Feeling the Years

Ever since coming home from school, I’ve returned to taking voice lessons. My teacher wanted me to be in the music-school’s end-of-year concert, which is how I found myself roped into singing the lead in Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” as well as doing backing vocals for half a dozen other songs.

The other girls singing with me are of various ages between eleven and eighteen. I’m the oldest by three years, having recently turned twenty-one. Let me tell you, nothing makes a twenty-one year old feel her years like spending hours with girls six years her junior and realizing that they’re actually not as interesting to her as the eleven-year old. What is it about the middle teenage years that seems to erase half their brain-cells? One of the other singers, an incredibly talented girl who’s also very sweet, polite and bubbly, actually takes Justin Bieber seriously and thinks that he’s the bee’s knees.

Then there’s the issue of the guy who used to be my guitar teacher when I was a freshman and sophomore in high school. I hadn’t seen him for ages, until tonight when I found out that he was leading the rehearsal we were having. Since seeing each other he’s become more clean-cut and I’ve had time to go wild and come back down a little again. It was strange seeing him and realizing that six years had passed since spending weekly hours together with our guitars. Knowing that I’m now at an age where he looks at me like an equal, an adult, is frightening in some ways, exhilarating in others.

Growing older is strange, but so far it’s not actually displeasing.

Amelia [Character]

Amelia thought about death a lot. She didn’t consider herself morbid. She told people she was a realist. “Every time you cross a street, you might die,” she would say. “A freak tornado can happen at any time. Earthquakes aren’t that rare. All it takes is one moment of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you’re dead. And that’s a fact.”

She ran a finger underneath the velvet choker tied round her neck. Lifting the long-stemmed glass in front of her, she took a sip of champagne. The bubbles burned her tongue. The restaurant was brightly lit, clean and simply decorate, but Amelia saw dozens of opportunities for death all around her. If the waiter slipped right there, he would bang his head on the corner of a table. If the bartender poisoned the beer barrels, everyone who was ordering on tap would be in trouble. If the electric chandelier fell, it would crush the angry family sitting at the table directly beneath it.

“Ah, Amelia! Welcome back, welcome back,” the head waiter said, shuffling over rather nervously and drying his sweating hands on his tailcoat. “What can I get you today?”

“Nothing much, nothing much. This champagne is rather nice, you know.”

“I’m glad it’s to your liking!”

“Yes. Do you know that if you swallow something the wrong way, the fluid stays in your lungs? You can accumulate so much fluid there that it can kill you.”

“Indeed?”

“Hm. I think so. Maybe not. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?” Amelia realized she was a little tipsy. This was, after all, her third glass. “Death is a beautiful thing, my dear sir, did you know that?”

“Amelia, now,” the head waiter extended his hands forward, trying to ward off the oddness. “You remember what happened last time we had this talk?”

“Yes,” Amelia said, her voice serene and her eyes gazing far away. “You ended up escorting me out very rudely and then calling the police. The police, mind you, could have been very rough with me. Did you know that there was a kind of thing as ‘suicide-by-cop?'”

“No, I wasn’t aware. The cops weren’t rough with you, were they?” The head waiter’s anxiety levels were rising and he could almost feel the blood pressure closing his arteries and making it difficult to breathe. Amelia, or maybe it was Amelia’s money, often had that effect on people.

“No, no, of course not. But they could have been, you know. I just think you should get us both some lemon pie and then sit down and have a chat with me. What do you say?”

The head waiter made his excuses and hurried away to get the bill which he would put, not so tactfully, beside Amelia’s plate of pie. He sometimes had nightmares about Amelia. It was hard for him to envision her as someone like him, with a family and a past and some future. She had significantly less future than he did. Maybe that was part of why she frightened him so much.

It was so convenient and easy to see her as a scary old witch who was fascinated with her mortality; it was rare that people saw her for what she was – her friends dead, her family members all involved in their own lives, she was an old woman who was, indeed, fascinated with her mortality.

One Good Thing

Jodi lay on what she knew to be her deathbed, and thought about life. It was impossible for her to think about death. She’d been thinking about death for the past three years, ever since the doctors had found the first tumor. But in a few hours, the doctors said, she would die. They’d offered her morphine, to ease the pain, but she’d refused. It wasn’t because she was particularly strong, nor because she desired to suffer. It was merely that she wanted to think about life a little before she died, and she knew that she wouldn’t do that in the blissful haze that morphine gave her.

