I wasn’t like anyone else in school, but I did this to myself. I liked to win things and get more praise from superiors than other people, was competitive and over-achieving, and was only kind enough to keep just a few friends by my side, which was the way I preferred it. I adored fashion, but I wasn’t fashionable. My sewing machine got a lot of use at my fingertips, but nothing beautiful ever came off of it. I preferred chopping up clothes I felt had grown passé and reconfiguring them into Frankenstein-like formations that hung awkwardly on my body. The color schemes were never right, either. Greys, blacks, and other neutrals didn’t interest me. The more neon and harrowing the color, the more I liked it. One of my favorite shades was an electric chartreuse. I owned at least one of every clothing item in this color. To make it worse, I loved patterns, but only ones that I drew or made myself. Every shoe, shirt, hat, or pair of pants I owned had some hand-drawn line on it. I looked more like the crafting section at an art supplies store than a nineteen-year-old college student. College, people had always told me, would be the place where I’d find acceptance. But, this wasn’t true for me. I was a freak even at art school. It should have depressed me, but instead it just made me more competitive. I guess I was driven to prove that the weird girl could make it.
Art history class was where I excelled the most at my conflicting behaviors. There, I could be as judgmental as I wanted to be, because judgment and opinions were encouraged in an art history class. No one ever sat next to me except my friend Nell, who was just as tart as I was. We’d sit in the back of the class and hold court over everyone else, raising our hands so often to make comments that our professors usually had to tell us to give someone else a chance. It was futile. We knew we were smarter than our classmates. When other people were making comments about the oppressive male gaze on Degas’ ballerinas, Nell and I had already written the paper comparing Degas and Yves Klein. Our freshman year, we’d teamed up for a project where we’d made a giant Venn diagram comparing every single female artist from our textbooks, starting with ancient works and ending with the year 1964, with Yoko Ono. Then, we’d taken our findings and compiled them into a volume called Yoko Ono Is The Product Of Every Female Artist. It wasn’t even a part of our school curriculum — that we’d finished early. At the end of the year, when we presented it to our bemused professor, she insisted on trying to get it published on the school’s press. The following semester, the college library distributed the printed copies. We were art history legends.
I’d shared the credit with Nellie on that one, but only because she was one of my few friends. Really, the idea had been mine, something I’d concocted during one of our late night wine binges. We had those often. Nell, who was too prude to party for fear of meeting someone who might be more interesting than her long-distance boyfriend, preferred movie nights in the presence of women. I just enjoyed alcohol because it was one of the few things that relaxed me, made my hard edges less jagged. While Nell wore a tight safety lock around her panties, I’d kept mine open, especially when alcohol was involved. I was strange, but I could still attract men, especially after nights of uninhibited drinking. Men usually bored me, but they became bubbling fountains of personality when I was drunk. Under alcohol, I captured men with intense questions about their lives, hobbies, and goals after school. The alcohol shaved away my judgmental nature and made every conversation worthy of my time, interesting even. Once when I was drunk, a guy invited me to his room to see his collection of Marvel comic books. In reality, Marvel comics were too lowbrow for me, which I thought he knew. I took his invite to mean we were going to sleep together. When we got to his room, however, he refused my advances. Angry and drunk, I took one of the comic books and threw it on the floor before stomping out. When I woke up the next day, there was a text from him waiting on my phone asking me what happened. I didn’t answer it. We never spoke again.
This behavior towards men was unattractive, but I was very unpleasant to men and women alike. Nellie and I only got along because she had high standards, too. She’d tell me things like, “I think I’m an elitist,” or, “I don’t think I can go to graduate school because I don’t want anyone to know I watch Netflix sometimes,” and I would brush her off, saying she was being too hard on herself. But these things were actually why I liked her. She was just as big of a critic as I was, and wasn’t afraid to criticize me, either, especially about the way I dressed. She loved being rude and would never shy away from telling me she didn’t like something. She’d say, “I cannot believe you would wear that dress in public,” or “I hate that shirt, did you buy it at a carnival?” I would also brush these comments off, but she was right that I looked terrible. I’d never tell her that the real reason I dressed this way was to keep people away from me. She’d think she was giving me some kind of charity; maybe even think she was being too kind to me by being my friend. Nellie loathed kindness just as much as I did, but she was my friend, at least. My cold-hearted friend.
