“Blackout” by Tara Isabella Burton

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Drunk Emily is the life of the party; she tells great stories, and has epic nights. But Sober Emily is the one who wakes up covered in vomit and blood, a man's heart in her mouth, and no explanation for what happened.

About the Author
Tara Isabella Burton's debut novel, Social Creature, is forthcoming from Doubleday in Summer 2018. She has written on religion, culture, and place for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and more.
Blackout

Let me tell you about Drunk Emily.

She wears black velvet capes. She sings in the streets. She roars.

She flirts with men more attractive than she is. She gets comped at bars.

Drunk Emily stretches out her arms to strangers in hotel-bar bathrooms and makes them tell her all their secrets.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever wished you could do and get away with, she asks. They always, always answer.

Get this: one time, Drunk Emily’s doing her lipstick in the bathroom at Le Bain when this woman comes in with mascara all over her face.

Other people might pretend not to see. Not Drunk Emily.

Drunk Emily takes her by the shoulders and kisses her straight on the cheek.

And Drunk Emily, she says I know you are suffering.

She says: come to me; I can change the world for you tonight.

So this woman, she sniffles out some saga about this ex-boyfriend of hers, who is still sitting in the booth, who never texts her back, and who always asks her for blowjob but hasn’t gone down on her once.

So Drunk Emily, she says: how dare you let him defile you. You are a maenad, and it would be a great and grievous crime to imperil your immaculacy by letting him ever touch you again.

So Drunk Emily and this girl take his coat and his wallet, and together they spend all his cash at this twenty-four hour diner over on 23rd Street, on this shitty Irish coffee and five-dollar champagne, on eggs.

That’s just what Drunk Emily does.

She does just what you wish you could do yourself.

Drunk Emily has a lot of credit card debt. Still, you want her to be your best friend.

For you can find Drunk Emily in the most riotous places, doing the most riotous things, with a glass of gin in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.

When you find her – if you’ll find her – she’ll probably be telling stories.

Drunk Emily tells such wonderful stories.

She’ll make you believe them.

But Drunk Emily, she does more than that. She makes you tell her things. She’ll make you tell her what you’ve always wanted, in the parts of yourself you’re too afraid to name, and then she’ll take your hand and squeeze it so tight you trust her with your soul and say do it and all you’ll be able to say is yes, when, and I promise you she’ll say now.

Not Sober Emily.

Me, I’m just the right hand, and I do not know all that the left hand does.

Get this:

One time, Drunk Emily had too much champagne at a fragrance launch party at The Pierre. She fell down the stairs and hit her head on the carpet, but in fur-trimmed ecstasy she sat right back up and cried I see the fairies; she cried I see Queen Mab has been with you and she slurred but she got every word right.

It was a great story, the way Drunk Emily tells it, the way she’ll tell it if you meet her. She’ll make you feel like Queen Mab came to you, too.

The way she tells it, it was a kind of sacrifice. Drunk Emily has suffered so that you don’t have to. Drunk Emily has suffered, so that you too can live in her.

This is how I tell it:

I woke up with vomit in my hair and my underwear tied around the back like a snood. I woke up next to a stranger whose dressing gown smelled like he’d peed in it, I spent the morning texting my friends, asking them what I’d done, searching Facebook every ten minutes to survey the photographs as they came in: detagging all the ones made me look fat. I didn’t go out for two weeks after that.

You can see why I don’t tell stories.

It’s not that I don’t want to. If I could tell stories, I would. But all the stories I know are hers.

If you ask me, I will tell you one of hers.

But have a drink, first. That way you won’t notice that my words are so much poorer, so much more ordinary, than hers.

I’ll have one too. We’ll toast to Drunk Emily, and all that she can do.

You want my story?

I told you, I don’t have one.

Insist, if you want to. But no promises. It won’t be like hers.

Get this: this one time, Emily wakes up on Coney Island at dawn, sticky with blood, with a heart in her mouth.

Drunk Emily probably has a great story about this.

But whatever story Drunk Emily would tell you, I don’t know it.

This is how I tell it:

It’s dawn. I’m sober. I don’t remember a thing.

The first thing I do is scrub myself clean.

That part’s easy. We’re on the water.

Then I look at the heart.

There’s a joke about this: what’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? You’ve heard it already. You know the answer.

In my mouth there’s half a heart.

Then I throw up.

I dig a hole in the ground and I bury it all.

I take the D-Train all the way back to West Fourth Street.

That story Drunk Emily tells people about Le Bain? It’s true.

