Flavored Vodka and Cheekbone Glitter

college parties as liminal spaces

It is the first Friday of the semester, and I’m sitting with my back pressed against my friend’s dresser, laughing as she snaps pictures for her Snapchat story. I will end the night curled on top of my bed, crying more than I have in over a year.

After a series of lighthearted jabs from my parents over break, we collectively concluded that I need to get out more. Get a little drunk. Be a real college kid. So I’m a shot or two in, and I feel good. We’re playing music and talking, and her other friend keeps telling me I’m cool. I’m not the kind of girl people call cool; I’m more generically “nice,” “sweet,” or “cute.” These friends and I joke that my alter ego is a 12-year-old altar boy from rural Ohio: Billy Olson, born 1949. This isn’t far from the truth most days, but tonight, I’m feeling a little more like Billy’s older cousin from somewhere big and bright, like Chicago, which isn’t actually that far off for a girl raised on the Evanston shore.

///

An hour later, we’re standing on the steps outside the frat hosting the party. I’m wearing my parka, with my phone, ID, and keys safely tucked in the pockets. I shove my hands into the cool fabric and check to see if my belongings are still there. I do this more times than I can count as we move through the line, as if maintaining a grip on the plastic card with my picture on it might keep me from losing myself.

///

My hands twirl high above my head, my hips move in figure eights, and a soft smile plays across my lips. The room is dark, I can hardly hear my friends’ voices singing along to the kind of music I would never listen to on my own, and yet, I’m having a great time. I’m dancing, really dancing, the kind of dancing I was too scared to do until prom, and even then, only while glancing nervously at the other groups of teenagers I knew I’d probably never see again. A boy approaches me, moving closer and closer, and though I can’t see his face, I can sense his eyes following the movements of my limbs. As my friends move closer to the stage, I inch closer to them until he pulls me back and asks if I want to dance with him. This has never happened before, and I agree, heart pounding faster and grin widening because I’m wanted. The bass beats in my chest as we move closer to the speakers, and the boy and I are stepping on each others’ feet, and he’s coming closer, closer, closer. He leans into my ear and asks if I want to kiss. I blurt that it will be my first time, and he says it’ll be his too (a fact I will later learn is a lie).  His mouth is on mine, and my whole body freezes; I squeeze my eyes tight, and try to mimic his movements. His hand migrates lower and lower down my back, and I reach behind to pull it back up. I wonder how long this will last. I wonder if it always goes on this long. I will wonder for several more minutes until I finally pull away.

///

He asks me again. I know I was uncomfortable the first time; I know I don’t want a second, and yet, I say yes again because night me is different from day me, and I’m trying to be a real college kid. He pulls me in, and his arms squeeze my upper back, my arms. My stomach contracts as he grips tighter, he tells me to follow his lead, I lose sense of time and place. I am just sensation, sweat and spit and fear. It doesn’t stop, that’s all I know, it just won’t stop. After longer this time, I flash my eyes open and see my friends looking concerned. They have stopped dancing entirely and ask me loudly if I want to go to the bathroom, so I reach for their hands and they pull me out.

///

I burst into tears on a frat couch outside the bathroom, and they hold me there as a security guard looks on. I sob. I can’t stop. I’m too old for this to be my first time, I berate myself. I said yes. Twice. I should have known better. I wasn’t even that drunk. They lead me back to my dorm room, and I cry until my roommate comes home, and then I cry some more, and then I take a shower and go to sleep.

///

It’s two weeks later, and I’m feeling great again. I’m going back to the same frat, with the same friends, and I don’t care what happened last time. I’ve seen the boy a few times since then, awkward eye contact in the Ratty or between classes, but I just walk faster or turn to friends or plug my headphones in. He looks different in the daytime, and I guess I do too. I’m no longer scared. In my friend’s room, we take shots of flavored vodka that her high school friend visiting from Boston has brought with her. The alcohol drips out of the tiny bottles, sugary sweet, nonthreatening. My friend is applying highlighter to her cheekbones, rubbing the glitter in until it blends with the sheen of her skin. She looks beautiful. Captured in a Polaroid photo that her roommate takes for us, we look like a team. We look unstoppable.

///

This party is different from the last one. There’s less dancing, more sitting on couches and talking. I don’t do much of the latter; instead, I feel myself turning inward, thinking, noticing. I start to feel empty, something I’ve noticed happens to me when surrounded by lots of people, enveloped in dark and smoke and the haze of blue light emanating from cell phones used as mirrors. I don’t feel like myself, so I notice everyone around me. There are girls in tight shirts with the same sparkling cheekbones on flushed faces reflecting light as they turn their heads.  Things move slower here: Speech is slurred, every body relaxed except mine. It feels like an in-between space, a liminal space, as my Shakespeare professor last semester would have called it. “Relating to a transitional stage of a process. Occupying a position at, or on both sides, of a threshold or boundary,” according to Dictionary.com. Everything and nothing is happening at the same time. People act nothing like they would during the day, yet perhaps they are more themselves than they’ve ever been. I will be able to pick out these faces over the next week, in the Ratty, in the Rock, and they will look entirely different and exactly the same.  

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In my room at the end of the night, I sit on my bed, wet hair dripping down my back, and I think about parties. I might still be a little drunk, or just tired. Either way my head feels light and my eyes heavy. I don’t know if the conclusions I’m drawing make any sense. I feel confident that parties, especially college parties, have some kind of liminality to them. Memories are made in the heat of the moment and then pushed aside to make room for class notes and paper deadlines. They come back at night, in the adrenaline-filled sprint up to the next party the next weekend, where new people are encountered and remembered or forgotten depending on how many substances are coursing through bloodstreams across the room. Faces blur into one another until seen in sunlight, separately. Nights extend into early mornings, into mechanical showers at 3 a.m. and dreamless sleep until early afternoon. We exist in this in-between space fueled by flavored vodka and new makeup, and I wonder why it seems like everyone except me has made peace with the gray.