This month, I’ve been participating in a thirty day writing challenge with a friend of mine. The rules, for anyone who wants to take the challenge for any other time, are here. The first day’s challenge was: “Select a book at random in the room. Find a novel or short story, copy down the last sentence and use this line as the first line of your new story.” I had one of my housemates pick a book for me, believing I’d be biased if I picked on my own. She picked The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The yield is below.
I had my teacher forward a photograph of a painter’s handwriting to a writer I’m reading. I hope that if she sees it, she will think well of me for reading so attentively. This has always been my strategy. Read close, read deep, read intimate, read older. Forty at sixteen, she and I have this in common: our ages play dissonant chords with our faces.
Today has been a reading day. This semester it seems that reading is overtaking writing in my daily activities, and while that’s okay, I’m still glad that I have my post-a-day challenge to keep me writing, as well as my writing class. But today is just one of those strange days where I feel like my eyes have been zooming back and forth continuously, reading one thing or another. One day, I’m going to want to remember the kind of Sundays I had at college, so here is what I read today:
1) David Copperfield while eating my breakfast in my pajamas.
2) The workshop submissions for my writing class. It was my second read, and I had a pen in hand to make notes and marks, but there weren’t many to make on the two stories I read today, since they were excellent.
3) Crime and Punishment, with many post-it notes and a pencil. I’m reading it very closely, for the second time (only read up to page 450 the first time, though, and am reading it again because after conversing with my professor, I decided that it required the kind of reading where I pay attention to little details and make a ton of notes. Which is what I’ve been doing.)
4) David Copperfield again while eating lunch.
5) I was in a writing workshop last year as well, and I’m working for the teacher who presided over that class. He trusts my judgement, which is incredibly flattering, and part of my work for him is reading stories by these two authors he hadn’t heard of till recently and deciding whether any of their stories are good enough to pass on to him and his current (or future) writing class. So I spent an hour reading a couple stories by A. E. Coppard in the one book of his that’s free on Google Books: Adam & Eve & Pinch Me: Tales.
6) Finished reading a play by a guy who was, funnily enough, in the same writing workshop with me last year. I’m going to be directing a reading of this play – an entirely new and foreign experience for me, but one I’m quite looking forward to, especially since the play is beautiful and moving.
Now I’m off to the library to read some more Crime and Punishment.
All of the reading. All. Of. It.
At 1:30PM, fifteen students and one teacher gathered around a table. It was on the top floor of a building that was normally inhabited by much younger children who knew it as their nursery school, but at 1:30PM all the children had gone home, as had their teachers.
The group of students in the white-washed, fluorescent-lit, mildly air-conditioned room were definitely not children, although their parents might have had a different perspective on that. They were all young adults, college-aged, facing the world on their own to some extent.
No two of them looked alike. Each had his or her own unique style of dress, whether it was blue hair, a classic polo shirt, or a t-shirt bearing an illustration of the Peanuts cast of characters on it.
The one thing they all had in common was their fear. It was palpable; they themselves could almost taste it in the air of the stuffy room, the sickly smell of fear with some odd sweetness in it that might have been just the hint of excitement. They knew that in the coming months they’d be baring some part of their soul to these strangers.
Two hours isn’t a lot, but sometimes it’s enough. At 3:25PM, the fear smell was a little less dominant. Laughter had relaxed the students, as had the teacher’s laid-back manner, the way he literally leaned far back in his chair and lounged like a teenager. There was comfort in his ease, and it spread to the others by osmosis.
At 1:30PM a group of fearful strangers entered the room. At 3:30PM, a group of curious, uplifted, excited acquaintances left it.
“Let’s look at the third problem now. Seven-hundred and twelve divided by fifteen.” The chalk squealed against the board, but Mrs. Pipridge didn’t even flinch. “How about,” she said, back still to the class as she finished writing. “Donald.” She turned, and her eyes gleamed with something malicious as she pointed them in the boy’s direction. “Donald?”
“Yes, Mrs. Pipridge?”
“Will you please explain how we can find the answer to the question on the board?” It was incredible how her voice became sharper the more polite she was. Donald looked at her, his mind shutting down as the numbers swam in front of his eyes. He lowered his head and saw that the answer was written carefully, painstakingly, in his notebook. He’d worked so hard with his tutor to learn long-division, and he’d finally got the hang of it. But he couldn’t manage to get a word out. He stared, terrified, at Mrs. Pipridge’s leering face and opened his mouth, willing himself to speak.
