The following is from Martin Riker's The Guest Lecture. Riker is the co-founder and publisher of the feminist press Dorothy, a Publishing Project, and the author of Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return. He teaches in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis, and his criticism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, among other publications.
“What are you supposed to be?”
One recurring nightmare is not enough reason to keep her out of my memory, not here in this sleepless vigil that I rationally know is of no consequence but that feels like a final accounting, a cataloging of all things, as if I’ve arrived at some profound existential destination rather than just a particularly acute bout of hyperactivity for the busy brain trapped in this stationary body, the mommy-mummy, monster to most but unsung hero to her loved ones, a sweet husband-daughter duo who will never know the epic battles she fought, through the darkest hours, so that they could get some sleep.
“What are you supposed to be?” said Evelyn, and I looked up.
“What are you supposed to be?” meaning my costume, which melded B-movie robot and little Dutch girl, a robotic Dutch girl, with a triangular bonnet made of tinfoil and a crinkly unsexy dress I’d “sewn” by duct-taping loose tinfoil to a disposable basting pan cut into bra cups, all of it held up by tinfoil straps. Evelyn was dressed as a gigolo. Her gorgeous naturally curly Brazilian hair was slicked back and smashed down, and since I didn’t know her yet, and since the rest of her costume was so purposefully repulsive—the wiry fake chest hair, the stippled-on beard, the rampant polyester—I could only sort of tell how beautiful she was.
“A robotic Dutch girl,” I said. “Don’t ask me why. It’s not like I had a lot of tinfoil and duct tape hanging around already, or a basting pan. It’s not like I looked at a drawer full of this stuff and thought, What could I make with that? No, I actually went out and bought it all in order to be a robotic Dutch girl.”
It was a party and I was already a little drunk.
“You were going for Most Original,” she offered.
“They’re having a contest?”
“Oh, no. I mean, maybe? Who knows. They should.”
I was sitting alone on a couch and she was standing— noncommittally, I thought—beside the chair across from me. “I didn’t want to be just another slutty cat or slutty vampire,” I went on. “In high school, everyone was always a slutty cat or vampire. I once tried going as a slutty hamster, but I just looked like Bigfoot. I mean, it had a bra.” Why was I talking about high school? This party was filled with interesting people.
“Well, I like it,” said Evelyn, and she sat, which was nice. “It’s very chaste. Feminine, yet impenetrable.”
“That’s what I was going for! Approachable imperviousness. You?”
“Biohazardous masculinity.” She displayed herself.
“Your chest hair is super gross.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I’m Evelyn.”
The time she had free tickets to a concert at the symphony hall but it was not the symphony, it was Ornette Coleman. Loud and frenetic and I didn’t like the music at first, but the experience was exciting. Free-form jazz in a fancy hall, the clash of the modern sounds with all the cushiony red velvet. The music I found hard to follow, it lacked shape, or the sort of shape I was used to music having, and I guess Evelyn noticed how I was feeling.
“What I do when I have trouble getting into music,” she said between songs, “is I turn it into a finger opera.” She held up her fingers and performed a little puppet show, one index finger hopping headlong into the other, less like opera than Punch and Judy. But when the music came back, she was right, doing a little finger skit made the sound open up for me. Which is a very silly way to listen to Ornette Coleman, and I was surprised that someone as cool as Evelyn would suggest it. But it took the pressure off. The pressure to “get it,” to figure out what I was “supposed to” think. It was the pressure, more than the music, that was in the way.
“All the famous avant-garde composers are men—not all the composers, just all the famous ones—because it’s men who write music history, and they write about other men.”
I am standing there nodding but inside I’m struck, like a revelation, that the same is true of economics. Why struck? Because music and economics were, or seemed to be, such different worlds. And music was, or up to then had seemed to be, so much cooler.
Evelyn is at a drum kit and I’m behind a marimba holding the mallets in a throat-choking grip that I know, from having seen actual marimba players, isn’t even close. She’s laying down a rhythm that feels rock-steady at first, like a rhymed couplet, like a stanza of Dr. Seuss, but that occasionally breaks time entirely, as if too much rhythm was accidentally poured into that one particular measure and a few beats of it spilled out on the ground. We’re playing. It feels loose. Chaotic, but in control. And we’re talking, too, not while we’re playing, but whenever we stop.
