I. Youth, Pt 2: Dancing on the Edge

I used to rave.

I don’t remember exactly how I ended up at my first party. I’d say it was in grade nine or ten, somewhere between 1998-2000. My parents were generally pretty strict, wanting to keep my sister and me at home as much as possible. They had come from war-torn El Salvador where people could leave for milk and never come back, they’d seen gang activity in Los Angeles where they lived in poverty. I understand now why they were so strict but at the time I felt unbearably suffocated, and could only think to rebel, rebel, rebel.

Living in sleepy Saskatoon, Saskatchewan meant there weren’t a lot of really hardcore ways to achieve this goal. Staying out late, pushing my curfew to its limits, and partying hard ended up being my chosen poison.

The scene at that time was odd. It seemed super underground to my naïve eyes. Most of the parties happened in run-down warehouse spaces in the industrial parts of town. They were usually not easy to find. Some were even a fair drive outside the city on who knows who’s property. I recall driving a solid forty-five minutes just to get to one. Others were in surprisingly family-friendly spaces, like community centres which the night before had held a lovely little tea dance or senior citizens bingo. Somehow this made the party seem even more transgressive, even more badass.

The very first one I recall was quite large. I met my friend Eduardo* at his house and we got dressed up in what we thought were good facsimiles of the rave fashions we had seen in movies or TV. I wore these balloony cream coloured parachute pants from the Gap my mother bought me for the first day of school. I paired them with a dark green sleeveless tech style vest that zipped up to a mock turtleneck, also from the Gap. On my feet I wore brown Vans. This outfit would be ridiculous today but seemed super hip then. Eduardo had stocked up on glow miscellany and wore about fifty of them as bracelets on each arm, and another twenty as a necklace. These numbers are probably exaggerated but also probably not because he was always and still remains extra af. We drove over to our friend Tatianna’s house and went in to meet her. She was in the most basic bitch outfit: khaki pants and a sensible sweater. Eduardo and I insisted on a makeover.

We sat in Tatianna’s basement drinking 2 litre Canada Cooler’s - my preferred flavour was Rockaberry, Eduardo’s was Tropikiwi - and gave her a Party Babe makeover. This basically meant that we put her hair in pigtails and adorned her in candy necklaces and gave her a t-shirt with something ironic on it. She insisted on keeping the khakis. Fine

Armed with our sugary buzz we headed out. 

At this point in my life, I had not yet snuck into the club. The most nightlife thing I'd done was attend a series of Spanish dances with my friends in grade seven and eight. No, 'Spanish Dance' is not a euphemism for anything. They were exactly what they sound like: a hall full of latin people (and a smattering of white people) dancing their faces off to the tropical rhythms of warmer climes. Occasionally my parents would even be there. In those days I still had a deep hatred for Spanish music because my father used to play it at insane levels on Saturday mornings as he vacuumed and I tried to sleep in. In other words, I never really had much fun at these events. Mostly I went to pretend for a night that I was a grown up and because my friends were into it. Prior to that, the MuchMusic school dance or watching Electric Circus on TV was as deep into the nightlife as I got.

This meant I still did not know that my body is hardwired to get super hyped at icy beats, deep bass, and glittery lights. So, when I stepped into the huge party space, it was like entering a very sweaty heaven. It didn’t take long for my cooler buzz to wear off from all the sweating and so I spent the rest of the night completely sober. It didn’t matter. The music was enough. I could ride the intoxicating electro waves right up into the clouds, lifted high, high, higher by digital acrobatics. I wanted to live right inside the speaker, often making my way through the crowd and plunking myself directly in front of the pulsating components. There, I could drift off into the deepest recesses of my mind, close my eyes, and lose myself in the multi-coloured firework show behind my lids.

This was the truly essential part of going to raves for me. No longer was I expected to stand in the lame ass dancing circle so common at other gatherings, no one wanted to carry on a conversation which consisted mostly of screaming, ‘what?’, and 99.9% of my fellow revellers respected your party space. Back then, electronic music wasn’t quite as mainstream as it is now. The frat bros with tiny girlfriends on their shoulders weren’t yet trying to muscle their way into the best spot to watch the DJ or starting pointless moshpits. Back then, nobody cared what the DJ was doing, because, for the most part, they were nobodies. We only acknowledged them when their crescendoes were especially good or their mix was extra smooth. I was free to be alone in a room full of people and that was a beautiful thing. 