We spent the summers away. The beginning of our junior year dawned like any other year, and we came back from our breaks tanned and restored. I moved into a room by myself in the school’s party dorm, and Nellie moved into the all-girls dormitory. She really was so insanely prude. Campus smelled of the usual late summer flowers and was also swarming of river bugs that exploded in numbers right before dying at this time of year. They were awful, scaly things that made a hideous buzzing as they flew past your ears. Most people on campus carried around an umbrella or extra textbook so that they could whack them away as they walked. Things moved slowly in those first couple of weeks back to school, while everyone’s bones were still filled with summer humidity. I’d spent my summer interning at a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles. The muggy, bug-laden air on campus was an assault compared to LA’s spa-like climate. I’d enjoyed LA, mostly because I wasn’t as weird there, and because I’d met a boy at the museum who told me he liked weird girls. That was his pickup line. We’d spent the summer having sex in my tiny rental and wandering the streets of LA gripping each other’s waists in that dumb way that only young kids in love can do. At the end of summer, he told me to call him. I doubted that I would. Still, I missed the feel of his scratchy mustache on the insides of my thighs, his rough, preparator’s hands on my shoulders, the way his hair glistened in the LA sunshine. As I walked through campus swatting bugs away from my face, I felt too big for this little campus.
I didn’t see Nell until our first class together. When she walked in, she was wearing a plain, grey T-shirt and tan cargo pants. Who wore cargo pants anymore? I don’t know why she always had to look like a reformed nun. She asked me how my internship had been and if I was still seeing the boy. Really, this question came out as, “What happened to that maintenance guy?” She never asked me too much about my romantic affairs. Secretly, I knew it was because it would make her jealous, would give her ideas about leaving her own claustrophobic relationship. It’s not that I didn’t admire her commitment to her boyfriend. I just knew she’d be so much freer without him. I wondered if she’d ever been to LA, had ever had a guy eat her out on the beach, or wear something that made people ask her if she worked at Jumbo’s Clown Room. Nell never had fun because she was too afraid to mess up. She just watched as I did, again and again, collecting an arsenal of follies to use against me someday.
Our conversation was polite in the dark classroom. I didn’t ask her about her boyfriend, either, because he was boring and their relationship never changed. He worked at a school for disabled children and Nell always said it was because he was so selfless. But I knew it was just a front for kindness. I didn’t trust him at all. I was relieved when our professor, a stately blonde woman who’d been mine and Nell’s hero since our first day at school, came in. Professor Martin had complete control over a classroom when she stepped into it. No matter the size of the room, she preferred to use an old-fashioned pointer rather than a laser. Although she was petite, I’d seen all sizes of students cower in front of her, including full-size hockey players trying to meet their fine arts credit requirements. She’d barely been out of academia her whole life, so she liked to refer to herself as “old school,” but really, she was one of the youngest professors on campus. She’d earned her tenure-track spot just a year before Nell and I had gotten there at the age of thirty-seven. Nell wanted to be her someday.
She started class by welcoming us back to school, but it was a short welcome. Professor Martin didn’t waste time on extraneous chatter. The class was called “Perspectives in Contemporary Video Art,” and we’d be analyzing ten video artists that term. By this point, I felt I was overqualified for the class. The museum in LA had featured almost all of the artists we were going to study. At least I knew I would get a better grade than everyone else.
“Good morning,” Professor Martin started. “I hope you all had great summers. This class will be structured the same as last year. We’ll have four written exams. The fourth one will count for the most points. You’ll also have to do online journal responses to the readings. And, as always, I’ll grade your participation. Girls in the back, leave room for other people to speak.” She glanced at us. Nell and I smiled vindictive smiles.
“I also wanted to announce some exciting news. The artist Tony Malhorn will be visiting at the end of semester and giving a campus-wide talk. One student will be chosen to give an introduction at the beginning of his lecture. The same student will get to go out to lunch with the artist and have him critique their work. I’m sorry, but there can only be one. I’ll be choosing the student based on their speaking skills and ability to deliver a thought-provoking introduction.”
