“…the gray alone has offered a potential to be almost inexhaustible by itself, and his neutral paintings exploit a certain chromatic undertone, with touches of color resonating through the grays.”     – from Jasper Johns: Gray (exhibition catalog)

 

Gray.  Overcast skies, airport carpeting, curb side pickup. The yellow of taxicabs lining up is a relief.  I board the city bus for downtown, and as it passes through the airport toll gate and onto the highway, I can see in the distance a pale blue-orange brightness, the sky breaking through.  It is late morning.

I am on my way to a mid-sized college town far away from where I live.  I will be here for a semester, teaching creative writing at the college.  As an adjunct, I am being paid minimal wages, so I’ve contacted an old friend who lives here and has an extra room for me in her house – a mother-in-law apartment where her mother-in-law in fact used to live, before she passed away, almost a year ago now. She and her husband have two children, four and seven, and she’s warned me that I may not have the quiet I need to work.  But there’s a private entrance, so you can come and go as you please without having to bother with our chaos.  Oscar has discovered my paints, with a vengeance; Ellie is learning the piano. We’ll be so glad to have you, the emptiness of that space is starting to bother us, and we feel we’ve given it enough time.

My friend and I, we have corresponded frequently with one another over the years by e-mail.  We became friends during our last year in college (in a different mid-sized college town), when we were both beginning to get more serious as artists – she as a painter, I as a writer.  It’s been nearly 20 years since then, and much has happened to each of us.  My friend married her college boyfriend, a high school math teacher, and worked as an art teacher in the public schools for many years while she was also making and trying to sell her own work.  Shortly after her son Oscar was born, she gave up the teaching.  Sometime before Oscar was born, I’m not exactly sure when, she’d given up the painting.

I also married, to a man I met while in graduate school. He was a friend of a classmate, a software engineer who made a lot of money working on his laptop from home.  He was not an inventor of software, but rather the person who took the original ideas from the company founders – a couple of 25 year-olds – and made them work for the mass market.  Most of what they created they sold to giant corporations whose names most people wouldn’t recognize, because they are the grandparent companies who own all the semi-recognizable companies, who own all the brand names. Plus, the giant companies mostly went by acronyms, so it’s all an alphabet soup in my mind.

I am not proud of this, but in retrospect, it can’t be denied that I partly married my ex-husband for his money.  I liked him well enough, and we had a good time together.  He was smart and engaging, he kept up with the news and read books and watched independent films.  He liked to travel, but also didn’t mind staying home and cooking and re-arranging the furniture. We differed quite a bit on politics, but it became a kind of sport for us, and we even liked to entertain our friends with our feisty arguments. 

So really, no kidding, it wasn’t him, it was me. What was I doing getting married anyway. What did I know about committing my life to another person, about love, about better or worse.  I was worried a lot in those days – about what I was going to do with my life, about whether I was destined for greatness or just average, about how I was going to pay my bills, about a chronic depression-like sloth I couldn’t seem to kick.  In other words, I was the last person on the planet who should have been dressing up in pretty clothes and promising to love another person forever in front of a crowd of family and friends.

We divorced after six years, which was about the time my friend wrote to tell me she was five months pregnant.  I remember that it hurt me a little bit that she’d waited until five months to tell me; but then again, I hadn’t been in touch all that often during that time, because of how badly my marriage was going.  It was then that I realized she’d stopped painting completely; it wasn’t that she said so, it was more that I just knew, based on her news about the baby and her plans to quit her teaching job.  In her email, she wrote about their house renovations, her husband’s promotion to department head, and their disagreements about mid-wives versus doctors. I remember very clearly the day Oscar was born, because it was the very same day that my divorce papers came in the mail…a convergence that I never mentioned to my friend.

A year and a half later, my friend was pregnant again, but this time she miscarried.  Again, she didn’t tell me about the pregnancy in the beginning, so I only heard about it by way of the miscarriage news.  My friend called me, she was in tears, it was late at night, and I had to ask her to hold on for a minute, because there was a man with me and I needed to get out of bed and go to the other room to talk to her.  To this day, I am not quite sure why she called me.  She had other friends who lived nearby, and she also had a sister with whom she seemed close.   Perhaps she thought that I, among all her friends and relatives, would understand… the loss, and the feeling of failure, all mixed up together.

