Such Good Work
MY STUDENTS TURNED IN DRAWINGS of animals with extraordinary life spans.
I learned that there were species of tube worm that lived for up to one hundred and seventy years.
Arctic whales more than two hundred years old.
Clams with a life expectancy of four hundred.
Sponges that had been alive for more than a millennium.
A kind of jellyfish—the immortal jellyfish—that, after reaching sexual maturity, could revert to infancy again and again, maybe forever.
“Really?” I said, holding up Lucy’s drawing.
Lucy nodded proudly. She was a sophomore psych major. Her jellyfish wore a cape. A dialogue bubble above its head stated: I am immortal and a jellyfish.
I hung Lucy’s picture on the whiteboard next to Ravi’s arctic whale, which had a horn and a side-profile smile. Ricky’s tube worm was 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 was not a drawing but rather a full page of double-spaced text explaining why there shouldn’t be drawing assignments in a college creative-writing class. (Drawing animals is not creative writing any more than pottery is accounting.) She sat in the front row and glared at me. She had the posture of someone who spent her childhood balancing books on her head. She was almost certainly the treasurer of a sorority. I hung her essay next to all the animal pictures.
* * *
My department chair, Norman, invited me to his office. Norman was a squirrelly man who always appeared to be bracing for a punch. He was from a leafy college town in the Northeast and looked out of place in Wilmington, a waterfront tourist strip that happened to have a university. He had hired me the previous summer after a string of maternity and rehab leaves of absence had left the department in need of temporary faculty who could be trusted to stay childless and sober. I wasn’t sure why, out of the pack of graduating MFA teaching assistants, he had picked me, but maybe one of my professors had gotten the wrong idea about me and put in a good word.
“Look, Jonas, I’m not trying to be the administrator here,” Norman said. “But a student complained.”
This student had felt uncomfortable with last week’s homework assignment: attend a stranger’s funeral.
“Frankly,” Norman said, “I don’t know if I can blame her.”
This student was Kayla.
Norman waited for me to say something, but my mind was too foggy to find a good explanation.
“No more funerals,” I agreed.
Back in my office, I typed up a more traditional assignment: Write a story.
* * *
My mind was always foggy lately. At age twenty-seven, it was my first semester sober, and without four doses of oxycodone a day, a couple tramadol in the mornings, a few methadone now and then, and a weekend bump of heroin to take the edge off, I’d been having trouble finding my words. Sometimes when I was standing in front of the class and one of the kids asked a good question, my brain would start firing off ideas, and it was like I was alive again. I’d explain the relationship between dialogue and narration in fiction, do an impromptu performance of how a scene from a popular movie would sound if a narrator were commenting on each piece of dialogue, and feeling my energy rising with the sound of their laughter, I’d circle back to answer the original question by describing the moment in their assigned reading when . . . when . . . when . . . but the words would scurry into the fog again and I’d be left um-ing and uh-ing like an idiot.
* * *
Monday morning the students slumped through the door. They’d spent almost every Monday since they were five years old in a room like this. It took its toll—so often being somewhere other than where you wanted to be. When I used to get high, places were interchangeable. Everywhere was the best place ever—and then the worst. But now place mattered very much. There were few places I liked more than this classroom, with the cheap blinds over the windows, the
long fluorescent light tubes overhead, and the students who, even though I often told them what to do, didn’t seem to hate me.
Except for Kayla. Her dislike troubled me.
I stood at the front of the class. I was wearing jeans and a navy cardigan that had been a gift from my ex. I had been growing my hair long since a methadone nightmare the year before had given me a fear of balding. The hair now reached down past my ears. It was strong and brown and shiny and probably the best thing I had going for me.
I held up a stack of student stories. “This was concerning.” I paused. “You killed all your protagonists.”
The students laughed nervously. Kayla maintained eye contact from her spot in the front row.
“I’ll admit that this may be my fault. I probably shouldn’t have sent you to the funeral. That’s on me. I was trying something new.” I paused. “But here’s the thing: Life is long and usually ends in death. Stories are short and usually don’t. Characters can have problems without having cancer, and suicide doesn’t always have to be the solution.” I looked out at the students, hoping to see a reaction, which was a stupid thing to do, since, even when the students were in the middle of life-changing moments—when they realized that all experience was subjective or that they didn’t have to major in business administration—they almost never visibly reacted. But today, seeing no reaction, I panicked. I took a sip of water and gathered myself. “Please stop killing your characters. It’s bumming me out.”
