Friday
Apr032015

Teach Me Something

Amy Silverberg


 

I tell my English 101 students their papers must be compelling. "They don't have to be boring," I shout at them from the front of the room. "You're allowed to entertain me!"

After this lecture, and perhaps because of it, a student turns in a paper written in the form of a ransom note.

Hilarious! I write in the margin. But it has nothing to do with the topic. He receives a D+, the plus for entertainment value.

 

A few things I'd write on their papers if I could:

You're a complete tool, but it's all your parents' fault.

I see you picking your toenails while I lecture.

What fresh hell is this?

 

But this characterization is unfair. I shouldn't let a few rotten apples ruin the bunch, even if those apples sweat more than the others, stinking up the classroom, hulking in the back row, swiping at their cell phone screens with oversized thumbs.

 

The night before, I had a dream about a painting and when I woke up, I tried to paint what I dreamt. I used to paint as a teenager, but I hadn't tried for years. What I painted was hideous. It looked like a bruise, but without the artful blueness.

Now, I feel like telling the students about it. It seems like an anecdote that might benefit them. I lean on my desk and stare at them one by one, until the air in the room goes taut with their discomfort. "Sometimes things are in your head," I say, "and those things don't translate onto paper. Do you know what I mean? Do you?" I ask, a little desperately. They must! Their papers often make no sense. Something goes wrong in the translation.

They look at each other and then away. When the bell rings, they file out, smiling sadly as though they're viewing me through glass, a patient at the ward.

"What's in her head?" they must be thinking. Things! Things I can't articulate, but please let me try.

"Have a good weekend," I tell them instead. "Be safe. Be happy!" I shout that last piece of advice through my cupped hands, like I'm using a bullhorn.

 

Tonight is Halloween and an ex-boyfriend comes to take me to a party. It seems there aren't enough men in this city, so I must recycle them, revisiting the ones I've already loved. At one time, I thought this man and I would get married. His bed—low to the ground, no side tables—had been an island, and I could have lived isolated there, only swimming to shore for what little food I needed. Now, I'm voracious. At one time, I texted him 73 times in a row: How could you? Each time, I added an exclamation point. Now, this seems long ago. Now, we eat buckets of chow mein and then complain about our stomachaches. We were not, in the long run, compatible. Still, there are times when a body part of his, when exposed, moves me. Tonight, it's the back of his neck.

 

He leans against my fridge, a skeleton in a top hat. "What are you dressed up as," he asks, "a housewife?"

"I'm Betty Boop!" I shout. "Don't you see the red dress? The sex appeal? The slicked-back hair?"

"Oh," he says, "I thought you'd just been rained on."

 

It has rained, and now the sidewalks outside are slick and shiny. It smells like charcoal and wet matches. Autumn has arrived, and I can taste the tang of it under the air. There's something else, too—that familiar, shivering expectancy. I picture children pulling on their costumes, setting out for the night, or if they're small, returning. Soon, several autumns from now, they'll be old enough to fill the seats in my class. I can already picture them—training their beady eyes on me, waiting for me to teach them something they might walk out into the world and use.

"Comma splices," I'll say, and watch their shoulders droop.

 

The ex and I take my car to the party. He drives. He used to be called Joey and is now called Joseph. Why did he skip Joe? I can't remember when this change occurred. Was it self-proclaimed or did it happen naturally? A plastic piece beneath my bumper has been loose for a month, and when we go over a speed bump, the piece drops completely off. We run over it and Joey shakes his head at me, not unkindly. I'm thinking now of something he said when we were together—about the way I always let things fall apart. It had been a recurring theme. I was always telling him to loosen up, when really what I needed was to tighten.

 

By the time we get there, the party is in full swing, filled with the usual people, haphazardly costumed, clustering in the corners of the living room and kitchen like an organism beginning to grow. They are mostly people I see too often, or I don't see often at all, purposefully. Are there so few parties or do I know so few people?

The host is dressed as a homeless person, charcoal rubbed beneath her eyes, pieces of a cardboard box hanging jauntily around her shoulders. She kisses me on both cheeks, and stands back so she can take me in. She looks at my face as though reading a few lines there. She's an actress, after all.

"Girl from the twenties," she says, "I mean, flapper." I shake my head. "Teacher?" she asks, but her back is already to me, filling someone else's drink.

 

"Miss H," a girl's saying now, "Do you remember me?" She's dressed as a hippie, young and pleasant-looking, her features all smoothed over. I half remember her, in the way you might remember someone who drives quickly passed you in a car, but on a long, sluggish day, when you're paying more attention. "I was in your class," she says, "like a million years ago."

I make my mouth into the shape of a smile. I wish she wouldn't exaggerate time. I could pick a name out of a hat, but it won't be hers, so I don't bother.

"I'm old now," she says, and I try not to grimace.

"How have you been?" I ask, instead.

"I'm in law school," she says. I remember that she was very agreeable and good at making sustained eye contact. I can't remember much else about her, but I think she had an interest in ballet or modern dance, something like that. Perhaps, at eighteen, she had already pictured her life in a different shape than the one it had taken on. "I still remember things you used to say," she says now. "How we should try to make our papers interesting."

I wore an old green army coat that winter, which had begun to fall apart. I'd developed a habit of pulling loose threads when I was nervous. I was putting off getting a new coat, because I thought the cold would pass and sure enough, it did.

"You were always in a rush," the girl is saying now, sizing me up, as though we'd been through a war together, or a sorority pledging, and now we could speak honestly. "Harried," she says, shrugging, as though to soften it.

I'm remembering that time now. She sat in the front row with a brash sort of confidence, an ambition she carried around like a handbag. I'd received bad news that winter. According to the doctor, I'd let a particular set of pains go on too long, had attributed them to the weather, or to the natural turn of seasons, or to external disappointments, and had assumed they would pass. Instead, it was a problem I should've look into earlier, before—unbeknownst to me—internal parts had begun to fall apart.

"Well I hope I taught you something," I tell her now, desperate to walk away.

"Definitely," she says now. "I remember you were very funny. You never took things too seriously."

I'm surprised, as always, at being so dramatically misread. I take everything seriously, I'd like to tell this girl. I take every single thing to heart.

"Of course," I say, instead. "Otherwise you'll never get out alive."

 

I walk outside, where the sidewalks are no longer slick or shiny, only dark. Already things are changing. From where I'm standing, I can see Joey through the window, standing in the kitchen, making the party rearrange itself around him. His attitude seemed foreign to me when I met him—something uniquely Californian—he wore a backward baseball cap and asked frequently for help. After a while, I see he's no longer talking. He's searching the room now, worrying about the person he came with. I wait until I see the shape of his mouth form my name. Only then will I go inside and ask to be entertained.