Jamisyn Gleeson (University of Melbourne, Australia)
My lips feel numb from their prolonged contact with ice cubes as I tilt my glass up. Vodka-raspberry fizzes in my mouth and slips down my throat. I run a hand down the faux satin of my dress, down the curve of my waist as it grows into hip, and rotate my shoulders into a kind of sway. I dance to my own pulse, then to the beat of the music blasting though the club speakers.
Setting my now empty glass on the bar’s sticky countertop, I weave through parched crowds. Glazed eyes look into my own. The people here are shadows: unruled versions of their weekday selves. My boots cling to the treacly floor, as though telling me to stay here and dance on the spot. I move in time with the music, drag my fingers through my hair, scream the lyrics of pop hits through the pink-painted contours of my lips. Even without the alcohol, I could dance like this all night. The music acts as a drug, coursing through me, transforming me into the woman I want to be instead of the girl I still feel like I am: now I am confident in my own body, in my own company, in my own movement.
Someone stumbles into me on their way to the dance floor. Their drink spills over the lip of their glass and lands on my skin, sending a lightning bolt of cold shock through me. I direct a lopsided smile towards them, to let them know that I don’t mind if the drink clings to my sweaty skin or if it stains my clothes, but the stranger doesn’t realise they’ve lost a single drop. That’s what I love about people in clubs: we’re all strangers, but we dance together as though we know one another intimately.
I follow the person further onto dance floor—into the pulsing organ of bodies—before losing them in the crowd. That’s okay, though. I dance on my own, feeling the muscles in my calves stretch, the vertebrae in my spine loosen and remember what it’s like to be flexible. Even in my scrappy outfit, I feel warm—heat surges from the bodies of people around me. I soak in it. Here, everyone becomes their own, new person. They wear sequins and plain shirts, glitter and pale powders.
The crowd screams in tandem with the music. The club transforms into a thunderstorm of colour: neon bolts chase after the boom of bass and clouds of liquid nitrogen form at our feet.
I feel a nudge at my ribs and pass it off as accidental until it happens again. To my left, a guy shuffles along to the bass with one of his friends. He’s staring right at me.
I bob my head to the music, mouthing the words even more excitedly now. He plays along, matching my energy, until we’re standing chest-to-chest, close enough to distinguish one another’s voices from the yelling crowd. I don’t bother with small talk, don’t bother to tease him any more than running my pinky up his forearm. I cup his chin, ask, ‘Do you want me to kiss you?’ And when he nods, I press my mouth to his.
He wraps his arms around me, pulling me closer to him. I twist my fingers in his hair and kiss him with an urgency, with an intensity that I’ve felt building inside me all week.
After I’ve tasted him, I let go, step back, and disappear into the crowd.
There are so many people here. I want to know them all—to know their bodies, their habits. There isn’t enough time to focus all my efforts on one person. I want to explore and learn and enjoy.
A second pair of eyes catches my own—I glimpse flashes of green, like marshlands teeming with life. This time, she is the partner in this dance who approaches me. In the pulsing lights, her gold top shimmers like scales, hanging loosely from her dark, athletic frame. I can see the bulge of muscles in her arms, the broad length of her collarbone.
She tilts her head—dark curls bouncing with the movement—asking me if I’m interested. I nod, yes.
Her kiss is softer than the guy’s—lighter and practiced. I have to stop myself from melting into her arms—from losing myself completely in the moment and forgetting the joy of it. I stop, open my eyes, and catch a glimpse of the gold dust framing her eyes and the way her painted lashes are lifted with just a slight smile. We kiss again.
But something is wrong this time—I didn’t notice it before, but the yelling of the crowd seems to be focused on me now: on us. I pause and look behind me, where a group of guys elbow each other, point at me, snicker, sneer, laugh, spit, cajole, cheer. I don’t understand why they’re so riled up. I look back at the girl, but she’s gone now, lost in the crowd.
The laughter behind me dies down and retreats to singing. They’re not interested in me anymore. I walk away from them quickly—as quickly as I can through this mass of bodies. Maybe they were laughing at the girl. She could have looked at one of them, suggested something with the flick of an eyebrow. Maybe she knows one of the boys and they were laughing at her in a friendly, supportive way.
I don’t know, and I’ll probably never find out. It’s easier to forget about it.
I try to loosen myself up again and find myself in the lyrics of the songs blasting through the club. At first, my body is hesitant, as though my heart is chained to something. Then I shake my head and lift my arms, snaking them up, and up, and up, until I am myself again.
Someone offers me their drink. It’s foamy and has a bitter, but also sour, taste. I thank her and pass the glass back. She closes her eyes and drinks from it deeply, her hips swaying out of time with the music. I like the way she dances as though she’s listening to a different song to the rest of us. She’s so completely out of sync, so entirely herself that I can’t help but smile and fall into rhythm with her—or try to. She holds out her hands and I take them, interlacing my fingers with hers so she can spin me around on the spot. When I finish my turn and face her, she looks at me earnestly, whispers those four words—Can I kiss you?—and leans in.
She tastes of tobacco and red wine and traces of gum. I imagine my face is smeared with an imprint of her lipstick. The kiss doesn’t last long before I hear them again—the boys from before. The girl pulls away, bares her teeth and throws her middle finger in their direction. The men howl with laughter. One of them runs up to me and smacks his hand against my ass. I yelp in shock, which makes them clutch their bloated bellies and laugh more.
‘Give us another kiss, loves,’ one of them shouts.
‘Youse are so hot!’ says another.
‘Are you guys into threesomes?’
Their comments surround us like an echo chamber until their voices are the only things I can hear. Even the music fades, thumping away uselessly, matching my frantic heartbeat. I don’t act quick enough as one of the men takes a step towards me and grabs my wrist in his meaty hand. I try to yank back, but he curls his fingers so tightly around my bones that I imagine them breaking. Frightened, I tighten my grip on my phone and slam it against his hand, pummelling until he lets go at last.
