*A short story written (not yet edited completely) for Creative Writing in Fall ’11.*
A Cold Morning
It was 5am and the blue face screamed the time into the slightly chilled room. Blue wasn’t a good color for alarm clock faces. Red was specifically chosen as a color that wouldn’t be noticeable through one’s red-tinged, sleep-laced, closed eye-lids. The Professor knew the reasoning behind the red LED but when presented with a blue-faced clock from his daughter the Christmas before last, he happily accepted it. It was modern and she had said it would fit perfectly with his décor. She hadn’t seen it in the room yet. There were still forty-five minutes until the alarm would go off, but if there was any shred of consciousness in his slumber, the glaring face of the clock always shocked him out of the happiest of sleep. Not that his sleep had been happy. His night had been filled with the tossing and turning that only comes on the night before Christmas. Anticipation and excitement for the day ahead had kept him out of a full REM.
Sitting up, the Professor looked to his right, out a small window. His back grumbled at him and the knuckles in his joints were stiff as he cracked his fingers one by one. He swung his legs off the bed and touched the thinly carpeted floor. It was one of three different types of carpeting in the apartment and its thinness felt like impersonal and cold. Ice crystals hung on the corners of the window that overlooked the park he lived next to. In the cast light of the street lamps near the sidewalk he saw the fall-rainbow of leaves. The trees seemed to hold onto bits of purple and deep orange as winter was coming to take them away. Within the week they would all be brown and scattered and the outlines of trees would be ready to hibernate for quite some time. The Professor walked to the window, treading carefully on the cold floor, and placed his hand on the window pane. The cold was shocking, more shocking than the carpet had been. But instead of pulling away, he let it rest on the pane for a moment as he looked out amongst the soon-to-be skeletons of trees.
Somewhere in another room, his cell-phone rang.
The apartment was not large. The University had graciously provided for him when his wife had divorced him. They let him rent an apartment in “new faculty housing,” just a block from the Student Union and right across the street from the alumni park. His name rested on a brick somewhere on one of the paths that wound through the park. He’d never found it, but he’d paid money enough to know it was there. The apartment building was two stories high and offered a “spacious” “home” to new faculty and other temporary professors. They were not apartments one would purposefully seek to rent, but with three bedrooms – no matter how small they were – it was hard to complain too loudly about the size. Most professors who inhabited the apartments had wives or husbands and children. Their apartments were stuffed from floor to ceiling with their belongings. The Professor’s own lack of companionship and material objects created a bigger space in the apartment. It wasn’t warm, but it was all his own.
As the cell-phone rang again, it echoed through the two empty bedrooms, the hall, and the combined living room, dining room, and kitchen.
Hearing the ring echo through the halls reminded the Professor of the time he and his wife – ex-wife – were on a tour of cathedrals in London some… 8 summers ago. Their Daughter was summering in the City at an elite Art School. She had told them that if she didn’t spend the summer at the ballet program she surely wouldn’t get into Performing Arts School and therefore wouldn’t be a prima ballerina. The Professor had agreed almost immediately but his wife wasn’t so ready to let their sixteen year old daughter spend a summer so far away from them. His wife brought up her concerns over their Daughter’s intense weight loss, her continually bruised feet and her obsession with ballet. Their Daughter was successful in dance school and was always the first ballerina in every show she was in, but her extreme focus on ballet worried his Wife.
“She should be well-rounded; she should play guitar and chase boys or something like that!” his wife would lament when they would argue about ballet. “She needs… she needs diversity. She spends all her time, all her thoughts, all her energy on one thing! She’s becoming just like you.”
And to that, he would shake his head, “You were the one who fawned all over her when she began ballet. You were the most excited when we were able to provide her opportunities at prestigious dance academies.” He changed his inflection to match his wife’s, “‘My family could never afford luxuries like dance and tutus and other girly things.’ Isn’t that what you’d say to me about it when I would question the hours upon hours she would spend after school, on weekends, during holidays?” And inevitably when they would have this argument, there would be a picture close by of their Daughter in her pink tutu, or as the Swan and both of their hearts would soften. His wife’s would soften at the gracefulness of their Daughter’s steps, and his at the accomplishment of those steps.