It’s men who write music history, she’s saying, and history is just whatever gets written, which is why history always misses so much of what’s going on.
Pamela Z sings and records her voice and loops and changes it in real time, recording her voice to immediately accompany herself still singing.
Ellen Fullman plays on strings that stretch across a room, strings so long that if you pluck them the sound is lower than the human ear can hear. She puts on sneakers and walks up and down, running her fingers along their length to make the strings resonate. Walking music. We saw her do it live. No doubt she’s out in the world doing it somewhere still.
Laurie Anderson’s computerized voice: funny and serious and perplexing and approachable and very ’80s sounding.
Charlotte Moorman playing cello in a bra made out of little TV sets.
Music as performance art.
In the arty “performance art” sense of performance art.
Obviously, music is a performance art.
John Cage’s essays and lectures were exciting to read, while his compositions were half the time hauntingly beautiful and the other half just sort of meh.
Björk I’d listened to in high school. Björk I already loved. Pauline Oliveros is probably the most famous twentieth-century avant-garde woman composer, though I personally preferred listening to that French woman whose name I’m not remembering, but whose music sounded, to me anyway, very similar, but a little bit better.
Evelyn explaining Oliveros’s concept of “deep listening,” which she was reading about at the time.
Me wondering out loud whether the reason Oliveros was more famous than the French composer I liked so much was because Oliveros coined this term, “deep listening,” and the most famous person in any situation is whoever coins a term.
Evelyn taking this question to mean that I wasn’t that interested in Oliveros or “deep listening,” which wasn’t at all what I was saying. Either she’d misread my whimsy, or else I’d struck a nerve. That happened sometimes. For all her generosity of spirit, she also had nerves, and I was occasionally surprised by what struck them.
Women in labs composing on tape reels.
Ambient, minimalist, electronic.
Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. She wrote the theme to Doctor Who, as well as a lot of other electronic music just about as creepy sounding as the theme to Doctor Who.
Mary Jane Leach.
Once I get started, it all flows out.
Alice Coltrane, especially those recordings that are just bass and harp. The incredible variety of musical experiences that can be created with just a bass and a harp.
And Christina Kubisch, who composed a piece that sounds like what a cat hears when it dreams.
Evelyn’s hero Yoshimi P-We.
Harry Partch and his cloud bells, his giant marimbas like something out of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
Meredith Monk and the idea that music and dance have always been spiritual. That music can make spirituality a contemporary experience in a way that religion often fails to.
How a friendship can persist, in memory, as little more than a list of musicians and titles, because a list of music is a record of experience, of the sound-experience of a place and time.
Why did she like me? Not an irrelevant question, because the certainty that she liked me, and that other cool people I’ve known have liked me, has been my only reliable evidence, through the years, that I must be an interesting person. When my feelings about myself take a bad turn, this is the one proof that even my deepest insecurities can’t controvert. Cool people aren’t idiots, after all. You can’t fool them into liking you. If they like you, then something about you must be at least a little bit likable.
She definitely liked me, we were definitely friends, in fact for a time she was my best friend, though I’m sure I wasn’t hers. Not because she had closer friends, but because “best” was antithetical to all things Evelyn. That competitive possessiveness of “best.” Is that why I’ve always wanted, from the earliest age, to have a “best” friend? Not because they would be “best,” but because I would competitively possess them?
I sound like a terrible person!
I mean, jeez, I just wanted a best friend.
And anyway, she didn’t have other “bests” either. Her favorite thing about music was its endless variety, and the idea of having a “favorite” song, for example, was antithetical to that. I keep using this word, antithetical. Evelyn didn’t say antithetical. It sounds like a word I’ve lumped onto her. Probably I’m lumping all sorts of things onto her, coating her memory with a patina even more sparkling than the one she actually wore.
I mean, she could be kind of an asshole.
The time she attended an econ lecture. It was her idea. She listened, but I couldn’t tell how much she was following. Afterward, she said, “Why are you interested in that?” Half judgy and half just wanting to understand.