Since then, we’ve stayed in close touch.  Within a year of the miscarriage, my friend was again pregnant and – with strict doctor’s orders for bed rest and weekly medications in her final trimester – she carried the baby, beautiful healthy Ellie, to full term.  During that year my first book, a collection of stories, was published, with good reviews, and I finished my first novel, which was published a year after that.  At the book party for my novel, I was introduced by one of the publicists to Albert, a book-jacket designer for one of the other houses.  He told me that he hadn’t read my book, or my previous one either, and probably never would, because he had to read fiction for his job and didn’t have time for any more; but that he liked something I‘d said in an interview, something about how nothing-and-everything in fiction is autobiographical, which I’d said without thinking too much about it, in a fit of nervousness.  Then he told me that he used to have his own Web & graphic design company, back when everyone had money and people were optimistic and running your own business was both exciting and possible; but after the dot-com bust, he couldn’t keep it going, so he closed it down and was now both enjoying and hating his new status, working for The Man. “My father and grandfather were cattle and goat farmers who refused to be bought out by agri-business; self-employment was the measure of a man to my father especially, so he wouldn’t have liked what I’ve become.  It was bad enough that I worked indoors, in an office. Luckily, he died before we went under.”  He said all this in a way that somehow gave him away as “an older man,” probably older than he looked—slightly worn from experience, idealism muted but not extinguished. I could envision him in his cubicle, surrounded by hipster designers half his age, simultaneously amused, irritated, and energized by them.   

So I guess that’s about three years now that Albert and I have been together. Or a bit less than three I suppose, because, myself being muted-but-not-extinguished in my outlook on love, it took a while for me to warm up to anything resembling a grown-up relationship.  Albert has never been married, but he has a daughter, Karla, just starting college. Karla’s mother will communicate with Albert only through her, which makes the poor girl bitter and impatient with both of them.

Albert, by the way, is White – which you may have guessed.  I am American-born Korean.  Albert’s daughter is half-Haitian. My friend with whom I will be staying these next months is half English and spent her early childhood in the country outside London.   My friend’s husband is a son of Russian immigrants.

My second novel was published a few months ago with decent reviews, and so some teaching offers have come in.  I was hesitant about taking this one, picking up and moving halfway across the country – leaving Albert, my cats Hopper and Calder, all the routines and pleasures we’ve come to enjoy, like our strong Puerto Rican morning coffee (two cups for me, a half for Albert), burgers and beer at the corner bar & grill, junk shopping in Chinatown – but the book advances get smaller and smaller, and I needed the money.  Albert said: “I’ll take a week to go see my mother, and I should spend some time with Karla – her roommate is a rich kid who’s doing a lot of coke and it’s making her depressed, I think.” Albert has been moody lately, and I took his “don’t mind me” insistence to mean, “Maybe some time apart would be a good thing.”

***

I brought with me one suitcase and a backpack-briefcase with a handful of “desert-island” texts (Chekhov, Rilke, Dickinson, a few contemporaries).  My friend tells me that both the college and public library systems are very good, so I needn’t worry about access to resources.  In truth, I wanted to leave Albert with as much of me as possible.  He’s been known to have out-of-sight-out-of-mind tendencies.  

***

My friend offered to meet me at the airport, but I assured her that this was not necessary.  I am a seasoned user of public transportation and generally enjoy the freedom of the journey—exploring a different place, uninfluenced, from the moment I arrive.  At a central depot downtown, I transfer to a neighborhood line that will take me to a stop a few blocks from my friend’s house.  The last time I was here, Oscar was a year old, my friend was beaming with the bliss of new motherhood, which, despite the sleeplessness, clearly agreed with her; and I was thin and exhausted, chain-smoking (I spent much of my visit sitting outside on my friend’s porch), and picking up the pieces after my failed marriage. 

I notice changes in the neighborhoods as the bus weaves through both commercial and residential streets.  A few more chain stores and restaurants have taken the place of hippie-ish shops and corner groceries.   At the same time, fashion boutiques and specialty stores like “Green Pets” and “Design Barn” have sprung up as well. Instead of “Now Playing,” the marquee of the art cinema reads “For Rent.”

Nearing my friend’s house, where she and her husband were once the youngest couple around amidst mostly-Scandinavian retirees, I see swing sets and trampolines in the yards of a few houses, along with several For Sale signs.  At the stop where I get off, a young, light-skinned Black woman is planting bulbs in the front yard while a darker-skinned man, her husband or boyfriend presumably, stands on a ladder, adjusting or perhaps installing gutters.  The woman smiles and waves a hand my way. 

“Perfect day for gardening,” I say.

“Daffodils,” she says.  “For late winter. I always tell myself to get them in early so there’s some color by late February.  This year I’m finally doing it!”

“Good for you!” I say and walk on, waving my hand.  It’s odd, this sudden burst of friendliness with strangers.  But it would have seemed somehow odder to walk by without saying anything.  I felt as if the couple weren’t strangers at all.