When that argument occurred after their Daughter had approached them about the Summer Dance Program, the Professor turned to his wife and smiled, “We can go to Europe while she’s gone. It’ll be a vacation for all of us. She’ll be in good hands. I’ll call them tomorrow and make all the arrangements.” His Wife was beautiful then and eager to be with him – and to go to Europe. They spent two weeks on the continent, visiting historical landmarks and natural wonders. Their last week was spent in England and by far had been the best week of the entire trip. His wife’s English degree made the city of London and the moors of the Western Isle come alive. The cathedrals they visited in London had been the Professor’s favorite of all the sights. Large, cold, strong and meaningful were the gothic arches, the stained glass, and the sheer reverence the cathedrals emitted. They had taken his breath away. To see those magnificent works of human craftsmanship and fortitude alongside his Wife had filled him with content, the way an echo fills a sanctuary. His Wife was happy then. She smiled and skipped and wore her hair down. She looked like she did when they were at the University many, many years ago. He saw her through diamonds that summer; she sparkled and they laughed.
The Professor wondered at the time that had passed since he had been with his wife. In two months it would be five years ago to the date since their divorce.
Still standing at the window overlooking the park, the Professor clenched his jaw and shook his head. His eyes were clouded with sleep. The cell-phone chimed into the cold air of the apartment as the Professor carefully made his way from the bedroom and to the kitchen down the hall. There, lying beside yesterday’s copy of the Times and a keychain with three keys and a 20 Years Tenure commemorative key-bobble was his iPhone. As he reached for the phone it blinked “missed call.” He clicked the power button to lock the screen and gently set the phone down. He placed both hands on the counter and hung his sleep burdened head. As he closed his eyes and breathed in the stale smells of old coffee and time, he thought it was far too early to be awake. He had always thought that when he was an adult, specifically a middle-aged one, that he would miraculously be able to wake up at any early hour and be fully awake. Coffee, he needed coffee. And warmth.
The Professor walked back down the hallway and into the bathroom, he turned on every light he could as he went. He turned on the shower as hot as it could go. He turned on the heat-lamp knob all the way to thirty minutes. Feeling as though morning might be stirring, he left the water running and went back to the kitchen to make coffee. The shag carpet of the hallway gave way to sticky linoleum in the kitchen. At first the scratched, off-white tiles stung like tiny icicles pricking his toes. After a few moments, the sting turned into a dull cold ache on the soles of his feet.
He had sipped the same coffee brand since his own college days. Folgers. Plain and simple. Two scoops of grounds per cup of water went into the basket of his Mr. Coffee machine. His wife – ex-wife – had always hated his coffee. It was dark, thick, and went down as smooth as a kid’s first drink of whiskey. His Daughter, on the other hand, always had a cup on Christmas morning and on his birthday. She diluted it with heavy whipping cream, a splash of vanilla, and a spoonful of sugar.
She had her own special mug in his cabinet full of coffee mugs, though she had never used it. It was a pale pink cup with an embossed ballet slipper on it. She had bought it for him in the 4th grade, and he had kept it in various places throughout its life with him. Now, the dainty cup rested in an old cabinet, surrounded by a red Big Bear Mountain mug and the chipped Polish ceramic cup and a green University travel mug and all of the other mugs the Professor had accumulated over the years. Normally opting for the Big Bear mug, the Professor saw the pink cup and chose it instead. As the Mr. Coffee machine burbled the conclusion of its pot of coffee, the Professor’s iPhone rang. He checked his navy blue plastic Wal*Mart watch, 5:30am. Anyone in their right mind would know that he wouldn’t take a call before he went to work. And even an emergency could wait for a cup of coffee to be consumed. The phone still sat on the kitchen counter, steps away from the coffeemaker. He clicked the power button to silence the call. The sweet aroma of coffee pulled him back; he poured it into the pink cup. He placed two ice cubes in the in it and gently shook it to stir.
