Kind of like human static, Zadie thought, but she wasn’t sure. The inaudible sounds of breathing swelling into whisper, rustling clothes and shoes on silent soft carpet, hands holding full glasses, someone suppressing a snort of laughter. Those things, but none of them in particular. More like a rhythm or subliminal noise than a sound.
She slid her key into the apartment’s front door lock and the static subsided so that there was nothing for a moment. She had a slight and hazy headache, as she always did at the end of the day. She turned the key, waited longer than she had to before pushing the door, then opened it.
She knew the drill, somehow. The lights that were turned on by others since she didn’t, the shouting of “Surprise!” in concert, the kisses and wishing wells. The release of anticipation. She looked around: there were twenty-five, maybe thirty people in her living room. Her new roommate was there, glowing. Her furniture had been rearranged to create more open space. Books that had been lying around this morning were now stacked on a small table. Some people were smoking, and she wondered where they were leaving their ashes and butts. A big green and black number 27 was taped to a window with red tape.
She dutifully greeted and thanked everybody, opened presents and toasted. There were people who said “Speech, speech,” holding both hands by their mouth as if calling from a distance, but she refused. After the stir of her entry and the stream of congratulations, a few seconds were all most people needed to regroup and pick up their pre-static conversations, leaving her moving around like a newly arrived guest at a stranger’s birthday party.
People were having a good time. They were talking and drinking and laughing, visibly happy to see each other. There was music on, although it wasn’t hers. Nobody danced, but everybody was full of movement. There was a kind of jumpy choreography in their movements. One person would take a step back and laugh, upon which another would step forward, turn a little, say something witty and return to her former position. She should be part of this, Zadie thought, be in the middle of it.
The headache was still there. She washed away three ibuprofens with a swig of champagne and sat down on one of her kitchen chairs that someone had placed against the wall by the table, which was being used as a makeshift bar.
No one else was sitting. Zadie stood up again, trying to look casual and pleasantly astounded by all of this; her breathing was like something odd shaped rolling. It felt as though she had no legs anymore, and she’d fall through her absence of legs anytime; she swerved.
She had always been nervous, even as a child, but lately it was worse. For about a month and a half, she had increasingly become nervous about her being nervous, and now there were these times when her nervousness started snowballing. It didn’t need a trigger. She would know that she was possibly going to be uneasy and tense and that would start it, something pressing on her from all sides, and from there on it would take her farther away from what was around her, all the time knowing that this was what was happening, and so a couple of times it got to the point where it paralyzed her, leaving her trembling and sweating and seeing black things, invisible things popping before her eyes. She walked out of a supermarket twice, looking back at her groceries sitting lonely on the conveyor belt. She took another ibuprofen and sucked on it against the dome of her mouth.
After about a half hour of standing against the wall and self-consciously sipping champagne, Zadie got up and walked into the kitchen. There was someone looking in her fridge. She had seen him before. She remembered him like a depressed character played by a happy actor, or maybe the other way around. He unknowingly and repeatedly had stated the obvious in a conversation before she could, and she had liked him for it. He had a way of looking at you and looking away at the same time. The right half of his face illuminated by the open fridge’s yellow light, he now asked her if she was having a good time. She told him she was, and who wouldn’t on her birthday? He said, that’s right, and laughed and asked her if she wanted a drink and Zadie felt her face pull on her. She said yes, she’d like a beer, and he twist-opened a bottle and handed it to her. She took a sip, it was sweet and metallic, and told him she had to go to the bathroom, regretting it even as she was saying it.
With the beer in her hand, she crossed the living room. If you didn’t look at people, and walked like you knew where you were going, and you didn’t swerve, they didn’t stop you. She opened the door to the balcony, where it was cold. She wanted to stay there and drink her beer in the cold and look at the people passing in the street. They could have asked her if she wanted a party, Zadie thought, but hated how unappreciative she felt. The strange thing was that she didn’t want them to be at her place, but now that they were here she didn’t want them to get their bags and coats that were piled on her bed and leave, either.
Seeing them from behind the glass doors of the balcony, most people standing inside seemed even more at ease than when you were close to them. It was in the way they moved their heads and used their hands decidedly when talking. They seemed to know that whatever they said, people would want to have more of it.
On the evening of her twelfth birthday, a wildly playing band had marched through the street where she lived. Zadie had stuck her head out of the window when she heard the first notes and beats turn the corner, and had rushed to her parents to tell them the news of the band: was it because of her birthday that they were marching through their street? It was, they had said, and after putting on her coat over her pajamas, they ran downstairs to see the band. The other, older neighborhood kids had come out too, some sitting on their bikes and looking at each other and the band in a mixture of exhilaration and forged nonchalance. You could see your breath, and when the band reached them, you could see their breath as well, forming a misty little cloud trailing behind the marching band members. She couldn’t have been more proud, so she told one of the boys on their bikes that the band was there for her, because it was her birthday, her twelfth. The boy had said, sure, and laughed in her face, and when she turned around the band had already passed by.
Zadie was still lingering on the balcony when it started to snow. There was one, and there was another one. And then there were more, like a perfect screensaver. Although it was much too early in the season, thousands of small flakes had started to descend slowly from the still sky, rising and falling on their way down. One flake landed in her beer. She looked up, opened her mouth and followed a snowflake coming down, headed for her, until it was too close to focus. It landed in her mouth, where it tasted like nothing.