“I’m good at it,” I said honestly. “Sometimes the pleasure of doing something isn’t so much in the thing itself, but just in the fact that you’re good at it.” I hadn’t yet met Maggie, so I didn’t have a better reason.
“I guess,” she said, and we left it.
But later, maybe an hour later, long enough that it was odd the way she just picked the conversation back up again, she said, “It’s like how rich people feel about making money.” Somehow, I immediately knew what she was referring to, and what she meant. She meant that some rich people get rich because they’re greedy, but some just like doing what they’re good at, which happens to be making money. Which isn’t the same as being greedy—it’s more like a loophole in the social contract.
On second thought, I could not possibly have understood all of that from the sentence “It’s like how rich people feel about making money.” We must have had a larger discussion that I just don’t remember. I do remember feeling, whenever the subject of money came up, like I was standing on the wrong side of something. Wealth bothered Evelyn. A somewhat disgusting morbidity. Whether she’d grown up with too little or too much, I never knew and never asked. I knew that she’d lived in a couple of different countries, and I suppose I’d always figured that people who grew up globally understood life much earlier and better, had a broader perspective, were savvy, or cultured, wise, jaded, or what have you. They’d witnessed both wealth and poverty, capitalism’s upsides and downsides, whereas where I grew up, everybody had basically the same amount of money and capitalism didn’t have any sides at all. It was just everywhere, like air. She must have found it absurd that I studied economics. But it’s not like I was some grubby banker. I was good at math. Not all of us are good at everything.
The time she invited me to play a show with her—I wasn’t very good at that. A party at the old mansion off campus, carved into apartments and loaded up with theater majors. They threw parties in the elaborate entryway, Evelyn always handling the music. She would set up on the landing halfway up the big wraparound staircase with her DJ stuff on one side and her drumkit on the other, then alternate sets between DJing and playing live with whoever showed up. It was half beat-thumping dance music and half free improvisation that only a really drunk person could dance to. It was brilliant. Everyone loved it. It’s still hard to believe I was her friend.
But that time she showed up with a violin and asked me to perform with her. She knew I’d played violin in high school, but where she got a violin, and why she thought I would jump at this chance, I did not know then, and I still don’t. She was very encouraging, everybody was—theater majors always so nice, friendly in a way that is borderline annoying—but I was thinking the whole time that I was not prepared for this, that I would not be any good at it, and that Evelyn could never understand why, for me, this situation was such a nightmare. She assumed I could play freely, as we did together in the percussion room. All you need to do is listen and respond. But “freely” in the percussion room is not “freely” in front of other people. Some of us, when we are in front of other people, retreat immediately to the things we’ve learned. To the comfort of structure, the prefab gestures of what you’re “supposed” to do.
There I stood, deeply unhappy, on that makeshift stage next to Evelyn, who was amazing, feeling all of my inadequacies on display. I was hyper self-conscious, my brain working overtime, and what I was thinking was that actually Evelyn was wrong. She thought “freedom” was a matter of attitude, a rejection of training and talent. That a person with no training could theoretically be freer, because training just filled you with preconceptions about what music ought to be. But it was precisely Evelyn’s training and talent that made her “freedom” sound so amazing. Ignorance doesn’t make you good at anything. You don’t free yourself by unlearning. You have to learn past all you’ve learned. Whereas I was stuck in that awkward state of knowing just enough to feel embarrassed. I’d never been a good violinist, but I had enough music training to ruin any chance of being spontaneous in front of others.
The end of our friendship did not happen all at once or even quite “happen” at all, though it seems that over the years I’ve come to think of it as having a definite end point. A point long prior to her death, which, it suddenly occurs to me, is probably why my memory ends our friendship earlier. To put safe distance between those two endings. To water down the finality. It was senior year, those exciting few days before the semester gets going, when everyone’s back but nothing’s started. I was supposed to meet her at a party that night, but she took the bus and came over to my place early. I’d moved off campus, to the old house with the big back porch next to the gas station. You could sit on the porch and watch, over the wall, the round sign rotating on its pole. She simply showed up. She’d been in Brazil all summer, staying with family. She’d wanted to take an ethnomusicology class but it hadn’t worked out, so instead she’d gone around on her own, meeting musicians, having adventures, every bit of which she was ready to recount for me. We talked in the kitchen for a while before she took out a bag of shriveled-up psychedelic mushrooms, which she wanted us to eat. It was the first time anyone ever offered me any drug other than pot, and I think I was a little bit flattered, just as I’d felt flattered freshmen year when someone first offered me pot. That I, Abby, could be mistaken for a person you simply offer pot to.
