must have conflict, I told my room full of students on the first day of summer
school. Once again my class of 35 had been scheduled for a room that could comfortably
fit maybe 20. It was hot in the room; the windows wouldn't open, and by some technological
wizardry the air conditioning in this fancy new building wasn't working. The students
looked up at me with expressions frighteningly similar to the expression on Bosco's
furry face when he wanted me to fill his dish. "Meow," I wait for them
The conflict can be between the characters, or among the characters, I said, knowing full well that they won't catch the distinction between "between" and "among." So I went on: it could be a conflict between two characters or among several characters. I waited a moment. "Meow, meow, meow," I thought.
Since my father died at the end of the spring semester I've started thinking how beautiful my students are, with their round limbs and their shiny hair, all of them, the big boys who've passed that threshold into manhood, and the boys who are still boys, still sapling-skinny and nervous, blushing under their ballcaps. And of course, the girls, some of them frightened of their own bodies so that they seem to shrink inside their jackets and big sweaters, others with their sexuality, their desire, so apparent I nearly I have to shield my eyes.
I hate to use a simile as trite as this, but they really are like flowers, the flowers in Marty's late-summer garden behind our house, the hollyhocks that took all of June and much of July this cold summer to finally call forth blooms, and when they did, the flowers were a color I swear they've never been before, a deep scarlet, the color of cherries, or dried blood.
After I told the class about the necessity of conflict, I told them sometimes the conflict is between the reader and the character. That always throws them. Whenever I tell them something they haven't heard before, then they really feel they're in college. Usually this means making something up, and then of course I have to go home and think about whether it's true.
I went home to think about whether it's true. It was warm, almost hot, the first of August, and I changed into a t-shirt and my plaid boxer shorts and made myself a Manhattan and sat down on the steps of the back porch, looking out over the garden. The shadows of the trees that rim the yard stretched flat across the grass; I thought I saw something moving in the shadows by the smokebush, and at first I thought it must be the ghost of my father, but then I looked more closely, and saw it was a cluster of fine-winged, tiny insects, all of them packed so tightly together as they moved they looked like one thing, bright and dark at the same time in the late-afternoon light.
Soon, Marty would be home from her office at City Hall. Sitting there, I was suffused with the longing feeling of summer, the dread and desire I felt as a child, after supper, waiting for something to happen. The Manhattan was a little too sweet. That afternoon I didn't get a chance, really, to think about the conflict between the reader and the character, because instead I thought about what happens late in summer, about the hollyhocks and dark red dahlias edging the white fence, how they store up summer for so many langorous days and soft nights, and then explode in color.
Do I need to say that the first week of class always exhausts me? The enervating summer hush of the offices and hallways. Those robotic "how 's your summer going"s? from the few secretaries and faculty hanging around. And of course even in the summer session there are the class schedule screwups and negotiations with students from the spring semester who are still upset about their grades. And then there are the negotiations with the students who with tremendous foresight decide on the first day of class they need desperately to get into my over-booked course.
This time, I felt even more exhausted, as if I'd been off for June and July not just as a matter of the usual course for a college professor, but specifically to mourn the death of my father. That's pretty much what it had been; once I bull-dogged my way through the remaining month of the spring semester, all I wanted to do was sit on the porch steps and watch Marty work in the garden, her skin brown with sun, her muscled arms and back sturdy and strong as she spaded her shovel into the dirt. We're still young, is what I'd think, even as she'd straighten, palm on the small of her back. She'd stop to look at what she was doing, hands on her hips, deciding again about the placement of the lemon lilies or the catmint, and then turn to wave to me, up on the porch with a book on my lap.
Now, I felt like one of those fragile ladies of the late 19th century, returning to the bustle of city life from the green serenity of an asylum.
Somehow this will go to explain why I said what I did to Josh Steinberg.
By this point in my teaching career, I'd developed a fairly good eye for which students I should let in at the last minute. The English classes are always over-filled; at first, I took this as a compliment to my exemplary teaching, but soon I caught on to the simple fact that, remarkably, students are still required to take an English class in order to graduate from college.
