By the time the cab got to the Farley mansion it was already well past midnight, and I could tell the party was already going rapidly going downhill into that depressing post-New Year’s Eve degeneracy and drunkenness. I usually don’t do New Year’s Eve for just that reason, but since I already had to be downtown for my publisher’s publicity bash, I figured I’d might as well stop in at the Farley’s and pay my respects. Ilene Farley’s my sister-in-law—my ex-sister-in-law, actually—and used to handle my legal stuff, but since Monica and I split up that got a bit awkward, and her husband Bruce takes care of it now.

The Farleys are good people as far as lawyers go, and their firm represents a lot of artistic types, so I thought their party might at least be interesting. I knew that Ilene felt responsible for the way her sister had dumped me, running off with the publicist from one of the theater groups she represented, and though it had been almost five months, I wasn’t above basking in a little sympathy. It’s a poor excuse for a holiday and always disappointing, but still, no one wants to be alone on New Year’s Eve.

There was no one to meet me at the door, so I just walked in and braved the music blasting from the living room, stood in the doorway waiting for my eyes to adjust. The living room was enormous and it was dark in there, and the similarity to a ballroom was enhanced by the mirrored disco ball spinning from the chandelier, suitably tacky and disorienting, sending a confetti of light across the furniture and faces and piles of streamers and paper hats. It was mostly theater people in there, some in costumes, some not. You can tell theater people because they always seem to be having a better time than it’s really possible to have. That’s one of the things Monica had liked about them.

New Year’s Eve is supposed to be a time of new beginnings and doors opening, but I don’t know anyone over the age of sixteen who believes that. More often it seems like a time of regret and sadness, another year of missed opportunities and lost hopes gone. The sight of so many people in costume was encouraging though. It made me think that maybe there were some surprises waiting to happen. Maybe it wasn’t all the same old faces.

There were men dancing with women and women dancing with women—no men dancing with men—the usual theater crowd. I tried not to stare at anyone as I looked around for someone I knew. I didn’t recognize anyone.

There was a girl on the far side of the room who immediately caught my eye. It wasn’t just that she was wearing a man’s suit and hat; it was that she was flirting too, quite ostentatiously in life-of-the-party mode, and with both women and men. She was standing with a group of about five people, obviously the center of attention, making the others laugh. It struck me that she was dressed in the same clothes as I was.

There was no doubt she was a woman, though. She was about my height, but very slim, even willowy—a model’s body. She had blonde hair pinned up under one of those floppy poet hats that no real man ever wears, and a white shirt and a tight black suit and skinny tie. She wore a glittery black mask, and it was hard to tell with the lights shooting over her face, but it looked like she had a moustache penciled on as well, a thin one, the kind that Frank wore.

And though her clothes were male, she obviously wasn’t trying to pass as a man. There was no mistaking that neck, those hands, and the exaggeratedly female way she moved: from the hips rather than from the shoulders. She was just what she appeared to be, a girl dressed up as a boy. She was enjoying herself immensely.

That moustache bothered me. Was someone pimping me? Trying to remind me of Frank and the way he’d run away with Monica?

She left that group and either felt my eyes on her or knew other people were looking because she moved through the crowd obviously aware of being watched. She found a couple of girls standing against the wall, leaned towards them in a predatory, seductive manner, and whispered something to them. From their laughs I knew it was something dirty. She glanced up at me as if to include me in the joke and I found myself staring right into her eyes. I might have been more self-conscious had I not been so captivated.

I wasn’t the only one watching her either, because as I stood in the doorway, some guy walked over to her and tried to talk her up. She gave him her ear for a moment and then said something—tossed off some comment—and it must have been something nasty, because the guy drew back as if he’d been stung, and I could see him muttering “bitch” as he walked way. The blonde smiled after him, and I could almost see her adding another notch to her rapier.

I might have just taken her for a gay girl having some fun had she not looked across the room at that moment and found me again. I was too interested to do anything but stare, but despite her harlequin mask, there was no mistaking the look in her eye—half challenge, half invitation, asking me whether I wanted to try my luck. I was tempted—something almost masochistic in me stirred—but first I really had to find Bruce and Ilene.

Across the front hall was their sitting room, which seemed to be filled with gay men, and behind that was the dining room and the sun porch. I walked back there but they weren’t around. When I got back to the living room, she was gone.

