Summer Reading Series: 'Drunk Girls' by Helen O'Connor

New fiction, non-fiction and poetry by Aotearoa writers to read over the summer. This week: Helen O'Connor.

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Each week over the summer we are posting new fiction, non-fiction and poetry by Aotearoa writers. This week, Helen O'Connor shares her story 'Drunk Girls' which was part of LitCrawl 2017.

Read the rest of the series:
Two poems by Louise Wallace
'How To Die' by Jo Randerson
Two poems by Vaughan Rapatahana

Drunk Girls

He arrived late. Right in the middle of the vows. He made a massive scene as he came up the driveway, honking and waving at everyone, as though we could all relax now he was there. Like the party was finally going to get started. When I saw his car, my skin went clammy and everything felt weird, like I was hollow. Just a shell of clammy skin and a heartbeat.           

Emma, the bride, looked so angry. He had only been invited because my cousin Josh, the groom, literally insisted. I didn’t even know they were still friends. Josh probably thought having him there would make him look cooler. Sometimes, I used to wonder if Josh knew about what happened. If he ever said anything. I don’t know, I don’t know how much guys talk. 

Anyway, after his big arrival, he went and stood beside my aunty. Right up the front, like he was part of the immediate family. He didn’t see me. I was further back with my sisters, trying to remember how to breathe.

It had been four years since I’d seen him. Since it had happened. I figured he might not even talk to me, at least not until he’d had a few drinks. It wasn’t like we were ever really friends, just people who ended up at the same parties. I was still in school then, and he was older, so I guess they were his parties.

Once the ceremony was over, I stood kind of away from everyone, facing the crowd. I needed to know where he was. To have a good view of his face. I’d only had one glass of champagne. I wanted to tip a whole bottle down my throat, but I didn’t want to be falling over when we first saw each other. Not after last time. I wondered if he would get a shock when he saw me. If he would look at me differently, or talk about that night at all. I’d only had like, two sips, when a waiter came over to top me up. I kept catching Mum checking how much was left in my glass with that face she does, like she’s terrified I might have one mouthful too many and set fire to the marquee, or take off all my clothes during the speeches. Like a warning and a punishment at the same time.

I wanted to walk past him... I think I wanted him to see me, so it could be over with. 

We’d been standing around for a while. Josh and Emma were still getting their photos taken, I think. He hadn’t come over to me yet – we hadn’t even made eye contact. Other people came over to talk, but I couldn’t concentrate on what they were saying. I had to keep watching. He couldn’t catch me off-guard. He was standing about two metres away with some of Emma’s friends, practically in the middle of their circle, all eyes on him. Everyone was laughing, like they were all auditioning to play the fun, fat guy in a shitty movie about taking a break from your wife. One girl had her head flung right back, like it was the funniest conversation she’d ever been part of. She looked over in my direction at one point. My stomach cramped when she caught my eye, but then no one else turned around, so it must have been a coincidence.

I never really told anyone about what happened. It’s just him, me and a couple of my friends who know. Unless he told people. I didn’t tell my sisters. I definitely didn’t tell Mum. I’d snuck out and...and I shouldn’t have been that drunk. That part was my fault. I was probably leading him on in some way, I don’t know, there’s so much I don’t really remember. And he had a girlfriend at the time. She used to go to my school. It was just easier to pretend it didn’t happen.

I wanted to walk past him. Just near him. I think I wanted him to see me, so it could be over with. I took one step and my stupid heel got stuck in the grass. It sank in so deep I couldn’t get it out without taking my foot out of it first. I had to hold my champagne glass in my teeth because I needed both hands to unbuckle the ankle strap. I was just pulling the skinny bit through the clasp when the glass fell out of my mouth. It didn’t break or anything but I got a fright and fell forward on to my hands and knees. Like a fucking dog. My little sister had to help me up. I heard a waiter mutter something about drunk girls, and I could definitely hear people laughing. Quiet laughing though, which was actually kind of worse. I imagined it was him and that girl. Dad came and stood by me until it was time to go into the marquee. The heel thing wasn’t even my fault, but no one filled up my glass after that.

When it was time for dinner, I went in first to find my table. They’d stuck me with my parents. Of course. I looked over and saw his name. Right across from me, next to Dad. I had the weirdest feeling when I saw his name there, like I was floating. Like I might spiral away into the marquee ceiling, like a balloon slowly losing its air. All this heat rushed into my face, and I thought maybe I was going to faint. I held on to the edge of the table.

I sat down and started counting backwards from ten. I tried to take a deep breath on each new number. I don’t know if I got past eight; I kept forgetting why I was counting. He was at the far corner of the marquee now. He had two full beers in each hand, stockpiling to get through the first few speeches. If I did that, I’d be locked in the car until the party was over. He was still talking to the laughing girl. Maybe I should have told her to be careful of him, but right then I didn’t care. She looked like the kind of girl who knew what she was doing. I moved closer to the table edge and covered my legs with the tablecloth. There was dirt on my dress from where my knees had hit the ground.

When Mum sat down she grabbed a jug and flung water into my glass, like she was putting out a fire. Everything is always so dramatic. My heart was doing a weird throbbing thing, like it had taken over my whole body. He was moving across the marquee towards the table. The throbbing filled my throat. Behind my eyes. I was desperate for Mum to leave, but would have clung onto her arm if she’d tried. I wanted a drink. I wanted a freak storm to wash away the marquee. He stopped at the table next to us. He clinked one of his four bottles against someone’s glass and they laughed loudly. It’s always so loud around him. He was so close, I could smell his last cigarette. I reached out for my water but didn’t pick it up, I didn’t trust my hand to hold on to the glass. He’d smelled like cigarettes that night, too. Cigarettes and Jim Beam and something sour, like washing left in the machine for a day too long.

I’d spent four years practising a cool glare for this moment.

I’d spent four years practising a cool glare for this moment, four years glancing upwards at mirrors and mouthing words that had seemed just right, but when he got to the table my body was trembling and my eyes wouldn’t leave my lap. I couldn’t look. I could hear him introducing himself to Mum and Dad, could feel Mum rising from her seat to shake his hand. They all laughed. I heard Mum’s laugh and I just wanted to cry. It was like, I just wanted her to pick me up me and carry me to the car and take me home and tuck me in. I knew I had to look up. I had to prove to him I wasn’t afraid. I made myself take another deep breath and I forced my eyes up.

He was looking right at me.

He leaned across the table. He smiled and stretched one big hand out towards me, like I was someone’s aunty. Like I was no different to Mum.

“Hi,” he said, “I’m Felix. I’m a mate of Josh’s. And you are?”

Staring at him, I searched for a smirk, or guilt maybe, but his expression was just…nothing. He looked right through me.

“You got a name?” He was laughing.

My name fell out of my mouth, all awkward and wrong. He tilted his head to the side like he hadn’t heard me, but then straightened back up like he realised he didn’t actually care. I shook his hand. It was cold and clammy from holding his beers. I told him I was Josh’s cousin. There was this rushing noise in my ears though, so it was hard to tell if I’d actually made any sound. I was drowning.

“I didn’t know Josh had cousins,” he said. “Nice to meet you, anyway.” He smiled in my direction, his eyes already drained of interest. He turned to Dad and offered him a beer. Everyone laughed as they rearranged the table so all four of his drinks could fit. The tablecloth shifted and uncovered my dress. All I could see was dirt. My knees burned, like they had branding irons against them. I stared down at the mess, while Mum poured me another glass of water.