True, it might be rattled off by the bumbling oaf (misunderstood genius?) in ol' Shakey's moody-little-shit of a play but, for the most part, the old guy had it right: often brevity really is the soul of wit. It should be no surprise, then, that – in her 3,000-odd word short story, Third-Person Party – Berlin-based Lauren Oyler, Dazed's own mistress of the lit list, covers everything from social awkwardness and sexual politics to surprise public nudity with a kind of not-quite-entirely-removed detachment. Imagine Murakami's After Dark – “We are sheer point of view... that can move freely about the room” – with a cotton mouth-dry sense of humour and an eye for the emotional, hormonal shitstorm that is contemporary youth.
The target is tall, slight, fairly obvious. He stands in the corner, looking at ease, discussing American politics, taxi drivers, women. His friend, or acquaintance, is shorter, stockier, and wearing what looks like a cape. A question, intoned friendlier than anyone in Europe is used to, comes from somewhere near the coat rack:
“I need a drink. Do you know where the drinks are?”
The target turns away from his conversation and makes an obvious two-second assessment of Olivia’s looks before answering. Blonde, but not strikingly so. Thin, but what magazines call “apple-shaped.” Eyes interestingly almond, but eyelashes regrettably straight. Nice hair, weak chin. It could go either way, really. Does he have a girlfriend? Does he have a boyfriend? Does it matter? Is she his type? What sort of odor is she radiating, pheromoneously or otherwise?
“Maybe.” He smiles, mouth closed, and Olivia feels herself turn on, a kind of mental straightening of spine, as if to accept a challenge. She has often been told she “gets more attractive” after conversation. She responds: “If you’re trying to flirt with me, it’s not effective.” A pause. The party dilates with the possibility of conquest.
“Come with me.”
The target leads Olivia on what his stoic expression and deadpan delivery suggest will be an arduous journey, through crowded hallways and over unreliable terrain. Perhaps this is his apartment and he is taking her to his room, where he will gesture towards the bed and they will sit, poor-postured, exchanging first occupations and names and then thoughts on William Faulkner. They round a corner, and the target knocks on a door, affronting another partygoer standing, with legs crossed in a precarious way, to its left.
“Excuse me? Hello?” she says, gesticulating antagonistically. She is making a face someone’s mother might warn against; it could get stuck that way.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the target says. His accent is un-placeable; possibilities include Nova Scotia, New Zealand (reformed), military baby. “Could we just quickly get some drinks?” He seems to genuinely mean it, eyebrows raised as if in surprise: that he could have done such a thing as almost cut someone in line for a house-party bathroom is so unlike him. The girl nods too quickly, regretting her outburst, but her trust is misplaced; the target swings Olivia into the bathroom and locks the door with a devastating click.
Perhaps he will offer her stimulants.
Too-adequate lighting showcases clumsily grouted corners; several pairs of women’s underwear are draped over the towel rack; a pink-and-green plastic giraffe tops a stack of economics magazines, toiletside. Olivia bares her teeth in a triptych mirror flecked with toothpaste and picks at the two in the front. Refreshingly disinterested in how others see her, or lacking critical self-awareness?
The target removes a beer from among upended bottles of shampoo and conditioner in the bathtub and pops the top off using the wrong end of a lighter, saying “Berlin” to Olivia’s expression of mild surprise. They cheers and stand silent for three extremely countable seconds before the target says he must mingle and departs, shutting the door behind him.
Disappointment threatens, but it is early yet. Olivia fluffs her hair in the mirror, looks herself in the eye, and reflects briefly on the possible significance of the target’s earlier locking of the door. As she is about to leave, the portentous sheen of a nascent pimple catches her eye.
She emits a quiet yelp and feels momentarily helpless, a flash of actual despair. It is as if the leaking refrigerators and health insurance claims and far-off civil wars for which she feels some subconscious moral responsibility have congealed into a pore-clogging mass that will, with 100% certainty, manifest itself on her face, no matter her preventative measures, no matter how costly and dermatologist-recommended is her skincare regimen. She has not brought makeup with her.
A line has formed outside the bathroom, girls tutting and rolling their eyes at this flagrant violation of the sisterhood. Olivia avoids eye contact and hears a comment made intentionally too loud: “Who takes a shit at a party?”
In the living room she scans for people with whom she can exchange banter, laugh conspicuously, appear otherwise interesting, but the atmosphere is collectively side-eyed, almost conspiratorial. It is as if everyone in the room has slept with everyone else and deemed it “Cool!” She decides to lean against a doorframe and scrolls lazily through her Twitter feed. (“31 Cats Who Need to Get Off the Sauce,” etc.) The socially acceptable amount of time for doing this passes. When she looks up, a naked woman, with breasts round and seemingly painfully weighty, is walking through the front door. As she passes, Olivia can see goose bumps, each featuring a tiny blond hair, on bare arms, torso, legs, butt.
