "Your turn, Apollo."
Again his little smile as he rises, not without grace. He takes her hand but does not reel her in. "If I'm Apollo, who are you? Artemis?"
Eartha extends her arm long and straight like an arrow, the other drawn back to give power to the shot. Then she pulls her fingers from his so she can raise her arms elegantly above her head, hands like delicate leaves. "Or Daphne."
"She's supernatural," James says. "Spirit of the air." He smirks. "A devil. She can do whatever she wants, she can take anything and make it magic."
Paul steps into her space and puts a loose arm around her waist, a hand waiting to meet hers again. "He's wooing me to woo you," Eartha tells him, playful.
Paul cuts his eyes at James over her head. "Such indirect advances." Then his gaze falls back to her, crinkles at the corners of his eyes and smile in parenthesis. She's never seen a blue like those eyes in her life. Not even the sky on the clearest day. "Now what's that supposed to accomplish, I ask you?"
She feels James step up behind her. He merely echoes their gentle swaying for a moment before his fingertips trail lightly down the backs of her arms, sending easy little shivers across the surface of her skin. He puts one arm around her waist and drapes the other along the line of hers, hand covering her hand on Paul's shoulder.
"That's more to the point," Paul notes. He smiles, something very kind in it and, for the first time, uncertain. "I'm really just here for dancing."
She's still swaying with Jamie, leaning back into his chest and resting there. Paul's arm is trapped between her body and James' so she can feel the incremental shifting as he winds it tighter around her waist, drawing him closer and closer. Her arm and James' arm curl around Paul's neck but he's just looking at her, worry in those guileless blues.
Hands are sliding over her – Paul's palm pressed between her shoulder blades, skin to skin, and the curl of James' fingers around her hip – as they press so close on either side. "Wicked, wicked boys. What's to be done with you?"
James turns her around gently and she goes along, twining her arms around his neck instead. He tilts his head a little and lets his lids go heavy, very inviting. "You tell me."
Eartha knows James is angling for a kiss because he is, more often than not, angling for any kind of affection he can get his hands on. She has never minded. She has affection to spare. It's natural with Jamie, a natural extension of who he is and who she is and how they are together. He is one of her dearest friends. Eartha believes he always will be.
They kiss now, bodies loose with the leisurely ebb and flow of what is not so much a dance, not anymore. "Two little orphans, you and me," she murmurs, melting into him so totally that her cheek is against his collarbone and to kiss her he has to tuck his chin. Soft kisses like hot, sweet coffee during late night talks. Like the well-worn spines of books filled with words that make the heart clench and relax like a closed fist. Kissing like all things that are good and familiar and friendly.
Against the nape of her neck she feels a second kiss. It leaves its next mark on her jaw and then her cheek. It nudges against James' mouth and then against Eartha's. She chances a glance at all those mirrors and is startled momentarily by the image of herself in her black top and long burgundy skirt, feet bare, tucked between these two boys. James has a deadly look about him like he knows just what he's doing but that boldness of Paul's is gone entirely, replaced with a kind of shivery shyness.
"It's alright," Eartha tells him, turning back his way. Spinning between the hands of two handsome partners. "It's just a dance."
The record skips on a song fading out and after the scratch the room is once again filled with lush instrumentals, rich dark jazz. She takes a step towards him and he takes a step back, but there's motivation in it; both of them are there on the same page. He smiles a little, so does she; hands find waists and shoulders and hands again. She leads.
James sinks into the seat Paul had vacated, turned around so he can sprawl easily, legs stretched out. Even though she's the one directing the half-assed little waltz, Paul nudges her over gently and deposits her in James' lap with a whump that makes James laugh and pretend to be more winded than he is. Eartha gives his cheek a quick, gentle swat and Paul is laughing too, right up until he leans in to kiss her.
The high afternoon sun is burning out there on the other side of the windows and it has filled the room to the brim with white sunlight. It's not quite like any little affair she's had, which are usually spilled across soft surfaces in dark rooms with mouths that taste like booze-filled bottles. But of course this isn't like that; look at who she's with.
They end up taking a tumble onto the unforgiving floor. Paul bumps his elbow with a sore, sorry, "Oww," and James kisses his arm to make up for it. "Nobody's graceful horizontal," Paul informs her, half-apologetic.
Eartha winds limbs around him and rolls them over until she's on top. "Speak for yourself."
"Yes, ma'am," he says dutifully.
Paul has a way of kissing that is very tender and very focused, with his hands on her somewhere so she feels utterly connected to him, a closed circuit. She imagines he is a man who has done a lot of kissing, and to great effect.
"Selfish," Jimmy mutters before he gets himself involved, puts his mouth on Paul's as he's probably wanted to do for a nice long while now.
Paul breaks it up with too much laughter. "Who you calling selfish except yourself, Dean?"
James make a disgruntled sound that Eartha thinks is mostly put on but either way she kisses him too.
"When tomorrow morning I got crick in my neck, I'm blaming you both." Paul says it with a very stern look, but his hands are creeping up her thighs under her skirt.
"Blame accepted," she says, reaching for the hem of James' shirt. "Now hush."
The first one she has is Paul. He uses his hands on her until she's purring, a satisfied cat fed on nothing but canaries. She can feel James' impatience and jealousy at the fringes but it's just too delicious to try and test his composure. Eartha keeps Paul on his back, shirt open and twisted around his arms, undershirt pushed all the way up to his chest, and takes him that way until James interrupts to kiss her stupid some more, finally hauling her off Paul and into his own lap.
"Hey," Paul says, "I'm still over here, you know."
"Someone'll be with you in a minute," James tells him, but it's muffled against Eartha's mouth. She wraps her legs around his waist. All her nerve endings feel fuzzy, drunk without having a sip.
"Jealous Jamie," she sighs, head on his shoulder. He tilts her face up so he can kiss her lightly, then leans his forehead against hers as they move together. She thinks Paul's hand is on her back, guiding. So many touches, it's so hard to tell.
Eartha has many friends of that persuasion, people who favor their same sex or neither or both, but she's never been a spectator, so to speak. Though she's not sure it counts as spectatorship if you're on the ground with the lions.
It's after she has luxuriated in their full attention and lies in a rumpled careless heap, clothing abandoned and skirt acting as cushion for her sated lounging. Jamie uses his mouth on Paul, dusty blonde head between those burnished thighs.
The sun is dipping down by the time it's all over, sunset painting the mirrors pink and orange. It was probably more exertion than if they had spent those hours at the barre and just about as much fun, but she thinks everyone feels a little fragile as they gather themselves to return back to the world outside.
They both walk her down and her put into a cab with kisses to her knuckles, perfect gentlemen. She watches them as it pulls away from the curb, their hair messy and clothes hastily buttoned, standing shoulder to shoulder with small, almost nervous smiles. She presses her palm to the window in a wave and winks at them both. The last image she has of the afternoon is their laughter.