It was Saturday in late November. I arrived at my friend’s place at half past eight. A friend of a friend was leaving the country on Tuesday. I knew him only by reputation, and I believe he knew me no better, but this was an event my friend insisted I did not miss. Only a few people, he promised me, and most of them would be people I knew (although they weren’t friends of mine). I had planned to hole myself up the weekend and binge a sitcom or another to keep my mind distracted, but I surrendered to the argument that a night of heavy drinking and the following hangover would be enough of a distraction to get me through it. I hated weekends and their unending capacity to drag me through a quagmire of unfulfillment, dissatisfaction, loneliness, and melancholy. I was uncharacteristically non-miserable to be going to the party, but it was less out of an enthusiasm to socialize and more of an abandonment of my reservations in the face of the inevitable. Who knew I might actually have some fun?
I waited at the door and listened for a moment. There were music and voices. There seemed to be a lot more people than the “few” promised and I felt my non-misery wavering for a second before I heard footsteps climbing up the stairwell behind me. Not wanting to be caught creeping at the door, I took a deep breath, put on a smile, and entered.
There were ten people—I counted—and three more were on their way. At first glance, I recognized none of the faces in the room the door opened to, and I didn’t take the time to search my memory as I helloed back and stealthily made my way to the kitchen where I knew my friend would be busy. He was always the one taking care of things, the one making sure everyone was fed, the one making sure everybody socialized with everybody. I was the shadow clinging to the only people I knew in settings like this. Since we met each other in college about eight years ago—although we really became friends, through efforts I did not make, after a chance meeting much later—we’d been to more than one, but probably no more than three, social event that was too social for me to not want to leave right away. And every time, I matched his efforts to mingle me with my own effort to remain aloof. I often wondered why he hasn’t given up already, and why I always relented.
Did I bring the wine, was his first words to me when he saw me hovering there at the kitchen doorway. No greetings, no expressions of gladness that I was there. He knew I was going to be there. I didn’t know I was going to be there until I was there. He knew me better than I knew myself. And he knew me better than to make a fuss of me being there.
I handed him the wine. It was something red and cheap whose name I did not remember, and even if I did, I could probably hardly pronounce it. I was not a wine-drinker—too fancy for my taste, pretending I had “taste” at all. In fact, I hadn’t been much of a drinker at all. Just the occasional beer here or there. Cheap rum and local liquor used to fuel my late-teens and early-twenties when making bad decision was the rage, but I guess my body physically grew out of it. Now I considered three cans of beer “hard drinking.” How “hard” would wine be, I wondered. I’d never had any before, not even a drop, unless you counted sacrament.
I busied myself in the kitchen next to my friend. He didn’t need my help, of course, but strangely he did not try to force me to make new friends. Or has he given up? Unlikely. He seemed distracted.
Out to the common area I brought from the kitchen a large platter of smoking onion rings and placed it on the low table at the centre having cleared the debris made up of an ashtray, one empty and one half-empty cigarette packets, a lighter, an empty glass, two empty cans of beer, an empty water bottle, a new deck of cards, a folded newspaper, and for a cute porcelain figurine of a shepherd boy. The people—the friend-of-friend who was leaving the country was in the far end of the room by the front door—were scattered about, busy in their conversations and drinks, and they hardly seemed to notice the addition I made to the mess on the table, but one hand and then another quickly followed the first. My friend poured me a glass of wine and for a few others who’d chosen to forego the other alcohol selections of the night, and I was waiting for him to take his place among the crowd, but he went back towards the kitchen and left me stranded between a vaguely familiar face and a vaguely unfamiliar face, and they were respectively conversing with someone whose name I could almost remember, and someone I was sixty percent sure I’d seen more than once before. For a second longer than what felt normal, I stood there standing debating whether to navigate my way back to the kitchen or not. I decided not to.