Drunk Emily really did meet a woman in the bathroom, and console her, and put her right hand upon her hand. They really did steal the jacket, sneak out, dine til dawn.

In the story, the woman doesn’t get a name. Nobody but Drunk Emily gets names. In the story, she became a maenad, and she and Drunk Emily spend their midnights stealing the wallets of other, disreputable men, and spending it on champagne.

In real life, her name is Alice, and she and Pete got back together two weeks later.

Drunk Emily still takes Alice out drinking, every time she calls. She blows Alice’s nose for her. Together they set Pete’s business card on fire.

Ritual sacrifice, Drunk Emily says.

Drunk Alice admits Drunk Emily is right about Pete. Sober Alice forgets this.

Like this one time: Pete and Alice have this big blow-out fight and Alice and Drunk Emily go drinking to forget. They go to this shitty little speakeasy on Norfolk Street where there’s no place to sit and they serve cocktails out of such tiny little teacups you need three or four of them to cure the claustrophobia in your mind. They double-fist as many as they can before trying to swing dance in a space too small for elbows (Drunk Emily leads).

But Pete shows up, anyway.

Drunk Emily knows exactly what to do. She spits in his face

Drunk Emily always knows just what to do

“You’re the bravest woman I know,” says Alice. “I wish I had the courage you did.”

Of course, Alice has never met me.

I told you, I’m no good at telling stories.

I get mixed up. I forget things. I do not have the ability to hold a body fixed to the spot, the way she does, with all the possibilities of my mouth.

Have another drink.

This is what I was going to tell you:

When I get home, and brush my teeth until my gums bleed, and try to remember and try to forget all that I have done, Alice calls me.

I don’t answer, the first time.

Alice and I don’t talk sober.

But she leaves me five voicemails. I call her back, just to stop the ringing.

“Emily!”

This part’s not strange. Alice has never called me not crying.

“Christ – Emily. I need you. I need you so goddamn much.”

“What is it?”

“It’s Pete,” she says, like always.

She’s crying so hard at first I don’t hear her.

“He’s dead.”

Alice is curled up in a ball on her sofa.

She doesn’t get up when I come in. I sit down next to her and she buries her face in my stomach. Her keening makes my headache worse.

“They don’t know what happened.”

She’s covering her ears. She’s dripping on my sweater.

“God, you don’t know how awful it was,” she says. “There was blood everywhere. The police – they made me talk, I don’t even know how long. They wouldn’t let me leave. They kept asking me about his enemies, Christ, like Pete has enemies. Is there anyone who might want him dead? You know how many friends he has!”

She grabs my hand without looking at me.

“Do you think they’ll think I did it, Emily?”

“No,” I say. “Of course not. You’d never do something like that.”

“I shouldn’t have gone last night. You were so good, Emily. You told me not to. Don’t give the bastard one more chance, that’s what you said – you’re so smart.”

“I remember,” I say.

I don’t remember a thing.

Just one more drink, you said. Stay. Drink. Don’t let him win. Oh, God! And the whole time – I keep thinking, if I’d just gotten there sooner. I was stupid; I was so stupid. I took the L. And the L was late – you know how shitty the L is.”

“I know.”

“I should have taken a cab. If I’d taken a cab – I’d have been there sooner. I’d have been there…” Now she’s covering her ears. “God, Emily, do you think I’d have been there when it happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“It was a burglar,” she says. “God – it must have been. I don’t care what they say about Brooklyn, Emily; I don’t care. It’s not safe. South Williamsburg is not safe. I told him, I said Pete, you can afford Manhattan, you don’t have to live here, and he kept saying the bars in Brooklyn were better. People weren’t so uptight, he said.”

I’m doing such a good job, being the Emily she knows. I’m coming up with all the confident, comforting things Drunk Emily knows how to say.

I’m trying to remember where I was last night.

“That’s what I loved about him, Emily. He was an artist. I mean, deep down. The job was just a job – but he was passionate, when it counted. He valued freedom. I mean, that was why things were rocky, sometimes. It was so hard for him – being in a relationship. Men– they’re not like us. They don’t talk about their feelings. They don’t share.”

“You need a drink,” I say.

“Yeah,” Alice is back under the blanket. “You’re right, Emily – you’re so right. You’re always right.”

I pour us both whiskeys: neat.

“We were going to get it right this time,” Alice murmurs. “This time was different. I could tell.”

I take a sip.

