Shane makes an entrance. I trail behind him. He introduces me to our host who is already smashed. I make a note to check out the bathroom later for a parting gift. Maybe tonight won’t be a complete bust.
In the living room, I sit with a drink in my hand, scanning the collection of objects. Thumping music fills the room.
I’m reminded of all the nights like this. Different words pitched in the same voices. Different anecdotes reaffirming the same narratives. In one man’s tone I remember the voice of the woman who constantly scolded me for not making more money: “It’s not a sin to sell out.” Said like a former college bisexual who married into money, which was what she was.
A slender man tells a story with animated expressions and hand gestures. The gathered wait for his set-up and punch line, poised with drinks in hand and a ready laugh. His hands are in the air, gesturing wildly. His left hand moves counter to his right like he’s pulling taffy. Then the two hands synchronize, fingers splay for emphasis and his listeners laugh on cue. Heliated laughter punctuates his story. “I saw you the other night,” a man says. He has a wide, goofy grin and a dahlia head of curly hair. We make small talk that fizzles out. He yawns, scans the crowd, still smiling, and then drifts away.
The music grows loud and that’s good, I won’t have to talk. People flirt in an offhanded, abrasive way––sparring their way into each other’s lives. The once-overs are dividing the new arrivals into trophies, merit badges, and also-rans. It’s like waiting tables: Tell me what you want.
I have done this hundreds of times; spent the night getting familiar with someone; pulling out all the stops and using my best material. Self-deprecation barely shy of self-hatred. I made the stories funny and skipped the bad ones altogether. The stories usually wound on and I would inevitably end up with a new friend, someone who thought I was delightful, a stitch, funny as hell.
This kind of charm always leaves me empty. My mother had it too. She wanted everyone to like her, even people she loathed. She would always listen to others in trouble because it was the right thing to do and because it lent her a purpose and a place. That it guaranteed nothing wasn’t a thought she gave much consideration. There were disappointments, but ultimately she saw herself as a good person.
I have another drink, fight the fog in my head and try to maintain the distinction between the living and the dead. It isn’t easy.
Couldn’t this be one of those scenarios where I wander out onto a balcony or down into a stairwell and meet some like-minded but more likable stranger and strike up a good conversation? It isn’t. The balcony is small and cramped with a crowd so insular that it’s like I’ve wandered into an orgy wearing a pair of jumper pajamas. The stairwell is occupied by a woman on her phone either breaking up with someone or in the midst of elaborate sadomasochist foreplay.
I head to the bathroom. Sure enough, bingo. There are more pharmaceuticals on those little glass shelves than in some small-town drugstores. I skim painkillers.
Someone knocks on the door. I run a little water on my face, towel off, and exit, not even acknowledging the man waiting. I walk down the hallway, hook left into the unoccupied front room with its hodgepodge of crowded art, and consider walking out the front door, into the night. But then where?
I join Shane’s circle. A mirror with white lines is introduced and passed around like an appetizer plate. Heads bow as though in prayer and inhale.
I listen to the stream of self-congratulation and mutual admiration that Shane and someone exchange with a thin disgust that ebbs with my energy.
I’m tired from standing, from thinking, yet I want to be awake and find a place to sit and hold still and watch the sky slowly change color.
A tall man approaches and exchanges a conspiratorial look with Shane. Anonymity descends on me as Shane’s heat seeking absorbs all attention. Two other men join us. One is cute in a thick way. He mentions that he’s part Greek. Obviously, he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of it.
Shane and the tall man perform at each other, laughing and leapfrogging stories, recalling bits from earlier. I try to pull the conversation somewhere. I’m talking but I can tell by Shane’s expression that it isn’t adding up to much. There’s something in the center of my tongue, it’s there when the alcohol pools and drains away. But I’m making due. I speak around it and the noise makes me agreeable and the men shine back at me. Someone is touching my shoulder. I’m being sized up.
We drink and lie and cast looks into the murk at bodies moving to music like steel filings seizuring to the pull of a magnetic north. I know I’m drunk when I watch them and think, Are they happy?
I place my arm on Shane’s shoulder, but he sees someone, nods, and then shirks out from under my arm. I watch him walk away. I can’t wait for this night to end so we can begin.
Nate Lippens‘s stories have been published by Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Entropy, Hobart, and Queen Mob’s Tea House, among others.