OUTER HEAVEN / INNER HELL
By Ellen Daly
May 2, 2023
My highest highs and lowest lows will always be found on the dance floor.
“Exhilaration, ecstasy, and communal vision are the gifts of Dionysus, god of wine. Alcohol’s enhancement of direct face-to-face dialogue is precisely what is needed by today’s technologically agile generation, magically interconnected yet strangely isolated by social media.”
— Camille Paglia
— Camille Paglia
It’s Friday night and I’m anxious. Clothing floods the floor of my room.
Just pick out an outfit and it’ll all be over, I tell myself. One that makes you look hot but not desperate. Effortless. Thin. You need to look cool, though. Like, you can’t look like you’re dressing for male validation. You need to look like you’re dressing for yourself. But you need to look sexy.
I pour a glass of wine.
Wing your eyeliner and smudge it in a way that looks intentional. Curl your hair and then ruffle it around in a just-got-out-of-bed way. Blush your cheeks so you look alive. Breathe.
I’m getting ready to go nowhere. Somewhere, technically, but I don’t know where and I don’t really care. I’ve never gone a Friday without going out, and I’m not interested in exploring what that says about me. I need a cigarette.
Pink glitter? Blue? Ribbons in your hair? Which shoes?
I pour another glass before I finish my first and turn up the Azealia Banks to convince myself I want this. Drain the glass by the time you're done with your makeup. Before you know it, you're irresistible. Congratulations! You’ve made it from a state of frenzy to the state of ready. Treat yourself to a cigarette for good behavior.
A few friends arrive and I’m already a few deep. We roll dice, trade cards, perform rituals designed to make us drunker faster. We draw pictures, bounce balls, slap hands and slam spoons. We’re artists, we’re acrobats, we’re athletes, we’re dancers. We willingly get wasted; we don’t believe in danger.
Vape, the voice inside begins to whisper. I’ve already fed it a cigarette. It wants more. Vape vape vape vape vape vape vape.
“Does anyone have a vape?” I yell out to the group. I’m met with silence. It’s deafening.
“What if we like… stopped at the bodega on the way? I’ll split one with you,” my friend suggests with a smile, like it’s a wild and crazy proposition and not an utterance exchanged every Friday night. We’ll pass the cancer machine back and forth all night, hoping together to finish it so we don’t have the option of sucking it down all week. Neither of us will want to take it home; neither of us will want to throw it away. We’ll both try not to keep it.
I agree, because I want one so bad and something’s gotta move the plot along. We take off down the alley, in a drunken stupor playing fuck marry kill and would you rather and who-would-you-fuck-if-you-were-on-death-row-and-they-gave-you-one-last-bang. We inevitably rap Nicki’s verse from “Bottoms Up.” Every Friday is clockwork, every Friday is the same.
It wasn’t always like this.
My first weekend in Austin, I found myself in an abandoned-church-turned-rave-location for an impromptu house party hosted by resident stoners and burnouts, kids who’d graduated from the local high school a few years back and hadn’t yet found their way out of town. Nervous and out of place in my choice SHEIN crop top and white frat Filas, I watched in awe as stick-thin girls in fishnets with facial piercings passed around a bottle of Bacardi and a blunt. I set my intention right there: the party girl, the image of effortless glam, the girl who’s too pretty to give a fuck — that is what I would become.
Two weeks later, I stumble up the stairs at my first-ever co-op party in a drunken search for a bathroom. At this point in time, I have long bleach-blonde hair, my eyes are dusted with glitter, and my legs are wrapped in fishnets leading up to a zebra print skirt. I feel sexy in my body, and the eyes of the beholder confirm my suspicion. I’m stopped in my tracks.
“Oh my God, you’re, like, a real-life Jules!”
I could’ve cried. The feeling brought on by some random co-op kid comparing me to The party girl I’d been mentally moodboarding since that summer’s release of the hottest new HBO teen drama could be described as nothing less than euphoria. Jules was everything I wanted to be: unapologetic in her style, confidently out of place at a new school, desired by everyone, stick-fucking-thin.
