Dark hair falling like grace, with artfully out-of-place locks on both sides curling round her ears to frame high cheekbones. That's what I noticed first about her, and the way she was absorbed in her work, deftly flicking switches and adjusting equalizers. Lighting cigarettes and forgetting about them, letting them smolder into ash on the tabletop next to consoles and record bins.
Up here in her little soundbooth, it's muted. Has to be. The dancers and socialites on the floor below have only to think about the song being played, to the extent they're thinking about anything at all; she has to focus on the song being played and the song she'll play next, and after that -- tie it all together somehow, keep things interesting. So she's above the crowd and behind plexiglass, with only the distant boom of drum beats and bass lines working their way in here. You can learn to tune it out, you spend enough time up here, and she's here two nights a week plus weekends, with earphones the size of saucer plates strapped to her head.
I used to come for the music, the ambiance, the darkness. The feeling of being part of something larger, and the way I could instantly switch from being a part of the shadows, melded with the masses along the periphery, or thrust myself into the fray, knowing eyes are on me but feeling only the music and the way the dancefloor spins beneath my feet.
Now I mostly come for her, and I think she knows that, but I've never asked.
See the way her eyes become unfocused and mean as she listens to her headphones? That's when she's hearing secret harmonies, matching rhythms, developing strategy, far away from herself and in some other reality entirely: a high fidelity soundscape with amplitude mountain ranges and rivers that flow by beats per minute.
It's no small feat for anyone to keep up with, but she's one of the best. That's why I'm allowed up here at all, despite the "Employees Only" sign on the door; management is willing to bend a rule or two to keep her happy. And I think she is, or at least content, though you have to read between the lines sometimes to realise that.
"Trash," she tells me, sliding the headphones off and letting them cradle her neck. "Stacks of synthesizers and candy-coated drivel."
"Haven't we had this discussion before?" I ask.
"Yeah," she says, "I think maybe we have." Fishes a cigarette from her pocket and lights it with a slim piece of plastic, leaning back in her chair far as the cord to the 'phones will let her. "So how're things going down there?" Smoke escaping from her lips in blue curls as she speaks.
"Don't think the new bartender knows what she's doing."
"They never do," she says, sipping from the glass I'd brought up for her earlier. "There's way too much rum in this."
"Thought you liked rum."
"Love it, only this was supposed to be a screwdriver."
"Can bring you another, you want," I offer. Down below, the crowd parts to let a security guy through, intent and singular at someone near the entrance, but I can't see more from this vantage point. Not my problem anyway.
"Don't bother," she says. "I'm not really supposed to be drinking on the job anyway."
"Like that's stopped you before."
"Shut up," she tells me, hissing a stream of cigarette smoke in my direction. "And stop doing that."
"That," she says. Points at my feet, which are sort of twisting along to the muted humming of the music outside.
"Didn't know I was," I tell her.
"You know," she says, and puts her cigarette out in the not-quite-screwdriver. "I think deep down, you actually like this crap."
"It's catchy," I allow.
"S'more than that. I've seen you dance to this. Why you started coming here in the first place. What caught my attention."
"It lets me empty my mind for a few hours, is all," I say. "There's nothing wrong with that, is there?"
"Well, I'm not the one spinning it," I point out. "Maybe you find something beautiful in it too."
She sits up, then, and fixes me with a couple thousand negative volts of bad vibes.
"Kidding," I say.
"Soulless," she sighs, fitting the headphones back on again. "Trash."
I'd been coming to this club every other weekend or so to empty my mind under all that neon; she'd been working there far longer. Started off tending bar, and wasn't half bad at it, from what I'm told, till one Friday evening the DJ was caught in the men's room coked out to some serious degree. Manager found him there after a full three minutes of silence had gone by, fired him immediately and had the cops haul him out. Probably more angered about the soundbooth being left unattended than the drugs.
