I enjoyed college mostly because of how much I learned as a student. From the mathematical equation necessary to perfect a seductive hair toss to the Phys.Ed training that led me to four Beer Pong Championship titles, I felt my brain expanding with the knowledge nightly. I was sure that if I studied into the wee hours of the morning, just forced my gut to handle one more mixed drink, I would emerge from this private university with a degree in Party. Yes, I would enjoy the fruits of such labor when I could live an adult life as a certified bar fly.
Friday nights you could find me in a smoky bar. Tight skirt, tight shirt, shoes so sassy that they justified the blisters on my toes. Tobacco hung like a cloud and masked the faces of patrons, making us all- just for a night- infinitely more attractive. Hip-hop music boomed then buzzed in time with the flickering neon signs begging me with their heavy wattage to order one more Bud Light. As the night progressed, the music was grew fainter and our voices louder. Control over the volume of my voice dwindled until it clanked the bottom of my glass. At some point I would dance while yelling whatever song popped into my head. I skewed the lyrics and melody and probably harmony, too, but as with most things in this wonderland of a classroom, no one seemed to mind. Taking a break from showing the crowd my trademark dance moves (Jump Rope, The Bus Driver, Dirty Yoga: patent pending), I’d stumble off the dance floor and into the face of a frat boy. I’d shake my head, trying to focus my eyes on his swirling Abercrombie shirt. I wasn’t embarrassed with my fuzzy eyesight. Everyone knew college boys suffered from poor vision, too, only able to blink at a girl’s hind quarters. I’d announce loudly and with much pride my ability to chug a beverage for 30 seconds before I swallowed. I’d find scraps of cocktail napkins with phone numbers scrawled across them tucked into my pockets. I must have been the smartest student, as that Ben or this Matt always wanted me to give them lessons on chugging. These were magical nights in which- mascara smeared across my face, beer-soaked shoes, and lazy eyes- I was the life of the party.
Tonight it is Wednesday. I am suffering from a killer cough, but I can’t let that dampen the evening. It’s my son’s 2nd birthday, and we are headed for the local Chuck E. Cheese establishment for him to get his pint-sized party on. I take a hefty swig of cough medicine, realize it is NyQuil, and throw wrapped gifts into the trunk. I would be worried- what with this taking night-time medicine and all- but I survived college, I remember, and everything from birthing a child to the stomach flu doesn’t seem so frightening in comparison. I adjust my modest blouse that makes the statement “Sassy Secretary, but mostly just Secretary”, check the fly on my high-waisted jeans, and slide my toes into my worn out, old flats. They are scuffed and beaten but boast the most comfortably cushioned soles.
We arrive at The House That Cheese Built, and between coughing spells I contemplate the obvious. My invitation to this shindig is a technicality. Just like college, I am asked to come so long as I bring my cute friend. This time the friend isn’t so busty or bleach blonde. No, he is two, single, and ready to mingle with the chocolate cake splayed across the table.
Within minutes the children begin to play, running frantically from a coin-operated school bus ride to a coin-operated fire truck ride. I sit, for a moment, a little woozy, and take in the atmosphere of this kiddie wonderland. No Smoking emblems are fastened to walls. Steam rises from piping-hot pepperoni pizza, floating in clouds across the play room. Neon signs flash begging little ones to give up the coins to a hungry Skee Ball lane. A little more sleepy now, I cough and my head spins blurring the bright restroom sign with the hot yellow lights on an arcade game with the rainbow-colored lights on a circulating disco ball. Electric glow. I loosen up a bit, relax, feel that old, familiar loopy-ness.
There is a mirrored stage holding a robot Chuck E. Cheese. Kids’ voices screech over the speakers recreating innocent pop songs as the robot mouse dances, well, like a robot. My friend’s little girl hops on the stage, soaking up the spot light, twirling sweetly and occasionally stopping to hold Chuck’s cold, lifeless hand. And for a minute I am desperately eager to show her how it’s done. For one thing, she has got to work on her booty-popping. For another thing, she is three.