I quickly figured out that this means I have some control over who gets into my class, that I could sign the form for the impeccably-spoken girl who told me she was an honors student in high school and not for the others. But this time, I managed to use this diamond-cut perception to sign the paper for Josh Steinberg.
It was the usual: just before class on the second day, a big boy shrugged into my office, ball cap over his eyes. He slouched against the doorjamb, and mumbled something.
"Pardon me?" I said.
He said something that sounded like, "Wanna get inta yer class."
"It's full," I said, happy to state the obvious. And then, just out of meanness, just to waste a little of his time, I said, "Why do you want to take the class?" Call me psychic, but something told me it wasn't his love of literature.
"I need the English credit," he mumbled. He seemed to have something wrong with his jaw, as if it was maybe wired so he couldn't quite open it all the way when speaking.
"I see," I said, mustering all my eloquence to match his. Then I waited. He stared at me, not unlike the way Bosco stares at me when he's on my lap, and I'm rubbing his head and his eyes glaze over and he goes into that felid dreamy state. Sometimes I get scared that I've completely hypnotized him, and I push him off onto the floor to bring him around.
I thought then of all the things I could say, foremost "Why would I let someone with all the enthusiasm of a roasted tomato into my class?" but then I just felt too tired. My father's dead, I thought. "Do you have the form?" I said, and he shrugged his knapsack onto the floor, slowly unzipped a pocket, and pulled out a wrinkled sheet of paper, folded many times.
What did we carry our books in when we were in college? We didn't wear those knapsacks that make the kids look like elderly Germans hiking through the steep territory of education, as if wanting to somatize the burden of attending class. I can't remember, except one girl, one very straight girl, who carried her books in an L.L. Bean bag which was astoundingly white, perfectly white, all semester. Well, so was she.
Maybe we didn't carry books. We were too busy meeting at the cramped little Lesbian Alliance office, smoking cigarettes and drinking Coke, to be bothered with anything as mundane, as male-oriented, as books and classes. We were too busy tumbling into one another's soft beds, running our fingertips over each other's arms and thighs under a huge poster of an iris' open lips.
I was wondering about all this, having a little flashback, as the boy stood there holding the crumpled paper out to me. "Have a seat," I said, and, obediant, he sat.
Josh Steinberg, he's filled in the spot where the name goes. At least he's Jewish, I thought, then chastised myself. I'm so predicatable, or at least, my brain is: at least he's Jewish, I think, and I imagine the kid in Hebrew school, learning the mysteries of Torah, at 13 going up for his Bar Mitvah, making a speech, something heartfelt and moving about commitment to learning, about honoring one's ancestors.
My father was Jewish. Not my mother, though, and my father's atheism eclipsed his Judaism to the point that he celebrated Christmas with a non-secular fervor and on Saturday mornings attended to his chores, religiously, he'd say. So I know that a Jewish last name doesn't mean, really, anything. I know that being Jewish is no more predictive of scholastic success than finger length is predictive of sexual prediliction.
But with Josh Steinberg slumped over in my office chair, I thought I'd try a little experiment. Josh Steinberg, you've inspired me to experiment, I thought, but, not wanting to be brought up on some kind of charges, I didn't say that, instead I said, "Josh Steinberg, let me tell you something about this course."
He held out his hand for the paper. Just give me the paper, lady, I could see he was thinking. I decided in that moment that I would be entirely honest with Josh Steinberg, in fact with this whole damn class. "I know you're thinking, 'Just give me the paper, lady,' " I said, but this didn't seem to register, except in that he let his hand drop back to his knee, where hung like a deflated balloon.
"I'm sitting here wondering why on earth I should let you into this class," I said, even though I'd already signed the paper. "You slouch in here as if you really couldn't care less about getting into this class, and you readily admit to me that the only reason you want to get in is because you need your English credit. But I'm going to sign you in, and do you know why?" I didn't wait here for an answer. It was a rhetorical question, but I didn't bother mentioning that to Josh Steinberg, because I'm pretty sure the word "rhetorical" is not in his working vocabulary.