She offered to take over, that night, dropping her bottle opener on the countertop and sprinting up the stairs to the booth. She'd been taking over every night since.
The track is ending and she slides the crossfade, merging the new one she has queued. There's a delicate balance to the way she does this; it doesn't make her a musician, as she'll be the first to say, but the way she arranges things has her own stylistic mark, one that's uniquely hers. Something in the certainty of her choices, maybe.
I lean in close to the plexiglass to get a better look at the floor below, watching people cluster, separate, regroup. "If you hate this so much," I ask, "why keep doing it? You say you can't stand it, so why stay?"
No reply from her -- ear goggles still on her head, faraway look in her eyes. Dark circles beneath them, like she hasn't slept in a while.
I go back to the window, feeling the vibrations through the soundproofing.
"I'll show you why," she says after a moment, and stands, joining me at the window. "These people," indicating the writhing masses below. "Watch."
And twists a dial on her console, slowly fading out the bass, like the bridge in a song, leaving only the warbling tremolo. The people below look slightly flustered, no pulsing drum machines to provide direction. Try to keep the beat themselves. Failing.
"And then," she says, bringing the bass up again, and the dancers pick up the rhythm once more. "Or say I don't like the way they're gathered off to the side there..." Touches a button, swivels the disco lights over closer to the center, and somehow, the people gravitate towards it, slowly congealing away from the perimeter of the floor.
"Or maybe I decide that sorry sack over there needs some help," and waves her hand at a young man, gangly and awkward, who is radiating a discomfort evident even from up here. Can't quite pick up the beat, looks out of place in the midst of the more confident dancers. Hits her crossfade again, brings up a new track, irregular beat and clashing high-hats. Suddenly everyone looks as strange as he does, trying desperately to fit into a groove that isn't there and they can't invent
on their own.
"And then, and then, and then," she concludes, dropping the headphones on the console and running her fingers back through her hair. "Actions, movements, emotions. All mine." That primal look at the edges of her eyes again. "They say a DJ is supposed to work with the crowd, let the energy flow and don't mess with it if you don't have to. But I like the dynamic better this way, seeing how much I can get away with playing, instead of changing up my style to suit them. Any idiot could get up here and throw platters on the tables, but if that's all there was to it they could replace me with a prerecorded playlist."
"Control," I say. "You just like having power, even when it's subtle."
"Especially when it's subtle," she corrects me, and kicks her chair, which rolls over to me. "Sit down -- you're making me nervous."
I sit, propping my feet up on the consoles, which I'm also not supposed to do.
"See?" she says, and grins. "Subtle. I tell you to sit and you do."
"Only because I was willing to," I counter.
"Sure," she nods, "sure. But I still told you to do it and you did it, so what's the difference?"
"I think the song's about to end."
"Don't tell me how to do my job," she says, not turning away from me to hit the crossfade again. Keeps her gaze locked on me for just a second longer, then turns and picks up her headphones. Tosses me her pack of smokes. "Here," she says, tumbling fast into her musical neverworld again, "have a cigarette."
I think about that before lighting it, but she's right. I do it because she tells me to.
The first time I'd been to her apartment, I didn't know much about her outside of her identity as a DJ. The most glaring discontinuity there was her taste in music, so radically different from the bouncy pop she'd spin at work -- lots of smoky, lo-fi industrial stuff. She absolutely got off on that, said it had passion and intensity. I tended to agree; just because I like to dance when I need a mental getaway doesn't mean her accusation of me liking it was strictly accurate. Just that I was able to see some meaning behind it, however transitory, and she wasn't. Or maybe didn't want to.
That day, I'd seen her at a coffee shop in the afternoon, sitting outside with her Kamel Reds and a triple espresso, wrapped in a black wool coat. Whatever your problems are, I'd quipped, the answer doesn't lie at the bottom of a latte cup.
She smiled, pushed a seat out from her table with her foot, and I sat with her. "It's December 30th, you see," she explained.
"Not really, I don't."
