Here it is, your father says as he pulls up to the club, the car headlights making bright meat of the young people queuing outside. The eater of my youth, he says, so many good nights here, proper good, lad, you have no idea. He licks his lips and says a name that could be ‘Elysian’ or ‘Elysium’ but you’re hustling out that car so fast you don’t quite catch it.
He calls your name. You turn, smoothing your hair, hoping no-one pays too much attention. But they are looking, oh yes they are. Just remember son, your father says. Beckoning you to come closer. You duck your head back in the car, smelling the beer on his breath and his Brut deodorant. He tells you that if you see a girl you like and want to go for a kiss, just try and think about how you’re showing her how much you like her through your lips and you move them like this . . .
You turn away in horror and all but run to the bouncer-guarded gold gates of the club, cringing at the image of your father with his eyes closed, moving his lips horribly independently of each other, like small fish, in the car interior.
You are eighteen years old.
The club is everything you thought it would be, and more: all of life between its vaulted walls. The stonework—you can’t tell if its real masonry or just effect—is audacious, grandiose, demanding respect as loudly as the music that seems to come from everywhere, nowhere. The sound is the greatest you’ve ever heard. Inchoate vocals, bass like a God’s heartbeat. It brings you in, somehow; it doesn’t hammer you down. Though you’re embarrassed of your lanky frame and pimples and a thousand other weaknesses you immediately feel alright, here. And that’s before a drink.
And you go to the bar and you get a drink, nestling in between the warm bodies of girls, their tan shoulders perforated by the straps of their tops. The loose striped shirts of men nuzzle your flesh; you feel the breath of someone taller, pressed behind you, exhaling on your scalp. The small hairs on your neck tingle.
This is life!
You order a blue drink, because a girl next to you is drinking it. And because it looks fun. Sugar fizzes against your lips and you throw your head back and chug. Drunk-fast, let’s go! Drink up! Chin chin!
You’re buzzing by the time you reach your friends on the far table of the dance floor: Jeff and Natalia and Samira. A quadruple, perhaps, except Jeff goes red at the mention of making a move on Natalia, and you don’t find Samira attractive. You’re not sure if you find any girl attractive but you will, your mother tells you, you will, and then the image of your dad’s lips moving in the dark car comes back and you chug more of the blue fizz.
I love this song! Samira shouts.
What? You shout back.
I love this song!
Hand-grabbed, you are dragged onto the dance floor. The four of you dump your coats and bags on the booze-gummed floor and begin to dance.
Elysian, or Elysium, soars around you; a building weirdly bigger on the inside, gaudy in its columned facade but expansive here. Cathedrals aren’t this holy, surely. The ceiling seems miles above you. No reaching that airy expanse up there, above the punching hands and whirling arms; that is the lights’ domain.
And oh, there are lights.
Projectors like turning sentries swing beams of blue and neon green overhead. The colors glow and you drink more, bumping into someone behind you (sorry, sorry! It’s all good, you both laugh, keep dancing).
Happy birthday! Your friends scream.
Happy birthday! Screams the blue booze in your blood.
Louder; euphoria makes your limbs light and someone behind (the bumped-into) screams Happy birthday! And the cry is taken up by his group and they scream it too, alcohol splashes on your feet and the music slams and it’s alright, but what’s not alright is, horribly, as your eyes whirl up above the clubbers the ceiling of the club moves, membrane sliding over membrane like a lung after a breath is drawn. Just once.
What’s the matter? Your mate asks. You’re too disoriented to see which one.
I’ll be right back, you say, trying not to vomit.
You. The bathroom. Muted-but-still-mighty club music finds you here, vibrating the walls. Your feet stick to the floor.
An animated toilet attendant yells in a thick Jamaican accent: No splash, no gash! Cologne bottles revel in myriad colors behind him on the countertop, making you ill to look at them. You mutter something you hope is funny as you fumble at your fly and pop out your dick to piss. The word ‘gash’ makes you uneasy. It brings to mind long clean red wounds rather than anything you’d want to be inside.
You finish. Stumble over to the sink and slap water around your hands from a tap that rocks in its installation. You look into the mirror. A crimson-faced horror looks back. Rabid-eyed, cheeks bright with rosacea. You have aged a decade, you’re sure of it. You look at your watch to break the fright. It’s only 12.24am. No longer your birthday—but palpitating hours to go before you sleep.
You drink too much. Predictably. It’s the club, it’s the people. The fucking music. That’s the lifeblood, you realize; THAT is life, strong and pulsing and unceasing even as the clubbers are, as the night unfolds, brought low. The DJ is a marionette twitching with unnatural energy.
You stop having fun.
We won’t talk about what you did in the line for the taxi rank in the dead hours of the morning. The way you fell into the man with the beautiful facial hair and thick body, remembering, only after everything else in your mind had been blitzed, your dad’s advice on how to kiss. A resilient thing, that repulsion. You are etched with it. How your lips protruded and moved, like little fish themselves, against the fragrant bristle of the man’s neck. The laughing it off. The embarrassed rejoining with your friends.
But that’s not what keeps you up at night. It is the taxi driver’s words when your friends scream out that yes, it was your birthday and yes, it was your first time at this club.