But I hadn’t been expecting to eat mushrooms that night. I was not against having a new drug experience, but I had a pretty clear idea of what made a drug experience good or bad, and one of the few factors you could control was whether or not you planned it ahead of time. Spontaneity was not really my thing, in drug experiences. Or, frankly, in life. Spontaneity is not the same as improvisation—in fact they are almost opposites. Improvisation is a form of thought, a process of inventive reasoning, reasoning that plays outside the lines of Reason, but spontaneity is more like faith. Improvisation is a way of exploring the emotional and intellectual possibilities in a set of ideas and forms, but spontaneity rejects form and fetishizes risk. And drug experiences, while often really interesting, are also serious shit. In college, I was drawn to creativity and possibility. I was not boring. I am not boring. But I am also not, and wasn’t then, and never will be, interested in risk for its own sake. I am drawn to risk as an expression of responsibility. Risk as the spirit of courage you bring to things you truly care about. Evelyn, I cared about. Psychedelic mushrooms, on the other hand, were dried fungus that smelled gross and reportedly made your stomach hurt.
But this was college, so, yes, of course, I ate the mushrooms. I made a salad and smothered them in green goddess dressing. We sat out on the porch. They tasted like dirt. All the green goddess in the world could not have made them taste any better. Oh well. We were going to a party.
It had been a weird week. Earlier that week, Mr. Jin, my landlord, who was well into his seventies, had died suddenly of a heart attack. I hadn’t seen Mrs. Jin yet. I don’t know how I’d learned the news. As part of my rental agreement, I’d been driving Mr. Jin to the grocery store once a week, an odd arrangement that I told myself was a healthy counterpoint to college, a chance to emerge from my social cocoon and rediscover the outside world. He was naturally chatty, Mr. Jin. If he hadn’t been so old, I would have thought he was flirting with me. Mrs. Jin must have thought so, since whenever I delivered him home, she would stare at us suspiciously. The whole thing might have been funny, my tiny soap opera with an elderly Korean couple, were it not for how abruptly Mr. Jin would shut her down with a look. She was a formidable woman, Mrs. Jin. On her own, discussing the rent, or whatever was bugging her that week, she could be downright intimidating, so the way she cowered at these sharp looks from her husband was unnerving. Otherwise, they seemed to get along. And really, it was none of my business. They’d lived their whole lives together. I was just the chauffeur.
Now Mr. Jin was dead. Sitting on the porch with Evelyn, the porch I rented from Mr. and Mrs. Jin, one of whom was now dead, waiting for the dirt-tasting mushrooms to kick in, I wondered what would happen with him gone. Would Mrs. Jin be nicer to me? Would I start taking her to the grocery store?
Then at some point, consciousness had noticeably shifted and Evelyn and I were walking, up through the large hilly cemetery that stood between that old house and campus. I understood the situation of my mind well enough to know that there was no way I was getting on a bus. We were side by side, talking about everything and nothing, about whatever interesting sensations or perceptions we were experiencing. Psychedelic mushroom talk. Early evening cemetery talk. Cool cemetery air is always delicious, air of trees and open spaces, of paved paths with benches, groves of pillars and stones. A cemetery is a whole small world inside our larger one, with its own exotic inhabitants. Living people are the ghosts here. We pass through their domain imperceptibly, outside of the reality they occupy. Their society meets across history, across time. Time is a form of space to them, a perpetual simultaneity. They have so much to say to one another, but no way to talk!
And so on.
The plan was: cemetery to neighborhood, neighborhood to campus, through campus to the party in the neighborhood beyond. Yet by the time we reached campus many eons had passed, and that plan already seemed very distant. A plan made in a different lifetime, by an earlier generation, handed down but no longer fully comprehended. Like the generations of space-travelers it would take to reach the closest star. With each generation, the memory of Earth would grow more remote, more mythic. By the time their great-grandchildren finally arrived, they would look out at this new, basically identical patch of space, and say, “Does anybody remember why we were going to Alpha Centauri?”