With confident posture, the woman enters the living room and sits down on the oriental rug in its center, surrounded by legs in casual party stances and surely experiencing a vulvic sensation most would find deeply unpleasant. A sudden and overwhelming sense of panic overcomes Olivia. She quickly surveys the room and spots a friend, Chris—with whom she definitely has not slept—and their eyes lock. He rushes over to pet her hair, straight and therefore basically unruinable, and issues a command: “Shots!”
Their tunnel vision obscures the kitchen: black-and-white tile floor blurry with dirt stuck to spilled beer; loud drinking game at oak table, wobbly; girl in tree pose near humming, steaming dishwasher; man with dreadlocks of a length that defies natural occurrence eating banana in corner. Chris flings open the cabinet most likely to contain if not glasses at least receptacles and elbows a girl in the head, hard, in the process. It’s empty except for a mug, chipped dangerously, printed with the phrase, “I found this humerus” and featuring: guess. Momentarily devastated, Chris ignores the pained harrumphs of his casualty, whose eyes have filled with tears presumably involuntarily. Olivia touches her arm, brow furrowed for her struggle. “Oh my God. Are you okay?” The victim retracts her appendage without reply and leaves, raised by some culture that values personal space.
Olivia and Chris take swigs from a floating bottle of vodka; Chris is unflappable and composed, save for a drop of clear liquid near his lip piercing, while Olivia jumps up and down, shaking her head and sticking out her tongue in disgust. The smoke in the kitchen quickly becomes oppressive and eye-irritating, and she wants—nay, feels compelled—to locate her target, but when she turns to leave she finds herself nipple-to-nipple with the naked woman. They both jump. They are the same height.
The naked woman recovers quickly from the near-collision and touches Olivia lightly on the arm to bring her closer. “I just had sex,” she says in an anxious whisper. “Can you tell?”
Olivia glances down to check as if recent penetration is a visible panty line or lipsticked front tooth and replies that she cannot. She instantly feels a kinship with this large-breasted intruder, whose apparent body acceptance and unashamed warmth make her seem a feminine ally or, maybe more accurately, bizarre mentor. Olivia imagines being taken under her wing, Angelica—she looks like an Angelica—slinging no-nonsense advice during brunch or mascara touch-ups in nightclub restrooms.
“Thanks,” Angelica says and winks. “I’ll see you later.”
Angelica touches her hip to pass; Olivia’s muscles contract, and in her momentary disorientation she spots the target near the bathroom. After quickly checking Facebook, Twitter, she goes to where he is standing, planning to brush against his forearm fake-accidentally.
“Why am I always right?” he is saying as she approaches. “How is it that I’m right, like, pretty much all the time?”
He turns in the direction of the brushed forearm, and Olivia says, “Oh, you, ha!” the same way she might if she had run into a cashier from her local grocery store or a minor internet celebrity with whom she is familiar. She takes a drink to give herself a moment to strategize, if only subconsciously, and then asks him—she might as well, she’s already here—where he got his t-shirt. He tells her he made it; he has an online screen-printing business. This is interesting. She asks if he knows the guy throwing this party; he tells her they met at a hostel in Seville. This is also interesting. She has again stolen him away from his friend/acquaintance, who abandons them with mock exasperation. This is classic behavior.
The pair exchange a few more ice-breaking pleasantries, the sort of thing in which a pettish intellectual might loudly refuse to participate for its supposed inauthenticity: why they live here, where they live here, perceptions of the successfulness of the party. Loud music requires them to lean in closely as if deep in flirtation, and perhaps this fabricated intimacy begins to foster an actual connection. They begin a lively back-and-forth about the bad collage art decorating the apartment: “Collage is just so lazy—like, it was innovative once, and that was an important moment in art history, yeah, but we’ll never relive that historical condition!” Olivia says, face warm. “Do something else!” The target nods, seeming genuinely interested. “I had an ex-girlfriend who used to do collage, and I always had to be like, ‘Yeah, I love the juxtaposition.’”
“Everything is a juxtaposition,” Olivia replies, shaking her head.
They are still discussing art forms for which they feel disdain when suddenly the target’s eyes widen as if inspired. He turns his body towards Olivia and abruptly puts his hand on her shoulder. Their eyes lock.
Immediately, the target, facing the opposite direction, becomes distracted; it is at this critical moment that a wide-hipped girl wearing nothing but aviator sunglasses on the top of her head has begun to proceed through the front door in what can only really be called a march. She is flanked by a short, chesty man in similar un-attire and carrying a flaming torch; he has a plastic scepter topped with a Santa hat. They advance through the hallway, torch warming already flushed cheeks, acknowledging no one as they pass. Hazy with cigarette smoke, the living room takes on a surreal quality, as if the subject of a film intentionally low-budget.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” shouts the man, lifting his scepter high in the air. The Santa hat almost falls to the ground, and the party shuffles into a murmuring half-circle around them. Olivia remains next to the target, glancing periodically to gauge his reaction, and smiles a going-along-with-it smirk.
