three in the morning

every party is a mercy and every party is a nightmare

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Every three am is a party and every party in some way takes place at three am.

Of course three am does not only happen at three in the actual morning. Three am happens at midnight, and at nine pm, and in the middle of the afternoon. It happens at ten in the morning sometimes, and it happens in the long late blue hour in the summer when the day refuses to give up into evening. Three am can happen at any time when the borders between thought and action, between wanting and having, between knowing something is a bad idea and doing it anyway, get porous, when everything rises out of mundanity to the lawlessness and knife-clean choices of crisis. Three am is when feelings overtake facts and time huddles like a monster under the bed. It is the nervous embrace of a temporary mercy. 

The entirety of the TV show Russian Doll takes place at three am, even the parts in the daytime. From the early ‘70s to the mid-’90s, three am was the primary time of day in New York City, and for the whole second half of the twentieth century, more of San Francisco than not existed in a permanent three am. It has never once been three am in Silicon Valley. The four years I spent in college took place exclusively at three am, mornings and afternoons and subways and classrooms all crowding together into one long, forgetful, sleepless hour. There are certain people I have loved or still love whom I have only ever known at three am; there are people whose presence turns any hour of the day into three am, and people with whom it has never been any other time. The fact of a certain kind of love pulls every bright hour into the long void at the center of the night, when nothing is supposed to happen.

Sometimes a party is just two people in a room, sitting across a table, telling jokes and howling about loneliness. Three am is a party even when it’s just two people, or even when it’s just one, and sometimes especially then. Three am is a person alone in a room, making a decision, figuring out the equations that add up to survival. Three am is writing a very long email and then deleting it without ever sending it. In the kitchen at a party at someone else’s house it is always three am, and often in the room where all the coats are piled on the bed, too. Three am is the wide becalmed ocean, glimmering in the moonlight, bright as a mirror and just as dangerous. 

My apartment is on a small block that connects two much larger streets, both full of the kind of bars that college students and other new transplants frequent. The block provides a route from the bars to the subway. It is loud; at night the air below my windows rings with the sounds of people trying to catch up with each other, very drunk people having the greatest idea in the world, groups of friends arguing over whether to go to another bar or go home, and couples forever having the kind of argument that couples have outside, late at night, after the bar or between one bar and another, when the evening has dragged on longer than it should have, out of the realm of records and manners.

There is a certain kind of fight that people who love each other only have at three am, and there is a certain kind of fight that makes it three am when you have that fight with someone you love, no matter what time it actually is. Sometimes I wake up around three am and listen to two people below my window hurl accusations and resentments at each other, the things people decide to say after the night has sunk into unrecorded hours, in the part of the day without guardrails. It isn’t necessarily three am when these arguments happen, on the street or at home behind doors and windows, but inside of the argument it is always three am. Listening to strangers’s arguments feels like gossip; three am always feels like gossip, even when it breaks your heart. 

Three am is the florescent-bright deli near my first apartment the year after college, where I would float glassy-eyed through the aisles like a ghost, trying to pick out the strangest possible snacks, coming home from bars that left my skin sticky with booze and glitter, and how I would buy a tub of hummus and weird chips and seven gatorades and then go home and fall asleep with my makeup on before opening any of it, the only part of a night full of parties that actually felt like one.

Three am is parties and arguments, endings and beginnings, bad ideas and very occasionally good ones. Three am is wanting to take off your shoes and not getting to, and going to one more bar when you should go home. Three am is the late nights at someone else’s house at the end of the ‘90s, when I was barely a teenager, when a nervous semi-circle of girls at a middle-school sleepover would gather around a computer screen to log into AOL chatrooms and talk to strangers about sex that none of us had actually had. It probably wasn’t really three am, then, probably by real three am we would all have been asleep, but it was three am in every way that mattered, a vast and permitted nowhere out of the sight of the daytime world, nighttime through the doors to the yard behind us pooling black and glossy as an oil spill. 