"Means I'm going to be spinning the biggest night tomorrow, so I can't afford to be tired. My plan," and she took another sip, "is to caffeinate well tonight, stay up till morning, sleep all day, and be ready to go for New Year's Eve. Bright and late."
And that's how it went down, with us going back to her place and wiling away the long winter night with fireside chatting. Ice on the glass of her windows, silencing the world outside, and we complained about work, talked of books and music and film and how much we both hated pointless affectations. Of sadness and relationships. Her past was about as broken as mine in that regard, it came to pass. Love's losers, fighting the night, until the bright cold dawn brought stillness, and sleep.
"I'll take the couch," I said.
'You'll take the bed, same as me," she replied, "it's freezing in here and I have warm blankets. It's okay," when I hesitated.
And those blankets were warm, and so was she, as she held me, her breasts pressing against my back and her fingers around my neck, and we stayed that way until we awoke in the afternoon.
That night had become something of a template for nights to follow. Not exactly a routine occurrence, not unusual either. Just seemed to happen organically -- go home with her when her club closed, or if we both had the same night off, watch movies, work on school assignments, talk. Argue, too. We argued a lot, weighing opinions against fact, evidence and counterexamples, deliberating the points so fine they bore no resemblances to the original discussion we'd began with.
Neither of us ever really won these impromptu debates, but I don't think either of us cared. I know I didn't. It was all in the details, the clashing of wills, the trust to open up and become emotionally charged.
But in the end, even if no conclusion was ever reached, we'd understand each other that much more, and sometimes, if she was in the mood, she'd run her nails down my back as we lay in bed.
She fits a new needle in the stylus, tossing the old one behind her and not much caring where it lands. Yawns.
"Tired?" I ask, dragging on the cigarette.
"I want," she says without looking at me, "to go home." Looks at her watch. "Another hour."
"When's the last time you slept?" I ask. "Gonna wear yourself out like you do those records."
"The records are fine," she says, illustrating her point by dropping the stylus on one and spinning it just as she brings it into the mix. Does a number on the vinyl. "Anyway, it's the club's nickel; let them worry about it. You coming over after closing?"
"Sure," I mumble, still transfixed on the window, but paying more attention to her reflection in it than the people below. Face ethereal by the glow of one of her monitors, blue light cleaving against her cheekbones.
"Hey," she says, "you awake over there?"
"Yeah, I'm just waiting for you to tell me that I'm only coming over because you told me to."
"But you must want to," she replies, "otherwise you wouldn't do it."
"Isn't that my line?"
"Only if you believe it." With a few quick strides she crosses the booth and wiggles her fingers at me until I offer her the remnants of the cigarette, holding it between her lips as she continues: "Do you?"
"Not really, no," I admit. "Power is given, it can't just be taken. The people down there let you manipulate them -- it's what they pay to get in here for, a sort of contract that comes with the cover charge, right? 'We dance to your tune,' even if they don't think of it in those terms. And every time another one comes through those doors, they're admitting that they want you to take them on some little voyage, willingly surrendering themselves to your sonic seduction."
"Sonic seduction?" she repeats. Finishes the cigarette, holds the smoke deeply, exhales. Crushes it on the floor with a bootheel. "Nice. But I was asking more about you."
"You do the same thing with me, only unlike those people, you're aware of it. I think," she says, "that you like it."
"You think, huh."
"I think, yes. And I think it's because unlike other women you've dated, I actually challenge you."
When I was fifteen I took my father's car out for a little night drive, and was feeling generally pleased with myself until strobing blue lights materialized in my rearview mirror, which caused my heart to thrash about in my ribcage in much the same way her implication was causing now.
She knows this, somehow, and her lips curve. "Come on," she says, "like we've never thought about it before? And besides," she finishes, plugging her headphones back in and turning her attention once more to her bank of dials and switches, "you know you want to."
And it's true. I have to admit it's perfectly true.