The Convention

Bonnie Thompson

Photo Credit: Emily Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Photo Credit: Emily Rose/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

If Isabelle, she wonders, slipping into her black cocktail dress, gets cropped to Izzy, then does Ysabel become Yzzy? A laugh escapes her as she crosses the room and shoulders the heavy hotel window open, letting in the clamor of the cabs and buses below, and she leans out and breathes in the city’s smoke and steam. The name, she thinks as an ambulance races past, is a cipher, a rune from a lost civilization. A palindrome, even, the same in forward as in reverse.

She loops two slim silver bangles over her wrist, captivated by the glittering skyline, and it occurs to her that if she were to write it on one of those cheerful “My name is” stickers, people might not understand. Maybe they’d look from the hieroglyphics to her face in bewilderment, expecting a Kyrgyzstani or a Cardassian or a crone from ancient Sumer, come to fulfill a mythic curse.

Does it matter what bland Kathy or Ann or Susan she leaves behind? Her skin tingles as she applies eyeliner, sweeping it past the outer corners of her lids in a way that seems right for Yzzy. And then she heads down to the lobby and uses a black Sharpie to draw clear, straight capital letters on the white name tag, and raises her head and steps into the hubbub of the opening night festivities of the Convention of the Association of Organizations. In the Grand Ballroom she’s a stranger to everyone, excepting the five coworkers she shared an Airbus with.

She thinks that might be where the trouble starts, but it isn’t. Her officemates, every corporate-minded one of them strenuously swimming upstream, have zero interest in her presence here. After all, she is only support staff, appended at the last minute for her behind-the-scenes magic. She stands under a cut-glass chandelier, for a moment the one still figure in the bubbling crowd, the swirl of perfumes tickling her nose, the downy hair on her bare arms rising with the pop and crackle of the igniting party.

The man who calls her “Yizzie” begins it, unfolding a creased flyer and trying to win her interest in a patent he’s working on. A sheen of perspiration coats his scalp, a skinny tie garrotes his neck, and every time she says something encouraging, he answers, “Yes, but,” bobbing his head like a mechanical chicken. The roadblock, he tells her as the burgundy carpet drowns her dainty kitten heels, is that he needs funding.

She aims for the movable mahogany bar and wedges herself in up front. To her right, a woman with a smooth, assured voice is ordering a glass of pinot grigio.

“That sounds refreshing,” says Yzzy with a smile. “One for me, too.”

As the tide of thirsty conventioneers sluices them off to the side, the woman takes Yzzy’s elbow and segues into a jeremiad about the association’s illogical election procedures—having been, Yzzy gathers, repeatedly unsuccessful. Her wiry hair is tourniqueted into a bun the shape of an engorged tick, and when, in indignation, she shakes her head, the tick wobbles like it’s going to drop off. As the plastic cup of thin wine sweats into Yzzy’s palms, her mind ping-pongs between whether or not she should tell the woman about the coral lipstick smeared over her front teeth.

She is rescued from this quandary: a man who’s positive he knew her a long time ago folds her into a familiar hug, her nose flattened against the naphthalene scratchiness of his checked sport coat. Despite her name tag and her glass of wine, he keeps calling her Lisa and insisting that she let him fetch her a Manhattan. His jacket is tight under the arms, and his belt is on its last notch, the previous two holes marked with puckered crescents. “This bartender,” he confides, blotting the mist from his eyes, “is a diamond in the rough. No one here—” He glances around and is bumped by two men in a rush, and he stumbles and apologizes and turns back to her. “No one appreciates his gift. The elegant balance, the complexity he’s achieved,” he says, and as the ice cubes clink together in wordless chorus, Yzzy’s eyes, too, grow moist.

She extricates herself from one nutbutton after another, baffled. Is it off-putting, she wonders, the alias? Or perhaps it’s the eyeliner. Somehow, in this new, large group, no one but the oddballs will even meet her gaze.

So this, she thinks, edging her way around the jagged perimeter of the crowd, is probably the sum total of life for Liz LaMosca, the coworker everyone shuns: a stick insect who keeps seven cats in a studio apartment and speaks with a voice like Rice Krispies falling from a great height into a small hole. The regular people avoid you, and the misfits swarm like flies.

The fire door has been propped open, to bleed off some of the party’s cloying warmth; the exit leads to a narrow, unlit alley. Her spiky heels grind against the grainy asphalt, and in the damp night air, a chill ripples through her. Inside, the clumps of people divide and converge. She averts her head but still hears them gabbling and guffawing, the swish of wool against silk.

It’s self-segregating, she sees; it always has been. Human nature at its most fundamental: those people there, these other people here.

“Yzzy?” a woman’s voice inside peals. Her heart leaps like a rising fish, and she turns, her mouth open. The woman laughs with a sound like pearls scattering across a glass counter. “He isn’t! Is he?”

Yzzy turns away, her chin dropping to her chest. There is something wet on her bodice, and she whisks a hand over it. On her name tag, the Zs look the same upside down, but the Ys are as strong as little Eiffel Towers. Her shoulders draw back. Person by person, she decides, there’s a way to right the balance.

Wending briskly through the crowd, she returns to the tinkerer. She tells him that if he wants the patent, what he has to do is finish the invention. It’s not funding he needs, it’s a prototype and an application, and with new resolve, he admits that she’s right. Above his head, the chandelier’s glass teardrops sparkle with a hundred rainbows, and her smile is so wide that the corners of her lips crack. Then he taps her forearm twice and says, “But, Yizzie, here’s what you don’t understand.”

Scattered snippets from the crowd filter her way, and as he drones, she latches onto each in turn, seeking the key: “Bill, we’ll hook you up with…,” “…can count on Terry here,” “…folks in D.C.,” “…LaMosca, breath like kitty lit—”

In the ladies’ room, washing her hands just for the comfort of the warm water, she is joined by the woman with election issues. She keeps her eyes focused straight ahead, but the mirror makes the name on her sticker softer, more compassionate: Yssy. As the hand dryer sighs itself to silence, she gestures, showing her colleague the errant lipstick. “Oh my!” she says, cleaning the smears off her enamel with the corner of a Kleenex. Taking a deep breath, Yzzy mentions that her bun has begun to unravel, and the woman seizes it, tugs until it’s lumpy. Then she hunts in her purse for her tube of lipstick and lays on a fresh coat.

The guy with the sublime Manhattans is now too pie-eyed to understand much of anything. She leads him to the revolving door—the two of them caught in the same quarter slice, performing a clumsy cha-cha-cha—and flags him a cab. “You always were a doll, Lisa,” he says, his eyes streaming. He presses her thin hand between his bready palms, and deep in her chest, something delicate cracks.

In the dim and drafty hallway outside the Grand Ballroom, the festive conviviality on the other side is muffled to a nattering babel behind the big double doors. She blinks at the guard, her lashes as whispery as veined wings, and points to her name tag, but he shakes his head. She skitters back. He needs the official pass: the pricey little badge that gets you into the exhibition hall and all the panel discussions and, yes, the feeding frenzy of the big first-night open bar.

Her neck bowed, she unbuckles her purse and digs it out from the compartment under the flap. He carefully inspects the convention logo and her name, beneath the plastic sleeve, but she is already swiping with the heel of one hand, removing the exotic eyeliner. “Welcome back,” he says, his thumbnail flicking something dark from between his teeth, “to the convention, Miss LaMosca.”

pencilBonnie Thompson is a freelance book editor. Her fiction has been published in a handful of literary magazines, including the South Dakota Review and the Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email:[at]

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