Maybe there were blue lights crawling up the wall that night like a drunken bro running his hands up a woman’s skirt. Maybe it’s something my mind painted in shades to complete the metaphor of Princeton as fishbowl. I don’t remember Terrace so much in particular shades as in the way my friend grabbed my arm to both say hello and check that I was okay.
Even in my first few months of freshman year, there were people who knew I shouldn’t be given depressants.
“I’m fine,” I yelled over the dead electro of Terrace at 2 AM. “Completely sober.”
And I was.
Here’s a guide for how to be ‘drunk’ on the Street: tilt your head back about six degrees farther than you normally would, because when you’re drunk it’s okay to bare your throat to strangers. Close your eyes because everything is safe. Sway your hips because it’s okay, you are drunk and quiet and caught in the music, and in this one-time kinship with everyone else at Princeton University, you are invisible.
Those days, I nearly universally returned the reflexive half-beers the bartenders offered me over the sticky counter of Terrace or Tower or Charter. You don’t need a drop of alcohol in your system to be drunk on the Street. You just have to be normal. Find out what everyone else is doing and melt into it. Become the inverse of everything you were to be a part of this place. I was scared and small and intentionally faceless and if you remember anything of who I was in the days I wasn’t drunk because I was afraid of what would happen if I did surrender to it, I don’t deserve that memory.
I pushed it a few times.
The first time I got drunk in Terrace I burst into tears and a boy I barely knew materialized by my side and told the upperclassmen who were watching me nervously that it was okay, he would take me home.
When I said yes I meant I surrender.
When I said yes I meant I don’t want to be this problem again.
We got back to my room. I was swaying in uneven heels and the boy sat me down on my roommate’s blue couch and put his hand on my shoulder. I left my body.
“Can I just talk to you about this girl I like?” I heard him say.
The friends these days who have made me feel safe enough to drink white wine say I have a built-in BAC, a Southern accent that bubbles along the amount of cheap champagne in my body. It’s the same accent I use when I need help late at night. The same ‘how do you do’ that convinces men to point me in the right direction and explain for the third time which way Bloomberg is at 11 PM. The same honey drawl I keep underneath a biting Northern forgery because I’m ashamed of how stupid it’ll make me look in this place made of stones and sharp edges. It’s the first of the laundry list of reasons I still don’t drink that much these days – it pulls a skin off of me, something I keep taped down so tight I don’t even recognize the sound of my own voice when it slides out.
But once my friend got me drunk in front of his girlfriend just so she could hear the Southern accent leaking out at the edges.
The only time I’ve seen one of my friends out at a party he tackled me for a hug and shouted my name above the Joline blare.
When I get tipsy I’ve made a habit of texting these friends and others to tell them how much I love them. Because they think I’m funny when I can’t spell. Because I want them to be with me for any and all moments I have.
Part of becoming the person I am has been learning how to push it safely – and it’s weird, isn’t it, to say that drinking is a sign of success, but I’m learning these days how to swallow wine without feeling a broken wineglass slide down as well. There have been good nights. There have been nights in Berlin debating how to microwave a pizza. There have been times on the Street when I belonged in every sense of the word.
Still, no matter how golden and bubbly and valuable every friend who invites me out to a party makes me feel, alcohol still goes into a part of me I keep locked away and files down the deadbolt, and even the boy who interrupted my quiet sadness at Lawnparties to dip me during Some Nights can’t erase the moments before, when I felt alone.
I still go out to the Street sober and alone. It’s just a different kind of sobriety.
The word sobriety speaks to stones, austerity, things solemnly trimmed and filed into line. And that was the way I handled it at first, but these nights when I go out to the Street sober and alone I dance on tables and tell the people I see how valuable they are. It’s not defensive; the special kind of power conveyed by the invisibility of the apparently-drunk is the ability to jump on a table and break it down like I want to.
“Do you remember dancing with me?” a girl asked me last week and yes, Nina, I remember jumping up on the balcony and singing at the top of my lungs. I can be bold and provocative and wear a pink dress and give myself permission to remember that tomorrow. I can float on the edge of lights above the bass suffusing the crowd and watch the absolutely beautiful motion of seven hundred people packed in a room deciding we’re going to trust each other with this one type of freedom.
Then again, sometimes I’ll find someone I love – different, usually, than the people I write poems with or the ones who meet me in Holder study room at 3 AM – and chug whatever the Street is claiming as alcoholic that night, and sometimes we talk about the deepest parts of their lives and some nights we’re both there to dance and hold onto how completely we both are alive. Most nights I feel the night wind tighter and tighter in my stomach until it breaks, and I look around at the people who are still dancing and know my love is deeper and quieter now, and I walk home with the cold telling every exposed inch of my skin exactly how alive I am.
Balancing these moments is something I’m learning slowly and – like a drunk kid doing just about anything – I make mistakes sometimes. I still need to find the sweet spot between freedom and a complete lack of friction, between becoming weightless and spinning out into a void. This is something I trust my friends these days to help me with. It’s something I trust myself to work on, too.
I tell people the friend who took me home the first time I was drunk dances like a coked-up Jane Fonda. I don’t tell people how much I want to be more like him, or how proud I am of being myself right now. There is a way to be a part of a feeling without that feeling being surrender. Collapsing into a moment doesn’t mean collapsing. The boy who swung me during Lawnparties Facebook-messaged me after to thank me for dancing with him, and I wanted to thank him for being himself, the kind of boy who dragged me into spin after spin after spin, and when he picked me up I shrieked at him to put me down, and he did. And I knew he would.