“We come as representatives of the god Mok Chi.” The fire-bearer stares straight ahead, seemingly unblinkingly. Angelica has crawled over from her position across the room and now sits in front of her naturalist compatriots miming either obscure yoga postures or the hand motions that go with “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.” The murmur grows.
“Silence!” he says with a stern, straight face. “We come bearing instructions.” The target makes a noise that seems to acknowledge the possibility that there might exist a case in which someone, somewhere, might find something funny enough to laugh at, but he does not look at Olivia.
“The god Mok Chi is displeased with your paltry offerings,” the man continues, gesturing towards the bathroom. “To avoid smitation,” he says, pausing, “you must offer a sacrifice—a single, courageous soul to be sliced up, bread-loaf-like, upon the banks of the Danube.”
They disband and begin to mingle among the other guests, who continue to be mildly amused. “You have 15 minutes,” he adds as an afterthought.
“Qu’est ce le fuck?” Olivia says, laughing. “Like, what?”
The target takes a drink from his beer. “It’s a bit Lynchian, isn’t it?”
“‘I looked for you in my closet tonight,’” she says breathily. The target laughs, and then there is a pause, not insurmountable but which must nevertheless be surmounted, and the prospect of eye contact quickly becomes horrifying, a fate worse than loaf-like slicing.
“Exactly,” he says, finally. “Hey, I’m gonna go chat to my friend over there. Try to weasel my way closer to the boobs, you know.” He, too, winks. “See you later.”
Anxious energy renewed, Olivia briefly considers taking off her shirt. The tag has suddenly begun to scratch the top of her spine; her bra is inching up the underside of her breasts.
She reaches for her iPhone and idly taps on several things before losing interest. She looks around. She crosses her ankles and pivots 180 degrees to uncross them. The friends she hasn’t seen since they arrived together are talking to a guy who works at a café she frequents. She looks for gum in her purse.
The three naked people are stalking through groups of party attendees as if to size them up. The target, whose position Olivia has been monitoring, is suddenly nowhere in sight, and she does not take pains to disguise that she is looking for him. If he has left without saying goodbye—that would be genuinely unexpected. A sense of tension mounts. She begins to worry when he does not materialize. The naked people have become somewhat aggressive, surrounding innocent guests from behind and asking forceful questions about their dedication to situation at hand.
After several minutes of aimless drinking, Olivia spots him: near the window, talking to Chris, laughing with head thrown back and hand on stomach; it is as if he has never experienced an interior monologue in his life. She walks over feeling relief mixed with a kind of joy—Chris is an in. She cries, “My friends!” and joins their discussion on streaking: past experiences with, future interest in, pop cultural references to. A few minutes pass before Angelica and her breasts materialize.
“Are you interested in serving the magnificent god Mok Chi?” she asks the group. If she remembers Olivia from their previous bonding experience, she does not acknowledge it. Her blue nail polish is chipped.
“Oh—I actually think, uh, well…” Her nipples are large, and a single black hair sprouts from the one on the left. That Olivia is often able to respond wittily and effectively to attractive men who approach her but cannot express to the breasts what it is that she “thinks” now is acutely depressing, but all she feels is an overwhelming desire to put space between herself and the areolas. Chris makes a joke: “Depends. Is he hot?”
The two others join their group and create a sort of standoff; prepared to enter battle on behalf of the poly-cotton blend, Olivia, Chris, and the target have formed a frontline against the windowsill. After a moment, the naked man steps forward, his flaccid penis bouncing from side to side. “Time runs out,” he says. “Who will it be?”
“I think it is one of these,” the other girl says, attempting a monotone. Chris laughs and departs, likely in search of more booze. Olivia looks at the target with the wide, worried eyes of an army wife or alternative damsel-esque partner.
“Don’t do it!” she pleads in an exaggerated Southern accent. “Oh, I feel faint! Where are the smellin’ salts?”
Ignoring this joke or finding it hackneyed, the target looks down at her. He looks back at the naked people, who are intimidating with crossed arms and apparent confidence. He frowns as if deep in contemplation.
“This death,” he says, slowly, “it’s by slicing, you say? There’s no other option, no quicker reprieve?”
“We can work something out,” the girl with the sunglasses says; the syllables seem to spill out of her mouth in some southern European accent. “There are always options.”
The target looks back at Olivia, who widens her eyes to convey pleading. He looks at the naked group. He looks at Olivia.
“Would I receive a last meal?”
The naked man looks at Angelica expectantly. She seems slightly taken aback, but she regains herself quickly.
