You ended up at parties like this—humid, too many artists, too few places to stand—because of Melissa. She swore that no one at these events found you to be a hanger-on or an irrelevancy, even though they did, because you were. But staying in her orbit always kept you safe within her corona of sociability, which is why you tended to linger within 50 or so feet of her in these situations. People came to her, so by extension they came to you, if you needed them. Melissa was one of those people around whom others oriented their lives without much thought, like you do the Gregorian calendar or a favorite color. Girls like her usually made you jealous, a cardinal sin you nearly never resisted, but you were never jealous of her. Not for lack of a reason, of course. It just didn’t surface in you the same way.
You were spectacularly unhappy at this party because that was kind of your thing these days, the doldrums of mid July. The worst part about it was, as always, not the unhappiness itself but the knowledge that other people suffered in the exact same way as you, that you were sad without breaking any records or thinking any profound thoughts. There were good days, though. Foolish to say there weren’t. Today was one of those days, even if it was turning out not to be one of those nights. Mostly you felt bored, because no really wanted to talk to you and it was too early to have either scraped up confidence or alchemized it through mixed spirits.
Melissa was talking to some director of relative import with her elbows held high in a slightly affected way that revealed her admiration to anyone watching from a distance. The director, as you recalled, had semi-recently done something uncouth. You couldn’t remember if it had been criminally or antisocially uncouth, like that guy with the fashion brand or Jeffrey Toobin, or if it was just culturally uncouth, like that girl writer or comedy podcast. The two categories did have a lot of crossover; a Venn diagram resembling an eighth grader’s doodle of boobs in the margins of his language studies notebook. Either way, it wasn’t a good time to return to Melissa’s side like an unweaned toddler. You looked around in search of other people looking around to see the other people looking around. You tried to remember that you wanted to be there, and that for the most part it felt worse not to be places than it did to be at them.
The director had a new blonde girlfriend, the youngest in a series of young blonde girlfriends that he’d collected throughout the last couple years. This girlfriend was quite young, but not so egregiously young that people felt concerned or uncomfortable about the relationship. You weren’t even sure if that was a thing people worried about anymore; the culture seemed disconcertingly close to horse-shoeing back around to where it was when Simone de Beauvoir and Barthes and Deleuze and a bunch of other intellectuals all signed a petition fighting to legalize sex with tweens in France.
You and the director’s new girlfriend had struck up a conversation while you both waited for other people to finish their conversations. Your discussion had gone slightly off track; she was a long stride down a scattered tangent about capitalism as addiction that you were only vaguely following.
“I think everyone stopped talking about shopping addictions because everyone’s consumption reached the level we considered addiction before,” she said, the drink in her hand seemed to be the final step past the border between drunk (in the party way) and drunk (in the hard to shake off way).
“Or maybe no one’s addictions are very interesting anymore,” she said.
“There are no new addictions these days,” she continued, and after a moment added, “we’re in an addiction recession.”
She rested and sipped at a drink, her mouth just missing the slender twin cocktail straws. You watched her tongue fumble to find the straw, her lips pushing it aside before the tongue could catch. You looked away, face hot with secondhand embarrassment.
“Sobriety is basically just another addiction,” you said, unsure if you believed it or cared enough to try. “You’re living your whole life dedicated to this thing, or I guess this set of principles, the sole purpose of which is to make you feel good.” You mostly just wanted to say something, actually participate in the dialogue, throw her a conversational bone.
She stopped swaying in place. “Can you only be addicted to bad things?” she asked, “or do you make things bad by becoming addicted?”
You shrugged, again; the conversation had gotten to a point where you were too beleaguered to continue it effectively. You didn’t want to think, not at all, not even for a moment.
“I don’t really know,” you said. You both stood there for a moment and checked to see if your respective allies were finished speaking.
“I stopped smoking cigarettes because my Wellbutrin dose is so high,” the girl offered.
“Hm,” you said. You couldn’t tell if you wanted to leave, insert yourself into Melissa’s conversation, stay at the party, or kill yourself. Another moment elapsed before she spoke again.
“Can I bum a cig?”
The air conditioning assaulted you as you wandered back inside with the director’s girlfriend. August made the nights go a little colder, smells tended towards the vegetal and humid. It was still hot out, but the water in the air was aching to turn cold on you. It took the joy out of A/C. The director’s girlfriend had promised she’d buy you a drink as thanks for letting her ‘talk your ear off.’ You felt for her then because you saw yourself in her, and you knew how to feel bad for yourself. It was the curse of the plus-one, to perpetually feel like an imposition. But even worse was to feel like The Girlfriend, a title that always seemed to carry the same cumbersome precarity as sleeping with your boss. The plus-one felt out of place, but The Girlfriend felt out of place and embarrassed for it.
You watched the director’s girlfriend carry two sweating gin and tonics towards you with the focus of an Olympic gymnast. You briefly wondered if you should discourage her from drinking more, but decided against it. Little point in it. She handed you your drink and you squeezed the lime garnish between your fingers until it regurgitated a spurt of juice into the patiently chilling quinine. Neither of you spoke for a few moments, just listened to the vibrating bass coming through the speakers and readjusted to your surroundings.
