A NUMBERS GAME
© Clare London
Daniel sat on the edge of his neighbour’s overstuffed couch, his glass of beer held carefully so that it rested on his thigh after each sip. Not that anyone was minding him, anyway. Most of the other guests were either refreshing their drinks preparatory to leaving the room, or just… leaving the room.
His eyes were drawn to the bowl on the low coffee table, full of the clink and glint of apartment door keys, all with a numbered fob for ease of identification.
He glanced over at the only other guest who was still sitting down. The slim, blond-haired man in the armchair was looking back at him. As Daniel caught his eye, the man started to smile. Daniel flushed and looked away at once.
Outside in the hallway, a couple of men argued too loudly about who got to use the bathroom first. A girl giggled halfway up the stairs.
Paolo shifted awkwardly on the armchair. He wished he’d been a little more alert to the smirk on his host’s face when he arrived. He looked forlornly at his empty glass. He’d go and get a refill when the other guys had… moved on. He risked another glance at the couch opposite. The young man with the spectacles and the poorly-cut hair was still sitting there, pretending not to notice what was going on.
Malcolm, the man from number Five who was something in computers, was the last to leave the room. He winked at Paolo as he went, pulling the door closed behind him. A pretty redheaded woman had been clinging to his arm. Paolo thought he’d placed her with the lanky shoe shop manager from number Four…
“Mrs Roberts,” the young man said, hoarsely. When Paolo snapped his head back around, he coughed. “That’s Mrs Roberts with Malcolm. Her husband… they live at number Four. He’s in…”
“Shoes,” Paolo finished for him, nodding. “Though he’s not in shoes at the moment, right?” For a moment, he thought he didn’t get the joke, then he saw the pale face crease into a surprisingly attractive smile. “I’m Paolo, I know I haven’t remembered all the names tonight…”
“I’m Daniel,” the other man offered. He held out his hand to shake, then seemed to realise the ridiculousness of that and let it drop back. They both gave a nervous grin. Their eyes were drawn irresistibly to the pile of discarded clothing on the living room floor, shoes and socks and bags and neckties and… underwear.
Paolo grimaced. “At least we’re left with the drink.”
Daniel sneaked another look at Paolo, whose name he remembered very well, actually. He’d seen him when he moved in to number Twelve, though he doubted that a smart, good-looking man like Paolo remembered him.
“Hey, and thanks for your help when I arrived in the block,” Paolo said. “You know, all that stuff about how the boiler works and what day the trash goes out. You were a godsend for a new guy.”
Daniel’s heartbeat increased. Paolo’s grin was very infectious, and very attractive. “I should have also told you about Jerry and Suzie’s welcome parties.”
Paolo laughed. “Yeah. This has been a bit of a surprise.” There was a thump from overhead as if someone had fallen out of bed. It was followed by a shrieking laugh. “At the risk of sounding like a cliché, do you come to these often?”
It was Daniel’s turn to grimace. “No way. I was helping Jerry put in some kitchen cupboards, then Suzie announced she’d changed the date of the party to tonight, then Malcolm and Fiona – that’s his wife – arrived with the drink, and then Paul and Miranda from number Three, then the Moseleys from upstairs, number Eight…”
Paolo nodded. “Gotcha. And that’s when…”
Daniel’s eyes returned to the pile of clothing. “… the swinging starts. Yes.”
There was a short silence. Furniture squeaked loudly upstairs; feet ran across the landing to the bathroom and back.
Paolo bit his lip, thoughtfully. Daniel was nice when he smiled like that, much more relaxed. “You’re not married yourself?”
Daniel looked horrified. “Dear God, I don’t join in, if that’s what you mean! I’m not married, not even dating, but even if I was, it wouldn’t be…”
“…your kind of thing,” Paolo finished for him. He nodded again. Daniel was pretty cute when he flushed like that, too. “Besides, the odds are against us, right?”
Daniel stared. “What do you mean?”
Paolo shrugged. “Not enough women. All the other couples have paired off, but we’re left here, two guys together. Do the math.”
Daniel was puzzled. Was Paolo angry, or just hideously embarrassed like he, Daniel, was? He’d always been very careful to avoid any of Jerry’s dubious invitations until tonight. He stared at Paolo, noticing the way the other man ran his finger aimlessly down the side of his glass. He had very sensitive hands.
Daniel stood up at the same time as Paolo did. The living room was small, even without the scattered shoes at their feet; they were quite close together.
“Do you want to leave?” said Daniel.
“Do you want to get some more drinks?” said Paolo, at the same time.
They stopped, half-started to speak again, then laughed.
Paolo wasn’t entirely sure about his nervous, bespectacled companion, but he took a calculated risk and reached out a hand to Daniel’s. His thumb brushed against Daniel’s palm, quite deliberately. He’d been right about the blushing, at least. Daniel was very cute indeed.
Paolo’s hand rested there for a lot longer than any others he’d shaken tonight. Daniel cleared his throat again, and put his glass carefully down on the table. “Maybe…”
“…the odds aren’t that bad after all?” murmured Paolo. He watched Daniel’s reaction as he reached over into the bowl of keys, picking up the worn one with the number Six attached.
“That’s…” said Daniel, and stopped.
They both looked at each other and smiled.
Paolo grinned and started to toe off his shoes.