Public Apology: Dear Julia Neaman

Public ApologyDear Julia Neaman,

I’m sorry for accusing you of conspiring against me when I was on hallucinogenic mushrooms.

This was in May, 1992, the last week of spring semester, when the seniors at our college were preparing to graduate. “Senior Week,” they called it, every night of which there was a different party, thrown by juniors, to celebrate the achievement. You were in charge of one of those parties, the school having given you a budget based on a proposal you’d submitted. You’d chosen me to be on your 20-person party staff-something of an honor in that it allowed an underclassman to attend an otherwise seniors-only party, and also just nice of you, because we didn’t know each other very well. We’d just met that year, in Mr. Vogel’s modern philosophy course.

The responsibilities of party staff were vague. Cart sound-system equipment? Serve seniors beer? Stand guard at an inflatable trampoline? Nothing too taxing, you assured.

It was beautiful weather the day of the party, so I spent the afternoon lying on my back in the garden behind the Asian studies building, tripping on mushrooms with a bunch of my friends, letting my sense of time and selfhood dissipate like the puffy white clouds floating above in the sky. It was totally awesome.

When the sun got low, someone mentioned dinner. Food seemed like an entirely foreign concept to me at the time, but we all got up off the grass and headed back to central campus. When we got to the quad, where the party was to be held, I saw you standing in the middle of a group of people, setting things up. Realizing that I was supposed to be there, working, I said goodbye to my friends and walked over.

You were busy. You said hello but had to see to something, so I just stood there, looking at the shadow cast by the tent that had been erected between the old stone dorm buildings. I didn’t know many of the other people working the party, but eventually found myself standing with Pat, who’d also been in our philosophy class, and a guy who I think was on the sailing team. Ben, maybe? There didn’t seem to be anything for us to do set-up-wise, so Pat and Ben asked if I’d like to go to Ben’s room and smoke pot. This seemed like a good idea, but was not.

Soon after we smoked, the tapestry-draped, cinder-block dorm room began to feel extremely cramped. There was nowhere to sit. Pat and Ben were talking about stuff I couldn’t understand. I wondered at some point whether they’d made up a secret language. But I nodded along so as to be polite.

It was a great relief to get outside. But by that time, 8 p.m. maybe, it had gotten dark and the road back to the quad had taken on a sinister air. I had still had no idea what Pat and Ben were saying when they spoke. And when they laughed, it was worse.

Back at the tent, the party had begun. Seniors were arriving, drunk and loud as they’d been all week. You were a whirl of orchestrating activity, talking fast, with people surrounding you wherever you went. I didn’t dare approach. Pat and Ben, though, went to get their assignments, and were soon stationed at the side of the stage, ten feet behind an orange rope. There’d be a band playing later, and I guess they were supposed to keep people away from the instruments or something. It was all very confusing. I walked around by myself for a while and it soon became clear that everyone was against me.

So I probably had a scowl on my face when you found me, standing away from the crowd. If so, you didn’t mind, and smiled in a friendly way when you asked if I had a desk lamp in my room.

“A desk lamp?” I said, as if I couldn’t conceive of such a thing. I couldn’t, actually. It took me a minute to visualize what a “desk lamp,” in fact, was.

“Yeah,” you said. “Is there one in your room?”

“A desk lamp.”

“Yeah.” You giggled. “A lamp on your desk.”

I did have one. Right on my desk. Like most college students, probably.

“Yeah,” I said, cautiously. “I have a desk lamp.” I was suspicious. What could you possibly need a desk lamp for?

“Could you get it?”

“Yeah.” I said. “I guess so.”

“Thanks!” You were cheery. As you usually were. You’re a very nice person. But I was not in a cheery mood. And I could only imagine ulterior motives.

You stepped away, leaving me bewildered. Why would you ask me for a desk lamp? I couldn’t think of a reason.

But I started back to my dorm. I was supposed to be working for you. You ask me for a desk lamp, I will get you one.

Walking across campus, I racked my brain. What could it be? Gradually, it came to me: You were setting me up for public humiliation. I was to walk all the way to my room, get my desk lamp, bring it all the way back to the party, where you would point at me, standing there with an unwieldy desk lamp in my hand, and shout, “Ha ha! Look everybody! Dave has a lamp in his hand!” And then, since there would certainly be no place to put a desk lamp at a party, I’d have to carry it around with me for the rest of the night-marked as dupe. I even imagined that I’d heard of this before. That it was a hazing ritual at certain fraternities. (Our college had no fraternities.) That pledges were made to carry their desk lamps with them wherever they went for the duration of “Hell Week,” and that they’d be punished severely if found without one. (I still think something like this might in fact take place in fraternities. But probably with not with desk lamps.)

By the time I’d gotten to my dorm, I’d convinced myself that I was the butt of a well-known party gag. Everyone knew I had taken too many drugs, everyone was waiting for me to get back there, they were all going to have big laugh when I walked in with a lamp in my hand. I was resigned to it.

I walked into my friend Will’s room. Will was a senior and was getting ready to go to the party. He was showered and relaxed, in clean clothes. He could tell something was wrong as soon as he saw me.

“Why so glum?” he asked.

“I fell for the old lamp trick,” I said, sadly.

“The what?”

“You know, the thing where someone asks you bring a lamp to a party. And then there’s no place to put the lamp, so you end up holding the lamp in your hands all night.”

Will gently assured me I was out of my mind. I went upstairs and got the lamp, and we walked back to the party together. The band had started playing, people were dancing. I found you and presented the lamp. To my surprise, you took it. But when you walked away, I assumed I’d just lost a lamp.

“Yeah, like she needs a lamp at a party,” I said to Will.

Ten minutes later, Will pulled my shirt. “Come here,” he said. “There’s something you should see.”

He walked me over to a folding table set up near the back of the tent. My lamp was sitting on it, shining its light on an array of cassette tapes of the band that was playing. A ska band from Boston. Chucklehead, they were called. The tapes were for sale. “You’re an idiot,” said Will.

I think everyone but me probably had a really good time at the party.

Dave Bry is The Awl’s Associate Editor for Cross-cultural Connections and Hard-Rocking Beats.

Previously: Dear Brown-Haired Woman