Sarah sighed and got out of bed, swinging her feet onto the thin carpet. It was a half an hour before she actually needed to get up, but sleep had only come intermittently: 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there. Pulling on and zipping up a purple hoodie, she walked over to the frosty window, which looked as if it was covered in silvery brambles.
James and the events of her last year at school were still with her, phantoms that were unseen and unheard but still undeniably present. She walked out of her room and descended the stairs that led into the kitchen, running her hand on the smooth and smudged white walls. In the kitchen, she started cleaning up the remnants of last night’s horror-show. The cheddar cheese that her mother had been attempting to eat before her unintentional self-mutilation had dried into a darkened husk, its orange pigment made extra-macabre by flecks of blood.
Disgusted, Sarah picked up the cutting board, positioned it over the trash and with a nudge of her finger sent it tumbling into a tangled mess of refuse. She then dropped the board into the sink, turned on the water and, after squirting a line of green dish soap onto its surface, left it to soak.
The day stretched out in front of her, even if the sun’s first rays hadn’t yet appeared. There would certainly be challenges. No doubt she would have certain conversations for the umpteenth time. She knew for a fact that Teresa’s boyfriend was coming over for a visit, and that Teresa would ask for pop even though her boyfriend ALWAYS brought along two massive chocolate shakes from Arby’s.
“Oh, you don’t want me to have pop?” Teresa would inquire, as if they hadn’t already discussed the matter six dozen times and counting.
“No, no I don’t Teresa. You’re trying to diet, rememberrrrrrrrrr?”
She was set to work an extra-long shift today, running anywhere from ten to twelve hours. She needed food for the day and, if she was honest, probably about five to six more hours of sleep. She pulled down a chipped bowl from the wooden cabinet that loomed to the left of the sink and then grabbed for the new box of cereal that she had just recently bought. After cracking the seal, she began to wrestle with the bag itself, which seemed as if it was stuck together with superglue.
It was also incredibly noisy, filling the quiet kitchen with a crackling, rustling and…
…popping din. “Can you be quieter, PUHLEASSSSEEEEE?” James hollered as she peeled open a bag of chips in the kitchen, which stood adjacent to their small bedroom that he had occupied to fill out more job applications. Sarah flushed as rage coursed through her. She walked over to the door separating her room from his and, with a swipe and a fake smile, slammed it shut.
She was tired. In the beginning she had supported him, doling out pep talks like an asinine self-help guru and forwarding relevant jobs like a deranged career counselor. But then James’ depression had turned to hostility and then into something bordering aggression. She was sick of it. Her enthusiasm was in decline, evaporating faster than her pitiful bank account, which was another considerable stressor. In short, their journey together was becoming rapidly unstable; one can only be someone’s cheerleader/verbal punching bag for so long.
Look on the bright side though, she often told herself, especially if she wanted a good laugh. There just wasn’t much to look forward to these days. Sarah knew that she wasn’t long for college. Her grades were in free-fall and her student debt was skyrocketing.
Despite some ambivalence, the prospect of leaving school was mainly relieving. Outside of the benefits it would bring to her personal life, many things about higher education simply just turned her stomach. Chief among them was the institution’s blatant indifference to the financial plight of students. This had come to light most spectacularly at the end of her freshman year, when she had learned that tuition was rising by some ungodly percentage point but aid packages were staying flat. Summoning up every ounce of her finite energy, she had marched into admissions, misguidedly believing that she would soon have answers.
“There isn’t any more funding to increase aid packages,” a blonde admissions representative had said, smiling in a way that made her look less human than a ventriloquist dummy. “The budget has been carefully allotted for next year, and the board has made every conceivable effort to limit tuition increases to a reasonable amount. Our highest priority is…” Sarah began spacing out as the representative continued to talk while saying nothing. Her words were platitudes, and they were gradually fading away. Sarah’s eyes drifted past the representative’s curiously dead-looking eyes, pearly skin and perfect smile to the window behind her desk. A new, $20 million dollar student center was rising in the distance, its immaculate, polished facade glittering in the Minnesota sunlight, and its maroon-colored roof with golden trim standing in shocking contrast to the lush green hues of the campus’s maple trees.