Welcome to ‘El! The driver guffaws.
Elysian. Elysium. ‘El. So witty!
You rock, drunk out of your skull in bed. You shake with mirth. Ha! It’s hilarious, the funniest thing.
And then it isn’t.
You go to university. Samira and Natalia and Jeff do, too. You all promise to stay in touch but after a few months, you don’t.
Studying doesn’t interest you. So you don’t do that either.
Your nights are spent in sweaty rooms, pumping your fists to music, arms raised for a ceiling that is not El, with its vault high as heaven and stonework that moves like a membrane. There are no visions in the mirrors of these clubs. Student dives, more like. Impoverished things. The three years pass like scenery beyond a car window.
You speak to your dad often.
Kissed any pretty girls? He asks at the end of every call.
I have kissed some pretty things, yes, you reply.
You got the degree in the end: booze-soaked though it turned out to be, a sodden thing, figuratively speaking, interesting but not interesting enough to make a career of.
So you take a job in your home town.
You go back home.
To the Elysian.
You finally learn its name and, as you step through its arched doors that first night back you feel breathed in by it, and exhale yourself, offering your respect.
I didn’t know you back then, you said. I was a youth.
A rumble shifts the dimensions, minutely, just for you. The club has heard. The club appreciates.
Music riots. Lights glaze the air; the music lifts.
You wake up on the morning of your thirtieth year and, vivid as lust, you see the years of your life standing in a row like bottles, but the bottles are opaque, and you can’t see inside. How was that time spent?
Who can answer that?
The job is dull. Eight-nine-ten daily segments of time sat with a headset helping ungrateful callers manipulate the tiny machinery of the devices that structure their lives. A highlight is when someone in your team (battery hens sat upright in black backed chairs that fuck your lower spine after ten minutes) says the infamous words: Have you tried turning it on and off again?
A snatch of song from a passing car radio on your fag break: ‘I can’t wait/for the weekend to begin!’ And it’s true, you can’t! The cigarette suddenly tastes like nectar. Honeyed smoke pours down your throat.
It is Thursday. Only a day to slaughter and then the lights, the vaulted ceiling, the music.
The belonging feeling that comes from becoming a breath drawn deep.
No boyfriend for you yet (let’s not even say that word) but you do like to invite men, boys really, to your apartment and piss on them, among other things. Sometimes unexpectedly.
Sometimes it gets ugly.
(You have bad days, who doesn’t?)
One encounter struck you in the mouth, called you a monster, left.
That was fun to explain to the guys in the office.
Trouble with the missus, one laughs. Not quite amused.
Yes, you say.
The few women of the office avoid your gaze.
You go to the Elysian.
Dance, rise, slam. Fucking perfect as it always is. Deep air, is what you are. Deep air inside of a living thing so much bigger than you.
Gasping breaths and gasped-in drinks later you go to the bathroom to piss (you naughty boy, that’s what got you into trouble in the first place) and a reflection greets you in the mirrors: your own, yes, and a slender youth standing behind you whose skin shines like polished bronze.
Shh, he mouths, undulating. Don’t turn around.
You don’t. But your erection pushes painfully against the sink’s porcelain edge.
You are so beautiful, he says. The purple bruise on your chin fades before your eyes. You are made pristine. Tears overwhelm you (ignore the boisterous laughs of fellow pissers, the way the attendant tugs at your arm to go get some water, go get hydrated).
How can I thank you? You ask the bronze boy.
You know how. He says. Promise you’ll always come here. For your whole life. Promise you’ll always come back.
I will, you sob. I promise. God damn! I promise.
One more thing, he says. His skin shifts over his bones; the mirage melts into one word, one feeling, one impulse:
You are forty-five years old.
Went quick, didn’t it?
Everyone else in the office left and you are the survivor of Information Technology services: the bitumen that rises to the top. You are a manager now! Congratulations.
Buildings were built and felled around the drab tower in which your office, one of many, hides quietly, tumorlike inside something vast. It’s a comforting thing. It is a tomb of days.
And Friday night at five pm . . . oh boy. Talk about the Resurrection of Christ.
You calm down, sexually, try to get a partner. Younger than you, sure, much younger, but still respectable to society. Not embarrassing enough to take to a work function.
Or the Elysian.
That was the one time you disappointed it.
Way after midnight, in the hours when the music hit wyrdest, you see the bronze-skinned youth in the bathroom mirror again, and he hooks fingers at the edges of your mouth, forcing a grin out of you, showing your teeth.
Don’t turn around, he says. Don’t turn around.
Your cock flaps half-in your jeans, sprinkling piss on the urinal. You’re a good-time gal, the youth says, you’re a party-lad, a free spirit, you don’t wanna be tied down, hmm?
You try to answer but can only gurn, spitting, against his manicured nails.
Because you’ll get tired one day, he raves, tired in your happiness, distracted by cooking or monthly budgets or joint bank accounts or a fucking wedding and what kind of biscuits to get with your morning tea and you’ll get soft, did I mention tired, complacent in what you think is happiness and one day you won’t come back to me.