Half-crunk on NyQuil and delirious now, I make my way to the bar. I think to ask the teenage employee if I could get a vodka tonic, but I settle for soda instead. A little girl approaches and – as if she can read the secret party code I am blinking to her- I silently challenge her to a funneling contest. She is gone by the time I guzzle the first paper cup of Mountain Dew. I wipe the dribble from my chin and consider this a victory.
I cough and cough and walk my hands across the walls until I am in the ladies’ room. Minutes, I think, later, I am locked inside a stall. I contemplate sliding belly-down to freedom. With time comes clarity, though, and I realize smartly that the trick to escaping is to push the door open. I cough into the sink, shake my head and try to clear my eyes. In the mirror I spot myself: mascara smeared across my face, frumpy shoes stained with fruit punch, lazy, over-medicated eyes. God, I admire sincerely, mama looks good tonight.
Outside the restroom, I realize I have hit my fun, party stride, and join kids for some drunken debauchery. My son throws rock-hard skee balls into a crowd of kids. I shoot basketballs against a wall, deciding the hoop was too small and too mobile for any person to reach. From a few feet away, I hear the giggle of a delighted child and the braying of a horse. I know what time it is.
This is just like the time I came in 10th place in the tavern’s mechanical bull-riding competition! I had won a free drink that night, and it was just enough of a prize to forget that only five people had competed. Motor-skills lacking, I engage in horseplay to the best of my ability. The best of my ability wins me half a ticket and leaves me walking like I’m straddling an invisible saddle. My son, from his spot at the birthday table, eyes me with shame and disappointment. I had a roommate like you once, I’d like to tell him. For all her talk of self-worth and church and juvenile behavior, I’m pretty sure she was just jealous.
As my son’s friends settle next to him to enjoy pizza and sugary drinks, they shove mounds of tickets they’ve accumulated into my pocket for safekeeping. For a minute, I miss the days when my stellar presence at a party elicited dollar bills from enthusiastic bar patrons. By the time I raise my head from coughing, a line of red-shirted employees stands clapping and chanting before the birthday boy. A life-size Chuck E. Cheese joins them, and I can tell from his cheap cologne and rigid dance moves he is most definitely a Kappa Sig. Still acting like the timid wallflower at his very own party, my son backs away from the groovy mouse. I try to encourage him to loosen up. I would have given him a shot of NyQuil if I’d thought to bring it with me. I stand up half-straight and dance, hoping the shy boy will raise the roof, or drop it down low, or at least find some middle ground and shimmy. As foggy recollection recalls, Chuck E. Cheese takes notice of my elbow-flapping and knee-popping like frat boys past. I think I am blinking but soon realize I am giving the mouse sloppy, Bette Davis eyes. After my son swats him away, the rodent heart throb places an inflatable crown atop my head. If I wasn’t coughing I would use my flirty voice to ask him, “Can I call you Charles?”. If his face wasn’t obscured by a giant mascot head, I’m pretty sure he would ask me for my phone number… and virginity.
By the end of the night Charles bails, as boys all do, to romance a skinnier mom just two booths over. It is 7 o’clock and kids and adults alike are dragging and tired. The young ones, with knowledge far beyond their years, announce that it is time for every party-goers favorite indulgence: the Fourth Meal. I scarf down cold pizza as they shovel gobs of chocolate frosting and cake into their pie holes. And as I’ve closed so many nights out before this one, I am tipsy and wondering if this is real life.
Wednesday morning the sun has yet to rise and already it is too bright. After a night of coughing fits my head throbs. After a night of chugging 2 gallons of soda and swallowing that poor pizza whole, indigestion sets a fire in my belly that spreads to my throat. Through a squinted eye I spot new toys strewn across the floor and a 3-foot birthday balloon swaying in the corner. It must have been one crazy night, I think before reaching for the saving grace of coffee.
Be it a smoky bar or a fun house, cheap beer or cough syrup, one thing is abundantly clear:
Old girl can’t party like she used to.
* Congrats to Carl at I Know I Made You Smile for sweeping
the caption contest!