“And then – God, seeing him. I wanted to throw up! It wasn’t just the blood, Emily. I’ve seen blood before. But his face, Emily. Blue – like that – and so swollen I didn’t even – I mean, I didn’t even recognize him, at first. And they – oh God! – they – ”

Another swallow.

Alice swallows, too.

“They…”

“It’s okay,” I say, the way Drunk Emily would: believing it. Everything will be reconciled. All shall be revealed.

“They…”

Alice can’t breathe.

You have nothing to be afraid of.

“They tore out his heart.”

You can’t think I did it.

You don’t believe me? Let me tell you:

Drunk Emily: she dances on bannisters. She delves into the secrets of strangers. She does parkour on subway cars. Men like Pete she’d spit on and forget.

Listen: Drunk Emily: she falls in love with strangers, goes to Chinatown, picks up raw meat with her hands. She takes her lovers to Coney Island; they make a barbeque; they eat some hot dogs; they cup the Coney Island foam in their hands.

Maybe she wakes up with a heart in her mouth, sometimes. But there’s always a story behind it. There’s always a reason.

Listen: Drunk Emily does nothing for no reason.

Listen to me. Listen to me. Have another drink.

Let me tell you: Alice, Sober Alice, loving and losing and loyal Sober Alice, she’s still curled up in a ball in my lap, blowing her nose in my shirt.

“I’m not like you, Emily,” she says. “I’m not strong, the way you are. I need somebody, you understand? I need not to be alone.”

I braid her hair. I don’t say anything.

“You can forgive a person so much,” Alice says, “if it means not losing them.”

“And of course,” Alice says, so softly. “I want kids.”

We drink another drink, Alice and I. She sucks it down like milk.

Me, I drink slow.

I drink and as I drink I think. I think the thing I always think, which is: come on, Emily, Drunk Emily, Better Emily, show me what to do.

And I think the other thing, too, which is: Emily, Drunk Emily, Better Emily, what the hell is it you’ve done?

But I don’t stop drinking.

“I wish I were like you,” says Alice. “I wish I didn’t need anything.”

Drunk Emily and Drunk Alice like to drink at the Bulgarian Bar.

If the place has a real name, I don’t know it. It’s a warehouse on the Lower East Side, and you run your hands down a viscous and poster-tacked corridor until you get to the stairs; down the stairs there’s a stripper pole, and tinsel bunting, and a climate-controlled telephone booth where for thirty dollars you can drink as much vodka as you can from a shot glass made of ice before it melts in your hands.

If you get naked at the Bulgarian Bar, you get a free shot. If you have sex, you get the whole bottle.

Maybe this degrades you. Maybe this invigorates you. Maybe this makes you think this body of mine has no limits. Take off every part of me that is not my soul.

Drunk Emily? There’s nothing she hasn’t done.

Of course: she doesn’t have to deal with the look.

I mean the morning-after look. You’ve been there, haven’t you? That look in the eyes of your friends, or a stranger, or the bartender you’re trying so hard to be polite to, asking I’m sorry but do you remember if I was here last night? It’s the Christ-you’re-a-mess look. It’s the get-help look. It’s the look I get, and Drunk Emily never does, and let me tell you fucking a stranger against a stripper pole has nothing on that look.

Anyway, the bartender tells me it wasn’t his shift last night.

He gives me that look, which means thank God, or I’d have had to deal with you.

Then someone slams a glass down next to me.

It’s made of ice, so it shatters.

“You were here last night,” says the man who has shattered it. “Or don’t you remember me?”

I don’t remember him.

He’s tall. He’s gaunt. He’s young, but he walks with a cane he limps. His mouth is so full of teeth, like it’s too wide for his face.

I tell him he looks familiar.

“It was a pretty crazy night” I say, like it’s fun. “I don’t remember so much.”

“But was it epic?”

His smile twists his face.

And me, I think: oh God, Drunk Emily could have fucked him.

She could have taken him as a lover, as one of her many lovers, one of her many bloody sandstrewn moonlight lovers, and I’d never even know.

“What are you talking about?”

“That’s what you said.” He doesn’t stop looking at me. “You told me you wanted an epic night. In the real way,” you said. “The literal way. People don’t say what they mean but I say what I mean. Not something dull. Storms and sacrifice. A world-destroying night.

Typical Drunk Emily.

“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I was pretty drunk. Sorry.”

“Where’s your friend? The pretty one?”

“Alice?”

He orders us two pale, clear shots of bisongrass vodka. The stuff it used to be illegal to import.

“She had a death in the family,” I say.

“But you’re here.”

When we clink glasses, it’s like church bells.

