fall semester, junior year, 1997
I sort of wake up.
A professor chalks words across a board and explicates a system. I move a pen around to seem life-like and repeatedly stick a coffee-filled thermos against my face.
The lecture ends, students clatter and drift. I’m too tired to stand, but the professor waves me into the hall and down to her office. She asks for a quick discussion.
We sit. She hands me an envelope and says, “Congratulations. Not many students receive this honor, but you’re officially invited into…”
And she says some kind of phrase. My mind files it away as, “Psychology Club or Something Like That.”
She says more things. There’s a national society for the top students in each psychology program. Invitations are determined by grades within the program and the testimony of professors. Upon entry, students are then punished with weekly meetings and travels to seminars and so on.
My mind is just stuffing all of this info into the “Psychology Club” file and consciously retaining nothing. I keep the thermos near my face, absorb caffeine and wait.
The professor starts handing me papers…meeting outlines, seminar schedules, and so on. She shakes my hand and repeats, “Congratulations”.
I don’t say a single word during the conversation. I leave, drop all of the papers, including the invitation, into a nearby trash can, and walk to my next class. There, I move a pen around to seem life-like and drink coffee. Time proceeds.
By the end of the day, I’ve forgotten about the invitation and the society.
spring semester, senior year, 1998
I’m unraveling. I know I’m unraveling. As graduation nears, I begin telling friends that I’m in trouble. I can’t tell what exactly is about to happen. I just know I’ll finish classes and that I won’t have much of a self left after that. I’ve emptied out like an hour glass.
The depression is now beyond any mood or feeling. It sits inside of me, monolithic, a still and silent thing.
I wait out a lecture. It ends. When it seems like I’m alone, I try to sleep in my chair, but a professor calls out, summons me to her office.
She says the faculty are having a banquet in honor of the graduating seniors who are in some type of society deal. She sounds frustrated. I have to dig around in my thoughts to understand what she’s referring to and why she sounds annoyed.
She says, “I’ve personally traveled with the other four seniors over the past year. We attended national conferences; we presented at a seminar; and we’ve been meeting together every week to discuss issues relevant to our studies.”
She pauses, then says, “You chose not to be a part of this.”
I remember something about an envelope.
She waves a hand dismissively and says, “Your decision. But I do feel like you should attend the banquet. What will happen is that, at the banquet, we will be giving out official certificates of membership in the society. With a copy of the certificate, you can identify yourself as a member on any resume, application, or during interviews. And to be honest, if you can’t attend the banquet, I’m comfortable rescinding your membership. It’s rare to do that. It’s not something I take lightly…but, you know, we have so many students in the program here and so few get an invitation like this…I’m disappointed that you chose not to be more involved.”
I’m still trying to remember what was in the envelope. Something about a club. I feel guilty.
“I apologize,” I tell her. “Circumstances have made things…I don’t know. I apologize.”
I tell her I’ll attend the banquet. I clear my throat and add, “I’ve never done this sort of thing. I guess I’m not sure what people wear to…one of these. A banquet. What kind of clothes should I wear? Is it okay to ask that?”
She glares at me and replies, flatly, “Banquet attire.”
I look at her. She has nothing else to say, so I leave.
I immediately track down my friend Jen-Ling. She’s a business major. She knows things about people and networking and social rules.
I find her in the student center and say, “I have to be at a banquet and the dress is ‘banquet attire’. What does that mean?”
She answers, “Coat, tie. Do you have a suit?”
“No,” I say. “The thing is, it will probably be a small banquet. It’s only for a handful of students.”
She sighs and says, “Small banquets can be formal. Or not. It can vary. My advice in these situations is to err on the side of formal. Always. I will help you.”
We go to a thrift store the next day. I’m pretty broke. She helps match together a cheap suit kind of deal, the least-awful suit we can find.
I walk out of the dressing room to get her opinion. She sighs and says, “It will suffice.”
So, a few weeks later, I go to a banquet. It takes place. This happens.
I arrive and stand at the edge of it all and breathe tensely. I squeeze my fingers around the coffee thermos. It’s filled with bourbon now. Cheap bourbon. The sting of it reminds me of antiseptic on childhood scrapes. I sip and emotionally waver.
The room is sedate, low-lighting. Quiet music pipes in from somewhere. 30 or so people magnet together in ebullient clusters, chatting away, gesturing happy gestures. I circle the room, fake smiling, eyes always on the distance so that it looks like I am definitely heading somewhere. I don’t go anywhere, though, I just circle around in big loops, lost in a room full of people.
A noisy professor claps and herds people to tables. I don’t like the noisy one.
I sit. I’m familiar with no one at this table, so I keep the smile going and nod pleasantly and repeatedly drink secret bourbon. Then I stare at my napkin for awhile.
Food happens. Small chicken parts, wilty leaves. That’s the food. I’m an excruciatingly deliberate eater- food textures are intense. I slow motion scrape around the parts and leaves.
Each table generates this ebb and flow of group conversation, a tide-like disharmony. It’s nice. I frequently dislike specific conversation, yet enjoy the vibrant noise of overlapping people sounds. I steep in that and begin to hum along as if participating.
I pat my face and think, “See? I’m here. I’m a person. This isn’t so bad.” Wait, Jesus, I’m drunk. Somehow I lost my napkin. I don’t know what to stare at. I stare at the thermos. I remind myself to keep fake-smiling. Hold on what’s this hand? Am I still patting my face?!
A professor gets up and says a few casual, good-natured things. People laugh. I laugh. I don’t know why. This is all pretty weird. I say to the table, “This guy’s a peach.”
The low lights go lower. My mood drops with them. A slide show happens; images of professors and students at seminars and the like. I mentally superimpose myself into the pictures and try to imagine what that would have been like, going through that. All of that talking and listening and sharing and connecting. It’s a hell, but it also makes me feel dysfunctional and lonely for those connections. I feel strangely moved by these pictures of good people doing meaningful things. I wish I could have been in that nightmare. I wish it could have healed me.
I’m realizing that I really hate slide shows. Too many emotions. F**k feelings. Why do people do this to themselves?
The professor who had seemed annoyed with me: she goes to the podium and, oh no, she’s focusing on the graduating seniors. She calls one up, gives her a certificate thing and the room applauds. She calls up another student, gives over the certificate. The professor ends up saying a few nice things about each person after they’ve returned to their seat. It’s a convivial scene. Four students go up and hear nice things.
When the professor calls my name, I stiffly walk over, legs and arms like wayward stilts. I take the certificate. Room is quiet…sepulchral, even. I return to my seat. The professor, understandably, says nothing. I raise my thermos in a cheers gesture, turn it upside down over my face, the sting reminiscent of childhood scrapes.
The seniors are asked to stand. The room applauds. My fake smile falters into misery.
That’s pretty much all I can take. When it seems like things are wrapping up, I just walk out. The night ends.
The next day, Jen-ling walks up, asks how it went. I say, “It went okay.”
She always wants me to do well. I can’t bring myself to tell her the truth…that I didn’t know anyone and that I drank too much and likely patted my face a weird amount and felt emotional over a slide show.
Instead, I tell her, “I was given a tiny chicken leg and a certificate. So that’s probably okay. It’s over now.”
A few weeks later, I graduate and move away and, for the next seven years, give in to the depression.