Where the tile of the kitchen stopped, a different color of shag carpet announced the living room. Two small windows glared from the outside wall. The park was not as still as it was thirty minutes earlier. A sizeable green wing-back chair sat near the right window. A small wooden table laid with white marble coasters sat beside it and a gold floor lamp loomed over the ratted chair. From this perch, the Professor drank his coffee and watched as runners paraded through the park. Once upon a time, that was him: running in the cold, running in the rain, running whenever he could. But at 56, he had turned from physical exertion to solace in technology. While his colleagues discussed the ramifications of Twitter on a nation of students who already possessed ADHD, he was helping to facilitate a Mac lab for the Freshman Student Services Center, a software and technologies seminar for graduate students and a new department of Technologies. One foot in front of the other, a man alone on the pavement, that’s how he ran and that’s how he handled his career. That’s why today was important to the Professor. Having written a grant three months earlier today was the day he would receive notification about its acceptance. The grant would provide the Professor and his team of graduate students with enough funds to work on a new super-computer for use in the Admissions department. This grant, this computer, would give the Professor exactly what he needed. He had been past up for Chairman of the Technologies department for years. Two weeks ago, the former Chairman died in a car-accident. Much to the departments lament, the former Chairman had big shoes to fill. The Professor hoped that the acceptance of this grant would solidify his nomination for the position. After all, he had reformed much of the department and had tenure. There was no doubt in the Professor’s mind that this would be the next step of his career. Watching the runners outside the window did not evoke lament over days past, but instead reminded him of the proverbial running of his career. He would press on.
He drank his coffee quickly in hopes of warmth. The bitter nectar washed through him like lava on a glacier. Eager to further the feeling, the Professor walked back to the bathroom and stripped; ready for the hot shower. Showers were one of the many joys of a modern existence. They were fresh, warm, and made everything clean. The end result, with a little effort, brought forth professional, awake, and ready-to-go individuals ready for work. The Professor took extra care in choosing his outfit for the day. Did an achievement this great require casual professor clothes, or perhaps a suit? It was a Monday. Monday’s are new and should be treated with respect. He opted for a charcoal gray suit and a dark blue button-up shirt. His most comfortable suit exuded professionalism, yet had the element of casual demeanor, an expression he generally carried on his face.
Once dressed, the Professor located his laptop beside his bedside table and placed it back in its protective Swiss Army case, made sure his USB drive was in the front pocket of the shiny black case, and slung the messenger bag-like case over his shoulder. Still in the kitchen, his phone rang again. Without hesitating, the Professor walked to the kitchen, pocketed his keys, ignored the phone call, and then grabbed his thick wool coat from off a nearby chair.
Down three flights of steps he finally made his way to the front door of the apartment building. Biting into his checkered patterned socks and seeping through what should have been a warm coat, the head-on wind chilled his entire body. His ungloved hands were shoved into his coat pockets in an effort to evade the temporary frost-bite of a brisk walk to work. The two block walk took approximately two minutes, but with a head-wind of freezing proportions, the walk could be turned into what seemed like an eternity. Gingerly, he pulled his left hand from his pocket and checked his watch. 6:02. If he made it to his office without freezing first, he would remain an hour ahead of schedule. He quickened his step in the elation of this discovery.
He had a routine. And his routine was simple. Arrive at work at 7am. Check faculty mail. Start coffee in the faculty lounge. Check email. Read an article in Popular Mechanics. Go back to the faculty lounge and pour coffee into his Microsoft cup, which he’d had at the office since 1989. While in the faculty lounge, he would drink two cups of coffee and shoot the cock’n’bull with the other professors. Nerd talk, mostly. And after the nerd-talk, he would pour one more cup and make his way back to his office. It was usually 8am by that point and almost time for his 8:20 freshmen computers class. He would then grab his text, notes, and USB drive from its usual spot on his desk and then arrive in his classroom at approximately 8:05. This routine repeated itself Monday through Friday.
Today’s early morning and arrival at work would give the Professor an entire extra hour, which meant at least one more cup of coffee, two articles in Popular Mechanics, and perhaps even time to prepare a short speech for his grant acceptance. This realization provided him solace as he walked the two blocks, head ducked down, in the dark, cold morning wind. Finally arriving at his building, he unlocked the front door’s two deadbolts and deactivated the alarm panel. Simultaneously, the lights in the spacious entry-way illuminated the room. The Professor had wired the activation of the alarm to turn off the lights, and subsequently the deactivation to turn them on. Just one of the many touches the Professor had on the Technology Systems Building. Expansive and white-walled, the entry-way office held a secretary’s desk and a directory and faculty mail-box on the left wall next to a hall entry-way. The entry-way split the building in two, allowing two entrances to the building width-ways. Once in the building, there were large hall-ways that led to the two wings of the building.
