Everyone has that “go to” story. That story they tell at parties with old friends, or over cocktails at dinner. That story you tell you tell your parents after being away at school or living in the city, if they are cool enough to handle it. You tell your story with dramatic flair, with suspense and just enough humor, making sure to bring your audience along with you through the rising action to the pivotal moment. Your voice changes at the funny parts, the serious parts, the part where you weren’t sure whether the night was going to end with you behind bars. A life story of this caliber is almost unbelievable. It is the story that makes you sound like a more impressive, daring, entertaining, interesting person than you know yourself to be. It is the story that makes your life sound exhilarating…because during those hours, it absolutely was.
I would like to think that my life is a healthy combination of the predictable routine and unexpected surprises. I thrive when I feel comfortable, when I can make a reasonable guess as to what is coming next, what is around the corner. I like taking steps forward towards a socially acceptable goal. The picket fence, two kids and a dog fantasy makes me ridiculously happy and I’m not ashamed of that. But there is also part of me that has always been drawn to instability, to people who push the limits, to new places, to adventure, to the release that comes from relinquishing control. I don’t like breaking the rules, but I had a fake ID and I wasn’t too scared to use it at the campus liquor store. I’m not a rebel, but I have a tattoo and a belly button ring. I’m not promiscuous, but I have dated the bad boy more than once (and there was that one time that I made out with two guys in one night…mostly because my best friend N made it look so inconsequential and fun). I’m not an explorer, but I moved away from home without knowing a single person. So how do I explain this contradiction in my temperament? My undeniable attraction to pulse quickening adventure despite the fact that these situations make me incredibly nervous and off balance?
I think it’s because, as my younger, wiser little brother recently posited:
“Who wants to die without scratches?”
My first response was an emphatic: “Me!”
He sighed, shook his head of jet black curls and leaned forward across the kitchen table, preparing to patiently make his point to someone who clearly needed to understand. “Scratches aren’t bad. They mean you really lived.”
I am hopeful that in 24 years I have earned more than one of these stories, more than a few life signifying scratches. But for now, I think this one trumps most others. It has all of the necessary ingredients: an exciting environmental backdrop, some unavoidable sexual tension and misguided affection, an upbeat soundtrack and a medical emergency that adds the perfect amount of suspense.
March 2012. Brussels, Belgium. Wtf? It was dark when we got out of the cab. The driver, in a barely comprehensible, thick Dutch-German-French hybrid accent, explained the way to the hostel where we would be spending the next two nights. He sped off a little too quickly and we stood there in the middle of the cobblestone street with absolutely no idea what to do next. The only saving grace was that we had forced ourselves to pack light. Throughout our time abroad, my best friend A had risen to the occasion and proved to be exceptionally gifted at finding her way through European cities. N and I had affectionately nicknamed her “Garmen Elektra” as she fearlessly led us through Barcelona on our first night in Spain (our first stop? The Spanish equivalent of Nordstrom’s for hangers and comfy blankets and peanut butter …you can take the white girls out of America but you can’t take the America out of the white girls). So naturally I turned to A and handed her the tiny map print out detailing the location of our hostel reservation. I shrugged my shoulders and waited as she studied the paper, confident that she would get us to safety eventually. I knew my limits and it was more helpful for me to stay silent while she pondered.
Myself, N, and A made a surprisingly successful traveling trio. The assertion that you find out a lot about a person by traveling with them is entirely true, and the experience only made me love and appreciate my best friends even more. Between the three of us we had managed to conquer six cities thus far, hitting more monuments, museums, restaurants, clubs, bars, clothing stores and parks than anyone thought possible. For this excursion I had booked our hostel and ensured that we made it to the airport on time, which meant that by this leg of the journey my responsibilities had been fulfilled. N would take over the next day with our meticulously scheduled itinerary, assuming that we found the hostel and didn’t have to call our guy friends to rescue us. Not that they would even if we asked…they were always the ones in need of rescue. Take London, January 2012: the boys had booked a disgustingly dirty hostel where they slept in a room with twelve strangers and the showers were not unlike what I would expect to find at Cook County jail. We returned from a leisurely brunch in South Kensington on our last day of the trip to find one blow drying his socks, one toweling off in the bathroom, and one in bed under the covers using my laptop. How they managed to break in without a key to the building or knowledge of our room number is still a mystery. We were staying with friends at the time and I was mortified as I explained the situation to our hosts while the guys took the liberty of dumping their suitcases in the middle of the room and taking off for lunch (“Hey, so where can we get a good burger and beer around here?”). The boys recognized my embarrassment and reassured me:
“Don’t worry T, just send them a fruit basket.” Right.
