I was twenty-three and my life was a series of parties. These parties were well lit and poorly drawn, which is to say we tried and yet: our parties were off, tilted, either spatially or temporally, misplaced or displaced. Something was wrong with them. I can’t say precisely what. The purpose of these parties was to pageant an idea of adulthood my friends and I had patch-worked from television plot lines and scenes we remembered from our mothers’ photo albums. But television is set in New York City and our mothers hadn’t been young since the eighties, so our source material mismatched our circumstances. We were twenty-three in 2013 in a small post-industrial southern city. Our setting included a local brewery, a lack of cocaine, and access to a burgeoning artisanal soap scene, so an ideal party might have been outdoors, in the woods, and involving biscuits, but we didn’t have time to calibrate to our own reality, like I said there were too many parties.
For example: that year I celebrated Christmas eighteen times before December 25th. How? At least two cookie exchanges one caroling disaster and I don’t know what else. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. Sometimes I would be talking and my speech would come out mixed up. I’d never noticed that kind of thing before and it terrified me. I didn’t consider how I was talking more than ever at all these parties and also I was always a little bit drunk. Instead, I found a neurologist.
At my first appointment, I informed my neurologist I had a degenerative neuromuscular condition. He told me I was probably wrong. Probably wrong meant possibly right, not enough reassurance where death was concerned, so I returned to his office again and again. Finally, he offered to administer the only definitive test. Yes I said. I want that. He warned me it would be uncomfortable.
One of my friends lived in a nicer apartment building than the rest of us. It was a refurbished textile mill with really high ceilings. Everyone who lived there was young with rich parents and on nights when there wasn’t an official party, we’d hang out in the lobby, where an unofficial party was always going on. Once I met a woman who was in school to become an actuary. I’d never heard that word before. She explained it had to do with statistics; with a few facts about a person she could predict when they’d die and how. Her eyes got all glowy as she talked about heart disease and workplace fatalities. I wanted to get away from her, so I struck up a conversation with an acquaintance, pleasant enough until a week later when he called to sell me a life insurance policy.
A difference between television and life is that, on TV, the totality of a party is plot-relevant; all the bland lacunas are left out. The same can be said of a character’s mistakes. Phoebe lied about working at a corporate massage parlor so hilarity could ensue. Carrie got her diaphragm stuck so Samantha could unstick it, demonstrating new heights of non-threatening homoeroticism. George killed his fiancé with poisoned envelopes because the writers of Seinfeld realized his marriage was a mistake. Unlike real life, the blue-lit universe bends towards order, and if order fails, we can blame God, the show-runner.
The neurologist’s definitive test was electrodes, in pairs of two, attached to my skin, tracing nerves down my back and legs. The electrodes connected to wires, which snaked into a machine. After the neurologist attached the electrodes, I lay down on his examining table. He pressed a button, releasing an electric current. I made a new, small sound, like what you might hear from downstairs when a trap snaps a mouse in an indistinct corner of your attic. Do you want me to keep going? he asked. Yes. The shocks became more intense. The results of the test were clean.
An unforced error is disorienting.
There was one photo in my mother’s album I used to fixate on: it showed her at a party painted head to toe in gold. It was 1984. The costume was a mistake. Her sweat beaded; the paint streaked. What are you even supposed to be? I’d ask. A gold person. That’s not a good answer. I don’t have a good answer then. Why did you do it? I don’t know. Was it Halloween? Probably not.
Photo albums often proceed in chronological order and imply a narrative accidentally. Even on its own, a photo implies a definite negative causality: whatever the picture records, including the act of taking the picture, it did not preclude the present from coming into being.
In the definitive test, each pair of electrodes included one electrode to stimulate the nerve and another to record the nerve’s response. A talker and a listener, a classic Carrie and Miranda dynamic. If there’d been a mix-up, if I’d gotten hooked up to only one kind, the test would have hurt twice as much or not at all. In either case, the results would have indicated a total absence of neural response. I’m sorry to inform you, you’ve died already.
At one party, I remember staring at the strings of lights above our heads. I don’t think I was even drinking for once, but the lights looked blurry and haloed, a distant choir of angels. My roommate at the time approached me. I’d probably been staring too long at the ceiling. You look completely miserable she said. I was surprised. Did I feel miserable? You don’t have to be here. She didn’t say it in a nice way, but it was still a nice thing to say. I could leave, so I left. It had recently rained. Outside, the pavement looked cool to the touch and relieved. The party glittered like crushed glass behind me. It would be a couple more years before I learned anything.
About the artist...
Annabel Lang is a writer living in Chicago by way of the Carolinas. She is the co-founder and co-curator of Junior Varsity, a public workshop and variety show. She also participates and leads writing workshops through Wasted Pages, the workshop series formerly housed at CHI-PRC and in 2019 she will begin co-facilitating RAVEL, queer creative writing workshop series. She has essays featured or forthcoming in Jet Fuel Review, American Chordata, and Cosmonauts Avenue. In all likelihood, if you are from Chicago, she has served your coffee or sold you a book sometime in the last four years.
Want to see more of Annabel's work?
Check out her piece, A Llama Farm Tour Guide: Life and Times, from Issue III: Roots!