I cradled my lukewarm drink in my right hand as I dabbed at the sweat beading along my brows with the back of my left. As the balding DJ blared “Hotel Room Service” by Pitbull, I took a quick inventory of my friends dotted around the dance floor. While I scouted the scene, I jerked to the left, careful not to spill my drink, while avoiding another elbow jutting straight into my ribs. I squinted as the LIVE Nightclub disco ball made its slow rotation, somehow managing to shine squarely in my eyes.
Triggered by my movements, the time flashed brightly from my phone: 12:37 a.m. My stomach dropped. I had a coding exam in less than nine hours, and I was in the middle of a nowhere near perfect night. Five hours earlier, I had blown out my hair so it fell perfectly, donned chunky gold earrings that paired perfectly with my top and posted the perfect “candid” selfie on my Snapchat story from my walk across South University Avenue. Another outfit wasted, I thought sourly, as a spear of light from the disco ball blinded me once more.
My obsession with having the “perfect night” began early in my college career. With a lackluster social life in high school — the most exciting nights consisting of field hockey practice being cancelled — I fixated on making it to college and being able to have those movie-scene-mirroring, memories-of-a-lifetime-forming nights.
As the semesters flew by, my name became synonymous with “down for anything.” A forest-themed rave in a co-op’s basement on Easter weekend with people dressed as minions? I was there. Looking to huddle with someone for warmth in the Skeeps line? I’d bring an extra jacket. I didn’t care about the mental gymnastics I was doing to figure out how I could book it from my journalism class in Mason Hall to my room, snarf down a plate of noodles, reapply L’Oréal’s Lash Paradise waterproof mascara and write a discussion post about tragic love in Act V of “Romeo and Juliet” in no more than a hour.
The possibility that each night could be one of the best nights of my life, that I might form a foundational memory that I’d be able to look back on fondly once old and gray, was tantalizing. No matter the event, no matter the weather, no matter the number of people I knew (or didn’t), every excursion had the potential to be the best night of my life.
No pressure, of course.
Before going out and adventuring toward these “perfect” nights, I’d spin elaborate checklists while sitting cross-legged in front of my mirror, tugging rollers out of my hair: Run into three different friends from my design fraternity. Meet my soulmate in the basement of a house party on Packard Street. Don’t lose your new Glossier lip gloss.
Without fail, every night, the grandiose notions I laid out before me did not occur. My expectations were not met, and my mental checklist was devoid of crossed boxes — I had spent an egregious amount of money on Lyft when I should have walked, I had avoided eye contact with that one guy from English class when we could have totally had a moment, I’d lost yet another night of my precious youth jockeying for elbow room on the Skeeps balcony.
Night after night, the illustrious, perfect night eluded my grasp. I never grew closer to feeling the same satisfaction demonstrated by the girls on my TikTok and Instagram feeds who shared unbelievable yet entirely relatable stories of sneaking into basement parties with up-and-coming student bands or having a “movie” of a night at the bar. Seeing the certainty in which they spoke — the quiet assurance that if they were having this much fun, you could, too — further discouraged me. Personally, I was exhausted, sore and behind on linear algebra lectures.
Something has to give, I would tell myself as I trudged across the Diag, alone on my way home, nibbling pitifully on my Hawaiian pizza from NYPD. With each bite of pizza, I’d review each “failed” moment. Rather than tearing up the dance floor in a frat or crowd surfing at Greenwood Avenue, I was left third-wheeling a friend in the TDX basement or crammed in the corner of someone’s porch, ignoring the splinters digging into my back. I was always left wondering what I had to do differently next time in order to achieve a perfect night, in order to have fun.
Inevitably, the long string of “failed” nights became too much for me to bear. I resolutely decided it was time to “protect my peace” — as the perfect girls on my TikTok feed proclaimed — and have a “perfect” night in. If I was going to waste such a promising night of my undergraduate social life holed up in my room, I needed to make it worth it. I needed to be uber-relaxed, clean and productive.