"Because I think I can torment you better than any of my colleagues," I said, handing him the paper. With apparent great effort he put out his hand to recieve the paper.
"Do you understand that class participation is a large part of your grade for this class?" I asked. This time, the question wasn't rhetorical.
Josh Steinberg moves his hand to his forehead, brushes a limp lock of dark hair from his eyes. He nods.
And then, I don't know why I said it; maybe I really was still recuperating from my father's death, or maybe five years of teaching here was simply my limit and now I'd become one of those terrible weird teachers, not the fun weird teacher I'd always wanted to be but the bad weird teacher who does things like spend the entire class reciting Milton. I couldn't stand to go through another semester of watching the students transform into subverbal cats before me. I just was suddenly so tired that I knew there was no way on earth I could summon the energy for it again. I said, "It's 75 percent of the final grade."
"What is?" Josh Steinberg, astute as ever, asked.
"Class participation," I said, using the voice I use when I'm trying to make myself understood to an overseas operator on a long distance line.
After my father's funeral last spring, I thought I'd never be able to go into the classroom again. My first day back I apologized for missing the two classes I'd taken off, and then, as my voice broke, realized my mistake; it was as if I were apologizing for my own father's death. But the timing was bad: after mid-terms, before finals, just as some kind of group dynamic, if a nearly-static room can be called dynamic, is starting to develop.
But then, it's always bad timing when someone dies. And, he was 85. As my stepmother said when people asked her if it was expected, sure, we knew he would die, we just didn't know it would be that particular Thursday. We thought it would happen later.
Now, as August begins, it's been three months. I still sometimes don't believe it's true, and sometimes, if I'm talking to someone I know well, like Marty, I'll interrupt myself and say, "did my father die?" and she'll say, "Yes, Belle, he did."
Somehow I did make it through those first classes after the funeral, and the ones after that, and then it was summer and I sat out on the back porch with Bosco, combing his fur out and looking at Marty's garden. It's one of those obvious metaphors that's so obvious you don't even want to mention it, but it's obvious because it works so well, and in that first month, May, there was still a danger of frost so Marty couldn't yet put in any annuals, we just had to watch and wait and see which perennials come back from the previous year. All I wanted to do was sit there and look out over the garden, and wait for Marty to come home from City Hall, where she brings her knowledge of architecture to help the good citizens of Intervale.
So by August it wasn't as if I couldn't function, but it just seemed exhausting to start a whole new course. All those students. Conflict. Character-driven or plot-driven. Setting. I knew I could stand all that, but what I couldn't stand was standing there in front of the room, looking out at all those blank faces. Their faces are so blank it seems they must work at perfecting that look of stupidity, that look I would have called nonplussed until I finally got it through my head that nonplussed means perplexed, not without a pulse.
Dad. Dad. Dad. My father was an alcoholic. I remember my first Al-Anon meetings, saying that, sitting in a circle with people who looked really terrible, not so much disheveled, not really terrible I guess but just not quite put together. The woman who smiled and smiled at everyone, even as she told us about her parents locking her in the kitchen cabinet. The burly young guy who looked totally normal until you noticed his knee shaking up and down the whole time. I was usually late for the Saturday morning meeting because every time I put on a different outfit I'd look in the mirror and think: you look like the child of an alcoholic.
Jews aren't supposed to be alcoholics, and as I sat in those meetings -- no last names, please -- I'd try to guess if anyone was Jewish. Maybe my father had rejected his Judaism so thoroughly he'd erased whatever supposed magic gene there is that protects the Jews from alcoholism.
Or maybe, more likely, the whole theory about Jews and alcohol is just bullshit.
But what else was he? he taught me how to think, really think about things. To not be pacified by an easy answer. To posit and argue. And of course, he taught me how to drink, and by example how not to drink. Bottles with their red and white lables, PM, Smirnoff, floating over the blue summer sky of my childhood. He was a scientist, with a scientist's eye for precision and detail, and he only drank enough to get high, albeit very high, but not so much that he wrecked his career or anything. Christ, my father was 85 when he died.
