Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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MY STUDENTS turn in their drawings of animals with extraordinary life spans.
I learn that there are several species of tube worm that live for up to 170 years.
Arctic whales more than two hundred years old.
Quahog clams with a life expectancy of four hundred.
Sponges that have been alive for more than a millennium.
A kind of jellyfish — called the immortal jellyfish — that, after reaching sexual maturity, can revert back to infancy over and over again, perhaps forever.
“Really?” I say, holding up Lucy’s drawing.
Lucy nods proudly. She’s a sophomore psych major. Her jellyfish wears a cape. A dialogue bubble above its head states: “I am immortal and a jellyfish.”
I hang Lucy’s picture on the whiteboard next to Ravi’s arctic whale, which has a rhinoceros horn and a side-profile smile. Ricky’s tube worm is a bright red plume with the caption: “The tube worm is a vagina-like creature that can grow to be up to six feet tall. It is a deep-sea invertebrate whose only predators are accidental ones — mainly large mammals trying to have sex with it.”
Kayla’s drawing is not a drawing but rather a full page of double-spaced text explaining why there shouldn’t be any drawing assignments in a college creative-writing class. (“Drawing animals is not creative writing any more than pottery is accounting.”) She sits in the front row and glares at me. She has the posture of someone who spent her childhood balancing books on her head and is almost certainly the treasurer of a sorority. I hang her essay next to all the animal pictures.
NORMAN, my department chair, has invited me to his office. He is a squirrelly man who always appears to be bracing for a punch.
“Look, I’m not trying to be the ‘administrator’ here,” he says. He tells me that a student of mine has complained. This student felt uncomfortable with last week’s homework assignment: Attend a stranger’s funeral.
“Frankly,” Norman says, “I don’t know if I can blame her.”
The student is Kayla.
Norman waits for me to say something, but my mind is too foggy.
Back in my office I type up a more traditional assignment: Write a short story.
MY MIND is always foggy of late. It’s my first semester sober, and without five doses of oxycodone a day, plus a few lines of methadone or a strip of suboxone now and then, and the occasional weekend bump of heroin to keep me fresh, I’ve been having trouble finding my words. Sometimes, when I’m standing in front of the class and one of the kids asks a good question, I feel on the brink of totally unrestrained speech, and it’s like I’m alive again. But then the words scurry back into the fog, and I’m left standing there, pawing at the air.
THE STUDENTS slump in through the door, Monday morning weighing heavily on their shoulders. They’ve spent almost every Monday since they were five in a room like this. It takes its toll — so often being somewhere other than where you want to be. When I used to get high, locations were interchangeable: everywhere was the best place ever (and then the worst). But now place matters very much. There are few places I like more than this classroom, with the cheap blinds over the windows, the long fluorescent light tubes overhead, and the students who, despite the fact that I frequently tell them what to do, don’t seem to hate me.
Except for Kayla. Her dislike troubles me.
I hold up a stack of stories the students wrote in response to their most recent assignment. “I’m worried about you,” I say to the group.
Kayla maintains eye contact from her spot in the front row.
I go on: “Every single one of your stories was about death.”
The students laugh nervously.
“Which is my fault. I probably shouldn’t have sent you to the funeral.”
I imagine one of them asking, Why did you send us to a funeral? Why did you make us draw animals that live for hundreds of years?
“Life is long and usually ends in death,” I tell them. “Stories are short and usually don’t. Characters can have problems without getting cancer, and suicide isn’t always the solution. In any case, you really have to stop the killing. It’s bumming me out.”
After class I ask Kayla to stay behind for a second. She walks up to my desk and clutches her binder to her chest.
“I get the feeling that you don’t like this class, Kayla.”
“I don’t not like it.” A pause. “I had planned on liking it.”
“You have an A, you know.” I want to say something meaningful, but I can’t find that something.
She sighs. “I just feel like you’re not teaching us what you should be teaching us.”
“What should I be teaching you?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you want to learn?”
She starts to speak but stops.
“Please tell me.”
A pause. A long one this time. “You’re the teacher,” she finally says.
THAT EVENING I go to a meeting and find Spanish Richard waiting for me in the parking lot afterward. Spanish Richard is a three-hundred-pound recovering alcoholic who wears Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts and cries with great frequency. To the best of my knowledge he is Polish.
“You out on the streets again?” he asks.
“No, I just haven’t been keeping up on meetings.” I don’t tell him that I was never “out on the streets.” I used drugs in my apartment.
“At some point you have to ask yourself: How much more am I willing to lose?”
“You already lost a girlfriend. How about your job? How about your home? How about your car?”
I always find it strange how the men at these meetings put their car on the same level as wife, job, and home on the list of things they lost to drugs and alcohol.
Spanish Richard tells me the story of his fall, again. He says that he gets more real joy from making his bed every morning than he ever did from alcohol. He talks about God as if God were a hotline I could call. He also mentions a hotline I could call.
He puts his hand on my shoulder. “You can handle it.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugs. “Because I can handle it.”