In my seat, I started to feel hot. I might have imagined I’d seen Professor Martin look in my direction while she was saying all of this. I didn’t look at Nell, and Nell didn’t look at me, either, for the rest of the class. Throughout the-hour-and-a-half period, we both took notes, both raised our hands and commented, and both paid close attention to the lecture. We shared the same space in the back of the room that we always shared, but our minds were fixed on visions of glowing stage lights, the faces of our peers staring back at us, and the prestige of meeting someone famous. From the outside, we were our normal, grade-A selves. But both of us knew what the other was really thinking: We’d fight each other for this one.
The rift formed almost the second after we left the class. In the coming months, both of us did our best to suck up to Professor Martin. I started showing up ten minutes early every day and chatting with her. I learned more than I needed to know about her daughter, her husband, her affinity for organic teas. Nell, I noticed, started staying after the lectures, using my same tactic. We still sat by each other in class, still hung out and drank wine on weekend nights, still ate lunch together. But we’d stopped collaborating on obscure projects, stopped comparing notes. I drifted off to other friends. I had very few of them, but they served as adequate stand-ins for Nell during our competitive phase. Mostly, I worked on becoming intimate with Tony Malhorn. I’d known of him before Professor Martin had made the announcement, of course; had even seen an exhibition of his work over the summer while working at the museum, something I made sure to drop into conversation with Professor Martin in our pre-class chats.
Tony Malhorn was easy. Compared to some of the other work I’d analyzed, I didn’t find him to be very challenging at all. His large-scale video installations were too heavy-handed to leave much room for interpretation, anyways. I started with the earlier stuff and worked forwards, but the themes remained mostly the same. In most of the videos, men and women with painted faces and gaudy, aberrant costumes danced around makeshift domestic scenes like memes that had come to life on the screen. The videos were loud, harlequin, long, and schizophrenic. In one particularly memorable scene, a woman attached to a feeding tube played video games for an entire hour while people wearing yellow jumpsuits watched her through her window. Every once in a while, an observer would snap a picture of her or scream “LIKE” loudly through the glass. It was about the Internet, almost painfully so. I knew if I was chosen to introduce Tony Malhorn’s work, I’d have to stretch to sound interested and adoring. He wasn’t an artist I even admired all that much. And, Nell and I had always tried to write about female artists, anyways, as much as we could. Still, I wanted this. I wanted to be the one who stood up on stage for the whole school to see, to give an authoritative and well-researched speech on a storied and prolific artist with a long career. I had never given up my quest to prove that the weird girl could be queen.
In November, Professor Martin asked me to stay after class. Nell overheard her. By that point, we’d stopped speaking almost entirely, but we’d never admitted why. The river bugs had left campus, leaving only the bitter cold to plague students as they walked from class to class. I’d donned a pink fur coat and would be wearing it for the rest of the season. The last thing Nell had said to me was that I looked like a female Wookie in heat. She picked a seat at the front of the classroom that day, the day our relationship was shattered forever, and I sat at the back alone with my notebook. When class was over, I stayed. Nell didn’t look at me when she left the room. Professor Martin told me she’d picked me to be the student speaker. She acknowledged that Nell was a close second, but that I was more “eccentric.”
“You fit a little better with Martin’s work,” she explained. “Nell’s a little too uptight. The optics would be all wrong. Don’t you agree?”
I nodded. It was mine. I’d done it.
By early December, I’d written my speech. Professor Martin and I started having coaching sessions once a week where she’d edit what I’d written and work with me on oration. I’d injected enough false adulation into the speech, talking about how Tony Malhorn was a visionary, a prophet, an interpreter of this chaotic digital age we live in. Some days, I wished I could run the speech by Nell, who had always given my written work good feedback. But mostly, I dreamed of being on stage in front of everyone, in total control of the auditorium, casting a spell with my words. I was delusional in an innocent, almost pitiable way. There were only about 1,200 students on campus, and not all of them attended these lectures. Besides, the speech would only be about two minutes long. It never occurred to me that I might have lost a friend over two minutes of relative fame. In my head, I thought the two minutes would lead to more respect. If Nell couldn’t handle that I’d won, then she wasn’t worth my time, anyways. I noticed she’d started hanging out with some other people from our art history classes, including a girl we used to call “Dumb Sally” who was always making vapid remarks during class. I didn’t hate Nell for having new friends, but I was happy to see she’d had to lower her standards. With the exception of a few one-night stands, I hadn’t hung out with anyone much at all in the past month. These drunken trysts, along with watching Tony Malhorn videos, were the only human interactions keeping me tethered to reality.