***

“God, this house,” I say to my friend.  It must be twice the size it was six years ago.  They have built up, adding on a third floor that somehow doesn’t look monstrous or hulking, but seamless, as if it’s always been there.  The second floor belongs completely to the children now; the third floor is their master bedroom, a home office, and a large bathroom.

“Andrei decided he wanted to be the general contractor, even though he’d never done a project this big.  It was the only way we could afford it.  Most of the labor was Vietnamese, they did a good job on the framing and exterior, but the interior work was a little sloppy.  Andrei had to re-do a lot of it himself, like the floors and the taping.   See, look over here in this corner, you can see where the seams are all bulky, but Andrei couldn’t fix everything, just the most obvious spots.”  I look but I can’t see anything.  I step to the side where the light is brighter and tilt my head.  Ah, there.

My friend looks older.  Her golden hair has turned brassy and streaked with gray, she wears it long now and twisted into knot, with frizzy pieces surrounding her face.  Her fair skin reveals more lines around the mouth and eyes now, freckles across the nose, cheek and brow bones more pronounced.  She has always been beautiful, in a natural and effortless way, and this has not changed.  Her body is thinner in some places, bulkier in others.  Her hands, which have always been rough and mannish, look younger and more feminine, as if perhaps she has taken to tending them, with lotions and manicures.  She no longer wears glasses; a few years back, when she and her family were vacationing in Canada, she went in for Lasik.

My friend shows me to the downstairs apartment, a surprising throwback to the 1950’s—appliances, furniture, color schemes (brown and rust and dark green).  The main house is furnished in a mixture of antique and modern.  “Andrei’s mother was something of a nostalgist.  They came here from Russia in the early ‘50’s and felt that American culture went downhill from there.  We wanted her to be comfortable, and it was sort of fun, trolling for all this stuff.  Lots of it found on curbsides, really.  A few doors down there was a big estate sale. Amazing what you can do with a hammer, some nails, and Clorox bleach. If you have any problems down here, Andrei can fix just about anything.” I notice up against the far wall, behind the couch, a paint-splattered cloth tarp draped over something large and rectangular.  Canvasses, I assume.    

“It’s perfect,” I say.  “Thank you so much for having me.”

***

The college organizes three days of orientation for new instructors in the English Department.  There are five of us: two are teaching Introduction to English Literature for first-year English majors, one is teaching a seminar on Modernism.  The fourth is Ben Marsh, guest lecturer for the semester, who won the Pulitzer two years ago for an autobiographical novel about a Liberian orphan who is adopted into a White American family. Ben is on a kind of celebrity circuit, being young and charismatic and in high demand. I am surprised to see him at this orientation; you would think he would have a gold-card exemption from all things administrative.

The days are long, but so is lunch “hour.” The five of us move about as a herd, a forced camaraderie.  On the third and final day, the sessions end an hour early, and we all go out for drinks.  

“Thank God that’s over,” says Modernism.  She is the only one of us who has been hired as full faculty.  “They’re all exactly the same.  I’ve been through this five times as an adjunct at five different schools.” Intro to Lit #1 and Intro to Lit #2 have buddied up, as they are both recent Ivy League PhD graduates, and both in their twenties.

“At least they’re trying,” says #1.  “There seems to be relative freedom in the curriculum, even in the required Intro course.  That’s a relief.  I feared we’d be handed a week-by-week syllabus.  Shakespeare. Chaucer. Hawthorne. Melville.  Austen.  Blah blah blah.”

“Hey, I love that blah blah,” says #2.  “It’s better than the reactionary scenario, that enforced Maya Angelou crap.” 

“It’s all about the students,” I say, diplomatically. “Everything is a teachable moment, if someone actually wants to learn.”  Modernism shrugs.  #1 and #2 order a second round. Ben Marsh is reserved, observing.  He isn’t drinking—as if it’s something one does only with intimates—but rather munching on French fries.

“I’ve got to get going,” says Modernism.  “Babysitter’s off at six-fifteen.”

“It’s only five-o-five,” says #2.

“Parking meter.”  Modernism gathers up her things.  “Well, good luck to you all. I’d say it’s been a pleasure, but, well…” Everyone nods half-heartedly as she leaves.

“What a downer,” #1 says.

“Well, I should be going too,” I say.

“Family at home?” #2 asks.

“Yeah.  Well, sort of…” Ben Marsh looks up from his fries.  “Dinner plans.”

“I’ll walk out with you,” Ben says.  We each leave some cash, a little more than we owe, because we both seem to notice at the same moment that Modernism has forgotten to leave her share.

“Later,” says #1.  I could be imagining it, but I think I notice a kind of taunting in #1’s eyes.  Ben and I walk a block in silence, then part ways as I head to my bus stop and he heads for the parking lot. 