“Of course,” she replies, touching his shoulder. “We would be grateful for your participation. We can certainly arrange something.”
The target considers this, looks back at Olivia for several seconds, and then answers with an unspoken nod.
The man grabs the target’s wrist and thrusts it into the air, triumphant. The crowd notices and goes silent, in part ironically but in part from genuine intrigue. The naked group herds the target to the center of the room as if they are professionals in maintaining personal space and encourage a circle to form around him. People begin to clap.
“Are you prepared to serve the munificent god Mok Chi in all his glory and munificence?” The naked man has his back turned to Olivia—hairy. His muscles make two sharp indents on either side of his lower spine.
“Are you certain of your sacrifice?” says the girl with the sunglasses.
“There can be no turning back!” Angelica rises up onto her toes as she says these last words. She is smiling widely, unlike the others.
The target pauses. Olivia has made her way to the front of the circle of spectators and finds herself, somewhat against her will and although she feels, deep down, that it is unlikely, holding out hope he will renege. The naked group stares at the target with a sort of skepticism, a challenge. To a latecomer familiar with art history, the scene would look like a post-modern interpretation of a Jacques Louis David painting, though it’s unclear whether its ludicrousness comes from the people who are naked or those wearing clothes. After a dramatic pause, the target answers.
The party erupts into woops and cheers. The naked man turns to make a sweeping wave, and the group of four forms a line and cha-cha-chas out of the room as if choreographed, the target with his hands resting only somewhat gingerly on Angelica’s naked waist. The party cheers again. From another room, a voice cries: “Shots!” The target throws a casual glance to his left and right before turning into the hallway and dancing out the front door.
The rustling of iPhones being extracted from back pockets fills the air; people begin to mill as if the party had been a film or performance that just let out. Olivia looks around and notices the sky outside is beginning to lighten. “Hey, O,” she hears her friend say, using the nickname she hates for the free-associating it never fails to conjure: the Columbine School shooting; an Advanced Placement exam she had to abandon halfway through because of food poisoning; adolescent sex education manuals forever exclaiming unhelpful advice—“Deal With It!” “We’re going to get food. We have to get food. We’re starving. We’re dying. I’m going to vomit, I’m so hungry.”
Olivia briefly considers staying, suddenly desperate to postpone or avoid returning home. Food would not be actively enjoyable, merely a consolation. She scans the other men in the room as if for the first time and finds them all lacking—too short or balding or strange-eyed. She descends the party trying and failing to locate her heavy footfalls in the exact center of each peach-carpeted stair, and as when she arrived, the building’s Old World details—expansive ceilings, gem-toned stained glass, such banisters—go unnoticed, then in favor of gleeful anticipation and a line of speed, now of mouth-stale beer and an unexpected sense of disappointment, almost heartbreak, to which she does not feel entitled.
She can hear her friends discussing the merits of various bakeries in the entryway. How, she wonders, do they escape every party in such wholesome good spirits? They seem somehow post-sexual, impossibly “well-adjusted,” equally happy to eat a cheese pretzel as to receive oral sex. No matter the prodding, prying, or seriously, though, spill it’s, the gossip is always relayed with the same pastry-worthy pleasantry: “It was nice!”
Olivia reaches the landing and pauses on the last stair. She arranges her feet into as straight and tight a formation as possible, focusing on becoming compact. Her phone buzzes and she reaches for it mindlessly, quickly shifting all her mental energy again. Sleek but friendly, its form is comforting, and she becomes absorbed in the screen as Facebook loads, painfully slow. One of her friends raises her voice in favor a bakery on the other side of the river, and she is met with vehement dismissal.
Olivia is flicking through a picture-less half-download, screen white and unyielding, when she realizes she has heard an urgent, very-loud bang. Two of her friends, still arguing over the route that will provide optimal carbohydrate exposure, let out small gasps, and Olivia looks up from her iPhone, feeling mentally present and realizing she has not in a very long time. She assesses her vantage point on the stair and prepares for another bang. “What was that?” she asks, unable to hide the worry in her voice. One of the girls interrupts her, consonants heavy: “My God, it scared me.”
“What was it?” Olivia asks again, insistent, as if her friends have access to some ontology she does not.
“Car backfiring or something.”
“Those fireworks from the New Year.”
Olivia recalls the New Year celebrations, the repeated surprises that never seemed to startle her less even days later. Those sounded more annoying, less definitive.
“Fireworks? You think?” She steps down from the stair and tries to feign nonchalance. “I mean, they don’t have guns in Europe, right?” she asks, meaning to sound self-deprecating.
Her friends seem to accept this as a joke and begin walking towards the door, voices echoing slightly in the cavernous entryway. “I did not even think of a gun,” the Parisian one says, laughing. “I was thinking only of the pogácsa.”