A few nights before the speech, I spent one particularly isolated evening glued to my computer watching Malhorn videos. I’d convinced myself there had to be some deeper meaning in what I was seeing. Maybe his work was more than just a critique of the Internet. Maybe it was about war, death, religion, body image — feminism, even. I scoured each minute of video, writing down scenes in my notebook to try and break them down further, stopping and rewinding minute sections, pausing on certain scenes to see if there were hidden symbols in the cinematography. A few times, I thought I’d discovered something more and brought my ideas to Professor Martin. She humored me by listening, but seemed a bit concerned, telling me I should take a break now that the speech was already written. In one meeting, just a week before the lecture, she confronted me.
“Tell me, are you still speaking to Nell?” she asked.
I fumbled for an answer. “Nell and I had a disagreement about, um, Turner.”
“Yes, you know. The British painter.”
“I’m aware of him.”
“Well, I compared to him to Donald Judd. Because, well, I can see some parallels between the ruckenfigur motif and Judd’s minimalist sculptures...you know, putting yourself into the figure, because it’s like a blank slate sort of, um, thing. But, Nell didn’t agree with me. So, we’re just, uh, taking a break.”
Professor Martin crossed her hands together in her lap and sat backwards in her chair. “Okay, then. You girls really are serious about art history.”
I didn’t respond. I knew she knew I was lying. But if I told her the truth, she might think she’d had something to do with it. Or maybe, she would see the real me, how cold I was, and take this privilege away from me. That couldn’t happen. Not under any circumstance.
“Well, I also wanted to go over a few things for the big day. Do you have time to chat?”
“Of course!” I answered, too eagerly.
She raised her eyebrows. “Great. Well, Mr. Malhorn and his wife will be arriving on campus at around eleven next Monday morning.”
“Yes, did you not know he was married?”
I lied again. “Oh yes, of course I did. I just didn’t know she’d be coming.”
“Yes, they will both be here. I think you’ll like his wife, she’s quite clever. You will meet them at the student center at nine and bring them over here to the art history building. Then we’ll have a preliminary chat before the convocation. The event starts at eleven. You’ll be speaking first, then Mr. Malhorn. After his talk, you’ll go out to lunch with both of them. Then you and Mr. Malhorn will have your one-on-one critique. Sound good?”
“Yes. Wonderful. I can’t wait.”
“Okay, then. You’re all set to go, then. Thanks for bringing some last ideas. But, your speech is fine. Don’t change it. You’re going to be great. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting with another student.”
I stood to leave. Just as I’d almost made it out the door, Professor Martin called to me again.
“Oh, and one more thing.”
“Just remember, optics are everything.” Her eyes fell to my neon shoes.
That weekend, I locked myself in my room and watched Tony Malhorn videos. I didn’t have a roommate, so I could do whatever I wanted. And, I’d stopped trying to socialize with anyone, even men who I could lure into my bedroom. I bought myself two boxes of cereal, some sticks of string cheese, a jar of peanut butter, two loaves of bread, and a carton of beer, and shut the door. I planned to leave only when I had to pee. Luckily, the bathroom was right next to my room. I’d started watching his videos in a new way. Instead of watching from the beginning, I watched backwards. Then, in between swallows of string cheese, I’d pick out each line of dialogue and write it down from end to beginning. I’d convinced myself there were subliminal messages in his work, that there really was something much larger that I was missing. Most of the time, the backwards poetry did not make sense. But there was one video that looked promising. The dialogue read, from beginning to end:
Do you like my body?
Do you like my face?
It’s time to party in a rectangle box.
Everybody’s clicking tonight.
Hey, what’s the plan?
In my state of delusion, I came up with a theory that the lines of dialogue had a difference when read backwards. The original meaning was obviously about going online. But the flipped meaning, I thought, could have meant something about the way that the media manipulated politicians and at the end of their campaigns, they didn’t know who they were anymore. In my vacuum of a dorm room, it sounded plausible. If I was going to be the student giving the speech on Tony Malhorn, I was going to know his work better than anyone else. I didn’t even read anyone else’s criticism of him. In my head, I knew best. None of those critics, I’d assumed, had spent as much time as I had with his work. By the end of that evening, I’d watched each of his videos ten times through, amounting to approximately one hundred and twelve hours of viewing. Most people, I assumed, watched his work once through — if that — at a museum. I fancied myself a bit of a scholar by that point. My original speech remained unchanged and saved on the hard drive on my computer. But, I’d also made a stack of additional speeches, which I would bring to Tony after the talk so he could read them. Hopefully his wife wouldn’t be there to interrupt. I figured he’d be so impressed with me he’d maybe even ask me to be his assistant after I graduated, even though that was in a year and a half. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to tell Nell about that one, she’d be so angry.