Mrs. Pipridge sighed, and Donald felt as if her breath was like the iciest of December winds, penetrating through his sweater and right into his ribs, making his heart freeze and contract. “Fine. I see you have nothing to contribute, as usual. Laura, how about you?”
Donald heard titters from behind him and felt something sticky and wet hit the back of his head. He didn’t turn around, though. He knew that if he did, he’d receive a spitball right in the middle of his forehead. It was no use telling, either, because Mick and Tommy, the boys behind him, always managed to hide all evidence of straws and chewed-up paper by the time any teacher reached their desk. They were pros.
The new school was exactly like the old one. It was supposed to be liberal and progressive – Donald didn’t know what the words meant, but he’d heard his house-mother throwing them around a lot in meetings – but the kids here were just like kids everywhere. Sure, there was another halfling here, but she got as much crap as Donald did. She just shut up about it, like him, because that was the only way to get through the day.
The Other One, as Donald thought of her, had it better than him, though. Everyone knew that she’d got it on her father’s side and that her mother, a war-hero, had killed the one who’d injected her. The Other One could at least embrace her humanity entirely and disown those parts of her that were so different. But Donald didn’t know who either of his parents were. For all he knew he wasn’t even a halfling; he might be pure Aylyen, although he didn’t think so. His skin wasn’t nearly green enough for that, and while he did only have three long fingers to each hand, his toes were absolutely normal, pink and stubby just like any other kid’s, and the doctors said that was a sure sign that one of his parents had been an H, not an A.
He sometimes wondered whether the Other One ever wondered if she’d be happier with other A’s. Donald wished sometimes that he’d been taken along when the A’s left Earth, but he knew it was a pipe-dream. Aylyens wouldn’t want a halfling either, would they? He was stuck in the middle, between two vastly different worlds, and there was absolutely no way out that he could see.
“Breathe in, deeply, to a slow count of four. Hold your breath for another count of four. Let it out, slowly, gently, to a count of eight, so that every gasp of air in your lungs is let out. This way you’re cleansing yourself, letting out all the dirt and old air that’s been in your lungs for a while.” – Yoga teacher
“Breathe with both your mouth and your nose, and feel the air going into your stomach, your diaphragm and your chest. Good. Now hold it and feel the air inside you. All that air, and the power to keep it inside, that’s all the air you can sing with. You can hold a note for longer if you control your breathing this way.” – Vocal coach
“Oh, this came out blurry. Look, let’s try again, and try holding your breath when you click down.” – Friend, on photography
“Huh, yeah right. Don’t hold your breath, it’s never going to happen.” – Character in a nightmare
It feels like I’m always holding my breath, waiting for something or other. Soon, the waiting, the holding pattern, the in-between-time will be over. Soon I’ll be able to let the air out and take another breath.
Osmond sat in the back of the classroom and doodled on his notebook. The page was full of similar circles, spirals and crosshatching, and his eyes zoomed around, looking for a blank spot. The teacher at the front of the class was speaking, but to Osmond her voice was like white noise. He didn’t take heed of it even when it called his name sharply. He didn’t notice the ominous looks his fellow students were flashing him as they all turned in their seats. He didn’t even notice the teacher standing over him until he realized that his notebook was in a shadow that hadn’t been there before.
“Miss?” he raised his eyes, innocent as a lamb’s.
“Show me your notebook,” she demanded. Osmond turned to the page behind the doodles and handed the notebook to the teacher. She scanned it from top to bottom, and her eyes widened. Her mouth hung open a little and Osmond had to bite his lip in order to keep from smiling. Finally, after an eternity of students holding their breaths, the teacher slammed the notebook down on the desk without a word and began to talk briskly again, as if she’d never interrupted her lecture to yell at Osmond.
Making sure her back was to him, Osmond allowed himself a smile. He went back to his doodles. Every few minutes, in a flurry, he’d turn to the previous page and scribble furiously everything important that teacher had said. He’d then turn back to continue drawing. Nobody ever understood how he took in anything the teacher said when he was so clearly not listening, but somehow his notebook was one of the neater, better arranged ones in the classroom. When his friends asked him about it, he always waved it away, claiming he simply had a gift.
Little did he know that his gift, his strange concentration skills, would lead him to be recruited, at the age of thirty-five, to the most top-secret of the world’s intelligence corps.
While Mr. Adams was reacquainting himself with his old office, Mrs. Adams, who was the less nostalgic and whimsical of the pair, decided to skip going to her office and walk straight to Bloom Hall, the large auditorium where the first years would be gathering.