The first floor was entirely made of professors’ offices and a few internet tech rooms and a few computer crash-zones (the Computer Graveyard, as it was lovingly called). The Professor’s office was down the right hall-way, at the end, next to the stairwell. As he walked down the right hall, he flipped two switches the brightened the white cinder-block walls and gray industrial carpeted floors. Other professors’ doors were locked shut and no light peaked through the rectangular shaped windows on them. Except for his “next-door neighbor’s.” She had a knack for forgetting to turn off her lights. And just before the stairs on the right was the Professor’s office. He unlocked the doorknob and stepped inside to flip on the lights. He set his laptop bag down on the cleared desk and placed his coat over the back of his cushioned leather chair. And so the routine began, in the stillness of the technologies building.
He flicked the surge-bar underneath his desk. The red light flickered as he pressed the power button on the processor. It whirred in response. Now it was time for coffee. Located on the opposite end of the building was the faculty lounge. It was typical, with a kitchen, two rectangular folding tables, and some random pieces of furniture which included an old couch and two wingback chairs. Some of the nerdiest Christmas parties were held here, a few birthdays, and every Apple announcement was eagerly awaited in this room. The lounge included two industrial sized coffee makers. The orange handles on the glass pots were worn with the hands of many a late-nighted, bleary-eyed computer junky’s devotion. Only a few of the pots’ journeys had ended upon desktops or over wired mazes (much to the surprise of most of the faculty). Using the same Folger’s he had at home, the Professor made twelve cups of coffee for consumption. Leaving the coffee-maker to do its job, he ventured back into the entry-way to retrieve his mail. Nothing special rested in his mailbox. A few inter-department memos, a birth announcement from the new tech guy, and a computer technologies textbook catalog. Taking his meager collection back to his office, the Professor checked his watch, 6:27am. He had more than enough time to check email and read an article.
He set his mail down on his desk and sat in front of his PC. After logging in, he sat back and folded his hands on his stomach and waited for the computer to fully load. He glanced up on the walls and looked over its tenants. Displayed in frames, hung with Command hooks, and collecting dust were dozens of newspaper clippings and awards and plaques and journal articles and photographs. The walls told the story of the Professor’s life, beginning with education and ending with his latest photo with Bill Gates. Nearest to the door rested his bachelor’s degree in business, his two master’s degrees in computer technologies and business systems (both achieved simultaneously), and his doctorate in computer technologies. Framed in royal gold crowning they were larger and more brilliant than all the rest. The Professor also hung journal articles of his research in computer systems, his own submitted articles to collegiate journals, and other local newspaper evidence of his work at the University and in the community. He had done much to boost the technology knowledge of all the community around him, and as his wall-collage of alluded to; he had been successful at it.
There were also miscellaneous pictures of the Professor and his colleagues at special computer related events. To his right, in a section all to herself, were photos of his ballerina. Lately her face had appeared in multiple national newspapers, and just a month ago a colleague in the foreign language department had sent him a clipping from a Russian newspaper. She was prima in an international show. She had been prima in three shows, stateside, and had been one of the main ballerinas in every show through her secondary years and into her college years. The photos were all clipped from newspapers or printed off from the internet. The articles were hung with care, with her name highlighted. All of those articles and photos were framed in simple black frames. Her pink shoes jumped out from behind the glass in overstated grace. There were a few professionally taken pictures, taken with much clarity and artistic ability, by a professional photographer. He had hired the photographer for his Daughter’s own posterity. He had chosen three photos: one where she stood on tip-toes, leaning down to the ground gracefully, the classic ballerina pose with arms stretched gracefully to the sky, and one where she stood stretching out her right leg on a bar. Her face always angled to the side, as if in a sweet caress of the space between her neck and her arms.
