Adam sat in a stiff folding chair determined to prevent the contents of his stomach from shifting. A breeze poured into the crowded gymnasium through the open doors behind him. The cool air that kissed the back of Adam’s neck would have settled him if he wasn’t so claustrophobic. Parents, siblings, and extended family members of his classmates packed the bleachers and lined the walls around the gym, all exhaling a layer of thick, heavy smog that blanketed the graduates on the hardwood floor.
Principal Baughman approached the podium for the second time. Adam heard his voice, but couldn’t discern the words. Each syllable was more self-congratulatory than the last. He had heard versions of these exact same speeches in television shows and movies. Maybe the commencement speakers had too, and that’s why their words reeked of the same melodramatic undertones and plagiarism.
The valedictorian was next. She received an enthusiastic applause that caused Adam’s eardrums to ring. The slapping of flesh caused his jowls to seize and his eyes to wince. Lightning bolts shot currents down each jugular vein and caused his chest to puff outward. Adam made an effort to conceal his pain by slouching further into his chair. He hid his face in the billowy sleeves of his robe hoping no one would take notice of his anguish. It didn’t matter; no one was looking at Adam even though his heightened state of paranoia told him otherwise.
Adam saw a student slipping a flask under his robe as he scanned the crowd. It was Aiden Troy, a fellow classmate that he’d only encountered in shop class. The boy giggled with his cohort beside him, clearly intoxicated. Adam wished that he could have achieved that same degree of reckless abandon from his own consumption earlier that morning. Instead, the ten large gulps of Fleishmann’s that he took in the solitude of his bedroom were rotting away at his stomach lining. Why did he think it was a good idea to keep swallowing the clear bitter liquid after it began to set the back of his throat and nose ablaze? His guts continued to twist themselves into a knot. If someone as dumb as me can graduate then how can anyone else feel proud of this “accomplishment?” Adam thought to himself.
At that moment the lights dimmed and hushed whispers echoed out around him. The blossoming summer sun poured in through the windows from the open hallway. Adam was grateful for any amount of darkness. He imagined the alcohol was seeping from his pores. His skin felt as though it had reverted back to its greasy pubescent form. Adam continued to plead for numbness, and for a moment he thought his prayers had been answered. The students and parents in the gymnasium hushed at their neighbors for silence. Thank you, everyone. All I need is a moment, Adam told them telepathically.
Then—as if he were being sucked through the gates of hell—The Black Eyed Peas “I’ve Gotta Feeling” burst through the loudspeakers at full blast. The large white projector screen filled with images of his classmates. First there were several shots of kids throwing balls around the very gymnasium, followed by a line of students high-stepping and mugging for the camera in the cafeteria, and then a shot of Adam’s football team jumping fervently in the locker room after they had won their sectional final game.
The projector created a strobe effect as the light bounced off of the white concrete walls of the gym. Rays scattered rhythmically throughout the large open space as if this were some hellish rave. Is this a nightmare or a bad trip? Adam shut his eyes and tried lifting himself from his tormented body, but to no avail.
The flood of scenes kept coming. There was the girls’ volleyball team at state, cows representing members of the 4-H squad, art students in their clay-covered smocks, and more random shots of students posing around the school. They were all begging to be remembered. Meanwhile, Adam prayed that he would be forgotten.
When the music switched over to Eve 6’s “Here’s to the Night” Adam could sense the sentimentalism kick into fifth gear. The gymnasium immediately became cool and dank with misty eyes and engineered sighs of nostalgia. Adam dug his fingernails into his ribs as he held himself. He knew what the song building toward. Adam took a large breath and held it as if he were waiting to be punched in the stomach.
During the bridge Emily Harbaugh’s face stared right back at the crowd. The unsettled sediment in Adam’s stomach weighing him down like concrete crept upward to his sternum. His organs decided to dislodge themselves from their assigned places. Adam’s intestines pushed against his throat while his lungs stretched downward near where his kidneys used to be. He couldn’t breathe, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to. Adam continued to stare straight ahead knowing that members of the audience were sure to be looking to him for a reaction.
Mesmerized by the girl looking back at him Adam remained frozen. Emily did not pose for the cameras. Ironically, she seemed realer than any of the other students that had preceded her. There was a clip of her talking with Adam in the hallway, another with her standing atop a cheerleading pyramid, and another of her at the lunchroom table socializing with her clique of friends. If anyone didn’t know who Emily was beforehand, they would have instantly understood that something terrible had happened to her by the way the music kept building and how members of the crowd whimpered.
The lights turned back on with a loud clack followed by a brief buzzing sound. The static was soon drowned-out by a thunderous ovation as the text “In Memory of Emily Harbaugh” faded on to the black screen.
Adam rose to honor Emily as well, the girl that he had broken up with earlier that spring after basketball season finished. The girl he thought he dealt with delicately when he refused to get back together with her. The girl that would most likely haunt him until the day he died. Adam hadn’t taken Emily off of her anti-depressants or shoved the bottle of pills down her throat. He hadn’t chosen to go to a different college or planned on pining after other girls. That didn’t change the fact that Adam had left Emily completely and utterly alone. Now more than ever he understood what she must have felt like.