"Get out of your house Sam, we love you but this negativity is good for nobody I can see you with that down slanted look sitting in your chair jaw turned rocking back and forth, pissed."
In high school, I competed in Speech and Debate every weekend.
During freshman year, my event du jour was Impromptu, wherein a competitor draws a random topic printed on a slip of paper from a bag or bowl, along with a room assignment, and must immediately head to that room and deliver a five-minute speech on said prompt. The time it took to find the classroom with your judge in it was all the time you had to prepare a five minute oratory. Accordingly, some students walked very slowly.
The first time, I cried and asked the judge for help. She was a speech coach herself, and helped me brainstorm topics. I had chosen Impromptu as my speech event because I had been a chatterbox as a kid. I liked to learn and ramble about most anything. Within a few weeks of competing, I was placing on a regular basis. I credit my current ability to write vast quantities of bullshit on the fly to these early speech experiences. Public speaking and writing are just different ways of packaging the same art.
After that year of Impromptu, I switched to a Debate event called Public Forum. It’s a two-on-two style debate, wherein each side gives a speech, then there’s a q&a/crossfire/slugfest, then another set of two speeches, then another crossfire, etc. For a few weeks I competed as “maverick” — meaning I had no partner, and had to deliver double the speeches, against a team of two. I did well but wasn’t allowed to be ranked until I got a team member.
My debate partner, from then on, was a thin, angularly-faced, dirty-blond boy named Erik. He was new to the debate team, but took to it like a duck to a pond. We were a perfect match. I was a seat-of-the-pants, brash, argumentative dick who rolled her eyes during rounds and destroyed opponent’s false claims and faulty logic; Erik was a composed, well-postured, thoughtful kid who carefully wrote and edited his speeches ahead of time. He laid out our central arguments and marshalled the evidence; I came in with an aluminum bat and battered our opponent’s claims into a pulp.
We wore matching suits and started finishing each other’s sentences. People called our team “E squared”. We went to States, then Nationals, twice. We were creepy blonde twins. We spent all our free time in our school’s speech room, prepping arguments and doing research long after all the teachers, coaches, and even real athletes had gone home.
We organized our school’s Gay Straight Alliance, and changed its name to make it more broadly inclusive (but more complicated and less memorable). We phone banked for John Kerry (ugh I know). We created massive tri-fold educational posters on the “History of Homosexuality” and installed them in the school library, and made obnoxious, unprovoked anti-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell speeches in the lunchroom over the PA system. When a slightly unhinged girl on the speech team suffered some kind of nervous dissociation and attacked Erik, I was the one that cried.
Our relationship smoothed into something more appropriate after Erik got a boyfriend. I was pissed initially because he started to spend more time with the kid than working on his speeches. One day he was late to a tournament and I threw a binder at his head. He almost missed an entire weekend of debate rounds, and almost left a match early when there were still two rounds to go so he could meet up with his beau in Erie, PA. He went to prom with the other out gay guys and their straight female friends, who were more conventionally feminine than I was; I skipped the event and spent the night getting blotto with my closeted lesbian friends.
A year and a half later, we were attending the same college and living together, along with his ‘hag’ and my then-boyfriend. Choosing the same college as Erik was not, let’s say, coincidental. But Ohio State was the only urban, big school I got into, and it had the best Psychology program, so the fact that it granted me proximity to my former ‘twin’ was mostly just a bonus. We’d grown apart a significant amount by that point. We never finished each other’s sentences. We didn’t hang out except to watch playthroughs of Assassin’s Creed and GTA.
One day, in that apartment, he came out of his room wrapped in a blanket with a pair of leg warmers on, and said he’d been listening to classical music on his Pandora station, and that the song Danse Macabre by Camile Saint-Saens reminded him of me.
Everyone else was out of the house; his hag was in some pre-law class or at an internship; my then-boyfriend was at some German club event. We sat in the kitchen and drank coffee with cheap, heavily sweetened non-dairy cream and talked. I said something about not seeing myself as a woman so much as a person, and he said I know you don’t, but everyone else does. Sees you that way.
He got depressed. He stopped going to classes. Instead of playing games a few hours a day, his whole afternoon was consumed with the blue, wintry glow of his Playstation 3 cast on the layers and layers of blankets he tossed over himself like a cocoon. He dropped at least one class each semester.
There had been days like this in high school, too, days he just never showed up because he’d watched a sad movie, or felt like maybe he had cancer all of a sudden, or because he just couldn’t wake up. I, too, had experienced periods of slothfulness; had people tell me I was “acting like a depressed person” (the exact words, which I’ve heard thrown at Erik too). It was easier to assume he was a flake, or that he was nervous, rather than profoundly depressed. I left for graduate school; he started drinking too much. He stopped drinking. He went to law school. It was too isolating. He moved home.
We each passed through rings upon rings of listlessness, low motivation, romantic desperation, loneliness, social anxiety, regular anxiety, and withdrawn, dreamy bitchiness. We’re both better now, I think; we get up every day and work and speak to other people without much struggle. I think we could have gotten better much faster, and much more effectively, if we had shared even a thread of our pain with each other. But then, we’d long stopped finishing each other’s sentences.
No one else has ever told me a song reminded them of me. No one else has anticipated my words before they exited my mouth, or respected my ability to sardonically snipe and insult above all my other attributes, or perfectly, effortlessly understood the kind of woman-person I am. I can’t say I returned those favors, but now when I hear this song, at least I can say I think of him.