A City Upon a Hill


Alli looked around: there were men in tuxedos and women in sparkling dresses, folded into long shawls. She looked down at her polka dot dress, purchased that day from Forever 21. Her clutch was covered in embroidered hearts, for crying out loud. The last time she had worn a dress slipped from memory. The men laughed loudly, already buzzed, their silver Rolexes glittering in the orange street lights. The line snaked around the corner and didn’t seem to be moving.

Checking and re-checking herself in her tiny CoverGirl compact mirror, Alli scolded herself for losing Nealy, who had invited her in the first place. Where had she gone? The line pressed against her. Everybody was laughing with somebody.

She went down to Crawley’s with the rest of the gang every Friday, but always in her office clothes – brown pencil skirts and puffy white blouses, things like that. Here, she was sure no dress had been bought at Banana Republic, much less Forever 21. After stretching her mind to think of any high-end designers, she gave up.

The laughing man in front of her shuffled forward, so she shuffled forward too. Alli craned her neck to see the door, yards away and then craned her neck up to see how tall the hotel was. It was at least ten flights up, she thought. They were going to get a rooftop view, Nealy had said. Where was she? She was probably off in the cigar room.

Her phone vibrated in her clutch – it was Nealy. “Hey, I’m already upstairs!” the text message read. Alli sighed and pounded back on the touch screen, “Almost at the door! See you soon.”

More and more people were arriving by taxi. Alli had counted at least four limousines, one of them white. Just another Friday night, Alli tried to tell herself. Most every other woman was in heels; she was the only one in flats.

The line shuffled forward again. Alli could see the bright blue and violet lights flashing from within. She shifted from foot to foot and checked her compact again. Alli had put on a little foundation, a touch of blush, but hadn’t wanted to overdo it. Now she wished she had. No one else had her round, bulbous nose, her boring eyes. She wanted to melt into the wall of the hotel, covered in pillars, laurels and grapes carved into the white stone.

The overly-sweet smell of booze filled the air. Alli sniffed irritably at the oily beer fumes, the high, dry wine odor. People walking by on the street didn’t ogle. There were from this neighborhood, with expensive, wood-paneled, palm tree-filled restaurants on every corner.

Alli hadn’t had anything to drink. She had hardly touched her dinner at the benefit. It was mostly finger food and more drinking anyway. The waiters had kept every glass full, but Alli had hardly touched hers. The laughing man and his companions in front of her had recently enlarged their party from an overflowing taxi. More glittering sashes twisted in the night breeze.

With a little more shuffling, the door came into view. Tall, bald body guards, as wide as two of her put together, checked passes from the benefit dinner. Alli’s skin grew warm; she couldn’t believe she was going in. She fretted about being turned away at the door – the burning face, the uncaring onlookers. The bouncer behind the dark shades took her pass and handed her a bracelet to put on.

The lobby was crowded. It seemed like everyone who had gotten in had stopped right there. Alli could understand why. The walls were covered with famous people who had visited: The Rolling Stones, Cheryl Crow and the like. People were taking pictures in front of them to put on Facebook. Many-tiered chandeliers hung from the white ceiling. Blue and purple lights flashed from panels everywhere. People were sitting on red couches spread out all over the gray marble floor. Waiters whirled about refilling glasses. This was just the lobby.

Alli didn’t know where to go. She moved away from the doorway, as another party poured in behind her. Smooth jazz played. She had forgotten the rooftop view.

There was another line at the golden elevators. Beefy guards only let so many in at a time. Drunken guests whooped and pumped their fists. Alli looked back at the lobby where one person ordered platters of shots for his couch full of friends. Alli lived in a studio apartment, in the last neighborhood before the bad part of town, past J Avenue.

She was at the head of the jostling line. The golden doors opened. The elevators looked so small inside even though they were covered in lights and mirrors. The beefy guard, dressed head-to-toe in black, beckoned and Alli crested a wave of revelers.

The doors closed. Alli found herself stuck in a corner. The experience was not unlike when she decided on an impromptu trip to the top of the Empire State building. She had been born in New York; why hadn’t she seen it yet? The experience, for twenty bucks, hadn’t been what she had expected. Most of her time had been spent in a clamoring line of tourists, bent, like a pretzel, into a floor-full of velvet ropes. At the top it had been so crowded it had been almost impossible to move, much less get an unobstructed view. She had managed to see an orange sea of lights in the direction of Queens.

The golden doors opened. Music – Kylie Minogue – hit her ears. She tumbled out of that mold, along with the rest of the group. The top floor felt small and cramped – some twisting beige hallways, a dark dance floor, a bar facing the rooftop view. Once again, it was difficult to move.

There were low black VIP tables set near the windows, lit with red candles. Alli squeezed past them to look out. She saw little white dots below, twinkling like stars and little else. An illuminated flag flew atop a courthouse far away. She tried taking some shots with her phone; they all came out blurry, the distant lights streaking and wavering, like they had entered some deep haze.

Alli bought a glass of water, the least expensive item at the bar. A waiter had offered to open a tab, but Alli had politely declined. She could buy a lot of things with eighty-five dollars.

Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights” came on from the packed, sweaty dance floor and Alli allowed her plain self to feel a tad glorious. Here she was at the Wilbur. She was going to try to have fun, in her own way, but the heat rolling off the dance floor just wasn’t beckoning to her.

The bar was well-lit. A woman, Maserati car key spinning around her thumb, started gushing to Alli about some bachelorette party she had went to. She looked at Alli like she was the best person ever. Alli smiled, self-conscious. She looked down at the dress she wore. The woman was still talking to her. Alli turned her full attention to her and her friends. She didn’t get to do this often.