I sat down hugging my glass of red and just as I pulled my phone out to check football scores, someone tapped my knee. It was one of the two people there whom I actually knew with certainly. He was a friend of my friend—and was I his friend by extension, and he mine? I wondered—and he was there in those two or three social events I’d been subjected to. He asked me, as a joke of course, why I was pretending to be invisible, and I told him I was crashing the party and not to tell anyone. That was an appropriately clever response, I thought. I could admit to myself that I had adequate understanding of social etiquette and the necessities that would lead to conformity and acceptance into a circle in such social situations, and I could employ them flawlessly more often than not whenever the need arose. But why did I have to always be so damn conscious of myself and my actions every single moment? Nevertheless, I made the expected small talk with this ancillary friend, catching up on the things we’d been doing and bitching about whatever there was to bitch about. We had more than a few things in common, I realized, or rather, I was reminded. Now I wondered why were weren’t closer friends, even though I already knew the answer to that.
A few minutes later, the woman to my right, the vaguely-familiar-face, turned her attention to us and join in when the conversation steered towards unfulfilled dreams and vocations. It turned out that the vague familiarity was because she was my classmate in primary school before she moved away. I didn’t remember her much, and neither did she, but that vague familiarity, after that realization, transformed slowly and gradually through the night into something I might dare to call attraction. We spoke like old friends, but it was mostly the alcohol talking. And when that topic of conversation ebbed, she turned her attention towards another group, the ancillary friend also turned his attention to another group, but a new topic of conversation started with a new assortment of individuals, and the night moved on, and, occasionally, an individual would hold the attention of the whole group for a few moments, and that was the way it went as the minutes spun around the clock, drinks topped up and snacks refilled in between—a musical chair of conversations and new connections. At least half of the people there were not already acquainted with the other half, and that comprehension settled me into the vibe of the night. I noticed my friend at one point sitting on the floor in a transparently coquettish conversation with a guy I did not know occupying a beanbag next to him. Our eyes met and his smile carried an aura different to all the smiles that ever waxed on his face. I knew my friend, and one look at the stranger on the beanbag was all it took to know how the night would end for them. Now his behaviour made sense. Then my friend’s smile changed into something else as his gaze reluctantly lingered on me. I realized I was keeping my eyes on them without the smile leaving my face. I probably wasn’t blinking either. I was getting tipsy. I didn’t even realize when the wine bottle emptied and I traded my grapes for grain.
Holding now a diluted amber in a different glass, I stood up, trying my best not to wobble visibly, and made my way towards the balcony at the back of the flat, grabbing two cigarettes and a lighter along the way.
The balcony was small and half the space was taken up by dying potted plants, and the top of the parapet was rough with dried bird droppings. The grand view was the peeling back wall of the next building, and in the dim light, the drainage pipes lining the walls almost looked like some form of geometric art. Almost. The coolness of the winter-heralding air and the pseudo-warmth provided by the alcohol complemented each other and elevated my temporary state of induced peaceful delight. I knew it would end, and then the aftermath would not be too kind to me, but I was not thinking about it. There was nothing to think about. What good had thinking ever done me?
I was on my second cigarette and a few sips left in my drink when the door to the balcony creaked and the woman, the vaguely-familiar-face—although that has lost its meaning now—appeared, she too with an amber drink in her hand.
‘I didn’t see you come back in, so I came to check on you,’ she said with a hint of a smile. ‘Making sure you’re still standing.’
‘Just getting some air,’ I said, although I had in my mind a few light-hearted quips I did not have the courage to say. Even inebriated I was still a wuss, I thought.
‘And how’s that going?’ she said.
I knew the question wasn’t serious, but for some undiscernible reason, all I said was, ‘It’s okay.’
She stood there like she was waiting for me to go on. My mind had blanked at that point, or it was still reeling from being “okay.” She then asked, ‘You coming back in soon?’
‘In a minute,’ I said.
Again, she stood as if she was waiting for me to add something else. Was I dismissive? Did I even smile? Should I have tried to be funny? And why was she checking on me? She then said, ‘Alright then, I guess I’ll see you inside.’