The Professor lingered on the photos for but a moment until realizing the computer had fully loaded. He logged on to his email and hit “refresh.” Seventeen emails filed into his inbox. He briefly scanned the “senders” for any news of his grant, only seeing a few advertisements, an email from his Daughter, and nothing about the grant. At the top of his inbox was an email from the “Computer Lab 340: Desk.” The Professor reached into his top desk drawer for his bifocals and put them on his face. Looking down his nose, he briefly read over the email, mumbling to himself. Two hard-drives were missing. They could be dealt with later.
From his laptop bag, the Professor pulled out Popular Mechanics and opened it to the post-card bookmark. He began to read an article on the nuances of technology in car-shops. Though somewhat base, the Professor was enthralled until he heard the merry footsteps of sleep-walking professors that passed by his office. The building was coming alive, which meant time for coffee. The Professor put the bookmark back into the magazine. He checked his email on more time: no new messages; grabbed his phone, then walked down the hall to the faculty lounge.
Telephones were already ringing in offices and the secretary had arrived. She smiled at the Professor as he walked by. She shook her head as if to say, “no new messages.” He had been asking her all last week if the grant people had called. They hadn’t.
The bittersweet aroma lured all the professors to the faculty lounge. They drank from their iconic cups and laughed and talked. Bill had been on a fishing trip over the weekend – ice fishing. Quite a fiasco. Robyn, a young assistant analyst, had been working long nights in one of the computer labs upstairs and was eager to explain away her tired demeanor. They all gabbed and bragged and drank coffee. When their cups were empty, they filled them again.
Jeremy, an associate professor of computer sciences, approached the Professor and asked him he wanted a refill.
“Tough break, huh?” he said as he poured the brown liquid into the Professor’s cup. The Professor didn’t understand and only looked at him with an inquisitive twist of his eyebrow. “The grant. Didn’t you hear? That kid Serrels got it. Full funds. The whole shebang.” Jeremy stopped pouring and walked away to put the coffee pot back.
The Professor turned from inquisitive to ghost-like. Every ounce of blood faded from his skin and into his quick pulsing heart. “Surely,” he chuckled, trying to make light of the situation, “there’s been a mistake… he’s only been in this field for what, three years? He’s only slightly older than my own daughter!” The small chuckle became a nervous and enraged laugh. He gulped back a swig of coffee.
Just as Jeremy was going to reply, Serrels walked in. Everyone in the faculty lounge gravitated toward him, as if he was the sun and they all were the planets. To the Professor they looked like gnats in a bug-light: gravitated then ZAPPED. The Professor sat paralyzed in his seat. There was the news. It was six feet tall, still had acne, and could barely tie his shoes. He had been passed over for Serrels, the research analyst from smalltown, America. He, that young wisp of a man, had gotten the money that the Professor should have had. He had almost thirty years experience with the department, a deep friendship with the dean of academics, the president, and the board of trustees. After all the work he’d done for them… this is what it had come down to: Serrels Wellston, a young untalented man. The Professor stewed silently, first with shock, and then awe at the audacity of this child before him. He stood among the Professor’s peers as the masses poured him coffee and congratulated him. The Professor heard snippets of Serrels conversation. He was “so proud.” He had “worked so long.” It was “the greatest honor” of his life. The Professor’s face turned progressively purple.
And just at the moment that he decided to get up and give the child a piece of his mind, a labby ran into the room quietly asked for the Professor. The Professor tried to regain composure, which meant squeezing the cup handle until his hand turned white. The labby walked up to him and asked him if he’d received the email.
“Well we need to figure out what to do. The hard-drives had a lot of student’s work on them and…” the labby trailed off. He hung his head in shame, as he should, thought the Professor.
Already flustered at the compounding of the situation, when his phone began to vibrate in his pocket he abruptly reached in and ignored the call. Through gritted teeth he said, “go back and look again. I’ll be there soon.”
The labby hesitated then scampered away.
The Professor watched him leave and then took his phone from his pocket. One missed call: Ex-Wife. Again. Now if only to make matters worse the woman would not stop calling him. As he placed the phone back in his pocket, Serrels walked up to him.
“Harrison. I’m so sorry, friend.” Serrels looked directly into the Professor’s eyes. “Truly I am. No one deserved it more than you.” Serrels shook his head.
Surprised, disgusted, and utterly without words the Professor gave a jilted smile and was about to say some choice words when his phone vibrated. Almost crushing the phone in frustration, he again ignored the call and asked Serrels if he could be excused, he had an emergency computer lab issue.