“Not me. I never stay in.”

“Good girl.”

We toast to epic nights. His cheeks are so hollow it looks like someone’s smeared ash under his bones.

Drunk Emily, she likes men like that. She likes men who look like she’s fed on them already.

Me, I don’t know what men I like. I don’t know anything about men. I don’t know what to say to them. Except not what did I do last night?

Especially not did I leave to maul a man in two?

“So, did we?”

I say it like it’s a joke.

He laughs. “Did we what?”

“Have an epic night?”

“You and me?”

“And Alice.”

“You don’t remember me at all, do you?” His voice is as hollow as his face.

“I’m sorry.”

“That’s a way to play it.” He’s still smiling. “You make men remember you – and you forget all about them?”

“I’m not that memorable.”

“You are. You know you are.”

He taps the bar. Another round comes.

“What did I do?”

“You quoted some poetry. You danced on the bar. You and your friend, both – you got her up here.”

“Did I take off my clothes?”

“Is that what you’re so worried about?” We raise, clink, down. “No. Your friend was too embarrassed. She kept trying to stop you. I think you wanted to get her up there. You wanted her to strip.”

“Did I?”

“You weren’t too happy with her. She had to go – you didn’t want her to. You had a nice little debate about it. You’d have had me eating out of the palm of her hand. But not her. She skulked off, clothes on and all. I didn’t mind. Meant we could talk.”

“We talked?”

“You had a lot of stories.”

“About epic nights.”

“It was invigorating.”

“Then I stayed?”

Get this: one time, Drunk Emily took this man as a lover. She danced with him to 90’s Russian pop and they licked vodka shots off one another’s bodies in the ice cave. She hung from the stripper pole with her ankles. Her vision kept her aloft. They went to Coney Island together and bought some raw meat and set it on fire on a grill and watched the sun rise and made love with the blood of the meat running down them.

His hand’s against my hand. It’s so cold. We’re both as cold as the ice.

“You should have stayed, Emily,” he says. “We were having so much fun.”

“Then why did I leave?”

“You didn’t say. You caught an Uber.”

“Where did I go?”

He gives me the look. He gives the look that means he knows just how desperate I am.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know.”

“Drunk Emily,” I say, like it’s hilarious. “She does things, sometimes. I’m just – you know. Cleaning up the mess.”

“Well, if you see her,” he says, “say hello.”

He puts his number into my phone.

“If she wants a drink later,” he says. “Tell her it’s on me.”

The Uber route is still on the app.

I took it from Rivington and Essex to Berry and North 9th. I paid $35.34 (surge pricing).

I took it to an oyster bar across the street from Pete’s apartment.

We’ve drunk so many times there, Alice and I. Alice, Drunk Emily, and I.

I take the same ride, this time. I pay $18.30.

I sit on the bar stool and I order a cocktail made with rosemary liqeuer.

“For remembrance,” I say to the bartender, like it’s funny.

It isn’t funny.

I order a second drink.

One for me, one for her.

I sit alone with them. I sit alone and I drink so slowly and I ask her Emily by God Emily what the hell was going through your head?

I ask her why Pete Emily why oh God why?

You are so brilliant, Emily. You get away with so much. I let you get away with so much. Why must you always ask for more?

I drink another drink and I sit alone in the corner watching couples who are in love kiss each other and I drink another drink and I think and thinking I drink and ask her:

What good is the heart of a man, anyway? What possible use could you have for it? Why oh God why Emily you who are so beautiful and so free and whose stories make grown men fall to their knees and tell you the worst things they have ever wished they could do, what more do you need from the world?

What did you do, Emily, in your perfect freedom?

Why do you do what you do?

I drink another drink and then she answers me.

Alice calls me the next morning.

She’s still crying.

“Where were you? I tried to get through all last night – I must have texted you a million times.”

I am in my own bed. There’s vomit in my hair. My hands are covered in blood.

I’ve had sex.

“They arrested Pete’s dealer,” she says. “He owed them a bunch of money. They think it was about money. Just – coke and money. That’s all. They think the heart – it was just some kind of message. Like, don’t fuck with us. Those people, you know – men like that; they rule by fear. Or maybe it was some Santeria bullshit; I don’t know. I don’t know.”

My underwear is strewn from my desk to my door.

“I don’t know.”

There is hair under my fingernails.

There is a sent text message to a number I don’t even recognize.

Meet me at Hotel Delmano.

No answer.

“Tell me what to do, Emily. Please, please, just tell me what to do.”

I throw up in my sink.

A week goes by. Two.

