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  • Writer's pictureZibia Caldwell

On the Will to Party

Getting from one side to the other.

By Zibia Caldwell

Content warning: This essay contains references to sexual violence.

The first party I remember going to was at the Marriott on Canal Street. I was thirteen and very excited to be going to a hotel party.

The little I knew about hotel parties I’d gleaned from a conversation the summer before with a girl a year older than I was. She was a Brandy Melville model with long, perfect brown hair. She told me she went to a lot of hotel parties, and she talked a big game. So I went into this one expecting the glistening affect assigned to people onto whom one has projected one’s insecurities, and was a bit shocked to walk into a damp double bedroom that smelled vaguely like clams and Washington Square weed. When I arrived, there had already been two noise complaints and the speaker was broken. It was the summer of “Bodak Yellow” and someone was playing it on their phone and enthusiastically rapping along.

Before we were kicked out (because we were always kicked out), I remember very clearly standing in front of the sliding pane windows and looking out at the sun setting on Tribeca. It was June or July and probably only seven or eight, and the sky had gone full Michelangelo. I paused and photographed it.

Photograph by Zibia Caldwell

What is the will to party? Where does it come from? Within what systems of thought and need does it operate? Thrown out with the recycling, floating with the dark blue-black of the sky at 4 a.m, is the question of why I do this and not something else.

I started writing this essay with an earnest, even academic intention: to explore the social phenomenon of partying in the way that people explore the social phenomenon of the opera; to conduct an ethnography of how Columbia students party, why we party, and where we do it. I wanted it to be sage, because I’ve been to lots of parties and acted perfectly outrageous and I would like to believe that it’s made me weathered in some way. I don’t think it has. No matter how I twist it, I’m still young and fresh like a 5-a.m. city street, recently rained on, the sky above still a very light blue.

I started partying in a more intentional way about three months ago because something happened to me that made me not want to be in my body. My body was the site of a breach in trust and I felt marked by it. People talk about trauma as something that we carry around inside of us, and I felt that acutely. And sexual assault is a particular kind of trauma; it is in you, on you, with you, you are it. It is not like the memory of the cruel thing that X said to you, or the time that you saw Y, because in those instances you walk away and the aggressors stay in their place. You associate the location of the trauma with the event of the trauma, and the location is not yourself. You walk by the spot where Z broke up with you, where X told you they could never forgive you, and you shudder and avert your eyes, but then it ends. When the location of the cruelty is your own body, it can feel like an end is entirely out of reach. It sounds concerning to say, but parties have helped me in this way.

I never went to another hotel party, and I don’t think I ever will. My subsequent partying differed wildly from its genesis, and that night at the Marriott was not an accurate gloss on what was to come. I found myself at clubs in the Lower East Side, at raves in the Bronx, at house parties on 72nd Street, in increasingly bizarrely decorated brownstones (think oversized plaster sculpture of two truncated knees) in Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope, in the bowels of the Financial District, and on quiet corners in Fort Greene. I would throw parties in my own home and others at venue spaces and I’d attend more ticketed events than I care to admit in print. I have learned to understand the night as a machine. It hands us back to ourselves the next morning diced, crushed, in our composite parts. We reassemble; like children at the dinner table, we blindly bat a chubby finger at the velveteen crush, try to find what was yesterday whole. Coming up empty, we have no choice but to improvise.

I think most people have some kind of release. I know someone who makes French onion soup, another who cuts her split ends off with a nail clipper, another who runs the length of Manhattan on Saturday mornings. Others just do drugs, and others meditate.

And others, like me, find release in partying. I like to think that I party in a way that is somehow sophisticated or legitimate, but that’s probably to be determined. Illegitimate partying is marked by insecurity, by needing to prove something about yourself. Many of the parties I went to in high school were illegitimate. I wasn’t going for myself, I was going because I wanted to seem intrepid, and this was New York, and we all felt an intense need to “make a name for ourselves.” I can remember, with a clarity that always clings to particularly uncomfortable memories of social events, an almost debilitating sense of being out of place at those parties.

I recently went to one such illegitimate party. I have felt awkward and unpopular many times in my life, but feeling that way at a party is always visceral in a different way. The party promises a singular and collaborative togetherness, and I think it almost always makes good on that promise—at least, for some. At every party, there is usually one group experiencing that togetherness, though what proportion of the guests are in that group is another question. But to stand outside of that togetherness is deeply uncomfortable. So deeply uncomfortable I wonder if this might be explained, in part, by something biological, something rooted in our history as pack animals.

Illustration by Rea Rustagi

Parties make certain promises to us, and these promises are highly conditional. This is what makes going to a party exciting—one wonders at these promises and their intricate social conditions. When the social conditions on which these promises rest align, we find ourselves in a social nirvana. When the social conditions on which these promises do not align, or rather, align destructively, we find ourselves in a very special kind of hell.

Seeking out social nirvana is a norm of, if not a prerequisite to, human experience. And yet partying (or even worse, partying too much) has a deep connotation of shame. We find ourselves at a familiarly puritanical crossroads: The will to party is clearly a natural one, and yet in our cultural understanding it is inexorably, irredeemably tied with guilt. I seek to unhook guilt from our idea of parties. I propose a vision of parties as a space of healthy undoing, a radical form of self-care.