Did he die?
That summer after my father died, I bought some bottles of hard liquor for the first time since I was young, since I was in high school I think. I know that my crowd of college dykes didn't drink real drinks: think of us, bristly with our buzz-cuts and theory, tipping a martini glass in our fingers. Ridiculous. We just drank beer after a softball game or maybe wine at a party. This was before the Lockstep Lesbian ban on drinking and cigarettes and sugar and sex, and long before the lifting of that ban that now, thank god, allows for the attendance of lesbians at cocktail parties. We'd roll our own or smoke Galudettes, or sometimes, Camel straights, making the obvious jokes.
In July, after my father died, I was walking home from the university, having plundered the office again for computer time and ink and paper for printing out the one hundreth draft of my novel, and I passed the big liquor store that sits at the edge of campus. It's even called Campus Liquors, despite the protest of various groups, strange bedfellows including "Feminists Against Drugs and Alcohol" and "United Christians."
I went in, almost on a lark. Walked past the wine, past the refrigerators where I usually stop for a diet iced tea in a bottle. Back to the corner. I wasn't sure where to even begin. What's in a martini? A vodka sour? A Manhattan?
The day of my father's funeral, a Sunday, Marty and I left my stepmother's apartment in Queens and took a cab into Manhattan. "This is the time to spend the money on a taxi," she said with her usual wisdom. I couldn't stop crying. It was one of the first really warm days late in April, and we stood on a hillside and watched people rollerskating in a huge circle. I thought about how my father would have liked that, and cried. The forsythia was blooming like crazy all around us, bright bright yellow in the late afternoon spring sun. Marty put her arm around me, and we stood like that a long time, me crying, watching the happy young people, the girl in leopard print leggings and leotard, the man skating right in time with everyone else, only backwards.
We turned. I didn't want to leave those skaters, leave something my father would have liked, but it was getting chilly. Marty had changed into her usual black jeans and her black leather jacket but I was in still in my black funeral skirt and carrying my sweater. At the south end of the park, we sat on the fountain and watched two little girls peddling tricycles in circles. Their father, or older brother maybe, was watching them from his spot leaning against a tree, occasionally calling out encouragement. I sat on that fountain and rested my head on Marty's shoulder and cried. I imagined my father sitting there with us, watching the little girls teeter around and around.
And then it really was chilly. I put my sweater on. I had never been so sad in all my life. "What do you want to do now?" Marty said, and I started to cry again, and shook my head. "I want to see my father," I said. "I want him not to be dead," and she didn't say, "Stop already." She said, "I know. Are you hungry?" and I wiped the back of my hand over my cheek and said, "No. Are you?"
"No," she said. "Let's walk," she said.
"I don't want to leave here," I said. "I don't want to go on to the next thing. If we leave here, then he'll just be deader and then the time will go and he'll have been dead and then he'll just be gone." I was still crying, but by now my crying had started to seem normal, like it was my normal condition.
"I know. Want to sleep here?" she said, and I laughed, and nodded, yes. We got up then and left, and I didn't look back at the park.
We walked along the south edge of the park, past all the big hotels. "Let's go in here," Marty said, and we went into one of the fancy hotel lobbies, all thick carpeting and marble. Sunday night and not much going on. In the hotel bar, a bartender leaned on his hands against the rail, talking to a young man who was having a beer.
We sat down in a booth. It was an old-fashioned bar, with the old-fashioned curved booths with buttons sewn in to the leather. The kind of bar I remember ducking into with my father on our way somewhere. The bartender came over
"I'll have a Manhattan," I said, my voice all shaky.
"What's in a Manhattan?" Marty asked me.
"I don't know. My father liked them," I said, and the bartender smiled at us, not saying anything.