* * *
After class, I asked Kayla to stay behind for a second. I was nervous. I knew from student evaluations that one-on-one interaction was not
my strong suit. In class, Professor Anderson was hilarious and super sarcastic, but in office hours he was random.
“How’s the semester treating you, Kayla?” I said, making casual eye contact.
“It’s busy.” She clutched her binder to her chest.
“Are you enjoying your other classes?”
“You’re an econ major, right?”
“Psychology: the econ of the liberal arts.”
“I get the feeling that you don’t like this class.”
She mulled the question over. “I don’t not like it.” A pause. “I had planned on liking it.”
“You have an A, you know.”
She sighed. “I feel like you’re not teaching us what you should be teaching us.”
“What do you think I should be teaching you?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you want to learn?”
She opened her mouth but stopped.
“It would help if you told me,” I said. “Maybe what you want to learn is what other students want to learn, too.”
“You’re the teacher,” she finally said.
* * *
That evening, I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Technically, I should have been going to Narcotics Anonymous. But I
found that the average age at AA was much higher, which meant that the sharers had better stories and that I was less likely to meet people who looked and sounded like me. After the meeting, I saw Spanish Richard waiting for me in the parking lot. Spanish Richard was a middle-aged three-hundred-pound recovering alcoholic who wore Hawaiian shirts and cargo shorts and cried every time he shared.
“My man,” he said, shaking my hand and pulling me into a half hug. “You out on the streets again?”
“I am not. I just haven’t been keeping up on meetings.” I didn’t tell him that I had never been “out on the streets”—I had used drugs in my apartment. “I have to get better about that.”
“How long have you been clean now?”
“About two months.” I refused to say, Seventy days.
“So you’re not an expert yet?”
“You are correct.”
“Have you started the steps?”
“I’m getting there.” I had no intention of doing the steps. AA was like religion—you could take the parts that worked for you and leave the rest.
“My man, 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 used to find it strange how the men at these meetings put cars on the same level as wives, jobs, and homes on the list of things they lost to drugs and alcohol. Not until I heard a twelve-stepper
describing his two hours on the bus each day as “reflecting time” did it occur to me how much more a car could mean to someone who’s at the mercy of public transit and a parole officer. In the parking lot, Spanish Richard told me the story of his fall, again, and I found, again, that hearing about all-night drinking, lying, cheating, and car crashing, told with the same emphasis and pauses as the last five times, wasn’t boring at all. Just the opposite—it was comforting, like hearing a favorite bedtime story. Spanish Richard said that he now got more real joy from making his bed every morning than he ever did from alcohol. He talked about God as if God were a hotline I could call. He also mentioned a hotline I could call.
“It’s twenty-four hours.”
Then he put his hand on my shoulder. “You can handle it.”
I swallowed. “How do you know?”
Spanish Richard shrugged. “Because I can handle it.”
* * *
Three weeks after our first meeting, I got another summons from the department chair. Norman didn’t want to micromanage my process, but he was concerned.
“Maybe you want to use some course syllabi or exercises from the department file.” Norman cleared his throat. “Or maybe you would feel more comfortable handing over the courses to someone else.”
“I would love to use some course syllabi and exercises from the department file. I’ve been struggling for direction and I think that could be just what I need. How can I access them?”
“I’ll send you the link.”
I could feel that there was a but coming, so I preempted it. “I
realize that I haven’t been on top of my game lately. There have just been a lot of changes.” I paused. “It’s hard to lose someone you care about. I didn’t think it would affect my work so much, but it has.”
Norman nodded sympathetically. He didn’t ask whom I had lost, which was lucky. The implication of sadness from losing a loved one sounded better than sadness from losing the version of yourself who got to be high all the time.
Back in my office, still employed, I ate a multivitamin and wished it were oxycodone.