Infuriated, the Professor stormed down the hall. His rage had him flying through the building like a apparition: swift, straight, and brooding. Computer lab 340 was the freshman computer lab, which is why it was all the way upstairs. It was also a classroom to one of only three classes the Professor was teaching that semester. He had taken upon himself to be the organizer of all computer labs technology and lab-techs. Those hard-drives were in a sense his hard-drives.
The Professor stopped at the doorway to the lab. Two lab techs stood on the side of the room, rustling through piles of discs and old keyboards.
“Who,” the Professor paused and looked at the floor and then quickly, menacingly, toward the two lab techs, they froze, “who the hell let those hard-drives out of their sight?” The Professor motioned toward the techs, forgetting that his coffee cup was still in hand, and fumbled for the shorter one’s name, “You there, uh…”
“It’s John, Professor,” the tech replied.
“Yes, John. Now, didn’t this happen last semester? Are you not making them check these things out like the manual says?” Noticing that coffee sloshed out of the cup and onto the floor – and his hand – the Professor mumbled under his breath and set his cup down on the nearest desk.
The techs approached the Professor with paper towels and spoke at once. “Quiet! Let me just think about this,” the Professor angrily retorted. “My God. You guys need to learn just when it’s the right time to say something and when it’s the right time to shut up!” Immediately, both techs began to speak again. Grabbing the paper towels and pushing them away the Professor yelled, “Now is the time to shut up!” The Professor began to clean himself and he grunted at John to speak.
John hesitated and searched for words, “Well, yes, you see we did check them out – just as you told us to in the manual. But, as it turns out, those ‘students’ who checked them out were actually not students,” he let out a short, nervous chuckle. The returning glare from the Professor suggested his disgust at the answer.
The Professor sucked in a shallow breath and with a sigh he begrudgingly replied, “Then we need to” he paused and looked around the room, the techs followed his gaze, “we need to remember who came in.” The Professor walked to the tables at the back of the room and asked for the check-out sheet. Just as he began to peruse the document, his cell phone rang from his pocket. The Professor sighed and began to reach for the phone but hesitated. He shook his head.
“Do you want to get that?” the other tech asked. He was standing hopefully in front of the Professor. The Professor shook his head again and ignored the next ring.
Finally he relented and grabbed the phone from his pocket and looked at the screen. It was his ex-wife. Again. He pressed the ignore button, “Damnit. That’s the sixth time my ex-wife has called me today.” He shoved the phone back in his pocket and took a deep breath and then stiffened his shoulders.
The techs furrowed their brows; John mouthed “sixth time” with wonder and curiosity. The Professor realized the gravity of his words. His Ex-Wife had called him once before he woke up, once after, twice during his routine coffee and conversations with faculty, and once in the hall on his way to this very moment. If her calling once in a month was a rarity, calling six times in five hours was… emergency. He reached back into his pocket and immediately the phone began to ring. He slid the “answer” bar with his right thumb. He placed the phone to his ear and immediately his ex-wife’s voice spoke a mixture of sadness and anger.
“She’s dead, Harrison,” she paused, “she killed herself last night. Oh God, Harrison. Our baby killed herself.”
He didn’t know how he got back to his office. He seemed to have been teleported back down three flights of stairs, through the halls, around people… All that he knew was that he was sitting in his leather chair and that already his daughter was haunting him. The pictures and words on the walls came alive with an intensity that weighed on the Professor like water pressure on a scuba diver under miles of sea. It hurt. It ached. It throbbed. Whatever had been aroused in him had come and also swollen the room with grief.
Realizing his phone was still in hand, he set it next to the mouse, jarring it from its position. The computer screen awoke and showed his email account still up. Nonchalantly and for some unexplainable reason he began to read his list of unread emails. Just received was an email from the private company sponsoring the grant he’d been working toward. Surely that was his “We’re truly sorry…” let-down-email on what meant the stasis of the Professor’s career. Below that, an Amazon.com advertisement, the emergency email from his labbies, a few more advertisements and then… an email from his daughter.
His heart leapt in his chest as he moused over and opened the email. Again, black and white words haunted his office.
