“At least Katy Perry’s not playing”: a short story from a new anthology of Māori writing
Parties are overrated as.
Like, this isn’t the endless flow of excitement and confident dancing to Katy Perry that Nickelodeon promised me would happen when I reached 17. I must’ve missed the scene where that one guy sits on the couch, putting his arm around the back of it so he doesn’t feel lonely, and stares at the outdated beige flower wallpaper for a few minutes.
At least Katy Perry’s not playing, to be fair though. The thump of some pop song that’s dropped in and out of the top 100 for months keeps me present. So does the chatter and laughter coming from those girls who’re stumbling through their sentences a bit too much for 9pm. So does Ellie.
But we won’t talk about Ellie. I’m over Ellie. Fuck Ellie.
The couch seat sinks next to me. This girl grins at me, and I flick my hair out of my eyes. A thin denim jacket wraps around her; it looks like it costs more than my phone. I can see her blonde hair shining like a glowing screen, even though no one turned the lights on when the sun set. She leans back, crossing her legs and rotating a half-empty can of raspberry vodka in her fingers.
“Hi,” she bursts out. “What’s your name?”
“Louis,” I reply. My breath starts feeling a bit shallow. Shit, now I’m doing that thing where you start thinking about breathing, and you can’t stop thinking about it, and now it’s all that’s on my mind. Not the best timing; I’m trying to perform socially here.
“I’m Sally. Are parties not really your thing?”
“Is it that easy to tell?”
“Kind of. You honestly look like you’d rather be playing PlayStation or something.”
“Sleeping, to be honest.”
“Fair enough, but …” She pauses, to a tiny bit of dramatic effect, but it’s not as much as I’m sure she thinks she’s adding. “You should come and dance with us. Trust me, it’s fun.”
I tap my knuckles against the side of the couch. I’m absolutely good, thanks. There’s two very good reasons why I don’t drink. Uno, alcohol’s bad for a developing brain, as our Year 10 science teacher made very clear with a twenty-minute rant that, evidently, no one else paid attention to. Dos, I don’t want to get drunk enough that I think me dancing at a party is actually a decent shout.
She grabs my hands and pulls me up off the couch.
Shit. I look longingly at the flower wallpaper as I’m dragged over to the scramble of people, a messy coming together of every high school on the bus route. Please take me back. I’ll never take you for granted again.
I try just nodding my head along to the beat, and I think I’m getting away with it. Or, at least for now. I’m pulling off the escape of the century, potentially, here. As long as Sally gets lost in the street graffiti mess of brightly coloured cans and even brighter skirts, then I should be fine.
Oh. Great. I see her oversized black shirt, hanging off her like she’s playing a bed sheet ghost, and the timing of my nodding messes up immediately. Thanks, Ellie. Nice to see you. Her hair’s scrappily tied up, like she doesn’t really want to be here, but she’s smiling and talking to her mates.
Cool. Fine. I’m not affected at all.
She looks away from them, straight at me. Just for one (incredibly weird-feeling, by the way) second. Did she, like, sense me glancing at her from across the room? If so, she might be psychic, because I thought I’d be unnoticeable here.
Shaking her head, she takes a step towards me. Eh, now I’ve got to act cool, don’t I? It’s all part of the game: teenage guy and teenage girl interacting. I hook one thumb into my jean pocket. How impressive.
“Louis.” She points towards the front door. Her voice sounds quiet and flat. “Can we have a quick chat outside? Please?”
I nod, and we dodge our way through everyone. She pushes open the door, and I’ve never been more appreciative of how much fresh air doesn’t smell like sweet alcohol.
“Shit,” I murmur, as my socks sink into a puddle I could barely make out. “Watch out for this. My night might be ruined.”
“What a gentleman.” She laughs.
There’s nothing really out here, just an empty driveway and a few thick planks that I think used to be a garden box. The host’s parents decided to stay the night somewhere else. Can’t think why they’d want to miss this highly intellectual event.
The plank digs into my back when I sit against it, but it’s fine. First-world problems. I scooch over so Ellie can come next to me.
All right, yeah, I know I said I’m over her. I am, I am. But her silver swan necklace reminds me of when we first hung out, and being next to her now, noticing the green outline of her eyes, waiting for her to speak … she is just really fucking cool, okay?
“Sorry for dragging you out.” She picks at the end of the wood. “I just needed a break from that, to be honest.”
“No problem,” I shrug. “My social battery is running real low right now. I’m so fine with coming out here with you.”
“I think I might get an Uber. Not feeling that great.”
“Fair enough. Parties aren’t everyone’s vibe.”
“It’s not just the party.” She starts twirling her swan around. The dim light overhead bounces off it. “It’s just life … in general, you know?”
“Oh, shit.” I turn to face her. “Has something happened?”
“Nah, it’s …” She runs her fingers through her hair. ‘I don’t know how to say it. Weird. Complicated. I don’t get me.”
I don’t really know what to say.
