by Molly Booth
Despite the forty-five degree temperature, it was snowing in April, which was common, and also fitting as Mel ventured across campus to check her mailbox one last time. She’d spent the morning inside, packing, and had overdressed for the adventure, one too many sweaters, so she was damp by the time she yanked open the box with her key. There she found a $24.16 paycheck from the library, and an envelope with the college seal and her name printed on the front.
The one page form inside explained some things she already knew:
Mel would leave campus by the agreed date (tomorrow) at 3:00pm. She would complete and turn in all residual work one month after the semester ended. She would not be refunded for the semester, or part of the semester, regardless of her reasons for leaving.
Then it had blank spaces to fill in.
What was her name?
Why was she leaving?
Sign here. Date here.
Then, more daunting, there were spaces for other signatures — it explained that she would need to collect these signatures from her current professors, and submit them by the next day, before she left.
“Shit,” she muttered.
She folded up the form, and pushed the hair back off her sweaty forehead. She vaguely remembered being told about the signature requirement. She thought someone would remind her, or email her, but here it was.
Why am I taking care of this? Shouldn’t someone else have to do this for me?
She wondered, again, if the administration thought she was making everything up.
Braced by her university’s confidence, she marched out into the muddy flurries.
“Of course,” Professor Tokarski smiled at her, then turned to the paper. “I’m so sorry this semester hasn’t worked out well for you. I do feel we must have failed you in some way.”
“Oh, it’s not your fault,” Mel said, watching her scan the form. “Just bad luck, bad timing.”
Tokarski licked her lips, her tongue wetted the wrinkles around them. Then she reached across her desk for a pen. Tokarski moved so slowly, Mel often had to fight the urge to grab the pen, book, folder and hand it to her. Tokarski wouldn’t have minded, but she probably would have been embarrassed.
“Here you are, dear,” she handed her the paper, signed with that beautiful, European handwriting. “Please, do take care of yourself. Will I see you before you go?”
“I’m coming to class tomorrow,” she assured her. “It’s my last one. I don’t want to miss Antigone.”
“No, I didn’t think you would,” Tokarski smiled again, and behind her glasses, her eyes twinkled — her eyes were perpetually watery and red-rimmed, so she seemed to be always looking at each of her students specially. Mel sincerely believed she always was.
“Thank you, again.” She got up to leave — there were other students in need hovering outside. She could see them through the window on the door.
“Melanie, let me just ask one thing —”
She turned back around as Tokarski rose, placing her hands on the edge of her desk, twinkling eyes narrowing, but not unkindly.
“What in the world is a smart, young woman like you doing, being depressed?”
Professor Tokarski was a genius. There was no denying this when she spoke about anything ever written. Her genius was humble though — she would listen, rapt, to students having “revelations,” enthralled with their discoveries. She couldn’t really care about Mel’s predictable thoughts about Lady Macbeth. Still, she seemed to.
But some things, some issues, seemed to elude Tokarski. She believed that academia, articles and books, were the only things that mattered. Mel wanted to agree with her, badly.
She had no way to answer her question. How could a woman from her background, her generation, possibly sympathize with my pathetic, self-pitying existence? Mel thought. How could I explain it in a way she would respect?
She shook her head and left, smiling and waving the paper. “Thank you again. I’ll see you tomorrow in class.”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been depressed before,” she heard herself saying. “But it’s very difficult, physically. It’s hard for me to get out of bed.”
Professor Chavez nodded, regarding the form in front of her him. “I’m sure it’s hard. When would you be able to have the term paper finished?”
She knew that would be her question, and she knew Chavez wasn’t going to like the answer — Professor Chavez hadn’t been offered tenure track, so she was leaving for another college. Everyone was disappointed, because she was the only professor teaching applied linguistics. If this had been another semester, Mel would have been in love with Chavez’s class. She was still in love with it, but in a once-removed kind of way. She knew that she would have loved it before, so she told herself that she loved it now.
“It says by June twentieth,” she indicated the form. “But I can try to have yours done earlier.”
“That would be, um, good.” Chavez nodded again. Her mouth pinched in the effort not to frown. She didn’t want unfinished business with a college that had fucked her over. She didn’t want Mel’s paper holding her back — hanging between her and this place. Mel got that. Maybe Chavez would give her an “A” just for kicks. She was, quietly, that kind of person. Tall, shaved head, glasses, taught Spanish and German passionately, linguistics as a side project. Some days she seemed to be messing with her students; like when she’d brought in a bunch of pebbles so they could analyze the “poem” she arranged with them.
Chavez picked up the paper. Mel picked at a scab.
Mel liked how Chavez handled lulls in the classroom. Chavez was awkward, so she didn’t mind awkward silences. She seemed to enjoy them, and let them build, until she would softly ask someone a thoughtful question, fumbling over her own words a little, maybe on purpose.
Mel didn’t want their relationship to end this way. She felt herself leaning forward in the chair, begging Chavez silently to still think of her as the person who’d written that A paper on D. H. Lawrence’s elephants.
“Well,” Chavez signed it. “I hope you get better. You’ve been wonderful to have in class.”
She smiled, tightly, and handed the form back to Mel.
“Thank you, and thank you for a great semester.”
You’ve been wonderful to have in class.
As she walked to her next destination, Mel applied her linguistics studies.
What does the “to have in class” tell us? That she was probably my teacher.
What does the “wonderful” tell us? That I was a favorite student. That she doubts my depression is that bad, or I couldn’t have been wonderful.
What does the “you’ve been” tell us? Either that my presence has previously been and will continue to be a certain way, or that my presence has previously been a certain way and will now not be that way anymore.
I will no longer be wonderful in class, because I gave up.