“What’s the juice in a gin and juice?” she asked.
It was sudden, and startling; you weren’t quite ready to reenter conversation.
“God, I honestly have no clue. Probably orange juice?” you said.
“I’m trying to remember if there are any other clues in the song,” she said.
“Maybe it isn’t. I’ve never actually thought about it, I guess. Grapefruit?” you said.
She didn’t wait for you to finish your thought. “I was just thinking,” she said, “while I was getting a gin and tonic, I was thinking about the song. And then, then I was like, what the fuck juice does he mean?”
You had a feeling your instinct about her level of inebriation was spot on.
“My boyfriend has been talking to that girl for really long,” she murmured.
“Oh, that’s my friend, actually,” you told her, but before you could say more she continued.
“He’s involved in some new project he won’t tell me anything about and it’s so funny. Like, it’s a play. On the stage. Why does that need to be secret? It’s not the A-bomb. It’s not MK Ultra. He didn’t even sign an NDA or anything. Not that that’s ever stopped anyone.”
The director’s girlfriend was losing the thread. The intensity and tempo of the conversation was beginning to resemble Whack-A-Mole; she’d smash whatever topic peeked out of its hole and then disappear just as quickly, one or two new topics taking its place.
“Are you good? Do you need anything?” you asked, clumsy, unsure of how to proceed.
She looked up immediately. “Do you do coke?”
“Sort of,” you said.
The director’s girlfriend grabbed your hand and started towards the single-stall disabled bathroom. The inside was grubby, ringed in sticky residue squeezing out the sides of glossy stickers. A single LED lightbulb hung from the ceiling and gave the room an impersonal haze that felt like touching someone else’s marrow. Dozens of phone numbers crowded any free wall space, advertising weed delivery services or long-past events or nothing at all, just the number, alone and tempting you. There were a couple QR codes pasted on the wall that led to some girl’s ManyVids page. The director’s girlfriend giggled when you showed her.
“I wonder if that’s worked for her,” you said. “It couldn’t possibly hurt.”
You knew that going to the bathroom with the director’s girlfriend would solidify your bond, make you friends. The disabled slash nongendered slash family bathroom, no less. The bathroom did not make girls friends immediately, but drugs often did.
“She fucking slays,” the director’s girlfriend said, distracted as she fulfilled her duties as drug preparator. You weren’t really that into drugs these days. They never felt as good as they used to, when you were twenty and doing anything that felt good and, holy shit, everything felt so fucking good. Now everything was a palimpsest of what it had been before, with comedowns twice as bad. You’d probably ran through all of your available brain pathways or chemical production systems, or something like that. Pleasure centers shot to hell like American malls.
“Wait, so how long have you and the director been seeing one another?” you asked as she disappeared the little white slashes arranged atop her phone screen. You briefly considered the vast amount of bacteria and dirt and oils on the surface of a phone, which felt more unhealthy than the drugs.
“Almost half a year,” she said. “Half a year in two months.”
So four months. “Oh, cool. He seems amazing,” you said, by which you meant nothing. He didn’t seem like much of anything at all.
“Yeah, I’m basically the happiest I’ve been ever,” the director’s girlfriend said.
“Aw, yay!” you said. It sounded false, only partially by accident. The director’s girlfriend looked up at you with one nostril still plugged by a manicured acrylic. She straightened up and gestured for you to take a turn. You should never say no to free drugs from people who aren’t trying to have sex with you.
You took the tight-wound dollar and felt a pang of nostalgia for the times when this kind of experience might have signaled the start of a beautiful friendship, or at least a camaraderie. She had put the phone screen on the corner of the sink, where you had to be sure not to lean down too quickly and risk slamming a cheekbone against the stainless steel faucet. You raised your head again to collect your hair over your left shoulder so that it didn’t sweep the drugs into the sink. The director’s girlfriend was watching you in the mirror’s reflection. It wasn’t that you didn’t feel that camaraderie with her, except that you didn’t. It was that she was out of the grasp of your understanding, just barely unreachable. Girls a certain amount younger than you were foreign territory; neither baby sisters nor peers. After however many years of slanted feminist messaging, you didn’t think of them as direct threats either. More like animals you might find beautiful, if you weren’t so worried they were about to attack.
The director’s girlfriend told you to hurry up. She was bored.
To you, cocaine was the world’s most initially disappointing drug. At first you expected it to be cinematic, the way you imagined your first kiss or sip of alcohol. After the first time, it grew on you, though, like sex after virginity. Once you’d done it enough, your body knew that you wanted it. Drugs were never like the books or movies, or even a good Erowid thread, you told her.
“Do you remember those posts?” You asked the director’s girlfriend.
“I looked on Erowid when my friend drank too much Delsym once,” she told you.
This was comforting, humanizing. “Did it help?” you asked her.
“Not really,” she told you, “I just kept making her throw up.”
“Classic strategy,” you said.
The director’s girlfriend was scanning the room slowly, as if she weren’t looking for anything in particular. You presumed she was looking for the director. You hadn’t seen him since you and his girlfriend had gone to the bathroom to do drugs. You weren’t sure if his absence was making her more nervous or not. If she was nervous, she had practice. She seemed more on guard, more aware of herself and her actions. She moved more carefully, spoke more precisely, kept good posture.