She wasn’t a very good woman. Ninety-three years old and her neighbors had been wishing her dead for two decades already. She knew that no one liked her. But that was alright. She’d realized sometime during her sixties that she didn’t like herself much either. At first she went to therapy and tried to fix herself. After four sessions, she’d decided that there was no reason to fix something that had been broken for so long, and anyway, Doctor Haddock was simply gaga.

Lying in the stinking hospital room, on her soiled sheets, Jodi wondered whether she’d done anything good in her life. She thought of her children, and concluded that they turned out to be good people despite her, not because of her. Her husband of forty-five years had died a long time ago, and she didn’t think that she’d made his life better. She thought, upon reflection, that he would have done better to have married his mistress when he started having an affair. She didn’t begrudge him anymore. Her grandchildren she hardly knew, although they were all in their twenties and probably having babies of their own by now. But her children had both run away to far corners of the earth, and so she’d never come to know their offspring well. Better this way, really, because her death wouldn’t be of much notice to anyone.

But surely, she thought frantically, she must have done something good in her life. No one would remember her for long, it was true, and if anyone did they’d remember a gruff, violent old woman who couldn’t hear very well but insisted that she did. They’d remember her spiteful cackle and the way she never opened the door for children at Halloween. None of this bothered Jodi, not really, but she still thought that there must have been something good in her, sometime.

A strange memory came upon her as she stared at the boring whitewashed ceiling. An image floated across her mind’s eye, an image of a red-haired girl giving a flower to an old drunk on the street and handing him a thermos full of strong black coffee. She remembered the man blessing that red-haired teenager, who was wearing a frightfully short yellow dress, and calling her “ma’am.” She remembered the red-haired girl laughing merrily, giving him five dollars – more than a month’s worth of allowance back then – and telling him to get a job. Finally, the last image she could see was of a janitor whistling as he swept the floors in an old office building where the red haired girl worked as a secretary. She remembered the red-haired girl smiling at him and shaking his hand and the man blessing her for the coffee and the money, but most of all for giving him hope.

Jodi’s crabbed fingers clutched at the call-button. A nurse came in, warily. She was new, and she’d heard horror stories about the old woman’s temper.

“Tell the doctors that I want the morphine, girl,” Jodi said in her rasping voice. “And be quick!” The young nurse jumped, surprised at the vigor in the words and hurried off without a word.

Jodi smiled to herself, toothless, sunken-cheeked and liver-spotted. She’d done one good thing in her life. That was good enough.

2. Amanda [4]

She led her little pack into Oakwood’s front hall, and up the stairs to the fourth floor, where the new students were roomed. She asked whose new roommates had slept in, and then made everyone start pounding on doors up and down the hall. A few tousled heads poked out of doors, only to be dragged laughing or scowling into the hall in their pajamas.

“Hey, this is your orientation-leader talking – and no, I don’t mean I’m going to help you figure out if you’re gay or straight, you’re on your own there – and I’m telling you all to put some clothes on so we can get going! Believe me, there are some awesome secret places on this campus, and if you choose to go back to sleep now, you might never be able to tell your future kids how you crawled through Acorn’s airway ducts to try to get to the Dean’s office.”

A silence followed this little speech, and then some titters. But as Amanda left Oakwood, her pack had almost doubled, although most of them were still half-asleep. That’s okay, though, Amanda mused, I can’t wait until I show them the secret passageway in Treemont Dorms. They’re going to love those.

It was a true and rather odd fact that Valley U’s buildings had been designed by a slightly eccentric architect with an endless fascination for old palaces. Although most of the buildings looked merely classic and collegiate, some even with ivy clinging to them, they were all filled with some secret passageway or hidden nook or secret cellar room. Amanda knew that the professors knew about them all, as well as the staff – well, she assumed they all did anyway – and merely chose to turn a blind eye because of the fun and unique character it gave the university.

1. Mr. and Mrs. Adams [5]

Mr. Adams walked briskly up to Acorn, walking around the building so he could enter from the front instead of walk through the dank halls that led upstairs from the parking lot. When the semester was underway, he didn’t mind going through the back door; there were often students standing around it and smoking and usually he’d know a couple and would exchange pleasantries as well as a covert and rare cigarette with them.