I will, you bray. As best you can.
Prove it! The youth shouts, throwing you forward, unhooking his fingers. Your face hits the mirror and the red-faced freak is back again: your reflection, flashing old, flashing young the next moment.
The club’s promise.
You end it with your fella the next day, hungover and looking resolutely down at eggs-growing-cold that he made you for breakfast. It is harder outside of the Elysian: where there is no music, and where daylight is unkinder than any strobe.
I hope you find what you’re looking for, he says, sobbing, leaving your place.
Joke’s on him: you’ve already found it.
Depression congeals in you at the thought that it is Sunday, and work tomorrow—but the world of your mind turns to focus on a brighter hemisphere, in that it will be Friday again in five days—and then you’ll know where to go. You’ll know what to do.
Slaughter the days, lad. Slaughter the days.
Ten years later.
Your father passed away in the night.
When I die, put me ashes in the El’ and have a fucking party around them, he said, the last time you saw him. You say you’re not sure if they’ll agree to that, panicking that you’ll disappoint your father on his deathbed, but also panicked by the thought you’ll make him a promise you can’t keep. I’ll call, you say.
And you do.
Do you think the management of the Elysian agreed to host a party around a dead man’s ashes?
You should know by now.
Anything for you.
It’s getting painful to walk these days but you still make it to the club. You still keep your promise.
The Elysian has inhaled you and when you are outside its walls you don’t know how old you are anymore; in the mirrors that are not *its* mirrors you have lost your hair and your skin is marked with unyoung pigments, strange shapes, folds.
But inside . . . you stand and sway under the lights, gulped up to the ceiling. Slammed by beating music on all sides you stand upright. You do not hear the C’MON, GRANDPA! yelled, not horridly, at you by younger revelers.
In the bathroom the gold youth gyrates between the walls of an empty cubicle, putting on a show for you. You have been so good.
When you stagger out in the daylight hours you see the battlefield of the city: lost shoes, lost clothes, broken glass making nebulae across the cobblestones. It’s the crepuscular world that has to be made right before the city wakes. To see it clean, healed, is a wonderful thing.
A drunk woman slumps on the ground, clutching a fire hydrant like a life buoy. Her heels and party dress are miraculously intact, like it is the night’s beginning.
Wanna go t’viscerum, she mumbles as you pass.
Alissa . . . Lissen . . .
Elysian, you smile. It’s mine.
Saliva laddering her neck, the woman bleats happiness.
Your childhood friend Jeff died. There is a lovely obituary to him on the news site. He leaves behind a wife, no kids.
His portrait looks perfectly pleasant. You are sure he led a perfectly pleasant life.
Unfortunately you haven’t been feeling great, recently. Well, it’s a bit worse than that actually. You fill the bowl with blood when you go to the toilet, and shitting is agony.
The colonoscopy appointment is inevitable. As is the outcome, really. The doctor’s face says it all.
There is not long left, she says, mournful.
So it is.
You know you should feel devastated, broken, a living tragedy. And you do, for a moment—but you can’t help but hear a snatch of song from the reception area outside, and your mind smiles at the thought of the lights, the music, the ceiling like a lung.
I can’t wait! For the weekend! To! Begin!
You bump into Samira, quite by accident, in the supermarket. Two young women flank her, their features sullen but hers, undoubtedly, shifted a few degrees. Her children.
Oh it’s YOU! She smiles, lunging forward into an embrace. Gosh, you’re a bag of bones! How have you been?
You tell her.
Shit. She turns to the girls. Take the groceries home, she tells them. This is an old friend. They agree, leaving. I look at the strength of their limbs: the muscles taught as they bear the shopping bags.
Coffee? Samira says, taking your arm.
A pint, you counter.
Her eyes flicker downward.
You drink too much and tell her everything, everything. You watch her go from hand-clutching warmth, leaning in to you, to a coiling inward, a physical change in her body. By the end of your monologue you have disgusted her.
I can’t believe that place is still open, she says finally. Meaning the Elysian.
We had some good nights there, remember? You say. The booze’s glint in your eyes, in your voice. You can hear it.
We had some nights, she replies.
She tells you about her life. About Natalia’s; how she’s a successful poet, and taught creative writing at college her whole life. About her own career as a social worker.
There is judgement in the recounting of these lives, clear as spirit. You zone out after a while. You get the message. Your mind goes there—where you will be in just as soon as you’re done with her. There are no days to kill anymore. Work is finished; there is nothing left between you and the Elysian.
Jeff, Samira, Natalia . . . Your own father, who got out, never returning to the club again after raising his family . . . Who’s to say they lived better? Who can measure that? It is a rare thing to belong to someone completely in this life, you think.
You were good. You were rewarded. And you were so grateful.
The Elysian raises its walls, right then and there, around you.
You died, Samira tells you. Perhaps she has been saying something important but you didn’t hear it. She is crying. You died in life! Leaning forward again, seizing your hands. The funniest thing.
Oh no, you correct, tapping your feet on the gummy floor as a fan made of neon green bars of light radiates across the entire, glorious, fucking place, and the bass hits, and the drop comes, as it always does, forever more, Amen.