lid of a pill bottle

Ally’s Party

Sean decided he would go and so he took a Diazepam. He’d been holding onto a pack since suffering from a few days of intense back pain and while he usually had to think about when best to pop one, Ally’s party was the sort of occasion he’d kept them for. There was a month’s worth of leftover Zoloft in his cupboard too, but they didn’t give the immediate results he needed. Sean had fallen so in love with the effects of the drug he’d even come to relish the two-hour gap between ingestion and the initial kick. When the Diazepam finally came on it was like a puncture. The tension and toxins brought on by the outside world drained away, leaving him feeling still and empty inside. Judgments felt more objective, actions more decisive. Sean knew this was his best self, which was just as well—being at the party of an ex-lover required you to carry yourself in an elevated way.

Shortly after the Diazepam took hold, his best friend Robert came by to pick him up and Sean gently floated to the party. This was going to be fine. Everything would be fine. At the door Ally and her boyfriend Toby swept them in, exchanging cheery greetings. Cheeks were politely kissed, coats hung up, and Sean took his appraisal of the room before him. Under the bright glow of Ally’s kitchen lights, rigid-looking people in Reiss jumpers and brown Oxfords stood nursing drinks turned to room temperature, spouting the usual neo-liberal invective that left them all feeling good about themselves. Robert appeared with a bottle of beer, passing it to him.

“You holding up okay? That was a nice present you got Ally.”

“Was it? I didn’t really try,” Sean said. Technically that was a lie; he’d tried very hard, just not in a way that befitted the occasion of Ally’s birthday. During those ritualized two hours before the Diazepam rush, he’d scanned through his bookshelf to find a heavily battered, budget edition of Mrs. Dalloway with some pencil lines in the margins. Pairing it with a garish Art Deco Hallmark card had felt funny at the time, but Ally was, true to form, polite to a fault in showing her gratitude when he’d handed them over. The Diazepam told him this was not the actions of his best self, but that was okay so long as he acknowledged his mistake. He found self-reflection and acceptance were much easier in this state.

Robert clinked his beer bottle to Sean’s in a show of solidarity.

“Toby’s a fucking bore sometimes, eh?” Robert said. “Lapping up everything Ally says.”

“He’s nice enough,” Sean replied. Trying to interrogate what he thought about Toby threatened the sense of profound stillness he felt and so he focused on draining the bottle of Corona in his hand.

Robert smirked. “You’ve changed your tune. He’s sound, of course. But my God, she does just loves surrounding herself with an audience.”

Sean absently ran a thumb along the rim of the bottle.

“I mean, you weren’t like that. That’s not what I’m saying.”

Sean looked up and did his best attempt at a smile. The Diazepam had already peaked, and he could feel something tightening in his chest. This wasn’t his best self.

“Listen,” he said, gamely putting an arm around Robert. He’d left the little foil tray at home, so he needed to improvise. “I’m thinking maybe we just get on it tonight. Go large. Fancy another beer?”

Robert seemed to be appraising Sean. “You reckon you’re up to it?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I…” Robert gave Sean a smile designed to annoy him and said, “We both know I’ll be the last man standing.”

Making his way through the sea of cashmere sweaters and academic one-upmanship, Sean headed for Ally’s ridiculously hi-tech fridge and pulled out two bottles of Corona. He thought about the last time he was here—upstairs, in the dark of her bedroom, his tongue between her legs, labored efforts growing more and more desperate.

Sean’s face burned red now as he stood beside the fridge and remembered Ally suddenly sitting upright. “I feel trapped,” she’d said. In eighteen months, this was the first time Ally had ever spoken during sex. Her words were hammer blows, striking him in the chest and leaving him breathless.

“I’m trying so hard,” he’d uttered—and unwittingly did so again now, his head resting against the fridge door.

“Everything okay, mate?”

He turned to see several tweed-wearing men staring back at him, Toby’s friends. “All good here fellas,” Sean said, raising his Corona. “Just trying to get this bloody fridge to spit out ice.”

There was a pause where the group took him in more fully. “Nice of you to turn up,” one of them said. “And yeah, that fridge is infuriating. It won’t give you ice but it will give you a detailed rundown of the weather.”

Robert walked over, Toby behind him. “Aye,” Robert said. “And I hear in the future they’ll give you a full-on MOT, like that Ewan McGregor film where he can’t eat any more bacon. It’s a mad world!”

Ignoring the mock-ghoulish way Robert had delivered that last bit, another academic jumped in, eyes sharp. He spoke with the urgency of someone who wanted to share something profound.

