Vodka kills you. That much I’ve learned from the past few months.
Jenna and I had smuggled ourselves and the chemical into my room and set about clearing the glass bottle of its contents, telling my parents, the unbeknownst hosts, that we were just having a girls’ night. We shook our heads at the idea of drinking sensibly, which is what the bottle’s label asked us to do. The result was four blisters forming on my left hand. Despite my carousal brain and jelly hands, I’d attempted to wrap strands of hair around a heated wand, flicking through Teen Vogue as if I wasn’t aware that at the same time I was holding 120 degrees or that I was pointlessly reading. By the time we called the taxi at nine o’clock, all the words had merged into one, and the pain ricocheting up my arm from the curler was just another reason to throw our heads back and laugh.
Jenna flails next to me on a seat sodden with cigarettes in four-inch beige heels that made her legs look like ten-foot matchsticks. Wrapping a weak hand round my waist to hold herself upright, she huffs out frustrated, foul breath. If it was an ordinary day, I’d push her off, tell her not to be silly, and wait for her to flick her poufy blonde hair over her shoulder to show that she wasn’t mad at me. Instead, I hand her a mint and take one for myself, settling it on my tongue so it might lessen the furry quality my mouth has taken on. We hold on to each other, legs nearly entwined, and laugh so high that the light in my neighbor’s house flicks on. We shush ourselves and ignore the taxi man, Brendan. He’s around thirty and his hair is prematurely grey, which almost certainly comes from incidents like this. I can imagine that when he returns at night, he recites tales to his wife and wonders why we need it so badly. In a hard Irish accent, he tells us we’ll have to get out.
Clearly, Brendan has never been to a party where the night is spent wondering how to form words, and trying to control nervous twitches. Wondering how it is that everyone else seems to move with such ease, and why all our own muscles have suddenly locked up. He wouldn’t understand why we’ve become wasted on our own fears of inadequacy. We cry to him in jumbled words till he gives in, just to get us to be quiet, and after ten minutes of attempting to stuff the seatbelt in, we succeed and cheer like we’ve won a football game.
My phone shrieks between us, and Jenna jumps before bursting into laughter. I grab for it in my never-ending handbag and it slips from my hand as if it was sudsy soap, until finally I hit the green button and Phoebe comes blaring onto the speaker.
“You guys,” she slurs, and some boy laughs in the background. “You gotta get here, yeah? It’s freaking wild?” She says it as if it were a question, or like we couldn’t question whether or not it was.
Jenna and I scream our reply and toss bills at Brendan when he comes to a stop outside the club. Later we’ll realise we paid him ten times over. The place is thronging with people, and the music from inside can be felt beneath our feet as we trip outside the taxi. We line up behind a girl in a neon yellow dress whose boyfriend is covering his mouth and retching. She rolls her eyes at him, and we turn away, practicing what we will say to the bouncer, flashing our I.Ds.“24th June 1992.”
“Oh yeah, totally sober.”
“Only two drinks!”
I walk up to the man with the moon head, and arms bigger than both of mine put together, and trip on my heel. He catches me and raises an eyebrow, and I can see him breathing me in. I smell like sweat and a petrol station, despite much previous preparation with a variety of celebrity scents. He must sense it on me. My eyes widen, and I can feel tears pricking. He stares at my I.D for another second, before handing it back to me.
I clamp my mouth together to keep from smiling, and when I’ve rounded the corner from him, Jenna and I give monstrous hugs to each other. We wait to pay and I notice people are looking at me in my short shorts and tights laddered by six-euro sparkly nails, and a top so low that my 36dds are doing more than just saying hello. The people watching raise their eyebrows and talk behind veiling hands. Surely, they are just jealous that we are having such a fantastic time. I pay the woman in the hatch far too much money, for a night I probably won’t remember.
We slip into the club with our chests out, and casually touch people as we pass, for no other reason than we can. Teetering down black, felt-covered steps lined with lights, we pass into the bathroom where girls crowd around two mirrors, painting their eyes and lips on, smoothing down misbehaving hairs and tugging down tops. One girl, in “sensible” shoes and a knee length skirt, looks Jenna up and down, and her nose wrinkles. The bathroom door slams behind Jenna. The smell of smoke is in the air, from the strategically placed smoking area next to us. I lean against the wet, tiled wall and stare at the spinning ceiling, and only after a large amount of time has passed do I notice that Jenna has not emerged from the unwashed stall she went into. I call her name and get a vague response. One of the green doors opens and I slide in beside her. Her mascara is spilling down her face, her hair is askew.
