When I was in college, we had “mixers,” which were parties designed to allow men and women to meet and socialize. I recall a “nuts and bolts” mixer where the each guest was given one half of a metal fastener and assigned to find the bearer of the corresponding piece of hardware. (The males, of course, all received bolts, and the females nuts. There was nothing subtle about the symbolism.) Alas, I do not recall my other half. That may be because the real object of the party was to ply the women with cocktails until they became… compliant.
“Mixology,” then is the art of mixing drinks, or on another level, of social mingling.
On Friday evening Ellen’s new friends met up post-dinner at Val’s place. She had a degree in arts administration and worked in development at WHYY, a Philly public radio station. Val’s mother Barbara Cardinale, who ran the Institute of Fine Arts, was a prominent figure in Philadelphia society; she was also Tina’s boss. The Cardinales had money, and Val’s apartment in Fitler Square was comfortable, spacious, and beautifully decorated. Given Val’s taste in clothing, which usually involved large designer logos, Ellen suspected that the interior design was Barbara’s doing. When Ellen arrived, Val had her big flat-screen TV tuned to a college basketball game with the sound muted, and Beyoncé on the stereo.
“You’re just in time for the drinks,” said Val in greeting. She was a former bartender, and proud of her mixological prowess, though she had an admitted weakness for syrupy tropical fruit concoctions like the Singapore Sling. “I’ve made Valerie’s Secret, which is a cucumber martini with a mystery ingredient, and the Ferdinand, which is tequila, lime, and red pepper purée with a cucumber and smoked-salt garnish.” Excellent, thought Ellen. Kim must have had a word with her about the drinks.
“So ye’ve gendered the cocktails?” said Angus. “Are we allowed to cross-drink? I’m verra keen to delve into Val’s secret.”
Flattered, Val laughed as he took one of the cuke martinis, which was garnished with paper-thin slices of cucumber, cleverly rolled and speared on a toothpick. “Nobody’s going to judge you for swinging both ways,” she said.
The group gathered round the basketball game and the bowls of snacks on the coffee table; as usual there were more men than women. This was the moment Ellen dreaded; she had to decide where to sit. She saw Owen Griffith seated by himself on one of the two sofas, and her glance briefly met that of Hector, who was standing behind an empty chair talking to Tina. He inclined his head slightly, but otherwise acted no differently toward her than before they had shared a bed. Wearing his signature dark suit and tie, Hugh sat in an armchair eyeing the game, and Angus was beside Emily, though the two didn’t seem to be having an intimate tête-à-tête. Should she start a conversation with one of the men? If she did, would he take it as a sexual invitation? She didn’t understand the rules yet… if there were any. She sampled a Val’s Secret, and after making eye contact with Owen, brought him a Ferdinand and sat down beside him. “Nunc bibendum est,” he said, clinking his glass against hers.
“Now we must drink,” she translated, and he nodded. “The Romans were a thirsty people. So am I; we just finished our department program review.” They made small talk about Parnell State for a few minutes, but he kept glancing toward the door and she could tell he was waiting for someone. When Kim finally arrived, she had her answer. His blue eyes lit up, and he excused himself to say hello.
Val busied herself replenishing the snacks and laughing with Jaime Moreno, who had taught Ellen the cha-cha at Brasília. “I’ve got another round of drinks mixed,” she told the group. “Just need to slice the veggies.”
Jaime wandered back to the living room and sat beside Ellen. He was of middle height, olive-skinned, and very good-looking, though not a knockout like Gerry the Drummer. “I gather you’re an actor?” she asked.
“Yeah, character parts. I have a regular gig with the Philadelphia Theatre Company, but the way I actually make a living is audiobooks and voiceovers.”
“I can see you’d be very successful,” she said. “You have a voice as smooth as dulce de leche.” Suddenly, she remembered Kim’s comment about Jaime’s “moose call” in bed. Sex must bring out the animal in him.
Delighted by her praise, he smiled, showing his fine white teeth. “I keep hoping to get a part on Broadway one of these days,” he confided, almost shyly. “I’ve got a few off-Broadway credits.”