‘Crazy fucking bitch,’ he shouts.
‘You’ve got yourself a feisty one!’
The men laugh. Tears well in my eyes but I’m afraid of letting them fall. I’ve never been scared of crying in front of other people—of sharing the vulnerable parts of myself. Until now.
The club goes dark, as though all the lights have been shut off. Elated gasps fill the room, but only for a second, until blinding white lights pulse in the otherwise pitch-black room. I feel dizzy and disoriented, confused and angry and upset. My chest heaves, but the air is trapped in my throat. I feel like I might explode.
‘Let’s go,’ someone says, dragging me away from the men by my elbow. I think it’s the girl I’m with, but when I look, I see the downturned, angered face of a security guard.
‘Wait a second,’ I say, tugging from her grip.
‘It’s time to go,’ she says without looking at me. Her narrow eyes are focused ahead. She pushes me up the two winding flights of stairs to the exit.
‘Wait—it’s okay. I’m fine; those guys just freaked me out,’ I say. ‘I can go back in. I’ll just avoid them.’
They didn’t bother me before I started kissing people. Until I started kissing those girls. Nobody said anything when I was dancing with that guy.
The guard only says, in a rough voice, ‘You can come back after you’ve sobered up a bit.’
She thinks I’m drunk: too drunk to be alone in a club. The bouncers outside smirk when they see me. I’m probably wide-eyed in my shock. The security guard turns her back and leaves me here, alone in the cold, without a second thought.
I look at the bouncers. They’re both tall guys, clean shaven. If I asked them nicely, they might let me back inside. But one raised eyebrow sends me scrambling away from them, down Russell Street.
It’s freezing outside and I don’t have a jacket. I didn’t think I’d need one—didn’t think I’d be roaming the streets of Melbourne past midnight. I cross my arms and run my hands down them, feeling the skin rise into a series of tiny lumps.
I cross the road without waiting to find an intersection. Buildings rise to the skies on either side of me. I can see through some of the windows into white office spaces and lounge rooms where TVs play reruns of AFL matches. I tilt my head up as I walk. So many buildings. So many people spending their lives in these enclosed spaces. I shift my gaze and weave my way towards Melbourne Central Station. At least I know how to get there without using my phone. I need to save my battery to order an Uber, and I want something to eat before I go home.
The streets are a little darker here. There are lampposts, but they only create solitary circles of light. Some shops have left their lights on, probably for security reasons, which helps me on my way.
I pretend I can’t hear the whistles or the comments about my body, my outfit, my lack of male company—made by men lingering in the shadows or walking past me in groups so large I want to shrink, to become miniscule. One of the men who strides past me rubs at his crotch and licks his lips, running his eyes up and down my frame.
‘Fuck off,’ I shout, curling my hand into a fist, my fear and anger turning into a shred of courage.
‘Bitch,’ he says.
I walk faster, pulling my phone out and opening the Uber app. I can scrummage for something to eat when I’m home.
The road spits me out near Melbourne Central. I wait for my ride home, legs shivering in fishnet tights.
‘Look at you,’ a man breathes. I try to ignore him, but he continues to speak. ‘How is something as beautiful as you out here all alone, on a Friday night too?’
I purse my lips and start to walk away from him, careful that I don’t miss my pick-up spot. The man follows me.
‘Why are you walking away from me? I’m just giving you a compliment.’
‘I’m not interested,’ I say, sparing him a glance. Like all the men before him, he rakes his eyes up and down my body, taking in every curve, every centimetre of skin.
‘Aw, don’t be like that,’ he says, approaching me. I can feel his breath tickle my neck, feel his fingers slide up my arms. I try to distract myself by thinking of the club. I think of the girls who asked if they could touch me and who held me so tenderly.
This man is nothing like those girls, and his touch feels dirty, tainted with a faux affection that threatens me.
‘Don’t touch me,’ I say, stepping away from him. The car should be here any second now—it’s just around the corner.
‘I wouldn’t do anything to you,’ he croons. ‘Not anything you wouldn’t like.’
I feel his hand snake around the back of my thigh, his fingers reaching for my ass, searching. I don’t think as I curl my hand into a fist and whack it against the side of his head with all my strength. He takes a step back, bewildered, as though not expecting me to retaliate.
‘You fucking cu—’
I block out his voice by listening to the clack of my heels as I step onto the road, where headlights create pools of light. I slide into the back seat of the Uber, confirming my name and address. The man smacks his palm against the back of the car in frustration, muttering to himself, then yelling more. The Uber driver curses and pushes his foot against the accelerator. I wonder if he’ll charge me extra. I try to take a deep breath in, but it arrives shakily.
I concentrate on the leather seats sticking to my thighs, the weak smell of strawberry car freshener, and the low, hurried voices speaking through the radio. As the car leaves the city, I see a crowded McDonald’s. I watch friend groups consisting of men walk down the street in their shirts and loafers as though all of Melbourne is theirs. Disappointment burns through me. Not in myself, but in these people. These people, who I was so fascinated with just before. I think of the girls I met in the club, and only my memories of them—of their curls and their smiles and their kind eyes—make me feel a little better.
When I look out at the streets through the car window, all I see are men. All I can focus on are these strangers on the streets who survey passing women with keen eyes, and I feel my love of safety and vulnerability and tenderness shatter.
Jamisyn Gleeson holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing from the University of Melbourne. She has been published in Voiceworks, Room Magazine and , and tends to write about the non-nuclear home and mental health. When she isn’t writing, Jamisyn can be found binge-reading and drinking her body weight in oat milk lattes.