Time: Today, 3:38am
Subject: Dear Professor
I’m not sure how to write this. I’ve been thinking about how to write it and in my head it comes out so much more elegant than the words I’ve penned on random scraps of paper. Bear with me.
I’m sure momma has called you by now. I’m sure my friends have seen me. I’m sure arrangements are already on their way. I’ve left no other note than this, because I had to tell you. I had to.
I had to do this, daddy. I’ve worked my whole life in hopes of being a prima. And now I am. All of that work was for nothing.
You’ve seen all of my opening shows, thanks for never missing one. You and momma went through such lengths to provide me with the best arts education. You sent me to art schools, extra lessons, intense tutoring, and you have even funded my world tour. I thank you from the bottom of my soon to be still heart.
I’ve worked so hard for you. I’ve worked to get my face and feet on the front page of this paper or that, to be commended in arts journals, to have your name displayed as much as possible, to have articles written about me so you could show your colleagues and be proud. But I’m done with that. I’m done with being words and pictures and a boost to your ego.
Do you know why I wanted to be a ballerina? Because I loved dance, daddy. I loved it so much. I wanted to dance with you at my wedding some-day, like I’d seen of the pictures of momma and her father. But never once did you twirl with me, or watch me practice. You only came to official recitals where the neighborhood parents and community members were going to be visible. You never once came to the dress-rehearsals like the other dads. You never once asked me how I was enjoying ballet or school. However, you always asked for my honor-roll certificates, my letters of accomplishment, and my competition trophies. Those you sat next to the photographs of you and Bill Gates. And now I see that you were simply evidencing that I’m equal with meeting a nerd who invented computers. Thanks.
Not anymore, daddy. I’m 24 years old. My life is spent on stages and in strange hotels. For some time now I’ve realized that years ago, perhaps even as a small child, I lost my love for dance. I only desired your attention. I only desired for you to love me. And I thought you did! I thought you appreciation of my accomplishments was your appreciation for me! Your love for me! But now I see that your phone-calls are fewer, your attention is shorter, and your obsession is work. You didn’t love momma, and now I see that you don’t truly love me.
My life is a joke. It’s time and effort spent for someone who doesn’t even care. And that’s why I’m doing this. Momma was smart enough to get out when she did, now it’s my turn. Why should I bother dancing if the one I’m trying to please is only concerned with the blisters on my feet and not the passion of my heart?
All I desired was for your time, your fatherly attention. Enjoy work; I hope it fulfills whatever you desire.
If anything, know that I tried to love you. You were just too selfish to let me.
The Professor did not move the mouse to “x” out of the email window. He did not move at all; even blinking seemed to be irrelevant. The gloom of the room had turned from shades to knives, piercing every part of his body. She was gone and it was essentially his fault. He was everything she had said he was.
He could have opened the email hours ago, before he had become absorbed with the drama of the computer lab. He could have answered his phone this morning at home, before his ex-wife had become so frustrated at him for not answering all morning. A frustration that only, he supposed, added to the intense and ridiculous amount of grief she was undoubtedly feeling now. But then again, he could have tried to save his marriage decades ago. He could have been there for his Daughter when she needed him most – oh God he could have been there for her of all people. And he could have spent more time with his family than on his career. He could have… But now there was nothing left to do. His family, his job, his life were all falling apart. But he chose neither to re-read the email nor to remove the window on the screen.
An alarm rang from near his right hand, still resting on the mouse – his phone reminding him, as it did every day, that he had a class to teach. The Professor blinked – the first in minutes – and raised the phone to within viewing distance. He brought it too close to his face, remembering that his bifocals were in the computer lab. He held the phone at arm’s length so that he could focus on the tiny words on the screen. The alarm flashed, “Freshman Computer Sciences, Rm 340.” Silencing the alarm, the Professor placed the phone in his pocket. He had class to teach. It was his job, it was the only thing he had left.
