Originally published in Calliope
Once I had a friend. But we went to different colleges after high school, and I knew nothing would be the same. Now, I am alone; a dissected “we.”
Isaac Beemer closed his brown spiral-ring journal and placed the cap on the felt tip marker. He ran his hand through his curly black hair and across his slender, unshaven face in an attempt at motivation. His morning free time had passed, and if he didn’t hurry, he would not be in his first period classroom ten minutes early.
“Always be punctual, Isaac,” his mother told him when she straightened his tie, as if the Greyhound bus fare were less expensive for immaculate dressers. “And try to find a descent synagogue,” she tried to whisper above the shouts of boarding passengers. His Catholic father had heard her anyway, but had merely winked at Isaac, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “A mother’s advice is not to be tampered with.” Once at school, Isaac, the freshman, had conveniently forgot the last half of the counsel, but religiously held to the former.
For this reason, he shut his journal even though he wanted to continue writing. “You will write?” Michael, the object of his current passage, had asked him with a handshake at the graduation ceremonies.
“You’ll get a letter from me every week. I promise.”
“I’m not talking about letters, man. I mean write. You know, like a writer writes. You’ve got to keep up with it. You’ve got it man.”
That was another piece of advice, and in the early morning hours before first period calss he fought to uphold it, for Michael’s sake more than anything else.
Usually Isaac rode the bus to school, but as he put on his pleated gray tweed pants and white oxford shirt, the bicycle which now served as a hat and clothes rack in the living room demanded, in what seemed to Michael’s voice, an exposure to the October air. As he rode from his small, rain-washed duplex apartment to the campus, he thought of his parents and of Michael and of everything he had left behind to attend the cheapest college in the state. He glanced back only once as if Michael were behind him, racing. He pedaled harder and harder, burying his face in the pages of the wind. He felt slight twinges of pain down his skinny thighs and between his jutting shoulder blades, but he pedaled still harder, hoping to be the first student in the classroom, the first one to define his territory.
When Isaac turned away from the hallway into room 213 of Connor Hall, he felt terribly awkward; he was not the first student in the room. The tall, slender girl with porcelain skin and hair like hay bundled in a braid behind her head had already staked her claim, marking her boundaries with her large straw pocket book and gingham book bag. Her paisley skirt, spread over the entire width of the seat, completely hid her legs, only exposing her tiny ankles and, in brown sandals, the most slender, the whitest feet, like those of a doll he had been forbidden to touch in his grandmother’s china closet. Isaac sat in the very back chair on the left side of the classroom, ran his fingers over his dark black curls, and stared for what he knew must have been two or three days. She did not look up, but continued to read her pages and pages of yellow notepaper through her round-frame, gold-wire glasses. In a mousy voice she said, “I saw Dr. Gillawater earlier, she should be in any minute.” Isaac only stared. The girl, this pale sliver of life, had been in class before, but he had never been alone with her.
Dr. Gillawater arrived ten minutes late that day. She murdered her cigarette in the ashtray at the door, heaved a portfolio on the desk, and laid her notes on the lectern. Isaac thought how much she looked like a gloomy elf with her short, paunchy body and white, boyish haircut with straight bangs. After a few minutes of deliberation she began the psychology class. The session covered the young adult stage of life, and Dr. Gillawater spoke as if the spirit of the stage had fallen back into the cobwebbed crannies of her psyche. Her face contorted itself periodically to accommodate her false teeth.
Isaac didn’t listen for long. He began scribbling on his notepaper, dreaming of home and feeling cold. Occasionally, he looked at the girl with the white feet. She seemed about as interested in the class as he was, but continued to make notes on the yellow paper. Once she glanced his way, and he thought that if she had looked a moment longer, he would have seen her smile.
Not until he cleared his books off the desk did he see it on the wooden desktop, etched between obscenities and memoirs of forgotten lovers:
“ARE YOU LONELY?”
He looked for Dr. Gillawater’s eyes of authority. She had already left the class. He took his pen and carefully wrote beneath the question:
“YES, I AM.”
Isaac’s schedule endowed him with two periods of “profitable study time” between his psychology class and his next class, history. This period of time was the longest of the day. He rarely used the time to study; he studied during the long night hours that seemed to smother him in darkness. Sometimes he occupied his free periods with writing. Usually he spent the time in restless limbo, ambling around campus, waiting for class. Today he found himself in the library.
For Isaac, the library was a fascinating place. With its plush easy chairs and rich variety of magazines, videos, and microfilm, the building was a frequent refuge for him, a time-killer’s fantasy. He walked past the plexiglass sound-proof rooms to the book stacks.
The girl in the psychology class was named Reba – Reba Hartley. He discovered that by investigating a yearbook from the year before. He stared at the picture for a while before returning the book to its shelf.
He went to the bookstore to find a card for Michael but found nothing he wanted or could afford. The only customer in the store, he felt awkward walking out without making a purchase. He picked up a long, pink eraser and set it on the counter in front of the lady with a bleached-blonde beehive. “That’ll be forty cents, honey.” The coins danced across the counter. “What’s your name, darlin’” she asked between smacks of gum and register rings.
“Pardon?” Isaac blushed.
“I said, ‘what’s your name?’ I haven’t seen you around here before.”
“Isaac. I’m a freshman.”
“Isaac. Cute name.” She ran her eyes down the length of his lean body and back up again. “Jewish?”
“Half.” The plastic bag felt slippery between his fingers.
“Take it easy, Isaac Freshman.” She winked. “Come back and see us.” She patted her hair and snapped her gum. Once outside the door, Isaac threw the bag away and crammed the eraser into his pocket.
Isaac wandered Connor Hall down vacant corridors, absorbing bits and pieces of lectures. He read the announcements on the bulletin board; he straightened his hair in the reflection of a display cabinet; he walked to one end of the hall and sipped water from the water cooler. A half hour later he left Connor Hall and went to the cafeteria.