I’d stopped on the way back from the poetry party and bought a bottle of the Irish whisky that Farley liked and a few cigars—rum-soaked coronas. I put a cigar in my mouth and was trying to find a path back into the kitchen when a girl standing against the wall glared at me.

“I hope to God you’re not going to light that fucking thing in here.”

The venom in her voice took me by surprise, and all I could do was stare. Her girlfriend next to her seemed to be waiting for me to respond, but I was determined to keep out of this New Year’s Eve bitterness so I just gave them a sickly smile and said nothing.

I put the cigar in my pocket and pushed my way back to the kitchen, and halfway down the hallway, here came the blonde in the man’s suit walking out with two other girls, one dressed as a princess, the other just in jeans and sweater.

The people standing around made it even more crowded and awkward, and I caught the soft billowy tits of the girl in the princess gown on my chest as she squeezed past, and then here was blondie with her little French moustache and black mask, sidling past me, close enough to bite. She glanced up and I saw the flicker of deep eyes, a glimmer of a smile, and then felt something hard in her pants drag across my thighs and cock—something like a man’s erection, but different too: too hard, and obviously artificial, a dildo of some kind, made of plastic or rubber. It slapped across my thighs and cock like a stick across a picket fence, and then it was gone and blondie with it.

I stood there with my mouth open in astonishment as the girl in jeans snuck past. Blondie threw me a look over her shoulder as if asking me whether I’d enjoyed it, then all three of them laughed and were gone.

I felt as if I’d been groped. Or worse—groped by a man. But no, she obviously wasn’t a man, though she almost felt like one. I’m not sure what I felt, except that as I walked away my own cock was hardening inexplicably in my shorts.

Ilene was in the kitchen cutting limes amid the general party devastation. There were empties everywhere, and plastic cups with beer going flat. The big sushi platter was empty, nothing left but some wasabi and pickled ginger, and even the cold cut platter and spinach dip seemed pretty well picked over. Nothing left but the crudities and cheese cubes on toothpicks.

Apparently the kitchen was lesbian territory, and they didn’t seem especially glad to see me. It wasn’t a good place to take an incipient erection, so I covered myself with the bottle of Irish and smiled. They sat at the table and on the counter, drinking wine mostly, and kibitzing with Ilene as she worked.

“David!” she exclaimed when she saw me. “So glad you could make it! How are you, darling? And all dressed up!”

She put one arm around my neck—the one that wasn’t holding the knife—and pressed her cheek to mine. “What can I get you, Davey? Nothing to eat, I hope. We’ve been cleaned out!” She gestured around, but didn’t introduce me to her friends.

“Just a glass and some ice,” I said. “I brought a bottle. Where’s Bruce?”

“Around, around. Maybe upstairs. So what have you been up to? Why are you all dressed up?”

I told her about the poetry party, and Ilene translated to her friends as if they might not understand man-speech. She told them I was a writer and poet and a client of her firm, but they seemed more interested in the limes she was cutting. I’d obviously barged into the middle of something and didn’t want to stay.

Thankfully, Ilene didn’t mention Monica. She poured some of my whisky into a plastic cup and threw in some ice, then pulled me aside into the pantry.

I didn’t want to come out and ask, but Ilene’s a good sort and she said, “You haven’t heard anything? Monica called me day before yesterday. They’re going up to Bangkok and needed money. Seems Frankie met someone and they’re all excited about it.”

I frowned. “A girl?”

“A boy. I’m not too sure of the details. She said that ,they’d met someone, but you know Monica. She doesn’t work that fast, so it has to be Frank. All I know is that it’s a boy with one of those Thai names that sounds like a teapot falling down the stairs— Ramalamadingdong or something.”

I was confused. “Since when is Frank gay?”

Ilene gave me a sympathetic, motherly look. “Labels, Davey, labels. No one thinks like that anymore. Everyone’s everything. You should know that. Don’t you write about these things?”

I made a face. I couldn’t keep up with this world. I didn’t have the patience.

Ilene cocked her head and asked, “You heard about Bruce and me?”

“No. Don’t tell me.”