After standing up, the Professor walked to the door, suddenly realizing that he needed notes and the thumb-drive for class. Just then, a wave of insurmountable grief washed over his body. Feeling more frail than ever before, he shivered and closed his eyes tight. The wave passed. The Professor simply didn’t know what else to do but what he had done every-day for the past twenty or more years: keep teaching class, keep walking the halls, keep doing whatever it is that calls the most immediate attention and the least personal involvement. He was on auto-pilot as he walked back to his desk and picked up a stack of unknown and cluttered papers, a pen, and his thumb drive. In a daze the Professor slowly walked up the stairs to room 340. He passed students and colleagues all of whom raised their hand to wave hello and then promptly brought it back down to their side. They knew, as somewhere deep inside the Professor he also knew, that he was looking right through them. What he saw passing him in the halls were young optimists who would soon be hardened, old professors who had faked themselves into believing that this is what they truly wanted out of life. What the Professor saw was everything he was and is, and he hated them all for it.
There were still fifteen minutes until class started. The Professor always got to class early like this. He enjoyed the burning dust smell that pulsed from processors. He loved the faces of the students as they walked in both eager and reluctant. Computers were his passion and he wanted to show each one of the students just how amazing the technology was, how it helped to shape all life as they knew it. But today, as he entered the same room he had answered the phone-call just minutes earlier, a sense of enclosure and entrapment overcame him. This was no longer his sanctuary. He could no longer hide behind his precious motherboards and circuits and feel life. Life as he knew it had ceased to exist this morning at 3:38.
The Professor gently set down his papers on the table at the front of the room. Behind it, shiny whiteboards rested on the white cinder block walls. At the back of the classroom, behind rows of computers, were four large windows that faced east. The shades had been pulled completely up so that light could come through at every possible angle. The morning sun, now awake, warmed the cold room, but the effect it had on the Professor was that of a breaking fever. The cold became him but with the power of a heat-induced sweat. The Professor, eager to stamp out the effects of a reality of brightness, navigated his way around the rows to the back of the room. The Professor snapped the shades shut with a flick of his wrist – one, two, three, four – and then paused with a mild air of controlled satisfaction. With the shades now closed, the Professor pondered the structures he had just manipulated.
What used to be a pure white metal shade had become a yellowed, dusty off-white with years of wear. The year after he had arrived at the University as a Professor, he had requested that the old wooden shades in the classroom be replaced with new blinds. His wish was granted. The Professor ran his hands over the shades which he had, in a sense, brought into reality all those years ago. His hand had made a clear path in the layers of dust. He pulled his hand away and focused on the dust that covered it. This dust, the simple concoction of dirt and skin and grime that accumulated due to years of existence, glared back at him as a haunting reminder. The dust of his tenure. The dust of his life lost. The dust he would return to. The dust of his daughter’s existence. Yes, he had his plaques and his degrees and his books and his thoughts, but in this morning of utter destruction, all that was left of him was the dust of years wasted.
As the Professor studied the glaring dust on his hand, he turned to walk back to the front of the class. Students began to trickle in. Just a few at first took their seats, all texting as they sat down at their usual computers. More followed and soon the classroom was full and throbbing with laughter and conversation. The Professor stood alone and resolute at the podium at the front of the class as he gathered his notes and thoughts. He booted up the computer and logged himself in to bring up today’s lecture. The projector warmed up and showed the entire class what the Professor was doing. A picture of his daughter, taken from the ballet article that was once in the Times, stood as his desktop screensaver. Long, lean, and effervescently beautiful she stood in some French position he could never remember the name of. The Professor looked at the screen; the students sat unnoticing the projection. No one knew of her death.
The Professor paused. What did his accomplishments matter now? What did his teaching do for him, now? All the things he had been working for were gone: his wife, his daughter, his hard work. Gone. He logged off the computer and turned to the class.
He raised a hand to settle the class. “Class is canceled today.” The classroom looked skeptical.*
“In fact,” the Professor continued, “I will no longer be teaching this class.” A tear rolled down his stolid. He reached for his notes and thumb-drive and started to leave the classroom. He stopped at the door, one foot across the threshold. He turned slightly back to the class and said, “What does it matter now? Computer class? What does any of this matter if you lose everything you love?” He stepped off the threshold and did not look back. He walked down the hall, the stairs, and out into the cold. Without a coat this time, perhaps the cold would numb, and like ice to a wound it might lessen the bruise.
The Professor walked out of class, down the hall, the stairs, and out into the cold. Without a coat this time, perhaps the cold would numb, and like ice to a wound it might lessen the bruise.
AMK C 2011