* * *
That evening, I was walking down Front Street, passing by the bars where I used to drink, on my way to the corner store to buy an unsatisfying soda, when I ran into a group of MFA students two years behind me.
“Jonas! Where have you been?” they said, drunk and happy. “We never see you anymore!”
They didn’t know about the drugs or the sobriety, so there was no way to quickly explain why I could no longer be found at Lula’s or the Blue Post, where I used to spend five or six nights a week.
“They kept me on for a second semester, if you can believe it,” I said. “All it took was for Daniel to realize he’s an alcoholic.”
“How did he only just realize that now?” said Stephanie. “I realized it when he yelled ‘poetry forever!’ in the middle of my first-year reading.”
“That wasn’t part of the poem?” I said. “I like that poem less now.”
“Daniel likes epiphanies,” said Audrey. “A character can’t just
know that he’s an alcoholic at the beginning of the story. He has to realize it.”
“Come drink with us!” Bobby said. “We are drinking!”
“Christ, Bobby, stop yelling,” Audrey said, and yanked him by the shirt.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m a real teacher now. If they catch me at a bar, they might ship me off with Daniel.”
We shared hugs and they bumbled down the street toward Lula’s. By the time they were out of sight I was shaking so badly I could barely stand.
* * *
The next day, I biked to work, inspiring two separate pickup-truck drivers to yell their guess at my sexual orientation. In my office I found a story slid under the door. It was from Kayla. A revision. The first draft of her story had been about a young marine whose plane was shot down on his way home from Afghanistan to marry his sweetheart. In this revised version, the marine’s plane still crashed into the sea, but this time he was resuscitated by an immortal jellyfish. The jellyfish gave up his immortality to save the marine, but there was a catch: the marine could never again leave the ocean. So the marine swam across the Atlantic to the coast of North Carolina, where he watched his lost love walking along the beach alone, day after day. Every evening, as she passed, he longed to reach out and pull her into the water. But he loved her too much, so he just floated in the waves, pining. One day he saw a man walking by her side, holding her hand. That night, the marine swam away without anger or bitterness—only sadness that this part of his life had ended.
* * *
On the last day of the semester, I ordered pizzas for the class. Ricky provided a “vegan pizza,” which was simply a loaf of sourdough bread. Lucy brought homemade cookies so perfect they looked photoshopped. We ate and laughed and played YouTube videos on the projector.
I gave a short speech that ended with “Now get out of here before I get emotional,” a line that I had planned the night before, but which, as I said it in front of the class, inspired actual welling in my throat.
On their way out, the students dropped their final assignments on my desk. Ravi shook my hand and thanked me for the class. Ricky waited for the others to leave, then looked me in the eyes and told me that this was the least boring class she’d had in a long time.
She closed the door after leaving; I was alone.
I looked at the empty desks. I slammed a pizza box over my knee. I hurled it across the room. I picked up another box and raised it over my knee.
“I can take care of that,” Kayla said, suddenly appearing in the doorway.
“Oh. I didn’t see you there.” I put the box down on the desk and made casual eye contact. “How is the end of the semester treating you?”
Kayla took the box from my desk, opened it, threw away the garlic-crumbed wax paper and the little plastic tripod, folded in the sides, and flattened the cardboard. She packed up the other boxes the same way, then tucked the flattened boxes under her arm.
“I’ll just run these out to the recycling bins,” she said.
I stood there waiting for her to return and wondering what parting words I should leave her with. It was nonsexual affection, but I didn’t want to give her the wrong idea. I just wanted her to know that she shouldn’t take my failure as indicative of what life would offer.
I waited. The clock read five past. Students from the next class queued up in the hall. One peeked in to see if I’d left yet. I glanced out the window, but of course she wasn’t coming back.
* * *
At home, I thought about calling my mom, a spiritual coach who was now living at a retreat in Sedona with no internet access. We had, over the years since I left home, settled into a rhythm where I called on her birthday and she called on mine, and we mailed each other handwritten letters on Christmas. It was a fragile stasis, and an unexpected request for comfort might shatter the whole thing. The more we talked, the greater the likelihood that someone would mention the past, and neither of us wanted to feel that kind of anger toward the other.