I’d learned by trial and error in those first few weeks that frat parties were just too aesthetically vapid for me. I needed a party home, an area for the self-expression I pursued in my performance of the party girl, a suitable setting for the character I was building. On a Saturday night in September, that home was found.
On September 17, 2019, I made a five-song playlist containing “Venus Fly” by Grimes, “disco tits” by Tove Lo, “Vroom Vroom” and “Girls Night Out” by Charli XCX, and “I Don’t Want It At All” by Kim Petras. It was a quick and noncommittal attempt to ideate what songs would play in a dream world where I had the AUX at a party. On September 21, the DJ at New Guild played precisely those songs, alongside the likes of Nicki Minaj, Troye Sivan, BROCKHAMPTON, Cascada, Fergie, and, of course, Earth, Wind & Fire.
A fire lit within me. I belonged. I’d embodied the party girl archetype in mere weeks and I was rewarded with the DJ set of my dreams. The high of hearing my favorite songs, ones I’d never imagined I’d hear at a college party, was unlike one I’d ever experienced. It was physical, it was intimate, it was spiritual. It wasn’t just me, either — everyone there was jumping and bumping and singing along. I’d found my people.
I’ve chased that high every weekend since. I’ve found it in microdoses at gay clubs, co-op parties, and tunnel raves, but never quite to the extent I did that night at New Guild. I became addicted to the performance of the Party Girl, the girl with enough perceived sexual and social capital to entertain the illusion of power on weekend nights. She’ll entertain any man but never go home with him. She says no to drugs but she never pays for drinks. In her bony body, both sexualized and starved of its womanhood, she’s effortlessly cool in a way she used to think only boys could be.
Upon arrival at the club, I beeline to the back patio to light a cigarette and kiss the hands of adoring fans. I begin by asking older men for a lighter when I already have my own.
I’m offered rides home, glasses of wine back at hotel rooms, raves that go until 5 a.m., and, occasionally, trips abroad. I wonder what went wrong in these men’s lives, what brought them to be 40 or even 50y talking to twenty-year-old girls in clubs. (As a performer, however, I’ll always entertain.) I’m the youngest, blondest, the hottest piece of meat — I’m the it-girl, the cheer captain, I run the regime.
The cigarettes are sobering so I accept the offered drink. I don’t need it but I do, to get through this moment, to blindly hope for better music and release and rebirth. I slurp it down, throw it away, and follow the disco ball back to the dance floor.
Holy fuck, I’m in love — with life, with the song they’re playing and the girls I’m dancing with and the fact that I can escape the monotony of the day-to-day to this seemingly illusory purgatory of a place. I scream and I jump and I shake my body and spin. I hold onto my friends because I never do otherwise and I don’t let go of their hands. I’m eternal, I’m immortal, I’ll never feel pain.
By the time I feel like crashing, the Uber’s already on its way.
Mornings are warm, fuzzy, anxiety-inducing, and dizzying, spent sipping coffee and swallowing regret. Memories of the night are painted with equal parts narcissism and euphoria, neurosis and radiance, friendship and fear. A certain remorse must be felt, a shame inflicted by bodily pain.
Brunch with friends followed by hours in bed remedy the curse of the hangover. You remember you’re loved, you remember you’re normal, you remember that if you get one single life to live on this Earth you’re going to spend it finding every way to experience everything and feel too much and meet everyone and love deeply and laugh and dance and scream because one day it’ll all be over.
I love movement. I love conversation. I love looking people in the eye and asking questions I wouldn’t be bold enough to ask otherwise. I’m an anxious social butterfly with an insatiable zest for life. For me, and for many, the sweet release of Saturday night just works. It scratches that itch to transcend the ordinary and enter a world of wonder and whimsy, or at least the illusion of one. I know one day I’ll be over it, that I won’t need the sexy outfits or the adrenaline rush or the gossip or the people-watching or the pursuit of the other, but for now, the chaos offered by the club is one I pursue willingly. ■
Layout: Caroline Clark
Photographer: Rachel Karls
Stylists: Eileen Wang, Avani Sunkireddy & Yousuf Khan
HMUA: Lily Cartagena & Averie Wang
Models: Laurence Nguyễn-Thái & Maliabo Diamba