Mrs. Adams had long been a part of that faculty that spoke with the new students during orientation and made them feel welcome. Although she was sometimes gruff with her own students, believing usually that they could do better than they were, she firmly believed in keeping the kids’ confidences intact and making them feel as if they could do whatever they wanted if only they applied themselves. It was for this reason that she asked, year after year, to participate in many of the orientation seminars – the staff in the Office of Student Affairs agreed one and all that the students left Mrs. Adams talks with smiles on their faces and a sort of hope in their faces.
Mrs. Adams walked into Bloom Hall through the back entrance so she could walk onto the floor of the sunken stage when called. She greeted the other faculty who were going to speak at the event – entitled “What Valley U can do for U!” – and they all complained together about the involuntary cringe they experienced when they had read that title in the invitation to speak.
Soon enough, Mrs. Adams was sitting comfortably on a chair in the auditorium alongside her fellow professors, waiting for her turn to stand at the microphone. She let her mind wander as the Dean spoke of some of the boring technicalities that she knew backwards and forwards. Instead, she contemplated the students in front of her.
A good many of them seemed to still be half asleep – no doubt there had been numerous late night gatherings the night before, which had been the first night in the dorms. Mrs. Adams could tell that a good many of the new class wasn’t even present, and that those who were both present and alert were few. It was amazing to her just how young they looked each year. Four years changed people at that age, and she knew from experience that when she watched these kids at graduation in four years, they would look more like young men and women than like the kids barely out of puberty that they seemed today.
This made her think of what three years worth of growth had done to Claire. She hoped she hadn’t changed into too much of a woman just yet. She hoped that when she got to lunch and saw Mr. Adams, he’d be able to give her some good news – Marty having called or e-mailed, for instance.
“And now, Professor Adams of the psychology department will speak to you a bit about how you guys can avoid utter insanity during the coming months,” the Dean’s words, followed by tired titters from the students, broke into Mrs. Adams reveries and she got up with a smile and went up to the podium.
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.
Mr. Adams jerked awake as the clock-radio on his bedside table began to talk loudly and cheerfully, advertising some sort of cereal. He grumbled, pulled one hairy arm out of the blankets and hit the button that turned the alarm off. He sat up in bed, rubbed his eyes, yawned and stretched before finally throwing the covers off himself and getting up. He winced as he rose, his back giving an ominous cracking sound while he straightened up.
“Love?” he called out.
“Downstairs!” Mrs. Adams yelled back. She was in the kitchen already, having gotten up an hour before to take a brisk walk in the cool early-morning air. She was still in her walking gear; New Balance walking shoes, gray sweatpants and a big black t-shirt still slightly moist with sweat. She was nursing a cold bottle of juice as she scanned the front page of the morning paper.
Mr. Adams traipsed into the kitchen, pecked her on her sweaty head and switched the coffee-maker on before heading to the shower. There wasn’t much hot water, so he soaped himself and washed himself off as quickly as he could, mumbling to himself under his breath “cold, cold, cold, cold…”
“How’s the hot water?” Mrs. Adams asked when he came out, threadbare blue towel wrapped around his waist.
“Brrr,” he said by way of an answer. “Need coffee.” Mrs. Adams laughed and went to turn the boiler on. Their house was one of those old ones that seemed to have been built with the thought that people wanted to go to their garage twenty times a day – the switch for the hot-water heater was there, as well as a liquor cabinet built into one wall and the fuse box on another. Mr. and Mrs. Adams’ cars were there too, although they only ever used Mrs. Adams’ white Ford, because she refused to carpool with what she called the “mid-life crisis car,” which was Mr. Adams red Miatta.
It was in the Ford, then, that Professors Adams set out in an hour later. It was early September, and their work was starting up again in a few days. The new student orientation was already underway, and Mr. and Mrs. Adams both had various meetings to attend as well as work that needed to be finished in preparation for the classes they’d be starting in a week’s time, when the autumn term officially kicked off.
The faculty parking lot at Valley U. was conveniently situated in a big square deep inside the campus, although somewhat an eyesore. Mr. Adams’ office was in Acorn, the literature and languages departments’ building, while Mrs. Adams worked in Mulberry, the social-sciences building. Both were situated on either side of the parking lot, and it was common knowledge among the students of Valley U. that they could witness a sweet display of public affection every morning at eight-thirty sharp, when the Adams Professors got out of their car and kissed each other before heading off in different directions for the day.