She smiled. “I’m moving in with Joyce. Just a trial basis. Bruce understands completely and is totally supportive, and we’re not talking divorce or anything, but I’m terribly happy about it. She’s around here somewhere. You just have to meet her.”

“I think I already did. She was at your Fourth of July party.” I remembered Joyce—haunted, intense, a sleeveless white tee with a tribal tattoo on her upper arm. She’d looked very angry to me and I’d stayed away from her.

Ilene was disappointed with my reaction. “She was nervous then. She didn’t know anyone. She’s really come out of her shell now.”

I smiled. “Well that’s great, Ilene. I’m really happy for you. Just super.”

I wasn’t fooling Ilene, so I changed the subject. “Hey, Leney, Did you see that girl who was just in here? Dressed in a man’s suit? Mask and moustache?”

“Moustache? Oh yes!” she laughed, glad to change the subject. “Cute, wasn’t she? Kind of young for you though, Davey, and maybe a bit wild? You could be her father.”

“You know her?”

“No. Never saw her before. She was with a bunch of theater people from East Light Rep though, so I suppose she has something to do with them, something behind the curtain.”

“Well what’s she doing dressed as a man?”

Ilene shrugged. “Having a good time, I guess. Just fooling around and being silly. You know these people. They love to shock us squares.”

I was about to tell her about the phony cock, but I thought better of it.

I said I was going to go look for Bruce and excused myself. As I left, I felt the mood in the kitchen close behind me like a door.

I found the girl in the living room, back to her game of flirtation. I stood near the wall where I could keep an eye on her, and even though I didn’t know why she was interested in me, I was pretty sure she knew I was there. I could see her turn up her charm a few notches, flirting with her two girls, making them laugh.

By this time the party had gone through its initial lift-off excitement, passed its period of party maturity, and reached that point of degeneracy where people were getting seriously drunk and even surly. No one bothered the girl, though. Her sexual ambiguity seemed to create a space around her, like an aura of inviolability.

Her friends drifted off or were dismissed, and she stood there, quiet at last, waiting. She was quite clearly making herself available.

Some drunks had taken over the music and were playing old, romantic, cry-in-your-beer stuff—Tony Bennett, Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn. I put my cigar back in my mouth and took another one from my pocket. I walked over.

She watched me as I approached but then looked away when I got close, fixing her eyes on the floor, as if it were suddenly fascinating. I handed the cigar to her.

It was supposed to be a joke, but she didn’t treat it like one. She looked at the cigar and then her eyes swept over me, darker than I’d expected and shining like the sequins in her mask. Her lashes were gorgeous.

“Thanks,” she said, taking the corona between two graceful fingers. “Got a light?”

I fished out my lighter while she expertly bit the tip of the cigar off with even, white teeth, politely picked the scrap of tobacco off her tongue and dropped it on the floor. She knew exactly what she was doing as she put the cigar in her mouth and twirled it slowly between her lips, pushing it in and out to wet the wrapper.

“They’re strong,” I said.

“Good. I like strong.”

She put her hand out to steady mine as I held the flame under the end of the cigar. Her hands were exquisite, the nails cut close but shaped and coated with clear polish. She wore a man’s watch on her wrist. It looked the size of a wall clock against those delicate bones.

“What happened to your friends?” I asked. “Those two girls you were with.”

“Jean and the princess? I suppose they’re off somewhere. Getting high upstairs, maybe. Maybe making out.”

“They with you?”

She sucked on the cigar, her cheeks hollowing, and blew out a plume of milky white smoke. Some people looked over, but no one said anything about her smoking. “I’m here alone.”

I’d expected to be cut down like all the other men, but she seemed in no hurry. I put my cigar back in my pocket. I couldn’t compete with the beautiful way she smoked.

“That’s a nice costume,” I said. “Who’re you supposed to be?”

“No one special. Just some guy. A man. Who are you supposed to be?”

I laughed. “The same, I guess. Just a man. And that’s all? Just a guy?”

“That’s enough, isn’t it? It’s part of my New Year’s resolutions. I’m going to spend this year as a man. I want to see how the other half lives.”

“And how’s it going so far?”

A smile lifted one corner of her mouth. “It’s easier than I thought. You just have to be nasty with the girls and rude to the other men, and everything seems to work out fine.”

I laughed again. She was doing things with that cigar that made thinking difficult, and she knew it.

