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Mila Jaroniec’s Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover: A Survival Guide for the Queer and Not Quite Suicidal

By Evan Allgood.

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Mila Jaroniec, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover (Split Lip Press, 2016)

 

“Here is the world unfurling, indifferent to your input but carrying you along nonetheless.”

                                                         —Mila Jaroniec, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover

 

Trzeba sobie jakos radzic, powiedziat baca, zawiazujac buta dzdzownica.

[You have to make it work somehow, said the mountain man, lacing up his boot with an earthworm.]

—Old Polish Proverb

1. Sleep With Everyone You Meet (Until It’s Not Fun Anymore).

Mila Jaroniec’s debut, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover (Split Lip Press), is less a novel than a survival guide for the queer and not quite suicidal; a not-especially-prideful parade of one-night-stands; a 127-page, 80-proof poem about a young woman stumbling and groping her way through the smoky dark, resisting the alluring red buzz of the EXITs.

It opens with our sad nameless narrator emerging from a blackout and booking plane tickets to Austin. It ends with her at the airport, waiting to board. That’s as far as the plot will carry us. The book takes place mostly through flashbacks—to childhood, adolescence, and, most often, booze-fueled and coke-dusted hookups with acquaintances or strangers. Rest assured, if a scene starts at a bar, it will end in bed, or else in the bar’s bathroom, where sex is “about as taboo as a spit-soaked finger in the asshole.”

The narrator is young (25) and queer, and The Big Apple is ripe for the picking. At times it’s as easy as walking into The Cubbyhole or The Library, ordering a gimlet or six, and tapping out I’M HORNY in Morse code on the bar with your glass. (This is Pre-Tinder. You had to swipe with your eyes.) The “Sleepover” of the title refers to an impressive array of sex acts punctuated by swift exits. Here’s Nik:

She twisted her wrist and the last string holding me back snapped like a film cut and my body gave. My muscles seized up, sucking her deeper into the vacuum of my pelvis as she opened her hand to feel the waterfall of hot, viscous cum. A million pinpricks of white light exploded against my eyelids and the tide fell away just as quickly as it had risen.

Needless to say, this book is not for the squeamish. The morning after—words that always herald a bit of dread for our heroine—the narrator admires Nik’s softly sleeping form before concluding, “She was beautiful and far away from me” and slipping out of Nik’s apartment. She never sticks around; at best, her paramours get a limp excuse like “Sorry. My laundry.”

If that bothers them, we never hear about it. Though the satisfaction gleaned from these sloppy trysts varies, they rarely complicate the narrator’s life beyond inducing an awkward escape or a paralyzing hangover. A possible exception: at one point, in a particularly vivid and lyrical passage in a book brimming with them, a jealous third party punches her in the face, breaking her nose:

Light was flooding the world beneath my eyelids in wriggling spills of color against the black, blacker than black, supersaturated post-flashbulb black, so black it was white, first light seeping like honey into the blood and everything inside it, redness, dark blue, azure, pinpricks of stars on the insides of my eyes and the light reaching all the way up through, up cunt and cervix uterus organs up my throat outside my mouth over eyelids to hold them shut and trap the universe inside—luminous blackness—the snap and the crush that sent my head reeling and sealed the image.

But it’s not really the narrator’s fault; she just kissed the wrong girl. The broken nose doesn’t seem to faze her. On the train home she casually observes, “It occurred to me that I had been punched in the face for the first time.”

Readers anticipating some sort of rock-bottom wakeup call or cosmic comeuppance will finish this novel disappointed. Instead of a dramatic breaking point that forces the narrator to reevaluate her life, the one-night-stands just pile up and frankly grow a little tiresome and embarrassing.

Take when she wakes up stuck to a beanbag in a warehouse at five a.m., “dress pushed all the way up around my torso, tights and underwear bunched in a sad roll halfway down my ass. It looked like the girl had passed out from exhaustion while attempting to wrestle them off.” Even then, on her way out into the world, she grabs a handful of condoms, “just in case.”

Maybe that’s all growing up is for some people: getting tired of waking up with their underwear halfway down their asses, of blowing all their money on drinks, of wetting the bed or hugging the toilet. The book hints that the narrator hits this point of hedonism fatigue: near the end, she turns down a beautiful woman at the airport—and with some panache.

It’s unclear whether this is maturity or exhaustion, or whether there’s a difference.

 

2. Go Big or Go Home.

But why is she at the airport in the first place? And why Austin? Well, Sloan—the narrator’s ex—lives there, and the narrator means to ambush her in a grand romantic gesture, or “Breakneck Pivotal Thing,” as Sloan would put it:

If she still had any sense of her former self she would interpret what I was doing as the Breakneck Pivotal Thing, the thing that happens in movies when the main character realizes they’ve been hazy-eyed about their true love the entire time, and in textbook impractical fashion they do something big and wild and soul-baring that makes the neglected person cry tears of adoration and forgiveness and open their eyes to them once more. The Breakneck Pivotal Thing is never done in something shitty and small like an email. In order for it to be genuine, the heart has to cover some physical ground.

If you have to pour vodka on an idea to make it bloom into action, though, maybe you should let the thing wilt. Still, there is something to be said for grand gestures, for going big over going home. Sloan, who drinks her coffee black and doesn’t believe in hangovers, might appreciate this better than anyone.