“I dunno,” she hiccoughs, sitting back onto the open toilet. “I just, the way that girl looked at me, I, I…” she pauses, to slide a shaking hand across her face. “I can’t stop crying.” Her face falls into her hands, and her tiny body is racked with unforgiving sobs. I reach to get some toilet paper for her, but the container is empty. Tip-toeing to the stall next to me, pulling her with me, one arm under hers, I spot us in the mirror. What appeared so fashionable when we left the house, appears grubby in the mirror. I neither look like myself, or someone I would want to be. My eyes are unfocused, weighed down by black encrusted gunk, and already I can see my ankles trembling from the height of my shoes. The curls that caused the blisters are losing their grip, as the intensifying pain on my arm almost causes me to lose my own. I glance down, and Jenna’s nails are biting into the worst one. I push her off my arm, and she runs back into the stall and I shake my head at my reflection, following her in. She weeps over the toilet lid, and I don’t know where to look. I blush for her. But I shake that feeling off because the thrumming in my heart that what I am doing is wrong, is almost worse than my burns.
She looks up at me, and there’s nothing I can say but, “it’s okay,” over and over again. I wait patiently, holding onto her heaving shoulders for balance until her eyes dry, and a beaming smile slashes across her face, rubbed-out lipstick smeared joker-like up to both of her cheeks. Inside, I wince, but I continue to dab at her till she’s presentable. Out on the alcohol-puddled floors, we collide with Phoebe who declares that she’s been looking everywhere for us, and allow her to drag us to a darkened dance floor where we squeeze between people to get a spot. We dance to Rihanna and don’t realise that we trip the people behind us or that we smack people in the face when we raise our arm above our heads trying to be oh-so-sexy. A boy comes up behind Jenna. She smiles and asks him to get a drink with her. He shakes his head and walks to the next frilled girl who immediately allows him to grope her, to which Jenna responds with another round of crying, fleeing from the floor. I know from nights and nights of experience, that Jenna is an emotional drinker. Everything that happens is intensified for her. One wrong move, and she’s gone, the girl who spends hours laughing at cat videos replaced with someone who spends the next day apologizing for not being able to control herself. I move to go after her, when a boy wraps an arm around my waist. I lean back into him as if it were nothing, and let him spin me round so he can grenade launch his tongue down my throat, and push me against the wall as if we weren’t surrounded by hundreds of teeming teenagers. I grip him like he is my messiah and I drink him like I drank the vodka. Then his hands start to move downwards, and my body jerks, trying to force him away. His hold gets tighter and I try to shake him off, but he’s not in his right mind, or I hope he’s not, and he doesn’t understand. I fight through the haze as he tries to pull me off the dance floor. Finally I wrench myself away from him. He moves for me again, and I almost trip in my heels as I run.
I remember watching those girls sailing past me who chewed up boys like they were Hershey’s chocolate bars, and were used by them right back. Their skirts rode up, and sometimes you got a flash of ass cheek or thong and wish they would see the light, believe in fairytales and a happily ever after. I once felt that way. Until two months before, when I finally became one of them.
I used to sit on Arctic-cold sidelines as butterfly people fluttered past me, and my friends raved around like they hadn’t a care in the world. I wished so hard that I could just be kissed once, by someone who really liked me, and didn’t mind my crooked yellow teeth or the fact that I didn’t speak much. Boys were a foreign species from distant lands I only read about in books, or watched in romantic movies. They were not part of my reality. Until I decided that perhaps one night of playing the game, rather than being the outsider wouldn’t be so bad. It would just be one night. And Jenna and I were just curious. I wish so much that I didn’t regret that day when I took that bottle of Smirnoff and drank it all, wasting my first kiss on a boy who bit too hard, and tasted like meat. We were now used to encasing ourselves in freedom from worry and judgment.
I pull myself off the dance floor. Next to me, a girl, one of those thong-flashing ones, walks by. She grins at me, her eyes hazy, unfocused, reflections of my own. Her heels are skyscrapers, and catch the side of someone brushing past her. She clatters to the ground, and I want to help her up but feel my world start to spin on its axis. I run to the bar, and lean too far over it. A boy with goggly eyes sidles up next to me. He stands too close, and my heart starts to play the drums against my chest. The bartender comes over to me. I could have another drink. One more to make sure that the crippling shyness that’s always creeping in around the edges doesn’t dare to come back. I shout over to the bartender, and he hesitates before slamming the glass down in front of me, and pouring the shot. I toss it back, and it burns. The boy next to me takes another step closer. He feels less threatening than before, and says something I can’t hear. I roll my eyes and wander over to the velvet couches writhing with people.
I reach my hand into my bag but my phone isn’t where I put it. I pull the bag onto my lap, and thrust both hands in. The people beside me scoot over and shoot me looks through slit eyes. I pull out my makeup, dig around in the edges of my purse, but it’s clear it’s not there. I sigh and move back to the bar. The same bartender spots me and comes over. He cups his ear as I plead with him to say someone has handed in my phone. He shakes his head. It’s a no. I lean against the bar and after a few seconds of attempting to concentrate, I ask for water. He hands me some, cold mist fogging up the glass. I suck it down my throat, suddenly parched.