The center was barely visible from this vantage point, but that was only because the recent $5 million dollar expansion of the school’s law library was obstructing the views from the ivory tower of admissions. Sarah’s eyes darted back and forth between the two structures. Then a pit opened in her stomach and for a split-second she wondered if it was all a dream.
Towards the end of sophomore year, however, Sarah met someone who threw this type of thinking into doubt. That person was Erica, a young, pretty adjunct faculty member, who stood in contrast to many of Sarah’s other professors: old fogies that droned on and on, and who seemed married to their dusty syllabuses.
Erica also had a syllabus, but one that put audacious spins on what could be uninspired topics. The first class Sarah took with her, entitled “World Mythologies,” was a prime example. Going into the class, Sarah had expected something marginally more rigorous than the mythology class she had taken back in junior high: a course which cycled through descriptions of the major myths from Greece, Italy and Egypt. The first class shattered those misguided assumptions, breaking them apart like a 1,000 piece puzzle. Erica announced in their first class that recounting ancient myths and legends didn’t concern her – not in the slightest. Instead, she was interested in how and why human beings have engaged in mythmaking throughout history. She was interested in investigating the mythmaking of everyday life.
Despite this ambition, things started off slowly in the class. They began by reading the fairly pedestrian “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell, an axiomatic text for a mythology class if there ever was one. On week two things began to change dramatically however. They dove into a diverse array of literature: from philosophical heavies like Nietzsche and Freud, to literary titans like Kafka and Whitman. These were names that Sarah had heard before but had never thought about approaching. She began to see things differently as she read them, coming to understand the fundamental pain in being alive, brought about through the burden of unrealized dreams and the curtailing forces of the society in which you exist.
The intellectual ambition of Erica’s classes formed an interesting juxtaposition to the general way in which she carried herself. Exceptionally young to be an adjunct professor, by the age of 24 Erica had already obtained her bachelor’s degree from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, and her master’s degree from St. Thomas in St. Paul. A child of the Iron Range, she had been on her own for much of her life. Her father had passed away when she was young from a particularly bad bout of lung cancer, and her mother had gradually become ill when Erica was in her teenage years, finally being diagnosed with a particular form of mental illness that Erica didn’t specify.
Her teaching position at the university was her first professional job out of her master’s program. During the first couple of classes, it was clear that she had some anxiety about her new position. She appeared nervous when students asked her questions, and she also dressed in a stiff, professional style, with a full business suit. This formalism quickly eroded away as the quarter continued. Erica became looser, a change that ran parallel to her curriculum, which gradually threw off the stodgy and the expected. Her business suit disappeared by the third week, and many of her blouses were gone by week four. They were replaced by simple t-shirts and jeans, which is where her sense of style largely remained.
Erica and Sarah struck up a tentative friendship not long after the first class began. Sarah was immediately in awe of Erica, amazed at a woman who was so similar to her in age, yet so different in other respects. After her initial bout of anxiety, Erica carried herself in class with an easy confidence, exuding a powerful but still mellow vibe. She appeared at peace with herself and, largely, the world around her. Sarah guessed that a large part of this had to do with her simply understood things better. Erica had an encyclopedic grasp on a myriad of topics: from philosophy, to world literature, to history. In order to strike up a conversation, Sarah made a point to independently read Nietzsche’s “Antichrist,” one of the many books Erica had mentioned in her various lectures. She hadn’t been sure if it would lead to anything, yet Erica’s blueish, almond-shaped eyes lit up when Sarah mentioned it, as if she had taken a sip of a particularly potent coffee.
Before long, they were sitting in a dive-bar near University Avenue, discussing everything, from film, to art, to philosophy so heady that it made Sarah’s head swim.
“I’ll get this one,” Erica said in a break from the conversation, even though she had already bought their first two rounds.
“Oh, are you sure?”
“Yeah, listen, I had a teacher in grad school who would always take me out,” she said, hopping off the barstool where she had been sitting. “She always told me just to pay it forward in the future.”