Professor Chavez didn’t mean that.
It took a little longer to find Professor Poole, but she did — grading papers in the attic classroom of the humanities building. Mel had gone to his office first and then checked the meditation space – lots of gongs and cushions. Professor Poole often encouraged his students to participate in the sessions he held there. Mel never went; she knew she couldn’t empty her mind. Or endure additional time with Professor Poole, for that matter.
“I’m really glad you’re taking the time you need.”
The form lay on the table. He hadn’t looked at it yet.
He continued to stare at her; she tried not to blink. Professor Poole was all about meaningful eye contact. She wasn’t sure it counted as meaningful if you did it all the time.
When he didn’t say anything else, didn’t move to sign the paper, she could guess the rest of the syllogism.
“And thank you for helping me come to this decision.”
He smiled, his prominent left dimple squeezing into his cheek. “Well, I could see how you were struggling, and you’re not usually a struggling student. I’m glad you’re putting your health first.”
She gritted her teeth. One week ago, in a moment of weakness, out of many moments of weakness, she had cried during a meeting with Professor Poole. It was awful. Professor Bennett would have been her first choice. Poole was her last.
They had been sitting in his office, going over her idea for the term paper — she would analyze Philoctetes using Aristotle’s tragedy principles. Poole was a fan of this idea: it was focused, thoughtful, pretty cookie-cutter. It had been a relief when she had thought of it.
When she had tried to get up to leave, Poole had asked how her health was. She had skipped some classes, and he was worried. He had hunched forward, that sickening, “concerned” look on his face, and propped his hands, wrists sticking out of his too-short sweater sleeves, on his chin.
“I’m fine,” she had said, but felt a tear forming in her right eye.
“Really?” he asked. To his credit, nobody until this point had asked if she was really fine.
Damn it, she’d cried. She told him, or at least the spaces to the left and right of him, that she was depressed, and that her parents were suspicious of how bad it was, and that they wanted her to come home now, which was a month early, which would ruin her GPA. He had handed her a tissue, nodded, given her a long speech about the body as a temple, and then he’d explained “medical extension.” After meeting with him, she’d made the final decision to go home. If she was crying in front of this asswipe, then something must be really wrong.
She got the feeling that maybe he wanted her to cry again now, out of gratitude, before he signed the form.
He was looking her in the eyes again. They stared at each other. His eyes were brown, stasis. This was too long, and she remembered her ex’s theory that if you looked into someone’s eyes for four minutes straight, you fell in love. Mel fought off a shudder at the idea of falling in love with Professor Poole. Gross.
Without blinking, she slid the paper closer. “Could you sign, please?”
“Of course,” he said and took out a pen immediately. He made a show of reading it, asked her how far along she was with the paper. She told him she’d made lots of notes. He nodded, knowing this was bullshit.
He signed and handed it back.
“Take care of yourself. I hope to have you in class again.”
This seemed unlikely. He was a philosophy professor. She’d decided she didn’t like philosophy. It didn’t help. She also wasn’t sure if she would be back next semester.
And she hadn’t totally given up on the idea of killing him before she left.
Professor Bennett’s office dazzled, if that was a word one could use to describe a small, airless, book-filled room. Two walls were made up of windows, overlooking the beginning of a hiking trail. Sunlight bounced off the snow and entered the room in yellow, dusty beams that warmed it uncomfortably.
The door was unlocked, which meant he couldn’t be far, so Mel sat at the round table, nodding off every ten seconds from the heat.
She jolted awake, unsure how long she’d been sleeping. It was still light out — maybe only a few minutes.
“Walt.” She smiled. Everyone called him by his first name.
“Do you have something there for me to sign?” he sat down next to her, but one chair away.
“Yes.” She pushed it toward him. “It’s my leave for medical extension.”
He nodded and took the paper. “So you have everyone here?”
She nodded back. “I just need yours, and then I turn it into the Dean.”
“Excellent. Well done.”
Walt had been her adviser since her first semester. They had talked the week before, briefly and succinctly, about why she was leaving.
He signed at the bottom and handed it back. “So, are you going to finish the piece?”
“Yes,” she said, waving the paper. “By June twentieth.”
“I would understand if you didn’t,” he said. “I wouldn’t change your grade.”
She looked at him. Shock of grey-blonde hair sticking straight up. Thick glasses, apple cheeks. She wondered — did he actually understand, because he was a writer too? Did he understand how painful every second of the day felt? Did he know that his poems meant nothing, would mean nothing?
She looked around his office. Really looked. Books piled like unsteady brick walls, and clay coffee mugs stained like rain. On the big table where he taught, torn paper scraps with scribbled dates, times, phone numbers, fragments of poetry. A layer of dust on the window sill, gathering. It almost felt like her room?
But on his main desk: pictures of his partner, kids, grandkids. A meticulous folder of syllabi. His computer spotless, and his emails answered.
Mel decided no, he didn’t know what she felt like. If he had at one point, he had forgotten, and gone on to live with a job and a family. He seemed to love to advise and teach. She knew she would never love anything as much as he loved to teach.
“I’ll finish it,” she said, finally.
“It could be quite a bit longer,” he pointed out. “Why don’t you just try one more stab at it, and we’ll leave it there and pick up in the fall?”
“Good.” He stood.
She stood. “Will you tell the workshop I wish I could have stayed?”
“Of course.” He smiled and shoved his hands in his pockets; her cue to exit.
She walked to the end of the short hallway, then glanced back at his office – door open, Walt sitting at his computer, looking at the screen over the tops of his glasses, hot light pouring onto his back, books piled on either side of him.
If I never had to leave that room, she thought, then I wouldn’t be the way I am.