“Sounds like you’ve learned our secrets,” I said.” But wait till you try and get someone to go home with you. That’s the hard part.”

She put her head back and blew another stream of smoke at the ceiling. She had a dancer’s neck, and the grace to go with it, and I wondered if Ilene had been right about her working behind the curtain. She obviously loved the spotlight. “That shouldn’t be a problem. The girls are crazy for me.”

“And is that what you want?”

“It’s a possibility.” She tilted her head and looked at me as the lights from the disco ball streamed over her mask. “Unless something better comes along.”

She was playing with me but I didn’t mind it from her. Not a bit.

“Pardon me for prying,” I said. “But are you gay? I mean, it would be good to know before I really get involved.”

“Oh? Are you planning on getting involved?” Another smile, another slow, plume of smoke swirling in the air like cream in black coffee. “A gentleman never tells,” she said, closing those long lashes in false modesty.

I laughed again. She was exquisite. “My name’s David McFedder.”

“Sam,” she said. She didn’t put out her hand.

“Short for…?”

She looked at me as if she had no idea what I was talking about, so I didn’t press her.

There was an angry shout from the other room and the sound of a chair falling over. A scuffle, and a girl’s voice raised in alarm, a man’s threat. Some man came out, pushed his way angrily through the crowd and left, not looking back. All the gays were quiet enough; it was always the hetero’s that fought.

The disturbance drew two of the wall-leaners into the other room, though, and Sam took advantage to move into their spot, leaning her back against the wall.

“So you’re just supposed to be some man?” I asked. “That’s a pretty generic costume, isn’t it?”

“Actually, I think it’s quite radical. I’m tired of coming to these parties and getting hit on. I wanted to see what it was like to do some hitting of my own. Does it bother you?”

“No,” I said. “Not at all. Rather the opposite, really. I find it pretty sexy.”

“Sexy?” she asked. “That’s cute. I haven’t heard that word in ages.” She took another puff, but she didn’t appear to be enjoying the smoke as much as she enjoyed just playing with it.

“And so who are you?” she asked. “Someone said you were a poet. I’ve never met a poet in a suit before.”

So she’d been asking. And she wanted me to know she’d been asking.

“On the side,” I said. “I’m a writer mostly.”

“Oh? Are you going to write about this party tonight? Are you going to put me in it?”

“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe I’ll write a story. What would you like me to say?”

“Whatever you like. Just so it’s interesting.”

We were standing fairly close now, and I couldn’t get the feel of that artificial cock out of my mind. Her shoulders were against the wall, her hips thrust out a bit so that I could just barely see the bulge in her pants without actually staring at it. She stood as if she knew I was dying to look at it, and it amused her.

Just then the girl in the princess outfit called her from the dance floor. Sam pushed away from the wall and stood up.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I think my babies need me. Thanks for the cigar. Come see me if you need help spelling my name for your story.”

She dropped the cigar into an abandoned beer and slid past me towards the princess, who was by now pretty drunk and listing rather heavily to port. She had that messed and blowsy look of someone who’d just been making out heavily in some awkward position.

I didn’t mind the abrupt exit. I’m funny that way, a bit of a masochist maybe. I think beautiful woman have a right to be cruel, maybe even a duty. It separates the men from the boys and makes you work to get what you want, so it didn’t bother me. Besides, I could tell Sam knew I was still looking at her. She pinched the Princess’s bottom and kissed the back of her neck with a bit too much gaiety. I knew it was for my benefit. I was supposed to be scandalized.

I turned away. Sinatra was playing. “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” I think, but before I could catch the opening bars there was a whoop of laughter behind me and I turned to see the Princess standing there amidst the dancers, almost doubled up in embarrassed laughter, her hands pressed together over her nose and mouth the way girls do when they really cut loose. Her eyes were wide and fixed on Sam, who must have said something especially wicked to get that kind of response.

Sam stepped forward and took the princess’s hand to dance, put her other hand around her waist and the princess laughed again.

It was the cock, I realized. She must have felt that artificial cock poking her. That’s why she’d laughed.

Sure enough, Sam held her close and really seemed to be working it into her, making the princess explode with bawdy laughter again and cover her face with her hand as best she could. The other dancers were mostly drunk or just confused. They smiled too but had no idea what was going on.