Being as young as I was, I wasn't yet aware of the drug culture happening all around me. Well, that’s not entirely true. I knew there was something going on, and I’m certain someone must have offered it to me, but I wasn’t interested. Dancing until my joints ached, sweating out every last drop of moisture, annihilating my hearing - all this was enough, then.

I suppose that changed when I started sneaking into the local gay bar. Eduardo and I came out to each other in the food court at the mall while waiting for Tatianna to get off her shift at Orange Julius. It was the summer before I entered grade 10 and Eduardo entered grade 11. Saskatoon’s only gay bar was called Diva’s, a name I still adore. Its entrance was tucked away in an alley where The Straights couldn't find it. It had a small non-descript foyer with a window on one end where, behind some bars, a young, usually catty man would check your ID and buzz you past the locked door. It was surprisingly big inside, consisting of two long rectangular spaces. The second floor was up a pretty grand staircase (a perfect stage for endless dramas) and partly overlooked the dance floor.

Eduardo had a fake ID and looked just barely past the legal age of 19. Our scam was for him to go in and have his hand stamped. He would then make an excuse for why he had to step out and would come find me in the parking lot. There we would press the back of our hands together and transfer the stamp. We would sweep into the foyer when a lineup had accumulated and would announce, ‘We’ve already been here.’ I’m almost certain the doorman knew I hadn’t but probably took pity on the little baby queers just trying to get their big gay lives.

And oh how we did.

I was already a fan of being lifted to the rafters by big beats, and my music tastes had always been skewed toward pop but I was not prepared for the special alchemy made by those same big beats, a vocal goddess, access to alcohol, and a crowd of homosexuals in a safe space. It was here that I was introduced to the Snatch Your Wig-Take You to Church Thrice dance remix, aka the kind of music that will never fail to get me smiling and posing and werking atop a box or a speaker or a table and absolutely living. There’s something so magical about that moment when a Whitney or Mariah jam comes on and a wave of queers heads to the floor and, as a group, serves up charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent whether they've actually got it or not.

Our scam worked for quite a while. It wasn’t until we ran into one of our teachers that we were called out. He was actually an intern, still in his final years of university. He worked with us in choir and drama classes. He seemed nice enough but also rather uptight, pointedly avoiding the obviously gay ones and focussing his energy on the "cool kids". I know we were in the wrong but I still think it’s a shame this teacher ratted us out. Yes, if the cops had come in the bar our presence would have incurred a hefty fine and probably gotten the place shut down for a weekend, but you know, still.

Cut off from access to this safe, specifically queer space, we started going to more raves. By this point, I was fully aware of the drugs present at these parties, but I was too chicken to give them a try. I stuck to alcohol, not even smoking weed. That’s not to say that I wasn’t partying pretty hard. With all the emotional turmoil I was experiencing at home and within myself, alcohol proved to be a perfect, if dangerous, antidote to the darkness. Through alcohol, I could access the looser, more energized version of myself that didn’t feel painfully awkward in any way shape or form. Through alcohol, I could forget all my frustrations and just focus on the joy. I was aware of all the downsides that came along with drinking, but I didn’t care. On one hand, I thought I was going to live forever, on the other I wanted to leave life and its shackles behind forever.

And so my behaviour became more and more unsafe. Now, I’d like to say quickly: this is only my experience. I made specific choices and led myself down a certain path. I still think most people ought to get out into the nightlife and, if so inclined (and in a safe space), try some quality mind-altering substances. Doesn’t have to be anything too intense, but I believe it’s good for your overall perception of the world. With that out of the way, let me continue:

This time of my life is marked by some pretty wild nights. The high of the music and the lights of the club or the party weren’t quite enough any longer and I found myself drinking more and more to get to the point where I felt just as lifted as I had in the past. On nights when there wasn’t a party to go to I could be found drinking in a park or a parking lot, Eduardo and I playing our music loud and chugging, not just sipping our booze. There was a spot outside the city that I would often drive to. Supposedly a ghost train appeared on the horizon and the drive at night was fun. Sometimes I would go with a friend, sometimes I would go by myself.

I remember one night, in particular, that was especially risky. On the way out, speeding down a desolate highway, my friend Brayden and I decided we wanted to see how fast the car could go and what would happen when I slammed on the brakes. This was the middle of winter, there were snowbanks on the side of the road and probably patches of black ice. I hit the gas. We held hands and took the car to its top speed. I slammed on the brakes. The car started to spin, one, two, three times. When we came to a stop, we were facing in the opposite direction. We screamed and laughed and marvelled at the fact we were still alive.