AT WORK I receive another note from Norman. He doesn’t want to micromanage my process, but he’s concerned. I write back that I’ve been under a lot of stress and hint at the recent death of a close family member. Unstable behavior due to a death in the family sounds better than unstable behavior due to sobriety. But how can you be stable knowing that every term you’ll fall in love with a roomful of kids to whom you cannot possibly impart the knowledge they need? A roomful of kids who will begin to forget you the second the semester ends?
I eat a multivitamin and wish it were oxycodone.
THE NEXT MORNING I find a story slid under my office door. It’s from Kayla. A revision. Her first draft was about a young Marine whose plane is shot down while he’s on his way home from Afghanistan to marry his sweetheart. In her revised version the Marine’s plane still crashes into the sea, but this time he is resuscitated by an immortal jellyfish. The jellyfish gives up his immortality to save the Marine but with the caveat that the Marine can never again leave the ocean. So the Marine swims across the Atlantic to the coast of North Carolina, where he watches his lost love walking along the beach alone, day after day. Every evening, as she passes, he longs to reach out and pull her into the water. But he loves her too much, so he just floats in the waves, pining. One day he sees a man walking by her side, holding her hand. The Marine swims away without anger or bitterness — only sadness that this part of his life has ended.
IT’S OUR last day together in creative writing, and I’ve ordered cheap pizza for everyone. Ricky provides a “vegan pizza,” which is simply a loaf of sourdough bread. Lucy brings homemade cookies so perfect they look photoshopped. We eat and laugh and play YouTube videos on the projector.
On their way out, the students drop their final assignments on my desk. Ravi waits for the others to leave, then shakes my hand and tells me this was the least boring class he’s had in a long time. He walks out the door; I’m alone.
I slam an empty pizza box over my knee.
“I can take care of that,” Kayla says, suddenly reappearing in the doorway.
She takes the box from my hand, throws away the garlic-crumbed wax paper and the little plastic tripod, folds in the sides, and flattens the cardboard. She packs up the others the same way, then tucks the three flattened boxes under her arm and tells me that she’ll run them out to the recycling bins.
I stand there waiting for her to return and say goodbye, wondering what parting words I should leave her with: nothing too corny or too personal — just something to let her know what she has meant to me, and that she should not take my failure as a preview of the disappointments life will offer her.
I wait. The clock reads five past. Modernist-poetry students are queued up in the hall. One peeks in to see if I’ve left yet. I wait another five minutes, but of course Kayla’s not coming back.
In my office I move the old desktop computer onto the floor, lie down across the desk, close my eyes, and listen to the lights humming overhead. They turn the insides of my eyelids pink, and I focus on that for a while.
ON THE WEEKEND I drive to the beach. My wallet is stuffed with three hundred dollars in twenties, which I’ll use to buy pills from Kit when he gets off work at the Applebee’s he manages. I roll up my jeans and wade shin deep into the surf. The only people out this evening are jarheads on leave from Camp Lejeune and furloughed soldiers between tours, drinking bottled beer with their young wives.
I turn to see Kayla standing hand in hand with a broad-shouldered young man. He has a crew cut, and his brown forearms and white chest look like parts from two separate action figures. Kayla wears a bathing-suit top and jean shorts and appears to be trying to reconcile what she’s seeing in front of her with what she knows. I can’t tell whether her surprise comes from catching me wading in the ocean by myself or simply seeing me outside of the classroom.
“It’s a little tradition of mine,” I explain, trudging out of the water. “After I turn in final grades, I go for a dip. You got an A.”
She smiles. “Professor, this is my fiancé, Hank.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Hank says.
I brace for an alpha-male handshake, but his grip is gentle. Up close, I see that he can’t be more than twenty. As the adult in the situation, I feel the need to steer the conversation toward the young people. I ask when they’re getting married.
“April, as soon as I get back,” Hank says. He looks over at Kayla with his big, young eyes. “I can hardly wait.”
Kayla runs her fingers over her ring, which looks more like an earring than an engagement ring — a skinny band with a tiny diamond.
I take the three hundred dollars from my wallet, fold the fifteen bills over once, and hold them out to Hank. “Happy wedding. You make a lovely couple.”
“Please. I insist.”
Kayla takes the money from my hand. “Thank you, Professor.”
Hank stares at his feet.
“It’s our first wedding present, babe,” Kayla says, handing him the bills.
Hank lights up as if he’s just realized she’s going to marry him. He puts the twenties in his pocket and shakes my hand again. Kayla hugs me. I give her a quick one-handed pat on the back — my hand sticks to her sweaty skin for a moment — and wish them both good luck. They walk along the water’s edge, and I watch their footprints disappear in the wet sand until their bodies have disappeared, too. Out past the breakers, a jellyfish bobs along with the tide, with nothing to do but live forever.
Johannes Lichtman’s “You Really Have to Stop the Killing” [August 2015] is a tribute to the short story. He crafts a multilayered tale about what it means to be a teacher; about substance abuse and recovery; and about being young and not-so-young — all in the confines of a genre where a limited word count is implicit. I was awed by his accomplishment.