And so on.
At some point we were in the percussion room, playing all the different instruments. Eventually we moved on, probably several times, though always with a feeling of somehow. Somehow, we were in one place, then somehow we’d arrived at another. Somehow I had met Evelyn, and our journeys through life had overlapped. Somehow—incredibly—that had happened. But we would both get older, and would become different people than we were now. The people we’d become would be in some ways exactly what we imagined, and in other ways not at all. Someday I would think back on this night with Evelyn—or the person I would become would think back—and it would have meant something. That much I knew. That this future self would be lying in a creaky hotel bed in an unfamiliar city, next to a husband and a daughter, I did not yet know. Or that Evelyn would be dead, that she would die several years later and hundreds of miles away, and I would not even know how she died. That I would not even have anyone to contact to ask how she died.
The mind is a big murky lake, and sometimes you have to just jump in and hope there aren’t large jagged rocks under the surface. It’s easy to be skeptical of the thoughts you’ve had while tripping, to write them off as mere mushroom talk, but your mushroom mind isn’t always wrong. Your mushroom mind sees some things more clearly than your sober mind ever will. Sees things as they are, and welcomes them. Your insomnia mind is more like your mushroom mind, in that respect. But your mushroom mind is mostly benevolent, while your insomnia mind is out to destroy you. It’s your job to tell it, No. Not tonight.
Not tonight, insomnia mind.
Very late, we ended up at the party, which we must have known we would eventually reach. Evelyn walked in first, and by the time I got my bearings, she was already out of the room, she’d wandered off, in what direction I didn’t know. And the whole place was instantly too much, too loud, so I slipped into a corner and stayed there, not freaking out but not happy either, while people moved around me. Big human blur. Wondering where Evelyn had disappeared to. Wanting to leave, but not without her. Having whatever increasingly exasperated thoughts I was having, while over and over she failed to arrive. In fact, she never arrived, so she never knew, as I did not know at the time but decided only much later, in retrospect, that this was the moment when our friendship ended. Evelyn walked into a sloppy loud party and never came back. I gave up waiting, walked out of the party, and that was that.
Which is of course ridiculous. In fact, I saw her the next day, and everything was fine. She asked where I’d disappeared to, and I told her all that had happened. I told her the real story of that night. The real story was not about Evelyn, even if that is the version my memory wants to tell. The real story was what happened after I left the party on my own.
I tumbled out into the night air and my mind cleared. I’d been angry but I could see now—not soberly, but I could see it—that Evelyn was in the same situation as I was, just in a different place. She was having an experience as scattered as mine, and had probably headed in whatever direction had made the most sense to her. She might even have been at the party still. I probably could have gone back in, traveled around the party, and tried to find her. She was probably in there looking around for me right now. But no way was I going back into that place.
It was a beautiful night, and I started walking. Instead of heading back across campus, I wandered further into the neighborhoods on that side, thinking I’d make a big lazy circle and avoid campus altogether. Thinking I’d basically just wander around. I wasn’t at all scared to be walking alone. I was surprised, and pleased, by how fearless I felt. Evelyn does not need me, I thought. I was happy where I was. It wasn’t personal. Or everything was. Experience itself was personal, a thing you could never share with anyone else, not really. You could try. You could overlap with another person, your experiences of the world could briefly coincide in time and space and in that sense feel shared. You could have friends. But only you could ever know what the world felt like to you. And you could never know what the world felt like to another person. In that sense, you were always alone. Which was fine, though. Everything was fine. Everything was exactly the way it was, and I was okay. I felt connected to the lives in the houses I passed, all those dark windows, people gone to bed hours ago. I felt generous toward them, even while acknowledging what an empty gesture my generosity was. What an empty gesture my goodwill toward anyone was, since it was all just a feeling. Mushroom emotions. Much the way, in my sober life, I was completely aware of my existence as a middle-class suburban American whose tastes had been shaped by legions of advertising agents, graphic designers, and media influencers, but I didn’t do much about it. I changed what I could but accepted the rest, because some social constructs you need to accept. Consciously or unconsciously, every day you decide which constructs to accept and which to question, about yourself and about the world. You can’t question everything. You should work on yourself, be aware of yourself, try to better yourself, but you can’t always treat yourself as the problem. Life is hard enough. You were born into a homogenous wasteland, a society that champions sameness but treats people differently, a culture orchestrated to sell you things. You found a way out, a way of understanding yourself and growing, of breaking through intellectual boundaries, but you carried forth from your upbringing a deep-seated resistance to other sorts of messiness—emotional, interpersonal—and fear of confrontation in any form. You enjoy a theoretical generosity toward humanity, but in many ways you are kind of an asshole. You left Evelyn at that party. How long did you even wait? It might have been hours, but it was probably more like ten minutes. Then you left without looking. That was what happened back there. That was the person you were.