Isaac stumbled through the back entrance and examined the crowd. Often he would come here and watch, hoping to find characters he could write about someday. No heads turned when Isaac entered the room, and no heads turned as he walked between the tables of the music majors (“Are you sure about that? I thought it was ‘La la lala la la dee…’”), the English majors (Of course ‘Mending Wall’ shows a repression of homosexual tendencies…” “That’s the most ridi—“It’s all Oedipal…”), and the education students (“The discipline stuff they teach you never works when you get into student teaching…” “I know; Piaget never taught a class…”). All of the tables were closed in chattering circles except one in the far front of the building. It was empty. He continued to meander through the crowd of handsome hunks and their beautiful leeches as he approached the table.
He was almost there when Reba entered from another direction and settled down at the table with her straw pocket book and gingham book bag. Isaac backed away. He turned in search for another table, but only one other wasn’t filled – the table where Dr. Gillawater sat staring out the window, drinking her soup, her teeth on a napkin by her bowl. She seemed as morbid now as she had first period. Isaac went back to the library and re-read his history assignment in a sealed-proof room.
He didn’t write the next morning. He lay in bed, thinking. “You will write?” He could feel Michael’s words scratching at his chest. “You will write?” He pulled the sheet over his head. “You will write?” I can’t write, Michael. I don’t have anything to write about. I’m not doing anything; I don’t have a soul to talk to. I wake up in the morning, come to school, go home and watch the paint peel. I can’t even find a job. What am I supposed to be writing about? Romance? Lots of chances for that: a woman in the bookstore winked at me yesterday. I’m just like you; girls just fall at my feet. There are no new people in my life since I left home. Except ---
Reba was the first student in psychology the next morning, although Dr. Gillawater’s portfolio occupied the first seat. He took his seat in the back and watched her. She polished her glasses and organized her notes.
He was opening his text for class when he saw it – a continuation of yesterday’s conversation.
“ARE YOU LONELY?”
“YES, I AM.”
Then the following:
“I KNOW THE FEELING. I’VE WATCHED YOU.”
“THE WHOLE WORLD’S LONELY.”
The following day, he checked his desktop and found another message:
“WANTED: ONE FRIEND.”
He put his pen tip on the desktop to add something to the string of correspondences, but he couldn’t think of anything to write.
“Loneliness.” The word from the lecture knocked his head upward. “Today we will be discussing this phenomenon of the young adult stage of life.” Dr. Gillawater’s steadfast expression of disinterest remained, but for the first time during the quarter she left the lectern without speaking. “Recently, I flew alone to a convention on various aspects and contemporary issues in psychology. I was amazed by the alarming statistics on loneliness in America. According to leading psychologists, the population most confronted with loneliness is the eighteen to twenty-five range. I would like to hear your opinions on this.”
Isaac wasn’t sure if she really wanted their opinions or if her dentures were slipping and silence was her only choice. No one in the class breathed. A boy with a ruddy complexion and thick arms was the first to speak. “I can see where they’re coming from. I mean, sometimes you just feel by yourself.” He paused and shook his head. “I mean, like sometimes I come to school, go to work, go home, go to school. It’s a cycle I go through. I don’t have a lot of time to make friends. You know what I mean?”
“That is the biggest joke I’ve ever heard,” laughed a girl with a blond ponytail. “The only reason these people…”
“What people?” Gillawater interrupted.
“These people that say they are so lonely. The only reason they are lonely is that they never do anything. If they’d get out and do something -- get involved with a club or something – they wouldn’t be so lonely.”
“Isn’t it possible to be lonely even if you belong to a group?” Isaac looked at Reba, the student who was always first in class, as she spoke. She took her gold-wire glasses from her eyes and placed them on her desktop. “I’ve been lonely in a crowd. The real reason people are so lonely isn’t because they’re not involved in stupid programs. The reason is that there are so few caring people around. And those of us who do have a little compassion, a little love, a little caring for the human spirit,” her voice wasn’t mousy anymore, “are too scared to reach out to other people in the same situation.”
Isaac ran his bony fingers over the chain of words etched in his desktop and smiled.
As soon as the class was over, Isaac left his books under the desk and followed Reba. In the hall, Isaac tried to speak. He succeeded in making a very loud ”um” which turned not only Reba’s head but the heads of two other girls and a basketball player. Isaac approached Reba; he stood remarkably close to her – so close he could see the small wrinkles in the corners of her eyes, just behind the gold rims.
“I liked what you said today.”
“Thanks.” He voice was mousy again. “It just makes me mad to hear people cut other people down that way. I know what it’s like to be alone.”
They both stood there a minute; then he looked down at his penny loafers. “Well, I just wanted to tell you that I really was behind you today.”
“Thanks. It’s not as simple as everybody thinks; good friends are hard to come by.” He was sure he saw her smile. “I’ve seen you in the cafeteria before. I started to speak, but…”
“Yeh. It’s a place I frequent occasionally.” He played with a ravel that hung from his shirt and thought of his stupidity.
“Well, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Reba walked away.
“Listen,” he said hoarsely as she left. “Would you like to have lunch today? I mean with me. I’m usually in the cafeteria around noon.”
“I’ll see you then.” She definitely smiled.
Isaac hit the air with his fist and laughed out loud as soon as Reba was out of sight. Finally he found someone. Was he jumping to conclusions? Well, at least he had someone with whom he could share lunch. He felt like he was swelling inside, as if he would emerge from his skin as if it were a cocoon at any minute.
He went back into the room to get his books. He was embarrassed to go back in at first, but no one was there. No one was there except Dr. Gillawater, sitting in the corner, writing on a desktop.
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