Before I went to bed that night, I stacked the piles of speeches neatly on top of each other. I threw all my cans of beer in the recycling — I ’d gone through the whole six-pack — and cleaned up the wrappers of my discarded food. Then, I shut down my computer screen. It was nearly three in the morning, and Tony Malhorn would be on campus in just one and a half days. When I closed my eyes, visions of his work spiraled through my head.
On Monday, I woke up and dressed as I normally do: a hand-embroidered jean jacket over a lime green shirt with striped velvet leggings. I looked like I belonged in a Tony Malhorn video. He was going to love me. It was cold that day, but the sun, at least, felt good beating down on my face as I walked to the student center. I was going to meet Tony Malhorn. Tony. Freaking. Malhorn. This mantra played on repeat as I stomped towards the building’s thick glass doors, pushed them open, and headed to the visitor’s lounge on the first floor. I’d been thinking about Nell that morning, and wondering if she’d come to the talk. I assumed she wouldn’t. She was too bitter about the whole thing. I wondered whom she was sitting with at breakfast right now. Probably Dumb Sally. Later, I’d be sitting with Tony Malhorn. She’d be so jealous.
I saw him without trouble when I got to the visitor’s lounge. I knew what he looked like already, but he also donned the unmistakable look of an artist. In one of his ears, he wore a dangly little shark tooth earring. His shirt was pink and he had a cowboy hat on his head, a combination I understood to be tongue-in-cheek. He was standing next to his wife, a thin, blond-haired woman wearing all black, and gazing up at the student center’s windowed ceiling. This building was new, had just been built last year, causing the tuition to skyrocket at the school. We were trying to become more elite, to draw more big names like Tony Malhorn. Tony Malhorn, who was standing in the student center at that moment, with me walking towards him. I held out my hand and extended it to him as I approached. “Hi, I’m your student escort. I’ll also be giving the introduction to your talk.”
He looked down at my hand as though I’d just extended a giant, rotting fish. “Oh no,” he said in a shrill, slightly grating whimper. “No, no. I don’t do handshakes. Sorry. I thought they would tell you. You can shake Jeri’s hand. She does all the handshakes. Here, shake her hand.” He grabbed his wife’s arm and extended it to me as he backed away a few steps.
I cocked my head at Jeri, but shook her hand, anyways. “Hello,” she said in a strong and clear voice so different from her husband’s. “It’s so nice to meet you. Professor Martin told me so much about you before today. I’m very excited to hear what you have to say about Tony’s work.”
At this, Tony perked up again and stepped back towards us. “You’re talking about my work today? You’re not going to be too critical, are you? I don’t like it when...when…”
Jeri interjected. “Tony gets a bit sensitive when he gets negative reviews. I tried to tell Professor Martin, but maybe she didn’t relay the message. What did you write about?”
I was stunned. “I didn’t write anything critical. It’s more of an analysis, really. If you’d like you could read it beforehand.”
“No, I’m sure it will be okay. You are just a student, so young. I’m sure you couldn’t have anything that bad to say. Don’t you agree, Tony?”
Instead of responding, he shook his head up and down and tapped his thighs with his hands in a light pitter-patter rhythm. “What time is the talk again? I forgot.”
“It’s at eleven, Tony.”
I interrupted again, wanting to sound authoritative. “I’m supposed to bring you to meet Professor Martin, first. I can show you where to go if you follow me.”
Jeri turned to Tony. “Okay, Tony, we’re going for a walk, now.” She grabbed his hand and followed me as we left the student center. The trek over to the art history building took only about three minutes on average, but I’d never been more aware of this distance. I didn’t know what to say. I’d imagined myself roving arm in arm with Tony around campus as we talked about art and politics and analyzed the deeper meanings I’d discovered in his work. Now, I watched as his head swiveled around on his neck, flitting from campus building to campus building. At one point I heard him say to Jeri, “Say, do you think these dormitory buildings could start on fire?”
