I can't really remember the day I started college, or the day I met my boyfriend, or the day I first moved away from home very well. But I remember the day I decided to become a party girl like it was yesterday. I was nine — already intellectual, a voracious reader, and also, it should go without saying, about as popular as a bucket of diarrhea at my elementary school. I was on a shopping expedition with my mom to the local discount store, where we bought most of our things. Within this giant room, where clothes, furniture, and snacks mixed together like a Noah's Ark of crap that nobody wanted to buy, I picked through the discount books and came across a copy of Story of My Life by Jay McInerney, priced at an irresistible $1.
Story of My Life is a satire of '80s New York yuppie nightlife culture, based loosely on the youth of notorious John Edwards paramour Rielle Hunter. It is obvious, looking at it now, that the book is supposed to be funny, and that the book's heroine, Alison Poole, is supposed to be odious. But reading that book in bed that night, in my long-sleeved flannel nightgown, was the closest thing I had ever had to a religious experience. I hung on every mention of drugs or anonymous sex or a wild night out dancing like it was a tablet brought down from the mountain.
It turned out that there was more to life than Trumbull, Connecticut, where everyone hated me because I was a loud nerd whose clothes came from a store that also sold ham and lighting fixtures. There was a place called New York City, where you could be beautiful and have fun and have sex, which I had not really known about before but sounded amazing. When I closed that book, it was decided: I was going to grow up, move to New York City, and become a party girl.
I was a scumbag party girl, in case you were curious — I was into cheap shots and making out in gross dive bar bathrooms. And when a scary thing finally happened to me, true to the party girl oath, I didn’t go to the police or my parents.
And for a long time, moving to New York and becoming a party girl was the only life goal that I was actually committed enough to see through to the end. I mean, it wasn't my only goal — I had always wanted to be a writer — but it was the only one I put serious effort into. It seemed like a gateway to writing and being happy and other goals I hadn't even come up with yet, because I was not yet glamorous enough. I watched Parker Posey's Party Girl obsessively throughout high school, and dreamed of the day when I'd finally be old enough and hip enough to totally ruin my own life by being cool.
In college, I double-majored in American studies and booze, and somehow graduated even though my most remarkable collegiate achievement was barfing so hard outside a kegger that I also peed my pants. Out of cash after graduation, I moved home for a year, where I took tentative stabs at a writing career that I was ultimately much too timid to pursue. Sober, I was still a shy, sad dork who needed to pep-talk herself just to look a CVS cashier in the eye. And back home and friendless in Connecticut, I was always sober. But New York would take care of that, I thought. Once I got out there, I could drink whenever I wanted, and then I'd finally have the balls to become a writer and talk to all sorts of men and finally, really, feel free.
I moved to New York City the next year, falling into a job in publishing while purposefully flinging myself into a nightlife full of spirited debauchery. I reconnected with Carly, an old high school friend who had reinvented herself as a Lower East Side hottie and graduate-level party girl. Since I didn't know any other people in town, I spent every night by her side, sipping vodka sodas and watching her operate. I partied my face off nightly and often crashed in the office where I worked just before dawn; I'd sleep for three hours, wash my hair in the sink, order an egg and cheese bagel, and boom, be ready for work by nine.
At night, I was fearless, able to flirt with strangers or flash a tour bus with no compunction; but by day, I was still anxious and shy. That winning combo of constant anxiety and constant hangovers got me fired from my first job; the year the followed was a downward spiral, culminating in being let go from a temp job wrapping Christmas presents for a PR firm because I had showed up with vomit on my lapel.
I didn't seem to be very good at working and I hadn't written a word since I'd claimed a New York City zip code as my own; but damn it, I was good at going out, good at putting on a cute outfit, good at hooking up with randos, and amazing at drinking. On date after date with 45-year-old dudes — who are generally the only kind of men 23-year-old party girls date — I wondered when things were going to come together for me. The 45-year-old men all gently reassured me that I seemed fine and that I was also way cooler than their ex-wife, and I was buoyed, ready to once more stay out all night doing shit that I wouldn't remember the next day with people that I'd never see again.
Many people incorrectly believe that being a party girl means that you used to date Moby and got hooked on cocaine while you were working as a "muse" for a cutting-edge French fashion house. But that's actually just one subgenre of party girl — the "ultra glamorous/faintly European party girl." The full taxonomy of party girls includes many other variations, like: the "filthy rich teenaged party girl" (Cory Kennedy, early Edie Sedgwick, peak Mary-Kate Olsen);"low rent/scumbag party girl" (early Ke$ha, every woman on Jersey Shore, every woman over the age of 22 who thinks drinking a 40 while squatting in an alley is an acceptable form of pre-gaming); "party girl who claims to have a super-important media job, but have you ever seen her wake up in time to go to a job?" (fashion magazine editorial assistants, people who have fake-sounding jobs at MTV); "party girl who thinks this will get her acting career off the ground" (your high school friend who moved to L.A. and then very suddenly moved back home last year).