When we reached the deserted field which was our destination, we held a chugging contest with straight vodka and got absolutely wasted. We bonded for hours, trying to see the ghost train that was supposed to appear in the distance. I knew I couldn’t drive so we spent the night in the field, occasionally turning the car on to keep ourselves from freezing. The next day, my mother questioned why there were footprints on the ceiling. I pretended I didn’t know, not telling her how Brayden and I had put our seats back and walked to and fro for who knows what reason.

I still look back on this night and shake my head at how stupid it was. It was so, so, so dumb. And yet, I didn’t learn anything. Instead, I kept partying, thinking that if I could survive that idiotic night, I could probably survive anything.

It was an overdose that finally brought me back to earth - for a time. At this point, I had already attempted suicide, spent a spell in the psych ward, and dropped out of school (more on that in a later ess-haaaaay). I was living on my own at 17 and working doubles at a coffee shop in the hip part of town. I thought I was all grown up. Clearly, I wasn’t.

On this night, I was out at a rave and had decided to try ecstasy for the first time. This particular party had felt strange to me from the start. I was not with my normal group of friends, but rather some coworkers and their posse who I didn’t know. When we went inside, I remember thinking the energy around the space was odd, gloomier than some of the other parties I had gone to. The music was heavier, the lights lower. I remember one man in particular: he was tall, slim, with dark hair and dark eyes. If you looked up the word ‘devilish’ in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of him. He had his gaze on me all night but in the strangest way. It felt like he was both putting a hex on me and also flirting. At some point, one of my group handed me a small orange pill and I took it. I really wasn’t prepared for the feeling, especially paired with the vibes of the space. I would alternate rushing heat and pure exultation with an unsettling fear. Whoever this devilish man was, he remained close, drawing me in with eyes that seemed to glow and pierce right into my soul.

The group decided they needed more and pulled me out to the car. I expressed my hesitation and received a round of encouragement. Feeling pretty good, I said I would take half. One of the pills was broken in two and handed over. I peered at the crystal powder in its little belly. It seemed so harmless. I popped it into my mouth. A disgusting bitterness filled spilled over my palate. I tried to wash it away with water, but it stuck.

The rest of the night is only present in flickers.

I remember riding the high in the car as we listened to some electronic music. I remember how cozy and warm it felt, how I didn’t want to go back inside. I remember the entrance once again, flashing my wristband, and watching blurry faces streak past in the hall. I remember the inky mouth of the party and the wall of humidity as we went inside. The warmth became a fog.

I remember holding hands with my coworker and being led around the room. I remember telling her about the devilish man and how he stared. I remember her encouraging me to talk to him, that he was probably interested. I remember him being close and saying something in my ear. I remember thinking he was dangerous and the heat from his body was unbearable. I remember asking my coworker for water, obsessed with getting the bitter taste out of my mouth.

And then I remember waking up.

My mother was sitting beside where I lay with cold morning light behind her. Seeing me stir, she leaned in to get a closer look. She jumped up and went to find a nurse. Alone, I looked around and realized that I was connected to an IV and a breathing machine, I was in nothing but a hospital gown, and there was a catheter in my penis. When the nurse arrived, she grudgingly checked to be sure I wasn’t in any immediate danger and stated that the doctor would be around in a while. When she left, I turned to my mother and asked what had happened. I’m not quite sure I can describe her face in that moment. It was a potent mix of fear, frustration, disappointment, and pure unadulterated rage. There was kindness too, and relief.

She said I had been out for an entire day. At some point the night of the rave, I had returned to my coworker’s house and passed out on the couch. My coworker had later been woken up by me trying to find the bathroom. I had already pissed myself and was totally incoherent. They had taken me to emergency and left me with a doctor. I had become incensed, convinced I didn’t need help and had tried to get away. It apparently took two nurses and a doctor to subdue me. When they finally got me strapped down to a bed, I started bawling, wailing until I passed out once again.

My mother and I both began to cry and I apologized again and again and again.

When the doctor arrived, I was so ashamed and deservedly so. None of the staff made me feel much better. They treated me like exactly what I was: a drain on much-needed resources. I told myself that I would do better, that I would stop partying so much, that I would get focussed.

That didn’t last long. As I lay there in the hospital bed, staring out the window, I started wondering what had become of the devilish man, and where I might get to see him again... 

*Names have been changed.