When we reached the art history building, I grasped the metal handle on the door and held it open for both of them. Jeri thanked me but Tony continued his thorough scope of his surroundings, ignoring me. I watched him bend down to analyze a pot with a large cactus in it in the building’s atrium. He was cupping his hands around it and sticking his fingers in the dirt right before he pulled out his iPhone to start taking a video of it. I was about to tell him we had to go meet Professor Martin when she came up behind us in her usual black heels. “Ah, Mr. Malhorn, so good to see you.”
He stood up from filming and looked at her. Just like with me, he didn’t extend his hand. Professor Martin seemed more prepared than I. She held out her hand to Jeri and shook in her brusque manner. “Katie, why don’t you join us in the office while I speak to Mr. Malhorn and his wife for a few minutes?”
I nodded and followed them inside her office, the same office I’d been sitting in just a few weeks ago rehearsing my speech. I took my usual chair adjacent to Professor Martin’s desk and watched as Tony and Jeri found places to sit in the room. Jeri pulled up a chair for Tony and brushed it off with her hand. Then, before he sat down, she pulled a piece of plastic out of her purse and set it on the chair. “Okay, Tony, you’re all set.” Without thanking her, Tony sat down.
Professor Martin spoke. “Are you all ready for your talk, Mr. Malhorn?”
Tony looked at Professor Martin for a full ten seconds before answering. “I’ve been analyzing a book of Japanese death poems. I’m really into these concepts. I think your students are going to like what I have to say...It’s about, well...it’s about, here I’ll try and explain it.”
Professor Martin, ever stoic, bobbed her head as he continued speaking. She just sat there nodding like the muscles in her neck were greased up with butter. The talk rambled on and on, and Tony couldn’t seem to land on any single point, yet, he kept talking. Professor Martin just kept nodding. She nodded for so long without stopping that I wondered if she’d fallen asleep with her eyes open. My suspicions had almost been confirmed when finally Tony Malhorn finished. Professor Martin didn’t say anything for a moment after he’d stopped. She definitely hadn’t been paying attention.
“Well, this all sounds really, um, lovely, Tony. Thank you for sharing. But, save your vocal cords for the big talk! Speaking of which, we should probably head over to the auditorium now. Are you ready?”
“Yes I think we are!” said Jeri. “Tony, let’s get up.”
She grabbed Tony’s hand and cleared away the plastic on his chair before they stood up. Then, Professor Martin walked up to the door and opened it, allowing them to walk through. I kept trying to catch her eye as we exited the office, but she wouldn’t look at me the entire journey from the art history center to the auditorium. Instead, she remained deep in conversation with Jeri. They kept their voices low, so I couldn’t catch their conversation. I wasn’t sure if they’d ever met each other before today, but they seemed as if they’d known each other awhile, were old friends, even. Professor Martin did have a lot of contacts within the art community. Tony walked ahead of everyone else, and I stayed behind the group. I was half rehearsing my speech in my head and half watching Tony. He walked with his head up towards the sky.
We reached the stately white building. Students were already gathered outside the doors waiting for the talk. From the looks of the crowd, it seemed like more students than usual were attending the presentation. I could feel heat rising in my neck, but I wasn’t sure if it was for the right reason. What was it? I was supposed to feel butterflies for my big day. Instead, I felt like a blundering, raging bull was pummeling through my innards. I was dizzy and slow, like how I’d felt after a night of binge drinking. Still, I kept walking. What else could I do? If I turned around, months of preparation would be for nothing.
The four of us climbed into the waiting area backstage. It was a small room, painted entirely black but with a small TV in the upper right-hand corner with a view of the stage on it. Professor Martin and Jeri, in their black outfits, morphed into the room. Tony and I, however, stood out in our fluorescent hues. It occurred to me that we would have looked good in a photograph right at that moment, and I wondered if the school would be sending around a photographer. We stood in the room and watched the tiny screen as students filed into the auditorium. I clutched my speech in my hands, rolling it up into a tiny scroll and then smoothing it out again. Tony fiddled with his earring. At five minutes before the speech, a stage tech popped his head into the room and told us to get ready.
Jeri spoke up, sounding urgent. “Tony, do you need to go to the bathroom before you talk?”