“It’s Orwell by way of Jony Ive.” He paused to let that sink in. “Imagine how debilitating it’ll be living in a world where we’re checking every single aspect of ourselves against a stat on a display. We’ll be living under the rule of a bar-chart, judging even the smallest action by the weight of its consequences.”

The group did an approximation of the Beatnik finger-click; an almost-imperceptible hum and nod. Now it was Toby’s turn. He seemed to be speaking directly to Sean, eyes wide and inviting.

“I think we’re all becoming so disconnected from ourselves. We’re losing our ability to make decisions and passing responsibility on to external agents—and those agents have no interest in our wellbeing beyond profit margins.”

Sean knew the fading Diazepam would have told him to roll with this as a chance to bond, but now his second beer in fifteen minutes was pointing out how weak a chin Toby had. Sean liked this and felt that whilst alcohol might not bring on his best self in a mindful sense, it certainly opened the way for a wittier, charming version. And surely, at a party of all places, that was what mattered?

“What I think is that you’re all giving a talking fridge too much credit. At the end of the day it still stinks of old cheese and makes the stuff at the back go too cold,” he said, casting an eye at Robert, who smiled oddly. Toby’s gaze didn’t change… but why was Robert still looking look at him like that?

“Come on, Sean,” Toby said. “Ally tells me you used to love talking over this kind of stuff.”

Sean paused. Toby was right; he’d frequently found himself engaged in discussions with Ally over personal responsibility, right in this kitchen. But he’d seen himself as a passenger in those conversations, walking away feeling heavy and ineffectual. What’s more, their discussions had been linked with his own anxieties. It was Ally who had suggested he see a doctor about his way of thinking, which had prompted the Zoloft prescription. He’d quit the tablets shortly after the break up, feeling that in losing his anxieties he’d lost something of himself. He wasn’t sure exactly what.

“Fucking hell,” Robert said, seizing Sean by the arm, turning him so they were face to face. “Come on young lad, this’ll do ya!”

Robert had procured a tray of shot glasses with something clear inside and he thrust one into Sean’s hand. “Cheers,” he said, and they knocked back the clear liquid. Sambuca revealed itself in the taste of aniseed and a familiar warmth, burning away the hurt and embarrassment lodged in Sean’s throat. It felt good. In fact, it felt so good that he decided to pull out an old party trick, grabbing another shot glass from Robert and flinging its contents straight into his own eyes. An astringent, sizzling pain shot into his head, followed by a feeling of weightlessness.

“Jesus Christ, Sean,” Robert cried. “What are you doing?”

“Getting fucked up, by the looks of things,” a familiar voice said. Sean blinked the scene before him back into view, seeing Ally now amongst the group. She was smiling at him, but her brows were furrowed.

“Since when were you a drinker, Sean?”

“He’s always been able to put a few away,” Robert said, giving his friend a tentative punch on the arm. “Normally needs a chaperone afterward, though.”

“Well, that’s a side he never showed me. Should I be offended?” Ally said.

Sean was trying his best not to take in Ally’s figure. She was wearing a shoulderless black dress, her hair tied up, exposing her neck and collarbone. When they were in bed he’d called her his swan and she’d nuzzled her face into his shoulder.

“I dunno, should you?” Sean asked. The Diazepam had left his system, but what did that matter? He was running on spirits now, and there was no room for calm stillness when you had an answer ready for everything. He hadn’t drunk in front of Ally. In fact, except for Robert, he’d made an effort to keep his life since Ally—her interests, her friends—separate from the life he’d had before. On the occasions these spheres intersected, he felt a dissociative effect kick in as he became too aware of his every action, weighing where to tip the scales on his behavior while navigating the sense of a fracture within. But now, with drink, his two worlds had collided and yet everything was fine. He was perfectly fine. This was certainly his best self.

“Well, it’s good to see you enjoying yourself,” Ally said. “I’m glad you could attend.”

Sean pointed at Toby, who was now a set of identical twins. He gestured toward the more solid looking of the two. “I notice you’re not going in for drinks, little Toby. Why is that?”

Toby looked over at Ally uncertainly. She was regarding Sean with a look of… what was it? It was the same look Robert had been giving him.

“Why is that?” He repeated. “Are you afraid you might actually speak for yourself?”

“Come on, mate,” Robert said. “Let’s take this party outside.”

Sean took a lengthy slug from his fresh bottle of Corona and followed Robert into the garden, the breeze on his face like a balm. Around them, people were enjoying themselves in the late evening warmth, some dancing to RnB, others playing some sort of drinking game around Ally’s artisan-crafted chiminea, Sambuca shots set alight. The smell of weed hung in the air, at Ally’s party, no less. How strange, he thought.