“Take care,” he says.

“You too,” I say.

***

Without saying so, dinner with my friend and her family has become a daily routine. Andrei is usually home by 4:30 at the latest, so the two of them work in tandem.  It reminds me a little of Albert and me, except that my friend and her husband make everything from scratch; they even grow a lot of their own vegetables and herbs.  In their cupboards and refrigerator, there are almost no bottled or canned goods, except for mason jars of homemade jams and pickled vegetables.  Albert and me, we like to cook, but we have become experts in the perfect shortcuts.  Canned kidney beans for the chili; frozen fish sticks for the tacos; BBQ sliced pork from Chinatown for the noodle soup.   

“So tomorrow is the first day of classes, is it not?”  Andrei speaks perfect unaccented English, despite it being his second language.  But every so often, his conversational style is a bit formal, as if he is speaking to a group or writing a letter.

“Yes,” I say.

“And do you look forward to it?” I have started to offer myself as a helper in the kitchen, which frees my friend up to mind the children.  Andrei peels carrots and hands them over to me for chopping.

“Yes and no,” I say.  “The hypothetical student is always more ideal than the actual one.  But the actual student is usually more interesting than the abstract one.”

“Hmm,” Andrei says.

“I don’t really love teaching,” I say.

“Then why do you do it?”

“Because I have to.  For work.”

“Ah,” he says.  “Yes, there are things we must do that we would rather not.  This was the most basic understanding about life for my parents’ generation and before them; it was unthinking. Now it actually surprises us a little, and is bothersome.”  He says this with a smile, and yet he does not sound exactly cheerful.     

“It’s not a complaint.  Just a statement of fact, really.” I don’t like the defensive tone in my voice but now it’s out there and I can’t take it back.  “Do you enjoy teaching?”  Andrei purses his lips for a moment, furrows his brow.  Hands me a peeled clove of garlic. 

“Crush,” he says, “with the end of the knife handle.  Then chop.”  I do as he says.  “I do, yes, I like teaching.  By which I mean I like when someone is learning from me.  I suppose the difference, maybe, between what you do and what I do is that it is more clear for me when someone is learning, when I am actually teaching them something.  There are formulas to learn, problems to solve.  There is also the more abstract, the learning of how to approach a problem, without being told which formula to use.  But that too is more or less measurable.  Perhaps you do like teaching, but it’s not clear how much of what you do is actually teaching.”  I think about this as I chop.  The faces of past students march through my mind.

 “No,” I say, definitively.  “Not really.”  Then we both burst out laughing.

***

“What were you two laughing about in there?” my friend asks.  Oscar has asked to be excused and is now walking around the table gathering the dinner plates.  “Good job, honey.  Be careful.  You can come back and make one more round for the bowls, ok?”

“’kay,” he says.  Oscar is an odd-looking boy, with large eyes and long girlish lashes, thin lips, big crooked teeth, and pointy ears that stick out like George W. Bush.  He has the sort of awkward looks that he might grow out of, but might not. 

“I was telling your husband how I hate my students,” I say.

“Whaaat?” my friend says, passing Oscar her plate and patting him on the head.

“Not true, not true,” says Andrei.

“Okay, but that’s what I was thinking.” My friend looks at both of us, brow furrowed. “Andrei was trying to help me see that I actually love my job.”

“And that’s funny?”

“My dear,” Andrei says.  “I guess you had to be there.”

“Why’s it funny.” Ellie is tugging at my sleeve. I look into her serious blue eyes, grab hold of both her little hands.

“Well… let’s see… it’s funny because… because your father was trying to help me, and I told him that I couldn’t be helped.  And that’s funny because…” My friend has her chin in her hands now and is holding back her own laughter now, as if to say Boy, let’s see her pull a rabbit outta this hat. “…because sometimes people who are hopeless and can’t be helped are funny.  Like let’s say Oscar dropped all those dishes and made a big mess on the floor, and then there would be nothing we could do, because everything is already a big mess… so we’d all probably just laugh.”

“Yeeeah,” Ellie says, giggling. “That would be fun-ny.”  I look over at my friend, who nods her head, impressed. 

“Ok, kiddies.  Twenty minutes of TV, and then we need to wash up for bed.”

“I’ll do it,” Andrei says.  “C’mon guys.  Pick a video.”  My friend and I finish clearing the table and pour ourselves coffee.

“I’m sorry we haven’t even had a chance to talk since you got here.  Every minute is…” she waves her hands and looks around, as if the end of the sentence is all there. 

“It’s fine, don’t worry at all.  There’s not much to say…on my part, anyway.”

“How’s Albert?”