Ellen was about to reply when a sharp intake of breath was heard from behind the kitchen counter. “Uh, guys? I just cut myself,” said Val conversationally. And then, “Oh fuck, oooooh.” Regressing into a nonverbal state, she sank slowly down behind the counter. Everyone sat stock-still for a moment, and then Ellen jumped up and raced around the kitchen island, closely followed by Tina. Val was crouching on the floor, holding her hand tightly to her abdomen and keening softly to herself. Ellen surveyed the countertop. The end of a cucumber sat near a mandoline with a number of perfectly sliced disks of cucumber, and a fair amount of blood. She didn’t see any fingertips lying about, but there was an ambiguous clot of something in the blade that might be cucumber flesh—or human. “It’s going to be OK, Val,” she said, putting her hand on Val’s shoulder.
“No! Don’t touch me!” squealed Val.
Meanwhile Hugh, moving at his deliberate pace, had reached the scene of the accident from the other direction. He spoke firmly. “Val, listen to me. Which drawer has your tea towels?”
“Behind you,” she gasped. “Why?”
Ignoring this, he reached into the drawer. “Open your hand.”
“No, I can’t.” Her face was crumpling into a grimace of pain, and red was rapidly soaking her Juicy Couture logo T-shirt. That at least is a blessing, thought Ellen, and chided herself for arbitrary bitchiness.
Heedless of the blood, Hugh put both his hands over Val’s. “Look into my eyes, Val, and give me the exact recipe for Valerie’s Secret. Tell me now.”
“Umm, a half-ounce of simple syrup,” she began, staring at him.
“Good. Don’t look down. Just relax your hand and I’ll open it. Keep going,” he commanded.
“M-m-muddle the cucumbers and add four ounces of Hendricks.” She sucked in her breath as he opened the hand.
“Mmm-hmmm. And what’s the secret ingredient? Keep your eyes on my nose,” he said quietly as his gaze dropped to the wound.
“Rose water. How bad is it?” Looking gingerly over Val’s shoulder, Ellen saw that there was a deep diagonal gash to the palm, before Hugh wrapped a tea towel around it, binding the wound tightly. “Raise your arm,” he said, tucking the end of the towel in and gesturing for Ellen to hold it secure. “Ellen, I’ll get my car. You bring her out and keep her hand above the level of her chest.”
“No, I want Hugh to stay with me,” cried Val, who looked pale, but he was moving away now, wiping his hands on a second towel, and already halfway out the door. If he heard her comment, he didn’t reply.
“Erm, should we come along?” asked Angus. He looked worried, and a little put out by the way Hugh had taken charge of the situation.
Ellen sized up the group as she helped Val to her feet. “No, but someone should clean this up for her. Carefully.” She caught Tina’s eye. “Hold the fort here for Val. I’ll call you after we’ve gotten her in to see the doctor.” She picked up her own purse and Val’s, hooking both over her arm, and led Val out to the waiting car.
In the waiting room, she made the promised call, and learned that everyone had left after clearing up the mess and that Gerry the Drummer, arriving late, had fainted when he saw the blood. Then she fetched some coffee for herself and Hugh. He accepted the cup with a nod of thanks, and she said, “You were good with her.”
“Eldest of seven. I’ve had a lot of experience.” He fell silent, and she wondered whether his obvious concern for Val’s welfare had some deeper significance.
“I’m afraid your suit has some stains on it.”
“You’ve got a few yourself.” He gestured to her top, which was a see-through brown rayon with flutter sleeves. It was designed to be worn with a dark camisole or bra, and in the bright lights of the emergency room, it seemed slightly immodest. There were blotches on the chest that looked as though they had soaked through to her camisole; how had she picked those up? A shame; that top was one of her favorites. She looked up in time to see that Hugh’s eyes were still on her breasts. He met her gaze unabashedly, and then said, “Excuse me. I’m going to have a smoke.”
Eight stitches and a dose of painkillers later, Ellen and Val were dropped off at Val’s place. “Do you want me to stay with you?” she asked Val.
“No, thanks, but I wouldn’t have minded if Hugh stayed,” said Val. “Wasn’t he wonderful?” She looked inquiringly at Ellen as a new thought occurred to her. “What did you two talk about, all that time in the waiting room?”
Ellen smiled. “Not much. He went out for a smoke. Now, let’s get you into bed.”
Copyright 2016 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Owen the Classics professor quotes Horace’s famous line Nunc bibendum est, from a poem celebrating the defeat of Cleopatra. One can only wonder who his department chairperson was…
I own a mandoline, and it’s a wicked little piece of equipment, yet extremely useful.