Later, they stood on the platform of the Cedar–Riverside light rail stop, talking endlessly until the last train pulled into the station. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and quite drunk, Sarah attempted to say something eloquent but barely succeeded in formulating a sentence.
“We should do it again,” Erica responded, seemingly unfazed by the tankard of alcohol they had both just consumed. “You have my number and email right? Just reach out if you want to talk some more.”
They hugged and separated. Erica boarded the train. Sarah hopped on a bus, and as she thought about the night she chewed roughly on her pointer-finger. Going forward, things followed this routine. Sarah would sit in rapt attention during Erica’s class, and afterwards they would go out drinking, extrapolating upon what had been said in class, or spiraling away into new topics entirely.
Only rarely would they cross over from the academic to the personal – much to Sarah’s chagrin. She was fascinated by Erica, and wanted to know more about her as a person, not just as a thinker. But for the most part, they stayed on scholarly material, a rare exception being when Sarah asked her what the tangible benefits were to philosophy.
“It put my own life into perspective. I realized that my own problems are really boring.”
If anyone else besides Erica had said this to her, she would have thought it was laughably disingenuous. Yet, coming from Erica it truly felt credible. Erica seemed to exist in a bubble, shielded by a rich inner-life that was separate from the day-to-day malaise. Of course, this was probably reinforced by her penchant for bud, which she consumed on a habitual basis. Sarah discovered this during the third time they went out together. Walking out of a campus building, Erica had asked her to stop as she fished a joint out of her stained and faded backpack. Brushing blonde hair out of her face, Erica then stood up and popped the joint between her teeth, where it then hung waiting as she clicked on her lighter.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she had said, voice distorted by clenched teeth. “I really needed this.”
Unlike other people Sarah had met who enjoyed the mental escape of drugs and alcohol, Erica’s intellectual gifts remained sharp, coherent and undiluted when using them. If anything, they seemed to almost enhance her capacities, powering a cognitive luminosity that was incandescent in even the darkest of bars.
Erica’s love of relaxation and her acute, unwavering intellectualism was reflected in her dichotomous use of language. Her vocabulary was vast and intimidating, but also peppered with phrases that were goofy and irreverent. A single breath could include words and phrases ranging from the silly and perhaps even corny “It’s chill,” to the professorial and, in some circles, pretentious “ontological” and “recapitulate.”
Sarah personally had never felt more out of her depth. Each successive conversation left her feeling dumber than the one before it, like a masochistic palooka unwilling to stop entering the ring. She also felt more excited than she had in recent memory, engaged, enlivened and respected. For perhaps the first time in her life, Sarah could see not just the surface-level of academic topics, but the purposes behind them. Her curiosity about the world had been awakened, and she felt that Erica actively wanted to encourage and nurture it. In many ways, this became a form of solace for her, something to bridge the mental and emotional chasms that she fell into when she came home to James, where all she typically got was a perfunctory “How was your day?” if she was lucky.
They were also a catalyst for change, pushing her to develop her own intellectual life and identity. She threw herself into reading anything and everything related to Erica’s interests, pouring over Jung and Freud, Aristotle and Seneca, Foucault and Sade. She enjoyed this new preoccupation, but sometimes she couldn’t be sure of her motivations.
Sometimes the joy she experienced felt more closely related to finishing a text, not the act of reading it. Each new book was something to point to, a foundation on which to build a new small facet of an overall life philosophy. What was unclear was if all these texts she was reading, which were so eloquent and intuitive about so many topics, actually said anything about her.
After a while this weight began to lessen. Anxiety about motivations and perceptions dissipated the more Erica and her spent time together. When Erica began teaching her second course, entitled “Apocalyptic Fiction,” Sarah happily enrolled. After midterms they decided to start their own book club, which began meeting regularly at Erica’s brownstone apartment near Loring Park.
Participating in the club gave Sarah more of a window into Erica’s personal life. She met her boyfriend Hardy, an average, vanilla-looking schmo who Sarah found so dull it was scary. For the first couple of weeks of the club’s life, Hardy actively participated, but after that he dropped out, as did two of Erica’s other friends.