Though each party girl does her thing in different places — from ultra-hip clubs to pee-smelling bars with names like Fallon Hannigan O'Shaunnesey's — they all pretty much do the same thing. They get happy-drunk, not weepy-drunk; they think your bad jokes are funny; they scream "I love this song!" and start dancing; and if something scary happens to them while they're partying, they don't run to the police or their parents. They weigh it in their hands very carefully, wondering if this is the wake-up call that everyone has been warning them about for years (that is, if they had anyone in their life who actually cared about them enough to tell them they needed a wake up call). If it is, they go to rehab or have a baby or do the other things one does when it's time to turn one's life around; if it isn't, they just keep dancing.
I was a scumbag party girl, in case you were curious — I was into cheap shots and making out in gross dive bar bathrooms. And when a scary thing finally happened to me, true to the party girl oath, I didn't go to the police or my parents. A guy had picked me up at a local bar and fed me shots until I blacked out; I blacked in with my jeans turned inside out and no underpants on, running down the street without any shoes on. Some cops stopped me, but I was so drunk, I couldn't tell if they were trying to help me or arrest me. I kept running until I got home. I laid in bed in the dark for two days, drinking from a 2 liter bottle of Diet Pepsi and deleting text messages from this guy, who kept asking me to come back and get my shoes. Was this my fault, I wondered. Was this my wake-up call? Being a party girl is about being surrounded by people, but it's really a very lonely pursuit.
I want to say that that night scared me off partying because it made me realize how disposable any one party girl is to the party scene, how no one I drank with or danced with actually cared about me. But it actually scared me off of partying because it took away the reasons for partying: the magic of the wide-open night sky, when the evening feels like great plains and you're a pioneer, going out to conquer the wild unknown. Anything could happen. But once you understand the full meaning of "anything," it's hard to see the night sky as anything more than just the absence of light.
There's the tell-tale thing about being a party girl: the word girl. You can't be a party woman; if you try, everyone is horrified, and frankly, it doesn't look very fun. The party economy is one that runs on men's money and women's naïvete. I'm prettier (and frankly, slightly thinner) than I was at 23, but I will never attract 45-year-old men who want to buy me a drink and slur their words as they talk shit about their ex-wives ever again. And I don't want to. Your usefulness in the party economy usually runs out right around when you get sick of it. It's pretty convenient, actually.
In my case, shocked from my encounter, I began to spend a significant amount of time sober for the first time in years, and found that I was different — I could talk to strangers now, look them in the eye, shake their hands without getting a pain in the pit of my stomach. I could be three-cocktails worth of witty with just a glass of seltzer in me now. I got my first non-drunk, non-druggy, non-sleazy boyfriend — we turned out to have nothing in common, but damned if I wasn't proud of myself for dating someone who waited past the second date to ask if we could have unprotected sex!
And I started writing, for real. I can't say for a fact that this stuff wouldn't have happened on it's own without my party years. But I can say for a fact that it happened this way with my party years, and if you want my two cents, it happened absolutely perfectly.
Despite all the eyeliner and high heels and blow jobs, being a party girl is really about extending your childhood, by hiding under the cover of what a child's idea of being an adult is like. Being a party girl is a way of putting off figuring out who you are, what you believe, what your values are. Most days, I think of the time I wasted as a tragedy — the books I could have written! The trips I could have taken! The non-philandering guys I could have dated! — but sometimes, I think I needed that extra time. If I had gone directly from my childhood into adulthood, I don't think I would have liked the adult I would have become.
So what happens to party girls, once the party's done? Well, a lot of ex-party girls make amazing moms — life as a party girl tends to give you a pretty good sense of humor, a healthy tolerance for the absurd, and a deft way with sink-showering. Having seen how hollow the glamorous life is up close, a lot of ex-party girls become spiritual practitioners, with motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein perhaps the most prominent example.
Touching life at it's extremity like that can also turn ex-party girls into devoted teachers, therapists, psychologists, and counselors. Party girls go on to do all sorts of things with the rest of their lives once the party is over, though, once everyone finds out what you used to be like, talking about it becomes like this party trick that everyone wants you to do. And if you don't believe me, read the obituary of substance-abuse counselor and one-time Pennsylvania Woman of the Year Betty McDonough, which leads with McDonough's years of hard partying.
It's like no matter what you do, there's one last party you can't ever leave.
Images: Fotolia; Gabrielle Moss (4)