Fast forward approximately twenty minutes and only one wrong turn, and we were settling in at an adorably charming bed and breakfast. The manager was a sweet natured middle aged man with a tuft of gray hair and an endearing smile that triggered a pang of homesickness for my own father and made me feel right at home in an otherwise entirely foreign city that I knew nothing about beyond the promise of the best waffles, chocolate and french fries in the world. The three of us enjoyed a magical two days exploring Brussels before the main event: Sensation White is an all night rave concert featuring six electronic music artists. Concert goers dress in all white and spend the night “raging their faces off” to techno beats and hypnotic light shows while making out with literally everyone. My best friends and I are far from hard core ravers. We like Alesso and Afrojack as much as the next Kappa Kappa Gamma, but we were content to enjoy the music at frat parties or in our bedrooms while getting ready for a night of bar hopping. However, electronic music is a cultural centerpiece in Western Europe that we couldn’t afford to miss. So we agreed to masquerade as sweaty Euro rave babies for a night, sans drugs. The boys were in on the plan as well, and after changing into our rave clothes (white H & M tanks, sparkly headbands, and glitter eye shadow) in the train station bathroom, we boarded a non-stop freight to Hasselt, Belgium.
The arena was throbbing around us, tangles of limbs reached up and out as we wove our way through the masses. I scanned the crowd with skepticism, lifting my chin above the crowd of identically dressed, bobbing ravers in search of a boy taller than the rest. I was looking for J. We had a tumultuous relationship, J and I, that dated back to the first week of freshman year. He was an overly confident, exquisitely dressed fraternity pledge with a crop of soft blonde hair and a mischievous grin that disguised his insecurities well enough to fool the untrained observer. I, however, was not convinced and correctly interpreted his swagger and loud, inappropriate jokes as a diversion from something deeper and much more compelling. He was surprised when I wasn’t offended by his teasing, and I was surprised when he dropped the act and told me, in a quiet, reflective tone, that he loved to draw. He was handsome and complicated with a hardened exterior that promised to reveal remarkable sensitivity to the person who held her ground long enough to figure him out. Which of course meant I was hooked, for better or for worse. We pushed each other back and forth for years, dangling other relationships and casual bar hook ups as bait, hoping to inspire a flare of jealous attraction. During the summer before we went abroad he claimed to have finally ended an on-again off-again relationship with a high school girlfriend, and looked to me expectantly, certain I would assume the position as the safe, reassuring rebound. I didn’t believe him, and I didn’t want to be his second choice. So I spent the summer with one of his best friends. Despite feeling certain that he wasn’t ready, that his wounds were too fresh and too sensitive, I couldn’t resist winking at him from across the table while we played drinking games or squeezing his hand affectionately on the day a group of us visited the local amusement park together. I couldn’t deny the thrill I felt when we shared a private joke, as we silently poked fun at the others using only our eyes. By the time we arrived in Barcelona six months later, his attitude towards me had noticeably cooled. My fling with his friend was long over, but whenever I tried to hold his gaze or sit beside him on the Metra, he turned away. I gave him the space he wanted, but as our time overseas passed I was more and more determined to crack him. I wanted to hear his anger, his frustration, anything was better than the uncomfortable distance he created to keep me away.
He was wearing white sunglasses, his blonde hair streaked with perspiration and stuck to his forehead. N, A and I slipped in with our friends and prepared to enjoy the rest of the night as the only three people in the venue that could pass a drug test. We danced and jumped with enough enthusiasm and flurried energy that no one could tell the difference. J was next to me. He was childlike and giddy, his eyes wide and gleaming. He took my hand and spun me around. My long hair flew in front of my eyes and I stopped, breathless. He swept the strands away, tucking them behind my bedazzled headband, and I knew this was an opportunity to fix whatever had been broken. The manic energy of the music and the closeness of bodies all around us was encouraging. Soon my muscles were burning and I needed to catch my breath. I stopped moving, prepared to take a break, but he would’t let me. Instead he hoisted me onto his broad shoulders and suddenly I was above it all. The hazy, purple glow of the fluorescent concert lights cast a supernatural fog over the room, over the carpet of humans extending in every direction. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before. I was scared, I pictured myself tumbling to the ground and being trampled, and I motioned for him to put me down. He shook his head and kept swaying, and finally I stopped protesting. I was soberly raving, and I was loving it. When he finally lowered me back to earth, he wrapped me in a hug and didn’t let go. Was this the love drugs talking, or was I back in J’s good graces? In a rare moment of restraint I kept my mouth shut. I was a rave baby, and rave babies don’t engage in relationship defining conversations in the middle of Afrojack’s set. I was a rave baby and I was going with the flow.