Before long it was just her and Sarah, which is what the later preferred anyway. They stopped meeting at Erica’s apartment, instead deciding to explore new areas of the city whenever they got a chance to meet.
One day, while walking around a small park near downtown St. Paul, Erica began talking about a side-project that she was working on. She had been asked by a former professor to write the introduction to a short book he was drafting.
“Would you be interested in giving it an edit?” Erica asked Sarah tentatively, eyes flashing in her direction. Sarah looked back, her eyes locking with Erica’s cool blue irises, which never failed to remind her of the Arctic Sea with their silvery and sapphiric hues.
“Of course,” she responded, words tumbling out of her mouth. She wasn’t sure though – far from it. The request embodied the most recent in a long line of examples where her friendship with Erica left her feeling totally inept, adrift in a sea of knowledge, weighted down by an inescapable dim-wittedness.
That night she buried herself in Erica’s introduction, scrutinizing each line and wracking her brain for constructive criticism. Much to her dismay, she couldn’t find any, at least nothing particularly valid. Each line of the introduction was concise, confident and impactful, leading perfectly into the next sentence. When she ran into Erica the next week, she found herself having to bluff, mumbling something about how the intro could be shortened a bit and then clumsily excusing herself.
“I, uh, gotta go!” she yelled, her voice unnaturally high and anxious, cracking like a boy going through puberty.
Her anxiety came from a normal and recognizable place. What she wanted more than anything was Erica’s affirmation, a sense of certainty that the value she placed on their relationship was shared. Their friendship had easily become one of the most meaningful of her life. She was ensconced in it, fully enjoying their dynamic of shared interest and seemingly of shared need. On the last day of the quarter, she got what she was looking for. Erica invited Sarah over to her place. Being a vegetarian, Erica made burritos filled with soyrizo, beans, vegetables and homemade salsa. They ate, drank beer and talked late into the night. Before Sarah left, Erica gave her a present, a small book she had transcribed:
“The process of learning is reciprocal. Working with you has been one of the best experiences of my life. Your friend, Erica.”
But then things started to change. After they stopped having classes together, and especially after Sarah’s mother took a turn for the worst, the frequency in which they saw each other became dramatically reduced. Even Erica’s responsiveness to little things like text messages became erratic and unpredictable. Sometimes, it would take her the better part of a week to respond. Other times she didn’t respond at all. Finally, facing mounting financial pressures that made her feel as if a noose was around her neck, Sarah decided to make a significant change. When it came time to register for the next round of classes, Sarah instead turned in a “Withdrawal from School” form to her school’s registrar.
This development ran parallel to the ongoing implosion of her relationship with James, which was steadily reaching its nadir. After the latest bout of being ignored by him, her percolating anxiety became too difficult to ignore. She broke into his Facebook, only to find a message chain between James and a woman named Andrea that essentially confirmed a subtle suspicion she had been trying to ignore.
“You’re so cute,” said one of Andrea’s messages, followed by a winking emoji. “I loved seeing you last night,” said another.
She accused James and things began unraveling fast. He snarled at her about invasions of privacy, and frothed at the mouth about how unsupportive she had been over the past few months. As he raged, Sarah tried to employ logic to parse what had happened to them in intellectual terms. She attempted to put to work at least some of what she learned over the months with Erica. She talked to him about how closely love and hate are related for most human beings, and how, at best, ambivalence eventually comes to dominate love relationships. She waxed about how human perception is inherently faulty, and how our feelings for others are little more than projections, indicative of what we love and hate about ourselves.
“Sarah, I don’t want to hear this,” James fumed, spittle clinging to his thin upper lip. “I want you to talk to me like a fucking real person.”
There was no going back. The night concluded with James declaring that he didn’t want to be with her anymore and roughly dragging his pillows and bedding to the small couch in their small, octagonal living room. There, he set up camp for the next two weeks.
During this hellish period, Sarah spent time thinking about her options, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that she didn’t have any. Finally, she was forced to muster up her remaining sanity, call her mother and dejectedly ask if she could home for the foreseeable future.