"I'll have one too," she said, giving me yet another opportunity to fall in love with her. "And do you have a cheese plate?" The bartender nodded, and just as I was thinking he was mute as my students, he said in a European accent, "But of course," or maybe it was one of those phony European accents so many bartenders in New York seem to put on. You imagine them going home, loosening their tie, and saying to their wife, "Brother, you won't believe the helluva day I had."
When our Manhattans came, we raised our glasses, and Marty said, "To Yitzhak." She'd always liked to tease him about his running away from his Jewish past, and he'd taken it, from her, laughing and joking. Still crying a little, I said, "To Yitzhak," and we drank.
As I went into the second class of the semester, I was thinking about how I'd make a Manhattan for Marty later and we'd sit on the back porch. She's got her own troubles, now, this year: her mother's got Alzheimer's, right as Marty's getting a big consulting project restoring the block of historical buildings downtown. Right as she's starting to really do what she wants with her work, as huge responsibilties are being laid at her feet, her mother's starting to get fuzzy on what day of the week it is.
I went into the second class, wondering what it is I usually do on the second day of class. Right, the class list. I call their names, all 37 of them. All the names sound alike: Ashley and Brent and Todd. What were their parents thinking? Every now and then there's something interesting, Miranda or Nastaha or Hester. It's so unfair: I'll recognize and remember these students, just because they've got good names. And the ones who have some physical characteristic that's outstanding, the fat girl with the long shaggy dark hair, the boy with the big glasses, the girl who's fashion-model pretty.
Some of them are so pretty, both the boys and the girls, that it leaves me, for a moment, breathless. One time, at the start of a spring semester, just after class began, we all heard a commotion outside, and we turned, and the whole class and I were mesmerized by seeing the prettiest girl in the class running toward the building across the quad, her blonde hair flying out behind her, her jacket open, her breasts clearly visible under her tight sweater. We all watched her, holding our collective breath, and then we waited and turned in unison to face the classroom door, and there she was, panting a little, her cheeks flushed, gasping her apology, saying some guy had taken her hat and she'd had to get it back from him, her blue wool hat in one hand, books in the other. Not a knapsack-wearing sheep, this one.
"I'd wager there are at least 10 young men in this room who would gladly defend you against any thieves," I said, and then immediately was sorry, hearing myself. A person could get arrested for saying that kind of thing. But I'm a woman, so I get away with it. Or, more likely, the innuendo was lost on them.
Now, I call their names, and they answer. They look more interested on this second day of class than they will for the rest of the course. There's still a chance, they're thinking, that they won't be bored to death in this room. There's still a chance they'll have it all together throughout the course and won't have to pay someone to write their term paper. There's still a chance, they're thinking, they might actually learn something here.
"My father's dead," I want to say, but I stop myself short. Instead, I go ahead with my new approach, the one I developed when Josh Steinberg was in my office.
"You'll note on the syllabus," I begin, passing out the stapled sheets, "that your grade for this class is based primarily on class participation. This means you must speak. If you cannnot speak, you should not take this class."
I turn from passing the papers and point to a boy, a big hulky guy. "What's your name?" I ask. "David Track," he says.
"What do you think of this policy?" I ask him.
"Can you tell me?"
"Well, it seems kinda a lot," he says.
"Well, what if someone's shy or something?"
"Someone may be shy, and that's just fine. Some of my best friends are shy." I think of Marty standing awakwardly in the corner at the annual first-week-of-classes faculty group torture billed as a cocktail party. "But that person should take a different class," I say.
Back at the front of the room, I look out at them. Some have the standard bored look -- do they practice this together, I wonder? -- some look a little annoyed, squinting their eyes. Some look terrified, fingering their books.
And then I tell them I'd like to read them something, and I do.
"Roll Call," I read.
