The room was heavy with water and lactate. The live band spelt it out for him, with one swish of the cellist’s bow. Sweat. It was hanging by gigantic droplets from his eyelashes, obscuring his vision and not allowing him to see his dancing partner. The sweat was inside his mouth, too, like sour milk or like a bad kiss.
‘What is your name?’ he shouted to the girl. He assumed it was a girl.
The answer got gobbled up, greedily, by some loud molecule whooshing past them at a preposterous speed. Well, never mind any of that. The answer, which was either Mary-Lou or Sue, did bother him for a while, but the answer, too, would cease to matter once the dance was over. Once the tune changed and a different chemical reaction was formed. ‘Oh for God’s sake, man. It’s Janine’s party tonight. Lay off this shit’. The voice of his brother came loud and clear, like it always did. Peter threw the term paper on the floor, ran downstairs and jumped into the car.
‘Oh I’m Peter by the way’. The girl burst out laughing. She didn’t care, which was fair enough.
What bothered him was the colour of her dress. It was pure white, and in the context of Mexican weed and a dozen bottles of tequila, it made no sense. After all, this was just a dance. A quick hoedown which always ended in a different partner. It took him a little time, a touch of quicksilver, and the rhythm section kicking in, to colour it red. Which could be blood, but which could equally be something else.
Peter had no idea what dust smelled like, not at this hour, but as their movements got more and more intense, as the dance deepened, he sensed it on her dress. Why dust? He remembered how years ago his brother took him to the attic for the first time. Crippled toys and black-and-white prints of the periodic table – they had to run out of it, vomiting dust. It was funny, he thought, that much of your future came out of fear and disgust. In the meantime, she dragged him by the elbow, she nudged him with her thigh – and it felt like she had been doing it for years. Who was she anyway? Why the familiar smile, why the big cheekbones? Sue?
Well, at the very least the room got a little brighter. The sweat kept tonguing their ears with its wet, unsexual movements and they could at any moment find themselves in the middle of a tedious round dance, but at the very least he could see her now amid the Brownian particles whirling around the floor.
The other day, in the lab, someone told him a Japanese word for a woman who was beautiful from behind but not so much when you saw her from the front. Sue was a little like that. As dance went on (and it did feel like a rather long dance), she sometimes looked so plain from a certain angle that he wished the musicians would just stop playing. There were moments, however, seconds and possibly even minutes, when Sue flashed those remarkable cheekbones and smiled in a way so effortlessly striking that he felt immediately seized with a desire to impress her.
‘Do you know the chemical composition of tequila?’
‘What?’ She frowned to indicate that he was either too quiet or an idiot.
‘Well, methanol for one…”
‘You know I don’t care about your work’.
Peter was a little taken aback by that. How did she know about his work and why did she need to care or not care about it? But then since he knew her name, those must have been the least relevant questions at that point. Far stranger was the way she was growing bigger and heavier in his arms. She almost slipped away a couple of times which would have resulted in a terrible accident that he (somehow, no doubt) felt dubious about. Was it the dance dragging her down or the number of compounds that were invading her body through sweat? Was it Mexican weed inflating her? Was it the taste of tequila grounding her movements?
At times, though, he almost failed to recognized her face, swollen and ravaged by the dead air (ah to think of the elements it contained!) in the room. Peter thought he would kill his brother after the dance for spiking his drink or giving him bad weed. For there was no other way to explain how a girl twisting in his arms like a fishnet prey would start sporting those disgusting wrinkles on her young and silky skin. This made no sense, and as Janine slid past him in a seductive black skirt that could almost make you cry, he told her he would strangle her boyfriend, his brother, who believed that chemistry was ‘shit’. Peter said that in the course of a nanosecond that the moment lasted.
‘For how much longer will it continue?’ he wondered aloud, feeling tired and abused.
She was clear as a day before him now. As were the whole dance and this strange party, and still he tried to push it all away. They were embracing helplessly now, sticking to each other, dancing awkwardly, like an exhausted couple does after a long anniversary night. And when the music stopped a few seconds later, it was like a heavy gong knocking them out. Their ears were crushed with silence, and he felt like a tennis player after a five-set match or, rather (he smiled, he grinned), Mendeleev on the 17th of February 1869. Then he let her go.
‘Danced with you too long’, he said as they stared at each other. Listlessly and from a short distance.
She heard him this time, but it was too late. There were moments when whatever you said, it was too late.
Then someone screamed the party was over, and it was time to look around and see people their age catching one collective breath. It was late, very late now, and the darkness outside licked the windows black.
‘It was just a dance’, he kept saying to himself as if trying to find an excuse or an explanation. It was a tone of neurotic experience his students knew so well. And as they were walking home, Peter and Sue, they were not saying a word. They were both thinking of something. Of their kid they had to take to school early in the morning or that evening when you could have stayed at home writing the term paper with no need to explain to a perfect stranger the chemical composition of tequila.
‘Yes?’ she said.
‘Essential. But makes for a nasty hangover’.