“Yes, yes, absolutely! I’m so glad you called. I’ve been so worried about you,” her mother bellowed into the phone, speaking at an entirely inappropriate volume.
A week later Sarah’s possessions were being packed into her mother’s car, filling the trunk and backseat to the brim. James had graciously left for the day, leaving them free to move out at their leisure. Her mother was also thankfully in her right mind, and unsurprisingly Sarah found herself appreciating and even enjoying her company.
Approximately halfway through the move, Sarah was startled by a crashing sound that came from the kitchen. Running into the room, she saw her mother diligently packing away some of Sarah’s pots and pans. In the sink, the remains of what had once been one of James’s plates could be seen.
“What the hell happened?” Sarah breathlessly asked.
“Oh, it was an accident,” her mother responded, not looking at Sarah.
Sarah turned and left, only to jump when another crash erupted behind her. Turning back, she saw that her mother was still packing, and that fragments of a second plate had joined the first.
“I’m just so clumsy today,” her mother said in a deadpan manner that would have make Buster Keaton proud.
Sarah looked at her. Her mother returned her gaze and they both burst into peals of laughter.
30 minutes later the building which she had once called home was gradually fading away in the side mirror of her mother’s car. The grey surfaces of the building’s exterior stood unassumingly against a dark, brooding sky that looked heavy with rain. Staring at the rounded corners and bay windows of the building, Sarah felt something move inside of her. It was something that signaled a deep desire to return to what they had once shared. She wanted to go back into the building, enter their former apartment, and get into bed. She wanted to hold James close, and then listen as he got up each morning, grumbling about going to a job he hated before getting into the shower. She wanted to stand aside as he rushed about in the last few minutes before heading out to work. And she wanted to attempt to talk to him, to pry apart the layers of how he thought and felt, of what he hoped and dreamed.
She felt alone and depressed, unsure of what lay ahead. Her mother was fine, at least for this particular drive. But what was going to happen tomorrow or the day after? They were leaving the city and the home that Sarah had known for the past two years. She didn’t want to get emotional, but as they crossed the Mississippi on Hiawatha Avenue she felt herself break, and soon she was crying harder than she had in recent memory.
Following her move, Erica disappeared completely. The last communication between them was a pitiful chat conducted via Gmail. “Are you there?” Sarah had asked, a query that had gone unanswered, hanging out to dry in a digital void.
Sarah felt as if she was losing her grip on herself, cycling through a range of volatile emotions and unsure of where to turn. She was angry and sad, existing but not living. She couldn’t understand what had gone wrong or, more importantly, what was wrong with her.
In the fall, she began trying to spruce up her LinkenIn profile and saw that Erica had moved away from the Twin Cities and Minnesota. She had reinvented herself professionally and had left teaching behind. Somehow she had gotten involved in the financial services industry, and she was now employed as an “analyst” for a financial company somewhere in the New England region.
Just how someone like Erica could leave teaching behind was something Sarah couldn’t fathom. How could it be that someone so obviously inclined to a specific vocation could just pack it away and move on? How could it be that someone who had changed her life could just disappear without warning or cause?
The days turned to weeks and the weeks into months and no answers came to the questions occupying her thoughts and possessing her body. Sarah felt heavy and drawn, her limbs weighed down with what felt like lead. She wanted to sleep all the time and felt devoid of willpower. She was a car without an engine, a light without electricity, a dumb, robotic bunny without a dumb Energizer battery. Something had been switched off, and she didn’t know how to get it back. Getting up each morning felt difficult, and getting to each obligation felt practically impossible.
She did what she could to stay busy, reaching out to friends that had been neglectful or who she had been neglecting. But for the most part, many of the people who she had met during her freshman and sophomore years seemed to have moved on. These people were preparing for the end of college and the beginning of something new; she was standing still.
At her mother’s urging, she eventually got herself a job with a small company she had never heard of before, located near her mother’s suburban home only a few exits away on I-494. It was unique position, similar yet different to her previous jobs of slinging food and shoveling shit. The company provided residential services to developmentally disabled adults, and Sarah gladly accepted any and all available shifts: from those beginning at the break of dawn, to those ending in the blackness of night.