Robert exhaled loudly, a smile on his face. He looked at Sean. “See, this is where we should be. You holding up okay? I just want you to know you’re a top bloke for turning up and enjoying yourself, letting all that old shit go.”

“Is that what I’m doing?”

Robert did a drunken shrug, his voice trailing off while Sean stared at the people. He found the telltale orange spark of a lit joint, then saw who it belonged to. “What’s Anisha doing here?” Sean asked.

“Friends with Toby,” Robert said. “Don’t you remember? They used to be in Drama Society together.”

“But… those stiffs inside?” He felt sluggish. Something in the back of his head was flaring up ineffectually, a siren in fog, trying to issue a warning about mixing Diazepam and drink. Robert turned to look at him as if for the first time. There was something in his gaze that felt intimidating.

“He’s a grown man, Sean, not a caricature.” Robert gazed at the crowd, coughed and kicked the floor.

“Listen mate,” he said. “You’re all right out here for a bit, aren’t you? Just need to nip to the boy’s room.”

Sean waved Robert off, taking a slug from his latest Corona. He dashed the bottle into the garden’s privet hedge before following the scent of weed to its source. Anisha was sitting on a log Ally had fashioned into a bench, idly watching the people around her.

“Give us a hit of that, Anisha,” he said. Part of him could have watched the burning tip dance through the night forever, trailing through the air and leading him far, far away.

“Nice to see you too,” she replied, handing over the joint. He took a deep draw and held the smoke in his lungs. Finally, he breathed out languidly, relishing the sensation. Anisha’s eyes were wide. “Didn’t have you down as the toking type,” she said.

“People keep saying that. I don’t understand.” He was surprised by how far away his words sounded, like he was throwing his voice from the kitchen. Something must have betrayed his surprise, as Anisha giggled.

“Yeah, it’s pretty strong stuff. Listen, why don’t you sit here. Nobody’s going anywhere.” She passed him the joint and he took a drag, settling down on the bench. He didn’t understand Ally. Her house was a mishmash of worn ‘upcycled’ items and garish metal designs. Everyone had complimented her on her style, but he’d stayed silent, not wanting to give away his lack of taste. But now, as he felt a haze drift over him, he wondered if they’d all been as clueless as he. It was inconceivable that people might so readily lie about something so mundane to curry favor. Wasn’t it?

He felt the weed lifting him up, and there came to him a sense he was nothing more than a branch in the wind, blowing in whichever direction. He saw how other people impressed their agendas upon him, carrying him in their wake as they moved through life with determined force. This was how the world worked, the authority of other people pushing ever onward in contradictory directions. How could he have a best self when he had no real sense of self at all? At this, he smiled. He had stepped out of a cave into the light, born anew.

“How long have I been sitting here?” he asked.

“Thirty seconds,” Anisha said.

He was certain he had discovered the doorway into a new sense of being. Energy coursed through him. He felt himself grinning as his feet carried him into the house, where Robert and Toby were deep in conversation.

“Where’s Ally?” Sean asked.

“Bathroom,” Toby said. “I think she might be preoccupied though.”

But he was off, charging down the corridor, ignoring Robert’s voice calling him back. Ally stood by the bathroom door with her back against the wall, her eyes too shiny in the half-lit glow of the hallway, staring at nothing.

“I have so much I need to tell you,” Sean began. When she looked up at him her gaze was hard. She’d been crying.

“Why are you here?”

“I told you, there’s something I need to share.”

“No, I mean why are you in my house? Oh and thank you for gifting me my copy of Mrs. Dalloway. Saves me asking you for it.”

“What?” He’d forgotten the gift he’d given her for her birthday and the memory hit him hard. He felt his thoughts tangling up. “Wait. I came here for a reason. I figured it all out. I spent so long looking up to you, using you to validate myself. And when that went, I was…”

“You were what, Sean? What exactly were you?” She made him feel very small.

“It’s just been difficult trying to find myself…”

“Let me settle this for you once and for all. You’ve never had anything happen to you that would forge an interesting personality and so you do stupid things in the hope they might communicate something good about you. They don’t.”

She left him to rejoin the party. He heard her in the kitchen laughing at something Robert and Toby said and sat with his back against the wall she had been leaning on. He remembered when she’d broken up with him. They’d had a blowout. She’d said he wasn’t strong enough. He’d asked what she meant. Later, with Robert, he’d gotten so drunk he blacked out, only to wake up in a bed he didn’t know with a woman he didn’t recognize. He had rushed to Ally’s, telling her everything.

She said he’d ended things with her, not the other way around. It all depended on how you looked at it, he figured.