Nobody I know turns up dead.

I stop drinking.

Turns out Sober Emily doesn’t do much worth talking about.

She takes the subway home. She’s embarrassed to wear anything interesting. When men catcall her, she keeps her head down and pretends not to hear.

She says sorry a lot, Sober Emily.

Like: sorry I bumped into you.

Like: sorry, I don’t know why the subway turnstile keeps saying “Swipe Again.”

Like: sorry, this story isn’t really going anywhere, is it? I know you wanted to hear about Drunk Emily, and all the great and glorious maenad things she does. But have another drink, and maybe I’ll have one too, and maybe it’ll sound better then.

So anyway:

I watch the news, every night, looking for signs of the death. I look for a man too many teeth in his mouth. I look for him in missing persons, police sketches, Facebook calls-to-arms, someone’s brother or cousin or son that went to the Bulgarian Bar to pick up women and never came back. I even go, once, to the morgue.

But we never see him.

We watch the news, every night, my other hand and I. We stay in. We are afraid of what will happen if we go out.

Alice misses me.

“I know you must be so busy,” she says, over the phone. “You’re always – I get how much you do. I get how busy we are. I don’t want to ask too much of you, Emily. But I can’t handle this alone.”

I tell her I’ve been sick.

“I just want everything to go back to the way it used to be.”

“Take me somewhere,” says Alice. “Somewhere that only you know about. Let’s go out and let’s get drunk and let’s have some beautiful, epic, girls’ night out, and let’s forget about all this bullshit, you know?”

I tell her I can’t.

“What do you mean, you can’t?”

“I have bronchitis.”

“You’ve never had bronchitis in your life.”

“Well, I have it now.”

“You’re right. Of course. I’m sorry. I just – no, I’m sorry.”

She sounds so hurt.

Drunk Emily, she does this to people.

She makes you forget. She takes your fears, your rabbit mediocrities, onto herself. She asks you what is the worst thing you have ever wished you could do and once you tell her you have taken off every part of yourself that is not your soul. She makes you need her.

Because without her, this is what you do. This is all you do:

Curl up like prey in your angora sweater, tuck your head between your knees, watch the world open up, splinter by splinter, between the cracks in your floorboards. Watch it swallow itself up, spit up sulfur. Come to know that this, this is the end. The end of everything I am or have been or will be is coming for me on four white horses.

Nobody should have to live without her.

“If we go out,” I say. “I can’t drink. Antibiotics.”

“I don’t care,” Alice says, like she knows if she cares or not. “As long as I’m with you.”

She says it like you means me.

Picture this: Sober Emily, impersonating Drunk Emily.

I know what you’re thinking. How hard can it be, right?

I mean really.

Really:

I mean – we know her so well by now. We know what she’d wear, right? She’d just pair some Nepalese pashmina with fetish boots, six months frayed and stuck together with duct tape but intentional-looking, because everything Drunk Emily does is laden with intention. She’d keep her hair frizzy and she wouldn’t even apologize for it.

I mean – when you think about it – all a girl has to do to be Drunk Emily is not apologize.

All you have to do is go up to a bathroom mirror and repeat after Drunk Emily:

We don’t have problems. We have stories.

So this one time (picture it): Sober Emily puts on Drunk Emily’s clothes. She puts on Drunk Emily’s makeup. She practices laughing, in that capacious, un-self-conscious way, like how Drunk Emily does it when she’s just convinced a stranger to break into the High Line at three in the morning.

And get this: Alice buys it.

We meet on the Upper West Side. It’s a place I used to go before I started drinking: a little café with exposed brick walls and cat posters and soft jazz. They serve a lot of little cakes, and give you Italian foil-wrapped chocolate with your coffee, and also have steamed eggs. It’s the kind of place you can not drink in and not feel awkward about it.

It’s the kind of place high school English teachers who go to book clubs go to. It’s the kind of place high school English teachers who knit and go to book clubs go to.

Alice is so happy to see me she doesn’t notice this. At least not at first.

“Thank God,” says Alice. “You don’t know what a wreck I’ve been.”

She pops a Xanax from an Altoid tin.

“I still miss him so much,” says Alice. “Every day – you don’t even know. I’m no good at being alone. You probably think I’m so stupid.”

Let’s play a game.

Let’s play: What would Drunk Emily say?

We know Drunk Emily doesn’t accept excuses. She doesn’t do weakness. She mourns no mediocrities.

So I say: “You should stop being so stupid.”

Alice doesn’t take too kindly to this.