‘Hey,’ I said before she disappeared, and then of course, I had not idea what to say next, so, after what felt like an eternity, I said, ‘I’ll see you inside.’
She disappeared with a silent smile I did not know the meaning of, if there was one.
As I burned down the rest of my cigarette and finished my drink, all that was on my mind was the million other better ways that could’ve gone.
‘How’s that going?’
Better, now that you’re here.
‘You coming back in soon?’
That depends. Are you going back in?
‘I guess I’ll see you inside.’
I guess . . .
But this wasn’t a fucking movie, and I was no Casanova. Casanova? I had absolutely no idea who he was or if he was real or fictional or what he was supposed to represent exactly. Nevertheless, I was not him. I was nobody. An underachiever, somebody who dreamt too much and did too little. Life didn’t deal me bad hands, I was just always too afraid to place a bet, let alone raise. And I’d never even played poker in my life.
Maybe, I thought, just maybe, I could summon the courage to place a bet for once.
I felt more sober than before all the drinks as I finally dragged myself back into the fold. The murmurs and the voices mingled to form a cacophony that with my heightened sense of self-awareness I found it intimidating even though none of them paid any attention to me. And I might have been just imagining it, but it felt like I could hear my own heartbeat though the noise, beating to the tempo of the pop music that was playing, like it was dancing.
I scanned the room as covertly as I could. I did not see her, but I saw myself in the eyes of anyone who might’ve noticed me—a drunk idiot standing like a statue rocking unrhythmically.
I made my way to an empty spot in one corner of the room, keeping my eyes vigilant in case my gyrating vision passed her by. She wasn’t there. It wasn’t a big flat, but it seemed in that moment to be filled with dark pockets where clandestine deeds could take place. I knew I was over thinking, like I always did. My ability to do that was always the last to go in any event of incapacitation. Even if I was dying, I knew I would worry about what they would make me wear when I was lying in the casket—I’d grown fatter than the one suit I owned. Still, knowing the fact that I was overthinking did not stop me from doing so. And then I looked around me, at the faces smiling and laughing and lost in their own bubbles of paradises, content with what they were and where they were, at least for the moment—momentary contentment was all that mattered in moments like this—and then I began to feel the layers of my heart peeling back, slowly exposing that sensitive nerve at the centre of it all, and then I felt a sudden urge to leave. Even though I knew I was overthinking things, and I knew that all of the feelings clambering onto me were brought on by my own thoughts, the emotions were nonetheless real. I hated that I couldn’t control them, I hated that I let myself be controlled, and feeling—knowing—that I was sinking back into that old abyss surrounded by a crowd of what I wanted but couldn’t have because of no one’s fault but my own, I hated myself for being myself.
And then the girl appeared out of the corridor. Her cheeks were flushed and her hair tousled. She took a deep seemingly tired breath and stood there looking around. I waited for a man—the fictional man in my head—to appear behind her and maybe give her a little knowing nudge, but before he ever came, her gaze found me, and then, with her index and middle finger, she pointed to her eyes, and then pointed a finger at me.
She made her way to me, almost stumbling twice on the way. She flopped down between me the next person, shoving herself into the tight space with no remorse. The next person made room while I stayed put. She then turned and stared at me, unsmiling, and I could see the intemperance in her eyes as her gaze lingered for a silent and intense few seconds, and then she pulled herself closer in and brought her mouth intimately close to my ear making the tiny hairs on the back of my neck stand up in anticipation and, with a murky voice, said, ‘I was in the toilet puking my guts out.’
She then pulled away just a little and stared at me with hazy eyes, unsmiling, as if trying to determine what my reaction or lack thereof meant. I had no idea what my expressions looked like or if I reacted outwardly in any way, but inside was a different story. I felt butterflies in my stomach, and it was travelling up, and up, and then I suddenly realized what it was. I got up, trying to underplay the urgency for a deluded moment, and then beelined for the toilet.
I puked my guts out. It stung like hell, and in that searing moment, I thought of nothing.