And so on.
I turned a corner and stopped. I’d thought I was wandering aimlessly, heading vaguely in the direction of my house, but now I saw that I had arrived somewhere much too purposeful to have landed there at random. A small box of a house, two squat stories, with ornamental shutters and a metal roof, which I immediately recognized as my landlord’s house. The house of Mr. and Mrs. Jin. One of whom, I suddenly remembered, was dead. Mr. Jin was dead. Poor Mrs. Jin.
All the front blinds were closed, but blue light flickered behind the downstairs picture window. Was there anything more lonely-seeming, to my undergraduate self, than the light of a television flickering behind window blinds late at night? I knew from having been inside what the room behind those blinds looked like. The white rug and bronze lamps. I knew that the sofa was right under the window, with the television opposite in the corner. I could picture that room perfectly well. Mrs. Jin was in there, all alone on the sofa, unable to sleep. Staring at whatever stupid thing was playing on the television. Her husband, her partner of a lifetime, had died. She was filled with feelings I could not even begin to imagine or understand. There is nothing I can do for her, I thought, there is nothing we can do for each other, in the end we are all alone. But my body still felt heavy, swollen with the knowledge of Mrs. Jin’s loneliness. I wasn’t melancholic. I would not allow myself to feel generous. I was witnessing her solitude, just bearing witness. I felt also, for the first time that evening, the pinch of my own deep loneliness, never far from me in those days, always just out past the edge of my so-called self-awareness.
At which point, or very shortly after, I did an incredibly stupid thing.
Which may also have been the best thing I ever did.
Other than Ali, of course.
Because I knew how stupid it was, even going in. How bound it was to end badly. But I risked it, I took what seemed at the time an incredible risk, knowing perfectly well that I was in no frame of mind to make good or reasonable decisions. Knowing that my mindset was fooling me and that following it made me a fool. I expected it to be a catastrophe.
But it wasn’t. It was wonderful.
“Poor Mrs. Jin,” I thought, “all alone in there. Unable to sleep, unable to read or concentrate, stuck with only a stupid TV for company, a TV playing who knows what garbage at this hour. Staring at that stupid TV’s stupid garbage and seeing there, in the screen, in whatever sitcom rerun or news recap, a depiction of her own loneliness, her all-aloneness, now that her husband has died. Poor, poor Mrs. Jin.
“And here I am, a human being who knows her, a friend, in a way, or at least someone who wishes her well. Here I am also awake, also alone, standing just a few feet away, separated by nothing but a small stretch of lawn and a door. But separated also by social convention, by the late hour, the odd circumstances, an impossible distance to cross. I look at the blue flickers and I know she’s in there suffering, but there’s nothing I can do for her. How easy it would be to reach out to her! Yet how impossible!
“This is what’s wrong with the world. Purely and simply wrong. That two people who are alone and who know each other can’t manage to reach out to one another, to offer company, because of the hour and the roles we play. Landlady. Tenant. Stupid roles for a stupid world. Stupid rules! We force ourselves to follow them, but we’re the ones who suffer.
“In a better world, a more just world, I would simply go up to that door and knock. She would answer and be surprised to see me. She would act baffled, but I would see, too, that she was pleased. That as surprising as my presence was, it also made perfect sense to her. I would say that I’d simply been out walking, unable to sleep. That I was out for a walk and saw the blue light in her window, and figured she was still awake. That I thought, if she’s awake, then in that case perhaps we might keep each other company . . .”