Drunk Emily, she says it better, I guess.

So I be Sober Emily, for a while. I ask her if she’s tried therapy.

“I don’t like therapists,” says Alice. A therapist once diagnosed her with existential despair, even though it isn’t even in the DSM anymore. Since then she hasn’t trusted them. “I have friends,” she says. “What do I need to pay someone for?”

We sip our lattes, so quietly, so together.

“I don’t sleep anymore,” says Alice. “I just stare at the wall. All night, every night. I had a one night stand, once. I thought it would help. It didn’t.”

“I forgot how alone you can feel in a bed,” she says.

“Fuck men,” I say, but Alice shakes her head.

“You don’t get it – you don’t want kids – you don’t know what it’s like.”

She raises her chin a little. Like she’s waiting for me to say something. Like I have all the words she needs to hear, folded like cherry stems underneath my tongue.

“Of course I do,” I say.

But it’s not enough.

What Alice needs, only Drunk Emily can give her.

“Remember what you said?” Alice’s fingers tap the cup so hard I think it will break. “The night we met?”

I don’t.

“Well, I can’t do it.”

“Why not?”

“I need other people, Emily. I need other people to love me.”

She’s started to cry again. But this time she won’t look at me.

“But you’d never understand that, would you?”

I say all the wrong things.

Alice and I walk together down Amsterdam Avenue. She’s huddled in her scarf and I know without having to look her in the face that I’ve disappointed her. I haven’t been the Emily she needs. I have not been that salvific, that holy Emily, with my teeth and my claws buried in the thighs of life. I have not been the devouring Emily, who lives. I am as mediocre as she is.

Alice calls an Uber.

“I don’t want to go to bed early tonight,” says Alice. “I don’t want to be alone.”

I mean: is it really so wrong to give people what they want?

Is it really such a bad thing, such a bloody thing, such a brutal thing, to take a person who is only really half a person and make her whole again?

You wouldn’t want to be alone, either.

So I say: “One drink.”

I say: “Let’s go to the Bulgarian Bar.”

Come on. Stop looking at me like that. Have another drink.

One drink, I say.

Maybe she can peep out in moderation, Drunk Emily. Maybe we can conspire to give Alice just a flash of her, Drunk Emily and I, through a tumbler darkly, just the feeling of her mouth inside my mouth and her tongue flicking out benedictions from inside my tongue.

“To tonight,” says Alice. “To another epic night.”

And I say nazdrevya, because that’s what they say in Bulgaria.

And Alice says “cheers.”

I can stop after just one.

And another. And another. And one. And another hundred. Then another thousand. And one.

I told you already about how it feels when Drunk Emily looks at you.

Let me tell you this: it is like nothing.

It is like nothing compared to how you feel when Drunk Emily stretches out her hand underneath your hand. It is like nothing compared to how you feel with her mouth inside yours.

With Drunk Emily’s strength in your limbs, you can walk for miles, barefoot, and not even feel it. I bet you could even walk on water, if you tried.

Emily’s words, whispering through your lips? Let me tell you:

They’re like the breath of God.

So finish your drink. Let me tell you. I will tell you how it was.

Tonight, we toast to another epic night.

To a world where nothing can touch us. To a world where the only blood flowing flows through our veins. To a savage, fecund existence, where there is no loneliness, because all blood is really one. To running amok, to racing wild, to tearing the meat out of life with our teeth. To tearing apart the beds we are afraid of being alone in, and letting the feathers pour down from the heavens like so many auguring birds.

And Alice says: yes, this is how it is, yes exactly, this is how it must always be.

Drunk Alice is doing shots. We’re both doing shots. We’re swinging from the stripper pole. We’re slamming our fists on the bar. We’re shattering glasses. We’re catcalling men.

Then Alice says: you know, Emily?

I wanted him dead.

Get this: Drunk Alice, she says: you know what? Sometimes, I think it’s me that killed him.

And me, I say what the hell are you talking about.

And she says: You have no idea how much I hated him. You have no idea how much I hated how easy it was for him. Because he could have anyone. Because I was all used up. That whole subway ride to his place, I remembering thinking that. I remember thinking how much power he had, and how he didn’t deserve a thimbleful of it.

And I dreamed of eating his heart, Emily. Can you believe that?

All along the L-train, I dreamed of eating his heart.

But I’m not strong enough, I thought. I’m not like Emily.

This is the part where Alice gets sloppy. She slurs her words. She rolls her elbows on the bar.

Emily is strong, I thought. Emily is strong enough to eat his heart.