“Good, he’s good.  Karla is having some trouble, but nothing serious.”

“Her mother is still…”  I nod.  “Well, I think it’s brave of you two, to live apart like this.  I’m not sure Andrei and I could handle it.”

“Well, you know, we’re very independent, both of us.  We try not to hold too tightly.”  My friend looks at me inquisitively, for just a passing moment.  It’s the same moment in which I hear what I’ve said, notice the definition of Albert and me in negative terms.  “We’ve both been there, you know.  Relationships with certain expectations that didn’t work anything like how they’re supposed to. We stay with what is, as opposed to what’s supposed…if that makes any sense.” There, that’s better.  A more positive statement.  I guess.

My friend changes the subject.  “So if you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing? If you could do anything?”

“Oh, jeez.  Well, I’d be writing mostly.  And traveling.  I’d also like to build something, you know.  With my hands.  I love what you two have done here, with the house.”

“Yes, well, it’s gratifying I guess.  But it was really hard work.  And there was definitely no traveling!  In fact, we haven’t really been anywhere beyond a two-hour drive in… God, I don’t how long. Between the house, and the kids, and the garden…”

“I’ve always wanted to move to southern France, a rural community, and build a small house, something really simple…”

“France? Really?  Not Korea?”  My friend starts to load the dishwasher.  I look at her, surprised and confused.

“Korea?  No, I can’t ever imagine living there.  It’s too patriarchal.”

“Even now?”

“Definitely.  I told you about that, didn’t I?  Last time I was there, a few years back…”

“Oh, right, yeah.  That sounds familiar. France sounds nice.  Makes me think about England.  I still think that everything in my visual memory comes from that time.”

“You mean what you were painting?  Back in college?”

“And after that, too.  Even some of the abstracts I started to do, just after we were married… it’s like there’s just really one primal image that we each carry around, or maybe a small collection of them, all related; and that’s all there is, and everything we create is just a, um… a variation on it…” My friend slams the dishwasher shut, presses the buttons to start it up.  “Anyway, what about Albert?  What does he think about France?”

“Albert? Oh, I don’t know.  We’ve never really talked about it. This might be the first time I’ve said that out loud, in fact.” 

My friend and I, we stand in the kitchen together, listening to the quiet whir of the dishwasher; listening to the echoes of our own words, self-descriptions that come back to us, like boomerangs thrown by someone completely not us. 

***

First class session: I have 14 students, undergraduates—juniors and seniors.  They have all taken at least one creative writing class prior to this one.  We are working on prose, fiction and non-fiction; we will meet three times per week.  One student raises his hand, before we even get to the roll call, and asks about prose poems.  I tell him that I’d like each of them to produce a minimum of 20 pages, so if he wants to write 20 pages of prose poems, then that’s fine – but I suggest that he consider writing perhaps a short-short story along with his prose poems.

“It could all be considered experimental prose in a way.”

“Sure.  That’s right,” I say.            

They are 10 females and four males. They are all White except for two – a Latina junior, and a male senior whose race/ethnicity I can’t determine.  His name is Jasper Menkin.

Once we get through all the introductions and housekeeping, I ask them if they have any questions in general.  Jasper Menkin raises his hand.  “So… who are you?” The other students laugh.

“We’re getting to that,” I said.  “Why don’t we all go around – including me, I’ll go last – and say something about our writing.  What we’ve written before, what we want to write this semester, and… one or two authors we’re reading right now or have read recently.” Most of the students have written mostly poems and memoir pieces in high school, a short story in their most recent college creative writing class.  Tracy Scott has been writing since the age of 5, she says, and has two novels finished.  “I’m hoping you can help me with trying to find an agent,” she says. 

“Sure, Tracy,” I say.  “We can talk about it later.”  Carl Metzger asks about sexual or otherwise R-rated content.  He wants to write about a man who pays boys for sex. I tell him that we will review and discuss one another’s work based on artistic quality only.

“As long as it’s not gratuitous,” Tracy says.

“What if something is offensive, like sexually or racially,” Luisa Lopez asks.

“We need to look at the work on its own terms,” I say.  “What I mean by that is we have to put aside our personal emotions and responses and try to understand what the author’s intention is.  We need to help the author achieve his or her vision and purpose, whether or not we agree with it or share it.”

“Yeah,” Tracy says.  “It doesn’t matter whether or not you like the characters.  It’s more about are they real, are they compelling.”

“That’s a good point, Tracy.  But we’ll talk more about that as we look at the work.  No point in speaking generally about it.  Each work is specific.”

“What exactly is gratuitous,” Jasper Menkin asks.  Judging by his accent, he seems to be from the South, maybe Texas or Oklahoma. A few other students sit up and look towards me, as if relieved someone asked the question. “I mean, I kind of know, but I wanted to hear like a real definition.”