The narrator, when she finally sobers up the next day at the airport, knows this is a terrible plan. But what’s she going to do, not go to Austin? She bought the tickets, and airlines don’t much believe in refunds. Besides, she think, why not see what happens? It’ll probably be a disaster, but it will definitely be more exciting than working her way through the plastic vodka bottles in the freezer, since there’s nothing romantic or Breakneck or Pivotal about drinking alone in your apartment and mooning over your ex.

All of which suggests the narrator has a choice in the matter, when, in the bloody arena of love, we know that we often don’t. Sloan isn’t The One, but she’s the one the narrator can’t shake, as the narrator’s best friend Mischa hammers home to her:

She was trying to make me see, through the wisdom afforded by her own broken heart, how ridiculous I was being by trying to scavenge anything from the ruin of Us. Sloan and I had been apart for over a year and I was still acting like someone with a damaged hippocampus, refusing to remember why we broke up to begin with, focusing on the Great Cosmic Meaning I had invented rather than accepting that it was simply, unceremoniously over. Things are, and then they are not.

The narrator has “vision problems” (her words), but we can see that she and Sloan do or did have a real, electric connection. But with great love comes great volatility, it seems, and too often their sparks ignite fights. (The narrator is relieved if they make it home without screaming at each other: always a bad omen.) And they’re so young and drunk all the time that it’s hard to separate true affection from boozy bliss.

The last time we see them together, an intoxicated Sloan is spilling her guts: “You know I love you, right? You’re the last thing I ever wanted.” Doing her one better, the narrator actually spills her guts, spewing vomit all over Sloan after one too many Cinnamon Sluts (Bailey’s, Goldschlager, Bacardi 151, all lit on fire).

It’s a testament to the author’s intimacy with intimacy that a year later, the narrator still wrestles with her and Sloan’s Great Cosmic Meaning. By their very nature, strong feelings seem to fly in the face of reason, and they die hard. You can puke on someone, disappoint them, hurt them, and still get all misty-eyed wondering What if—still think, “You know what’d be great? If I showed up unannounced at her home.”

As often as Breakneck Pivotal Things unite people onscreen, they go up in flames in real life, incinerating whatever, if anything, was there. But then, that final nail in the coffin can feel just as good, liberation bringing its own kind of euphoria.

 

3. Hold On.

You can be forgiven for thinking Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is about Sloan. This book is about a lot of things—relationships and loneliness and sadness and survival and being young and queer in the city—but Sloan is a McGuffin, a ghost. She triggers the events at the outset and then haunts and looms over the book, but she is not key to the narrator’s survival going forward.

As a teen, the narrator made a halfhearted attempt at suicide via Percocet, Advil, and (why not) valerian root. She panicked when she heard her mom coming home, spit all the pills out, and “wrapped my arms tight around my mother in the kitchen, let her feed me a day-old salad that went bitter in my mouth.” Years later, she and her best friend Mischa compare suicide-attempt resumes and wonder why they haven’t bothered actually killing themselves, since “existing is such a fucking ordeal.” The narrator says she “just wants to see what happens next,” but admits to the reader that this isn’t true.

Whatever the real reason, this is another form of maturity: coming to grips with the fact that you’re not going to kill yourself. If you were going to go through with it, you’d have done it by now. You’re going to survive, like it or not—so you might as well figure out a way to do that with at least a basement-level degree of happiness. As the narrator’s mother puts it (in Polish), “You have to make it work somehow, said the mountain man, lacing up his boot with an earthworm.”

And as the narrator puts it, “Everyone understands when your answer to the intrusive Now What? devolves from the younger, grander Everything into the simple survive.” No one wants to hear this, but whittling our ambitions down to a manageable size is a large part of growing up. Forget about being a movie star or an astronaut or a professional athlete: How do I get out of bed in the morning? How do I make it to work in one piece without crying on the subway?

Sloan can’t help the narrator survive; Sloan can’t help her make it work. Their relationship is too unstable to endure. It’s not Sloan or one of her myriad lovers but Mischa who will help the narrator keep her head above water (and vice versa). She is there for her when Sloan dumps her, she is there for existential reveries at The Library, she is there for her at Pride:

“Just look at this shit.” I waved my hand at the circus on the roof.

“Pride.”

“What’s there to be proud of? We’re all fucking lonely.”

She laughed. I massaged her back, running my knuckles over the knobs of her vertebrae. God she was tiny. Was she eating. About as much as I was, probably. Shit. I put my hands on her shoulders.

“Let’s get a fucking taco.”

These women are heartbroken little husks. Both have been dumped, have battled eating disorders, have attempted (or attempted to attempt) suicide. But they sustain each other with backrubs and tacos and talks and simply being within arm’s reach. They are therapists, nurses, buddies, and bodyguards. In the wake of Mischa’s breakup, the narrator

felt the full magnitude of my protectiveness of her then, like she was made of the most fragile material and it was my sacred duty to keep her safe. Not only was it my job to keep her out of harm’s way, but for the rest of my life I’d have to make her better, produce some sort of blueprint for repairing her broken heart.

She adds, “This was a case of the blind leading the sleeping. But I would try my best.” The fact that neither is equipped for this job makes it all the more vital. Each one feels like half a person, so only together can they survive. This is the real love story, the true heart of the book. Don’t find your Sloan, our author suggests, find your Mischa. And when you do, hold on—to each other, to yourself, to art.

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Evan Allgood is a writer from Virginia whose work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Paste, The Millions, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Toast, The Billfold, and Paper Darts. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, December 21st, 2016.