I start to move around the dance floor on my own, head bowed, in hopes that I will see the pieces of my phone. Somewhere along the way, I stand on a girl’s foot, and even I can feel the point sinking into her delicate skin. I hold up my head to apologise, but she moves to swipe her hand across my face. Her friends grab her by her tiny waist and pull her away. I shout “sorry” after her, as she tries to wrestle out of their grasp, and hurry off. I breathe hard and instinctively reach into my pocket, before remembering that my lifeline is missing. I should probably find Jenna. Last time I saw her, she wasn’t faring too well.
I head towards the natural place: the bathroom, where I immediately hear her. I know it’s her from the unnatural sounds coming from within the stall. The girls around me glance at each other, a universal communication of “oh god” and the rolling of their eyes begins circling the bathroom. I lean myself against the stall door. In a minute I will go in, and I will hold her hair back. Water and time has started to affect me. Soon, the world will stop spinning so much, and my limbs will regain their former steadiness. But for now, I wonder if it’s going to be possible to laugh all this off tomorrow. If my heart won’t undertake that throbbing feeling of regret that almost burst through me earlier, and keep it going all day. Already, I know I’ll wake up tomorrow and wonder why? Wonder if maybe it would be better to be that fly on the wall. Jenna’s wailing continues, and a few other girls start to giggle. I’m embarrassed for her, for what she’s let herself become. I should tell her to stop, but really, I have no right to talk. I’m not me with vodka. Nobody is. But now going out and having to do all those things that are expected of us, like dancing and talking to strangers, and other social situations that make us uneasy, are made so much simpler by numbed limbs and a static heart, free flowing words, and a straight back.
Come sunrise, Jenna and I are hunchbacks of school life, our eyes focused on the ground because if we don’t see, they don’t see us, and we don’t have to deal with the exploding fear of not being good enough, or funny enough, or beautiful enough for the rest of the world. We are in the library devouring every book we can, making desperate glances at the pretty boy who, with vodka, we’d grab, but sober we try not to look at for fear he’ll see us. We make awkward conversation because we don’t know how to talk to people that we don’t know that well, but who the night before we declared to be our very best friends, and we avoid contact with the boy whom we had our wicked way with. All the while we wander around chugging water because our heads are pounding, our livers healing. I wish I could promise I wouldn’t drink it the next time, that I’d deal with dancing like a robot, and being unable to even look a boy in the eye, but I can’t.
For a while, I might promise myself that I’ll be okay. Jenna and I will high-five and make promises of a “sober night.” I’ll make my way to the party, or the nightclub, and I’ll sit down with my best friend, and watch as the space around us becomes more and more crowded with people we don’t know. Jenna and I will huddle, and pretend to talk so we don’t look as awkward as we feel. Maybe a few people will come up and chat with us, ask us who we are, and like we’re not sure, we’ll reply, and attempt to make small talk. Soon enough, they’ll get bored by our one-word answers and our hunched shoulders, and totter off to chat to someone with a beaming smile who doesn’t look like a snail forced out of its shell. By twelve o’clock, my face will be red, my head bowed. I’ll turn to Jenna, and ask her for the money that I swore I wouldn’t take out, and I’ll get the drink I said I wouldn’t. By one, I’ll have thirteen new best friends. By two, my head will be spinning, and Jenna will be lost and I will be surrounded by both nothing and everything. By three, I’ll be home in bed wondering why.
Then again, sometimes “sober nights” are possible. For example, last week I was at this party where everyone I knew was replaced with slightly wobblier versions of themselves as they stumbled around clutching Coronas and wine bottles. I held dear a glass of 7up, and not a drop of alcohol passed my lips. A boy with water-bottle coloured eyes came up to talk to me, and I just stared at him like he was a monster, before shaking my head and apologizing for being so incredibly shy. Instead of stepping away, his eyes lit up, as he explained so was he. We had a small chat about the banes of being so shy, and how he worked through it. Of course, he was more than tipsy himself at the time, but it felt nice, explaining why I was so socially stunted, rather than letting him think something else of me. When I woke the next day, instead of feeling restless, I felt proud.
Even now though, knowing that there is an alternative to alcohol, I also know that actually putting this option into practice is so much more difficult. It’s hard to think about that option, when I know a simpler path, one less risky than announcing to the world that I have chronic shyness. But that doesn’t mean that, like at that party, I won’t try. Alcohol is only a momentary solution after all.
Despite this, I know that like so many others, I’d much rather send my ghost out to deal, leaving the real me inside, waving her hand to get attention, and attempting to work out why it is I’ve hidden her away.
Anonymous is a twenty-year-old college student studying creative writing in Ireland.