“It’s a question of necessity,” I say.  “Does it need to be in the story, or in the poem, or in the movie.  Does it absolutely contribute to the whole of the work, or is it merely there, as a meaningless distraction or a cheap emotional trick.” Jasper sticks out his lower lip and nods.  I wait for Tracy to add her two cents, but she keeps quiet for the moment.  “Ok, now, about me…”

***

My friend, I have come to learn, takes mid-day naps.  Ellie is now in Montessori pre-school five days a week, from 10 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon.  While both children are at school, my friend sleeps.  I discovered this yesterday afternoon when I had forgotten a pile of papers and had to come back to get them.  

I’d been using the main front door, because there didn’t seem a good reason to go through the gate and walk around to the basement entrance.  When I walked in that day, the house smelled strange… like smoke and flowers.  It took me a minute – it’s been a while – to recognize the scent of marijuana. 

My friend was asleep on the couch.  She was curled up in fetal position, and the sun was on her face.  She looked very peaceful.  There was a small alarm clock on the lamp table, set for 2:30; the daily newspaper was spread out on the coffee table, and the cordless phone was lying on top of the paper.  There were no visual traces of smoking. My friend stirred but didn’t wake.  In the kitchen she had baked a dozen cupcakes (as yet unfrosted), presumably for the kids.  I was starving and couldn’t resist taking one.  As I was leaving I thought about it and decided to leave a note… in case she noticed and was alarmed by the missing 12th cupcake.  Ran in and out to grab some things I forgot, hope you don’t mind I couldn’t resist.  See you later.  I tucked the note halfway under the cupcake plate and went back to school.

That evening, I stayed at school to catch a special university-wide lecture that Ben Marsh was giving.  The title of the lecture was “Africa and the West: An Uneasy Friendship.” The lecture hall was packed, with students and faculty alike standing in the back and sitting on the floor. 

Ben was in fine form.  He had a quiet-ness about him that only intensified his rhetorical gifts.  He spoke about White Western perceptions of Africa and Africans – as either corrupt and incompetent, or else starving and helpless.  He talked very personally, about his own parents, White mid-Westerners who adopted him through a Christian relief organization that had taken on Liberian orphans as a cause.  He said that he loved his parents, and they did their best to provide a safe and happy childhood for him; but that they were completely ignorant of what it was like for a boy to grow up Black in this country, and that they never really made the effort to learn.  “You’re not Black,” they would say to him.  “You’re African.” 

“What do your parents think of your novel?” someone asked during the Q&A.

“They haven’t read it,” he answered.

“Do you stay close with them?”

“They are my parents, so yes.  We stay in touch, we spend holidays together, they are aging now so I try to see them more often and make sure they have proper health care and everything they need.  But, like many families I suppose, we keep to topics which are comfortable and stay away from ones that aren’t.”

“Do they know that you won the Pulitzer Prize?”

“Yes, of course, they know.  But it’s not particularly important to them.  They are quiet people, they keep to themselves.”

Afterwards, Ben signed books, and something made me stay to watch him.  It was getting late, and I realized I’d left my cell phone back at my friend’s house, probably next to the plate of cupcakes. Still, I stayed. I watched Ben.

When the lecture hall was nearly empty, I approached him.  As soon as he saw me, he smiled a bright white smile.  “You,” he said, pointing.  “Let’s go eat.”

We went to a pub and stayed for hours.  We’d run into each other in passing a few times since orientation and always said, “Let’s get together sometime,” but we were always heading in opposite directions, late for class or a meeting.  Sitting down together, alone and at a late hour, it was as if we’d “found” each other finally, with relief.

“You know,” he said, “I don’t need to do this teaching, not for the money.  The book sales are going well enough, and someone is now talking about a film.  But something makes me keep saying yes.  These colleges, these communities, I find them endearing.  Like a little family.  But then, all the ugly sides, the pettinesses and hypocrisies of family, that all starts to come into it as well.  And that’s when I get to feel like Get me out of here.” He rolls his eyes and crosses them, the perfect handsome comedian.  “That’s why I was so happy to see you tonight!  You have that look about you, like what the heck am I doing here… I knew you would commiserate. I guess as an adjunct, we get the best of both worlds; you get a bit of the family life, but then you get to leave it behind.”  I listened to him but also drifted off into other thoughts.  His face was so perfect, so right – I thought I’d never seen such a face, it moved me.  His eyes were both child-like and wise, and everything he said had that same double quality.  In his agelessness, he made me very aware of my own age, and at the same time, I felt freer about it than I did in any other context.   I probably did not even realize how self-conscious I’d in fact become – about being a woman of 41, unmarried, without a family – until I felt the freedom of that moment with Ben.