Even so, it was always nice to enter from the main entrance to Acorn – the impressive double doors were thrown open, and all the carvings and metalwork on them was visible to those who passed. The doors had been donated to the university when a rich family who lived on the outskirts of Hartscreek had decided to tear down the private chapel they had on their property and build a large pool to replace it. Mr. Adams was always curious as to who put the idea in those people’s heads to give the university the doors instead of trashing them. Whoever it was, Mr. Adams was thankful. The doors seemed to him to be just right for the kind of building that Acorn was; imposing, ivy climbing up the walls and a couple of gargoyles leering from the eaves.

His office was on the top floor. He joked with his wife that he didn’t join her morning walks because he had enough exercise just climbing the stairs up and down from his office all day long. The building had an elevator, but it was only used by the cleaning staff and any students or faculty with disabilities. Everyone else was expected to walk. Mr. Adams supposed that one day his knees would pain him enough that he wouldn’t feel guilty applying to get a key for it, but meanwhile he took the stairs two at a time up to his office, hardly puffing at all.

When he got up to the third floor, he walked down the hallway and entered the last door on the left. His name was there on a little plaque, and as he unlocked the door for the first time since summer term ended, he breathed in the slightly musty air and felt right at home. He’d had this room ever since he’d been given tenure, and over the years it had become a sort of embodiment of his tastes. Two walls were lined with bookshelves, crammed with what he called the tools of his trade – everything from books by his favorite authors to literary magazines to anthologies. His desk held the old computer (which he never used) that the university provided him with as well as two cupfuls of pens and a stack of notepads and notebooks almost toppling over. There were also framed pictures of Mrs. Adams, Susan, and a family photo of Susan, Marty and Claire.

Mr. Adams sat down at the desk, laying his briefcase, which held his laptop, daily planner and another bulk of notebooks and pens. He sighed and took the picture of his daughter and her family and gazed at it.

“Marty,” he murmured to himself. “When are we going to hear from you again, my boy? And when can I see my little Claire again?”

Shaking himself, he put the photo back down and pulled out his laptop, ready to get to work on the various syllabi he had yet to complete.

New Year

New Year’s Eve. All around the world, there will be people counting down to their own time zone’s midnight, raising glasses of champagne to their lips and toasting each other and the entrance of the new year. People will kiss, dance, rejoice in something that feels monumental to them. Some will be saddened, feeling the holiday season’s last gasp come to a close and thinking bleakly about the coming week which will be completely back to normal.

New Year’s Eve. A holiday of sorts that should mean something – the beginning of something new and the farewell to something old. It should be a time for resolutions and dreams, hopes and ambitions, fears overcome and disappointments shrugged off.

New Year’s Eve. It’s never meant much to me, honestly. It should mean a lot of things, but it never seems to live up to what I would expect it to be. It’s just a night like any other night, to me. I feel like we should always be ushering in the new and making resolutions and hoping for the future – not just one evening a year.

At the Diner

It was Halloween night, and fourteen people sat around one long surface made up of tables pushed together. They were a loud bunch, all talking and laughing animatedly, despite the fact that it was past two in the morning. They were elated. They’d just finished what felt like the greatest, best, most amazing and spectacular experience of their lives, and they weren’t likely to forget that night for the rest of their lives.

They were a variety – all shapes and sizes, both young men and young women – but what they all had in common was the sweaty, running make-up that none of them had bothered to remove. In loud voices, they yelled up and down the table to each other, congratulating a night well done and feasting on everything from pancakes to onion rings to spaghetti-and-meatballs. They were ravenous, having completed a feat to which they’d devoted countless hours over the last two months.

Anyone nearing their table would have been able to feel the warmth, friendship and fierce-if-fleeting love they held for each other in that hour. Even the tired waitress, decked out in forced-Halloween-uniform and looking tired beyond measure, smiled at the bunch, allowing herself to be patient with them and trusting that, distracted as they were with each other, they wouldn’t complain about the slow service.

It isn’t surprising that this group wasn’t the only one sitting at a diner at two in the morning after Halloween night. The booths were filled with pirates and princesses, butterflies and Peter-Pans, all of them young people on their way back from various parties. The surprising element was that of men and women well into their middle ages, decked out in elegant finery fit for an extravagant office party or dignified family event – and there were many of these at the diner that night as well, looking happy and content, conversing just as loudly and merrily as the young folk.

If the diner could have felt the happiness and excitement that was filling its tables and chairs that night, it would have sprouted wings and begun to float above the ground.