Me, I’m not even strong enough to ignore his texts.

Then I came up to his apartment, Emily. Then I found him – then I saw him, just like I’d wished.

And I do not know if such things exist, Emily, but I know what I saw. I know what I did. I made it happen, Emily.

And I was so goddamned happy.

Drunk Emily anoints Alice’s forehead with sweat.

And Alice’s tears, they’re tears of joy.

I’ve missed you so much, Emily, she says.

And I reply:

We are as gods, you and I, Alice, Alice who weeps, Alice who weeps for the man though all mortal men are as dust. Heaven is full of tears and lamentation, for a mother weeps for her children, but we are not in Heaven now, nor will ever be.

When Drunk Emily comes, she comes in glory.

Don’t you see?

Let me tell you:

Drunk Alice is dancing on the stripper pole. Drunk Alice gets a free shot. Drunk Alice is dancing through the hands of men so unworthy of her. There is sweat on her face that is like diamonds. There is glitter on her palms and it shines like sweat.

All she does she does for me.

The men around us cry: dance, dance, dance.

And so Alice, Drunk Alice, loyal vestal fragile Alice, takes off her necklace, first, and this she fastens around the stripper pole, and it is the necklace Pete gave her once in apology and she laughs and she coos as she lets it slide, slide, slide down.

Alice takes off her shirt, next, button by button, and the men they do not stop calling their call: dance, they say, and I watch her, so resplendent and so still, and I watch her cry out yes I will yes I shall yes I am.

She showers them all with images of herself.

She is naked, but not for them. She does not exist for them.

Naked she awaits me. Naked I go to her. Naked she embraces me and then with wine dark lips kisses my cheek. I leave a mark on her.

Then we stretch out our hands.

These men, they think we’re giving them something. But what they do not know is that we are as gods; what they do not know is that they are worshipping us. They are worshipping what travels in us.

They ply us with drinks. They shower us with sacrifice. They pour out vodka like offerings on the sweat-stuck floor. They pour out vodka over Alice and the man she takes into her arms, and over me, and over the man I take into mine.

We pour vodka out on the ground and the men, they all lick it up, off the floor, off the sweat, off their own sweat.

Alice has her head thrown back. Alice is crying out. Alice has never felt like this before, and she will never feel like this again and I tell her:

Let me show you what I can do.

She says: I want to do what you do, Emily.

And I tell her: what an epic night we will have.

This is what an epic night looks like.

And I say: let us do what everyone else is afraid of.

I say: let us be like gods.

We are like gods when we lock the doors.

Get this: this one time:

Sober Emily and Sober Alice wake up on Sober Emily’s floor, covered in blood.

Sober Alice wakes up first. She is in Emily’s apartment, which she has never seen, and which is a mess and not nearly as well-decorated as you’d expect, not if you knew me, not if you thought you knew me.

And Sober Alice, she’s crying out: oh God oh God what have I done?

And Sober Emily, all she can say is: oh, shit.

Alice rushes to the bathroom sink. Alice ravages her face and her hands. Like she doesn’t even know you can’t get out blood, not deep, not where it counts. She’s trying to scratch the blood off with her nails, like she’s trying to take her skin clean off.

And she keeps saying: “what happened, what happened, what did we do?”

And Sober Emily keeps saying: “Nothing, nothing,” like it’ll make it true.

But Alice, she keeps on shaking; she keeps covering her ears with her hands crying: “don’t you remember”

“You know everything,” Alice says, and this is true.

Of me, this is true. I am the first and the last.

But Sober Emily? She doesn’t know a thing.

“Where were we last night?” Alice’s knees knock together and the sound deafens Sober Emily; everything is so loud now. “Emily – tell me. Tell me. Please.”

Sober Emily is so afraid.

All her life, Sober Emily has been afraid. But this she knows at last: this is what I have been afraid of.

Alice is looking at Emily and Emily is looking at Alice, and what Alice sees when she looks at Emily is a girl with stringy hair with vomit in it, a girl who is covered in blood, a girl who is yellow in her cheeks and who cannot remember a thing.

And that look Emily is so afraid of getting?

Alice has it.

“I don’t understand, Emily.”

Alice’s voice is so small..

“Listen, Alice, listen…”

But Sober Emily is so bad at telling stories. You know this. I know you know this. She cannot do what I can do. She cannot find the words that make the blood make sense.

All she says, our fool and sober Emily, is “sorry.”

Alice is still naked. Alice is on her knees, keening.

