And the seasons they go round and round And the painted ponies go up and down We're captive on the carousel of time We can't return we can only look behind From where we came And go round and round and round In the circle game - Joni Mitchell 'Small world..." Tzippi says, instantly embarrassed at having coughed up this particular cliche. Or any cliche, for that matter. Especially here, within earshot of so many of her current acquaintances. People who didn't know her in her previous incarnation - the one she has spent so many years of therapy and other forms of emotional plastic surgery trying to hide, if not shed. "My God, you haven't changed a bit," Shimon says, shaking his head in admiration. Tzippi feels her stomach start to do one of those roller-coaster-ride things she has learned to live with. A bilious, swirling motion she used to attribute to gastroenteritis, but what she now considers a gauge of the genuine goings-on in her gut. The ones that have nothing to do with her digestive system. The ones responsible at this moment for her taking offense at a statement aimed at flattering, not insulting, her. To camouflage, if not counteract, the borderline nausea brought on by his comment, Tzippi flashes a sexy smile and downs the now flat champagne in the long-stemmed glass she has been using as a prop since her arrival at the banquet hall. "Oh, you know," she says coquettishly, her peripheral vision on the habitual lookout. "It's the dim lighting." RUNNING INTO Shimon after all these years wouldn't have been so bad, she thinks, had it not been in this setting. He had been a significant part of her world back then, during the Dark Ages of adolescence and early adulthood. Furthermore, confronting old demons isn't always an unpleasant experience. In fact, doing so from a position of power has the potential to elicit the charm that revenge fantasies are made of. Particularly when she's dressed to kill and surrounded by loving friends and avid fans. But when teetering on the tightrope of a carefully adopted persona over the abyss of Old Self, her "safety net" feels precarious. And her margin of error looms large. "Well," Shimon responds, patting himself on the belly, "no amount of dim lighting makes a dent in this...or this," he adds, pointing to his bald head." "Don't be silly," Tzippi comforts this stranger - this apparently kind man who used to be such a profoundly cruel boy. "You look terrific." "I can't leave you alone for a minute," a woman suddenly interrupts, taking Shimon's arm in an act of intimacy coupled with a purposeful display of territorial claim. "Meet my wife," Shimon says proudly, leaving ambiguous the question of who of the two women he is showing off to whom. "How do you do?" Tzippi says warmly, glad for the gift of solid ground she has just been handed on a silver platter, along with the sushi and celery sticks. "The pleasure is mine," Shimon's wife gushes, the sincerity of her words causing Tzippi a simultaneous bout of relief and pain. On the one hand, she would have been mortified had Shimon's wife snubbed her. On the other, the fact that she didn't makes Tzippi feel inconsequential. As though her name had never even come up in conversation. TZIPPI GRABS a passing waiter by the sleeve and takes another glass of champagne off his tray. There is no way she is going to get through the night, she thinks, without some assistance. But she pauses before taking a sip. Alcohol is the wrong crutch for the kind of balance she needs to achieve right now. The kind that will prevent her seams from coming unraveled. Those she has sewn - slowly and painstakingly for decades - to attach the homely, insecure, little girl she is on the inside to the glamorous, confident, middle-aged woman she appears to be on the outside. One false move, she fears, and all her hard work will have been for naught. Inebriation, she knows, causes her to let her guard down. And once it's down, she runs the risk of making a fateful blunder she is sure to regret. A blunder of regression sparked by this unwitting blast from the past. "Fifteen minutes," the bandleader handsignals her from across the room. Tzippi acknowledges this with a barely noticeable nod, keeping her gaze fixed on Shimon and his wife. "Bride or groom?" she asks, twirling her glass instead of putting it to her lips. "Groom," they answer in unison, proceeding to provide an in-depth portrait of Jewish geography worthy of a genealogy seminar. "And you?" "And me what?" Tzippi asks, praying her tone did not belie either her defensiveness or her not having listened to a word they'd said. Having been otherwise preoccupied, that is. Trying to discern whether there is anything about the man standing in front of her that even remotely resembles his ghost. "Bride or groom?" they answer-ask together, and then giggle at the cuteness of it all. "Oh," she says, snapping out of her reverie and returning to reality. "Bride." "Five minutes," the bandleader signals. Tzippi nods, then clears her throat. "That's my cue," she says, feigning apology with a sweet shrug of smooth shoulders shown off in a spaghettistrapped dress. The kind Shimon used to call "slutty." The kind she purposely wore the day she came to her senses and kicked him out of her dorm - and her life - for good. After he'd made fun of her voice - and her aspirations - one too many times. "Uh, before you go," Shimon's wife says, blushing slightly while reaching into her purse. "Would you sign our CD?" "Sure," Tzippi says, a twinge of customary stage-fright upstaging her other anxiety. "Wait till the kids see this," Shimon says, beaming. Tzippi takes her place at the microphone. "I'd like to dedicate my first song, 'The Circle Game,' to the happy couple," she announces, stifling a laugh at the private joke she has just told herself.