We talked about our writing, our students, our families.  I told him about my marriage and divorce; he told me there were times when he deeply resented his parents and wished they’d left him in that orphanage in Liberia.  “I write about it in the book, that conflicted feeling of love and anger.  But truthfully, I’ll tell you,” he said, smiling a kind of deliciously guilty smile, “there are moments when it is not conflicted at all. I think I will be relieved when they die.”   And then, as soon as he said it, the smile disappeared.  We both looked into our beer mugs, empty for the fourth time.

Fading into drowsiness, we decided, wordlessly, to head out.  “You take the bus, right?  I’ll drive you home.  I don’t even think the buses run this late.” In the car in front of my friend’s house, Ben leaned over and kissed my cheek; then lingered for a moment, and kissed me on the mouth.  I kissed him back, long and slow, and our evening ended there, in a perfect softness, a drowsy unfinished thought.

I entered the house through the front door, as I hadn’t even been carrying the basement keys with me.  As quietly as possible, I tip-toed through the living room to the basement door but on the way I kicked something – Oscar’s soccer ball, I think – which then hit his Playskool easel at the base and knocked it over.  It was not a huge crashing sound, but nonetheless, I then heard from upstairs Ellie’s voice – gentle Ellie, the light sleeper – her muffled sobs, and my friend’s footsteps coming down from the third floor.  I returned the easel, uninjured, to standing position and hurried down to my room to get some sleep.

In the morning, I had student conferences and department meetings all day, starting at 10am.  By the time I came upstairs, Andrei and Oscar had gone. Ellie and my friend were at the breakfast table, reading something off the cereal box.  Ellie was already sounding out words.

“Good morning,” I said.       

“Good morning,” my friend said.  “We’re heading out soon, do you need a ride?”  Her voice was a little strange, and she didn’t look at me.

“No, it’s fine.  I’ll take the bus.  It’s out of your way.” She didn’t answer.  “I’m so sorry if I woke anyone last night,” I said. Ellie looked up at me then. 

“What do you mean?” my friend said, now staring at me with wide eyes.  “You didn’t wake us; it was the stray cat, knocking over the garbage can outside.”  She was boring into me with her gaze now.  I didn’t know how to respond.  “Ellie, honey, put your bowl in the sink and go put your shoes on.  We gotta go.”  They both stood up from the table.  I took Ellie’s bowl from her and said, “I’ll take that, sweetie.  I’ll wash it and re-use it.”  Off she went.

My friend put her hand on my arm and held out her other hand.  It was my cell phone.  “Albert called,” she said. “It kept ringing, so I answered it, I hope you don’t mind. I told him you were out but I didn’t know where.”

“Sorry about that.  I would’ve called, but…” I took the phone from her hand and held it up, shrugging. 

“No problem.  You don’t need to check in with us, we’re always here.  If you’re not, we figure we’ll see you at some point.” Her voice was still strange.  “But if you don’t mind, it might be better if you start using the apartment entrance; the kids, you know.  If they see you leaving but then don’t see you coming home…”

“Sure, of course.  No problem.” I said. 

“Are you out again tonight, or should we set a plate for you?”

“If it isn’t any trouble…”

“Of course not.  Don’t even think it.  While you’re here, you’re a member of the family.”

***

Finishing my third conference, I refill my coffee cup for the third time, and I have a few minutes, before the department meeting starts, to check my email.  Albert and I have been pretty consistent with it, daily for the most part. We’ve spoken on the phone a couple of times a week.  Last we talked, we were planning his visit, for next weekend or the one after. 

I scroll through my inbox – messages from students, my editor, my sister, Albert.  Lots of spam.  Another message catches my eye, from MarshB@gmail.com.  I open that one first.

Great time last night.   A friendly outing much needed.  Again soon?  /B  

Cute, I think.  In my mind, the events of last night have already taken on a kind of mythic quality, a time long ago.  The agelessness of the moment has passed, the mid-kiss ending more a finality…if a dreamy, suspended one.  I realize that Ben must be barely 30.  Wise in soul, perhaps, but in love… that’s a different story.

From Albert:  Tried to call you last night, kept calling. Your girl finally answers and tells me she doesn’t know where you are.  You ok?  Karla’s doing coke now, I don’t know where she’s getting the money. Call me.

*** 

“Albert?” 

“Can’t talk right now.  Lemme call you right back.”  The meeting is about to start.  I wait a minute, then turn my ringer off and write Albert an email: Gotta go into a meeting right now.  Forgot my phone, got in late after a lecture and drinks with colleagues.  Tell me what’s going on.