As I streamed endless episodes of “West Wing” curled up in my bed, I convinced myself I’d already experienced everything there was to experience in terms of nightlife. The sticky floors of LIVE held no dominion over me anymore. It didn’t matter that I’d enjoyed dancing with my friend when I had originally planned to scope out romantic prospects for the night. It didn’t matter that my post-Skeeps runs to NYPD were the highlights of my night, laughing loudly with my group at 2:30 a.m. as the cashier shot us dirty looks. It was time to stay in. Until it wasn’t (I’d rested enough, hadn’t I?), and I was ready again to set out and hunt down a successful night out.
Thus continued a vicious cycle of going out full-throttle for a month and then becoming a holed-up introvert when the number of “failed” attempts got to be too high. Over and over, I oscillated between bar-hopping and journaling in the ambiance of vanilla candles, loading my debit card into LineLeap and swearing off anything unrelated to self-love, spa nights or academic-weaponry. The perfect night was somewhere out there, I told myself. I just had to keep trying, keep pushing for the morning I’d finally wake up and feel satisfied.
One night, deep in the throes of a “going out” phase, I found myself counting the number of people from my hometown I recognized in the throng of wobbly dancers on the Skeeps dance floor. While watching from my vantage point on the balcony, the friend I had arrived with caught my eye. Turning from her conversation at a high-top table, she gestured to me and mouthed, “Are you having fun?”
The guy across from her prattled on, oblivious to the fact that he had lost his audience.
I opened my mouth to respond with positive reassurance — a nod and a smile to show that I was fine, that I wasn’t disappointed that my night had amounted to playing an “I Spy” game of my high school graduating class — but I froze. In this cycle of being a party animal and an extreme recluse, I hadn’t even stopped to consider asking myself the question my friend had just asked me. It never once crossed my mind. I was so concerned about how others might perceive my night when I regaled them with an unbelievable recap in the morning. But in reality, I wasn’t even sure what a successful night meant.
Thinking of my nights out as something like a checklist with unattainable goals attached did me no favors. In reality, it would be impossible to make my way behind the DJ booth at the bar, have three different dashing strangers buy me drinks and keep my hair styled smoothly all in one night.
Maybe someone did spill their drink down my back. Twice. But it was an accident, and I still was able to dance with my friends and take my mind off a tough midterm. Maybe I didn’t see the guy from class that I was hoping to spot on the dance floor, but I found somewhere to sit and talk (or, more accurately, yell) with a dear friend.
Despite these realizations, I am not a changed woman. I still run through the mental checklist — talk to this person, don’t spend more than $15 on drinks, get two slices of Hawaiian pizza instead of one — as I clamber into the back seat of an Uber. I still do a double take when I see anyone who remotely resembles my star-crossed lover from English class, and I am still hit with a pang of FOMO when I hear the “boobers” blasting “Just Wanna Rock” below my window as I press “Still Watching?” on my laptop.
I can have expectations for having a successful night out. I can be disappointed if my experience doesn’t turn out exactly the way I would’ve hoped it to. I’m not a failure if I don’t get ahead on all my assignments for the week on a Tuesday, and my week is not immune from disappointments if my hair stays perfectly in place for a night out. Two things can be true at once, and I am realizing that I can sit with these moving parts and simply let them be.
Now, when my nights “fail,” I remind myself they’ve actually succeeded. It was still a good night, even if I didn’t complete my laundry list of tasks, even if the excitement amounted to consoling sobbing girls in line for the bathroom, in watching tirades from swaying frat guys duking it out over which running back on the football team was better. Also, having a re-adjusted set of expectations for the night, when I zip my backpack closed, has allowed me to realize what actually does make a successful night: forgetting about that impossible coding project for a few hours, laughing with my friend as we fumble through the dance crowd, and still, a Hawaiian slice from NYPD.
Tacked up in the bottom left corner of the mirror in my room is a pink sticky note. Whether I’m gua-sha-ing before a relaxing night in or catching myself spinning elaborate, unattainable fantasies as I try on a top for my night out, I see the phrase I’ve scrawled across it, and read it out loud to myself.
“Just have fun.”
Statement Contributor Charlotte Parent can be reached at email@example.com.