Who knows how long I stood in that street, debating whether or not it was in my power, for one brief moment, to push back against the loneliness of existence. Reminding myself that I was tripping on mushrooms and wondering how different my thoughts would be if I weren’t. How much less foolish I would be. How much less brave! I do not remember crossing Mrs. Jin’s lawn, but I have a distinct memory of knocking, then waiting.
It took a minute for her to answer.
I’m getting chills just thinking about this.
“Abigail,” she said. “What time is it?” Rubbing her eyes. She’d been sleeping! She’d fallen asleep in front of the TV, probably hours earlier, and my knocking woke her up.
“Mrs. Jin!” I said. “I was just out walking and saw your lights on!”
“Are you drunk?”
“I didn’t mean to disturb you! I just thought you might be up!”
“Your face is all red. You’ve been drinking.”
“No, no. I was in the park today! I got a terrible sunburn!”
“That’s a sunburn?”
“A really bad sunburn!”
“That’s not a sunburn. Your face is red like a cherry.”
“I was just walking by and saw your TV was on!”
“You’ve been drinking. It’s okay. Come in. I’ll make you tea.”
So in I went, and she closed the door, and after that I was so completely in the present that I can’t really remember any of it. Like at my wedding—I remember all our family and friends showing up, and the music starting, then: blur. By the time my brain slowed down enough to register itself, the reception was almost over and Ed and I were getting in a car. It’s not that you fail to pay attention in such moments, but that you pay so much attention there’s no room for anything else. The present overwhelms you. Probably I was worried the whole time that Mrs. Jin would figure me out. I must have felt relief that she assumed I was drunk, since the reality would have been so much worse to her. I know I was there until it started being light out. And we drank tea together, and talked, and it felt like a moment between friends. I also know that by the time I left, not only was I sober, but I was quite certain that, against all odds, the visit had been a success. True, I had woken her up, had imposed my inebriated romanticism upon her very real mourning, had embarrassed myself and inconvenienced her in wildly inappropriate ways, but Mrs. Jin was glad I’d come. The stupid idealistic risk I’d taken had miraculously paid off. Because she was lonely. Because even if I was stupid, I wasn’t wrong.
In fact, I was courageous, I thought, as I headed back to my house, though now that I’m approaching the end of this memory, I am starting to doubt it’s the inspiring story I remembered it being. At the time, I was certain my intrusion that night had been a special moment for both of us, that I’d done something real, something brave, and that it was me, Abby, who had done it. I got home and cooked eggs and ate them on the porch, looking back across the hours since Evelyn had shown up with her baggie of shriveled mushrooms. I told myself I’d had an important experience, and that life would be different now. Something was bound to change.
All of which may have been true for me, but why was I so sure, why have I felt sure until just this moment, that the experience was any good for Mrs. Jin? More likely my intrusion that night was a terrible imposition. Why didn’t I see this before? Or Evelyn—why wasn’t I a better friend to her that night? Weirdest of all, most inexplicable of all, why am I suddenly getting worked up about this? All of this happened many years ago. All of this is gone. Yet here again comes the cringing, the random kicks of memory-adrenaline that make your toes crimp, that make your fingers dig into your palms, as if something terrible is happening right now. Terrible things are always happening, but they aren’t always tied to your feelings. You have feelings about nonsense, about stuff that doesn’t matter, while ignoring countless terrible things.
Stop! You have to stop.
Events that happened years ago, that are utterly lost to the past and have no consequences for the present, should not hit you in the middle of the night with an onrush of shame and self-loathing.
Mistakes made when you were young that barely even mattered at the time should not revisit you years later and make your whole body cringe.
There needs to be a statute of limitations.
After that my life did change—that much I was right about— though I’m not sure those changes had much to do with Evelyn or Mrs. Jin. It was around then that I met Ed and we started spending time together. And I took that class with Maggie. With one thing and another, I hung out with Evelyn less and less. That our friendship fizzled away was more my doing than hers, since the effort of maintaining it had always fallen to me. Evelyn was self-contained. She had friends everywhere. She stayed the same, or seemed to, while I moved on. Probably it happened so gradually that neither of us noticed.