“We’re so bad,” she keeps saying. “We’re so bad, we’re so bad, we’re so bad.”

And Sober Emily keeps saying “sorry.”

She keeps saying: “don’t look at me at me like that.”

She keeps saying: “Alice, please, stop looking at me like that.”

Alice doesn’t stop looking. Alice doesn’t stop crying.

So Sober Emily, she does the worst thing she has ever done.

She keeps saying “please don’t look at me.”

She keeps saying “please.”

Emily keeps saying it until she puts a pillow over Alice’s face, just to stop her looking.

It works.

Get this:

Sober Emily walks alone, again, through oil-skimmed slicks of rain, through rainbow filth, neon lights.

She walks until her feet bleed. Four miles she walks: down to the wreckage of the Bulgarian Bar, which is only ruins, now, which has been ruins ever since the fire.

Maybe she thinks there is penance in this walking. She thinks the blood in her feet will cancel out the blood in her mouth. But that’s not the way it works, and Emily knows it. One drop is an ocean. One drink is everything.

She stands by the police lines.

Then she hears his voice.

“Did you have an epic night?” he asks her.

Sober Emily’s mind works so slowly now. It takes her a while to recognize him.

It is the man she thinks she has killed.

“You’re alive,” Emily says.

And he says: “of course I am.”

“We both are,” he says.

Sober Emily gets blackouts. Sober Emily does not have to remember what she might have to apologize for. So many great, so many glorious, so many grandiose things happen that Sober Emily does not remember.

Like this one time.

Get this: this one time, Emily sells her soul.

Typical Emily, right?

It’s a typical Emily night, that night. They are at the Back Room, with their teacup cocktails, and Emily is wearing her black velvet cape. Alice is texting Pete under the table and pretending not to. Emily is drinking, but the drink doesn’t work. It doesn’t give her the strength she thinks she needs. It doesn’t make her interesting. Even Alice isn’t interested, and Alice, is always, always interested.

Pete texts Alice to come over.

And Emily says: How can you? Emily says: one more drink. Emily says: but we’re having so much fun! She even does a shot, just to show Alice how much fun they’re having.

Emily says: we are above such mediocrities as men. We are above such mediocrities as marriage, as children, such drudgeries as this. We are above compromise. We are maenads.

And poor Emily, poor drunk-but-not-drunk-Emily, poor drunk-but-the-drink-doesn’t-work Emily, all she wants is Alice to say “yes, we are.”

“You don’t understand,” says Alice when she leaves. “I’m getting too old for this.”

That’s when the stranger comes. With his limp. With his cane. With his smile full of teeth. That’s when he comes and sits on the velvet chaise alongside her, while so many people are swing dancing though there is no room for elbows there, and there he asks her: “what is that you want?”

He doesn’t give her his name.

That’s when she tells him about the greatness of the nights she wants.

“I want to be great,” she says. “I want to do what other people only wish they could do. I want the world to know me. I want the world to want to be me. I want them to wish they could be me.”

And the stranger, he smiles with all the teeth in his mouth.

“But how much do you want it?” he says.

More than anything.

“You have no idea,” she says and he says:

“Yes. Yes. I do.”

He pours half his cup into hers.

They drink.

“But you have to understand,” the stranger tells Sober Emily. “You are like a saint.”

She takes all the world onto herself, he says. She does the things other people fear to do.

And she says: “no, no, that is not me. I am not me.”

And he asks her where Alice is.

And she says: “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” She is not Alice’s keeper, after all.

And he says: “there you are.”

All he says is: “there you are.”

I am a saint.

I come in glory. I go up in flames.

I go drinking, with the stranger who has no name, and I find strangers, in hotel bathrooms, in barroom bathrooms, in gilded Carlyle Hotel ladies’-rooms with powder antechambers with chaises in them, and I make them tell me their secrets. I make them tell me all they wish they could do, if they were only like me, if they were only a little more like me. What they wish they could get away with. Whom they wish they could kill.

Let me tell you about Drunk Emily.

I never apologize.

And my nights? They are epic.

So when you wake up in the mornings, when you check your phone, when you look at the news and you see the hearts of men devoured, when you see rage visited upon the brothers and fathers and sons, know I have come like a thief in the night. Know I have come like a god.

Maybe this is a horror story.

Maybe you are afraid, now. Maybe you’re looking at me like I’m a monster.

I don’t care.

Or maybe you are drunk enough to admit you wish you could be like me, too.

I don’t know. I don’t know you.

Tell me about yourself.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever wished you could do?


More stories from Tara Isabella Burton