My brain is like a spider’s web: it can spin a web far and wide, producing in seconds connections between all manner of topics. The threads are thin, though, and cannot withstand much scrutiny or provide any precision or offer hard evidence for their claims.
Trivia nights, let’s just say, are not my forte.
I am, nonetheless, a college professor. An imposter. But this particular imposter’s job is not secure and is in fact on the line. All I know is: I. Must. Impress. Department.
And so when the Dept. Chair emails me at 7:12pm to ask “where are you?” for Virtual Trivia Night (7pm start), I panic. Dear God, I had forgotten. Not a good look for someone trying to stay employed.
Before I could think of an excuse, I am logged into Zoom, my wide-eyed face blinking wildly in its Brady Bunch square, alongside the bright faces of colleagues and students.
“Professor Savage! You made it. We will repeat the last question for you: what mammal cannot jump?”
Cue the Jeopardy theme music.
Oh for the love of Christ, I did not anticipate this: I am not on a team. I am my team.
“Hold your answer up to the camera so we can all read it.”
I went blank, then write, faintly, the first thing that came to mind: Whale.
But am I sure a whale is mammal? I brace myself and offer my card up. Mine is the only answer that looks backwards. Do they see it backwards or is this a camera trick? Sweat trickles down the sides of my nose.
Answer: Elephant. 0 points.
Shakily, I grab another index card and a heftier pen, a marker that I find out squeaks audibly when I write.
“How long was the 100 years war?”
Trick question. I am frozen, watching students and professors bow heads to write their answers.
Professor M. laughs, “Professor Savage, your face, you look Dumbfounded!”
The students look up.
I know they can hear me swallow. Probably my heartbeat, too.
99.5, cross out, 100, cross out, squeak squeak.
Answer: 116. 0 points.
Next question. I light up: “Oh! I actually saw Breaking Bad!” I announce to all.
Professor M. smiles at me.
“What secret ingredient did Jesse add to the meth?”
All I can think is “apple,” probably because I am looking at my computer, but what is the point in writing that down? The answer is surely not apple.
Everyone’s cards are up for scoring. “Professor Savage, do you have an answer?”
I stare into the camera. I cannot move. I am frozen. I cannot even hold up my blank card.
“OK, moving on,” says the Chair, eyeing me.
Questions fly by, one after the other, about Destiny’s Child, Presidents’ ages, the chronological order of Ghostbusters, the Hubble telescope, the end of the Cold War, and 2 other things I cannot now recall.
Professor M. sees me wipe sweat from my eyes. The others avert their gaze.
“OK. Ready, folks? What political document contains this quote….”
Jeopardy theme music.
I wonder: if I have a heart attack on virtual trivia night, would that be better or worse than this mortification?
There are so many words in front of me that they blur together and I cannot read them anymore. Just.write.SOMETHING.
George Washington! But wait, my answer is a person, and the question calls for the name of a document.
My throat is closing.
Just then, I overhear a student mumble slowly to herself, “Declaration of Independence,” as she writes out each word.
“K! Time’s up!”
Oh God. This is it. “Decl of In” I hastily squeak out.
The Chair squints as she reads my answer, the last card to be held up to the camera, “Hm,” she looks at me, eyebrow cocked, “OK, 1 point for Professor Savage.”
Now I’ve added cheating to my list of public professorial crimes tonight.
Without it, I’d have gotten 0 of 16 points. It was Sophie’s Choice, under the gun, people. What would you have done?
The Chair declares, “Professor M. wins: 15 of 16 points!” She missed a point when she was getting her fresh banana bread out of the oven, her well-mannered toddler under one arm.
Professor M. glances at me. “Thanks, everyone, for such a fun night! We must do this again!”
Suddenly, they all wave and sign out handily, in a cascade of dwindling Brady Bunch squares.
Where is the dang button?
I am the last one to leave the meeting. I am mute. I cannot even find the virtual exit.
And so it was, just me and my Chair. She sneaks a last look at me, says not a word, and disappears.
It is suddenly very quiet.
I look around me: neon index cards are strewn across the desk, with my crude purple marker scrawl, each with an answer scratched out and messily written anew.
It occurs to me, only now, that all the other players had economically, sustainably even, used one sheet of paper, their answers just neatly numbered one after another in an ordered list.
I take my 16 neon index cards, and the squeaky purple marker, and throw them in the Recycling bin.
I cannot bear the sight of them.
I spend the next four hours pacing, reliving it all, and when pacing doesn’t work, dancing as if I am having a seizure.
Later, in middle of the night, I jolt awake, arms flinging the damp sheets from my body, with the remnants of a truly epic nightmare which rolled every anxiety dream into one.
And then, my spider web brain whispers, that was not a dream.