The truth is that for all my insecurities, I’ve never had any problem leaving things behind. Even people I’ve cared about. Before Ed and Ali, I could walk away from anyone or anything. For most of my life, I assumed this was hardwired, a kind of inbred coldness, but I am no longer that person. Ed and Ali are proof of that. They’re the reason for it. Ed and Ali and getting older and caring about different things. The person I was before wouldn’t lie here sleepless and unhappy. She would get up right now, waking whoever she happened to wake. She’d throw on some clothes and walk around the hotel. She’d sit in the lobby with a notebook staring out a dark window at the unfamiliar streets of this city, wondering what’s out there. If there was coffee available in the lobby, she would give up on the possibility of sleep and go ahead and have a cup of coffee. She would sit hunched over her coffee, with her notebook, in love with her loneliness. As if the coffee and the notebook and the unfamiliar city were proof of something special about herself. That Abby found herself much more interesting than I find myself now. But I prefer this Abby to that one.
After college, Evelyn moved to San Francisco. The last I heard, she’d become a very successful DJ and performer, which made perfect sense. I could picture her presiding over a club or dance hall, leading this giant room full of excited people in an improvisational ballet of sound and light and movement, allowing everyone to feel, for a moment, part of something special. It was good to be able to think that her energy and beauty were out there in the world, doing those things, even if I was no longer a part of it. Then she died, and that was a shock. Ed saw it in an alumni e-newsletter. He called me in and showed me. I didn’t even have anybody to call.
I hadn’t thought about her much in years, hadn’t missed her, so the overwhelming effect of her death did not make sense. My reaction didn’t seem, to me, like a reasonable reaction to the death of someone by then so distant. I wasn’t just upset. It was like the ground was gone. I’d never felt that way before. Not that death was new to me—I’d known people my age who had died, people from high school, another friend from college, though nobody close. Of course, it’s possible my feelings for Evelyn were simply more complicated than I’d thought. Whatever the reason, for a week after her death, I had the same terrifying dream every night. I would wake up gasping, a kind of panic I’d never known. Ed got really worried about it. So did I. We talked about my going to see someone, but then the nightmare went away. I’ve never dreamt it again, though sometimes I still think about it. When I think about it, I can feel it again. I can remember, in my body, the horrible feeling the dream caused me to feel.
A dark basement, cinder block walls, and there’s a door here, blue. A blue doorframe wedged roughly into the wall, sloppily caulked into the cinder blocks. Push open the door, and the room beyond is just a space, a mouth. I can’t see inside at all. I walk through the doorway and the effect is like holding down the brightness button on a dark computer screen, there’s nothing and then, suddenly, light rushes in. I see that this side of the basement is painted entirely black, even the floor and ceiling, with black-painted pipes running into and out of the walls, and clanking noises. Evelyn is standing in front of me, her hand extended toward me. In the dream, I know that she’s dead. The light is natural light, not lightbulb light, from a window along the ceiling over Evelyn’s left shoulder. The black walls and pipes look a little glossy, the black paint reflects the light, but the black of the ceiling and floor swallows the light, as if there is nothing there but empty space. Then I realize that Evelyn’s hand is not extended to me, but is pointing past me, to the floor. I turn, and there lying dead on the floor behind me is a large white dog. It is not a particular breed, just large and white. It has a red bandana tied around its neck as decoration, and it’s lying on its side, not breathing. It looks stiff. I don’t approach it. A sentence comes into my head, the same words every time: A white dog lies dead on the floor of a black basement. I turn back to Evelyn and she’s still facing me. She mouths some words, though no sound comes out, but I understand the words anyway. Sometimes the words are “That’s me,” and sometimes “I’m dead.” Those are the only two things she ever says, either one or the other. But the moment she speaks these words, panic pours into my body, like water from a pitcher, quickly filling up my feet, my legs, then my torso and arms, my neck, all the way to the top of my head. I find myself suffocating inside my own body. But I am also, while this is happening, calm. Because in the dream, I know that this is me, now, forever. This feeling. A white dog lies dead on the floor of a black basement. I will live inside this feeling forever.
Excerpted from The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker. Published with permission of Wolf Literary Services, on behalf of the author. Copyright © 2023 by Martin Riker. All rights reserved.