I opened my laptop and tried to write a story about immortal jellyfish and the longness of life. I had barely written a word since quitting drugs, aside from a journal in which, for the past 116 days, I had recorded thoughts like The days are really long and I miss drugs. Given that I had written every day since high school, it was strange to be without it.
When I was a grad student, under the tutelage of an eccentric professor who took a liking to me based on an orientation-day conversation we had about basketball and who I came to suspect was the one who had recommended me to Norman, I had written an
unpublishable novel—a long book that managed to say little. Today I wanted to write something small that felt big. But already in the first paragraph, I found myself unable to describe the way a jellyfish swam. That was why my novel had been bad—it took me so long to describe anything. By the time I got to the end of an analogy, the reader had forgotten what thing I was describing in the first place. I wanted a half-sentence description of a jellyfish, fleet and deft and hinting at metaphoric meaning—the kind of thing that people would underline when they read it. But it took me five lines to describe the inflating/deflating plastic-bagness of the jellyfish. I opened a browser window and typed jellyfish swimming into the search bar. I clicked on a video from a nature program, in which a British voice narrated the jellyfish’s swimming perfectly. The voice spoke with such calculated eloquence that no word was wasted. I shut the computer.
* * *
I biked out to the beach. It was a twelve-mile ride, but the late-spring heat had not yet turned vindictive, and even if it had, I wouldn’t have felt it. My wallet was stuffed with $300 in twenties, money with which I was going to buy pills from Kit when he got off work at the Applebee’s he assistant-managed. It was early evening by the time I reached the coast, the sun hanging low in the sky, and the only people still out were crew-cut marines from Camp Lejeune, drinking bottled beer with their young wives. They’d be sent to Afghanistan, or back to Afghanistan, shortly. If the soldiers on the beach survived the war, they might show up in my classroom one day, straight-backed and polite and quietly desperate to make up for lost time. And what could I teach them?
I laid my bike on the sand, rolled up my jeans, and waded shin-deep into the surf. The water that pooled around my ankles had been part of the ocean before I was born and would be part of that same ocean after I was dead. I wasn’t sure what to do with this information.
I turned and saw Kayla, walking hand in hand with a broad-shouldered and crew-cut man. He had brown forearms and a white chest that looked like parts from two separate action figures. Kayla wore a bathing-suit top and jean shorts and looked like she was trying to reconcile what she was seeing in front of her with what she knew. I couldn’t tell whether her surprise came from catching me wading in the ocean by myself or from seeing me outside the classroom.
“It’s a little tradition of mine.” I trudged out of the water. “After I turn in final grades, I go for a dip. You got an A.”
She smiled. “Professor Anderson, this is my fiancé, Hank.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Hank said.
I braced for an alpha-male handshake, but Hank’s grip was gentle. Up close, I saw that he had the face of a boy. It dawned on me that I was the adult in the situation.
“Have you two made any plans for after graduation?”
“I have another year left,” Kayla said. “But I’m going to be a flight attendant.”
“She’s going to see the world,” Hank said.
“How exciting. Any particular part of the world?”
“All of it, hopefully,” Kayla said.
“And when’s the wedding?”
“Next month—right before I ship out.” Hank looked over at Kayla with his big young eyes. “I can hardly wait.”
Kayla ran her fingers over her ring, which looked more like an earring than an engagement ring—a skinny band with a tiny diamond.
I took the $300 from my wallet, folded the fifteen bills over once, and held them out to Hank. “Happy wedding.”
“Please. I insist. You make a lovely couple.”
Kayla took the money from my hand. “Thank you, Professor Anderson.”
Hank stared at his feet.
“It’s our first wedding present, babe,” Kayla said, handing him the bills.
Hank lit up as if he had just realized she was going to marry him. He put the twenties in the pocket of his shorts and shook my hand again, harder this time. “Thank you, sir. That’s extremely generous of you.”
“Maybe you can buy a dog,” I said.
Kayla hugged me. I gave her a quick one-handed pat on the back—my hand stuck to her skin for a moment—and wished them both good luck.
They walked along the water’s edge, and I watched their footprints disappear in the wet sand until their bodies had disappeared, too. Out past the breakers, a jellyfish bobbed along with the tide, with nothing to do but live forever.