I have a recurring dream about a party that I went to about three years ago. The apartment is sprawling, seems to go on for miles and miles. I drift from room to room. Through the walls, I can vaguely hear the song “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire. As I move through the apartment, I pass what feels like exhibit after exhibit of my friends in love. Platonically, romantically, personally enraptured. In one room, they dance and play guitar and piano; in another, they play dress-up by the bed; in another, they sit on the floor, eating Chinese take-out. It is a fantasy of sociality in this place of no needs. Everything that we could possibly want has been thought of and provided. Every song that comes on is exactly right, precise, tailored to the shifting mood.

This party floats in my mind as a case study for everything I think a good party can be: a site of ecstasy. The word ecstasy comes from the Greek “ekstasis,” to stand outside oneself, and it is this particular valence of the word that I am referring to here. A good party is a trap door. An Irish exit which leads out of your life and into what your life is not.

A note in my phone dated a week or so after the assault: “I am where the world isn’t. Sun touches my leg and I know it is my leg. I know it is mine but I feel so small inside myself. Like a child cloaked in the long trench coat of a father. I went to the aquarium yesterday and wanted to be on the other side of the glass.”

In the months when I felt that my body was a thing that had been hung over me like a sheet caught in tree branches, the only body I felt I had came from walking out of the trap door and into a party. The assault had orphaned me from myself. The party gave me admission out of that body and allowed me to map out a new one, a body that could hold what happened to me and also get through a day. In this way, the party is a means of transportation: It is a ferryboat, and it deals in time. That is to say, the party can give time back to you.

There is a feeling that comes out of a good party that I have never been able to define. Perhaps this is because it feels so much larger than I am. It comes on imperceptibly; I was late, you called and asked to borrow my jacket, I left my keys at home, I got there and I couldn’t find you, and then, suddenly: a feeling of walking out of a thicket and into a clearing. The world and I are moving at exactly the same pace, like a mirror image. It is like being in love, only it is not directed at any one person or thing, but rather the fact of all these people and things, the light in the window across the street, your nimble hands gesticulating, bodies jumping in and out of one another like the staccato of cicadas, the smell of tobacco and cake. Every gesture and word that is directed at me feels like a gift.

Admittedly, the will to party, despite its myriad benefits, is of dubious validity. I wanted to leave my body because being inside it was unbearable, and while the party alleviated that sensation temporarily, it could not make it go away. Aside from partying, most of what helped me to function again was my community. My argument here is not that the party is a means to an end, but that it is a means. A good party will never heal your wounds completely, but it can begin to show you why your wounds might be worth healing.

In the mess of bodies I get jumbled like the words of an introduction. This feeling: the opposite of being asleep and the opposite of being awake. I stood on a chair looking for you and I only saw the back of your head, maybe 10 feet away from me and talking to someone else, but I felt you, felt you, felt you. Skinless, veins swinging around me like hair, the morning appeared to me like a sandbar and I let myself get washed up on it. When I woke up, I was alone on the beach where I first learned to swim. It felt like August in the middle of the winter and I swear I’ll never be able to understand how that can be.

Even hangovers, and maybe this is an optimistic vision, can be an invitation for reinvention. Hangovers act as a final (and embodied) step in the emotional transition parties offer. Every time I go to bed past 4 a.m. I wake up after two or three hours of sleep feeling vaguely nauseous but somehow full of adrenaline, and begin to clean. As I do, I replay the highlights of the evening and consider what needs doing in the coming day. I load myself back into myself. However, within this process, I find that something is always gained. I can never put things back exactly as they were, and the next day when I am coherent again I am slightly changed, as if the weather inside of me has shifted a few degrees, as if I had come home and found all my furniture moved a few inches from where I’d left it.

Six years old at the window of my bedroom, I remember screaming at my babysitter that I wanted to go home. I remember her looking at me with an expression of genuine confusion and saying, “But darling, you are home.” I did, in fact, know I was home, but I was talking about that other thing home can be: metaphor.

What I was too young to articulate then but acutely understand now is that the body is more of a home than a house could ever be. The body defines our comfort with the world, our ability to hold or let go of things, to know when we have had enough, to know when we have had too much. After the assault, I felt my body had been stripped of its capacity to hold itself. I felt I had come home and found no one there. It was only at parties, when I was delirious enough to feel nothing except my heart beating low in my stomach, that I began to recover a sense of my body. The magical power of the party is its almost uncanny ability to get you from one side to the other. The more I went out, the more I slowly began to realize how wrong I had been, how I had mistaken my body for an emptiness that was not my own.

The ending to this piece eludes me. Everything I have been taught about writing encourages me to deliver a clincher, but I find myself aphasic. I cannot tell you how the story ends, because I haven’t found out yet. Today is Thursday, the beginning of the weekend. The ferryboat laps at the shores of the coming hours, twinkling. Is it the River Styx or the East River? Impossible to tell. Here are the two things I know: I am wide open like a radio without a dial, and all I can see in front of me, stretching in every direction for miles and miles, is open ocean.


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