"It's nearly impossible to tell one from another, their faces blurring together, their names all sounding the same: Shawn, Ashley, Brandon, Mike, Mike, Mike. Lisa, Brett, Jen, Jenny, Jen. Four guys in the back row in identical baseball caps, three girls in the front with dark hair to their shoulders. As I call roll some faces come into focus, and I think this one looks angry, arms crossed over his chest, bottom lip sticking out in a pout. This one has a face like something out of a gorgeous old painting, but she thinks she isn't pretty. She doesn't know she's beautiful, yet. This guy is probably gay and when he finds out will it be easy or will he feel a kick in his gut one night when he leaves the town's only gay bar late, alone? And this kid seems too sure of himself; he'll be taken down a peg the next few years, and when he is, I hope it takes him only down, not out. Who among them will, while they're in my care, feel their world crack open by their mother's sudden death, the hallway dorm phone going cold in the hand? How many will neatly miss the culvert as they're driving home, and how many will hit? Which ones will simply drink too much one night and wake up looking at the underside of a frat house porch, soiled by their own spittle and piss, wondering how they came to this?
"On this first day of class," I continue reading, "I want to tell them that I don't know anymore than they do about how to read a book. Does it make your heart vibrate, do you want to read the words out loud just for the pleasure of feeling them in your mouth? I want to tell them they shouldn't look too hard; it isn't pretty, and the risk is great: they could start to see only the scaffolding of the house of fiction and not the windows that look out. They could dissect the cat of fiction so much that all they know is liver, vein, and blood, and they forget that joyful leaping into the air, the swish of the tail and the batting of the paw.
"I want to tell them why fiction matters, tell them about that afternoon -- is it ten years ago now? -- when I sat down on my bed and thought that I could kill myself, or I could write. I want to tell them how, when I was small, I'd tell my stories to myself to keep the violence at bay, and how I know that some of them have learned about the world that way. I want to tell them how, just last week, my lover couldn't sleep, and I told her a story; I was so good at my task that I put myself to sleep, mid-sentence my words dissolving until she woke me, laughing. I want to tell them that fiction is mysterious, and real. I want to tell them that I often think of them, and my greatest hope is that by semester's end I'll see one jump with ineffable grace onto a skateboard, and launch away into the night. I want to tell them how I love them, in all that they don't know and all they do.
"Good afternoon Class, I begin, and with that beginning, everything ends."
They applauded. I didn't believe it, it was like a hallucination, but they really applauded. I could feel my face going hot with blushing, and I was afraid I'd start to cry, so I said, "That's called a monologue: one person talking at the reader. For tomorrow, I'd like you to write a monologue about this day, this first day of class. You must be honest," I said. What kind of mistake would that turn out to be?
"Josh," I said. I could see him in the back row, slumped over, either napping or dead. He shifted in his chair, slightly. Good; I have no idea what the university policy is for finding one of your students dead in the back row.
"Would you please tell the class what you thought of the monologue?"
"What I just read."
"Oh, yeah. It was good. I liked it."
"Why?" I said, then gave him a reprieve, and told them about how it's important to be able to say why you like something, to figure out why a piece of writing works, and why it doesn't. You don't have to like it, I said.
"Any other thoughts on it?" I asked, realizing that my phrasing implied he already had actually had a thought.
And then, shyly, softly, he asked, "Did you really almost kill yourself?"
At the end of that first week of my summer class, I was in the kitchen, chopping basil and garlic for the pesto. Fresh, but not from Marty's garden; she only grows flowers. I could use the food processor, but I like chopping for pesto by hand, I like the smell that stays on my fingers, and the crunch when I bite into a too-big chunk of garlic.
I was grating the hard square of parmesan cheese when Marty called to me. "Belle, the smokebush," she said.
I came to the screen door. She was standing at the porch rail, her shorts and legs smeared with garden dirt, her still-dark hair spiking up, her old t-shirt falling off one shoulder. She'd just come up from the garden. I went outside, put my arms around her waist, looked out over her shoulder. We're still young, I thought again. The evening light cut between the two tall pines to light the smokebush from behind, igniting its pale pink frothy blooms, the fragile blooms trembling on the branches, touched by that tender late-summer light as if moving in the wake of something. We stood for a long time like that, just watching.
"There it is," Marty said. "That's what it is."
And I knew just what she meant.