Not every party looks like a party, and not every party is a good thing. Lots of parties are disasters, and lots of parties are mistakes. Grief is often a party, and so is loss and harm and fury and all the fast and thoughtless choices I have made and then spent years trying to undo. Sometimes a party is a crowded apartment, packed wall to wall with sweaty bodies, loud and bright and horny and nervous, but sometimes it’s a silent and empty room in which someone faces up to a difficult truth. Sometimes a party is a crisis, and sometimes it’s a hospital waiting room, and sometimes a party is the rug pulled out from under a life, the way horror and oxygen rush in at once as the floor drops away below. 

At three am I have made promises and plans and bargains. I have gotten up for emergencies. I have tried and failed to help, I have cursedly agreed to go to one more bar, and I have climbed out on the unsteady, delicate, high-up branch of brand-new love, testing my weight against its precarious embrace. I have made terrible choices and great ones; I have chosen to love people and stood in the street uselessly arguing with the person I had chosen to love; I have comforted other girls in crowded bathrooms, and I have been the girl who was crying in the bathroom, who had a stranger emerge from a stall to offer me lipstick and tampons and ask what was wrong. I have gone home, exhausted and angry, and I have stayed out and wished I had gone home. I have stayed up all night in my own home, in my own bed, gritting my teeth against knowledge that I wished I didn’t have, still awake despite all my best efforts.

In some way the whole long nowhere of this last year has been one endless three am, a stopped clock with no past or future, the part of an argument where words have ceased to mean anything, going around and around the same hurts and getting nowhere, pacing across the same room again and again and always arriving back at myself and my own stubborn limitations. Often three am is the moment when it is no longer possible to pretend that something is fun anymore, when the music cuts out and the bar turns the lights on, when the laughter pasted over the horror drops away, and only the stark and hideous outline of what we have been doing all along is left. Three am is the hour for hard truths and bad revelations, when the ghosts creep out from the edges to the center of the room. 

Hot girl summer is coming, says everyone on the internet and everyone I talk to outside of it, too. Everything is about to be a party. The horniest summer on record, the roaring twenties. The predictions are at once outlandish and believable, stacking into a wobbly pile of absurdity and likelihood. New York like you’ve never seen it, everyone naked and embracing each other. Everything will be three am, the room without clocks or windows, everyone sweaty and beautiful, bodies stuck together like tape. I keep saying that I miss parties that start after midnight, that I miss being out at three am, and then I stop and get embarrassed, trying to think when either of those things was actually part of my life, how long ago it was, and how little relevance it has to any world into which I might emerge. 

Time has unspooled this year; I have been living in the past and the future at once in order to avoid the present. Almost everything I say that I miss is something I am never going to get back, something to which I could never have returned anyway. The past is a fiction; every door locks permanently behind us. I have imagined the future as a party that starts after midnight, as the kind of three am that happens in the kitchen at somebody else’s house, everybody sitting on counters and yelling about how they love each other, certain nobody will ever die. But I have built that longing from the parts of the past I miss the most, and not from any idea of a future that might be possible. The future has been a blank, the static on the radio, the place where the road falls away.

Three am is far more often a lonely realization or a sickening crisis than it is a sweaty and infatuated party; these are the three ams into which it feels more likely that we might re-emerge. Most three ams happen at home, in the cold silence of bad news, in the long relief of giving up, in the horror of acceptance. Perhaps more than anything else, three am is about remembering, an hour when all the drowned facts crowd back in, longing to finally be acknowledged. Sometimes a party is a nightmare.

This year has been a party and it has been a trap, a slow and ongoing three am. We stumble out into the sunlight, trying to forget what we’ve learned, trying to tell the story of a tragedy as thought it were a good joke, trying one more time to pretend that celebration could be a means of forgetting. I try to pretend that somewhere it is not still three am, that at the heart of every sweaty party all the remembering is not waiting patient as a monster, the fact of the next day closing in fast. Every party contains a threat of the morning that comes after it; every three am tries to pretend that it isn’t also a small, silent, and unbearable room, a place where no one forgets anything. 

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