The EDM magic between J and I wore on, but eventually I realized that I hadn’t seen N and A in too long. The other boys were also noticeably absent, so J and I took off to find them. We found them huddled around the medical tent with worried looks replacing their previous euphoria. One of the boys had a little too much fun and quite literally seized in the middle of the dance floor, lollipop and all. He would be okay, the scantily clad, Dutch male nurse informed us, he just needed some water and the tranquil rest that a rickety cot in the middle of a blindingly bright room with vibrating walls and the echoes of electronic beats provided. I was worried, I thought maybe we should cut our losses and head back to Brussels early.
“Go back and do what? It’s three in the morning and none of us have a place to stay tonight!”
Shit. We had decided not to book hotels for the third night in an exceedingly rare effort to be frugal, and our flights back to Spain didn’t leave until 9 am. J surveyed us, a group of forlorn, dejected American kids dressed in yellowing, sweat stained white, the makeup melting off our faces and our mouths dry. N was missing one of her feathered earrings, my legs were streaked in dirt, A’s hair was tangled around her beaded necklace…and the boys weren’t looking to hot either. Our night had taken an unfortunate turn and our ability to rally after losing one of our own to an unexpected neurological episode was questionable at best. To my surprise, J rose to the occasion and took the opportunity to present himself as our fearless leader.
“He would want us to keep partying! We have to do this, we have to finish the night for him!” His voice was booming and persuasive. “For D!” We all shouted in unison. We put our hands in like a rag tag softball team determined to usurp the formidable defending champions and left our man, gone but not forgotten, to rest with the medical rave specialists while we enjoyed the last performer of the night. J made it his mission to keep everyone hydrated, and appointed me as his water girl apprentice. The two of us jogged back and forth from the water tables to the dance floor, monitoring the water to sweat ratio as closely as we could. During one such hydration run, J laced his fingers through mine. I wasn’t sure what any of this meant, or how I had mutely danced my way into his heart, but with D recovering from a potentially serious brain situation in a remote Belgian town in the wee hours of the morning it didn’t seem like the time or the place to get answers.
During the last song of the unbelievably long night, my friends were ready to go. We wanted to get a head start and beat the rest of the concert goers onto the train. I started to say my good-byes and J pulled me close. “I don’t want to let you go,” he said, his words heavy with emotion. It was sweet and romantic, adorably sensitive and almost completely attributable to the rush of ecstasy induced endorphins coursing through his veins. I planted a soft kiss on his cheek and replied, “You’ll see me at the airport in three hours.” He laughed and shook his head. Apparently I was missing the point.
I did see him three hours later, where I fell asleep on his shoulder on our flight back to Spain. I saw him almost every day after that. And I let myself wonder, as I strolled through Barcelona and felt the old beauty of the city, as I watched sunsets and drank wine and danced in the sand with J. What are we? Anything? We tried to talk about things, to explain what happened at the concert and recreate it. But we couldn’t. On our last night abroad we said good-bye with a question in our voices, leaving room for the possibility of reconnecting back at school in the fall. But we wouldn’t. J and I were better without words, we made sense when we weren’t trying to make sense of it. Our view of everything, the world, relationships, the future, was opposite and conflicting. He saw me differently than I saw myself. Our connection was visceral, a felt experience that was often fleeting and circumstantial. I think maybe J knew that before I did. He realized the intimacy between us as fleeting, as directly tied to the foreignness and the pulsing music and dazzling light displays. It was real but it couldn’t last. When I see him now it is the same, we are drawn to each other’s presence but not much else. And that’s more than okay.
Thankfully, D lived to see another rave, and another after that. My trip to Belgium is a (long winded) go-to story with all of the necessary ingredients. It is a rare time that I let myself live in the moment, that I didn’t ask questions because questions would have ruined it. It is, like many other boy centered experienced in my life, another lesson. First, the obvious: don’t take Molly in Belgium. And second: there are times when words are insufficient, adding unnecessary clutter to the experience of being. Sometimes it’s much better to shut up and risk the scratches. They mean you really raved. They mean you really lived 😉