“If there’s anything I can do, just ask,” I say. “We’re mates. I’m here for you.”
She smiles weakly. “Thanks, Louis.”
I pull her into a brief hug, and let her go before she notices how annoyingly fast my heart is beating. Yes, I get excited when she’s around. In a very friendly, platonic way, of course.
“Should we head back inside?” I ask.
“I appreciate the offer, you party animal,” she replies. “But nah, I’ll wait out here for my Uber.”
“Okay,” I stand up. “See you later.”
I lean on the door, and the soft smell of her hair is immediately replaced by something … a little less soft. Yay.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Not again.
The hot taste of acid stabs its way up the sides of my throat. Pale yellow vomit creeps its way out of my mouth, dropping into the toilet. I try to scrape in breaths between spurts, but as soon as I do, I have to throw my head back over the bowl. Thank God I tied my hair earlier today.
Bathroom tiles aren’t fun to kneel on. I’ve found that out many times over the past few months. My knees are sore. My throat is sore. Glassy tears start to cover my eyes, but I bite my lip. I don’t want to cry; I don’t want a tear to come out. I’ve cried enough, and it didn’t fucking fix anything.
And it’s not funny. My mind seems to think it is, but it’s not a joke. I did my positive thinking. I did my breathing techniques. I’ve done everything anyone has ever told me to do, but I’m still here, on my knees.
I used to fantasise about standing on the edge of a cliff, the tips of my trainers smiling down hundreds of metres of rock and patchy grass. The wind teased around my back, threatening to push me off, but we both knew it’d never go through with it. The small crumbs of earth rolled down the side like it was an amusement park ride.
I feel like I’m back there now. But the sun’s being bullied behind some charcoal clouds, and rain crying down is making the ground slippery. The wind is a lot firmer, a lot stronger. It must’ve got wasted at the pub, and came straight back home to me. I thought the wind loved me.
My phone lies next to me, its spiralling, dim pink case looking so fucking childish right now. I need to grow up. Everyone probably thinks I’m a thirteen-year-old who gets turned on by One Direction music videos when I pull it out.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“Ellie? Ellie? Are you having … problems again?”
“I’m fine, Mum,” I yell back. My voice spikes. Shit. “Just give me some time.”
My throat squeezes. I love her. So, so much. I want to say it. To let her know. But I can’t, and I don’t know why. My vocal cords are as broken as my mind.
I need something. I pick myself up and head to the cupboard. The rusting bronze hinges creak open. I fumble through the cupboard. Something cool slides down my cheek. My fingertips brush over toothbrushes, nail clippers, razors.
They latch onto it. A round container, plastic, see-through. TAKE 1 DAILY FOR ANXIETY. PRESCRIBED TO E SMITH. Unscrewing the lid, I pour a pill into my hand. The whiteness looks so pristine, so perfect. So unlike life. My body’s on self-drive, and it keeps on shaking out more pills, until a small hill of Greek marble lies in my palm.
My chest feels like it’s pushing against a cement block. My heart feels like it’s being enclosed in stone, so it can’t beat any more. My eyelids are falling down like they’ve been knocked off the cliff face. I’m tired. So fucking tired.
People run through my mind. My parents cheering as I scored the winning goal in netball. My brother and I going over his maths homework. He just couldn’t figure out what a radius was. All of my mates at my seventeenth birthday dinner, making me cover my red face with my sleeve as they sang “Happy birthday”. Louis sitting with me at the beach. Talking. Listening. Us looking at each other. It’s what we took for granted.
Still balancing the pills, making sure the hill doesn’t crumble, I lean over to pick my phone up off the floor.
My head starts nodding to the tapping rhythm. You know, I’m actually starting to like these pop songs. Is it because I’m trying to impress Sally? Oh, definitely. But it is what it is. If I have to be converted to shitty radio tunes to get a cute girlfriend, then so be it.
She’s leaning into me, by the way. The smell of her hair reminds me of Ellie’s. Yeah, that’s right. I get girls. Get on my level.
Actually, speaking of Ellie, she gave me a call, like, half an hour ago. I was in the middle of dancing with Sally, so, you know, priorities. But I should probably ring her back.
I grab my phone out and give her a call.
It beeps. Beeps. Beeps.
“Hey, it’s Ellie.” I can barely hear her voice over the chatting and laughing. “Sorry, I’m a bit busy right now, so can you just leave a message after the beep? Thanks.”
Huh. Sally tilts her head at me, and I shrug.
She’ll be fine. I’ll see her at school tomorrow, anyway.
“Marble pills and raspberry vodka” is taken from the new anthology Huia Short Stories 14 (Huia Publishers, $25), available in bookstores nationwide. The stories were selected by Emma Espiner, Carol Hirschfeld, Vincent Olsen-Reeder and Maiki Sherman; the authors will compete for the 2021 Pikihuia Awards for Māori writers, run by the Māori Literature Trust and Huia Publishers. The ceremony will be held on October 30.