Tony answered in the most sincere voice I’d ever heard. “Jeri, I don’t think so, but thanks for reminding me.”
“Okay, Tony, you’ve GOT THIS!” She put her hand up and they high-fived.
I didn’t have time to process this, because the lights went down on the stage and Professor Martin pushed me out the door. I felt so cliché as I walked out there. For a second, I even considered the ancient advice of picturing everyone naked before I spoke. I really didn’t see what good this would do considering I was unfazed by nudity. It was dark enough in the auditorium from the stage that I didn’t have to worry about seeing anyone’s face. But, I could see enough to know that there were more people at this talk than usual. My art history classmates were there. The boys I’d slept with were there. All of my professors from my other classes were there. Most importantly, Nell was there. I could see her, sitting somewhere in the middle on the floor level. I didn’t think she’d come. She was sitting by herself, which gave me a slight twinge of surprise misery. If it had been someone else up here, we could have sat together and mocked them. Instead it was just me, entirely alone, a neon zebra in a zoo full of molting bears. I didn’t feel victorious. I felt like a target. If I messed up, or skipped a word, or accidentally lisped, who would defend me? I looked to the back wall of the auditorium, past Nell, past the throng of judging spectators, and took a deep breath, hoping that a dust particle wouldn’t fly into my throat. “Mr. Malhorn’s work is a succinct portrait of our current addiction to the Internet…”
Two minutes later, I walked backstage again, passing Tony as he shuffled up to give his own speech. I hadn’t messed up. I’d nailed it. I barely acknowledged him as he walked up to the podium. When I got backstage, Professor Martin and Jeri were there. Professor Martin gave me a hug and congratulated me. “Let’s talk later,” she said. “I’m going to go out into the audience to watch.” She left the room, leaving Jeri and me alone. I figured she’d want to watch her husband’s speech, so I turned to look at the computer screen.
Still dazed by my own achievement, I was only half listening, but I could hear Tony start his speech: “I’ve been analyzing a book of Japanese death poems…” I listened for about five minutes before realizing he was giving a lengthened version of the talk we’d heard in Professor Martin’s office. I was still coming down from my own high, so I wasn’t paying full attention. But, I got the gist. Jeri and I hadn’t spoken once since I’d gotten back into the room, and I wondered if I should say something to her, like how Tony was doing a good job. When I pulled my head from the TV screen to look at her, she was standing with her back against the wall, her hands clasped in a childish manner behind her back, gazing at the TV screen as if she was watching a daytime game show. She was less commandeering than she was when she’d been with Tony. The TV screen illuminated her face, which I realized now looked quite young. I wondered how much younger she was than Tony Malhorn. Ten years, maybe. Embarrassed to catch her in this moment of vulnerability, I turned back to the screen to watch the rest of Tony’s speech. I wasn’t turned around long before I felt a tap at my back.
When I turned again, she’d stepped up behind me, uncomfortably close for the small black box, our faces close enough that I could she was wearing a thin line of blue eye shadow on her lids. “You know, it’s a hard world out there for a woman.” Her voice was coarse and unwavering.
“Someday, you’ll realize. You should take a husband when you’re young. Don’t try to find your soul mate. That isn’t real. Just pick the one you can control the easiest. It’s a lost cause trying to get your name out there, to get the world to take you seriously. You can try and try and try and they’ll just shoot you down. Everything you can accomplish can be achieved ten times more easily by a man. So just get a man, now, and make it work. Make him work.”
I still didn’t have a response. I started tearing at the pieces of paper in my hands, shredding the printed evidence of my speech. Dumbly, I forced words out of my mouth.
“Mrs. Malhorn—Jeri—are you saying…?”
“Tell me, do you think a man could have made what I have made? Do you think a man understands what kind of world we live in? Can unpack it and interpret it the way that a woman can? You’ve got a long way to go, girl. A long, long, way.”
Behind me, I could hear Tony’s voice spilling from the TV screen. “It’s about life, and growth. And, I’ve really been thinking hard about death, too, in the face of technology. How do we portray it? How can the Internet help us understand it? Has anyone ever heard of these death poems? They really are neat.” His speech was long, twisted, prattling. He tripped over the words, failing to produce one coherent thought. Nothing he was saying made any sense to me, or probably to anyone else in the room. Still, I couldn’t stop listening.