Shadows on the Wall


I feel sorry for the teacher who came to check on us that night. Our hotel door swung open to reveal a massive structure of linens and pillows, inflated somewhat by the air conditioning system and by the aimless thrashing of the teenagers underneath. One of them, of course, was me. 

The four of us were state meet qualifiers for a mathematics competition. Teams from each county in New York get assembled from the highest scorers on a series of timed math questions, which were distributed in various "meets" during the year. Before every one of those meets we all got cherry-red tear-off tickets which we would immediately redeem for an array of low-fat Doritos or Lays. Those tickets were supposed to prevent people from coming back for seconds, but I distinctively remember my friend grabbing two bags of chips anyway. 

This friend was under the pillow fortress with me that night, though I can't recall if he masterminded the whole thing. All I know is that we stripped all the sheets from the two beds, stretched them from the mattresses to the desk on the other side of the room, and then dragged one edge over to the air conditioner in the back. We put the pillows on the sheets as weights, and we stuffed a down blanket on top of the vent in the back to channel all the cold air through our tent system. We wanted to add the minifridge to the mess of sheets, but we unfortunately couldn't find a good anchor. With the lights off, we turned on our iPhone flashlights and danced shadow puppets across the flapping fabric. 

I think that teacher just told us to put the mess away before we went to bed. That whole trip was a nerds-being-nerds mess. The four of us, while heading up to our rooms, decided to T-pose (arms outstretched, domineering) in a semicircle in the elevator. As luck would have it, the elevator stopped before our floor and the director of our Onondaga team walked in. His face, as I recall, was one of absolute confusion. Before that, our coach bus stopped by the Roscoe Diner, where we laughed at the combination of chrome-and-glass diner and Tesla charging station. My cheesecake—oddly crustless—came before my sandwich.

There is some unspoken romance about late nights and shared hotel rooms. Just last year in the final trip our Science Olympiad team took before the lockdown, I spent the night on a pull-out sofa in a Pennsylvania hotel room. The kitchenette was packed with our binders and competition devices, but there was a little gap above the refrigerator where a little person—like me—could fit in.   I almost did too. Almost. My roommates wanted me to, but as one of the captains of the team I was a little hesitant to look like an idiot above a fridge. Looking back I probably should have done it anyways. 

I admit that sharing a bed can get a little awkward. In tenth grade I was with a similar group of friends for a orchestra trip in New York City, and I somehow ended up sticking my foot in my bedmate's face. We then agreed to create, with pillows, a demilitarized zone down the middle of the bed. But this was nothing compared to the nearly-transcendental experience I had with an earlier science Olympiad team in my freshman year. I was sharing a bed with Andrew, who was then a seventh grader and my partner in an airplane competition event. I smush myself to the right side of the mattress and I remember staring up at the faint ceiling backlight that we couldn't figure out how to turn off. My gaze wanders down to the firey glow of the alarm clock. A few minutes past midnight. Andrew stirs and he pokes me. 

"Your breath smells like chicken"

Thinking that at least one of us was dreaming, I asked him to repeat. Again, he tells me that my breath smells like chicken. No, this was not possible. I already brushed my teeth and I had Mexican beef stackers at a slushy rest stop that evening. No chicken. I tell him that. He's livid, and he insists that my mouth smells like chicken. I push back. We jabber for the next thirty minutes or so, and at one point, the teammate from the other bed wakes up, smells my breath, and tells Andrew that my breath does not smell like chicken. Andrew is not convinced. And so the conversation bounced, and I choked with laughter at the ridiculousness of it all. Sharing a bed with a teammate, having to wake up in four hours, debating about the chemical qualities of my breath. 


But this is the magic of it all, isn't it? Of all the events, the clinking medals, the defeats of that next day's competition, I remember nothing. Of the stupid mistakes and last-minute corrections I made in that math competition, I remember nothing. Of the soaring views and museum exhibits of our New York Trip, my phone remembers more than I do. When I think of those nights, all that comes to mind are these profound moments: the midnight chicken debates, foot jousting under the covers, and the dance of shadows on stripped linen sheets.