During the meeting I check my phone, I have a text message: K. & and some kids got busted.  Had to bail her out of jail this morn.  Hopper got out, was rushing off.  Can’t find him.

Do I need to come back?   I type furiously with my thumbs. No response. After the meeting and all afternoon I try calling Albert, but keep getting his voice mail. When I finally reach him, I’m on the bus riding home to my friend’s house.

“She’s all right,” he says.  “She swears she’s only done it once and wasn’t even doing it at the party when they got busted.  It’s some guy she’s into.  She’s begging me not to tell her mother.”

“What will you do?”

“Don’t know.  I see her point.  Terry can be…you know.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Nah.  I’ll probably try to…” The bus goes into a tunnel, and I lose the call. When I call back, I get voice mail again.

***

 My friend calls down the stairs: “You coming up for dinner?  We’re all ready and waiting.”

“Yeah, sorry, you guys go ahead, I’ll be up in a second.” I’m out of sorts and lying down for a minute.  My head hurts.  I wonder where my friend keeps her pot.

***

“Eat slowly, Elle, it’s spicy.”  My friend is ladling out some kind of South Asian curry.  “I love this stuff, it’s super fishy.  I hope the kids can handle it.  Good thing Andrei has almost no sense of smell.”  My friend looks at me when she says this.

“It’s true,” Andrei says.  “It’s very convenient sometimes, like when I would change diapers.  But then, I suppose I don’t enjoy food as much as others.”  My friend continues to serve everyone, and yet I still get the feeling her attention is directed towards me.

“And if the house were ever on fire, God forbid…” My friend serves me a bowl-ful of curry.  “Good thing we have you here now,” she says.  “An extra nose is always good.”

After dinner I excuse myself, I tell everyone that I’m not feeling well and will probably read and turn in early.  “Ohhh, but you were going to read to me tonight!” Ellie says.  It’s something we started doing last week. Ellie has an insatiable appetite for new friends and new stimulus.

“Ellie, honey, don’t whine.  I’ll read to you,” my friend says.

“It’s not the same.”

I’ll read to you,” Oscar says.

“That would be very nice,” Andrei says.  Ellie seems satisfied with this, something different from usual.  I stand and start to gather up the plates.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” my friend says.  “Go ahead, you look like you could use a rest.”

“Can I go to my room, too?” Ellie asks.

“No,” Andrei says. “You have to help.”  Ellie pouts.  “When you have a hard day at work, you can take a rest, too.”

“I have a hard day at school.”

“You do not,” Oscar says.  I leave the room as the kids duke it out about who has a harder day at school.

***

I lay down on the couch and close my eyes.  The tweedy fabric smells like Clorox and earth; or maybe it’s the scent of Andrei’s mother.  My friend tells me that when her mother-in-law first moved in, five years ago, after Andrei’s father died, it was difficult because she was a perfectionist and often very critical.  But she loved Oscar, and then adored Ellie when she was born, and she was very attentive with them both, and they loved her too; so it was worth the scrutiny she sometimes endured.

I sit up and think about calling Albert again; but something in me resists.  I’ve been calling him all day, and he knows he can call me, too.  When it comes to Karla, it’s a non-starter, anyway.  “It’s really none of your business,” he said to me once, when she was having trouble with her mother and I tried to offer some thoughts.  Although he did call me last night… he must have been really distraught. But how was I to know?

I reach over the back of the couch and lift the edge of the tarp covering the canvasses.  It looks like there are three or four of them stacked together.  I get up and pull the tarp completely off, spread the canvasses out along the wall.  They have all been carefully hand-prepared—stretched over hand-made wood frames, and each coated with gesso. The material is high-quality linen. Three of them are blank.  The fourth has been painted in full monochrome: all gray.

I leave the canvasses out and lie down again.  I think about the weeks ahead, the second half of the semester.  The days and the nights stretching out.  I wonder if Albert will come for a visit at all; with Karla’s troubles, he may feel obligated to stay.  I wonder if Ben Marsh will continue to pursue our “friendship.”  I wonder if Carl Metzger’s sex story will be offensive to Luisa Lopez or anyone else, and I wonder if Jasper Menkin is the genius I think he is and if Tracy Scott is the epitome of mediocrity I think she is, or if they will surprise and subvert my expectations. I wonder if my friend sleeps sweetly during her naps. I wonder if I should have agreed to read to Ellie tonight, if having her snuggled in the crook of my arm while reading Bread & Jam for Frances may have been comforting.  I miss my cats, who’ve been with me longer than any human being, and I wonder, for the first time since the message from Albert, if Hopper is dead.

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