“He’s always letting people network him wherever he goes,” she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and wiping a smudge off of her phone screen.
“That’s so annoying,” you said.
She snapped her head up and scowled slightly. “It’s not his fault. He’s just trying to be nice to people who are trying to suck up to him,” she said. You made a reassuring gesture with your hand.
“Of course, of course. I meant them,” you lied.
]“What is it you do again?” She asked you, eyes no longer narrowed.
“Like, for work?”
“Sure,” she said.
“I’m an office manager right now. I’m with a temp agency, though,” you said.
“I didn’t realize temp agencies still existed,” she said.
“They do,” you said.
“Most of the people here are like, artists of some sort,” she said. You raised your eyebrows. You weren’t sure if it was an observation, or a judgment, or an accusation. But you were also tired and your ankles were starting to chafe against the patent leather of your shoes, and you didn’t want to talk about what you did or didn’t do, what shows you’d been to, whose work with whom you were in conversation, which strangers from the Internet you hated now, or any of the broad swipes of chat that you engaged in at parties like this. You didn’t even know what the party was celebrating.
“So you’re an artist, then?” you asked, stretching the word artist out a bit to give the director’s girlfriend more time to sit and reflect on how useless an identifier it was.
“I was,” she said in a mournful tone that bordered on the theatrical. The director’s girlfriend was beginning to annoy you again. You made a point not to ask her a clarifying question.
“Let me introduce you to my friend Melissa,” you said, “you’ll adore her.”
“Okay,” she said.
You suspected she was thinking about when she was once an artist.
You found Melissa outside with a circle of girls smoking Virginia Slims and listening to the director talk about the best recipe for fake blood.
Melissa pulled you into the group and squeezed your hand. She turned her head to covertly whisper to you. “I am going to kill myself if I have to be a part of this conversation for even a second longer.” Her hair tickled your cheek and neck where she breathed her hot complaint into you. You smiled. It took a moment for you to remember the director’s girlfriend standing beside you. She had adopted a look of profound interest in the current conversation that suggested she’d been here all along, sprinkling delicate mms and ohs and yeses of encouragement. You were familiar with this posture, of a girl waiting for someone to notice her not notice them. You glanced at the director to see if he had.
You had forgotten how tall the director was. Very, very tall and very thin, too, with a sallow, Dracula-adjacent complexion and chin-length hair. He wore a ribbed white tank top—the kind you were actively trying not to call wife beaters—and a pair of powder blue trousers made from some immensely touchable-looking fabric. He was both sexless and somehow obscene, in some unplaceable, pheromonal, fishhook in your stomach kind of way. You honestly had no idea how old he was, which made his girlfriend seem simultaneously too young for him and well-matched in age.
“Oh, Melissa,” the director beat you to it, “this is my girlfriend.”
It wasn’t the hello the director’s girlfriend wanted from him, but she happily accepted it still. She was slow-moving from drugs wearing off and alcohol catching up, unable to react as quickly as she seemed to want. But she got there, grinning as she fielded an elbows-forward-girl-hug from Melissa.
“So good to meet you, finally!” Melissa hugged the director’s girlfriend.
They made idle girl-chatter for a few minutes, until the director cut in to grab his girlfriend’s hand and rest his palm on her cheek.
“Isn’t she the greatest?” he asked, turning his girlfriend’s chin towards Melissa. You chewed your lip and went on your phone to see how long it would take to walk home. You glanced at the way the director’s girlfriend stared at him out the sides of her eyes while he held her chin away from his. Like it would kill her to look elsewhere, like her whole night was just wasting breath she could’ve let condense on his skin.
“Of all time! You guys are so cute,” Melissa said. Her voice sounded pre-recorded, almost, like what came before the beep on the voicemail machine. The vacuity of her tone wounded you, somehow. Like you couldn’t be sure that that wasn’t the way she’d always sounded. Melissa and the director and the director’s girlfriend began to exchange goodbyes, the kind of platonic sweet nothings that passed between embracing partygoers before the journey home.
You had the sudden feeling that you didn’t exist at all, at least not in a way that left any evidence. One moment knowing and being known and then nothing, not even the sensation of absence. Like goosebumps waiting under the skin for the next cold wind. Like the most you could ever do was watch other people feel things for and with each other while you watched from the other side of a one-way mirror. Like you’d spent the whole night playacting at existence. The director kissed his girlfriend and murmured something in her ear. You wished you could’ve brought something out of her that would make her feel real. That would make you feel real. You wondered if she remembered your name, then realized you didn’t remember hers.
“So good meeting you,” the director said in your general direction before continuing his goodbye circuit. His girlfriend started towards the street, and you caught her gaze for a moment. You gave her a small wave and she returned it, before nestling her hand back into the director’s as they left the venue.
You turned your attention back to Melissa and the group of acquaintances that had clotted near the door, where air conditioning and music spilled out in waves when the door opened. You said hello to people you didn’t know, you talked about large and vague things.